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SEO Agency Life During Quarantine with Bill Sebald

By Site Strategics
May 4, 2020

Our special guest for episode 353 of the award-winning EDGE of the Web podcast was Bill Sebald, Founder of Greenlane Marketing. Host Erin Sparks spoke with Bill about how the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic shutdowns and stay-at-home orders have impacted SEO agencies. Here’s what we learned: 


Bill Sebald: His Background and Experience

Bill Sebald & Erin Sparks on EDGE of the Web

Bill Sebald is the Founder of Philadelphia-based SEO and digital advertising company Greenlane Marketing. While at GSI Commerce, he applied his e-commerce and SEO expertise to brands such as Toys “R” Us, Dick’s Sporting Goods, PetSmart, and Calvin Klein. He also shares his insights by writing for sites such as Search Engine Land and Moz, and is a regular on the digital marketing speaking circuit for some of the best-known SEO and digital marketing events.

Bill has actually been working on SEO since 1996, even though it wasn’t even called SEO at that point because the internet was a brand-new thing! Ever since then he’s been fascinated by SEO and figuring out the puzzle of how to get traffic to websites.


In SEO the Show Must Go On in Spite of Pandemic

Economic shutdowns and stay-at-home orders went into effect in mid-March. But Bill notes that stopping SEO is not the right response. Hitting the pause button may feel like the right response given all the economic uncertainty, but the companies who are continuing their SEO efforts are going to get ahead. Remember that everything you put into SEO you get back in terms of real results, but you have to stay in the game no matter what’s happening. If there’s any way to avoid taking your foot off the gas now, you’ll be glad you kept going with SEO. Adjusting ad spends makes sense in this environment, but letting up on SEO is only going to put you behind when the pandemic begins to fade. SEO is all about momentum and you’ve got to keep that going. Also keep in mind that one reason your visibility and rankings go down is not because you’re doing anything wrong but because others are doing better, so you’ve got stay in the game or be left behind.

What’s fascinating is that Google is in fact keeping up with the massive shifts in search that have been caused by the pandemic. Google is quickly reacting to these shifts to make sure it is serving up results and content people want and need. It is rapid reaction the likes of which have never been seen before, but it’s what Google has been aiming for all along. This is why new content that meets user search intent is ranking quicker than has ever been witnessed before. This is a good thing, and it’s why you’ll never say “Gee, it’s been a slow week for SEO.” There is no such thing, and SEO during the pandemic is no exception.


Pandemic-Induced Shifts in Consumer Behaviors

According to a recent survey by Numerator, one in three consumers indicated news of coronavirus has already changed their shopping behavior with 47.2% of US internet users polled last month saying they are currently avoiding shopping centers and malls (of course, most of them have been totally closed down). Everyone is doing more of their shopping and buying online. It doesn’t seem like once the pandemic resides that we’re going to just snap back to what things were like before the pandemic. A lot of people who previously weren’t willing to explore the value of online shopping and home delivery have now discovered just how much value there is to it, and many probably won’t go back to the old way of doing things. A lot of people are finally embracing the power of the internet in ways they didn’t before.

It’s also been interesting to see Google emphasizing its new blog series of case studies showing the value of investing in SEO. This makes sense when you think about it because making sure companies are utilizing good SEO strategies and tactics helps Google’s search engine deliver better results to its uses, which is the whole name of the game for them.


SEO Agencies in a Time of Crisis

Greenlane Marketing recently published a fascinating article on its blog, the First 50 Days Of Quarantine: What We’ve Learned. The Greenlane Marketing team had already been working from home on Thursdays and Fridays before the pandemic, so making that shift to working from home full-time wasn’t as jarring for them as it probably was for many other companies.

Before the pandemic, like many remote teams, Greenlane would kick off meetings with a general kind of “check-in” or “stand-up” segment. This used to take maybe ten minutes, but with the pandemic, they found this portion of a meeting was lasting upwards of a full hour. And rather than shut it down, they realized just how necessary it was. People needed to talk about what’s happening and the impacts on their lives. And it’s bringing the team together into a more tightly-knit family than ever before with deeper emotional connections. As cheesy as it sounds in a money-making business, Bill is convinced of its value in making the team more effective in their work, which no doubt has a positive impact on the company’s bottom line. The culture has shifted into something that’s more meaningful and positive in a way that feels really good—and this is in spite of already having had what was a pretty great culture before all this. The video conferencing has brought them together closer as a family.

The Greenlane team is doing a daily game activity that has become something of an obsession. It’s a Spotify playlist challenge to assemble songs around a playlist theme, such as “best saxophone solos that aren’t “Careless Whisper” or “good songs about bad things.” These kinds of fun things are so important right now. There are plenty of companies and agencies where that sort of thing is frowned upon and not allowed. But there is real value in it. These kinds of things help build a better company culture, and a better company culture means everyone is working together better and pulling in the same direction, and that contributes to more business success.

The work-from-home environment means agencies simply have to be more flexible in when the work gets done. It’s not about putting in a 9-5 day. You can’t do that if you’ve got kids at home whose online schooling has to be managed and all kinds of other family obligations. What’s important is that the work gets done, not so much which specific hours of any given day that work is happening.


Responding to Shifting Client Needs

For the SEO agency, every client’s audience has shifted to some degree, which means the client’s needs have shifted in terms of what they need from the SEO agency. The key here is to meet the target audience where it’s at. But because that’s been shifting rapidly in real-time, you have to spend a lot more time analyzing data than you might have before in order to just understand where the target audience is at right now. 

The pandemic has revealed whether or not your agency is agile or nimble, and it’s done that for your clients as well. Key performance indicators (KPIs) literally shifted overnight. Greenlane has a client that is a large school, and a basic KPI for them revolves around getting people to come and take a tour of the school. The pandemic shut that down, so now it has to be a robust virtual tour. And we have to view this from a perspective that the virtual tour, even after the pandemic subsides, may play a much more important role moving forward than it did before the pandemic. More people may decide all they want is a virtual tour. 

A situation like the pandemic also brings into high relief how important it is to build the right kind of relationship with your clients. The kind of relationship you should be aiming for is one where your agency feels like a partner at the table, not just a vendor line item expense. It’s about achieving true mutual understanding and trust. Without that trust, everything an SEO agency does is seen as suspect. Or you come off as a consultant that’s coming in and tearing down everything they built up to this point. The right relationship with clients is critical right now.


Transparency in the SEO Agency

Another aspect that has made a big difference at Greenlane Marketing is being a lot more transparent within the organization about its health and how things are going on a big-picture level. This is not something that happens a lot in the standard corporate world. But as Greenlane became increasingly transparent with employees, they discovered that the team does in fact think and wonder about all those things, and they really appreciate the increased level of transparency. They needed to know if the company was going to make it through this crisis.

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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