Our special guest for episode 331 of the award-winning EDGE of the Web podcast was Bill Sebald, Founder of Greenlane Marketing. Host Erin Sparks spoke Bill about the importance of better SEO reports. Here’s what we learned:
Bill Sebald: His Background and Experience
Bill Sebald is the Founder of Greenlane Marketing, a Philadelphia-based SEO and digital advertising company. After 15 years of e-commerce and SEO experience, he was leading the first group of SEOs at GSI Commerce with clients like Toys “R” Us, Dick’s Sporting Goods, PetSmart, and Calvin Klein. When he’s not leading the Greenlane team he’s also writing on sites like Search Engine Land and Moz, and also speaking regularly at SEO and digital marketing events.
Bill first worked on SEO for a website in 1996, although SEO wasn’t even a named thing yet at that time. A company wanted him to help them bring in revenue through a website. Bill looked into and saw there were search engines, and could quickly tell how easy it would be to “hack” (that was the only word they had for it in those days) their algorithms to drive more traffic to a website, and those people would actually buy things. He was immediately hooked. In 2005 he went to work at GSI Commerce, working on SEO for many well-known name brands. Bill has always loved the detective work aspect of being in SEO.
The Importance and Difficulty of SEO Reporting
The reporting aspect of SEO work is something far too many professionals don’t give enough attention to. SEOs are going to often be required to report on their work to various people who really have no appreciation of or interest in the technical aspects of accomplishing SEO. It’s very easy for SEOs to “geek out” on their work, but that’s not going to do them any favors with the audience to whom they are reporting. If you’re reporting to c-suite executives, they don’t get the whole landscape of SEO and are probably skeptical of the whole SEO concept because of the stigma it has carried for so many years. The most important thing is to focus on what’s changing because of the SEO work – but effective reporting is about a whole lot more than numbers. If all you do is throw a bunch of tables of numbers out there, you’re not doing right by anyone.
Good SEO reporting means digging into the data to find stories you can tell in a report. It’s all about asking why, and finding out the why of what’s happening. That’s the detective work of SEO. It has to be a storyline you discover and follow. You tell the story of what your detective work reveals in terms of the why of what is happening and how it informs your next SEO move.
Understanding the people you report to is a critical component. There are some client “types” you’ll come across in terms of who you report to, and it’s useful to be able to recognize them. One client type includes people who do have some knowledge of SEO, and those are great clients to have because they understand SEO and don’t have that skepticism others have. But they can also be a pain if a little knowledge makes them dangerous in terms of constantly questioning your work. Another client type is the distracted client – the squirrel-chasers who instead of focusing on your report are asking if you’re doing this, that, and the other thing that pops into their brain.
It’s also worth remembering that whoever you report to is going to end up passing your report around to all kinds of other people, and you have no control over that and no idea what level of understanding they may have of SEO. Some people look at tables of numbers and are just mystified. They need the data visualized in some way. But the point is whatever you put together has to be simple enough that a wide range of people with and without SEO knowledge can pick it up and understand it.
The Elements of an SEO Report
One thing you have to do is agree with the client or your boss on which key performance indicators (KPIs) need to be highlighted. But generally speaking, it’s always a good idea to start with the basics, since those need to be in any SEO report. The SEO industry was born and raised on ranking, so go ahead and show the rankings. But there’s more to the story than just the rankings. There’s traffic. What kind of traffic was driven to the site or page? In some cases, the traffic may be bloated, but dig deeper and find out more.
Then you can get into conversions and leads and the meaty stuff that is ultimately what you’re trying to achieve. But you also don’t stop there. For example, maybe email acquisitions are extremely important. If so, then include it in your report. Some would say this feels tangential to SEO, but it’s really not. SEO has impacts across all digital marketing channels, so including it gives more context and texture to the report.
Part of the problem with this is that different teams or departments often don’t talk to each other. It’s the classic silo effect. People who type a query in a Google search are revealing something about themselves and it feeds into data on your target audience. Compare what you learn there to the keywords you’re going after. Combine it with data from Facebook to understand more about your audience demographically and psychographically. All this helps you understand your searcher, and maybe that’s the same person signing up for your newsletter and is someone you should target in an email campaign. Your SEO data can feed into and be useful across the whole organization if you do a good job of reporting it.
Of course, when you get into reporting on rankings, it feels a bit tricky because the data is changing on a daily basis. If you report on a day the numbers are down, you damage your own standing with the client, even if it was just a blip and the numbers are back up by the time your report is being viewed. There is a certain amount of education that has to go along with the report. You have to get people to understand it’s a directional thing and fluctuates all the time.
You can try focusing on a product the client company is selling. Identify the pages that are most relevant to that product, then take a look at the keywords related to that product and those pages. That’s far more useful than a disembodied report on rankings for hundreds or even thousands of keywords across an entire company. That approach is useless because it literally says nothing. It doesn’t tell any kind of story. And presenting rankings also has to be with the caveat that rankings simply don’t have the same role they played back in 2015. It’s a much smaller piece of the bigger picture of data you have to produce to show SEO results.
Also, a page-level presentation may be too granular depending on how big the client’s overall website is. If it’s massive, then you’ve got to use content groupings, which is a fantastic tool in Google Analytics. These are the kinds of tips and tricks you need to make sure your reporting makes good sense to the people who will see it. A great tool that’s been around for a while now that helps with this is Data Studio. It can take some time to wrap your brain around it, but you can really create dynamic reports and customize what data is incorporated from a variety of sources. People talk about all kinds of similar tools (Looker, Tableau, Power BI, etc.), but the Google Data Studio, while not as complex as some tools, is more than adequate to do everything an SEO needs in terms of great SEO reporting.
Connect with Bill Sebald and Greenlane Marketing
Twitter: @billsebald (https://twitter.com/billsebald)
Greenlane Marketing: https://www.greenlanemarketing.com
Greenlane Twitter: @greenlane_team (https://twitter.com/Greenlane_Team)
Greenlane Facebook: @greenlaneteam (https://www.facebook.com/greenlaneteam)
Greenlane Instagram: @greenlane_team (https://www.instagram.com/greenlane_team)
Greenlane LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/greenlane-marketing
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