Today we're going to talk all about SEO for CEOs: search engine optimization for chief executive officers of small- and midsize businesses.
Now search engine optimization has been around for a few decades, dating back to the mid-1990s. However, SEO takes on more importance in a digital-first world where it’s critical for your company's website to get found by the right people, in the right places, at the right time, and in the right context. That's huge.
SEO is also very much a moving target. Google ensures that it is.
If you think about Google, with hundreds of millions of website pages to constantly index, evaluate, and decide what makes it to page one of search engine results pages (SERPs), what gets pushed back, and what gets buried in oblivion, Google is constantly tweaking its algorithms.
And Google is constantly having to stay one step ahead of both the kind of content providers that it wants to encourage, as well as the kind of content providers that Google really needs to reign in -- because they’re doing things that don’t provide Google with the kind of content that Google wants to surface for its searchers.
What Motivates Google?
Think about it at a basic level: What motivates Google? What drives Google?
Google is all about relevance and wants to make sure that when you go to Google.com -- when you do a search on your mobile phone, tablet, desktop, or laptop -- Google wants to make sure that you get back ridiculously relevant results.
And that has always been the driving force behind Google. That's been one of the reasons why Google outmaneuvered Yahoo! and Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, over time.
Google has this obsession with relevance and a great user experience.
When it comes to search engine optimization, Google definitely does give some very limited guidance about what it wants website owners to be doing, to optimize their websites properly. However, Google holds back most of the cards. Why?
Financial Market Analogies
Because if Google told you all of the “rules” about search engine optimization, people would be gaming the system like crazy. It would be that scenario in a financial market where when there's perfect information and everyone has the same information, the market pretty much ceases to exist.
Think about another analogy outside of the search engine industry, outside of SEO, think about the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank -- the “Fed.”
The Federal Reserve Bank gives some guidance about what it’s thinking, but a lot of the analysis and insight come down to inferences. Think about Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, Barron's, and CNBC. People have made entire careers out of trying to guess what the Federal Reserve Bank's next move is going to be.
in the same way that the search engine optimization community -- search engine optimizers, search engine analysts, SEO trainers, and SEO consultants -- is constantly trying to infer what it takes to give their website and their clients’ websites an edge; to get found by more of the right people, in the right places, at the right time, and in the right context.
Much of what's learned about SEO is actually learned from inferences and experiments.
Search Engine Optimization Defined
Is there a standard definition of SEO? It really depends on who you ask.
If you start with Wikipedia, as the base for what SEO is all about:
“Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of affecting the online visibility of a website or a website page in a website search engine's unpaid results — often referred to as "natural," "organic," or "earned" results. In general, the earlier (or higher ranked a website appears on the search results pages), and the more frequently a website appears in the search results list, the more visitors that website will receive from the search engine's users; these visitors can then be converted into customers” (other things being equal).
Two Polar-Opposite Schools of Thought: White Hat SEO vs. Black Hat SEO
So there are two schools of thought on SEO, how search engine optimizers behave, and philosophically where each camp is coming from. They're kind of like polar opposites to a certain degree:
- White Hat SEO -- the techniques that search engine companies like Google and Microsoft Bing recommend as part of good design. White hat SEO adherents follow the best practices that search engines want to see webmasters and website owners following on a regular basis.
- Black Hat SEO -- the bad dudes. Black hat SEOs use techniques that search engines do not approve of. In most cases, the search engines have come out explicitly against black hat SEO followers and told them that, “this is against the rules. It’s going to get you a manual review, a penalty,” Black hat SEO techniques could possibly get your website delisted from Google’s or Microsoft’s search engine altogether. Like they say in the classic board game “Monopoly”: Go directly to jail. Do not collect $200.
So you have these two extremes: You have white hat SEO and black hat SEO. (There’s also gray hat SEO, somewhere in the middle, with all kinds of potentially bizarre tradeoffs and rationalizations. Kind of like what it means to be “a little pregnant.” But seriously. C’mon, your SEO strategy is either white hat or black hat. There’s no middle ground.)
How CEOs Can Make Better Decisions About SEO
The challenge for CEOs, of small- and medium-sized businesses that don’t come from an IT or digital marketing background: It can sometimes be pretty difficult for you to know who it is that you are actually hiring -- regardless of whether you're talking about an
- Employee, that's on your payroll, or
- Outside consultant, agency, or some kind of professional services firm
Let’s face it: If you own a restaurant, you know how to hire a chef, right? You know how to hire wait staff. You know how to get liquor licenses, handle food purchasing, and things like that.
But do you really have expertise in hiring somebody to optimize your website for SEO -- for the right
Along the same lines, someone that’s a partner in an accounting firm knows exactly what to do when it comes to hiring accountants and bookkeepers. And that person could reasonably even transfer some of that knowledge to the law if their practice extended into taxation law or something similar. And it’s the same thing with attorneys.
Most small business owners don't identify themselves as small business owners. They tend to identify themselves by the niche or the vertical market that they’re in.
Because of that, they understand what it takes to hire people like themselves. But once they get outside that comfort zone, when it comes to knowing what to look for, with potentially white hat SEO expertise -- with someone that actually knows what they're doing -- that's what this guide is all about: empowering you to ask the right questions.
The Two Broad Types of SEO: On-Page SEO and Off-Page SEO
So aside from those two schools of thought on SEO (white hat SEO and black hat SEO), there are two broad types of SEO that you should be aware of.
- On-Page SEO -- This is SEO that has to do with the actual content that is on your website pages. The good news: this is content that you can influence. This is how good, how bad, how exciting, how mediocre, how thought-provoking, or how helpful your educational content is that actually appears on your website pages. If we're talking about text-based content, on-page SEO includes the actual words, the copywriting. If we're talking about multimedia content, on-page SEO takes into account how good your videos are, how valuable your podcasts are, and how powerful your webinars are. If you're a thought leader in your space and you're sharing helpful educational content that your buyer personas find useful most of the time, you’re likely already halfway to doing a good job with on-page SEO. So on-page SEO is all about content. Now, certain elements on the page still have to be optimized: the Title tag, meta description, H1 tag, choosing good filenames for both the website pages and the images that appear on the website pages, and Alt Text that’s text associated with images. There are a half dozen different areas that you want to worry about. But for the most part, on-page SEO is about the quality of your content and how well you optimize that content. And yes on-page SEO is important, but unfortunately, the majority of your success with search engine optimization isn't determined by on-page factors that you can control.
- Off-Page SEO -- The majority of your success with search engine optimization -- with getting found by the right people, in the right places, at the right time, and in the right context -- has to do with off-page SEO. Off-page SEO is all the factors that are essentially votes or links from other websites. It’s all about the earned links, the earned votes, that your website accrues from relevant, authoritative websites. Off-page SEO is largely believed to be the majority of what influences your website's ability to rank for the topics, for the keywords, that you want to rank for. In other words, you can stand on your nose and create fantastic content. And yes that's important. But at the end of the day, it's even more important when Google and Microsoft evaluate where your website ranks as one of the potentially 10 best pieces of content on a particular topic, it's going to take into account the quality and the quantity of the links -- not only into your website in general -- but into specific pages. So off-page SEO considers the relevance of that website and that content to your website and the content that's actually being linked to.
Evaluating Relevance for Off-Page SEO
In other words, if your website is for an accounting firm, if search engines are going to give you a lot of credit, search engines want to see a link coming from another website’s page about accounting. Or about small business or finance. Or something else where it’s a really close, relevant topical relationship.
As far as off-page SEO is concerned, if someone has a blog about homemade ice cream making, home brewing your own beer, or something like that, and that blog is linking to your website page on accounting resources, that disconnect between unrelated content and context may raise some eyebrows among Google's algorithm as to whether that website vote is really relevant. Should a website on making your own beer or making your own ice cream really have that strong of an opinion or authority about a seemingly unrelated resource on an accounting firm’s website?
That’s how to think about the relevance component of off-page SEO.
Weighing Authority for Off-Page SEO
Besides relevance, there are also authority considerations for off-page SEO.
Is it an extremely authoritative website? Or at the other extreme, is the website from a hobbyist blogger with a minuscule following? That makes a big difference with regards to the quality and the quantity of inbound links that are coming into your website as a whole and that particular website page.
So that’s a quick introduction to on-page SEO and off-page SEO considerations that CEOs of small- and medium-sized businesses should be aware of. These are two huge areas to think about when it comes to your strategy for making sure that your content that your team has worked really hard to build surfaces on page one of search engine results pages.
Oversimplifying SEO Strategy
Now a lot of what we’re talking about here -- SEO for CEOs -- is primarily for small companies.
Why? CEOs of large, Fortune 1000 companies aren’t getting involved in conversations about SEO unless their company is really focused on marketing, Internet services, digital transformation, or something like that.
For the most part, 90% of Fortune 1000 CEOs would simply delegate SEO strategy and leadership to a CMO (chief marketing officer), CMTO (chief marketing technology officer), CDO (chief digital officer) -- or perhaps in some edge case, a CIO (chief information officer) or CTO (chief technology officer).
In small businesses, the situation is very different where CEOs, owners, and presidents wear lots of different hats. So it's fairly common in a small- or medium-sized business -- especially a small business -- for the CEO to have input on various issues that affect their website.
The problem with this approach: a lot of non-technical CEOs that don’t come from an IT or marketing background tend to oversimplify and abdicate their SEO strategy.
What do we mean by oversimplifying SEO?
Small business CEOs often use SEO as an umbrella term for anything and everything that has to do with their website.
SEO is only one of a dozen or two dozen different factors that are critical to ensuring that your website achieves the goals you're looking for. (We'll go into those other factors in a few moments.)
But SEO is really just one piece of the puzzle.
Think about the analogy of drafting a baseball team -- regardless of whether you're coaching one of your kid’s little league teams, or a high school or college baseball team.
The closer analogy would be participating in a fantasy baseball league. So you're drafting a fantasy roster.
But there’s a big problem with the roster that you’re constructing: if you believe that SEO is everything, it would be as if you took your available baseball team’s payroll and spent the overwhelming majority of your overall budget on acquiring one single player -- perhaps a starting pitcher.
For example, on a Major League Baseball (MLB) team, you have 25 players. Let's say that you spent 90% of your payroll on that one player. So the other 10% of your left budget has to magically cover the payroll of the team’s other 24 players. That’s not going to work!
It’s the same thing with SEO. Make sure you put into perspective that SEO is just one factor that influences your company’s ability to attract new ideal-fit clients and grow new sources of revenue.
So that’s the oversimplification of SEO -- mistakenly thinking that SEO is synonymous with full-funnel digital marketing.
Prematurely Abdicating SEO Strategy
With SEO abdication, you’re protecting yourself well by just reading through this guide and educating yourself on what’s important for small business CEOs to know about search engine optimization.
If you just abdicate SEO, it can have disastrous consequences if you end up putting SEO responsibilities into the hands of somebody unskilled. In many cases, it's not like that person never had SEO skills.
What’s more likely: that person had a firm grasp on SEO basics five years ago and just hasn’t kept their skills sharp. Every couple of months that goes by, there are big changes in the required learning curve.
So you don't want to abdicate SEO strategy --- even if you delegate implementation -- because of the risks of ending up with somebody unskilled. Plus, there are also a lot of unethical practitioners that take risks that are disproportionate to the potential penalties, reputational damage, brand harm, and negative goodwill (bad will).
Be really careful that you don't prematurely abdicate your company’s SEO strategy or, more broadly, your digital strategy in general.
It’s not like you, as your company’s CEO or president, want to be the one that's going to manage everything. But a high level, knowing the right SEO questions to ask, will make a world of difference, to make sure that you're focused on the right priorities.
SEO is Just One Traffic Generation Tactic
The reality is that no business decides to invest in SEO for the sake of doing SEO.
You’re investing in SEO because SEO supports your small business’ SMART goals- specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.
Most of the time, as a small business owner, those goals have to do with getting new customers, finding new revenue sources, and growing revenue. And those are bottom-of-the-sales funnel goals.
However, the reality is, even when SEO is done flawlessly, SEO is very focused on the top of your sales funnel.
In order to make sure that you connect the dots between SEO, that’s way at the beginning of the sales process, way at the top of the sales funnel, and what you're expecting to fall out of the bottom of the sales funnel with new clients, new sales, and new revenue sources, there are a lot of moving parts.
To get this right, it's critical that you think broader than just optimizing for search engines. At the minimum, think about optimizing for people -- the visitors, the buyer personas -- that you need to attract.
Think about website optimization in general. Every one of your website pages needs to be optimized, not just for SEO (the on-page SEO factors), but for
- a particular buyer persona
- at a particular stage of the buyer's journey (that buyer persona is at)
- a specific call to action for a lead-generation goal (that you want that website page to support, with generally one, possibly two, different buttons, different actions that you want someone to take when that person gets to the end of that page. Don't make them guess. Make it very explicit for the buyer’s journey that you want to send them through.)
- easy social media sharing
How Google Knows if Your Website’s SEO is Naughty or Nice
Focus on user experience because Google knows metrics like each of your website page’s average session time -- how long the average person stays on every one of your website pages.
How does Google know this? Because Google has tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of users logged into its Google-owned servers on a daily basis.
So when someone clicks through from Google to your website, Google knows if that person stuck around on that website page for:
- 3 seconds
- 3 minutes
- 30 minutes
And the longer that person stays, the better your website looks.
If somebody clicks through your website and leaves three seconds later, Google knows they had a really lousy experience. And Google is going to make a note of that and say to itself, “Gee, you have all these people that your website is repulsing. They’re leaving immediately after landing on your website. That’s not good. We don’t want to keep sending our visitors there because your website makes us look bad.”
So make sure that you pay attention to things like the average session time and the bounce rate, the percentage of people that leave almost immediately.
The Remarkable Content that Google and Microsoft are Looking for
Another big thing that CEOs of small- and medium-sized businesses need to pay attention to is the fact that SEO requires content -- remarkable content that evokes an emotional reaction:
- “Wow! This stuff is amazing. I can't believe I finally found the answer to my question. I've been looking for something like this for hours and days. I can’t believe that I finally found this.”
- “Who are these folks? What do they do? What else do they have to say? Oh, cool, there's an eBook that goes into this in more detail.”
If you get those two emotional reactions from your content, a lot of your SEO challenges will solve themselves on their own.
In other words, that ridiculous level of relevance -- that causes someone to stop in their tracks and immediately pay attention to your content -- is exactly what Google is looking for from a website like yours. And this gets rewarded by Google and Microsoft in the form of higher rankings.
If you're not thinking about content, and what it’s going to take to get that emotional two-pronged reaction, you may just be spamming the search engines without realizing it.
How SEO Fits into Your Digital Sales Funnel
So a more balanced approach to all of this is to not put all your digital marketing and sales eggs in one basket. You need to be able to spread your budget, and your digital investments, around.
You need that more balanced approach where you’re focused not primarily on SEO, but on the end results of what SEO and the rest of your digital strategy can produce for your company in terms of revenue growth.
That obsession with SEO is usually way too narrow. And again, it's like spending all of your fantasy baseball payroll on one player out of 25 -- and having pretty much nothing left to field a competitive roster with the other 24 players on your team.
- Traffic Generation -- Again, when it comes to knowing, from a CEO's perspective, where SEO fits in: SEO is just one part of traffic generation.
- Lead Generation -- Traffic generation also needs to be supplemented with lead generation. You attract a visitor to your website and want to convert that visitor into a lead. So traffic generation should flow into your lead generation.
- Sales Cycle Acceleration -- Okay, now you've had some people fill out some forms. But what good are those leads if they don't materialize into new customers? So you need to take steps from that lead generation to close more of those leads into new customers and clients. So you go from lead generation to sales cycle acceleration.
- Customer Activation: You’re not done when you get those new clients. In a digital-first world, where your brand is now the collective wisdom of what people find out about your company on search engines and social media, the user experience that your customers have mattered a lot. So you need to think through the onboarding and customer activation, so more of your customers become promoters.
Step 1: SEO as One Part of Your Traffic Generation Strategy
Let’s drill for a few moments into traffic generation and how SEO fits in.
SEO is just one part of traffic generation that also includes:
- Keyword Research
- Content Management System (CMS) -- making sure that your CMS supports all of this
- Strategic Business Blogging -- not just any kind of blogging
- Internal Links -- among your different internal website pages
- Social Media Marketing -- Another big way to get traffic generation going on with your website is through social media. The way to prioritize: what your buyer personas care most about and where they already hang out.
- Search Engine Marketing (SEM) / Pay Per Click Search Engine Advertising (PPC) / Paid Search -- It’s really critical to supplement your digital efforts with SEM because most companies don’t achieve SEO success overnight. It can take months to build SEO authority even with the best strategy, the best talent, the best technology, and really consistently working on SEO improvements. Paid search using Google AdWords or Bing Ads Is a cousin or sibling of SEO.
- Paid Social Media Marketing / Sponsored Social Media Marketing -- Improving your social media reach is a great goal to happen over time, but it can take a while to get the flywheel turning. Building up social media marketing organically, just like SEO, takes time. So CEOs of small companies will want to supplement organic social media growth with paid social media marketing on platforms such as Facebook Ads, Twitter Ads, and LinkedIn Ads. Again, prioritize what's most appropriate for your business model and buyer personas.
- Video -- This format right now is a very hot growth area.
- Public Relations (PR)
Overall with traffic generation, your buyer personas, as well as the stage of the buyer’s journey, will dictate a lot of the priorities: the content on the page and your SEO strategy.
Step 2: SEO Before Lead Generation
For lead generation, the next step after traffic generation, think about
- Premium Content
- Calls to Action (CTAs)
- Landing Pages
- Confirmation Pages
Again, your priorities here with lead generation, flowing from your traffic generation, should be set based on your buyer personas’ needs and their buyer’s journey stage.
Leads, in and of themselves, are a cool interim step.
Step 3: Lead Generation Before Sales Cycle Acceleration
How do you do that? Think long and hard about what you can do to accelerate the sales cycle.
- Lead Nurturing
- Lead Scoring
- Realtime Notifications
- Social Media Monitoring
Again, all of this sales cycle acceleration strategy gets prioritized based on your buyer personas and buyer’s journey mapping.
Step 4: Sales Cycle Acceleration Before Customer Onboarding and Activation
Then finally, once you have new clients, you’ll also want to supplement with delighting these customers:
- Customer Activation as Promoters -- so you can turn most, if not all, of your customers into your company’s brand evangelists and promoters.
To put this all in perspective, traffic generation is one out of four big boxes -- one of four steps -- to take into account for revenue growth. And SEO is just one piece of traffic generation (Step 1).
How CEOs Unlock Move Business Value from Their SEO Investments
What’s the key SEO strategy for a CEO like yourself?
Think about five building blocks to unlock value from your SEO:
- Differentiation -- When it comes to differentiation, it really is a zero-sum game. Remember, when you look at a search engine results page on Google or Bing, there are only 10 slots. So, how many people go to page two if you don't make the top 10 list? It used to years ago that some people clicked through to page two of search results. Now hardly anyone goes to page two. So if your company doesn't make that top 10, and you don’t purchase advertising, your company is going to be invisible largely. It truly is a zero-sum game. One of the ways that you can really stand out is to make differentiation a high priority. In so many industries, and with so many business models, everyone just tries to copycat the company across the street or across town that they compete with. What ends up happening? You all look alike, and that's not good for anything. It's not good for your traffic generation, lead generation, pricing power, or profitability. Lack of differentiation is a slippery slope and a downward spiral that’s very hard to pull out of. Differentiation is really important.
- Thought Leadership -- This is the content that goes on your website pages. So make sure that you rally and align, get everyone onboard in your company that’s a subject matter expert, and position your experts as trusted advisors and educators. And make sure that all of the questions that they get asked on a regular basis are answered on your website. All too often, websites are built from the perspective that everyone who lands on your website is magically ready for a sales conversation. Think about the questions you're asked and how many currently answered on your website. You're doing something wrong if most of those questions are not answered on your website. And fixing that needs to be a big priority with the content that you create that gets fed into your SEO strategy and plans.
- Competitive Positioning -- In a digital-first world, what you think of it as your competition may not necessarily be the totality of your competition. In other words, what you're primed to think of, more than likely, are the competitors that you bump into at the bottom of your sales funnel. Those are your direct competitors. But in a digital-first world, there are bigger companies and smaller companies that you’ll be competing with. There are other strong indirect competitors in different geographic regions. And then when it comes to the topics that you're talking about, that you’re trying to gain search engine visibility for on page one of search results on Google or Bing, you have non-business model competitions to contend with. If, for example, your company is a managed service provider for small businesses and you want to publish a guide to protecting against identity theft, the problem is that your company is not the only type of company with similar content plans. Maybe the local newspaper, local business journal, or the local chamber of commerce has also published a guide with a nearly identical title for a nearly identical audience. These competitors have business models that have nothing to do with selling outsourced IT services to small businesses. But these companies also want to use very similar content to yours to attract new strangers and generate new leads. So be aware of that.
- Sales Cycle Acceleration -- Another important building block centers around sales cycle acceleration with buyer personas, buyer’s journey mapping, and workflow automation. All of these tactics are supercritical for unlocking the true value of your company’s SEO investments.
- Revenue Growth -- At the end of the day, connecting the dots is all about your revenue growth. Setting SMART goals. CRM integration that ties your sales tools together with your marketing tools. And implementing closed-loop reporting so you know exactly which marketing activities for traffic generation, SEO, lead generation, and sales cycle acceleration led to your new client wins and closed sales.
SEO Strategy, Talent, and Technology
A lot of this guide on SEO basics for CEOs of small- and medium-sized businesses is about helping you think through the strategy -- including the strategy for the right talent and the right technology, layered on top of your overall revenue growth strategy.
When it comes to talent, if you only have an entry-level budget, it’s very unusual to find one person that can wear all of these hats effectively.
What's more likely: you need to make several hires, including a:
- Content Creator
- SEO Specialist
- SEM Specialist -- Maybe, if you’re lucky, you find a single person that can manage your SEO campaigns and your paid search (SEM) campaigns.
- Lead Generation and Email Nurturing Specialist -- This is a completely different skill set for a person that sets up our landing pages, calls to action, and email nurturing workflow automation.
- Social Media Specialist -- Sometimes you can double-dip and have your Social Media Specialist also be your SEO Specialist or PR Specialist. Just understand that the lower your salary budget, the more likely it is that you’ll have to settle for someone with only beginner-level knowledge in one or more of these additional areas if you’re looking to double- or triple-up on responsibilities.
- Public Relations Specialist
- Hybrid Website Designer / Website Developer -- Remember that your content management system also has to support your traffic generation and lead generation strategy.
- CRM Administrator / Sales Operations Specialist -- And if you’re truly looking to connect the dots between the traffic generation from your SEO, what happens with lead generation, and how this flows through to your sales team, you need to have someone who can connect the dots with your CRM system and sales enablement.
With your technology stack, all of your tools need to support your digital strategy and revenue growth plans. You really can't improve what you can't measure. So make sure you’re equipping your team with the right tools to help them work as productively as possible.
The Bottom Line on Search Engine Optimization for SMB Chief Executive Officers
We’ve talked all about
- The basics of search engine optimization for CEOs
- What’s going on in a digital-first world
The definition of what SEO is all about
- The two schools of thought: white hat SEO and black hat CEO
- The differences between on-page SEO and off-page SEO factors
The dangers of oversimplifying and abdicating too soon
- The importance of setting SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound)
- Why you need to optimize your website as a whole, not just for search engines
- Why a content-centric approach is so important for SEO success -- Because search engines are not going to send visitors to your company’s website if you don’t have content that their users love.
- How helpful, remarkable, educational content is supercritical
- How SEO is just one piece of the puzzle for traffic generation
- Why traffic generation is just one bigger piece of the puzzle for revenue growth
- How traffic generation ties together with lead generation, sales cycle acceleration, and new customer onboarding
- The five building blocks for CEOs to unlock the true value of SEO -- differentiation, thought leadership, competitive positioning, sales cycle acceleration, and revenue growth
- As a CEO for a growing small business, how do you prioritize search engine optimization? Let me know in the comments section.
- And if you're serious about using SEO as a strategic growth engine, be sure to