The Future of Agency SEO

It’s been more or less 15 years since SEO first started to make its way into the C-suite, and it’s been a wild ride. We’ve gone from the early days of optimizing a meta tag by stuffing in a few select keywords to today, where you have an army of data scientists measuring real-time performance and conversations while simultaneously predicting the future behavior of search engines. Over the past four or five years SEO has really matured and has become an actual line item on most brands’ marketing budgets. As SEO practitioners, we have been very excited about this evolution and attention the craft itself has been getting. Not for nothing, most brands today get a minimum of 25 percent of their traffic from organic search. And when evaluated across a variety of brands, we found that SEO traffic tends to deliver the most engaged traffic and therefore, often delivers the highest return on investment (ROI).

From an agency perspective, SEO really breaks down into three components: technical SEO, content SEO, and search insights. Technical SEO is about the health of the website, the performance of it in the eyes of the engines, and the ability to access, understand, and catalog its content. Content-centric SEO is focused on ensuring that the site has the right content, so that when a consumer asks a question (searches), the site has the right content and therefore the right to win in Google. Search insights are about the granular and rich data that SEO produces. It’s taking this granular and sometimes slightly dry data and turning it into stories around consumer behavior and trends, while providing actionable insights that can be activated across other channels.

However, as SEO is growing more mature, and as brands are getting more experienced in the art and process of SEO, some challenges — as well as opportunities to improve it — are also becoming clearer. Over the past 10 years, I have worked with more than 100 brands on their SEO engagement, and while they are all in different stages of maturity when it comes to SEO, they are almost all progressing along the same curve. Based on that experience I believe that SEO and the way brands and agencies engage in it are changing dramatically, and we will see new types of engagements and agencies evolve.

1. Technical SEO Is Becoming an In-House or Outsource Capability Driven by Automation.

With the growth of Web technologies and the evolution of search engines and their algorithms, agencies had to hire an army of technical experts in order to reverse engineer and optimize against them. These marketing developers are rare, sitting in the sweet spot between brand marketer and Web developer; it’s hard to find or train someone who can decipher 301 redirect chains and talk to brand managers about the overall brand-building efforts and content strategies.

But as technology has become more efficient, more and more brands are moving the pure technical SEO work away from agencies — either into an in-house semi-automated capability or outsourcing it away from expensive agencies to offshore development companies. On top of that, we have also seen a flood of VC-funded start-ups emerge that are specializing around creating SEO automation tools. This is great news for strategic agencies, as it will allow them to focus on moving the dial vs. dealing with tech issues, but it is going to present a challenge for pure technical execution shops.

2. Bigger Reliance on Search Agencies for Content Development.

There has always been a slight disconnect between the content produced by ad agencies (branded and big idea content) and the content that search agencies are asking for (intent/ upper funnel). The ad agencies are always focused on producing high-end content that will win awards and tell beautiful stories. On the flipside, search agencies are always asking brands to develop content based on search queries (content that covers how to, what is, etc.). As brands everywhere are looking to drive more with less, we see many of them now looking to their search agencies to develop generic, non-branded content at scale. This will dramatically change the role of the search agency for the better, as now they can go beyond recommendations and actually execute against their content strategies.

3. The Marriage of Search and Social

While not news, the marriage of search and social is definitely a hot topic. Today’s consumers love to discover, and the two primary forms of discovery for them are search and social. Where we historically have seen a large uptick in search volume following a TV commercial, we now see the same happening in social. By understanding the social conversations, we can predict what content we will need in order to answer the questions that consumers will ask tomorrow. I see the marriage of search and social happening on two fronts: one being on the buying side, where platforms like Kenshoo and Marin offer integrated planning and buying of search and social media; and also from the strategic side, where brands have to be in front of the consumer at the right time, in the right place, on the right platform, with the right message. A fully integrated search and social campaign is undoubtedly the future.

4. Search and Social Agencies Will Become the Authors of Digital Insights.

Another drastic change is that search and social agencies are becoming the preferred providers of consumer insights — and they should. Historically, consumer insights have been driven by the planning and media agencies. But the search and social agencies have the advantage that they operate in real time; they actually listen to millions of consumers as they are searching and engaging. Instead of asking a panel what they want from a product, the search and social agencies can look at millions of real-time conversations and search queries, broken out by state, actual age, and gender in order to create highly targeted campaigns. Being able to leverage the largest consumer panel in the world (the Internet) in a scalable real-time fashion will move these agencies into a digital intelligence sweet spot.

Obviously, different brands have different resources and maturity states when it comes to SEO. Understanding the value of search and prioritizing your resources against the above four aspects of this evolutionary process will ensure that you are on the leading front when it comes to search and social.

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