Craig Macdonald, CMO at Covario interview, sneak peek at SES New York

Craig Macdonald, CMO at CovarioWith SES New York only two weeks away, I reached out to a really smart guy I first took notice of last year.  Craig Macdonald, CMO at Covario, is scheduled to co-host a panel on Day 2 of SES New York entitled, “SEO Performance Marketing: Paid Search is Accountable, so why not SEO?”  Breaking with tradition, this interview surpasses the 2000 word count, so it’s definitely not for the meek.  However, don’t let the word count scare you, as Craig and I discuss so many topics ranging from SEO to PPC to social media, you’re bound to be glued to your seat.

Garry: People are finally beginning to appreciate that there is rhyme and reason behind SEO, but there is a lot of noise out there; a lot of snake oil to be bought and sold.  What is your top recommendation on how to find a reputable SEO firm?  Do you think it’s fair to ask for performance-based contracts?

Craig: I agree, there is no magic in SEO.  It comes down to an SEO agency having an approach that creates predictability in results, and can do so at scale.  To do this requires the SEO agency to have 3 key characteristics.

First, they have to use technology.  Without technology, the “administration” of SEO can take up to 50% of the efforts of the agency staff, which includes: keyword research, site auditing, rank tracking, post click behavior analysis.  With technology, the administration is automated and the humans focus on what the machines cannot – oh, and by the way, on the stuff that actually drives results.  Key activities, such as link building, content development, and solving IT problems, cannot be solved if the people who are supposed to be solving them are busy with spreadsheets trying to figure out keyword ranking.

Second, the agency has to have qualified staff.  That seems obvious – but so many agencies have very thin benches.  There is the sales leader who shows up at the pitch meeting and wows everyone with intimate knowledge of canonical tags, redirect strategies, how do beat load balancing on the server farm.  But the people who show up to execute the project are far more junior, far less experienced.  I would argue that the first point (above) and this second point are intertwined. Without a large investment in technology, and a change is agency business model to staff a deep bench, a company’s SEO effort is doomed.  The key to SEO success in is ensuring competent and predictable execution.

Third, the agency needs analytic competency.  SEO, though predictable, is not necessarily easy.  And having an agency with some analytic chops is a good thing.  The big questions we get from clients are “I can do 100 things, which 3 should I do?” or “how do I leverage social media to drive SEO improvements?” We are constantly being pushed by clients to drive “game changing” SEO results, which require us to do specialized projects, leverage new data sources to figure out new relationships, and do relatively complex analysis to test cross channel impacts of media.  I believe all agencies are being pushed in this direction – and an advertiser should make sure their agency can delivery insight, not just work.

So is it fair to ask for performance-based contracts?  I would phrase the issue slightly differently.  If my agency is not willing to sign-up for performance-based pricing, this means that their methodology lacks predictability – which I would interpret as a red flag.  As an agency, if I feel that I can predict my results, then I can appropriately gauge the risk of performance pricing, and therefore, can (a) align my incentives with those of my customers and (b) appropriately price the risk so that the pricing is fair.  It is not only a legitimate pricing process for advertisers, but one that I believe is an indicator of an agency that will deliver results, versus one that will not.

Garry: Great to know for those looking outsourcing, now let’s look at in-house.  With all the tools available to marketers and analysts, you can — again — get lost in the noise.  Where would you turn to first as a primary indicator of success from an SEO campaign?

Craig: “there are lies, damn lies, and statistics” said Mark Twain.  I find many companies either (a) get lost in the statistics or (b) find statistics that shape a particular view of the world.  A common symptom of a poor SEO program is having too many stats.  I can tell you, senior executives don’t know what SEO people are talking about half the time.  Ranking, visitors, tagging – this is the equivalent of Martian to most business people.  The other foible is finding a statistic that makes one look good, but is irrelevant to the business dynamics of the organization. “How are we ranking on our branded term?” – if the answer isn’t somewhere between 1st and 1st – then something is wrong.

I believe the best indicator of SEO campaign success is market share. It is a wonderfully clarifying statistic.  Is shows whether traffic to the site from SEO is going up or down in a practical business context – versus the major competition of the advertiser.

No senior marketer on the planet is unaware of the importance of market share to a brand.  And if the market share of an advertiser in search is not as great as the sales market share of the product being advertised, what assurance does that brand have that it will maintain its market share in the future?

Garry: Search engine optimization isn’t new, we’ve been doing this for several years already.  The game is constantly changing, engines change their
algorithms, competition increases year over year, new platforms and content sources get added to SERPs, etc. Is there still room to compete against millions of other pages?  Or should we focus on optimizing for each and every content type?

Craig: There is an old saying that lawyers use.  If the facts are on your side; argue the facts.  If the law is on your side; argue the law. And if neither is on your side; well, then yell really loud.

In SEO, it is all about relevancy because the “law”, in this case the search engines, care about nothing but relevancy of the results they serve searchers.  So argue the law.  Strategy has to revolve around where the brand being marketed is relevant.  I don’t ascribe to the strategy of optimizing for a wide swath of words, because the draconian facts are that if you are not in positions 1, 2 , 3 or 4, you are in the desert, and you frankly shouldn’t bother too much.   So concentrate efforts where there is potential, and the brand has “permission to win.”  A brand should compete against their natural competitors and on their brand categories.

Remember, particularly for large companies, if your content is the best, then why should you not be the best at SEO.  If your SEO results are comparatively poor, then that is a reflection of either your SEO program quality, or the realistic perception of your brand.

I do reserve the right to change that answer for travel, media, and ecommerce companies.  Since the number of SKUs being sold on their sites is massive. (for examples travel –  it is about “cheap flights” … “cheap flights to New York”, “cheap flights to anywhere,” and 1M other variants).  So focusing on brand permission is not possible.  With these businesses, the job is long-tail management.  In detail, the goal is not brand specific victory, but scrum warfare where being 10th on everything is better than being 1st on 1/10 of the words.

Garry: Some great points in that last answer.  Turning now to paid search (PPC) performance versus SEO.  Is it even fair to compare?  Why or why not?

Craigh: It is fair to compare.  Here’s why.  Paid and organic search are clearly interrelated.  If an advertiser has an organic listing on the first page of the search engine, variations in the paid search program, i.e., changes in the ranking of the paid search listing of that same advertiser, have an impact on the traffic, click through rate, and conversion rate of the organic listing.    At this point, given the amount of study devoted to this topic, the cannibalization effect of paid search on strong organic listings is nearly irrefutable.  So not comparing the performance of the two channels –paid and organic- borders on fiscal negligence.

However, most advertisers DO NOT compare results.  Why?  The reasons are mostly structural. SEO is usually part of web marketing, sometimes IT.  Paid search is part of advertising – the last bastion of corporate non-accountability. So getting the two disciplines to coordinate on strategy, on metrics, on comparability is difficult.

We have seen that when the rare company does find a way to coordinate the efforts of their paid and organic programs, they can get a 15-20% improvement in their overall search performance.

By the way, I used the term “overall search performance” on purpose.  In fact, I am assuming an advertiser can render a comprehensive report comparing the results, which is difficult, but doable! If you can’t measure performance in a routinized way, then you can’t compare results.  This ultimately means you can’t manage search comprehensively. 

Garry: I appreciate you mentioning overall search performance because managing both paid and organic search often means adapting to rapid change. Do you think it’s fair that engines get thoroughly scrutinized for poorly communicating what they’re looking for when ranking pages?  If you could ask three questions and be guaranteed answers from the engines, what  would they be?

Craig: It is fair, because the process by which the search engines rank results has a material impact on the financial results of the advertisers competing for the “above the fold” positions. Being #1 on a keyword like “life insurance” can make or break a quarter for a company like MetLife or Prudential (where I used to work).  So if the judge of my success makes my ability to predict my results inherently unpredictable through secrecy, then that is a problem for me financially. Therefore, the scrutiny is justified.

However, I will say that (a) I do not believe that the engines are as opaque regarding their methodologies as people believe and (b) that I do believe SEO results are controllable and inherently predictable.

Much of the hand wringing about the opacity of the engines is the result of deployment of less-than-best practices by advertisers that leave them befuddled as to why their results are sub-optimal – and therefore – like the kids on South Park – the reaction is Blame Canada!

Garry: Nice, BTW…

Craig: As for the 3 questions – I would ask a different question to each engine:

  • Google – do video links to YouTube on your SERP get preferential treatment in the natural search algorithm, because Google can monetize click through on videos due to the banner ads that are served on the network, unlike other organic search listings.
    Note: I believe that preferential treatment of YouTube listings can be empirically measured (we just haven’t had the time to do it yet), but I would like to hear them “fess up” if true.
  • Bing —  when can we expect to really support global customers, in all countries, in all geos, with Bing?  Right now,  particularly in Europe, there is no choice but Google.  Can the firm realistically develop a footprint in each geography?
  • Yahoo – what’s next?

Garry: Not that there’s any shortage of great discussion in this post, but can you give me a sneak peek into what one might expect from the panel discussion at SES New York?

Craig: I have tried to put together a panel with some leading experts in SEO from some very large advertisers.  I have huge respect for their insights and experience.  What should attendees expect?

They should expect to hear relevant, useful case studies for how SEO is practiced at some of the largest advertisers in the world.  Specifically  how they overcome the challenges that most SEO professionals face, such as:

  • building the business case,
  • wrestling with IT,
  • keeping brand and geo marketing managers focused on SEO,
  • how they manage their agencies, and
  • how they fight the “metric wars” which take place at most large advertisers.

They will also discuss two key topics – what technologies they are using to drive scalability in their SEO efforts, and how they are leveraging social media to drive SEO.  Wait, I just told the whole story.  That wasn’t a “sneak peak.”

Garry: Craig, you’ve gone above and beyond with this interview.  Thank you for all the great information and insights on all things search.

If you haven’t already done so, book your tickets for SES New York today.

About Search Engine Strategies

Search Engine Strategies is the definitive digital event for marketers, corporate decision makers, webmasters and search engine marketers (SEMs), including pay per click (PPC) advertisers and search engine optimization (SEO) professionals. Attend SES New York, network with your peers, meet with industry experts, and learn the tips, tactics and strategies that will grow your business online.

About Craig Macdonald

Craig Macdonald is responsible for the strategic direction, development and marketing of the Covario™ portfolio of solutions. Prior to Covario, Craig was the Director of Product Management for the service and management group within Hewlett Packard’s OpenView division where he oversaw service and asset management, configuration management, and discovery applications used by large enterprises worldwide. Previously, Craig held key positions at Peregrine Systems, Inc., Fair Isaac, HNC Software, World Research Advisory, META Group and Greenwich Associates. Craig earned an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business, and a BS from the University of Pennsylvania. He also studied at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

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