Despite claims that its golden age is over, SEO still has an unparalleled power of driving tremendous amounts of traffic. The problem with SEO is that people have been looking at it wrong — as a demand generation tool instead of a demand harnessing one. In doing that, marketers have been putting it to the incorrect use, leading them to think SEO should be retired in favor of other tactics.
Conversational marketing has been following the same trend. There is a lot of hype surrounding it, but implementing a chatbot on a website and calling it a day can’t really be considered a conversational marketing strategy.
But do SEO and conversational marketing have anything else in common other than often being misused or underutilized?
Brendan Hufford believes they can function as a great team, with search bringing in the leads and a chatbot to help convert them.
In this week’s episode of Ungated Marketing, Brendan Hufford talks about all things SEO and why he recently became a fan of conversational marketing.
The Reigning Power of SEO
Ever since he took the leap from a teaching career to marketing, Brendan Hufford has been involved in several SEO-focussed projects. So how does the feel about the constant public statements that SEO is dead?
He collects them, but he takes them with a grain of salt.
“99% of the time, those [articles] are written by people who fundamentally don’t understand SEO. [...] I think the problem with SEO is that we’ve framed it wrong. For a long time, we thought that SEO was demand gen, and what we’re realizing is that [it] is demand harnessing.”
For him, SEO is different than any other channel, in which it’s a place where people are raising their hands and saying that they would like to buy something. It is also not noise because it’s not interrupting people with ads as they navigate somewhere else and mind their own business, making it a very distinct — and powerful — way of communicating with people.
The truth is that, in Brendan’s words, SEO still “drives a tremendous amount of traffic at all different levels,” as he exemplifies by mentioning one of his clients who gets over a million visitors from Google every year. However, in addition to the misconception that SEO is supposed to generate demand instead of harnessing it, the Google playfield is different from what it once was.
Search Traffic Then vs. Now
Google used to represent free traffic. All that businesses had to do was produce blog articles or other types of content, and Google would pick that up and send people to their website. However, the old days of producing the best content and hoping for top-ranking search results are gone because the landscape has become too competitive.
Brendan explains that content is not what Google wants. On the one hand, “we know they want backlinks more than anything.” And on the other hand, it’s becoming a “pay-to-play” field. “Paid social is an arbitrage, right? I'm gonna pay this much and hope I get this much out of it. It's the same thing with Google now. I'm gonna pay this much for content. I'm gonna pay this much for links. And I'm hoping I get a net positive return out of it. And that's the game I see a lot of people playing.”
But Brendan offers a better way of going about SEO.
The Four Levels of Keyword Research
To help businesses tackle the changing world of Google search and SEO, Brendan developed his own framework based on four levels of keyword research that works better than the way most people do it: “They look stuff up on Ahrefs or SEMrush, they sort one column for lowest keyword difficulty in the highest traffic, and that’s their content strategy.”
Instead, he lays out the four levels of keyword research people need to look at to up their SEO game.
Let’s start with problem-aware search — when people search for a pain that they have or something they need. “They’re just Googling the problem; they don’t know what the solutions are yet.”
Many businesses try to pitch solutions in the articles they optimize for problem-aware search terms, but Brendan deems that a “crucial mistake.” “The goal of that article is to speak so deeply to them that you understand their problem. Just really twist the knife of that pain point.” In doing so, people are more likely to think that business really gets their pain.
But what happens after that?
If someone is searching for a particular pain point, they’ll likely want to find a way to mitigate that pain. Brendan explains: “At the end of the article is a CTA like, ‘hey, read this other article, here are three solutions to your problems.’ That's not the same article, right?”
That’s right. Because solution-aware articles should be optimized for solution-aware search terms — when someone searches for their problem as well as a potential solution.
Brendan puts this in B2C terms: “Problem-aware is like, they're Googling ‘back pain.’ They're just Googling that. So huge search term, right? Solution-aware is like ‘yoga for back pain.’ Right? If I have a yoga program, do I want that in there? And it could help you with back pain? Yes, I want to rank for that.”
Product-aware search takes it one step further by adding a specific product as a search term. Sticking to the same example, it would be if someone searched for “Yoga with Adriene yoga for back pain.”
Again, the articles that rank for product-aware searches should be different from those optimized for problem-aware and solution-aware keywords.
Finally, there is what Brendan calls “most-aware” research.
“Most-aware is when somebody already knows there are tons of searches. This is where I always start with clients. A lot of times, people start with big traffic search terms because they want to show traffic. And it's like, if you've been in the game long enough, you know that stuff's not going to convert. So I start with most-aware. If I look in your search console and see all the branded searches that are coming in right now, do we have pages that address each of those? They're usually pretty unique. So are we addressing those with help pages and support pages? Or maybe product pages or feature pages? They already think we're the best. They're just want to know the deal.”
Brendan offers a practical example of a SaaS client he worked with who didn’t have a pricing page on their website. After he suggested they Google the company name plus “pricing” to see what came up, they realized the highest-ranking pages — G2 and Capterra — listed inaccurate pricing for their product.
“I was like, ‘Maybe you should own that. Maybe they should come to your website first.’ If you don't want to put pricing on the website, [...] explain why. Explain the value of having somebody walk you through a specific bespoke custom solution for you that is going to be priced differently and why you do it that way. Put a demo on that page so they can understand or connect with somebody, put a chatbot on the page, right? Like there's a lot of other ways to have that conversation. But you should own that real estate instead of giving it to G2 or Capterra for free.”
Brendan’s SEO framework is all about helping businesses level up their SEO game by optimizing their content based on how the different ways people search for specific keywords instead of just the ones that drive the highest traffic.
The question now is, what happens after they land on a specific website, and how do they get converted into leads and, ideally, paying customers?
The Conversational Marketing Solution
Brendan admits that he became a fan of conversational marketing out of necessity, but he quickly realized its potential as a conversion tool.
After digging into the data from the chatbots of the software companies he was working with at the time, he understood the chatbots were driving much more conversion than he was by focussing solely on SEO. Brendan recalls the numbers: “The chatbot’s eating my lunch; it’s making it look like I'm not driving more conversions. Because, you know, leads are only up by 5% or 10%. [...] But the chatbot is up like 80%.”
He suggested changing the agency’s offer he was working at back then to SEO and conversational marketing services. Albeit, a bit reluctantly at first because it felt like all of their clients were already using chatbots. However, even businesses with the technology already in place were struggling to put it to its best use, presenting an opportunity for Brendan to help optimize their chatbot strategy.
Common Chatbot Mistakes
Brendan’s initial contact with conversational marketing was very one-dimensional — how could they be used instead of a form to capture leads?
But as he started to figure out how companies were implementing chatbots and which chatbot mistakes and problems they were still facing, he understood there were common mistakes to all of them and that he could provide a solution.
Underutilizing Your Bot
One of the first things Brendan noticed was that chatbot technology tends to be underutilized. In a presentation he gives on conversational marketing, he showcases just that: “[There are] 7 to 9 essential chatbots that I recommend people use that I use with all my clients. And I pulled two large unicorn ETL software companies, they're both using [chatbots] sitewide. Both of them have, ‘Hey, how can I help you today?’ [...] I call it the Walmart greeter. If you're not familiar with Walmart, they employ people whose only job is to stand at the front door and greet you when you come in. ‘Hey, how are you today? Are you looking for anything in particular? Alright, have a great day.’ And that's what they get paid to do. And most people are paying 500$, $1000, $10,000 a month to their chatbot software to just have a greeter on their website and just get filled with nonsense.”
For him, underutilizing a bot is a missed opportunity. Software alone can’t do the work it’s supposed to if it’s just purchased and immediately put on a shelf without any further attention dedicated to it. Even worse, it can end up being a poor experience for users.
Closely related to underutilized bots are evergreen ones. Or rather, the lack of understanding of which chatbots are not evergreen.
It’s essential to keep track of how people engage with chatbots to see which ones are keepers and which ones need to be built anew. Brendan elaborates: “A really good example was when the pandemic became a global thing that we all had to be concerned about. We recommended to our clients, ‘if you're running chat on your site, you're doing any sort of conversational marketing, find out what's changed for people.’ You can send out emails, you can have them fill out surveys. But everybody who comes to your website, what they need, might have changed in response to the pandemic. Run that for a week. Let's find out across your whole site. What do people want? It's probably different than what they used to want.”
He also stresses the importance of paying attention to bit cultural moments and responding to them in your conversational marketing strategy. “It's incredibly effective.”
Not Having Fun
One of the things Brendan loves most about marketing is its creative side. For him, conversational marketing is a great way to explore that side and have a bit of fun while at it.
Sure, the end goal is to spark conversations that will ultimately turn website visitors into leads and customers, but for Brendan, it’s become too much of a focus.
“Can we do something a little silly and just run it for a couple of days? Just have a silly chatbot on your blog for a few days. And just surprise and delight people, they come to the blog, and then they have this fun little experience. And it doesn't convert, it's not meant to convert, but they just have that in the back of their head forever, of like, that was fun. Right? Like, we don't do that anymore. It's like ‘sell them, get them in the funnel. Nurture them let's get the conversions going, because we got to meet our Q4 targets.’ And it's like, I don't know, like, let's be marketers, again, you know?”
Talking to Customers to Keep the Conversation Going
The same principle of bringing fun and creativity back to marketing can be applied to starting a conversation with someone and keeping that conversation going.
As Brendan puts it: “You're only limited by your creativity. You don't know why a person came there. Unless you've talked to people, unless you've looked at what people are clicking on a page and kind of like really figuring out. Again, so much of my way of thinking about marketing comes back to humans and comes back to intent.”
Talking to people is precisely the number one piece of advice he has to offer whoever asks him for help sprucing up their conversational marketing strategy.
“I can give people these like banger [conversation] openers, but like, really? Talk to your customers, right? It's the thing we all say to do. And then nobody does. Talk to your customers, figure out why are they coming to this page? How do we enhance this experience? How do we get them closer to what they want?”
Brendan does have a few go-to conversation starters he thinks are foolproof; the problem with sharing them, though, is that if everybody uses them, then no one is standing out from the crowd. And that’s not what businesses want. Talking to customers bears a significance he can’t stress enough: “Spend some time [with them], bribe them, pay them, surprise and delight them any way you can to get them on a call, find out what they looked at on the website that was impactful for them.”
If businesses do all that, they’ll come much closer to offering people an enjoyable conversational experience, which in turn can increase their chances of converting these people into leads.
Opinions might differ, but for Brendan Hufford, SEO is still very much alive and continues to show proof of its undeniable traffic-generating power. And when paired with other tools such as chatbots, it doesn’t look like it will be going anywhere soon.