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RankUp #17 – Rethinking SEO Strategy with Ric Rodriguez

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We welcomed Ric Rodriguez to the RankUp podcast for episode 17 to discuss his unique take on SEO strategy. You can listen to the full interview on your podcast app of choice, or right here on this page.

And now, for the first time, you can keep reading to see the first 20 minutes of the interview in text form, or use the contents block below to skip to a paritcular topic of interest.

Introducing Ric

Ben: Can you give us a quick overview of how you got to your current role and what that means for you now?

Ric: So first things first. I’m Search Director at Vashi, which means my responsibility is across paid search and organic search. I’m also overseeing our performance channels as well.

[Before Vashi] I was predominantly an agency-side marketer, including being employee number four at Three Whiskey, so I was agency through and through. I also spent a year at Yext, a technology vendor in the search space. While I was there, I was effectively their European evangelist talking to businesses about all the wonderful things that search can do for them.

How do you start out with SEO in a new industry?

Ben: What it was like for you getting to grips with the SEO requirements for a site that you’re now Search Director for, you were new to?

Ric: Whether you’re agency or in-house, you have to learn quite quickly. That was the challenge with me. I can’t claim to have been a super expert on the jewellery industry…I bought jewellery before I and thought I knew a lot, but as with all different subjects, there’s tons of tons of information out there that you need to know.

I’ve learned to approach these challenges in a way in which I put myself in the mindset of the customer and then figure out what’s out there. So let’s take a general example. You might know nothing about mortgages. And so the first thing you do is say, “What would I do if I actually needed the mortgage?”

The first thing I’ll be doing is looking at what’s in the search results. I then go to YouTube, and lots of different places to start to piece these ideas together and build my knowledge, and then you start to follow the rabbit holes as you figure out more. Over time, you get to learn the industry and what’s out there in the competitive landscape.

Exploring the search landscape like a customer

Edd: It sounds like you’re approaching it from a joint view where there’s a professional level to which you need to know stuff, where you’re in-house or agency. If you’re going to provide good service, you need to get a base level understanding of what you’re working in. But you’re also able to replicate what a user on the street is doing pretty closely because you’re having to do the same searches as customers who don’t know the industry.

I’ve mentioned before that I was sitting next to a friend when he was shopping for a jacket and I saw him go to image search, and I thought, “Why are you searching that way?” But it’s these ways of thinking like a customer or trying to get to know how a customer shops within that industry that gives you the biggest wins.

Ric: We often think of search often as a search engine and therefore we have a very clear view of what the output is. I prefer to think of search as a verb, not a noun, because it is ultimately a way in which anyone can look for information and find it. It could be anything from traditional search engines like Google, to third party comparison sites, or image search in your example.

Edd: It comes down to viewing the importance of improving your brand entity. It’s been this way for quite a few years now, in that Search is way more than just 10 Blue Links. Understanding Search now is about understanding videos, images and everything around it.

How to respond to user insights strategically

Ben: So what do we do with this strategically? Because what we’re talking
about is just a big mess of behaviour that is unique to each individual person. What do we do with that?

Ric: SEO starts with understanding user experience one enough to create an amazing site, that’s fast, that everyone wants to spend time on. You can write your 300 point tech audit, but even if you do it with the idea of driving SEO traffic, you’re still getting the benefit of improving user experience and getting people onto your site that want your content.

But if you have information that’s useful to someone, you’re not just going to be ranked because you have an article that has certain words in it. Even if your article does have the right words, you have to talk in the language of your users. People have to find your information valuable, because even if you’re found, they might bounce and they don’t do anything for you.

To a brand, the SEO team should be the facilitators within the business that talk business sense and understand customers really well. They should then translate that into action across different parts of the business.

As an SEO, you should be talking to your content team, UX team, engagement team, IT team, etc because you’re able to facilitate change and provide the business case for all the right things that your customers want with the benefit of your search data.

Agency side, you then need to package that up in a way that makes sense to buy as a service. Somehow, you need to say that what you’re buying as a service is me and my time, but you’re also buying an expert to come into your business and help you move it forward.

We have to package it up as a tech audit or a content audit and various different components, because that’s partly the way the agency model works. The idea of buying time on an hourly basis is interestingly not the same if you look at adjacent industries, like business consultancy.

The hours based contract is not always the same as the value based contract that we’re starting to see come up. There’s a huge topic around the billable hour and what that really means and whether it’s useful to the industry moving forward. It’s bigger than marketing, but still a valid point here.

How do you translate that in an SEO agency? Ideally, not only say that you’re going to do a tech audit and help me figure out what’s wrong, but that you’re going to translate the actions into something that’s meaningful for me. Figure out what it means for my teams and how to fix it, don’t just point out that the canonical tags are broken.

Research beyond keywords

Ben: The question I want is put to you now comes back to your take on keywords and content in SEO. What is it that maybe differentiates your thinking from what you see as the more typical approach in SEO?

Ric: First things first, there are some six billion searches in Google every day. Google also says that 15% of searches every single day are brand new. So if you do the math, it’s about 700 million, 800 million searches a day that Google has never seen before.

What I’m seeing is that people start their search with a really high velocity term. It could be ‘engagement rings’ or ‘mortgages.’ They’re able to then facilitate the research either through Google directly or through third parties that help them research. So the next time you see that person searching again, they’re in the long tail. We’ve lost the mid-tail bit.

If we think about this kind of traditional organic search curve, everyone focuses on the head. That’s where the majority of demand is. Then there’s the mid-tail that’s sort of half of the demand, but what we don’t see is that the total volume of all of the long-tail searches is far, far greater than anything in the middle.

So the reason this is important is because if we think about doing keyword research, first you need to think that keywords are just vehicles for moving searchers on. We are going to struggle to predict them in the future because people are going to figure out they can search in far more complex ways and get far more sophisticated answers then if they just search for ‘engagement rings’ or ‘mortgage’.

So I like the idea of keyword research at the macro level, in understanding key trends and understanding when topics become important to people. To use one on your site, you don’t need to hammer that keyword. You can talk about it and you can make it very clear from the
context of the page what you’re talking about. You don’t have to write the keyword continuously and also you don’t have to capture all the terms around it – I guess what we would have called semantic keyword optimization in 2014/15.

We’re not trying to optimize for a system anymore that matches words to documents. The system now understands the meaning behind text in a way that we do as humans. It can turn your search into something that’s meaningful, whether that’s directing you to another website answering you directly in the search results, or pushing you on to a different research platform.

Creating a content strategy without keyword volumes

Ben: We’re going to have to create content at some point and we’re going to have to pick topics for that content to talk about. So, how do we go about doing that if there’s this enormous long-tail opportunity and so many different unique searches? How do we decide if we’re not just picking the mid-tail question with 200 searches a month?

Ric: What we’re saying is we’re not focusing on keywords anymore; we’re focusing on people and people’s interests. So a really great way to establish what people are looking for and what kind of content you should be creating is to do the very thing I do every time I enter a new industry, which is put yourself in the mindset of the customer and to start searching for things.

Start to learn and start to carry out that search journey yourself. See what’s out there. If you see there’s a piece of research out there that isn’t quite fulfilling your needs, even if it’s returned highly in Google, that’s your opportunity. That’s the piece that you should be creating because even if the current result might be from a powerful competitor, if it’s not giving users what they need it’s not working well enough.

Also you can start to identify themes and learn from a lot of the data that you have as a business. It’s important to talk to people like the customer service teams to hear what customers are asking (and not just the complaints department).

Your frontline sales teams also have tons of data. If you’re working with a travel agent with a number of stores, the people that are meeting customers are going to know what people askwhen they want to go on holiday in Greece. What do they care about the most? That’s the content you should prioritise because that’s what people are looking for online, too.

Edd: Typically, backing up content like this with keyword volumes can still be important and I think it’s something that will always do. But we also need to have an understanding that you’re going to be missing so much of the long-tail opportunity if you’re just thinking about ranking in those 10 Blue Links.

I especially like the idea of using company data to back up your content, and looking at other search engines such as YouTube. I think relying on other sources of information in terms of what users are looking to acquire is vital, because you could miss out on so much by focusing on just one set of numbers.

Making a business case for your SEO insights

Ric: This activity also writes its own business case at the same time. If you say 300,000 people are searching for holidays in Spain and I think if we do X we can get to Y position etc. that’s great.

But as a business, someone has got to forecast value and hit a sales number, whether that’s your performance director or CMO. They can’t deal on what I think is right. They can’t deal on whether we think there’s some data that would insinuate that this might happen. I want to tell them that I can prove that there is something their own customers are asking for and they don’t currently have it. I can demonstrate where there is a customer need that we’re not fulfilling online, so that’s the opportunity.

If we know that customers want this information, then as a guarantee we can say to the CMO or whoever that providing it will satisfy our customers better. That’s so concrete and such a good, tangible thing to aim for.

The process of organic growth

Ric: Now, if you think about what it takes to be found for really high value searches, it’s essential to have a technically sound website. You’re not going to get into the top three for any high value term unless you’re really able to load quickly, for example. That’s just what you need to have it at a basic level.

Beyond that, you need to remember that we’re dealing with a machine learning based system that understands the world in a highly intelligent way. You need to show the search engines that when they surfaced you, you’re focusing on what your searchers want.

Ideally, customers find you, then they buy from you. They tell their friends they’ve bought from you. They leave you reviews, and then their friends buy from you and you create this footprint of signals around your brand so that search engines can validate that your brand knows what it says it knows. If you’re successful, because your content makes a lot of sense and is useful, then search engines can try you on something better and better, and that’s how you grow.

The SOSTAC model for SEO proposals

I also wanted to share with you the very final point of Ric’s interview, where he explored a model for presenting an approach to SEO practically. It’s a great takeaway. He was answering a question from Edd on how to align your SEO strategy with the wider business strategy.

Ric: There’s a framework that I head in 2016 from Allison James, who was the strategy director at iCrossing at the time. She presented a strategy for one of our clients where she talked about this framework called SOSTAC. I’ve used it pretty much from that moment throughout my career.

First things first, when you’re building an SEO strategy to present to a client or prospect, use no more than 30 slides. If you cannot convey everything you need to convey in 30 slides you will have lost the audience, even if they’re super engaged with you. And 30 slides is the maximum, not the target!

SOSTAC means Situation, Objective, Strategy, Tactics, Actions and Control. The situation part asks where are we today, and do we have room to grow? What’s our market doing? What is the competitive landscape like? What are our internal challenges and what do we think our external threats are? I know that sounds like a SWOT, because it kind of is! But it really does a good job of conveying the external factors that you can consider.

Next, your Objectives. “We want to grow revenue by 30 million.” Or, “We want to grow revenue by 20%,” or “we want to drive a thousand leads through the channel this month.” They’re objectives.

Your Strategy is a one-liner (or thereabouts) that helps that should summarise everything else that comes after. If someone talks to you and says, “Hey, what’s your strategy?” I can just verbatim talk that line through. It’s simple and everyone understands it.

Your Tactics are extensions of the strategy. If you if your strategy is a one-liner, what are the 10 things you need to do on key projects? The Actions are the specifics of how you get there.

Finally, your control is how you know if you’ve done a good job or not? And we’re not just talking about whether the line is going up and to the right. It’s saying, “We tried these ten things and actually three out of them didn’t work. We understand that in this way or we couldn’t deliver them in time, so we’re going to take that forward to next year’s plan and make sure we do it a different way.”

Find out more

If you’ve enjoyed what Ric had to say, you can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn. Don’t forget to check out the whole interview with the podcast link on this page, or find the RankUp podcast on your app of choice.

Edd and I will be back soon with a new interview for the RankUp podcast. In the meantime, you can find us both on Twitter, @BenJGarry and @EddJTW.

If you’re interested in being a guest on the show, please reach out to us on Twitter or via emial.