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On Finding Focus, Without Looking For It

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Thoughts & insights about various digital marketing, SEO, branding, UX, design, & photography. Get a peak at my latest projects here!

 

On Finding Focus, Without Looking For It

Sheena Schleicher

I’m a technical SEO, but I’m also a writer, a storyteller, a wannabe designer/UX specialist, a social media strategist, a brand builder, a PR person, and a people-focused entrepreneur (among other things). What that means, really, is that I’m very opinionated in a lot of those areas. My opinions are based on over a decade of experience in those areas, so I’d like to say they’re educated opinions. A sort of jack of all trades, at least in the marketing world.

This also means that there’s a lack of focus, which might translate to both not being truly great at anything and — even if the greatness is there — not being known for that one thing that you’re the best at.

Twenty-eighteen, however, was a year of self-realization. I realized that others did in fact recognize me and our agency work as something “specialized.” It was made clear after a stream of the same types of projects were referred our way: Technical SEO for eCommerce rebuilds and migrations.

But just getting the work isn't enough to prove that. It was only after we saw successful outcomes that we realized we had found our niche.

Platform Migrations Can Be Scary

We’re often approached by brand-side folks embarking on a platform migration--meaning they’re about to transition their entire website from one content management system (CMS) and ecommerce solution to another.

The decision to migrate has typically already been made by C-levels and often without the marketing team’s input on which platform is preferred. Instead, the platform is selected based on executive relationships (and money).

The brand contact shares about the plan to migrate to a new platform, along with some very bold timelines. And since they’re re-platforming, “why not also do a full rebrand/UX/design overhaul?” adds leadership.

They’re balancing the demands of various internal and external parties: C-level wants, brand needs, designer dreams, developer realities, retail partner implications... somehow what the customer wants/needs/hopes for often lands at the bottom of the list.

We can sense their very reasonable concerns from the first conversation: they’re worried about what this migration--this complete overhaul of their website--will do to their traffic and sales. The idea of changing everything and potentially wiping away all the SEO equity they’ve built up over many years is terrifying.

Why They Select Us

Their reaching out to us is typically spurred by one of two things. One, they were referred to us by someone we mutually trust and have worked with in a similar capacity. Or two, they’re a long-time colleague/friend who we’ve looked out for over the years even when they didn’t have the resources to work with us (or were engaged with another agency). It’s simply our nature to help good people do good work, so we never hold back ideas or suggestions, even if we aren’t getting paid. The relationship matters more to us.

While a typical SOW is to support these brands with a comprehensive technical and content-based SEO strategy, as well as a migration plan to protect and grow organic performance, I think what they appreciate most (and what’s been driving the referrals) is something different.

They feel confident working with us because 1) of our brand-first approach to SEO, 2) we either already know or take the time to get to know their brand and website history, 3) they trust our feedback about other vendors/3rd party implementation partners, and 4) we care about more than SEO.

Put simply, they trust us when everything’s at stake and we dissolve a lot of the fear surrounding the project.

Our Involvement

We’re very involved in the entire platform migration process — UX, design, content, development, launch — advocating for SEO, but always putting the brand first. Our role in these projects (beyond the expected SEO work/planning out the entire site structure) has become something like this: be apart of all UX and design review calls. These might be 1–4 hour meetings that include all teams. Listen to ideas and objections from all parties, then act as the liaison that connects the parties and helps prioritize by sharing about SEO implications and opportunities.

Every team wants to create something that’s on-brand and exceptional, but all would be deflated if we created something that isn’t seen or used by our audience simply because we didn’t prioritize SEO. Come prepared with GA or search demand/trends data and they’ll be even more receptive — and flexible with their wants. Then repeat with the development lead/team. Be involved whenever possible to help align all parties. Speak up on behalf of SEO, but also use SEO logic to help other teams find common ground.

Being Honest, Realistic, and Flexible

I’ve noticed in the 10+ years working in SEO that SEOs have a strong voice with brands--that is, we are listened to by all levels of seniority because of the fear of getting it wrong. This can easily be abused by SEOs with the wrong intentions, goals, approach, priorities, or simple stubbornness. All parties need to be okay with a little compromise, and that includes the SEO.

I’ve found that when working with brands, particularly blue chip brands, demonstrating that you’re prioritizing their greater business and branding goals goes much further than only focusing on SEO. Instead of an SEO-first/only approach, we’re able to gain the respect and trust of all teams by coming in brand-first. And the great part is that aligning with and supporting them to grow their brand usually comes full circle to actually boost SEO performance.

How It Started

My personal focus in technical SEO for migrations came after working with a brand for a number of years and struggling to make progress on several major technical SEO issues (not to mention a very unfriendly CMS). As an eCommerce website in the SaaS field (with their software built on the same system), the constraints of the system were hurting more than SEO performance — they were hurting the entire business.

The company selected their new CMS (with dev and SEO approval) and we were all thrilled. But then came the year and a half of planning. Mind-numbing, but somehow still exhilarating, planning. I won’t bore you with all the details, but rather focus on the results. That’s the part I’m most excited about.

I learned just how much can be accomplished with a successful migration to a new platform. It’s an opportunity that might only come once in a decade (or longer) for many brands; and it’s the one time when it actually makes sense to overhaul everything.

All those “this is phase one… phase two will be better” but then phase two never happens. Legacy/archaic branding that needs a refresh. Poor UX/design. Outdated copy. Thin or useless pages. Terrible content architecture. Still on HTTP. Not mobile friendly. Unjustified subdomains. Messy, unorganized URLs. Duplicate content patches all over the place. Redirect issues. Site speed nightmares. Pain in the butt product catalog management and/or merchandising. An impossible CMS (“Did you check the US-English-Version box before you made all those edits??”). Oh, and those mysterious system and/or security failures.

Let’s fix all of it. All at once. Our customers will love us and, as it turns out, so will Google.

Every migration we’ve been apart of has been a success. Sure they always involve lengthy planning and a few stressful weeks/months surrounding launch (before and after), and yes rebuilding everything makes it nearly impossible to know what made a difference and by how much. But I say let’s keep our eyes forward and try to not over-analyze.

The payoffs are always worth it, which is why Technical SEO for eCommerce and Migrations have become my favorite projects to be apart of and, without realizing it, our specialization.

Realizing what we’re best at and identifying our specialization — thanks in large part to that stream of similar projects with successful outcomes — has benefited us in a number of ways: better focused and defined service offerings, better understanding of client needs and priorities, and more transparency with potential clients.

We’re able to be more honest with ourselves and brands, which ultimately protects all parties from less than fruitful engagements. It only took us a decade to discover it (ha!), but our specialization has become the driving force behind project success, client happiness, and our agency’s growth.

To my fellow SEOs and digital marketers: How have you handled migration projects? What did you learn? What do you wish could have been done or plan to do differently next time? Moreover, have you thought about specializing in what you’re best at?

Brand folks: Have an upcoming site re-launch or migration project? Let’s talk!