We’re known for a few things at Hennessey Digital, including killer content and creative websites that convert. But our bread and butter—and how we got started!—is SEO.
We recently caught up with our Senior Director of SEO Ash Buckles to talk about SEO strategy, how we do things for our clients, and industry trends.
Bringing in a professional
A true SEO industry pro, Ash brings over 20 years of experience in SEO and digital marketing, including past roles at seo.com and InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG). Ash loves the variability of our client base and is excited to keep building and innovating with the best digital marketing team around! In our team structure, Ash reports to our Vice President of SEO Marian Mursa, who oversees the entire SEO organization.
Ash’s team includes all SEO activities and strategy including local SEO, content writing, QA, and publishing, site analytics, and conversion rate optimization (CRO). Our SEO dream team is made up of many talented individuals who bring their years of experience, skills, and overall awesomeness to make our SEO practice better every day.
(And while we’re discussing all things SEO: we love it so much that we have a sister site iloveseo.com dedicated to SEO industry news, views, and editorials. If you ❤️ SEO as much as we do, check it out!)
What is SEO, really?
First, let’s hit the basics. We know that SEO stands for “search engine optimization”, but what does that really mean?
When asked to break it down, Ash explained that the heart of SEO comes down to being found in search results no matter the format or platform. This includes traditional search engines, maps platforms, voice assistants, and third-party recommendation sites. A user does online research to find answers to their questions and solutions to their problems, and they want to make sure the information they find is accurate and trustworthy.
Sites and platforms are constantly evolving to meet user needs. More product offerings are developed as users get more specific in their searches and as experiences become more targeted. For our SEO team, this presents opportunities to optimize sites and deliver information about our clients in unique ways that help them compete in the always-changing landscape of digital marketing.
Understanding user intent is where we start when we begin an SEO strategy engagement with our clients. First, we ask a lot of questions to help our clients learn more about what people are looking for—and why they search—when they do research online.
When we understand the trends in user searches for the specific industry or niche our client is in, we can write content and optimize their webpages to match those user needs.
We also find third-party site opportunities for clients’ websites. Because users are spending an increasing amount of time gathering answers from wherever they can find information, there’s a missed opportunity in being visible to your customers if all of your information is only available on your website and not distributed elsewhere.
Search engine party
When users search, they use various sites and platforms in different ways. As an example, when doing a search for an air conditioning repair service, your search on a mobile device may use a shorter version of a search, like “ac repair.” On a desktop, you’re more likely to use a longer term, like “air conditioning repair company.”
The search term or phrase may also be different when speaking to a voice assistant like Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant that includes a query like “find the best air conditioning repair company near me.”
The more we understand user intent and where they’re performing their search, the easier it is to create content that matches their needs and intent across different devices. Similarly, if we know users are searching using branded or non-branded words, we can match that intent differently and create content and optimizations to match the users needs. An example here may include “over-ear headphones” versus “Bose over-ear headphones 700.”
When we write content for our clients, we make sure our writing addresses user intent and answers their questions when they do a search. To accomplish this, we do extensive research on our clients. We look at their industry, specialties and services, and their competitors to understand the topic we’re writing about from a user’s perspective. We create new content pages and refresh and optimize legacy content pages so that new and existing content is delivering valuable, relevant information to users.
Aside from the intent of the user (or the person doing the internet search), there are also considerations on the search engine side of things. What are search engines evaluating when deciding which webpages to display on page one of search results, or in the top three spots on the page? What about shopping results for products, rich results including information searches or questions, maps results for directions, or a quick phone call to a local business? Each of these is an opportunity for businesses to win visibility and gain customers.
SEO on a technical level
On the technical side of SEO, we continually work on code improvements behind the scenes to ensure our clients’ websites are structured properly to support the content and keyword strategies detailed in our SEO plan. Our founder and CEO Jason Hennessey recently shared a graphic of the 5 levels of SEO on social media that breaks down the main components of an SEO strategy. Technical SEO and content form the base of the strategy, with digital PR, local SEO, and online reputation as the remaining three factors.
At Hennessey Digital, we have in-house experts working on each critical component of SEO, from optimizations, content, and relevance to understanding what people are asking when they do an online search. We tie these elements together with different viewpoints and skill sets. A technologist views a problem differently than a content writer does, and when we plug these viewpoints together, we can create content that satisfies the needs of both the reader and the search engines.
We are the technical stewards of our clients’ websites. As good business partners, we make sure everything is running smoothly so our clients can focus on what they do best. If there’s a need, or if something doesn’t look right, we raise a flag and work quickly to resolve the issue.
Our team’s specific SEO expertise makes all the difference in our clients’ success. Leadership establishes the team structure on who is focused on strategy and training, who works directly with clients, and who works behind the scenes. It’s this specialization that helps us strategize on the big picture and get granular in the execution at every level of SEO. Each team member is empowered to do what they do best.
And speaking of “granular,” let’s talk about a technical aspect of SEO that’s often misunderstood or completely forgotten: link building.
Link building: friend or foe?
At a high level, Ash describes “link building” as the art and science of attracting links from other sites to ensure your site is available to their users and also provides value to the site you’re linking to. The more quality links you obtain, the better your chances of being found online. However, it’s not just a numbers game with links, because different links provide different direct and indirect value.
Link building can be productive or destructive, so it’s important to focus on quality outreach for highly-regarded links when adding more links to a site. It also helps to focus on relevant, industry-specific, social proof links that are built naturally as you grow your digital marketing exposure.
Because link building is often misunderstood, there are several ways to hurt your website through this activity.
Harmful link building can happen by acquiring a domain that has a history of obtaining poor-quality links. We always evaluate the link graph of our clients’ sites to determine if there are links that need to be scrubbed or disavowed from their link profile. This is a way of signaling to search engines that you do not approve of these links and therefore negates their association with your site.
All of these activities collectively drive organic search and referral traffic to increase revenue for our clients. Link building must pursue relevant links that are localized and industry-specific to add value to readers, because solving problems, delivering the right information, and answering questions for people is what good content is all about.
Our content team creates new pages and revamps existing ones to drive the SEO strategy forward and move rankings up for the keywords clients are focused on. When it comes to targeted keywords, we always look for variations on keywords and phrases. There are certain nuances to consider in how people search for answers to their questions.
Content is strategy plus tactics
Content must also be equal parts strategy and tactics to be effective. Both readers and search engines must be considered in creating and revamping content pages. The difficulty level in ranking #1 in a search varies because your competitors are always out to do the same thing and each search result varies in what is displayed to the user.
You have to fight for that top search position, and structured data is the one of the many ways to stand out.
Ash explains the importance of structured data like this: “Writing content is great, but structuring that content to provide explicit context to search engines is better. This way, we publish content and structure it for search engines to consume and extend the reach of that content. This now becomes distributed content, with visitors from various sources through optimization techniques.”
Our SEO and Content teams work in tandem with Paid Media to deliver a proper balance to our clients. Both paid and organic search have their benefits and limitations. While paid media delivers instant information, organic SEO takes more time to develop a proper strategy and see results.
A blend of both paid and organic approaches gives the opportunity to get in front of audiences in different ways, with paid media focused on immediate display and action, and organic SEO gaining momentum over time.
A post-pandemic shift
The COVID effect has changed the way people live and work, and Ash notes that he’s seeing this playing out in online trends.
Everyone was challenged in different ways in 2020, and big shifts in business are happening as a result. As layoffs happened, people opened up small businesses that now have websites, flooding the search engines with new content and offerings.
With this new work/life blend, competition for business is heating up, especially around service businesses. You have to learn fast, make adjustments, and pivot quickly to be successful.
Even as the world reopens, the shift in our behavior patterns is likely to include some new ways of living. The modifications we’ve made in our lifestyles and working arrangements have created new opportunities and ways of thinking.
People are searching for information in new ways, so being relevant online is critical. What does this mean for your business and SEO?
SEO has always been important in any marketing strategy. The huge shifts in business over last year have shown us that SEO isn’t a nice-to-have: it’s a must have.