Thursday, 9 April 2020

6 Lessons SEOs Can Learn from the Coronavirus Crisis

We, SEOs are faced with a lot of challenges on a daily basis whether internally trying to convince teammates and other managers about the importance of certain SEO projects, or externally from all the uncertainties surrounding SEO.
With the coronavirus crisis I noticed 6 similarities between what the world is facing from this pandemic and what SEOs deal with as part of their job. I also noticed some lessons that SEOs can learn from what the smartest minds who are leading the world out of this crisis are doing.

1- Certainty is impossible but signals are everything

The world is now busy creating projections models for how many people will be infected and die from covid-19 putting different scenarios based on how people will respect the social-distancing orders. But public health officials made it very clear that these projections are very sensitive and can change rapidly with the change of human behaviour, and other factors too that cannot be controlled or predicted like the nature of the virus, the weather, etc. They also rely a lot on looking at historical data from other countries (and even previous pandemics to have a feel of what to expect to build their models accordingly)
Same with SEO, unlike most marketing activities, SEO decisions are based on signals, historical data, case studies from similar websites, and a delicate sense that is developed over time and with experience. It is never an exact formula or an equation. And like with public health projection numbers, it is very sensitive to algorithm changes.
So, as an SEO Manager myself, I totally feel the pressure that the Public Health Officials are having now trying to convince everyone to stay home to flatten the curve, costing countries billions (or even trillions) of dollars based on some back of envelope estimates and theoretical models that may or may not be relevant. But what if they haven’t!!!
The lesson here is that as an SEO, be confident to launch big projects based on signals, historical data, and theoretical models. And remember that if they were enough to take extreme actions to save lives, they should be just fine to make SEO-centric decisions.

2- Act fast, time is of the essence

In a pandemic, everyday a lot of people die. So time is of the essence, and the faster we act the more lives we get to save.
CureVac, a vaccine manufacturer, which is hoping to advance its own vaccine candidates to human testing soon, told the Financial Times that regulators would need to “abbreviate” the regulatory process for vaccine testing and speed up the vaccine approval process or face the consequences.
Same thing for SEO, everyday people search online for content whether it is informational, transactional, or navigational. If you don’t show up on the results page at all when people search for what you can show them, or you show with very poor or irrelevant content, you lose those people, and there is not a time back machine that can bring them back to you.
Of course there are technical and security constraints that will slow you down, content and brand guidelines that require approvals, revisions, more approvals, and more revisions. But if we want to learn something from the coronavirus crisis, we need to be more agile and find better ways to be fast without causing any harm. It is possible if the intention is there!

3- Act with everything you got

A couple of days ago, I found a post circulating among the SEO community on twitter about Bill Gates’ decision to fund the construction of factories that will manufacture seven promising coronavirus vaccines even before knowing which one will be the chosen one.
“Even though we’ll end up picking at most two [vaccines], we’re going to fund factories for all seven just so we don’t waste time in serially saying ‘ok which vaccine works’ and then building the factory…It’ll be a few billion dollars we’ll waste on manufacturing for the constructs that don’t get picked because something else is better. But a few billion in this situation we’re in, where there’s trillions of dollars…being lost economically, it is worth it,”
It may sound like gambling at the beginning, but if you look deeper, Gates’ foundation is not manufacturing 7 random vaccine candidates, they know that one of them will be the one that people will benefit from and are acting with all what they have to make sure when that working vaccine is known it is already manufactured and ready for distribution.
So again, we act fast and act with whatever data we got, but also we act with all our might.
How can that be a lesson for SEO? Simple, you present your SEO audit to your engineering team with 7 technical issues that need to be fixed with a certain way that ensures SEO best practices. Your engineering team will not gladly take your list and fix everything exactly as you asked for. There will be a lot of resistance and negotiation trying to get the minimal possible work with a lot of technical workarounds and band aid solutions so that the list is checked but not in the right way. That is when you need to be more persistent and tenacious, while remaining professional and friendly, and do your best to ensure that the SEO asks are being taken more seriously even though it may be hard to quantify each ask separately.

4- Some effective solutions are free

Governments racing with time to mass produce face masks, PPEs, sanitizers, and ventilators to save the lives of as many of their citizens as possible which is costing hundreds of millions of dollars. But a free, and I think an even more effective life-saving measure is social-distancing when people are well educated (with good content) about its importance to save lives.
In parallel, with businesses being on pause, most brands now are pausing their paid search campaigns and those who have invested in organic content are the ones harvesting the fruits of their labor.
Yes SEO is hard to quantify and is surrounded by a lot of uncertainties, and is faced with a lot of opposition and denial in good times, but it is the last castle that can defend your whole organization during trying times, because good content is what remains on the SERP when there are no ads.

5- Use fear to change a behavior

Psychological and Behavioural Economics studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains, as a factor for moving people from their status quo. In his paper, “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk”, Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman wrote that “People tend to be risk seeking in the domain of losses and risk-averse in the domain of gains”.
“People tend to be risk seeking in the domain of losses and risk-averse in the domain of gains”
Look how governments are reacting (or even over-reacting) towards the coronavirus pandemic; schools are closing, businesses are going bankrupt, massive layoffs, and hundreds of millions of people are not shaking hands or hugging anymore. Why all of that? Because of fear!
Economies are taking a very hard hit and all these social-distancing measures are costing a fortune but it will also save millions of lives. The thing is, no one will ever know how many lives will be saved when all of this is over.
Another good example is the 90s Y2K bug when computer experts warned the governments that the computer systems are not prepared to handle the year suffix changing from 99 to 00. Although it was not very clear what exactly could have happened if this bug wasn’t fixed, a big monetary investment was made to hire the right resources to fix this issue “just in case” it might prove to be necessary.
A lot of companies unfortunately look at SEO either as a growth only channel or when it gets hit because of a penalty or an algorithm change. Rarely do companies treat SEO as an asset that needs to be guarded. But if there is another thing we can learn from the covid-19 crisis, it is that SEO Managers should start educating their companies (or clients) that if websites take SEO for granted they may come a time when they LOSE whatever organic traffic they take for granted. And we have seen a lot of big brands losing millions of their traffic because of unintentionally blocking search engines, not paying attention to their content quality or implementing a technology stack that is not SEO-friendly.

6- Back to the basics, It’s all about humanity

SEO, like any ethical marketing practices, should be about driving value and listening to people’s pain and needs and using all the available resources to educate and delight them.
With an unprecedented amount of people using the internet like never before because of all the lockdown measures, that Netflix had to lower their streaming quality in some countries to avoid crashing the service, we know that people are consuming more content than ever before, and it is up to companies to react fast to present to their customers, or to a completely new target groups, content that is relevant, reassuring, and adds some value, and hope!
I have seen a lot of great examples of companies offering free subscriptions, support to businesses that got hit, tools, whitepapers, dashboards, trackers, support groups, free accommodation, free food, free rides, and you name it with no return on their invested time and resources, only. because it adds value and shows how the community matters to these brands not just profits.

My final thoughts

This crisis will be behind us, hopefully very soon, and we will stand up again. But life will never be the same. For those who acted for humanity and showed empathy and support whether to their employees, their customers, or to their community, will be remembered for ever. But for those who only understand shortsighted profits, and marketing for them is only a commercial faceless relationship, will always be vulnerable every time life happens because their bubble is not meant to last!