Q&A with Stephan Spencer: How SEO and Reputation Management Intersect

Stephan SpencerTwitter bird social media iconStephan Spencer is an SEO expert with more than 20 years in the field, as well as an author and speaker on the benefits of SEO and how to use search rankings to benefit your brand. 

What can you tell us about your extensive work with SEO?

I help clients increase organic search rankings and traffic, remove sensitive content and otherwise raise their online profile. My former and current clients include Verizon, CNET, Zappos, Chanel and Sony. I’m a co-author of The Art of SEO (which was named Search Engine Land’s Best SEO Book of 2009) and Social eCommerce, as well as the author of Google Power Search. I also speak at numerous conferences and work with thought leaders in the industry.

How vital is SEO to a company’s marketing efforts?

SEO is crucially important to all companies today, even those that are using mostly or all offline channels to market themselves and conduct their business. Google is the operating system of the internet, so every company needs to use it well to thrive. The fact is, people will still Google your company — even if they are already on your website — because they want independent information about it as well as reassurance that it is legitimate and not a scam. Even if all of your business currently comes from referrals, it is important to have high search engine rankings to provide that additional information potential customers will be seeking.

It may seem as if SEO is not a sure thing in terms of ROI, but an investment in SEO to raise search rankings builds traffic over time. It also has a longer-lasting impact than other marketing methods such as pay-per-click, which typically only produce an effect as long as you pay for the ads. By implementing a robust strategy over mere tactics, you’ll  see lasting results.

Do you find that changes in Google’s algorithms have caused problems for companies, such as a drastic drop in  search rankings?

That can be a problem if a company relies on short-term tactics. In The Art of War, Sun Zhu wrote that “Tactics without strategy is like the noise before defeat.” If you’re doing something that’s less strategic, it most likely won’t be sustainable. It’s only a matter of time before a correction takes you out.

For example, recently a number of holistic health websites were impacted by a series of Google updates that affected the medical and health sector. In retrospect, they could have avoided some of the SEO drop-off by focusing more on developing what Google internally calls EAT—Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness. An action step some took to regain their Google rankings was to get board-certified medical experts with degrees to write blog posts and then document the expertise of those sources elsewhere on the site.

How has SEO evolved in the last 10 years or so?

In the 1990s, SEO was about metatags, which aren’t even used much anymore, and other basic elements such as keywords. SEO has evolved to be more about understanding the intent of the searcher, who may or may not use the expected words while searching. Algorithms have become much more complex and now involve a number of components, such as Rankbrain, that allow them to return relevant search results even when a particular keyword is not used. In fact, there is now no keyword in Google analytics at all, which is a huge shift.

SEO today is more of a black box, where even engineers and builders don’t know exactly how the algorithms work. We only know they work better than they ever have before because of the use of AI. A common saying when it comes to AI is that the only way to outsmart AI is with another AI, so SEO isn’t likely to get any less complex and nuanced in the coming years.

Can reputation management help with SEO?

SEO and reputation management go hand-in-hand. If you are link building not just to your website but also to profile pieces that have been written about you, then it can move you from page two or three of search engine results to page one, as the links begin to work and drive traffic to those pages. Reputation management benefits your SEO, as well. It’s extremely important for top search results to reflect positive information about you and your company, to avoid the perpetuation of negative information.

How does SEO impact customer experience?

Customer experience, that is, how customers feel about your brand from the first impression to the repeat purchase, is at least partially determined or influenced by SEO. That’s because customers are using Google as part or sometimes all of how they experience your brand, so the things that pop up on Google in the search rankings will influence the customer experience.

In some cases, what comes up on Google might not be the right answers to their queries. They might have a customer support issue and not end up in the right location, or they might even end up on a different website if it is ranked higher than yours. They might end up seeing a negative review of your brand or of a product or service.

In this way, someone’s opinion can change about your brand or a product within it, even though they may have already made a purchase. They may also follow your link to a page that isn’t attractive or user-friendly, or that offers obsolete information, get turned off, and never return. If you haven’t funneled the link equity to the right places on your site, you’re really leaving both SEO and customer experience to chance, and missing an opportunity to attract new visitors and, ultimately,  drive sales.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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