Look at your fish!
A manifesto for aligning product and SEO around the consumer experience
Welcome back to another SEO MBA issue where we talk about the frustrations SEO experience trying to work on customer experience.
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Back when I started in SEO, the kinds of things you’d do to improve your rankings were oppositional to the customer experience - things like white text on a white background, anchor text optimized internal linking, crappy directory links, keyword stuffed paragraphs of text etc.
Then - we went through a golden age where the things you do to improve SEO were mostly good (or neutral) for the customer experience - things like improving keyword/page intent matching, writing helpful content and building brand authority.
But as Google’s gotten smarter, and they have relentlessly focused on aligning search performance with things that customers want, we’ve moved from a world where doing things for SEO benefitted the customer experience to a world where doing things for customer experience benefits SEO.
Here’s the problem though - most SEOs are not responsible for “improving customer experience”. They don’t have the authority or cross-functional influence to initiate projects like this.
And, worse, senior executives are often ignorant of quite how deeply the internet has changed user buying behaviors and competitive research - buyers look at three times more of your competitors than they used to:
This fundamentally changes the nature of demonstrating customer value and how your offering demonstrates value to potential customers relative to the competition. Many businesses are stuck thinking that because they have market share they don’t need to invest in excellent customer experience. And as a result, competitors are eating their lunch in SEO.
All of this means that many SEOs are facing an environment where:
To get SEO outcomes you need to fundamentally improve the customer experience on your site
But you lack the authority and buy-in to initiate these kinds of projects
And worse, senior execs are underfunding and neglecting the front end customer experience
So, what to do?
It all starts with some fish.
Look at your fish
It’s the test that Louis Agassiz, the nineteenth-century Harvard naturalist, gave every new student. He would take an odorous old fish out of a jar, set it in a tin pan in front of the student and say, Look at your fish. Then Agassiz would leave. When he came back, he would ask the student what he’d seen. Not very much, they would most often say, and Agassiz would say it again: Look at your fish. This could go on for days. The student would be encouraged to draw the fish but could use no tools for the examination, just hands and eyes. Samuel Scudder, who later became a famous entomologist and expert on grasshoppers, left us the best account of the “ordeal with the fish.” After several days, he still could not see whatever it was Agassiz wanted him to see. But, he said, I see how little I saw before. Then Scudder had a brainstorm and he announced it to Agassiz the next morning: Paired organs, the same on both sides. Of course! Of course! Agassiz said, very pleased. So Scudder naturally asked what he should do next, and Agassiz said, Look at your fish.
Let’s translate this into more simple terms. Many companies are simply not looking at what’s actually in front of them closely enough. They’re not actually looking at their own site, stacked up against the competition to evaluate if they’re really offering a valuable, differentiated customer experience.
Look at your fish (website).
Of course, what we need is not us to look at our fish (we already know the customer experience is subpar), we need the senior stakeholders to look at the fish.
Unfortunately you can’t just storm into the Chief Product Officer’s office, slap a fish on the table and say “look at your website!”....
Don’t Tell Executives What To Do
Part of the problem with the more intangible SEO projects like “improving customer experience” is that there isn’t a single agreed-upon measure and there isn’t a single objective way to improve things.
Which means that there are lots of strong opinions.
Senior leadership is typically filled with type-A egos that don’t like to be told what to do. Instead you need to help them find their own way to the same insight you have.
One way to win over senior execs when talking about the intangibles is to try and quantify something that was previously un-quantified. To measure something previously un-measurable. We looked at using surveys to win over stakeholders in this piece: Using Surveys to Increase Executive Buy-in.
But if you can’t quantify the change - you have to somehow bring the stakeholders around to the same point of view you have. You have to help them realize that there is a gap and that closing it is important.
The “Look at your Fish” Workshop
So this all brings me to the workshop that I’ve run repeatedly with clients. I call it the “look at your fish” workshop.
The basic setup is this:
Assemble a cross-functional team that includes customer insights, design, product, SEO, paid media and more. Whoever the relevant stakeholders for the front end of the site are.
Start with a session on insights into the customer journey. Their mindset, demographics, personas, jobs to be done etc. You can either have this as a presentation and read-out or you can run it as a collaborative brainstorming session. This anchors the group to put themselves in the customer’s shoes.
Run a collaborative workshop to review a specific search result and all the landing pages side by side.
Here’s an example figma file showing how I’d setup the visual comparison of the top players for the keyword [spanish tutor denver]:
This workshop isn’t necessarily the best way to analyze customer experience (things like customer research, JTBD, pain points research etc all go further) but it’s a great way to bring along the necessary stakeholders, giving them a feeling of involvement and investment and to create a variety of realistic improvements big and small.
When I ran this with a client recently we had 69 comments on a single page template!
The key is that improving customer experience isn’t any single department's job - you can’t hand over the list of changes to the product team, it requires a cross functional effort from content, product, engineering, design etc.
You can use this “look at your fish” workshop for any kind of page analysis but I find it’s most effective when you have a consistent page template you can look at. The magic is focusing on wide impact through a consistent template, through looking at the specific case of a single keyword. You have to actually look at the fish.
Three tactical tips for setting up your canvas that I find helpful:
Ensure you screenshot the Google SERP page too to provide the realistic context for the user searching and clicking on results (provides insight into poor title tags or missing schema markup etc)
Use a tool like site-shot.com to quickly and easily create consistent screenshots (you can just use the web interface, though they do have an API too)
Use a Figma plugin like insert big image to insert tall full-size screenshots otherwise Figma pixelates very tall images (of course you can run the same thing in Miro or another canvas based tool)
Exposing Customer Value
Ultimately, what we’re trying to do here is to ensure that the business value you provide to customers is exposed in a way that both new customers and Google can understand.
I find this is a good way to describe SEO to senior executives who are stuck thinking that SEO is about stuffing a 200 word paragraph of unique text on the page.
In ways small and big many businesses simply don’t expose enough of their customer value to search engines - and by extension suffer in SEO. Here’s an example from the Angi CEO (bolding mine):
“We have a lot to work with here. One in seven American households use Angi to care for their home each year, generating approximately 30 million service requests for our engaged and active network of 238,000 service professionals. We have by far the highest brand awareness of any pure player in the category, at least 2x the nearest competitor in Aided and 5x in Unaided, and we generate substantially more revenue. We have the most valuable content in the category for any homeowner searching online for help with a home project: service professional directories and ratings, closed-loop user reviews, real cost data, and the ability to get the job done on our site, all wrapped in a unified brand built for the category. We haven’t yet exposed many of those features to a broad audience with a clean and fast user interface, which could help recover lost ground in search.” source: IAC Q3 2022 Shareholder Letter
If you follow along with the quarterly shareholder letters you’ll see this is a long journey that Angi is on to expose more customer value as a bet to improve SEO.
Ok, this isn’t going to solve all your problems but I’m increasingly seeing websites on a long-term downward slide with internal SEO teams feeling powerless to work on the actual things that matter.
Somehow you have to convince the senior leadership of the business that the core customer experience matters. It’s not quick or easy but it is valuable.
And maybe, looking at your fish can help.