Don't miss Jeff Coyle at our CMO Summit on May 11th. Get your ticket now!
Meeting the needs of SEO and humans can often seem like two impossible tasks. But according to Jeff Coyle, Chief Strategy Officer and Co-founder of MarketMuse, by gaining an understanding of how search bots actually crawl your site, you can give your content teams more freedom to create the great content your customers deserve and value.
We originally spoke to Jeff on an episode of CMO Convo, but now it's available in written form below, packed with insights on how you can satisfy the requirements to climb the SERP, and still have great, human-focused content when people click through.
Find out all about:
- Jeff's background and role at MarketMuse
- Why SEO and Content go hand in hand
- The truth about search bots
- Building your site architecture and toolset
- Getting over your assumptions
Jeff's background and role at MarketMuse
Hi Jeff, you're one of the few people who we speak to who isn't the CMO or head of marketing. So, maybe you can tell us a bit about your background, and why you're speaking to us today?
Sure. I'm at MarketMuse. During the evolution of my roles, having been the co-founder, and now the Chief Strategy Officer, I was acting CMO. And that was always going to be my career path, to be in a CMO role. But then the founder bug got me. And when you're a founder, you end up doing a lot of things. There was a period of time where I was managing marketing, also Product Data Science and Engineering. I've been in the search engine, lead generation content strategy space for over 22 years.
I went to Georgia Tech for computer science and usability theory, but quickly jumped into a product role at one of the first companies who were selling leads to a technology company. This was before people even had content on their websites. Search engines were just kind of becoming a thing. I studied search engine design, but owning traffic or managing inbound wasn't really a thing.
But I recognized that that was going to be a big thing for us to grow on, and ended up managing all the traffic and lead gen. For KnowledgeStorm, we were trying to convince companies like Dell and IBM to have content and to let us syndicate and let us promote it. We were acquired in 2007, by a large B2B publisher called TechTarget,
You may be familiar with them. It’s in every app and every channel of marketing. If it involved traffic, or going to a website, it was probably connected to something that my team was doing during that time. The relevant part of this discussion would be that I had my first experience working with a really stellar editorial team.
They were people who were thinking, publishing, thinking about content creation, and we were dealing with leads and conversions, search traffic and organic channels. My initial interactions with them weren't so productive. Then, over time, I just realized how important great content is.
I realized how much of an asset an editorial leader is, but it's still very hard to influence what they do, and make sure that you can get on the same page for our content. That was really the driving force for trying to create MarketMuse and turn it into a way for us to unify demand gen. It was a way for us to unify search teams, content strategists, content marketers, as well as editorial or subject matter experts. We wanted to bring them all together on the vision for putting our company's best foot forward.
We want to be authoritative. We want to win. I'm speaking from the lens of our target market, CMOs. It's companies who want to unify those typically siloed teams around the promise that if we write great content, and we exhibit expertise, we're gonna win. And that's the spirit of what we do at MarketMuse.
We set the standard for content quality. And that's something that, regardless of what team you're on, you can get behind. And that's really why MarketMuse is so special and differentiated. We're not trying to game the system. We're trying to make sure your business puts their best foot forward. I think very often people get one-dimensional, KPI-driven strategies, but that KPI isn't something that all the rest of the team share. I love it when teams can get behind data, but it's not data that limits their creativity or snuffs out their expertise.
Why SEO and Content go hand in hand
You mentioned limiting creativity. It's a bit of a misconception that a lot of people have about SEO-driven content strategies, that it’s a way of limiting creativity. Before we get into the more technical stuff, maybe we should lay the groundwork on why SEO is important to a good content strategy? Why do CMOs need to not just have an SEO-driven content strategy, but also just have a content strategy, period.
Yeah, sure. If you're a CMO it is your job to create a culture of content. Because no matter what you're selling, it’s still important. It’s your CMO’s responsibility to create a culture of content, not just a culture of orders, or average order size, or any kind of those types of metrics.
There's got to be a culture of content, because you have to think critically about being there for that buyer journey, or that customer journey. Any time somebody is taking an action that can be associated with your business, and what you stand for, that exhibition of expertise needs to come from you.
If you don't support that buyer journey, those people are going to be supported by other factors. They might be supported by ads, by other channels, social media, communities, or competitors. By exhibiting your expertise with content, you’re not just connecting the dots between the intent of people who might buy your product or service, you're showing them you understand their journey. You’re showing that you understand their problems, whether they haven’t decided to buy and they're in that awareness stage, or if they're actually in the purchase process.
And the content you create also needs to support post-purchase, whether it's troubleshooting or the types of things people think after they purchase yours or similar products. But you also need to support champion development. I want somebody who's bought my product to get excited about reading something that I produce, and maybe become an advocate, or a champion, and increase the virality of what we have. I want them to stoke the creation or the support of a community that we might have developed.
Search-driven content isn't low-quality content, it's content that supports the buyer journey. And the huge misconception that I find is that SEO content is “X.” First of all, it's not accurate. SEO content that drives great search engine optimization outcomes is the same content that your sales team needs for sales enablement.
It's the same content that you would want to put in front of somebody who was interested in investing in your business. It's content that illustrates expertise and puts your business best foot forward. I think it’s the bridge between low-quality content and the stuff that's going to trick the search engine.
The reality of 2022 and beyond is that the content you're creating needs to put your best foot forward. Anything you're not proud of, as a CMO, shouldn't be on your website. If you've got content that gets a lot of traffic, or generates a large percentage of your leads, and you're not proud of that, you've got to fix that.
People's first experience with your business is gonna be this thing no one likes. I'm not saying go delete it, I'm saying you've got to strategically improve, enhance and make that connect to your buyer journey.
Any past mistakes can be righted, don't get scared because of that. I have a funny example. I was talking to a translation company. 90% of their organic traffic came from a temporal piece that someone wrote about expletives in foreign languages. They didn’t want to touch it. I told them they had to touch it, that they had to figure out how to weave that into their narrative, how to use that success.
That happens all the time. Businesses are too reliant on landing pages, they're too reliant on pages that just got lucky. And they punch above their weight when a page that's really not that good is performing well. Teams just don't know what to do in those situations. People panic because they’ve got a competitor that just started publishing in their zone, or they don't like a certain type of content, or someone told them that SEO works a certain way, but it's something completely one-dimensional and ridiculous.
Or they've made investments in low-quality content, because that was what they perceived to be an easy way to check the box for SEO. The reality is, you've got to take a process inventory of everything that relates to content creation, or updates and enhancement at your business.
You've got to accelerate all of those and make the manual labor go away as much as possible so that your product experts can build the narratives and focus on quality. It’s putting your best foot forward as a business versus “write an article on ‘x,’ We must have SEO content here, we need a content block on the category page, etc.”
I mean, there's no love there. Frankly, it doesn't work unless it really tells the story and showcases your business. It may give you short-term wins maybe. The easiest way for a CMO to do this is to prioritize high-quality content, comprehensive content that appeals to the customer journey.
It’s basically an investment that has compounding returns, whereas paid channels are more like gambling. It can be really, really good advantage gambling, but they’re instant gratification. You put money in and money comes out. It’s the difference between inbound leads and outbound leads. With outbound leads, you get so many qualified conversations and paid channels are very similar.
Investments in long-term growth potential and authority come from high-quality content and search-driven outcomes. What that also does is it inspires confidence internally. If I can confidently predict how much content I need to create on this topic to move the needle, I don't have so much publishing hope, right? If I publish something, maybe it'll do good, maybe it won't.
Unfortunately, that's how 90% of teams work. They publish, and they actually don't know what the outcomes are gonna be. Their content efficiencies are super weak, such that they may publish 10 articles to get one to work. But what does that do to your true costs? You ask a CMO, “How much does content cost?” They might say it’s $400. Okay, so how efficient are you? But they might not even know what that means. Maybe they're not measuring that.
How much content do you publish or update? And how frequently? Do they hit their goals? They might say their content doesn’t have goals. Okay, but let's just say they do, how often do they hit their goals? They might say 10% of the time. After you do the math, how much does content cost? Then they might realize that it’s costing up to $5,000 per effective page.
And then their ears start ringing. And then they realize they’ve got to make this more efficient. So then everybody's gonna be inspired to invest more. Let’s just say you have an editorial calendar, and you're not having any creative license. Well, do your best job with that editorial calendar. Put your best foot forward.
The next time that budget hack comes around, you're gonna say, “Hey, look what I did with what you told me to write. Imagine if I could strategically and surgically build additional things onto this?” I think the biggest misconception from CMOs who are struggling at investment is that it's all a reporting game. Or that it's a bunch of black box ticks. In reality, it's about partnership building. It’s about building great relationships with others so that they will be inspired by your content.
It's about being there for your prospects, and it's about being there for your customers, and every business can get behind that. And it's a shame that there are still a great percentage of mid-market enterprise CMOs that see SEO as this checkbox they reluctantly have to have to check. They don’t see it as an opportunity to inspire excellence in editorial and storytelling narratives.
We're sure many folks with content backgrounds think you're absolutely singing the tune they want to hear. A lot of SEO advisors still talk about keyword density, which seems a little archaic. Do we even talk about keyword density anymore when it comes to SEO?
Correlations are important. But they're correlations. The thing that a writer doesn't want to see is something unnatural, right? Why would I do this unnatural thing? How can you frame that data in the form of a writer so that it speaks their language?
Sometimes it’s about finding a blind spot and saying, “Hey, you wrote this great article about content marketing strategy, but you didn't really get into target audiences and buyer personas. That would be a really great way to enhance that page.”
And you're like, “Yeah, I would love to do that. Maybe I'll write an entire article about buyer personas. How would that work, Jeff? So, that's the conversation that should happen, not, “Hey, put the target audience in this article.” See the difference?
"When you covered the buyer journey," in that same article we were talking about, "you didn't really get into early-stage awareness. Could you expand on that and maybe say something about the three phases that we use in our sales funnel?"
Oh, yeah. Great idea. So, it's more of an organic process. And it feels more like checking the checkboxes, like you were saying before.
The truth about search bots
A lot of our readers who have seen the title, read the intro and the word search bots, they might be thinking "how does bringing in search bots and more robot components not remove that organic element?"
So before we get into that, maybe it's worthwhile to explain what exactly search bots are to our audience. How do you incorporate it into SEO strategies?
You need to be thinking about the anatomy of a search engine. So, a search engine is crawling, it's crawling and indexing. So, crawling is an action done by a robot, the equivalent of a bot.
It is going in based on some reason. It could be just trying to crawl the whole web, it could be trying to crawl everything about coffee cups, right? It's trying to grab as much content as it can off of your site. It's learning about your site, where you have strengths and weaknesses, the structure of the site.
And it is telling the story of your business. Also, there are important things in its information about who's linked to you. It's trying to educate itself about who you are, how powerful you are, how authoritative you are.
It's important as a content strategist or CMO to understand that that's happening all the time. Are you making sure that that bot is getting everything that it's supposed to get when it's looking at you? Is it telling the right story? For example, let's say you have this really important content piece, and it's buried behind the one link on your homepage, and this is something that everybody will read.
The only way from your homepage to get to all of your content is through one link in the bottom right that says blog. You click on it, and then you have a data archive structure. Well, this article you spent five grand on is beautifully written and it's a wonderful narrative, but it’s four clicks away from that page.
So, when the crawler comes to your site and flows down your site, it's saying, “Well, this article might be good, but the webmaster doesn't think it's all that important. They're not pointing to it, they're not promoting it. It's woven inelegantly into a lot of their content. It's hidden in this data archive, and it's five clicks away.”
It's telling the story that that article isn't very important to your business. You've got to be conscious of the way that these things are being indexed in the content that you're writing. The best way to think about this type of bot interaction is, I'm going to make sure, first of all, that I'm technically sound. All the content that's on my site can be consumed in such a way that my content team has a chance.
Having all that content might get you the invitation to the party. But if things are a mess behind the scenes, they’re gonna have a hard time even knowing where the address of the party is. Everything on that technical search engine optimization side is the foundation to your house.
It's like architecture for where the important things need to be in the house. It's about knowing where the kitchen is. And then when you're in the kitchen, knowing where to find your knives, knowing where your plates are and where the fine china is, and when to get that out at the right time. Is that the right way to think about it?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s just one of those things where the outcomes are common sense. But the outputs aren't as easy to just naturally get. Think about information architecture. You want to make sure people have access to this section of the site. Well, it’s just one path, right? You want there to be multiple ways to have access to your content. People won't naturally understand that they need to provide ways to get to these things.
A great example of this is e-commerce. People often think that it's a separation of church and state between their product pages. But all of those things need to be woven together. A person's experience on a category page on an e-commerce site needs to be that of a buyer's journey.
You need to showcase everything you've got, or what good is your buyer’s guide? If someone who’s in the consideration phase doesn’t know that you are all experts, then you’re doing something wrong. You need to showcase everything. You have to show them that the buying process is critical.
A lot of people get really tied to the perspective that one page does one thing, instead of thinking about overall buyer journey, and that is critical. So, putting your best foot forward is making sure you have access to these things at critical junctures. Those are the ways that you can make it about architecture. You can make it about the foundation, and get everybody behind it. Because when you say those things in words, it's so obvious.
Why is there no content on this page? Why wouldn't we put our best foot forward and show them that we actually know everything about this? Let's say it’s somebody's first experience on this page. What experience are they having? Do they understand everything we've invested in? And in a lot of cases, people aren't thinking about that with a critical lens.
Building your site architecture and toolset
It sounds like, initially, it just takes a little bit of reworking the pages that you're directing people to? Or are there other specific tools that CMOs should be using, other specific processes they should be thinking about to set up this kind of architecture?
Well, there are a lot of things that are accessible. You need to know what you're about, right? You need to know what experience search engines have when they look at your site. Fortunately, the most prominent search engines give you a lot of information about what experience they're having with your sites. And it's free. That is something that is critical for you to get in place and be monitoring and managing. Someone needs to be responsible for those instances.
Other things that you might want to think about, depending on the size and structure of your site are, how important do you want content to be? How much knowledge do you have that's predictive, that relates to content creation and content updates? Your content management system informs the information, which then informs research, which then informs prioritization.
Also, what tools or data sets do your writers have? What tools do your search engine optimization professionals have? From a tech stack perspective, be thinking about something that's going to ensure that there are no manual processes that are done online out of someone's brain?
First of all, it's not repeatable, it's not scalable. And it's not supported by any sort of data point. So, that's like rolling dice. If you're rolling dice, make sure you know how often you're rolling dice and you're okay with that. You want to make sure that your creative team isn't just doing manual labor on things that they're not good at. A lot of times we're asking writers to do keyword research. We're asking writers to be SEO, and you're asking SEOs to be writers.
We're asking demand gen people to write copy. And none of that stuff should be happening. Doing a process inventory and seeing where you're doing manual labor is step one, step two is to do a process inventory. And are any of your best practices or processes done with ‘if then’ statements, or are they rule-based? Document those things. Those things should be automated and improved with artificial intelligence and machine learning. And that's what makes people's eyes glaze over. But that's the reality, nothing you do will matter, if it's not optimized.
So, basics for a CMO? How do you decide on what you're going to write, create or update? What are you using data for? What data points are you using? How are you qualifying leads? Are you doing it predictively with AI? Are you doing it manually with rules? How are you measuring your lead nurturing campaigns? How are you measuring the performance of your newsletters or things like that? How much of that is manual? You've got to figure that out.
The outcome is going to be that you don't have people doing work that is suboptimal or more like a dice roll. When you get to that point, you get a unification between the teams, because they all then want to contribute. Everybody wants to jump on the bus when it's super successful. You'd be really excited and interested to hear that our content team bats at 50%, right?
Well, guess what. A lot more people on your team are gonna want to give you content ideas in that instance. They're gonna want to be part of this process. Maybe your CEO wants you to interview him or her to guide some of this stuff, or update content. Bring the wins to the team and show them that they can be involved.
You're going to end up with a higher quality and more unified group. People think they don't have any time for that. Okay, well, do you have time to talk? Because I can transcribe, I'm a great editor. The point is, how do we get departments around this to push through our wins?
I would just make sure you know how confident you are in the way that your analytics are set up, whether you're using Google Analytics or whatever it is. You need to make sure It's telling you actionable data. And then, if you do need more, start thinking about competitive analysis platforms, content strategy, and content intelligence platforms.
The way that I like to think about it is, if you're investing in more than one headcount, in a particular channel, there's likely a software product that will make that person twice as effective. If I have three writers or content team members, they could probably be made twice as effective, and then they’d be much happier.
Ask all of your team members, if you're a CMO, what are their manual processes? What are the processes that they hate? What are the processes they're doing that they're not good at? Ask for frank responses. What you'll see is that, in a lot of cases, people feel that they need a keyword research tool for search engine optimization. They need a competitive analysis tool. And that's it.
Well, how are you deciding what you're doing next? How are you prioritizing projects? How are you predicting the upside potential of those projects? That's when you start thinking about better tooling and using artificial intelligence to kind of advance the predictive nature of the return on the investment of those things. You can’t set your watch to hopes and gambles. And if you're a business of any size, you shouldn't want to do that.
But as you said at the beginning of this conversation, paid channels give instant gratification, whereas SEO is a slow burn. A lot of CMOs are probably reading this, thinking, "This all sounds great. That's exactly what I do. That's what I want to do with my department."
"I want to bring in these tools, I want to give them the tools to be able to do this stuff. I just can't convince the CEO, or the CFO to finance this to give us the funds to be able to put this into practice." How can they go about doing that?
If you're a brand new site, there's a process that I like to talk through called ‘competitive cohort profiling,’ where we're looking at experiences on other sites, and we’re looking at how successful they've been in order to model how successful we can be.
That can be something you can do if you're a brand new site. Most people aren't in that situation. It depends on how bad your current situation is. If things are really bad, if you're getting no meaningful impact, the thing you want to watch out for is, “it’s not relevant to our industry.”
Guess what? You're not special. So sorry. We're not special, right? Everyone needs to be doing this. There isn't an exception, even if it's just focusing on brand or branded placements.
If someone says, “this isn't for us, we're just focused on brand.” Okay, well, you need to focus on brand search engine results and page Influence as well as brand. If somebody's saying this isn't going to work for us, and it's all about branding, their branded search is probably a mess. For people that are resistant, it’s important for them to see that the people coming to the site are not doing what you want them to be doing.
And that can be a real big cringe moment, like throwing a big splash of cold water into someone's face. Watching people use your website, or use your application is a real good way to do it.
The best product person in the world can be brought to their knees and in tears when you watch enough people use something in a sub-optimal way. It's like yelling at the screen in a horror film. That’s where I think that heads can be shaped.
Another one is to show other experiences in that buyer journey, right? Let's say you're in a B2B tech business, and you’re showing them a buyer journey that doesn't involve you. But it's about you. Maybe they're going to G2 to learn about you. Maybe they're looking at a competitor who's put together a competitive analysis. Maybe they're learning about how to do something from somewhere else. How do you expect us to be there at the bottom of the funnel if we weren't there for them to be at the top of the funnel?
How do you expect us to be the one that gets the sale when we weren't exhibiting expertise before they knew they had a problem? And that question resonates. Why do you think we deserve to win? Why do you think that this is going to be their purchase decision when we haven't informed it? And that's what shapes heads. They recognize that writing an article that defines CRM isn't going to convert $100,000 software sales, but it's really important for Salesforce to own that. And you can take that to the bank.
Getting over your assumptions
It sounds like the biggest problem is making assumptions about your customer, making assumptions about how they behave, making assumptions about your own worth, as a brand and organization.
You might think your product is so good, you don't need SEO. But how do you know that your product is good? How can your customers trust that your product is good? And that's when content and SEO comes in.
Yeah, I mean, that is a marketing channel. But it's also a marketing channel that can be supported so dramatically by search. Let's say you have a thriving community of customers, right? There are creative ways to take that beautiful situation and turn it into great things, from marketing to inspiring virality, meaning you're a buyer or someone who has enough incentive to tell their friends in some either manual or automated way.
There's a thing called a Z coefficient. Any CMO needs to know this. You want to create campaigns that have that. Don't rest on your laurels. With companies that get 80% of their sales based on paid channels, that's super risky. 80% of their traffic and conversions come from organic traffic. It's super risky. You're missing a piece of that journey. You should be thinking about untapped user-generated content. It's like a wallet where, every time you open it up, there's a $20 bill in there. And you're not taking advantage of that?
So, how do you turn community management into content inspiration? I was just having this conversation with a jewelry company I work with, and they have a 100,000 person Facebook group.
They said they don't invest in content. But they do have content, they’re just not using it. That's even worse. You're not getting any secondary value from that. So, when someone goes and looks for a carat engagement ring, they find four of your competitors and not you. And you've got this thriving Facebook group. Good for you!
User-generated content is so powerful. It's one of the most trusted forms of content for B2B buyers. For B2C, everyone seems to trust user reviews more than they do with traditional press or internal content. Having a content strategy that's backed up by UGC is really powerful. That's a very powerful thing.
The common misconception is that those entities don't invest in search and content. Those entities are not solely UGC. They invest in the buyer journey, they invest in ways to get the most out of those UGC items. Think about the Amazon FBA market. It's one of the most thriving industries in the world.
I think there's been something on the order of like $100 billion in venture investment in that space. A great deal of the sites that power those are review sites and product sites. Where's the revenue coming from? Many of the most popular publishers come from writing journalistic review content, not just user requests or user-generated content. So, what are you doing in that space? What is your business doing to invest in those things?
Do you need a certain number of leads from this? Cool. Write it down. Set that bar, and then go invest in ways to get there. There are searches under-invested in, because the perception is that it's hard. The perception is that it's not for us, or that it yields low-quality user experiences.
And none of those things are true. Those things are true if you plan to do this and then crash. You hear about case studies that claim to have these hot tricks in the search game. Here's the trick you need to do today, right? But sites that use these often skyrocket and then crash. That trick is all that's employed. You don’t hear about them when they crash.
You're building a compound interest formula. If you've got an existing site, sometimes you can find some quick wins, and those quick wins are going to be really, really obvious after someone tells you what they are. But it might be a page that just needs to be updated, or where you have existing authority. In that case, you already own this space because of all the work you've done. Those are going to be your quick wins.
It's a long-term investment, but if you've got an existing brand or an existing site, there are probably a few low-hanging fruit things out there that you can knock out to illustrate that this is worth investing in quickly. It's not just foundation building. I mean building foundations is boring, right?
It's about the decorations, it's about the kitchen. A lot of times, it's as simple as updating a few pages. Sometimes it requires a little bit more work, sometimes it requires a lot of work. But just take that into consideration. It's not really about that short-term gratification. If you need it, though, there's probably a few things you can get away with.
In some cases, there's a lot of things. If your site's been through 10 migrations, and you haven't focused on search, or you just switched to CMS and you didn't have somebody managing that migration, there's a lot of instant gratification that doesn’t require that much effort.
Like what you heard from Jeff? Don't miss his appearance at our CMO Summit on May 11th. Get your ticket now!
Have you got questions on how to improve your SEO, while keeping that human element? Maybe you've got advice of your own to share? Join the conversation on the CMO Alliance Community Slack channel, today!