B2B SEO expert Evan Bailyn is the founder and CEO of the nation’s largest SEO firm, First Page Sage. Following is a Q&A with Evan on SEO for B2B companies, including its long-term viability, in-house SEO teams vs outsourcing, and more.
Q: Is SEO as viable a B2B sales channel in the 2020s as it was in the last decade?
Yes, and particularly so. We all treat Google like a utility—similar to electricity or water—in that we casually expect it to supply information to us anytime about any topic. And I think that any marketing channel that gives your potential customers instant, thorough answers to their questions is bound to be around for a long, long time. While the way people search may change slightly, the need to search, and Google’s prevalence particularly, is not going anywhere in the next 5-10 years.
SEO is also one of the best sales channels in the B2B world because it’s a place where sophisticated decision makers go to do their own research and find solutions. So if you’re appealing to Google correctly by publishing thought leadership content that satisfies your potential customers’ needs and curiosities, you will generate a substantial number of leads from it.
Picture the decision makers who buy what you sell. If you can see them going to Google because they have a problem that your product or service could solve, then SEO should be one of your primary marketing channels.
That being said, SEO isn’t the be-all end-all either. Having a great product that people talk about is still the best overall form of marketing. And there are a lot of great ways to attract B2B clients that combine well with SEO: presenting at conferences, putting on webinars, distributing white papers and ebooks, doing e-mail marketing, and posting on LinkedIn. Each of these channels has merit and should be experimented with. Among them all, I’d say that SEO is among the top three most valuable lead gen tools available to B2B businesses.
Q: What’s the difference between hiring an expert and building an in-house team?
If you hire an in-house SEO specialist, the advantage you get is that person is inside your company, so they know your brand very well. That’s a fantastic benefit. However, they’re still just one person with one set of skills, and they’re not going to be capable of doing everything. If you spend your SEO budget on one person, or even a small team, you miss out on all the other necessities for a successful campaign.
For instance, in a perfect world, you wouldn’t just have a specialist on staff who knows a lot about SEO. You’d also have a good writer and a good editor. And you’d also have somebody who understands keyword research. And also, someone who understands customer conversion and analytics. In addition, it would be nice if you had someone who can design really good graphics for your articles. All of these employees would be engaged in creating high-quality content every single week for multiple years. Naturally, most companies don’t have that kind of talent on-staff. And even if they did, the organization and discipline required to keep a program going for the multiple years that are required to truly become a dominant force in your industry would still be hard to come by.
Maintaining a consistent thought leadership effort for multiple years is nearly impossible for most companies, even with a dedicated in-house team.
Of course, it’s possible, and maybe even preferable, for certain companies to build out an internal SEO department. If you’re a content-based company that considers customer education to be a huge part of your marketing strategy, it could make sense.
But for most companies, it’s far more efficient to outsource to a company that’s full of experts in niche areas. For the price of single upper-level salary, they’re essentially renting a full team.
Q: If you do outsource, how long do you have to work with an SEO firm to see results?
SEO lasts for a very long time. Unlike advertising, which completely disappears once you’re no longer paying for it, a good thought leadership article will rank at the top of page one for five or more years. For example, the article I published in 2012 about keynote speaker fees is still ranking highly on Google.
I like to think of the longevity of SEO in terms of a half-life, as with medicines. The article we produce for you in 2020 will be at 100% ranking strength to Google that year. Its value might then fall to 80% in 2022, 60% in 2024, and so on. However, a 40% article could still outrank a new competitor’s page if the content is better. Google values content that its users find valuable above all other things, which is why thought leadership content attracts leads years after it is published.
As far as how long you need to do SEO, most of our clients feel like 3-5 years of SEO will get them where they want to be, after which they either continue publishing thought leadership on a less-frequent basis or take the effort in-house.
Q: Are SEO agencies still using “grey hat” tactics for B2B SEO nowadays?
Surprisingly, they are, and it goes without saying that you want all of your SEO to be white hat. Grey hat SEO still exists mostly in the form of guest posts, press releases, and link building campaigns, and you’ll see a lot of lower-quality SEO firms offering these services. It’s certainly easier than writing phenomenal articles that naturally attract backlinks, references, and other markers of Google trust. However, even if you find a way to get your site to rank when it hasn’t fully earned its way there, Google is smart, and is likely to lower your rankings over time. Ultimately, you want to develop a sustainable SEO plan that will last.
In 2020, link building continues to be a particularly interesting question for SEO strategists. Links have traditionally pulled the most weight in terms of Google’s algorithm, but since 2015-2016 they’ve become far less important. Although link building is still a quick way to gain Google trust, it’s very hard to distinguish between a link that was genuinely earned for merit and a link that was purchased. Because Google has gotten so good at recognizing quality content in the last 5 years or so, its algorithm weighs that factor more heavily when considering site value. That’s why consistent production of high-quality thought leadership content is now the most important piece of the algorithm.
Link building has always been a quick way to get Google to trust your website. But doing anything that’s not 100% acceptable to Google is foolish. It might work now, but it won’t work in the future.
Q: How do you identify an actual B2B SEO expert?
A B2B SEO expert is, to put it simply, someone who has gotten results. And I don’t just consider getting a number one ranking for a keyword ‘results.’ Organic rankings can be misleading.
Companies who invest in SEO expect results in the form of revenue or market visibility.
To judge the success of an SEO service, you have to evaluate how well it fulfilled the specific goals set out by the company from the start. You’d want to go through case studies and see what results were expected and what actually happened.
Personally, I also trust people who have written a lot online. If they offer specific practical advice that I haven’t heard before, I feel like I can trust them more. Personal recommendations from CMOs or other marketing leaders are also valuable.
With all of that evidence combined, you as a decision maker can get an intuitive feel for whether a so-called SEO Expert has the credibility you’re looking for.
Q: Do you have any overarching advice on maximizing B2B SEO results?
Ha, that’s not an easy feat. I suppose I’ll just say that the ultimate goal of Thought Leadership-based SEO is not rankings or conversions or even leads. It’s building mindshare with your customer base, which over time grows your entire business. SEO today is about reaching people you wouldn’t otherwise meet and then subsequently keeping them aware of, and impressed by, your company on an ongoing basis. That means that you need the pure SEO part running like a machine — consistent publication of excellent original content, well-researched keywords in the title of each article, and thoughtful measurement and reporting of results — but you also need to use that content in social media and e-mail marketing to reach your decision makers at every touch point.
It takes a bit of an operation to make all that work, but it’s far less expensive and has a higher ROI than advertising. And, at least to me, it can be fun.