The Future of SEO: An Interview with Seth Besmertnik, CEO of Conductor (Part 2 of 2)


"If you don't invest in SEO, then you will not perform in SEO," Besmertnik says.

By University Alliance

From his office in Manhattan, where he helps guide SEO strategies for multinational corporations and other clients, Seth Besmertnik has a bird’s-eye view of the transformational changes affecting search engine optimization and Internet marketing.

“There’s going to be this enlightenment with marketers that online marketing, search marketing and SEO is not all about just trying to be there at the moment of purchase,” says Besmertnik, who co-founded the SEO technology company Conductor while still in his early 20s.

Today’s marketers must “think beyond the final click,” he explains.

In the final part of our two-part interview with Besmertnik, he surveys the evolution of the SEO industry, the rise of content marketing and why firms can’t afford to ignore video content.

How would you best describe SEO's role in Internet marketing?

In the past, there's been this sort of misperception that SEO is research. People go to the search engine and they have three choices. They can search again, or leave. They can click on a paid ad, in which you pay every time somebody clicks. Or they can click on the organic content. When that happens, a marketer doesn't have to pay any money directly to a search engine or any kind of vendor for that particular transaction.

That being said, it's very competitive to actually show up when people are searching. And the competition is very much a function of how much is your company investing and increasing your web presence on search engines and other channels. In order to do that, you need to be thinking about what are people looking for, is my content great, can I make my content better, what do I need to make more content and how do I make the content that is great get discovered more – how to make it so it has more links, more exposure.

Now, all of those things, if you want to do them really well, cost money. If you want to make a great piece of content, it costs a lot more money than making a not-so-great piece of content.

So it costs money to invest in making great content, and understanding your market and doing that research. And that means that if you don't invest in SEO, then you will not perform in SEO. So it's really just like everything else in online marketing. You need to invest in one thing or the other to actually get some results.

Why aren't businesses investing more in SEO?

We still see companies, in some cases very dramatically, under-investing in SEO. We do not see that in terms of them investing in paid search and even things like Facebook advertising, which is a newer channel where people have the opportunity to throw money in and actually try to get some results.

Part of the challenge is that there are things that require money, and there are things that require people and expertise. Now, everything in online marketing – and really marketing in general – has some mixture of that. You need dollars, you need expertise and people. With SEO, it's very disproportionately on the people and expertise and knowledge. And, more importantly, it requires collaboration.

You can’t just put somebody in the basement and say, ‘Here's a credit card, go and give us an SEO program.’ You can’t do that. Now, you can do that with paid search, you can do that with Facebook advertising, you can do that with a lot of display advertising and you can get some level of results. If you do that with search engine optimization, you're almost guaranteed to get zero return.

With SEO, it requires you to have multiple stakeholders engaged. You have to have your folks who come up with your product ideation involved and you have to have your content people involved. If you retail, you have to have your merchandisers involved. If you’re a B2B company, you have to have your product managers involved. You have to actually make great content … and then you have to actually measure how well these things are working.

This requires collaboration, it requires coordination and it requires investment, too. And a lot of it is people investment.

I think it's because of all those reasons that it's potentially the largest opportunity, and organic traffic is substantially lower-cost and higher-value than really any other channel. But companies tend to not address it as their first thing out of the gate when they're thinking about online marketing.

That being said, there's been a new generation of companies that have management teams and foundational leaders who come from an e-commerce background or an Internet background. Folks coming out of places like Amazon, coming out of places like eBay, have seen that if you perform well in organic search, how meaningful, how game-changing that can be for your business. And I think that has spawned a generation of online, and even some off-line brands, that are looking at organic search as their No. 1 priority, their No. 2 priority and their No. 3 priority, and are really getting competitive advantage as a result.

Content marketing, especially media content, appears to be becoming a major focus throughout Internet marketing. What do you think about its effects on SEO today and long-term?

Content marketing at a very macro level is absolutely the marketing of the future. Consumers don't want to be banged over the head with something they're not interested in. They've figured out lots of different ways to shut off intrusive forms of advertising; technologies like DVR, like spam protection. There are now services where you can get your mail sent to proxy addresses and they will filter out all of the direct mail that's not relevant to you and send you a PDF file of all of your regular mail.

Consumers are saying no to traditional and intrusive forms of advertising. Instead, they're going on the Web. They're going places and they're looking for things. And while they're looking for things, they've got the choice to read things or watch things, and there's a mix of both.

Most of us are very busy. I think the human preference, my preference as well, is to watch a video as opposed to read something. It doesn't mean reading is not great, but it's very easy to watch and more entertaining to watch 20 seconds on how to build a pizza oven in your backyard than to read a three-page article.

So video marketing and video creation and video content marketing is a highly effective way for consumers to get the answers to their questions.

Search engines are very much in the business of, ‘I want to answer your question. I don't really care how I answer your question, as long as I answer it the best way and I give you the best information.’ If that's a video, if that's a map, if that’s something from Wikipedia, if that's a piece of content, it doesn't really matter. So, over the last few years, the search engines have placed a big focus on providing a holistic, and what the industry calls universal, way of delivering multiple formats of content to the end-user to answer their questions.

In 10% or 20% of the cases, that happens to a piece of video. If you want to actually perform for a set of terms in the search engine, you need to have video content in addition to your traditional content.

Given your experience with leading global brands, what guidance would you offer to startups and emerging businesses about SEO?

At Conductor, we get to work with some of the biggest brands in the world. I think seven of the 10 largest companies on the planet are customers of Conductor. What is really exciting … is that search doesn't care how big your company is.

Search is a highly merit-based process of getting the best content to show up. So if you are a startup, it’s probably one of the only places that you can compete with almost a totally level-playing field against the big guys by smartly researching your users, researching what they're looking for and actually building the right content to make that content successful.

Over the next 12 months, which specific developments do you feel will have most impact on the SEO industry?

I think that one of the biggest evolutions and revolutions that are going to happen over the next 12 to 18 months for marketers is the movement of going from a transactional marketer to an online marketer and to a real marketer.

There’s going to be this enlightenment with marketers that online marketing, search marketing and SEO is not all about just trying to be there at the moment of purchase. It's going to be about what is that buyer's journey. Where do they spend their time? What are they looking for? What are the problems that they have? What are all the steps that they go through before they get to that point where they are actually ready to buy?

I think there's a tremendous opportunity for marketers to think beyond the final click – the final, ‘I need to buy a laptop now. Do you have a good deal for me?’ – to the, “Wow, my computer's really slow! I'm not sure what my next move should be.’ I want to be there when that person's thinking that.

But I think that change of online marketing is not just about the transactional marketing. It's really about true marketing to customers on the Web, and that search and SEO – while it's fantastic as a transactional form of marketing – is potentially even more powerful as a means of being there during a buyer’s journey. Really driving intent, creating intent and being there through the entire intent process.

What that tactically means for marketers is they need to have much more robust keyword research. Not just about the keywords that have high conversions in paid search, but what about the keywords that don't necessarily convert to an immediate purchase but are 1 or 2 degrees away from that purchase. 

I think that there's a ton of opportunities for companies to really take advantage of that and drive meaningful results.

Read Part 1 of our interview as Conductor co-founder Seth Besmertnik discusses the creation and expansion of his SEO technology company, and highlights some of the challenges and opportunities within the industry.

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