When you work in SEO, you are dealing with a lot of different people – from clients to developers to copywriters and higher-up decision makers. And if you can’t communicate to them what you are doing and why you are doing it, you won’t get anywhere – and as a freelancer, this can cost you clients.
When I onboarded a new client recently, they told me another SEO had already audited their website a while ago, but the recommendations hadn’t made sense to them. I asked for the report and was surprised to see that the problem wasn’t with the quality of the work – the consultant had actually done a good job – but with the communication style: The client specifically mentioned they couldn’t work with the long, detailed written report they’d received. So the previous consultant lost that client.
As you can see from that example, communication is important, but given that SEO is complex and there are a lot of misconceptions about it, it is not easy.
In this article, I’ll share some of the things that work well for me and I hope you’ll find them useful as well. The way I approach communication is twofold: First, I make sure I present my work in a way that makes sense to whoever I’m talking to. Second, I work on the relationship itself.
How to explain and present your work to others
Break your findings up into smaller parts.
When I started out in SEO, I made the same mistake from the example above – I would deliver my SEO audits in the form of long written reports. Now, I avoid it, unless a client specifically asks me to. The reason is that in my experience, recommendations buried in written reports are less likely to be put into practice.
Instead, I break audits up into smaller parts. In a first kick-off meeting, we talk about goals and areas we want to focus on. For each of the focus areas, I prepare a separate deliverable – that can be a short presentation, a spreadsheet or something else (more on formats later). Ideally, I present each deliverable in a dedicated short meeting instead of one long session at the end.
Don’t be opinionated about your format.
You might have a certain preference – for example, for Google Sheets over Excel. But if your goal is that your client or stakeholder takes your work and runs with it, you need to use whichever format they feel most comfortable with.
I usually present all options beforehand and let the other person decide.
Go easy on the jargon.
This is a great tip from Lori Calcott. Instead of “Featured Snippet”, say “above #1”. For “XML sitemap”, say “list of pages you want on Google”. Don’t try to impress people with jargon, and don’t expect everyone to know what you’re talking about. In fact, chances are they won’t tell you they don’t understand because of fear of looking stupid.
Over time, you’ll find you can educate your long-term clients on SEO concepts, but I don’t recommend doing it at the very beginning of a relationship.
Determine the single key message you want people to take away.
Whenever you’re going into a meeting to present something, ask yourself beforehand: If the other person forgets everything I’m saying, but remembers one thing, what should that be? Then repeat that.
In an SEO training for a small company, I wanted that key message to be: Search intent is more important than keywords. So I repeated that throughout the session, to a point where I thought I would come across as a broken record.
However, I was happy to see that the participants walked away with a better understanding of core concepts than I had ever achieved before. And the feedback was positive, too. So now I repeat, repeat, repeat.
Focus on the why first.
Instead of explaining every technical detail, explain the bigger picture. Most importantly – don’t start with the technical side of things. If you start like this:
“Hey, one of the things you need to do is fix your canonical tags. A canonical tag tells Google which duplicate of a page you want indexed, and at the moment, they look like this, but we really need them to be…”
Chances are, people check out at the mere mention of the word “canonical tag”.
However, by starting like this:
“Right now, we’re sending Google mixed messages about which pages we want to have in the search results.”
The other person understands your goal first and is less likely to be overwhelmed.
Only then I will ask how we can approach technical changes. If there is a developer I can talk to directly, I will ask to be put in touch with them, or if they work with a specific plugin, I will see if I can give them guidance about the first next steps.
The order makes all the difference.
Communication tips on the relationship level
Appreciate the other person’s expertise, even when you disagree.
It should go without saying that you need to appreciate your colleagues and clients if you want to have a productive work relationship. However, I see way too often how people fall short on this.
Consider this example: Last time I was in-house, the SEO lead made the following statement in a meeting with the content team: “We need to delete and redirect some of the old blog content, you know, the useless thin content that nobody wants to read.”
Whenever you suggest something like that, you need to remember: Somebody wrote those articles. In this case, that person was in the room. Turns out, when the blog was launched, they had to get it up and running quickly and so they wrote those short articles because they thought it was better than having the blog seem half empty.
Instead of stepping on someone’s toes, consider that everybody does things because they want to help – even if you disagree or strategy has changed, appreciate their efforts.
Figure out what drives the person.
And by that I mean not only the metrics they report to their manager. Go a bit deeper: Some people are scared of making mistakes, while others simply want to get the topic off their desks.
Each of them needs a different communication approach. The first person might want you to explain every detail until they are reassured, the latter will get annoyed if you take the same approach and might prefer you just take action. Watch out for those nuances by observing how the person interacts with you and others.
Most people know what this is like: Someone on the team or even a client challenges your expertise. Perhaps because they don’t want to change what they’re doing, or they had a different expectation of your role. If you don’t have the privilege of being a white cis male in the workplace, you’ll probably deal with situations like that on a regular basis.
When that happens, don’t take the bait and try to compete. It won’t help because when someone challenges you, they most likely feel threatened. If you follow them onto that level and try to proof yourself, you’ll end up in a downward spiral because when you compete, someone has to win – which means someone has to lose. Even if you “win”, you’ll end up running against the same wall again and again.
Instead, ask yourself: What does the situation need? That usually involves giving the other person an “out” – a solution where nobody is the winner, but nobody loses face either.
You don’t have to win every argument.
Which leads us to the last point: You don’t have to be right to get things done. Pick your battles and sometimes, just let go.