In this new multichannel world, SEO is not just for enthusiasts

Last year, I remember planning an event about ecommerce and asking a colleague about his areas of interest. “Just how it all fits together,” he replied.

That is how I think about the last year in digital and marketing more broadly – lots of brands trying to make it all fit together nicely.

As digital transformation accelerated, 2020 felt like a tipping point. Perhaps the point where ‘digital’ truly became a redundant adjective in many marketing job titles and even business models.

This is also the point at which more and more CMOs should understand how digital activity plays a part in long-term brand building. Indeed, this is one of Econsultancy founder Ashley Friedlein’s trends for 2021, so-called ‘digital bothism’.

The idea is a pastiche of Mark Ritson’s concept of ‘marketing bothism’, the notion that marketers should have a bothist mindset in order to balance long-term brand building and short-term sales activation – embracing qual and quant; strategy and creative; segmentation/targeting and mass marketing; listening and leading change.

Omnichannel retail isn’t new, but balancing channels is more important than ever

Friedlein describes the opportunity in digital as bothist, saying that though “digital marketing typically gets treated as… a short-term, measurable, set of marketing tactics”, there are also many ‘long-term digital’ approaches. Alongside data and a SaaS mindset, he picks out SEO as an example, saying: “SEO is largely about reputation, quality, credibility, authority. SEO is a long-term investment, much like building brand equity.”

Search’s rise in importance

SEO is something I wanted to write about in the context of the pandemic. It’s a discipline that has stereotypically been misunderstood by management, thought of by some as a discrete step in a website build or migration and noticed only when it goes horribly wrong. However, an encouraging number of marketing leaders and experts have talked about the importance of search over the last 12 months.

In an interview in The Drum, Hiscox Group CMO Russ Findlay advises B2B marketers in 2021 to focus on the low-cost ways to build your brand, including email capabilities, technical SEO and “making sure your content pipeline is in a place that you’re proud of.”

Marketing Week columnist and econometrician Grace Kite writes about search data as “a gold mine for marketing strategy”, as does one of her recent collaborators, Pascal Moyon, for Econsultancy. On top of this, there is a veritable ‘who’s who’ of analysts and consultants who have discussed the ‘share of search’ metric as a proxy for ‘share of voice’. Using search data for measurement is different to the practice of SEO, I’ll admit, but it all points to the channel’s prominence.

Obviously, this isn’t exactly new, digital PR and SEO have been around for years. But it’s worth reminding yourself that Google’s ad revenues have grown from $28bn to nearly $150bn over the last decade. And any business that sells online can tell you the importance of search.

Toys R Us went out of business in 2018 for many reasons (tired out-of-town stores, Amazon), and whilst poor SEO likely won’t have been a decisive factor, there are search bloggers who referenced aspects of the Toys R Us website as in need of improvements back in 2017-18 (such as product imagery and website structure). In the end, fellow multichannel competitors Smyths and Argos took away market share as much as Amazon did.

Any business that sells online can tell you the importance of search.

Incidentally, it’s no surprise that on the LinkedIn profile of one of Smyths’ SEO specialists, they describe “[implementing] systems to ensure all departments are SEO aware in terms of all website content”. It’s exactly this organisational awareness of SEO, key in ecommerce businesses, that is becoming more common in other sectors where online penetration is growing.

In FMCG there are businesses recalibrating their ecommerce product portfolios to better suit not just buyer preferences online, but the way that buyers are searching on platforms such as Amazon. In pharma, I spoke to the owner of a performance marketing agency who said that some companies have big strategies put in place via big consultancies, but have recently realised they need some work on their SEO and information architecture (anything from help with paywalls, to optimising landing pages) in order to maximise visibility online.

Usability translates into trust

SEO has been important generally in the pandemic for obvious reasons, where business has moved online, but also for specific use cases such as ‘schema markup’, to allow retailers to accurately display information including product availability (in stock/out of stock) and shipping information in search results.

There is also potential for SEO and content architecture expertise to become even more vital depending on Google’s rollout of its ‘page experience’ update. The update will this month begin to take aspects of a page’s loading into account in search rankings (such as speed and layout). This reinforces the already fairly explicit link between UX and ranking, usability and availability.

If, as has been mooted, we do end up with search engine results pages that highlight usable websites (with some sort of badge), we could be set for quite a reckoning. Great UX is a big part of earning consumer trust, something that will rise up the agenda as new demographics move online. As Eve Sleep CEO Cheryl Calverley said at last year’s Econsultancy Live: “The wise consumer is going to come with a very different set of expectations to this ecommerce space.”

And beyond customer trust, there is of course a big accessibility benefit to be had by brands that get UX right. As many as 40% of UK households house at least one disabled person – designing for these users will likely bring additional benefits in terms of search visibility but also conversion for all users.

SEO is therefore about credibility and authority, but also about what your customers want, rather than some dark art.

There are some caveats here, of course. What we are talking about is generally most pertinent for generic searches. For brand searches, even if you have a crappy website, if you’re a big brand then you will likely rank highly in the organic results, albeit you may be suffering from poor conversion. As Helen Edwards put it so eloquently in a recent Marketing Week column, “digital is a downstream discipline”. No brand will succeed via sheer optimisation or website experience.

However, only a decade since Econsultancy launched its Jump conference so the industry could get its head around this new-fangled ‘joined-up marketing’, we are at a point where the way “everything fits together”, across many online and offline channels, is just part of life. It’s why the all-encompassing concept of customer experience has captured the imagination. (Boring industry trivia: Jump was one of four events that eventually became the Festival of Marketing).

Taking the time to understand metatags, site structure and performance – even canonicals and schema – is not just for the enthusiast. SEO provides long-term value and, as Econsultancy’s Ashley Friedlein puts it on the contrarianism of bothism, marketing is now “both to humans and machines”.

Econsultancy provides e-learning, live-learning online workshops and skills mapping in digital, marketing and ecommerce.