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Quantifying SEO ROI: Strategies for Demonstrating Tangible Results

In Conversation with Annika Haataja

For this episode of E-Coffee with Experts, Dawood Bukhari interviewed Annika Haataja, SEO Director at Seeker Digital, an Advertising Agency located in Bristol, England. She unveils the intricacies of SEO strategies, content optimization in the era of Google updates, and the transformative impact of AI integration. Annika’s expertise sheds light on mastering technical SEO challenges, crafting purposeful content, and the strategic balance between in-house and agency perspectives in the ever-evolving world of digital marketing.

Watch the episode now for more insights!

The impact of SEO goes beyond just website performance – it has a company-wide impact.

Annika Haataja
SEO Director at Seeker Digital

Hello, everyone. Today, we have with us Annika Haataja, SEO Director at Seeker Digital. Annika, thank you for your time, and excited to have you today.

Thanks very much. I’m very excited to be here.

Seeker Digital is a full-service SEO agency. Annika, you have had a wonderful journey so far. You have been doing SEO quite for a long time, and you have an interesting journey yourself. It would be great if you could introduce yourself to your audience and just provide some insights on your journey into the world of SEO.

Sure. Wow, that’s a big question. But yeah. I’m Annika and I’m the SEO Director at Seeker Digital. I mentioned in the introduction, effectively, we’re a performance organic search agency. It’s just making it sound very fancy. So effectively, We’re an SEO agency based in the UK. My current role involves very big focus still on SEO and the delivery side of things, commercial side of our client projects and account management. Some technical SEO still, that’s my background, and being able to execute that still in my job is definitely really beneficial and fun as well. We’re based in the UK. We’ve got clients across the globe, a few in the US, obviously in the UK as well, Europe, and different clients, mainly in SaaS and e-commerce enterprise industries, but not, I guess, too specifically focused on only one industry, although those are the ones that we have most experience in. Often, I guess clients do benefit from that long experience. Seeing different trends in different markets is often quite interesting, and we can share those details always with our clients, which they tend to appreciate. But I’ve been at Seeker for almost three years now, I think.

I started as a senior SEO strategist and then move on to head of SEO and now recently SEO director. Yeah, it’s been a really good journey. Obviously, technically, it was a return back to agency life for me. I started my career as a freelancer, which is often the opposite of what you do. You often finish your career as a freelancer because it gives you a lot of freedom. But yeah, I started, I guess, learning about SEO, mainly when I was in my uni degree in digital marketing and doing my master’s in Brighton in the UK. There was some local businesses that they were actually looking for a student to do marketing for them. I was able to put my hand out, but I was like, This is very relevant for me. I started doing marketing for a few smaller local businesses while studying and effectively learning about SEO whilst doing it was quite interesting because essentially looking at universities and higher education. Seo is not necessarily very highly relevant in the curriculum and not taught so much as being a freelancer and a student couldn’t really afford any big courses or mentoring. So yeah, very much originally self-taught, which was good in a way that starting as a technically marketing freelance and marketing person, seeing the impact of SEO and PPC and social and newsletters and effectively trying to make them all work together was interesting, although not a very experienced person, but that did improve my skills and put me into some a direction.

Moving to New Zealand, I found my first agency role as an SEO analyst. So that’s where the agency experience started, which definitely taught me a lot, after which I moved in-house and then back agency world again. So, yeah, that’s a bit of a summary. A lot happened in between, but it taught me a lot.

You have seen both sides, in-house and agency. I think right now, in the position you are in, I think you have all the experience to understand the client side as well as the agency side. Congratulations on a successful career, and we wish you all the best for your future as well.

Thank you. Yeah, it’s been a ride. I do feel this is a topic I could talk about forever. I love talking about in-house versus agency and hearing people’s thoughts and opinions and effectively trying to understand, is it a different person that works in an agency versus in-house, or could anybody do both? Obviously, yeah, definitely could. But what are the different learnings from working in-house and Agency? I guess what always brings to mind me is just general empathy and understanding of the other side because often I think whether you’re working in-house or agency when you’re in SEO, You have some frustration over something. For clients, often the frustration might be, obviously, performance because it’s often related to their performance and progression in the business as well. I guess with agencies, it might be, Oh, we’re only doing one small thing out of the wide spectrum of SEO. How can we control everything when we’ve been hired to do perhaps one thing? But, yeah, effectively, understanding both sides and how as an agency, we can support the person who is the perhaps SEO manager or Marketing Manager in a business and being able to elevate them and to support their results and their role effectively.

Because if you can prove the value that, okay, whatever the goals are, and that’s super important to also focus on, what are the actual goals and perhaps what are the personal goals for that person. If we can help them, then there’s usually a successful partnership overall. But I guess from an SEO point of view, people often ask me, What should I do to be able to be successful in-house or what should I do to be successful in agencies? And what have you learned? I guess when working in an in-house role, perhaps some of the learnings you might gain, and what I feel like I did gain is the understanding of how SEO has an impact on the wider spectrum of marketing in the job that I had. I guess it depends. You can see when you’re invited to certain meetings, Okay, SEO is important for this. Why? Why did you invite me to this meeting? Having that dynamic of being the voice of whether it’s sometimes the website or even the brand or technical side of things or content, It’s quite interesting to see. It has a company-wide impact. Not all companies think that way yet, which is understandable because it’s not the, I guess, longest industry that has been around, still relatively new and quite often quite difficult to understand as well as a stakeholder.

But yeah, that building the relationship and building the narrative and building the reputation within the business, often that takes almost longer than the actual SEO work itself. So very much managing those relationships. I guess the agency is slightly more focused on, obviously, the skills and training and learning and advancing your SEO skills and being a bit, perhaps, bit more technical and focused on the technical side of SEO.

No, absolutely. I think one thing that you mentioned, which I think is very important and a lot of people miss out on is when you talked about empathy to make sure you’re running a successful agency. Empathy has so many meanings here because if you are somebody who is looking at every deliverable or every activity from a client’s point of view, even a small one has keyword research. Anybody can do keyword research. Again, by anybody, there is a difference in the skill set and stuff like that. Anybody can just pull out a list of keywords from a tool, just look at the search volume, and difficulty score, and just give a dump of keywords. But then there’s another difference where you look at it from a client point of view before giving to the client, look at their business, see which ones make sense, which ones do not make sense. The same two deliverables, but part in a different way. The ones where you’re looking at each deliverable from a client’s standpoint, I think that’s the difference between a very successful agency with a very low churn rate. I think that empathy point is crucial, and that too in today’s world when things are changing so much, I think if you’re not empathetic, it’s very difficult to run a successful SEO agency.

Yeah, exactly. Even going back to such a basic thought why are we here? Why do clients pay us? They have probably sometimes even longer experience or more skill than perhaps our team might have. Usually, looking at why they need external resources. Most often it’s time. How do we make sure that the time that we also spend and the outcome and output of that is valuable enough for them to not have to spend the time? So yeah, very much being almost the right-hand of your client and your contact and be, it sounds like a cliché, but be part of the team or be their team, essentially. So yeah, that’s a big one, and understanding what their pain points are and why can you help them with those pain points.

Absolutely. With the recent Google updates happening, how do you see content helpfulness impact performance?

Massively, really. I don’t think it’s any one industry that is and will be and has been impacted. I think it’s across the board. I know there’s always a lot of chatter about spam and not necessarily great results on Google. That’s perhaps a different topic by way of just focusing on the content itself and helpfulness. Yeah, it’s huge. Not only, obviously, from a visibility point of view, which we’ve seen for a lot of industries that we’ve been researching, interestingly not August or September updates, but November updates seem to be quite a big one in terms of keyword visibility and the SERPs changing quite significantly. I think it’s important to focus on the helpfulness of content when we create when we optimize it, and whenever we put any content on this website. It has to serve a purpose for the user. Not only does everybody always say that you’re not doing it for Google, you’re not doing it for search engines, but I guess technically you’re not also doing it just for your website. Not putting content out there because you expect that it should be on your website. But actually, why would you write that copy?

Why would you create that image that table or that infographic for the user? So essentially understanding not only search intent, but also what can the user do with that content, and whether is it good enough for them to actually consume it, be satisfied, and essentially, perhaps, ideally, purchase whatever you’re selling, or would they try to find the information elsewhere even after reading your content. How do we satisfy the expectations of the user? Often we set the expectations ourselves. Sometimes we might say, Here’s everything you to know about this topic, but can you tell them everything that they can or possibly would want to know about the topic? Probably not. Whatever we state, especially at the beginning of the page, even such basic things as H1 or the meta title, that’s essentially giving them a promise. This is what you will get with the content. If you’re not delivering on that promise, then why would they stay on the page or your site? So effectively, it not only the visibility of the content, but also the experience, conversions, and sales. So yeah, it’s super crucial.

Any particular example that comes to your mind where you made a change in the content from a helpfulness point of view or an improvement point of view, and you could see a direct impact?

Yeah, we’ve seen that with quite a few of our clients. That’s the purpose of any optimization work that we don’t necessarily go and optimize just the meta description or the headings, but there’s always quite a rigorous process when we do optimization. So effectively, we would want the final piece of content to be completely helpful, bring value, and have a purpose. And that’s why a lot of the content work that we do now with clients not only includes optimization, but also removing content and repurposing it completely, refocusing it, because I think it’s very common for a lot of sites to have quite historically not only outdated content, but there might have been a reason for it to be published once for a social media campaign, and then it just stayed in their blog section, and they were hoping perhaps that eventually, it will generate some traffic. But if those pages keep on happening and keep on increasing in volume, that’s not going to help the website. A lot of our work recently has been effectively removing the unhelpful content because I guess as we know, it can have a site-wide impact.

It’s quite a high-level big strategic work instead of nitty-gritty. Sometimes the nitty-gritty work is needed. If we’re talking about specific commercial pages that are super competitive and we just really need them to increase in rankings. But if we’re talking about content strategy, then it’s quite a high-level task, I guess, from that point of view.

I understand. Annika, with all these changes, and happenings with AI, content, again, not quality content, but still content as a general term is becoming more and more content is getting created, whether it’s AI or AI-powered. We have so much content being produced now as compared to what was being produced earlier. Now, again, you have to make sure that you’re standing out, you’re creating content that is helpful and provides value. How are you seeing this change? More people using AI for content. What is the right way of staying ahead of the curve using AI, but at the same time, ensuring that it’s not having a negative impact on a client’s website?

Yeah, I think a lot of people are interested in that and trying to find ways to produce content in this new environment. I guess when it comes to AI-generated content, obviously, eventually, if we generate content using AI, everything will be AI-generated in the end, and it will just be repeating what’s already there in terms of information. What has been nice to see I guess a bit of a trend from the other standpoint is the types of content that we have started to create almost as a default. Whether it’s podcasts and videos and YouTube Shorts and different variations of content even smaller businesses may be used to have a bit of a barrier. Now with AI, you don’t need to have a design team necessarily. You don’t need to have really expensive software. But actually with AI, smaller where businesses can have AI as their team to generate perhaps beautiful images, which also is a bit of a question mark whether there are conversations around stock images versus AI-generated images. But yes, being able to create videos, etc. From that point of view, it can be super useful.

If we’re talking about website copies, specifically, how do we make sure that it’s valuable enough and unique enough? We all know that is one ranking factor. I think bringing the experts in has never been a bad idea. Whether you’re a SaaS brand or e-commerce, there will be somebody in the business who knows everything about the product because they build the product, or they know everything about what the customers want because they speak to the customer every day. Bringing those people in within your content production and being able to reflect on what’s going on in the business, in the industry, industry within the consumer’s minds, because if we’re only relying on third-party data, which is AI or SEO tools, we’re just going to be repeating what everybody else is doing, and it’s really difficult to stand out and provide that extra value. What’s the unique selling point of your business? I think bringing more people in, but also bringing SEO in those conversations because I guess we have the data from the external point of view, can be very beneficial for communication and dialog between different teams.

In your experience, what are some common misconceptions businesses have about SEO ROI? How do you demystify the value proposition and demonstrate the tangible impact of SEO investments?

That’s an age-old question. I wish I had a report template or something that I could sell to people because I would probably be a billionaire. After all, it’s really hard to prove the value of SEO. But I think the understanding generally has come a long way of what are both tangible and intangible benefits of SEO. I guess when it comes to ROI in different industries, It can be more difficult to measure that with e-commerce. I love e-commerce, and Google Analytics, because you can see very clearly what the value is and communicate that to the client. But, yeah, effectively, finding new metrics as well that resonate with the client. Some metrics, especially when it comes to the more creative side of SEO, for example, digital PR, some of those metrics may be clients never thought about actually being important or worth measuring, for example, brand search, like how much search volume or actual traffic we get from the brand. Often that’s pushed aside. Oh, I’m an SEO, that’s not my job. That’s the business’s job. It’s like, who’s the business effectively? Finding those relevant metrics and trying to find ways to attribute them to the work, is not easy.

I’m very much honest about that, especially when we’re looking at long-term data. If we get really good coverage in March, it doesn’t necessarily mean that by July, our rankings would have improved. But I guess there’s the side effect when it comes to all the other elements of SEO and all the other elements on the website, the overall marketing, they all impact our results as well, which is not what the client wants to buy, effectively. I guess it’s us understanding it and not only accepting it but also feeling a bit of empathy. We’re talking about empathy for ourselves, but also for our teams as well. I think it’s really important to start expanding from the more traditional measuring metrics like click-through rate or revenue but looking at perhaps more intangible figures like share of search and coverage. What is the coverage that the clients want? How well does the optimized content on specific pages? How does it improve? Sometimes we need to go into a bit more detail when we’re reporting on our work.

Annika, tell us your favorite client story. I’m sure there must be many. Whatever comes top of mind.

Gosh, that’s a big question. I think it’s difficult to choose one specific one. I guess as a theme, we’ve had some clients who started as local businesses back in Bristol, where we’re also based officially, although fully remote at the moment. We would have started working with them in maybe 2017, even 2016, maybe doing one small audit, perhaps a migration project, which is a project that I love. Back then, the results would have been perhaps much easier to see, considering how the industry has changed, the competition has changed, and Google has changed. But back in the day, even after one audit, they might see a bit of a difference and the interest might increase and they would want to do more. Now, looking at our relationship with them, they’re making millions of pounds a year, growing their warehouses moving to new locations, and creating business departments that didn’t exist before. I think those success stories, although it’s not always guaranteed, but it does make you realize that you can make quite a big difference. And that’s often as SEOs, it’s hard to look back and realize how far you’ve come, especially if you’re an agency and you work with multiple clients.

It’s quite nice to stop and realize that, wow, this business benefited from our work. And even a singular person, if you’re in-house SEO and you might not even have a team, you can still make a big difference. So that’s pretty that we are needed.

Absolutely. Annika, I know we are short on time, but I will not let you go without paying a quick rapid-fire round of 3-5 questions. Are you ready?

All right.

Yeah, let’s do it. What was your number one New Year resolution?

I think it has to be to stress less because I think we all need to, especially after last year, I think a lot of people probably got to a point where things got stressful, not just for work, but whatever is happening in the world. It’s easier to say, to stop stressing, but finding maybe new ways of managing it and enjoying what we’re doing and focusing on the day-to-day because it’s fun stuff and it’s great work. So yeah, trying to stay positive and look forward to the future more so than feeling worried or stressed.

Honestly, in today’s time, that’s a very good resolution to have. I think A lot of us need that. Great.

Good to hear.

All right. Early mornings or late nights?

Late night. I’m proud of waking up early. I’m one of those people who gets productive. It could be 10:00 PM. Not to say that I work until 10:00 PM. I I might have when I was a freelancer, but I can stay up forever, although it’s not very healthy.

Song that you never can get bored of.

That’s a good one. Sweet Child O’ Mine, By Guns N’ Roses. If you put it on when you’re working, it gives you so much energy.

If a movie was made on you, what genre would it be?

I hope action, I don’t know. I’m very introverted, but it would be nice to have an action film for sure.

Do you remember your last Google search?

Probably, God, I search every day, so it’s hard to say. What I often search for is if I’m writing a word correctly, which is so boring, and I know a lot of people do that, but especially as a non-English, or regional English speaker, I have to double-check my words all the time. So that would have probably been one.

Annika, thank you so much for your time. It was fun having you, and I wish you all the best.

No, thank you so much. Yeah, it was great. I enjoyed.

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