Let's never talk about SEO audits again
Good strategy needs a good story
Welcome to the second issue of the SEO MBA - an email newsletter all about leadership, management and consulting skills for SEO professionals. (And there’s an online course coming soon!)
Why did we ever do SEO audits? The definition of an audit is “an official inspection of an individual's or organization's accounts, typically by an independent body.”
That’s…. not what your boss or your client wants. What they want is a strategy: “a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim”.
Unfortunately I’ve seen far too many “SEO strategies” that are in fact just audits - a list of technical changes without any plan or ultimate goal.
A plan of action however isn’t enough. You need to ensure your strategy is compelling - and that requires using stories to bridge the gap between the ideas you’re presenting and the technical details of what you want to get done. You need stories to make your project compelling and data to make it credible.
I’m reminded of this quote:
“Ideas without details and details without ideas are both risky”
Putting a good strategy together is tricky - because it’s all about choosing the right tradeoffs: ideas and details are in tension. When you’re presenting a strategy - you have to choose whether to flesh out the ideas or flesh out the details. And from my experience many SEOs spend too much time on the details and not enough on the ideas.
Here, I made a 2x2:
If you focus too much on the ideas then you risk not being credible enough. Even if your ideas are visionary and exciting, without some credible details you’re not going to convince executives to invest.
If you focus too much on the details then you risk not being compelling enough. Even if you’re right - that these details are important, without a compelling idea or story it will be hard to get executives excited about your project.
Two bad examples
I lose track of the number of times I’ve seen an “SEO Strategy” that is in fact simply an audit - it’s a list of details with no ideas that looks something like this:
However, at the other end of the scale if you’ve ever worked with a creative agency you might have seen a slide like this. Ideas! But without any kind of details:
Three types of stories you can tell
When you’re working in the day to day you’re often immersed in the details - SEOs typically have a laundry list of things they want to get done. But when pitching, and securing budget for these projects you can’t just present them in a list. You need a compelling and digestible story that packages and summarizes the work into a simple idea.
This requires some kind of compression - i.e. you need to leave some of the details out. Remember ideas and details are in tension. This can seem scary if you’re stuck in an “audit” mindset where you are trying to exhaustively outline every SEO issue on the site - vs packing a set of changes into a compelling project that can actually get buy-in and budget.
In my experience there are three things that executives care about, and once you identify the top concern you can align your compelling idea to them:
Human stories place the user (or, sometimes the employees) center frame. Amazon is a company famously customer obsessed. Creating human stories requires situating the user in your strategy.
“User feedback shows users are frustrated with how slow our site is”
“The number one feature request from users is adding videos to product pages”
“this change will remove a legacy tech platform that the engineers dislike maintaining”
Data stories put metrics front and center (typically leads, revenue or traffic), sometimes even over users.
“This project will gain an additional $5m in revenue over two years”
“Only 20% of pages are indexed today, by investing in technical fixes we can dramatically expand our footprint in Google”
Competitive stories position the change in context of competitors and is effective where there is typically a single high profile competitor that everyone pays attention to.
“By investing in improving our landing pages we can provide a better experience for users than competitor X”
“This project will allow us to out-perform competitor X”
“By integrating this data into our pages we’ll have something unique that competitor X doesn’t have”
Typically it’s a good idea to focus on a single top level idea but of course you can always rely on multiple components to get buy-in (and you may need to create different stories for different stakeholders depending on what they care about).
Making your idea credible with small data
We talk a lot about the power of big data but sometimes when you’re telling a story you want a simple data point to make your idea credible. And often this can be a surprisingly small data point - you just need to make sure it clearly articulates the key idea and gives executives reason to believe you.
Here’s three examples from my own work.
Headcount as data
While convincing a client to make a large investment in building out an SEO team I needed to illustrate the lack of resources.
The idea: “We are radically under-resourced on front end development”
The data point:
Competitors as data
While convincing a client that their 800 word news articles optimized for social were insufficient for competing in high value commercial queries I needed a way to illustrate the behavior change needed.
The idea: “Creating 800 word articles for commerce reviews won’t work”
The data point:
Surveys as data
While convincing a client that they needed to invest in user experience I needed a way to position SEO as more than just content.
The idea: “Our competitor is radically outperforming us on metrics like expertise, authority and trust”
The data point:
Good Strategy Takes Time
Putting together a good strategy takes time - because first you need to understand the work that needs to get done, then craft a compelling story around that work and then you need to deliberately find data points that make your story credible.
So, when you’re tasked with putting together an SEO strategy don’t forget to wrap it in a compelling story.
And please, let’s never talk about audits ever again.
Until next week,
The quote “Ideas without details and details without ideas are both risky” comes from Legible Practices by the Helsinki Design Lab (page 83). The book is free to read and highly recommended for thinking about compelling systems change. From the book: Stewardship is the art of aligning decisions with impact when many minds are involved in making a plan, and many hands in enacting it”. Sounds a lot like SEO work to me….
I’m putting together a proposal for a prospective client at this very moment who wants me to do an audit for them. This topic is perfect timing. Great points, Tom. I especially liked “sometimes when you’re telling a story you want a simple data point to make your idea credible... you just need to make sure it clearly articulates the key idea and gives executives reason to believe you.” The biggest takeaway for me is where you said “Putting together a good strategy takes time”. I often feel rushed to deliver a proposal. I need slow down, do the investigative work and actually CRAFT my strategy/pitch from a place of understanding, and use stories and small data to support my strategy. In this way, I can better help the client to clearly see the outcome we’re aiming for which gets me the buy in I want. Brilliant.
A great read. We focus on storytelling and narrative *almost* to a fault at our agency. The underlying tactics and strategic initiatives -- that's often the easy part. Finding a way to weave those recommendations into a compelling presentation and story ... that takes a ton of creativity, collaboration, and iteration. But it's worth the time because the story is essential for achieving (and maintaining) buy-in from stakeholders. They need to understand your recommendations - and they need to remember them! A compelling, memorable story is critical for ensuring that your strategies have strong advocates and, ultimately, that those recommendations see the light of day.