The Art And Science of SEO

As we move full steam ahead into 2015, I recently had the opportunity to sit down and review a detailed analysis of our 2014 SEO client performance across a variety of industries, company types, sizes and goals — ranging from local family-owned businesses to Fortune 100 companies. I am extremely grateful for the broad spectrum of clients Noble Studios partners with, as it has provided me with a high level view on the state of search engine optimization in 2015, and where it is headed in the future.

Rather than speculate on the importance of specific tactics, such as structured data or mobile usability (which are both really important), I’d like to focus this post on something even more critical. It’s a characteristic I’ve seen again and again in the best internal teams and SEO agencies that are not only succeeding, but are absolutely thriving in this complex and constantly evolving space. What is this amazing characteristic, you ask? It’s actually quite simple, at least conceptually.

Drum roll please… In 2015, the best SEO agencies and internal teams have found an ideal balance between the art and science of SEO. This statement is admittedly a little abstract, and for those of you thinking “What does that even mean?,” I’d like to elaborate a little.

SEO as a Science

There is very much a hard science behind the techniques for optimizing a website for maximum visibility within organic search results. Search Engine Land has done an excellent job articulating the key elements for improving SEO results within their Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors. Other great sites such as Moz and Search Engine Watch also have developed their own model of the most important factors for great search engine placement. The challenge is that this knowledge alone will only get you so far. In fact, I would argue that many poor SEO programs are managed by individuals and teams with strong knowledge of the textbook elements of search engine optimization. This is another reason why many web developers feel that they’re perfectly equipped to manage SEO for their organization (almost always a bad idea). So, what gives? If I memorize the periodic table, read a bunch articles on SEO techniques and then start implementing changes to my website, why am I not seeing my desired results?

The Art of SEO

The reason for their lack of sustained impact, in my opinion, is that SEO is as much an art form as it is a science. I want to be very clear: does this mean that SEO should be viewed as some black box set of secret techniques that only a few lucky individuals know? Absolutely not. What I would suggest is that optimizing websites in the real world is complex, with competing factors and shifting priorities. This cannot be learned simply be reading up on general “textbook” techniques. What works well for one client may work less well (or not at all) for another. That being said, there are distinct patterns that can been seen based on the organization’s industry, size of the website, code structure, content, etc. But, this is something that has to be learned and mastered over time.

An analogy I would use is to compare this to learning a martial art. Martial arts, in general, are very much a science. There are a set number of techniques to learn (a curriculum), a defined system of procedures to onboard them (drills) and ongoing testing to validate the level of knowledge (belt testing). During martial arts training, the student learns these new techniques and improves their knowledge of the specific curriculum. What happens far too often is that when one of these students has to rely on their learned martial arts techniques in a real world self-defense situation they find that they are ineffective. What gives? Does that mean that the martial art they learned doesn’t work?

The challenge that students face when attempting to implement learned martial arts techniques into a real world self-defense situation is that the techniques learned in the training environment do not fit perfectly into this new environment. The speed is faster, the distances are different and they have more adrenaline flowing through their body. In other words the techniques as learned in training can no longer be counted on. What is the solution to this? Training and experience. Someone practicing martial arts for an extended period of time learns how to adapt these general techniques for a variety of situations. The variables could be a new environment, their age, a physical limitation or specific attributes of their adversary. In doing this, they are illustrating the “art” of martial arts by creating new techniques in real time to address inputs from the data there are receiving. This same concept holds true in marketing, and specific to this article, in SEO.

With that, I’d like to challenge you to bring more “art” into the implementation of your SEO tactics. Refine your techniques and create new ones by adapting to the unique situations you find yourself in.

The following are three tips we’ve learned at Noble Studios to help you get started.

1. Master the Fundamentals
Bruce Lee famously said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” In order to elevate to a level of artistry in anything, it is absolutely essential that you master the fundamentals. This involves first learning the proper techniques and then practicing them over and over again. How do you “practice” SEO? If you work for an agency, one way is to use your company’s website as a beta environment for validating new techniques. If that’s too risky, then perhaps you have access to a personal website for testing. There are also situations where clients actually enjoy being on the leading edge of marketing strategies and will gladly participate (in a controlled fashion) in testing a new technique. The key is to be transparent with the client and create guardrails to minimize risk. The message here is that you need to know the “science” like the back-of-your-hand and have enough repetitions to know what works in different situations and how to adapt on the fly.

2. Develop Process Excellence
This may seem contradictory. How can developing more structure lead to more creativity? As mentioned earlier, SEO is complicated. It requires competitor research and analysis, the interpretation of analytics data, keyword research and content creation and strong technical skills. Often times, this expertise lies within several individuals, which requires the management of timing, communication and documentation. By establishing a rock solid process around SEO implementation, the time and energy wasted by worrying about specific tasks getting done on time and the deliverable quality, energy can be focused on more import things, like major milestones. It also frees up mental space to allow the mind to be creative. I read a good book on this recently that recommends systematically scheduling time to allow yourself to “be creative.” Give it a read. At Noble Studios, we have spent two years refining our keyword discover process. I can tell you that after that investment, it is dialed in and the team is producing amazing results for clients. That being said, we are not done and continuously look for ways to improve.

3. Make Data the Foundation
What’s the key to improving anything? You guessed it, knowledge of results. As human beings, we are inherently biased on the quality and impact of our own efforts. Yes we are working hard, but are we driving the greatest impact possible for our clients or company? Truly answering this question is where data comes in. At Noble, we create a hypothesis, execute strategies and tactics, document, and then measure the impact of these efforts. How did specific techniques impact the overall site’s organic search traffic? Did specific targeted pages or keywords improve in ranking? Have we driven an increase in revenue from organic search? These are all vital questions to ask. We are fortunate to be a certified partner agency for Brightedge, a best in class SEO management and reporting tool that provides detailed data on the impact of our efforts not only for our clients, but also competitive data to see how these improvements compare to competitors and the industry as a whole during the same period of time. This is vital. Be creative and then rely on your data to either validate what you’ve done or give you clues for how to do it better next time.

Are you an “artist” in SEO or any other digital marketing techniques?

How have you gotten there and how do you stay there?