Posted on: November 15, 2023
Do you think that search engine optimization is all about keywords? Think again.
Dale Bertrand, Founder and President of SEO agency Fire&Spark, is on a crusade to change how we think about SEO. “It’s not about keywords,” he says. “It’s about understanding customers.”
Dale believes that most SEO practitioners take an approach that fails to drive business results, which is why SEO engagements often fail after the first few months.
“SEO is synonymous with rankings,” he says, referring to getting content to “rank” or appear higher on the list of search engine results for a certain keyword. “But that just doesn’t necessarily deliver the business impact that clients are looking for.”
He recommends shifting your focus from keywords to conversions. A conversion is the outcome you want users to take after reading your content, whether that’s buying a product, requesting a demo or enrolling in a course. “At the end of the day, it’s those conversions that matter for SEO,” Dale says, adding that “the business impact is really coming from generating revenue, sales or signing up new customers.”
On episode 239 of The PR Maven® Podcast, I spoke with Dale about the relationship between SEO and PR, what makes a great SEO campaign and how artificial intelligence is changing SEO.
SEO and content marketing 101
As a PR person, I’ve always depended on the media to create content for my clients. I pitch stories to the media and hope that they tell them to their audiences through television, radio, newspapers or magazines.
But content marketers like Dale create their own audiences, such as website visitors or email marketing recipients. “PR people are focused on pitching publishers that already have a wide audience and getting them to write about your remarkable clients,” he explains. Content marketers, instead, are focused on content “that will persuade and convert visitors into customers and buyers.”
SEO plays a vital role in getting audiences to see that content. Experts like Dale try to create content that appears in Google search results. As Dale explains, Google ranks content based on two factors: relevance and authority.
To gauge whether your content is relevant, Dale says, Google watches your behavior when you click on search results. “It wants to see people spending time on your site and not just bouncing back to Google and clicking on a different result.”
Authority proves to Google that your content is accurate and trustworthy. “Authority is all about real-world relationships,” Dale explains. “Do people come to your website and engage with it? Do you have backlinks from high-authority publications that confer an endorsement?” He notes that PR can play a vital role in SEO by getting you links from trusted publications, which increases your authority in Google’s eyes.
Forget rankings and focus on intent
After more than 15 years of crafting campaigns for global brands such as Nestle, Citizen Watch and ExxonMobil, Dale has been at the forefront of many changes in SEO. In the past, he says, you might look for the keywords that people search the most often and create content to rank for those keywords. “That’s old-school SEO,” he says — and it won’t lead to business results.
Nowadays, savvy SEO specialists focus on so-called “high-intent keywords,” which are the terms people use when they’re trying to buy something. For example, someone looking to buy diapers might search “diaper size medium.”
“If I’m an SEO agency and my whole plan is to target the word ‘shoes’ so I rank number one for that word … man, that is the wrong strategy in 2023,” he says. “It’s the wrong strategy to rank in Google, to drive the right traffic that’s going to convert.”
For high-impact SEO, get creative and cultivate ‘customer intimacy’
Conversion-focused SEO campaigns require you to ask about customers, not keywords. When Dale starts working with a new client, he interviews their customers. If that’s not possible, he talks to their sales team. He asks questions like: What are their customers’ biggest pain points? What information do they need to make a purchase? Why did they buy from you and not a competitor?
Armed with this knowledge — which Dale calls “customer intimacy” — you can create content that answers their queries. “The better you understand your customers, the easier it’s going to be for you to write the type of information that Google is looking for,” he explains.
Conversion-focused content doesn’t always mean blog posts, either. Dale has found success with formats such as comparison pages and Q&A-style content. “It’s a better approach for a lot of brands than blogging,” he says, “especially when the goal isn’t rankings, it’s new customers.”
The future of SEO in an AI world
Dale is confident that focusing on customers and conversion will only become more important as both Google and content marketers increase their use of AI. He explains the three main use cases for AI in content marketing and SEO:
- Google uses AI to understand both queries and content on the Internet so it can figure out which results to show.
- Google is also starting to use generative AI (the technology behind ChatGPT) to answer complex queries.
- Marketers are using generative AI to produce their content.
Dale, who studied AI in grad school, knows that last point is controversial. “Before any writers out there drive over to my office and slap me across the face, we’re not talking about generating long-form content with AI,” he jokes.
He doesn’t think that AI is going to be able to generate thought leadership, nor will it replace PR people. “You’re not going to replace someone who goes back 30 years with a publication or journalist with AI,” he points out. But he’s excited for how AI can help content creators research and brainstorm long-form content, and even generate short-form content such as social media posts and meta descriptions for SEO.
Dale points out that the use of AI in content marketing and SEO is shifting rapidly. He recommends the Marketing AI Institute’s podcast for news and actionable advice on using AI in marketing. No matter how the content marketing industry evolves, though, Dale believes that focusing on customers is the key to success in SEO.
This is based on episode 239 of The PR Maven® Podcast, a podcast hosted by Nancy Marshall. Weekly interviews feature industry leaders, top executives, media personalities and online influencers to give listeners a peek into the world of public relations, marketing and personal branding. Subscribe through Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.