Why Knowing Everything About SEO Doesn’t Mean Shit

Bit of a disclaimer before you read too far and get angry with the lack of “real” SEO tips –

This post is more about getting SEO done rather than pure SEO.  The point being (as the title of this post implies) that even if you are an SEO rockstar, it doesn’t mean you are good at getting shit done.

This probably applies even more if your job title has the word “consultant” in it.  Yep, mine has it!  I bet that loads of SEO Consultants read loads of great SEO blogs, follow loads of great SEO people on Twitter, go to loads of great conferences.  Does it mean they can do SEO?  Nope.

Does the client care that you do all this stuff?  Nope.

Does the client care about the work you do for them and what their ROI is?  Yes!

Relating this back to real life

Back in May this year I joined Distilled.  I was super excited about going to a company that not only specialised in SEO, but were one of the leading UK companies.  I was super excited about how much more I could learn about SEO.  I couldn’t wait to get inside Distilled and learn all the “secrets”, oh and before you ask, I can’t tell you!

Looking back over the last seven months, I have learnt LOADS.  But to be honest, although I’ve learnt loads of SEO stuff, the more valuable stuff I’ve learnt has been more focused on getting shit done.

Before I joined Distilled, I worked for Pin Digital where I was in the enviable position of being in total control of client websites.  If I wanted some development changes (within reason) I could usually get them done.  It was just a case of walking next door to the developers and asking nicely.

I didn’t appreciate how valuable this was.  We were also in the fortunate position of working with companies who were big enough to understand the value of SEO, but not so big that they did their own SEO.  So we took pretty much 100% control over work and it was our job to get stuff done.  This isn’t that difficult in SME companies where you have control of the development side of the site too.

What I Learnt (sometimes the hard way) at Distilled –

SEO means nothing unless it gets done

A few months after starting, I was fortunate enough to take part in some in-house training sessions.  Will blogged about one of them here, the other was with a super smart person on the subject of influencing change and basically getting shit done.  The latter was probably the single most important thing I’ve learnt since starting at Distilled.

It changed just about everything about the way I did stuff.

I realised that being able to look at a client’s website and make SEO recommendations wasn’t enough to make a difference to their business.  Providing reports and strategy documents wasn’t enough to make a difference to their business.  Swapping emails with clients wasn’t enough to make a difference to their business.

Influencing Change and Getting Shit Done makes a difference to their business

To do this is not easy.  I’m by no means perfect at it.  It essentially comes down to a few key things –

1 – Know your client – you can’t do this over email

We’re all geeks, we don’t like using the phone.  But it is by far the best way (short of meeting in person) of getting to know your clients.  I was far too used to just swapping emails with clients and feeling like that was enough.  Instead of this, I tried to concentrate on proper contact with clients over the phone and even working from their offices or sitting in on their internal meetings.

I was naive as to the power of just being around in a clients office.  I was amazed when a client told me that just me being present at one of their planning meetings was enough to help the SEO tasks get done.  I hadn’t even said anything!

Just working at a clients office – even if you’re doing other client work – is incredibly valuable because you are there for the client if they need you.  You also overhear their regular day-to-day workings and get to know their methology and how they work.  Again, very valuable information that will help you when it comes to getting shit done.

2 – Know who matters at your client company – who makes decisions and who pays your invoice

I don’t mean just know who the CFO is!  You’ll usually have a person who is your main point of contact, but in some cases they’ll always have someone to report to.  It could be their manager, the board of directors or the owner of the company.    Either way, find out who it is and what you need to do in order to get them on board with your SEO efforts.

If you have a point of contact who does report to someone else – make them look good in front of their boss.  Take them out for lunch, get to know them and what makes them tick.

3 – Take ownership of the problems

This is paramount to any project.  Its easy to take ownership of the solutions, thats the fun bit right?  Coming up with creative solutions and implementing them.  But what happens when you hit a problem?  I’m yet to work on any SEO project that hasn’t hit problems along the way in some form or another.  When problems arise, take ownership of them and solve them.  Don’t file the email away or leave it for someone else to deal with.  Do it yourself.

4 – Don’t think that delivering a document is the job done

As consultants, many of us are used to delivering strategy documents which are essentially reports.  It probably contains problems that need to be solved and may include some solutions to these problems.

This isn’t doing your job.

Sorry, sounds harsh but its true.  Most good SEOs can deliver a document that is a comprehensive technical site audit – how many of them make sure it gets done?   How many deliver it in a format that can be given straight to a developer to be implemented?

Not as many.

I’ll be honest – I’ve learnt this the hard way.  It was one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learnt so far and it is now always in the back of my mind when I deliver anything to a client.

When you deliver something to a client, its your job to deliver change which gets done and gets them results.  Thats it.

Seriously, thats it.

If you don’t influence change or make stuff happen, you’ve failed.

As I said, I’m by no means perfect and I’m learning all the time.  Part of the reason for writing this post was to give a reminder to myself how important this stuff is so I can refer back to it.  I also wanted to share some insight into why I think just being good at SEO isn’t enough and you shouldn’t rest on your laurels thinking thats it.

a4uexpo Bavarian Beer and Sausage on stand 50

42 thoughts on “Why Knowing Everything About SEO Doesn’t Mean Shit”

  1. So so true, and never more apparent than when you start working in house, suddenly without your “contact” fighting half the battles internally, you start to see how hard “doing” SEO can really be. These are some great tips, the only thing I think I would add is getting to know the developers/writers etc for the site, whether that’s another agency or internal, and feeding back to them what impact their work has had, because they’re the ones who’s workload has increased and if you don’t tell them what a great impact that extra workload is having they will become more resistant to doing it over time.

    1. @Sarah

      Excellent point Sarah. Sometimes I’ve been guilty of not communicating improvements to the people who actually did the work. Seems silly as it can have a big impact on their mindset when it comes to SEO, in particular for developers who can sometimes be a bit resistant to SEO changes. Writers are great people to get excited about SEO changes too and showing them the results of their work is relatively easy. Just showing them an Analytics graph of the traffic that their post has brought in, or the number of tweets it gets is enough to motivate them to write more.

  2. Absolutely right mate – completely agree with Sarah about getting the web designers engaged in the process of the work and share its success with them, as it keeps them energised working with you in the future on other projects (potentially bringing in new business).

    Getting the relationships right with clients and contacts and decision makers at a place makes it much “easier” to get the important aspects of what you are proposing done.

    I’ve found that SEO is a world of compromise at times – but this is aided by their being many solutions to pitfalls, so if solution 1 doesn’t work, move on to option 2 or 3 or 4.

    1. @Pete

      Yep being able to compromise is an important skill. In particular at the start of a project when you are trying to sell the value of the SEO changes. If you can compromise a little to start off with in order to get things started, then monitor the improvements, it can be easier to get bigger jobs fully signed off in the future.

  3. Whilst I agree that the hardest part of Agency work is getting changes implemented and pride myself that finding real life solutions to clients’ often eclectic problems is the most important part of my role, I strongly disagree with the idea that this is a useful skill without a background of excellence.

    There is no point implementing bad SEO.

    1. @LordManley

      Thats an excellent point. I could have pointed this out a bit better in my post! You do need an excellent knowledge of SEO, we’ve all seen cases of bad SEO being implemented which can sometimes give the industry a bad name. I guess that the two skillsets need to work together, getting the balance right is a challenge.

  4. Good stuff mate, I totally agree with this. I experienced a lot of “half arsedness” at my last job, before I took over the SEO there I was being told to write a report on what needs changing and gordon’s clients this was complicated stuff especially asmost of them were SME businesses. Month after month these requested changes were still in the report and it made me wonder what the hell they are paying us for. On top of that we had a 3 levels of packages for SEO which would give a set number of links, what’s the point in that if you aren’t achieving the ranking from those links, surely it’s better to have a more open number which can change month on month, especially if you have to work hard to find/get those links!
    Needless to say these things changes after I became SEO manager there.

    1. @Peter

      I’ve had very similar problems in the past with jobs being outstanding for a while. Have to admit I’ve had it more since I joined Distilled as we don’t always have control over a client site, at Pin Digital I knew whether a job could be done quickly or not pretty much immediately. So it didn’t sit on someone’s to-do list for very long. Also agree on setting the target of links built, whilst its nice to have a target to hit, it can lead to a drop in quality of the links. I’m still working on finding the right balance with target and quality, it differs from site to site as to the type of links they need.

  5. That’s a good post. Everything boils down to selling. Here selling your suggestions. In house SEOs face much more problems than agencies in selling there recommendations though the former know the client much better than the latter will ever be. The external consultants don’t need to deal with office politics and hence they face less resistant in selling their ideas. I think lot of SEOs try to sell everything in one go and here lies the problem. They come up with a 80 page long audit report with tons of recommendations about site changes and then expect businesses to completely revamp their websites overnight.Things don’t work like this. To influence a change one needs to push changes in small doses and convince and re-convince the client all along the way why it is important and urgent.

    1. @Himanshu

      I’ve never worked in house so I can’t really comment on whether that is harder in terms of getting stuff done, part of me thinks you have the advantage of being able to get to know people easier and quicker. This can be a challenge in itself for an agency who do not have day-to-day contact with the client.

      I totally agree on the idea that delivering tons of recommendations in one go can be too much for a client to take in. It is often best to break it all down into smaller tasks for them to do over a period of time – depending on their resources of course. I’ve worked with clients who get loads of changes done within a few days, whilst other need a few months because of their development resources.

  6. One way i’ve found helps make sure the job gets done when providing SEO Audits is to include an Implementation Verification Audit as part of the service.

    When i deliver the SEO Audit I agree a time with the client to go through the site and check that my recommendations have been implemented correctly.

    This forces the client into creating a deadline for the work to be done. They let me know when the changes have been made and i go through the site and perform a quick check to see if things have been done correctly and if any further changes need to be made.

    If further changes do need to be made then we go through the same process i.e. another quick report, phone call or email and then usually job done.

    You should also bear in mind that if changes haven’t been implemented correctly this could be because of lack of information or badly conveyed information in the SEO audit.

    Therefore it is your duty to provide any additional information necessary for the developers to complete their tasks. The client has paid for an audit that their developers can implement and if they can’t from your audit then that is possibly your fault.

    Or it could be that, just like some SEO’s call themselves experts when they’re not, some that call themselves web developers aren’t really that good and you need to educate them a bit 🙂

    1. @Kes

      Thats an excellent idea, by doing this you are putting some responsibility onto the client to get stuff done. Deadlines always help, even if they slip a little, the jobs are still being done. You should still have ownership of getting these things done though, even if its currently on the clients to-do list.

      Agreed on educating web developers too, sometimes they can be a bit resistant to making changes for SEO so its necessary to sell them the benefits of the changes and also show them the results after the work has been done. Having said that, I’ve worked with some developers who have embraced SEO totally and been total pleasures to work with – certainly makes you appreciate them a lot!

  7. I think this was one of the big surprises I picked up at Distilled. It’s not just about the ‘knowing stuff’. Sure knowledge is power, but actually getting things done says so much more. You’re all work-hard, play-hard types. Its brilliant!

    I’ve been doing a few small consulting projects and some of these truths have really hit hard. The phone is getting less and less daunting, but honestly I think there’s nothing better than getting face-to-face with someone – whether that leads me to London often enough – so far, no! I hope to see you guys soon! :-]

    I think Jason Fried’s TED talk on ‘Why Work Doesn’t Get Done At Work’ ties into a lot of this. If you get the chance, even just listening to it in the background, do take a look at this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XD2kNopsUs

  8. Well done for tackling a subject we all wish we could shout about too!

    I must say GTD is a tough one. I’ve experienced the two extremes since going solo as a freelance consultant. Firstly, I’ve come across clients who’ve previously had automated reports with absolutely no explanation, no phone calls or contact whatsoever month-to-month from their previous agency. I’m a massive advocate of keeping in contact – I can’t believe they had no strategy month-to-month and requests for on-site changes or updates. Mental. Even worse than the “just delivering documents” scenario you mentioned – and this agency is a ‘known’ one even if it isn’t one of the giants. All a massive indicator of “poor SEO” regardless of their level of knowledge.

    Conversely, there’s the time aspect and being careful not to be a scapegoat. You’re so right saying you need to push for updates, get involved and know your clients to the point of knowing how to communicate and with whom to get things implemented in a timely manner. However, there’s a fine line between that and spending all your time being the project manager, chasing web developers on behalf of the client and potentially coming in the firing line for when SEO results don’t happen because the developers didn’t listen to you. The client (decision makers, rather than devs) absolutely MUST be on your side and have enough buy in to be chasing devs and other team members as much as you if not more. Probably worth including in terms of business that you expect changes to be done within a reasonable time period, and use that to really enforce the fact you’re not just there to write documents and give advice, but expect to see results too! Gantt charts and project management software can help too alongside clear statements such as “once you’ve done this, I can start on this”. Then it’s very clear where the bottlenecks are 🙂

    Consulting is nothing without follow-up actions and results 🙂

  9. Outstanding article that everyone in our industry needs to drill into their heads!

    I’m hired to conduct on-site forensic audits, not implement the work. Yet I also have an even bigger responsibility to help clients understand that they need to properly execute the action plans within those audits, and that for every single item they skip, or implement improperly, seeing real, viable, and financially valuable results is going to be that much further from their grasp.

    So I also offer consulting to the people who do the implementation. And I offer training on how to in the best, most cost efficient manner.

    The audit part of the process is something I love. It’s something that comes effortlessly. And for that I am grateful. It’s the implementation related services I offer that are the most challenging, lead to the only real frustrations I face in this work because it usually means having to cause a sea-change mentality, deal with politics, budgetary constraints…

  10. This reminds me of our first fortune 500 client when it took 6 weeks to change the title tag! Big comapnies spend most of their time standing in their own way.

  11. I often work with small businesses and the hiring manager is usually the developer, and content creator and business owner. They take my suggestions, put creative spin on them and the final product is not at all what I had in mind. I try my best to explain and educate, but there is always a limit of how much technical information one can stuff in a head of a non-technical person. That’s why I offer a free consultation after all the changes are implemented so I an review the work and fix the problems.

    After reading your article, I am also going to add 2 documents for bigger companies – an action list for the development team and action list for the editors. It will include only the information relevant to them.

    You are right, the proof of how good of an SEO you are is how well you can get things done, achieve the goals, and make your client some money.

  12. @Ed – cheers for the comment and link to the video, I’ll take a look! Also want to pick up the books by those guys too. Sounds pretty good. Oh and any chance that you have to come down to London be sure to pop by the office!

    @Joanna – Similar to you, I’ve heard of a few horror stories when SEO agencies have not spoken or even emailed their clients for months at a time. I’ve never been this bad but I was guilty of thinking that emails alone were enough to get to know a client. Whereas face to face contact and phone calls are sooo much better!

    @Alan – thanks for the nice comment! Like you, I also love doing audits of sites, its where many big SEO wins can lie. The implementation is the key and you give some good examples of the challenges that we all face when changes can’t be implemented easily. I think the key is trying to sell the value of these changes and importantly, the impact to the clients business if they don’t make the changes you suggest.

    @seomoves – Yep I once had a similar situation in which it took about three weeks to get a 302 redirect changeed to a 301! Very frustrating.

    @Lyena – Glad that you are adding the documents to your current process! I’ve found that a simple list like this is very valuable and much easier for the client to consume rather than a huge document with actions dotted through it.

  13. I may have a chance on the 18th… tbc

    37signals are fascinating. They’re on “the list” of organizations I’ve got an eye on. Interesting, Will has read both their books, liking Getting Real but not so keen on Rework.

  14. Fantastic post, Paddy, and spot on! I worked as a management consultant for many years before getting into SEO, and the problems you describe are very similar to any consultancy project.

    Kes makes a great point about assigning actionables both an individual and a deadline. Took me a while of beating my head against the wall to learn that, but it’s invaluable!

    The greatest takeaway, of course, is as you say… saying it must be done isn’t enough. We have to make it happen, one way or another.

  15. Congratulations Paddy on the exceptional post. Very well timed for people and businesses putting into practice their plans, goals and processes for the start of this year.

    I’ll go on record now to say this will be one of the best post of 2011.

    This blog post is highly relevant to anyone who is working as a consultant freelancer or otherwise.

    @Joanna put it best, “Consulting is nothing without follow-up actions and results” the quote of 2011 that will be.

    All of us digital folk should agree this year to take MASSIVE ACTION and follow up on our recommendations. That is my goal this year to take MASSIVE ACTION in everything I do.

  16. I worked at a company a few years ago where we had a couple of client projects that were never implemented. All the research and recommendations were made but it was up to the clients to get it done.

    I’ve checked a couple times since and they still haven’t done anything with it. It’s a real shame because all that money is just down the drain.

    Great learning experience for me, but I feel bad for the clients.

  17. This is my main point when I advocate in-house SEO vs agency. Any comprehensive site audit will be a waste of time if you cannot work with developers to implement your recommendations.

  18. Nice post Paddy. You make some excellent points regarding the delivery of strategy documents vs the actual implementation of them. Having worked as a consultant, in-house SEO, as well as in a Search agency I can say with conviction that many agencies are guilty of not delivering promised results. There are a host of excuses but in the end it truly is what was implemented and what were the results.

  19. well well… you remind me of the yesterdays meeting with the marketing department… I strongly agree with every single word of it.

    swapping email, sending them strategy documents and monthly reports didn’t make a client happy what makes them happy is the leads and more leads for their businesses and business reputation.

    Working for in-house website is way easier because you can come up with any change (you obviously have to justify it) and it can make once your seniors are satisfied but with clients even for a minor change you need to make them feel ok! It is way tough then a one can think but i guess this is the real job 🙂

    Great article!

  20. Wow… this is deep. But deep in a good way, I don’t think you were being harsh, you just said it like it was and hit the nail on the head. Cos truly anyone can write a SEO Blog and sound like a SEO Guru, all you have to do is research, but what about getting the work done!

    I’ve been in the SEO industry for just about a year now, 6 months ago I thought I knew a lot about SEO, 1 year later, I realise I really don’t know jack, but what I do know is there a big difference between writing about SEO and actually doing SEO.

    Thanks for bringing home that fact to me as well! 🙂

  21. Excellent post. I totally agree with everything you said. I would also like to emphasise that the most important part is hard work. When I worked in sales, I found the best salesmen were not the smooth talking guys you would expect to sell a lot. But the guys who worked the hardest, who were constantly hammering the phone made the most sales.


    Gordon Campbell

  22. The knowledge is relatively easy to get hold of, effecting change of a clients rankings however takes real skill. It’s very different working on a clients website than my own. I find I learn a lot more helping out a client.

    And each client is different.

  23. i completely agree with the point of engaging designers and developers for SEO. But many times i have faced situations where client is very adamant regarding keeping the website’s design or any development issues as it is. Another thing that i have encountered that in many cases the process of getting green signal for changing few thing on websites is become so long (even after continuous alerts)that we completely get messed up.

    So for such clients we have to focus on traditional ways of optimizing rather than focusing on increasing their ROI.

  24. Patrick,

    I gotta be honest! I came across this exact situation today and I’ve been banging my head against the wall trying to figure out how some of the inevitable problems of running SEO campaigns keep coming back to my doorstep and get labeled as my fault.

    The question I keep asking myself is, “Why do I keep having these problems? I know my stuff when it comes to SEO. I’ve got a track record of good results. Why can’t other people see that?”

    I really think that I need to embrace the ideology you spoke of a little bit more and not take the approach of “I did my work, now its up to the client to make it happen!” Think tactical, and don’t wait on things to happen.

    Thanks so much for the advice, as it really helps put things in perspective for me, and helps me know that I have to take ownership to make things happen and not wait on someone else to do it – as that approach will make me continue to beat my head against the wall.


  25. Great points – there is a big difference between knowing SEO and actually doing it well. Being a solid SEO takes hard work and drive, the ability to be creative and find great link partners, the ability to create great content etc..

    Just because you have the knowledge doesn’t know you know how to apply it.

  26. Hey Paddy, thanks for sharing this article. I felt very identified with most of the things you said. Very important points to keep in mind when dealing with clients, the basics we forget as SEO geeks producing reports, reports, reports full of jargon. I think is vital to have that permanent contact with the client, permanent feedback, even the power of a phone call or attending to their internal meetings add lots of value.

  27. “This isn’t doing your job.”

    Maybe. Maybe not.

    Your job is what you were hired to do. If you were hired to do strategy *and* implementation, then it is your job to get these fixes and approaches in place. If you were hired to do strategy and provide recommendations, you’ve already done your job.

    Spending substantial hours of non-billable time trying to navigate the muddy waters of glacier paced internal processes and IT is not your job. It’s actually a really fast way to be out of a job.

  28. So true Paddy. SEO knowledge, while necessary, is on its own, not nearly sufficient. Like any other Internet marketing strategies, it’s all about tactical execution to get to ROI which is primarily what the project sponsor cares about most. BTW, talk about great ever green quality content. The values and principles you discuss here have passed the test of time and will be equally relevant in 5 years, thought SEO and search technologies will have radically changed. Congrats on making up the charts in Hot Articles (#2 at the time of this post) on inbound.org, 14 1/2 months after the original post!

  29. Paddy, have you been stocking me? I feel like this article was written about me specifically and my role as an in-house SEO. Makes me almost miss my days in the agency setting….almost.

  30. Paddy, having worked with you as a client, whilst you were at Pin, I can but wholeheartedly agree what you achieved was exactly in that category of not too big, but knew the value.

    The long tail benefits of it have been core to our success and retained business. I just hope I can replicate a small %’ge of that at http://anglerskabin.com but, so far it’s been *probably* a bit too much tooo quick.

    to close out, getting shit done is core to doing what I do. And, it’s more than half the battle… a great idea is nothing unless it’s implemented.

  31. Paddy, undoubtedly your post on learning / knowing everything about Search Engine Optimization is really informative because, after three years of your post, discussion is alive.
    You have told that, delivering documents is not all, in that case, how can we arrange SEO task report for our SEO job provider contractor?

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