Perspective is Everything: what SEO can learn from Rory Sutherland at TEDxAthens

First, I recommend you watch this brilliant talk from Rory Sutherland: ‘Perspective is Everything’.

As you’ll know, SEO has its own identity problems: trust issues with clients and with Google, misinformation and ignorance, and suggestions of alchemy and secrets. Just like the Royal Mail example, in an effort to (literally) over optimise, we’ve done damage to the perception of SEO.

Our clients wanted sales growth. We gave them spam, Panda and Penguin. In short, we’ve missed the wood from the trees and done a terrible job of marketing our marketing.

I was lucky enough to meet Rory a few days ago and in our brief conversation, he said that he thought search and UX were the most exiting digital disciplines to work in right now. So, here’s a series of quotes from Rory’s talk above and some practical ideas on how we can apply them to search to make things better.

The power of re-framing things cannot be understated…a change of posture can be the difference between winning and losing…I propose that we use psychology to solve problems that don’t exist

So how can SEOs re-frame what we do to get around our perception issues?

  • The issue of a rebrand has been banded around for a while. Some agencies have re-branded or started as ‘social-led’ or ‘content-led’ search agencies or as digital / inbound, etc, etc marketing. Google’s aim for search is making old SEO a redundant practice – they’re working to be able to recognize and reward better marketing via better webpages, branding, copywriting, etc, etc. All the old tricks have come back around.
  • As far as I am concerned, it’s not a nice-to-have but a necessity for survival of SEO that we re-frame SEO as a marketing function, especially as I consider it far easier for a comms agency to recruit some SEOs and start doing SEO well than it is for a SEO agency to recruit some comms people and start marketing. So why aren’t SEOs more forthcoming with converging with PR, marketing and comms disciplines? We need those skills now too. Ultimately we’re all in the business of attracting attention.

I think SEOs could benefit from working more closely with marketers and:

  • Better prove their value to decision makers with better ROI calculations and methods of proving it learned from marketers
  • Apply marketing principles to become better at attracting attention
  • As search campaigns become more integrated with marketing, multiply the effect each has
  • Cross and up sell opportunities are greater when you’re good at both
  • Frame search in a way that is meaningful to other people in the client’s business beyond the marketing team
  • Help us survive where our output is not all about the tangible – especially as we’re less able to use rankings, a digestible way of understanding search, to sell SEO now with search results becoming less static

If we don’t change, I think SEO is ‘at-risk’ of redundancy.

Only take on clients who are already good

  • Does taking on clients with effective marketing mean that they will naturally perceive SEO to be working better than one whose marketing is in disarray despite the actual results?
  • Is this ethical? I don’t really know, but it is probably a smart decision to make if you run an agency and you can afford to pick and choose (if that’s the case, get in touch – I want to know your secret!).

The circumstances of our lives actually matter less to our happiness than the sense of control we feel over our lives

So, what psychological solutions can we apply to search clients to give them the perception of more control and keep them happier?

  • I think we need to package results better. In a way that shows a marketing perspective so the marketer client feels we’re working on the same vision. Let’s be less single-minded about link quantity, traffic numbers, etc. We talk less about impressions, brand equity and loyalty than we should, for example.
  • I often hear people say they don’t know where their money’s going. How about coaching clients on SEO resource distribution and then letting them control the sliding scale on what goes where? Although there is a client education issue in some cases, this re-frames the budget as within their control. Literally – like, “this month, how many percent of the time do you want your account team working on outreach, content production, etc”.
  • Make each area meaningful grouped under ‘branding (brand terms and competitor keywords), partnerships (link building), etc, etc – that way they feel they have control and the budget is spent on marketing – and are more closely linked to their personal objectives. If you have a client on the cusp of leaving, what do you have to lose?
  • Considering the toll example. Changing the context of the fees paid: if with each project, the SEO taught the client something, say, about marketing, or about SEO, or about their own market or competitors – they get a personal value from the relationship – something I have always believed is important in b2b marketing. This is intel. that they can use towards their own personal motivations – getting promoted, appearing smarter, competitive advantage, whatever. Just value.

Improve the context in which something can be enjoyed and you add real value

  • I love Rory’s Eurostar example. Equally, in SEO – for a portion of the money spent on, say link building – could you spend less and get a senior individual to call the client once a month or alternate months, instead? I don’t do the maths where I work but I am sure you catch my drift. Making them feel important and valued. It’s simple but an issue that still arises in SEO.

When you solve problems look at all three of these equally [technology, psychology, and economic solutions]

  • What is interesting is the suggestion of technical and rationality and creative being somehow incompatible. I have to disagree. That’s exactly why I love marketing – you get to be apply rationale and creativity to one vision.This is truer in SEO – on one project you can apply technical knowledge, say, using RegEx, and create a linkbait concept that requires creative thinking too. There are people out there who are good at both (after all, creativity and resourcefulness in problem solving are the same thing) but you just need to pay more to recruit them.
  • Finding a sweet spot in SEO client happiness that considers technological, psychological and economic solutions – could we use some kind of update toolbar, etc that notifies clients as their traffic grows, they get a ranking increase, or new link on their site?

Google is based on a good psychological insight. People believe that something that only does one thing, is better than that thing that something that does that thing and something else…Google knew that if you’re just a search engine, people will assume your a very good search engine….everyone else was trying to be a portal

  • Could Google be shooting itself in the SERP by trying to be too good at social, search, email and er…cars?
  • I know this has already been mentioned by Larry Page when he talked about scaling back the number og projects but it brings me back to the release of G+ and SPYW. My initial thoughts were “won’t bring down Facebook or LinkedIn”, and  others said the same too. I felt that Google don’t have the human touch for something as emotional as social networking. But I realise that Facebook is trying to be all things to everyone too. So I guess it’s just a natural progression – tech companies get itchy feet. Let’s hope they don’t all shoot themselves in the foot.

If SEO becomes a marketing function, how we avoid the goal dilution problem?

  • I think the solution to this will also wrap up some other issues too. Let’s talk about linking SEO and marketing metrics and standardizing them. We need to build faith in SEO metrics. This helps our proposition be clearer and help us focus on the goal despite constant tactic change.

Chunking…the likelihood that someone will get to the end is greater when there is a milestone in the middle

  • With those SEO metrics standardized and wrapped up in marketing (the client’s language), create milestones for your clients where you review how those targets have been smashed. For example, a ‘basic, intermediate and advanced’ free SEO training milestone helps to address issues of client misinformation, re-frame the fee paid with a personal benefit, helps you build rapport with the client, and if booked in at take-on, provides milestones that help you reduce attrition. It changes the frame of reference of the “dubious value” that changes the “context in which the primary value can be enjoyed”. I haven’t tried it yet, but it definitely something I’ll be putting forward to my boss. For more on chunking:

What something is…is a function not only of its amount, but also of its meaning….one creates the primary product….the other creates the context in which we can enjoy that product…we tend to think of two types of value – ‘real value’ and ‘dubious’ value

  • By wrapping up our standardized SEO metrics with marketing, we can help SEO hold more meaning to the CEO / decision maker, FD, etc. As Rory says that value should be treated as equally as the actual ‘real’ value. Let’s work on finding tangibles and angles that impress the senior individuals that pull the purse strings (a simplistic example being having the CEO’s profile rank for [long-tail, low effort] vanity terms, or showing more meaningful stats on competitor SEO performance and budgets).
  • I also recommend Chelsea Blacker’s presentation from Brighton SEO, entitled ‘Sell the sizzle, not the search’.

People feel logic is its own answer…we artificially prioritize mechanistic ideas over creative ideas

  • Rory asked – why don’t technical people show their calculations to crazy people before they roll with them? I would love to see this is practice so any examples you have seen, or more explanation, especially in the context of search – please submit any thoughts in the comments below.
  • I want to close by iterating one of Rory’s quotes to consider in the context of search:

If your perception is much worse than your reality, why on earth are you trying to change the reality?


Akshully, I work for Twitter

Thanks for reading this post. I have actually been a content marketing volunteer for Twitter for several years as @1uella. If you found value in this, I would love a follow, tweet, comment, link, like, plus, digg, etc, etc. You know what to do. Karma will find you.