Candour

Episode 104: SEO expectation management with Billie Geena

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What's in this episode?

In this episode, you will hear Mark Williams-Cook joined by Billie Geena from The SEO Works to discuss how to manage expectations with SEO including:

  • What should you do when others are promising results?

  • Which metrics should be used and avoided for expectation management?

  • How can you manage expectations around zero-click results?

Show notes

Episode 75 - Women in tech SEO https://withcandour.co.uk/blog/episode-75-women-in-tech-seo-with-areej-abuali

Billie Geena's socials https://twitter.com/BillieGeena https://billiegeena.co.uk/

Transcription

MC: Welcome to episode 104 of the Search with Candour Podcast recorded on Friday the 26th of March 2021. My name is Mark Williams-Cook and today we're going to be talking about expectation management. We're going to be joined by a special guest, Billie Geena of The SEO Works, senior account manager, who's going to talk to us about SEO and how we need to be managing client expectations, the problems it can bring up and some different strategies we can use to make sure everyone is happy.

Before we kick-off, I'd like to tell you this episode of Search with Candour is sponsored by Sitebulb. Sitebulb, if you haven't heard of it, is a desktop-based SEO auditing bit of software for Windows and Mac, and it's something I've used for a few years now. We use it in the agency a lot so I absolutely don't mind and love talking about it. I normally go through one different feature each week that I've found particularly helpful or the new features that they bring out all the time. And I wanted to circle back around to, I think one of the features that actually made Sitebulb kind of famous, or at least a feature it's famous for, which is the crawl maps that it produces. So these are the crawl maps, crawl radials, these images of like a bird's eye view of your pages and how they link together.

I've spoken about them before and about how they're a really good way to give a visual overview of how your site links together to see if you've got logical groups of pages, or if you've got endless... So a single path clicks to a page that is, of course, never going to rank. The one thing I wanted to point out that I think people overlook about these crawl graphs is the colouration of them. So they're not just coloured to look pretty, but the most important thing I find on there is apart from it goes from a green to a yellow, depending on the click depth from the start page, it actually highlights non-indexable pages in red and I found this hugely interesting.

So if you do a crawl of a site and suddenly you can see a quarter of it or half of it, or in some cases, 80%, 90% is red, you're actually seeing that you're having all these pages crawled and for whatever reason, they're not indexable, they've probably got a noindex tag. Really interesting when you're looking at managing the crawl budget. And again, a really effective way to get that overview of your site. Sitebulb has got a free trial, and it's actually an extended trial for Search with Candour listeners. You can get it by going to sitebulb.com/swc. No credit card or anything required, you can just download it and give it a go. So I suggest you do.

And today, as I said, we're going to be joined by Billie Geena, who is a senior account manager at The SEO Works in Sheffield. If you haven't heard of her, I actually discovered her through the Women in Tech SEO group. So listeners of the podcast will know we did speak to Areej AbuAli back in episode 75. If you want to find a link to that, you can find it on our show notes at search.withcandour.co.uk. So if you are a woman and you are working or you'd like to work in tech SEO, or any SEO actually, it's a really great group. I actually put this tweet out asking if anyone would like to come on the podcast and really pleased, I've got several guests lined up for you over the next few weeks, but today we are very happy to be joined by Billie. Hello Billie, welcome to the show.

BG: Hi, thank you so much for having me.

MC: Yeah, no problem at all. Billie, do you want to give a quick introduction to yourself, I obviously said you're a senior account manager at SEO Works. So do you want to just tell us a little bit about your SEO background and actually what do you do day-to-day as an account manager there?

BG: Yeah, of course. So like you've said, I'm a senior account manager at The SEO Works. I've been doing SEO officially for actually three years. I said earlier two, but that's a lie. And before that, I was writing content. I was actually writing bereavement notices for a large publication group. So it's a bit weird.

MC: That's super niche.

BG: Yeah, really niche. And I did that for two years. It was a bit all doom and gloom. And now I try to avoid content as much as possible. I'm very much a tech SEO at heart, and I'm really glad I've found that niche for me. Day-to-day, I never have a day that's the exact same. So this week I've been working on automating content, which is something I've not done before. So that was really fun. My job kind of is between speaking with clients, managing their expectations, speaking with the agency I work for, managing their expectations of me. And I can be doing anything from writing meta titles to rewriting a bit of code on the site. I genuinely don't do anything the same two days in a row.

MC: We're going to talk a little bit more about managing expectations in a while and I think it's really interesting the point you've brought up, especially for people working in agencies, you're in the middle of a tug of war between client expectations for what they want, and obviously the agency expectations for what you need to do as well. So we'll touch on that. Can you tell me a little bit more? I didn't know this, I know you had a background before as a copywriter. And my observation is generally people have gone into SEO on the trajectory of their background.

So for instance, my background was always kind of tech stuff. I was interested in programming. I'm an awful writer. I only can get by because things like Grammarly exist. And so naturally that was my trajectory into SEO. I was like, "Oh, hey, tech stuff." So what made you come in from that copywriting side and then think, oh, I'm really interested in this tech side? And do you have any advice for anyone that is maybe doing copywriting? And I know this is a fear of a lot of people that they see that tech stuff and they're like, "Oh, it looks interesting, but it looks really hard."

BG: Yeah. So what happened to me was I was working writing these bereavement notices and I got a lot of phone calls from the bereaved family members saying they can't find these bereavement notices online, they can't navigate the website. And I'd also occasionally just get the odd person phone up and be like, "You posted a news article and I can't find it now. What's happened?" And I was like, this is a bit weird. We want people to find what we're putting out there, so why aren't they? And so SEO wasn't something this publication provider did. So I went on a full-on deep dive and researched and researched SEO and compiled this massive email with hundreds of examples and then backed up with articles and evidence and sent it to the big boss basically saying, "Look, why aren't we doing this?"

And I was so hyped up. I was so excited about everything that I'd researched and done, and then the big boss never responded to me for weeks. And then I just got something along the lines of, "We're not interested in this." And so I quit. I was so set that this would be the thing, and I was like, I want to work on this project if it's accepted and I'd managed to build up enough knowledge for myself to apply for an SEO job and I came in as a copywriter for a children's education publishers. Within six months I kind of went into an SEO training role there and trained up new team members and various writers across the company on how to do SEO. And then I went into an agency and kind of fell into technical.

The way SEO is and there's a lot of logic to it so it's kind of like how my brain works. So it just made sense for me to keep researching. I'm so excited about working smarter and not harder so automation and things like that are things that I'm really into at the minute. I guess my advice is though, if you're not happy with what you're doing at the moment, if you're in a role where you get time to research and study up and develop yourself, do it. Find what you're interested in and don't give up on that. I know in the current climate you can't just quit your job, but do everything you can to position yourself to how you want to be. And don't be afraid of technical stuff. It's scary to start with but in six months time it'll not scare you, you'll be scared of something else. You can keep progressing.

MC: I think it's really good advice. And a lot of people have said the same in terms of finding time, maybe even to just set up your own little sites to practice on. I really liked that you won't be scared of it, but you'll be scared of something else. I think that's a good barometer that you're pushing yourself and learning. Because everything seems difficult, to begin with, I guess. So let's talk about managing expectations. I guess the first most obvious question to ask is why is managing expectations important, particularly for SEO?

BG: I find a lot of clients, or just people that I speak to that are business owners, go into the mindset of, "We'll start doing SEO and we'll rank number one for everything. And we'll do that instantly just by adding keywords." Not so much for clients, but one of my friends who are business owners say that and like, what the hell are you on about? That is not how it works. It's like, yes, potentially can do that, but there's so much more to it. And even if you don't rank number one, if you're on that first page, it's going to help. I like to look at it almost like marginal gains. Don't set yourself to be that number one straight away, work your way up there slowly because that's how it is.

And when you make that change, you might not see that change reflects for three, six, nine months. Hopefully not nine months, but I have seen occasions where it's taken that long. And it gives them more time to plan their resources by setting their expectations so they know what that budget can be for SEO and they know what their team's capacity is if they are going to be helping with that.

Another big thing is as well is setting expectations, a client will start looking for an SEO agency after doing their own research so they'll think they have this vast knowledge and its kind of like, yes, that's great that your researching this, let's make sure you understand everything properly. So then you know what to expect from us and we then can know what we're saying to you isn't going to have you shooting for the stars.

MC: So I think that's quite interesting about clients getting their own knowledge. I spoke about this on a previous podcast with a chap called Daniel Foley Carter and we've talked about clients, that saying about having a little knowledge is dangerous. So Google themselves have a page up about choosing an SEO and they say nobody can guarantee number one rankings, nobody has a special relationship with us. And as we all know, we are kind of at the mercy of Google updates. So yes, although if we follow the guidelines these updates should help us, I've certainly seen, I'm sure you have, what I guess we can call collateral damage, which is people that are doing the right thing and just because they're unlucky, they might get absolutely smashed in an update.

So how can anyone reasonably set expectations in this kind of environment where competitors are doing stuff, Google's changing things, how do we communicate that to clients? Because it sometimes feels like a bit of a cop-out, and this is still me after so many years doing this. I feel like you're almost making excuses being like, okay, well we can do this, but no guarantees. And this is changing. Your competitors might do something and the algorithm might change. So how do you go about that with clients?

BG: I guess there's a few different things we can really touch on with that. So first I think being very clear with a client when you're in that discovery time with them is that SEO isn't a guaranteed formula. There's no cheat sheet that'll tell you how to rank number one for everything. As you said, no one's got that in with Google. I think letting a client know there's a lot of aspects to SEO, that the technical aspects and backlinks are also part of that. So technical is probably the biggest thing for me at the moment because as everyone in the SEO community knows, there's the big algorithm update coming in May. And there's so much fear-mongering about that going around. It's important to tell your clients, as long as they're following the guidelines and aren't doing any blackhat SEO, it's probably not going to drastically affect them straight away.

There's things that we can change and we will change, which will help them and make sure they're not losing rankings, but I think it's important to not get your client too hyped up about something like that. We can worry about these algorithm updates, but just make it clear that yes, something big is changing, but it's not the end of the world. And I'm sure I read the other day, I can't remember if it was at John Mueller or Barry Schwartz that tweeted it, but it was something along the lines of, yes, there's an update coming, but it's not going to be rolled out straight away. The main rollout's coming out in May, but from my understanding of the article was that it's going to be a year down the line till we fully see the effects of that. So we've got a year to keep on adapting. And as long as the client knows that SEO is about the long game, we should be fine and their expectations should be there.

MC: Yeah. So this is all to do with the Core Web Vitals in May coming part of the algorithm. I think I know what you're talking about. I think I saw Martin Splitt talking about this as well and saying how it will be a smaller, small ranking factor to begin with and they may adjust that over time. And the basics here is that good content that matches intent is always going to trump, yes, your page loaded a quarter of a second faster than someone else's, of course, logically as it would. I would quite happily wait for an extra two-tenths of a second if the content's a lot better.

But yeah, you're right, I've seen a lot of, let's say, varying opinions about how much of an impact it's going to be. And certainly, we put out a short video and we did an article for someone else the other week, essentially saying, look, don't worry about it. As long as your speed is fair at the moment, I can't see it having a catastrophic impact. And I think that's from Google's point of view as well. They want to put something into an algorithm and then completely mix up all their search results because that's probably going to be bad for them. I think the slowly, slowly approaches is helpful for them as well.

So here's the pinch point for me. So as responsible practitioners of SEO, as agencies, as freelancers, whoever we are, we know all these things are in play and we've got a fair understanding of how they're going to impact clients. So like you say, we go to clients and we don't over-hype what we can achieve. We let them know it's a long-term game. It's a marathon, not a sprint. Pull out all the anecdotes to try and explain that. And then, of course, there's going to be that company that says, "We'll get you these results in three months." How do we compete? How do freelancers, how do agencies, how do client managers, how do we compete talking to clients when they're having these promises made to them?

BG: I'm in a very unusual, lucky position with this one. The agency I work for, if someone comes back to them and says that they'll be like, "Well, here's the reasoning that's untrue, but if that's something that is a big selling point to you, go for it." Before we did this, I spoke to a couple of team members called Ryan and Tom and they gave me loads of examples of situations where they've just gone with the honest approach, said the client, "Look, that's not how SEO works. We can't guarantee things like that. We can put you in the best possible position, but we're not making any promises to do that." And then the client has gone with that other agency, and then a few months down the line, it's just not working out for them. And the client's found themselves with this other agency in the situations of, "Well, why isn't this working?"

And the agency's almost been like, "Well, this is why, it's your fault," kind of thing. And not taking ownership of things like that. And when they've not met the expectations, the client's left and then come back to us to be like, "Okay, let's try this different approach." Thankfully in all of these, we've been able to help them achieve what they want to do. But I think it's so damaging to promise more than what you can because this client could be so into and really believing in SEO. They're willing to spend so much money on an agency to do this, and one bad agency could put that client off of SEO forever. And we don't want that. So what's the point in lying? Because you're not just damaging your company's reputation by over promising, you're damaging the SEO as a reputation.

MC: Yeah. We've certainly had clients come to us that have been previously burnt by other SEO practitioners. And it does leave them in a difficult situation because then they don't have the required trust to give you sometimes, or they won't commit enough budget that's required because they've obviously been burned previously. And then that does leave them in a difficult position because it won't work without trust and the right amount of time. But I really like that approach and I think it's good advice for freelancers, agencies as well, which is maybe taken, if you can obviously afford to, it's always worth taking the long view to actually getting clients as well and it certainly the approach we take.

I was in a pitch at the beginning of this year where we were asked to do some forecasting and it was for a new site on a new domain. So I didn't really have a lot to go on and I made it clear that essentially it was guessing not forecasting. And I gave a kind of best medium, worst-case scenario. And the feedback I got was that the other agency, at the end of this pitch, I think it was their either normal or worst-case scenario was astronomically higher than my best case one. So at that point, I was just like, "Absolutely go with them if they say they can do that because I don't think I can." So I've of course now set up tracking and monitoring because I want to see how that goes. But I think that's a really good bit of advice not to paint yourself into that corner and end up doing something you know is wrong.

MC: So when it comes to these expectations with clients, I'm always kind of quite an objective person and if you set me an expectation, I want to be able to measure it. Does that mean that when we're setting expectations we always need to be using metrics, numbers, so how can we measure this, or is it a bit more subtle than that?

BG: I think it's both. So I like to put metrics two things, but I don't always tell the client that I've set metrics. I find if you give a client a number they'll fixate. This can be really helpful, it might give you more opportunity to get buy-in, but also opens you up to the, "Well, we were kind of expecting this to happen, why isn't it?" conversations. And no one likes them. But then at the same time, you don't want to go in, in vague. I feel like the worst person, so I'm going to give the typical SEO answer here and say, it really depends.

MC: Yeah, one thing I've noticed is sometimes I've seen people go off-piste with certain metrics. So you mentioned links earlier. We know links are important for SEO. That's an incredibly, I think, complicated topic when you go into it about how do you measure the deliverable of a link? And I've seen people get stuck in metrics around expectations for links, such as we need 12 links per month of this minimum domain authority, trust, flow, whatever they're going to pick. And to me, that then misaligns the agency goals because sometimes if we said, "Oh, we can get this really great link here, but it's going to need lots of time," and then maybe an account manager says, "Well, actually we need to hit our 11 link goal so we can't do that," it's maybe not in the best interest of the client. In terms of that, do you have any examples of what you think are good metrics for SEO campaigns for maybe the short-term or long-term? And is there a difference between short-term metrics and long-term metrics you might use?

BG: Yes. So for the short term, I'll be honest, I probably would never report on actual keyword movements because they're too volatile. If you're on a campaign that's three months long and then it ends and you're not going to hear from them again, there's no point in reporting on those keyword movements. But if a campaign is a year-long, it makes sense because you've had enough time to see if that works and then probably enough time to change your strategy as well in case it hasn't worked. And so it opens you up to much wider views. I like to report on page views like organic page views and not much else. I think there are issues with a lot of other metrics; bounce rate can be a big one for some people.

Literally just yesterday I was helping a colleague out because their bounce rate was at 14% and it was like, I don't know if I trust that, that seems a bit too good to be true. And it turned out there was a navigation issue that looked like people were staying on ages as well as tag manager issues. So we then had to contact the client and say, "Look what we're reporting on here, it's too good to be true. We don't trust what we're saying, and this is why, and we need to change this." And they were like, "Why have you told us that you're doing better than you should be?" And it's just being honest.

Again, you just mentioned DA and backlinks. DA is something I will never mention ever again. I've been burnt once by saying, "Okay, you've got a DA of this and your competitor has got a DA that's 20 points higher than yours, so they're going to outrank you." This was back in my early days. And then for six months, they were obsessed with DA and backlinks. And it was like, oh no, they keep making it worse, keep buying links. And no matter how many links you get, if they're not quality, what's the point in having them? You're just burning yourself here. So I just personally avoid anything other than top-line things.

MC: That's really interesting. Yeah. So keeping some useful metrics behind the curtain, if you like. So I mean, there's a lot of link metrics that we'll use internally because I think they're helpful. And there are endless discussions in the SEO community about, take DA for example, how, obviously it's not something Google directly uses. They're clear about that. But it can be helpful, but it is certainly dangerous mentioning this to clients. And even sites where I've been mentioned on before and I noticed I was in an article and they'd linked out to several places, including Moz actually, and they'd linked to one of my sites, and I noticed they'd no-followed the link to me.

So I emailed them and was just like, Hey, thanks for mentioning me and can I just ask why you singled me out here and no-followed me?" And the response was basically, "Oh, we just no-follow any outbound links to sites that don't have a DA above," I can't remember what it was. It was just some random DA number. And I carefully replied being like, "Well, can you just do it because that doesn't mean anything?" And I didn't get it removed in the end, but I found that really frustrating because again, that's where someone's heard a metric and it's just being applied in the most nonsense fashion.

So recently there has been some, by recently, I mean the last few days, so I'm not expecting well-formed opinions on this. There's been a lot of discussion around Google's zero-click results. So we had SparkToro published some data from SimilarWeb about how many searches were ending in zero clicks. And then Google did their own blog posts being like, "Hey, that's not the whole story, people refine searches." And everyone's just arguing with each other at the moment it seems about zero clicks. So to pull something meaningful out of that, I think it's fair to say that there are lots more search results nowadays that you don't need to click on to get the answer that you want.

And my opinion is, I think we can see that with the data that there will be more of those types of results as we go into the future, for whatever reason, for good or bad. So my question to you is, how do we manage client expectations around this zero-click stuff if we're telling them to write content and we're optimising it, and then Google is just showing them as a featured snippet and nobody's clicking on their site? Is this a good thing? Do we tell clients it's a good thing, it's a bad thing? How do we handle that?

BG: So this is another one where I'm going to answer, it depends, but I've got examples of why it depends, for once. So I have a client who is obsessed with featured snippets. Basically, the majority of my campaign for them has been trying to just get them People Also Ask boxes and featured snippets. And since I started on this campaign, I've said to them on a monthly basis, maybe more often than that actually, "These are great to have, yes, but people don't really click on them. They get their answers and then they're gone." And the client said to me that they understand that and they're happy about that because they asked their staff members in a poll, how would they respond to this? how they see it is they see the featured snippet and they seem to believe that a user would notice the branding or the website. And then at a later date see it again at another search or come back to that search for more details and be like, "Okay, these gave me a good answer last time," and click on that.

They have no proof or evidence for that, but their traffic is continually going up and they are continually getting more and more of these featured snippets because that's really what they're focusing on. I think there's a lot of speculation about it and you can't assume it'll 100% work or 100% won't work for you by having these zero clicks. They're just a good example of it's working okay for them, but they just can't prove it at this moment. I advise all my other clients to not fixate on them in that, if you get them, great, if you don't, it's not the end of the world. But these are so intensely fixated.

MC: I think that's really interesting how, and I've seen a few studies about this, which is how users rely on Google, essentially for which brands they vouch for, and by vouch, I mean rank. So there seems to be a lot of trust affinity built up in terms of, oh, I see this brand ranking well in Google, therefore I'm just going to trust Google that they're kind of a good company. And so I think that's a really interesting point about just being visible in featured snippets and seeing how that progresses. But I do again, I like this advice essentially, and I guess it's good life advice in general, of not becoming overly fixated on one particular thing and keeping the bigger picture, the strategy in mind of doing the next kind of right thing, if you like, in terms of your website and content and things.

So finally, because we've already hit half an hour, this is flying by. Finally, I have a really tricky question to leave you with which is about COVID because it's proven challenging, obviously in many different ways to businesses, some more than others, but specifically in terms of search and expectations and reporting. We've had a really hard time trying to compare stuff like year on year performance because the actual behaviour has changed. And the same when we're trying to think about what might happen next, as fingers crossed, we're coming out of a pandemic. Have you got any final tips on how you might manage client expectations in this totally unique environment that we've never seen before?

BG: One of the things that I've been saying quite a lot recently, and I know the agency I work for is very adamant on this message as well, is that 2020 was probably an anomaly, that it'll likely never happen again, especially how it has changed the shifts in websites. It's difficult, especially for e-commerce clients, knowing how things are going to look for them when things are lifted in life does return to some normality. Personally, my opinion is, I think once shops are more vastly open, that people are going to shop more local, but that's just my own complete speculation.

So what I'm saying to clients is we'll do our best to try and meet the traffic that you had last year or improve on it because I've had many that have had massive declines. I'm like, "Once things returned to normal, that’ll be no problem for you." It's very clear why things have changed so drastically for our clients because the world's completely changed in the space of a year. And I think the majority of clients will be like, okay, yeah, we understand COVID has ruined or improved so many different things for everyone and it's going to be so difficult for anyone to try and meet what happened here. But there are also a few clients, an example of one of mine is their niche is visiting cinemas and obviously, they've had a massive drop. And weirdly I thought, okay, that they'll understand that there's nothing I can do here, this is out of my hands. But I have to have a call with them and they asked me, "Why have we seen such a decrease in traffic over the last year?" I was like, "What? Cinemas aren't open, that's why."

MC: I'd love to have been a fly on the wall in that call.

BG: It was the worst, but I would love to have to watch someone else deal with it. But we've got to a point now where they understand that everything has changed and everything's going to change again and we can't guarantee anything. What's going to happen this September isn't going to be like what happened last September because of COVID, but it might also be completely different to the September before. So it might be a case that we need to bring in, instead of doing year on year, do year on two years ago or three years ago. If they have that data available, look at everything in a bigger picture than year on year going forward. Just until we've had enough time for normality to return.

MC: That's really interesting. I've had similar discussions with clients where I guess they just assume, despite their industry suffering, that the website was going to continue as normal. And just going through things like Google Trends data has been helpful with them to show them, look, this isn't just you, here are searches for your whole topic and they're down 20%, 30%, 50% in some cases. So I think yeah, helping them get that understanding because they've got a lot else to obviously focus on. I think that's the other thing is that as SEOs, we think about SEO first. And actually, it's just one thing out of many things business owners are worried about. But really, really helpful advice I think you've given here Billie. Thank you so much for taking the time to join me today. Where can people find you online if they want to kind of follow you and learn a bit more and maybe chat with you?

BG: So I'm basically on every social media platform going other than Facebook because it's the worst. And you can just find me at Billie Geena or I have a blog as well, which is billiegeena.co.uk where I blog about SEO.

MC: Perfect. We'll link to that in the show notes at search.withcandour.co.uk. And if you want to find Billie on social media, it's Geena, G-E-E-N-A, not with an I. And I hope you've enjoyed today's episode. We'll be back in one week's time which will be Monday, April the 5th. And I hope you all have a lovely week.

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