Setting Realistic Expectations for SEO

Episode #028: Devin Pickell, Growth Marketer at Nextiva

As marketers, we all want instant gratification. But how do you balance that with SEO? Short answer: dedication, time, and strategy.

In this episode, we chat with Devin Pickell, Growth Marketer at Nextiva. He has more than five years of marketing experience and previously held roles at G2, Sphere Software, Jerry Thomas Public Relations, and Around Media Group. 

We’re talking about why you should invest in SEO today, balancing the need for instant gratification and the long-term play of SEO, link building, and so much more.

Stephanie's Strong Opinions

  1. We all love instant gratification, but good things take time. SEO is all about the long-game. 
  2. Reach out to your network to start link-building. It shouldn’t always be a cold email.
  3. You don’t have to have a huge budget to invest in SEO. Get people on your team to prioritize creating assets.

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Episode Transcription

Stephanie Cox: Welcome to Real Marketers where we hear from marketers who move fast, ask forgiveness, not permission, obsessing about driving results and are filled to the brim with crazy ideas and the guts to implement them. This is not a fireside chat and there’s absolutely no bullshit allowed here. And I’m your host, Stephanie Cox. I have more than 15 years of marketing experience and I’ve pretty much done about everything in my career. I believe speed is better than perfection. I use the Oxford comma. I love Coca- Cola. I have exceptionally high standards and surround myself with people who get shit done. On this show, my guests and I will push boundaries, share the real truths about marketing and empower you to become a real marketer. As marketers, we want instant gratification. And if we’re honest, so do our bosses, regardless of what level we’re at. Everyone wants marketing to deliver results immediately. But, how do you balance that with SEO, which is definitely not a short- term game? It’s a long- term play that takes a lot of dedication, time and strategy to really make an impact, and that’s what we’re talking about today. In this episode, we chat with Devin Pickell, growth marketer at Nextiva. He has more than five years of marketing experience and previously held roles at G2, Sphere Software, Jerry Thomas Public Relations and Around Media Group. We’re talking about why you should invest in SEO, balancing the need for instant gratification and the long- term play of SEO, link building and so much more. Thanks for joining me today.

Devin Pickell: Yeah, I’m a super happy to be here. Thank you for having me.

Stephanie Cox: So first question, tell me something about yourself that few people know.

Devin Pickell: All right, so this is a good one. So I live in Chicago. You live in Indianapolis, I’m sure you’re very aware of Lake Michigan, but I don’t really like swimming and a lot of people don’t really know why. I’m not one to like jump in the water, or do cannonballs or anything like that. I tend to shy away from water, so there’s a reason for that. I really do not like water. When I was like younger, I was at a birthday party, and we were doing a group picture, and I was like underwater, and I was accidentally kicked by someone and I like low key, kind of almost drowned. So…

Stephanie Cox: That does not sound low key if you kind of almost drowned.

Devin Pickell: I was like… I vividly remember like the light, and then me reaching up to grab someone. And yeah, since that point… That was seventh grade, so since that point, I really do not mess with water. I’ll hang out by the beach, but yeah, everyone who knows me, that’s like kind of the reason why, so.

Stephanie Cox: I feel that’s a super valid reason.

Devin Pickell: Yeah. Out of all the phobias, this one was like caused by something. So, it’s not like everyone hates insects, and bugs and stuff, but yeah, this was brought on by something. So, yeah.

Stephanie Cox: I totally get that. So, one of the things that I’m really excited to talk to you about today is all things SEO related. So, I think maybe for us to get started, can you just give every one of my listeners a quick synopsis of what SEO in 2021 really means?

Devin Pickell: Yeah. So, I think just to give a little backstory of that, I would say 2020 really marked a year in where SEO was truly exposed as a thing, that small businesses all the way up to enterprises, could really benefit from. We were all forced to… Because of quarantine and being stuck inside, like how do you discover a local business? You can’t really walk around and you see a shop and,” Oh, let me go in and see what’s up.” You really had to take to the internet, take to Google or whichever search engine you prefer, and had to discover your local businesses. So for SEO in 2021, I think it’s just going to be compounded of how important it is to have that digital footprint, whether you’re a local business who sells coffee, whether you’re a professional services company, whether you’re a marketing agency. It really…. Like 2020 has truly exposed how important SEO is, even though it is that long play, you can’t shy away from it. So, yeah.

Stephanie Cox: So, thinking about that and it is important, but it also is like that long game. I think sometimes marketers, and I know I’ve been guilty of this myself, you want instant gratification. Consumers want instant gratification. I want to do something and see immediate results. But, SEO doesn’t work like that. So, how do you get people to understand why they need to invest in SEO? And, that they’re not going to see results like tomorrow or in a week, that it’s going to be four weeks, six weeks, eight weeks, a year from now, before some of that really pays off, but you have to do it in order to start to drive a cost effective channel for your business.

Devin Pickell: Yeah. But, that’s the most common criticism of SEO is that, it takes too long. How do I really get it off the ground? I’ve been investing in it for six months and I’m not really seeing any tangible results? And, I always like to hark back to you’re running a Google search on your phone, on your laptop. Many of the searches now today, SEO’s is much more accessible than it was say a decade ago. So, people have a better grasp on it. But, many of those top 10 searches in some way were influenced by good SEO. There’s always going to be random results that you’re probably like,” How did this even get in here?” But, SEO is that long play and it is hard to convey the value right away. Because like you said, you’re not going to get those results upfront in most cases. If you do have a strong domain, and then I’m sure later we’ll talk about domain rating, and scores and all that. If you have a strong domain, you could rank pretty quickly if you know what you’re doing. But, SEO in a way is those free results, free with quotations around it, because you have to pay for a SEO employee who knows what they’re doing, the tools that are involved with it. But yeah, I guess it’s a tough question because, I know especially at startups, you want those results quickly. But, would you rather throw that money at Google Ads and not really see any return, and get outbid by companies who could actually afford that? Or would you rather invest in a SEO and have some evergreen content that eventually funnels people onto your site for minimal dollar amount?

Stephanie Cox: So, let’s say I get everyone on board with the idea that SEO needs to be a channel for our business long- term. How do I even know what to do to get started? Because, I think one of the things that people don’t understand about SEO, at least, marketers I’ve talked to in the past, you have a bucket of marketers that really get what SEO is, and they know how to write content for it. And then, you also have a bucket of marketers who maybe believe that I’ll just write good content and SEO will just happen, without having maybe a strategy behind it. So, if you’re coming into a company with the goal of helping really create SEO as an ongoing channel, what’s the first thing that you do?

Devin Pickell: I would say to show that value right away is to, if you can get access to a tool and there are free and freemium tools out there, show what sort of a search volume is around competitive terms in your industry. So for example, I’m at a company called Nextiva. We’re in the VoIP industry. You’re going to see anywhere from 60 to 80, 000 search terms a month, just for a single term. It’s incredibly competitive. And, if you want any chance to even rank for that, you need to invest in SEO for the long- term, because these are the searches that people are doing when they hit a search engine. These are the discovery terms that, that’s really what SEO is. And a lot of companies, I would say if you’re trying to convey the value of SEO, don’t set any unrealistic expectations up front. The funny saying in SEO really is like, it depends like it’s very noncommittal. So, you can’t set those unrealistic expectations up front, it’s hard to put a time stamp on when to expect results. But, there’s plenty of companies who’ve been able to build their brand solely off of SEO. I would say one of the companies that comes to mind is Ahrefs, where they have like a fully content first approach, SEO first approach.

Stephanie Cox: What does that mean for people who aren’t familiar with a full content SEO first approach? Like, what’s the difference between that and maybe the opposite?

Devin Pickell: So, I’m trying to think of, what would the opposite of a SEO first approach would be, probably a PPC first approach, where you’re just throwing money at ads. SEO first approach, it’s really compiling the competitive key terms in your industry, and then going off of what the complimentary searches are for that. It’s also investing in asset creation. So, a huge part of SEO is link building. So, for people who are SEO novices, Google sees links and backlinks as super valuable that passes link equity, link score from one site to another. Say, if I get a link from the Washington Pos on my website, a really strong domain has great authority, that link is going to basically signal to Google, all right, this is an authoritative website, you should see some boosting in your rankings from that. So, link building is a huge part of it, but you have to build assets that people actually want to link to, whether that’s a really awesome infographic. We see a lot of like data storytelling now, which is super linkable. Basically, you have teams of SEO and content creators working with data people too… I’m sure you’ve seen or you’ll see like these buzz feed type of pieces every now and then of which office character are you. So, like interactive content quizzes. So, SEO isn’t just like blog content. It really does span across a lot of types of content that we consume today. So, that is that content first approach is just, you have the more technical in the trenches doing the keyword research, and finding the competitive terms in your industry. But then, you just have to see what sort of content is being created in the space and how can I make it better? How can I make it interactive? People today consume visual content, more interactive content more than they have before. People are spending more time on sites with content that actually makes them engage. So, I would say creating linkable content is part of that content first approach.

Stephanie Cox: So, when you think about figuring out what keywords that you want to start ranking for, how do you know…. Just take it at a really basic level, what do I even do? Like, how do I know what to do? And like you mentioned where there’s, like in the business that you’re at, there might be 60 to 80, 000. How do you start to prioritize that? What would be your recommendation? Do I just go into Keyword Planner and start searching? Or like, how do I start thinking about if I’ve never done this before? How do I start to build out the list of SEO phrases that I want to start ranking for, and then creating the content strategy from that? Like, what does that process look like typically for you? Or what would you recommend?

Devin Pickell: So from a very beginner level, I would say if you don’t have any budget really toward a SEO or keyword tool, to basically list these out for you, I would say just do a Google search. Right now, type in the keyword that is most associated with what you provide. For example, gosh, if I’m a photographer, I would look up a more what you call evergreen terms. So, terms that don’t really lose value over time or lose volume over time, terms that people are always searching for and stay relevant. So, I would run a basic Google search, type in what is or how digital photography works. Something from a very high level that you may think that it’s,” Oh gosh, how can people search this, not know what it is?” But, there’s a lot of people who do search from that. And then, you can go from there. You could see… So, there’s a couple of ways to do this, so you get that really nice evergreen result, that first introductory beginner result. You can immediately look at what the search results are, so there’s the people also ask section, or I think it’s people always ask section, I’d have to look at that. But Stephanie, you know what I’m talking about?

Stephanie Cox: Yep.

Devin Pickell: Those are essentially, yeah, the drop- down supplementary questions. It’s like,” All right, so what is digital product photography?” Typically, I’m imagining the supplementary keywords off the bat that people are also asking for, is how does it work? What are the different types of it? What are some good examples of it? Who are the best digital product photography agencies around me? So, this is a way to start building out content that you could actually start mapping this out just from a Google search result alone. Another way to do it, I would actually just start clicking on the top results, because if a site is showing up on the first page of Google, there’s a good chance that there’s some good SEO behind it. So, these people already know what they’re doing and you can learn immediately from them. Look at some of the headers that they’re covering. Look at some of the blogs that they’re covering. This will inspire you to be begin that content creation process like,” All right, I need to start covering these types of keywords, because Google is rewarding sites that do.” So, you may see a lot of similar duplicate- ish content. And then, it’s just up to you to nail like that really SEO- focused type of content. But then, like I said before, start building out linkable assets, make your content stand out.

Stephanie Cox: I know you talked about link building earlier, and I think one of the things that can be a little overwhelming for people is you mentioned the Washington Post example. How do I get the Washington post or anyone to link to my content? And, I know you’ve been very successful with this in the past. So, I’d love to just dive into what’s your approach. How do you figure out who do you need to link to your content? How do you get them to do that? What does that all look like?

Devin Pickell: Yeah. So, link building, it’s definitely going through a little identity crisis right now, because I’m sure you’ve seen it in your inbox or members on your team has seen it in their inbox of, like,” Hey, I really like X, Y, Z content, I’ve built this similar piece of content, would love for you to link to it.” Where’s the value in that? Why would I as a webmaster want to go in to my content to switch it up, to add your link for literally no value on my end. So, link building in a sense, it’s really going through a transformative phase, because you’re going to want to… A lot of really good link building is reciprocal. So, how I approach link building is first and foremost, I contact people that I’ve worked with in the past to sort of like,” Hey, can I get a favor here or there, you could reciprocate the favor in terms of link building.” That’s probably the easiest. I know its not… That’s like the very most basic advice, but hit up people in your network. Like, these aren’t cold connections. You’re not going to have to scrape a email list and send out to people who don’t even know your name, don’t even know what you look like, or what you provide. Hit up your first connections, see where you can get some favors. And then, you can return those favors down the line in terms of links. From there, maybe your second degree connections. You need to, especially now in COVID and it’s the person- to- person interaction is really limited, start networking online. Send some cold messages, some cold DMs, find out ways to start building those relationships. Something I like to do, I like to get people links ahead of time. Say I’m writing a guest post, and I know like this person at this company just built out this research report, they could probably really use a link to that. Because one, its going to make them look good to their boss, but two, it’ll obviously help them look good in the search results. So, I like to take that proactive step. Even, there’s been times where I’ve done that, and then sent a message to a second degree connection. Like,” Hey, really like the content you guys been working on, I actually included it in a post of mine, would love to connect in the future and see how we could help each other out.” So link building now, it’s used to be so cold years ago, I still get really crappy pitches in my inbox. Like I said, I’m sure-

Stephanie Cox: Every single day.

Devin Pickell: Yes, it’s bad. And, there’s a lot of it out there still. It just doesn’t work. So, you need to build those relationships, make those connections ahead of time. It’s going to make your life so much easier. And, it’s something my team does really well here at Nextiva. We really have the flywheel going with link building. So, I would say that’s the first more basic approach I would take to link building, tap those connections.

Stephanie Cox: So, let’s talk a little about conversion rate optimization. I think everyone knows it. I think everyone knows they should do it. I think a lot of marketers don’t, especially if you’re outside of maybe an e- commerce world. And, the idea of running tests when you’re working for an e- commerce brand, it’s almost like you have to, because that has an immediate impact on cells that you can see pretty rapidly. But, I find a lot of B2B businesses, or even B2C businesses that don’t sell direct to consumer really struggle with conversion rate optimization in terms of just their overall digital presence. So, talk to me a little bit about like, what does CRO really mean and why is it so crucial for businesses and marketers to be doing it?

Devin Pickell: So, CRO really is like the practice obviously of increasing minimally, by fractionally your conversion rates over time. And, this is really just done through a lot of testing, a lot of short sprints, a lot of quick testing, A/ B testing. There’s a lot of nice tools out there. I’ve used VWO in the past. There’s a tool called ClickFlow, which is a little more inexpensive, a little more accessible. And I would say, so where my experience with conversion rate optimization stems from is more copywriting. In the SaaS world, you’ll see it a lot. I’ve seen some really poor copy on websites, copy that almost really confuses the reader. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve landed on the site and I’m already past the first fold. I’m like,” All right, what does this company actually do?” They could use conversion rate optimization. They could use that testing. They could really benefit from a copywriter who understands how to speak to that audience, tweak up some of the copy, maybe add a hero image with some really nice product photography beside that copy. show people what you want them to see, run a two week tests on it. See what the click through rate is like. Gosh, you can even go a little further. There’s heat map analysis software, that’ll literally track the clicks on the site and it will provide you with a little screenshot of where people are clicking, how are people engaging on the webpage itself. So, I would say some of the best CRO I’ve seen stem from just copywriting. You need better copy on the site. More simple copy, I find works in our industry, especially where we cater to a lot of smaller businesses who really just want the value upfront. What do you provide? Just let me know. I’m a believer in show people what you want them to see. Just put it there, you don’t need to mask it and make it look pretty.

Stephanie Cox: Well, that’s one of my favorite pieces of advice, because I think a lot of times, marketers struggle with how to be concise and sometimes that’s because you know your brand so well, you just want to tell everyone all the great things about it. And, other times it’s because someone else in the organization, maybe on the C- suite is pushing, we need to use this type of language. And, it’s the easiest way to kill all opinions is through testing. Testing the hero, testing the homepage copy and with what you have today and another version of what you think it could be. Because then you get data and it can prove, hey, we can see this increase in conversion rates, which does have an impact on the business and it takes away opinions.

Devin Pickell: Yes. Yeah. I would…. Yeah. For companies who are really struggling with CRO and don’t even really know how to approach it, take those minimal tweaks to your site. That could even be so much as you know like all right, we’ve had this pricing module on this landing page for God knows how long, for years, how could you know that you’re really getting the most out of it if you’ve never bothered tweaking it or optimizing it in any way. Maybe you can move it up a little higher on the page, see what the engagement is there. Maybe you can work with the designer to update it. Say if it’s really long, a really long checklist of, all right, this pricing plan offers this and that, maybe shorten that a little bit, work with a copywriter to make it a little more concise. Tweak the CTA buttons. Is the CTA button really vague, learn more now versus something very concise. Book a product tour, take a seven day free trial, something that conveys that value upfront, I’m all about that. I really don’t like the vague product copy that you’ll see on a lot of landing pages still today. So it’s, yeah, taking those very small approaches and doing short tests over time.

Stephanie Cox: So, if you had to give one piece of advice to everyone that wants to invest in SEO and they don’t have the budget to hire someone or an agency to do it, but maybe you’ll allocate 20% of their time a month to SEO efforts. What’s the one or two things that you would tell them, get started here, I know it’s not going to change the world but it’s probably the most important thing, in kind of overall SEO link building, conversionary optimization world?

Devin Pickell: I would say the first and foremost, try to get a team structure that supports SEO. I’m very fortunate to work at a company where we’re very demand gen, marketing, SEO driven, all the way up to the CEO really believes in what we do. But, that’s not like that in a lot of companies. And, I’ve experienced that multiple times at other companies, where you’re constantly fighting for investment, you’re constantly fighting for just buy- in. So, get the team structure you need to, to have effective SEO. I would say if you only could dedicate so much time, maybe you need to be the person who writes, who does maybe some content blogging and copywriting, but you’ll also need some more technical people on your side. Because, when we get into like technical SEO, and page speed, and outdated JavaScript, you’re going to need a technical person. So, someone like a web dev or a engineer, someone on your side to help you with that, have them believe in the purpose of SEO. I would say you would also need, especially now, when I, again, talk about linkable assets, infographics, video creation, animations, you’re going to need a designer on your side. Someone who again, like is not always going to deprioritize SEO, but instead like you have a process in place to build assets. Even if it’s like a custom featured image, you’re going to need that team structure to support you, because then you’re just going to be spinning your wheels. And, you’re going to do what a lot of businesses do; and that’s, they give up too soon on SEO. So really, get the team on hand. There’s a lot of… I mean, gosh, there’s so many great case studies of how SEO has been able to drive business and really be that inbound machine for a lot of businesses. So, get the team on hand. Again, don’t set up unrealistic expectations up front. There’s still a lot of value in all different types of marketing. SEO can’t get it done alone. It’s very rare that it can be the sole driver of business. So, don’t set those unrealistic expectations up front. But even from a brand play, you need to show your C- suite, look at what our competitors are doing. You don’t want to be too competitor obsessed, but if they are showing up organically for basically every result in your industry, every competitive result, that’s a SEO right there. That’s, that long- term investment. So, it’s going to… You’re going to need to create that pain of, we’re not ranking anything for any of the terms in our industry, we need to fight back. We need to go on offense. So, even creating that sense of urgency. Even with the little time you have to spend on SEO, it’s creating that sense of urgency, not giving unrealistic expectations upfront. And, I would say getting a small but powerful team behind you that believes in SEO.

Stephanie Cox: Whenever I talk to someone about SEO, I always find a nugget of something new that I learn. And, my conversation with Devin was not any different. I loved his idea around link building. I know it’s one of those things that as a marketer can sometimes feel really awkward to do, and we’ve likely all been on the receiving end of these random emails that ask if you can link to some site, but there’s a way to do it that’s smart, and I think his idea was really, really good and something everyone can implement. When you want to think about link building, start with your network, start with people you’ve worked with before, reach out to them, if it makes sense to connect your content. I think it’s a really good way to ease in into a link building concept without necessarily doing it from scratch and as a cold outreach. And, it’s something all of us can do today. You’ve been listening to Real Marketers. If you love what you’ve heard, make sure to subscribe, rate and review our podcast. And, don’t forget to tell a friend. All of this marketing goodness shouldn’t be kept a secret.