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In a Year of Worsts, SEO Just Became the Best

SEO just became the top priority marketing channel. Here's what led to this shift and how it impacts both organizations and marketers.


It’s safe to say 2020 has been – how do I put this eloquently – sucky.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how future historians will refer to it.

However, amidst all the chaos in the world, something strange happened,

Something I don’t think anyone could have predicted.

SEO became the top priority marketing channel.

I can’t tell you how many CMOs and senior marketers at enterprise companies have told me this over the last few months.


Several reasons.

Let’s dig into the three I’m hearing the most.

3 Radical Shifts That Led to the Rise of SEO This Year

Marketers find themselves in uncharted waters.

To get our bearings, we have had to redefine:

1. Budgets

When COVID-19 struck we (at Conductor) surveyed 250+ marketing leaders to see how they felt this would affect their plans for 2020.

Not surprisingly, 65% of those polled expected budget cuts.

We were surprised, however, to see that 68% of respondents said their goals would remain the same or increase.

Ouch. Do more with less.

We’ve heard this drumbeat before, but with so much uncertainty it’s hard to know what strategies and tactics to rely on.

Or maybe it isn’t, as 63% of leaders said SEO would be more important to them now.

Perhaps that’s due to the fallacy that SEO is free – but maybe marketing organizations have evolved to better understand the true value of search?

2. Content

Our content priorities have shifted.

We now need explainer content about seemingly everything – from how buyers know that what’s in their digital shopping cart will make its way to their home to how consumers should feel safe engaging with our business in the physical world.

Note: In case quarantining and social distancing made you forget, the physical world is that place outside your front door that you don’t need to log in to Zoom to get to.

3. Value Propositions

We’ve all had to revisit and sometimes dissect the value propositions of our products and services.

That means revising old messaging to ensure it doesn’t sound out of touch, creating new, informed content.

Through that process, we are forced to better understand our customers’ concerns and meet them head-on.

Why the Rise of SEO Took So Long

The SEO industry has made significant progress over the last 10-15 years.

More companies and executives understand the critical value of organic.

Yet we probably all agree it has happened far too slowly and not to the organizational depth that it should.

I’m still shocked by the number of mid- to large-sized companies that don’t have dedicated, in-house SEO professionals.

Even those that do rarely seem to empower them properly with the adequate budgets, resources, and authority.

Doing SEO alone is hard!

Most of the time you are reacting to other teams’ negative impact on SEO or training them on organic research.

That doesn’t leave much time to analyze let alone execute. (What are my KPIs again?)

The siloed structures of organizations make it incredibly difficult for SEO to be deployed proactively, and SEO professionals find roadblocks at all organizational levels:


Executives often bring in SEO too late in the process. Take a website migration.

In the 11th hour of the planning, they say, “let’s make sure this doesn’t hurt our rankings.”

Yet most critical decisions that impact SEO have already been implemented.

The only option for the SEO is to make the best of what she’s handed or convince everyone to revisit work already “accomplished.” (Neither is a great place to find oneself).


The marketing team decides to create a new product or create a new company position that doesn’t take into account the way in which their audience is expressing itself online.

That makes it harder to rank for, and it can be at odds with their customers’ actual search intent.

Talk about a tough spot to be as a search practitioner!

Content Teams

Content teams don’t use search data to help them understand their customers’ needs and concerns.

And the content they write doesn’t speak the language those customers use when searching for answers.

This sets up a struggle between SEO and the editorial team over updating old content for search and where the focus of new content should be.

IT Team

The IT team only execute so many sprints and fulfill so many tickets.

They have to balance the entire organization’s needs and prioritize.

SEO professionals constantly fight to gain priority in the queue but often fall short, finding themselves hamstrung to accomplish sometimes the simplest tasks. (“What do you mean my CMS doesn’t allow for me to make title tag changes?!”)

There is no malice in these conflicts with other teams.

Each team is just trying to move their portion forward as intended. But the gridlock is a result of a pre-pandemic status quo that is rapidly changing.

The only way forward is with our eyes open.

And only search data gives us the real, unvarnished picture of where we’re headed.

So I ask, who better than the SEO team to be the eyes and ears of the organization?

After all we are the keepers of search data. We have access to the world’s innermost thoughts and feelings.

Today’s SEO must be…

A Champion of Audiences & the Audience Whisperer

SEO professionals must help the Brand, Comms, General Marketing, and Executive teams to understand:

  • The concerns of their audiences.
  • The terminology they are using.
  • The companies and digital entities they are currently finding when searching for solutions online.

A Structural Engineer of Content & Data

SEO professionals must help the Content, UX/UI, and IT Teams to shape the digital assets of the site to meet the needs defined by the consumer.

An Optimizer of Organizational Wisdom to the Outside World

SEO professionals will help the Product Team, Sales Teams, Customer Service Teams make sure their content, messaging and even features/solutions map back to the clients’ needs using the terms and ways in the ways they express them.

So How in the World Do We Do This?

Get a commitment from the highest levels in the organization that SEO will no longer be seen as a tactic, but rather a cultural mindset: “I wonder how people search for that?” or “I wonder if doing this to the page would help/hurt it be found?”

This means creating a center of excellence, one that is properly funded, resourced, and supported by senior leadership.

This team’s success will be judged on its ability to move the traditional metrics of organic traffic, rankings, conversions forward as much as its ability to instill positive progress in other team processes, methodologies, and understanding of SEO best practices.

For example, a KPI should be 50% of our new content creation for the site is now informed by search data.

This means empowering all teams to have access to resources that can easily inform them of search intent or measure the outcome of actions they take, which makes SEO more approachable and less mystical.

Stepping Up

Now is the time for SEO professionals to step up.

Their organizations want – and honestly, need – their insights.

Audiences are asking for solutions, and they’re willing to entertain any credible help they can find.

The only thing they need to do is see these changes as the progress they are and become the centers of excellence they were always meant to be.

In this time of uncertainty, search is literally the number one place people turn to for answers to the unknown.

And this has created an amazing opportunity to plan content and optimize web assets to make sure your answers find people’s questions.

I love to remind people that “no one lies to their search bar.”

Understanding what people care about and are searching to solve is the most powerful data businesses need to meet their customers’ demands.

More Resources:

Image Credits

Featured image: Conductor

Category Enterprise SEO
Stephan Bajaio Chief Evangelist & Co-Founder at Conductor

Stephan Bajaio joined Conductor from Yahoo in March of 2008. During his tenure, he has built and lead multiple teams ...

In a Year of Worsts, SEO Just Became the Best

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