Why Smart SEO Happens Before Content Creation Even Begins

Search Engine Optimization culture is changing, and not just because of Google's shifting algorithms.

Digital teams and SEO experts are no longer comprised strictly of data scientists and left-brainers, but include writers and journalists, sociologists, and anyone with a vested interest in better understanding how people search the web. As SEO culture shifts, it's also high time to remember that your content is best optimized for search when everyone in your organization embraces SEO from the start—including public relations pros.

We spoke to Ben Spangler, head of SEO on the Performics Practices team at Spark Foundry, about where communicators fit into this changing SEO landscape. Ben will be speaking about how SEO relates to brand reputation and sentiment at our Digital Boot Camp: Using Google Tools For Communicators, on July 17 at The Yale Club in New York City.

PR News: You’ve evangelized this idea that SEO is not earned or owned, but both. Can you unpack that philosophy a bit?

Ben Spangler: Yeah. SEO is one of those weird things where it sits in between so many different channels. It works together with them, but also works independently in its own way, so I don’t think that it’s specifically ‘owned’ or ‘earned’ on its own.

The reason is because you’re talking about your owned assets, right? It’s your website, it’s your video, it’s your social media channels, so it’s all of your owned content that you have control over creating. But, in order to get visibility in the organic space, you have to earn it, through SEO optimization of those owned assets.

ben spangler, seo performics team, spark foundry
Ben Spangler, head of SEO on the Performics Practices team at Spark Foundry

In that way, it really is a mixture of both owned and earned.

PRN: This is a good argument for why SEO shouldn’t be siloed within one role at an organization, and why everyone on the content team should have a working knowledge.

Spangler: The most important part of SEO is education, and really, evangelism. You have to build your culture, your organization’s culture, around SEO because it affects every part of the organization, including content creators and copywriters.

When the creative process is done just for creation’s sake, and then, at the very end you hear, "Oh, before this goes live, shouldn’t we get someone to check off on if its SEO optimized?" you do two things:

First, you’ve made the process much less efficient, because having to retroactively go back trying to stuff keywords and optimization in there when [the content] has already been created is not efficient. It adds more time to the creation process, and it often is a barrier to making it fully SEO optimized, because there’s usually pushback on not having time to do it or it already being built the other way.

The other thing is, it also affects the relationship between your SEO team and content creators. When someone creates something and you have to go back and tell them, ‘we’d like to switch this around’ or ‘we’d like to put this keyword in there,’ it creates discord in that relationship when we should have the exact opposite.

We should be educating the content creators from the very beginning, telling them the keywords that we think are important to use. Obviously, they’re the copywriter, but just so they know that this is the consumer behavior, this is what people are talking about. Then the creators build that into their content, and it’s automatically optimized once it's finished, and we don’t need to go back and try to stuff optimization.

PRN: Journalists and content creators may be a little less naïve about this than they were five to ten years ago, but there’s certainly still this resistance to engineering your approach when it comes to writing or the creative process. For a lot of writers, there’s the challenge of knowing SEO is important, matched with a concern that there’s too much of a manufactured, algorithmically-dictated element to the work itself when they have the SEO keywords beforehand. I wonder if there’s a way you could advocate for SEO in a way that reframes some of that unfounded stigma around SEO diluting or detracting from authorial voice.

Spangler: That’s something we’re always struggling with. To be honest, trying to get in early and educate on the importance of SEO and its value does a lot to address this issue. Again, if I can go to a content creator at the beginning and say, ‘Here’s the data that we have. These are the keywords that people are using most, here you go,’ that’s saying they’re still creating, but now they have data available to them to help influence their decisions.

I think for too long SEO teams and SEO agencies have earned this image of [being] tech nerds who only care about what’s best for SEO, the search crawlers, and nothing else matters. To your point, that has been a negative influence overall on SEO being implemented.

What’s happening is, SEO teams are diversifying. My team has people with journalism backgrounds, with no coding background. We’ve got people with sociology and psychology backgrounds. Building a diverse team helps to give that image, and to prove that we are all about an overall holistic balance of what’s right and what’s going to drive the most performance.

Having something strictly written for crawlers and no user experience aesthetic is not going to perform well, but something that is purely aesthetic and has no visibility in search engine crawlers is not going to work, either. So let’s stop calling it SEO—let’s start calling it ‘content optimization.’ Our team at Spark Foundry is called ‘performance content.’ We’re trying to get away from that stigma you’re talking about, because that’s not what SEO is anymore. It’s all about content strategy and striking the right balance between SEO visibility and user experience.