Organic search engine optimization (SEO) has enough specialization and technical aspects that it can be overwhelming to the C-suite.
Or, worse yet, over-simplified and thought to be something easy and that can be done quickly leading to unmet expectations.
The mysterious nature of SEO can lead to misunderstanding and frustration for CEOs.
Understanding the high-level principles and some of the important aspects of SEO success can set the right expectations with executives.
Here are 13 key things that every CEO needs to understand about SEO.
1. Layout of the SERP
The search engine results page (SERP) has evolved a lot over the past several years.
It used to provide a standard layout with a few different variations that always included the “10 blue links” for the organic results and included ads above and to the side. Plus, news, map, or other content relevant to the search query.
Now, we see varying layouts that are intended to provide an optimal experience on a mobile device and cascade to desktops and other sizes.
The number of ads varies and other information is pulled into the SERP ahead of organic results. You don’t always see 10 organic results and sometimes they are pushed way down the page or mixed in with other content.
First step first, know what you’re looking at in the anatomy of the SERP understanding what is paid, what is organic, and what sources all of the other items come from including local listings, video, images, news, shopping ads, and more.
2. Results & Timing Expectations
SEO doesn’t offer the same level of instant gratification of paid search. While there are low-hanging-fruit terms and easy wins, in most cases, SEO is a long-term play.
For competitive queries, hard work and time have to be invested to move up in the rankings. Search engine algorithm updates and competitor updates create a moving target that takes time and discipline to achieve.
While SEO professionals are trained to not make guarantees and carefully set performance expectations, it is safe to say that we’re talking about months for lesser competitive terms and longer (sometimes much longer) to achieve top results for competitive queries.
Assuming we’re following the search engines’ guidelines, our limits are in areas of collaboration and resources put into the effort.
3. Influence over the Search Engines
When we’re not seeing the search rankings and results we hope and expect, we can’t simply call Google and pressure for better positioning.
Unfortunately, organic search isn’t like getting support for Google Ads, Google My Business, Analytics, or other products. This is a service Google provides to its users – those that use the search engine. It owes us nothing.
SEO professionals gain a lot of information and knowledge through experience, industry sources like Search Engine Journal, and hearing directly from the search engine representatives themselves.
Ultimately, though, we have no individual sway over the search engines or algorithms.
4. Meta Tags
No one area of SEO holds the magical power to influence rankings. Context and addressing the wide range of factors have the most impact.
Meta tags are still sometimes asked about or mentioned as the first thing someone thinks of when asked about SEO.
Yes, you should optimize the title and meta description tags for your site.
No, those items alone don’t have much impact if that’s all you do.
SEO is about so much more than just tags.
5. Submitting Pages
Another old-school tactic that is, fortunately, being asked about and mentioned less than it used to is “submitting to Google.”
Google has recently removed the form where you can submit URLs to it. In the past, a part of getting content indexed was to submit the URLs of new or updated pages through a form. That practice became obsolete when XML sitemaps went into use.
More importantly, submitting to Google and indexing is important to ensure that content is known about, but is not a ranking factor itself.
Focus on submitting and getting stuff indexed needs to be prioritized after creating good content that is worthy of being at the top of the SERPs.
6. Brand vs. Generic Terms
It’s important to have high rankings on brand terms (including misspellings). In most cases, if the brand name is unique, it will naturally rank well for searches containing it.
When looking at organic search rankings and traffic reporting, it’s important to differentiate brand and generic performance.
If you’re investing heavily in SEO and still only getting results from your brand terms over time, you’ll want to take a deeper look at the overall strategy.
By setting up reporting formats to separate brand and generic, you can get a clearer picture of the impact of SEO efforts versus having it diluted by being put into one aggregate bucket.
7. Algorithm Variables & Machine Learning
There is definitely an algorithm that determines what sites rank in what order in each search engine. However, the focus on specific variables and chasing the magic formula as a strategy has faded over the past few years.
With machine learning rolling out to the Google algorithm, we know that the same variables, weights, and rules don’t apply evenly for every search query.
Even if we did know the exact full extent of each algorithm variable, the fact that machine learning is in place and can create a different scale for each query is enough evidence that we should be spending our time on investing in better content and building context rather than trying to find ways to leverage just a few variables.
8. Quality of Content
Content quality has been talked about for a long time.
What does quality mean? It means webpages that have copy, images, video, and interactive elements that engage the user.
Content that drives social media mentions, shares, and clicks. It drives longer time on the page and often more pages per visit.
Beyond those metrics, it provides value to the user and they, in turn, share it, link to it, and further engage with it beyond the initial impression.
Focusing on making all content “quality” content is critical to compete in the evolving competitive landscape.
9. Technical, On-Page & Off-Page
SEO can be categorized into three areas:
- Technical: Website optimizations that don’t always directly impact rankings, but are necessary to allow your content to be indexed and found and to not hold back your site in any way. Examples can be robots.txt, XML sitemaps, canonical tags, 301 redirects, DNS settings, site speed, mobile friendliness, and duplicate content, schema markup
- On-page: Optimization of the elements that you can on a webpage and throughout a website. Examples include the URL, title tag, meta description tag, heading tags, body copy, and image alt attributes.
- Off-page (or external): Optimization of the external signals of quality including high-quality backlinks pointing to the site, unlinked brand mentions, social media engagement, and local citations.
Indexing issues can hurt your SEO efforts.
As Beau Pedraza put it in Your Indexed Pages Are Going Down – 5 Possible Reasons Why: “Pages that aren’t indexed can’t rank.”
One reason you may have indexing issues is because the search engine can’t crawl it. This automated process of discovering content is what leads to the indexing of that content.
Ensuring that the search engines can access all of your content, as well as knowing the priority and hierarchy of it and the context of how pages and sections relate to each other, are the important aspects for SEO.
11. Rinse & Repeat
SEO is not a one-time thing. It is a process that requires commitment and discipline.
Think of SEO as constant testing.
We’re never going to have the perfect formula or be done.
The word “optimization” is important as we’re working to become least imperfect or to stand out as higher quality and authority in status compared to our competitive peers.
Spending six months to come up with the perfectly optimized website or updates and rolling them out to mixed returns can be deflating.
However, if of the impression and mindset of working in a more agile manner rolling out updates and tactical items on an ongoing basis with the understanding that you’ll come back and revisit on a regular basis can lead to incremental and long-term success.
12. Time Commitment
It takes time to optimize.
Each of the three areas of SEO requires commitment and often the help of others in functional areas adjacent to the role of the SEO person.
Often IT, marketing, paid search, web design, web development, copywriters, and more are needed and aren’t all at the immediate disposal of the SEO lead.
In addition to the time needed to collaborate and effect the three areas of SEO, the rinse and repeat process requires patience as it may take multiple rounds of body copy and tag updates (working in concert) to see movement in the rankings.
One-time SEO thinking as dangerous.
13. Resources Commitment
The days of SEO practitioners working in silos are long gone.
We often need the help and support of other people and departments to help us with the aspects of the website and content we need updated.
SEO needs a seat at the marketing table as it can’t be done in a separate ecosystem like paid search and social media (to a degree) can.
Committing to an investment in SEO is the start, but isn’t the end. The SEO lead will likely need updates that involve other resources internally or external hard costs to be able to fully execute the strategy.
There’s a lot of jargon and mystic when the topic of SEO comes up.
SEO is an effective digital marketing channel that, when invested in and understood, can lead to tremendous ROI and growth.
Through a basic understanding of the important concepts that CEOs need to know, the potential of SEO can be unlocked in terms of commitment through time, resources, and proper expectations.
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