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In revamping the overall image and branding for our Raleigh SEO and Internet marketing company, I wanted our first SEO blog post to be something that got at the very heart of how our services are different. The lion has always been our mascot for good reason, and so I debated on metaphors relating to that. I also considered discussion about things like sophisticated SEO services, advanced tools, personal service, commentary on recent developments in the industry, and so on. The final answer came to me all on its own, and it’s none of those things. This writing speaks mostly from the perspective of advice for those who are new to SEO, and includes essential take-aways for clients as well.

Like most writing that comes from the heart, this entire article simply popped into my head quite unexpectedly this weekend. I had been trying to think about what I wanted to write about, and then simply put the whole thing out of my mind for a while. I was standing there waiting patiently to pick up some food to bring home, when, quite suddenly, there it was – SEO and Kung Fu all wrapped together very neatly inside my mind. It probably surprised me as much as it does you, but I think some of the analogies really get at the heart of some things that both SEO clients and practitioners alike should consider in discussion about what type of SEO strategy is appropriate for a given business.

Hidden Depth in SEO Methods

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering what on earth SEO and Kung Fu have in common. To begin, I have found over the years that true Kung Fu has immense depth and subtlety to it that most students of the arts seek, but that few find. On the surface, what the eyes see may appear at first to look much like any other martial art. This is not unlike a client trying to compare one SEO company with another. Kung fu is easy to visually observe, of course, and upon closer examination even an untrained eye will soon see the difference between smooth coordinated motion as all individual parts move not as individual parts, but rather as part of a greater whole, as contrasted with the choppy disconnected movements that lack integrated power. It is also thus with our SEO, but the only thing meaningful a client can see are search engine ranking changes which occur not right before the eye, but rather gradually over time. When the SEO is done right, though, there are significant changes occurring beneath the surface that may not, at first, be discernable to most, as we begin making critical shifts in the internal posture and alignment of your online presence. A single inch to the left or right can mean a 30% difference in effective power. This is true with our SEO as well, and business owners would assuredly want a 30% better return on investment.

SEO Beginnings

When you first begin your SEO training, there will be a natural temptation to focus on the minor mechanics, as if they are where the power is found. Your eyes might be drawn to the hand, even though power begins at the feet. This is also true with our SEO, where we must also ensure we have built a strong foundation, that each individual piece is correct, built correctly on top of what’s below it, that all pieces are in the correct position and alignment, and that the timing of our movements is like one smooth fluid motion where all pieces work in harmony, rather than thinking of them as individual pieces moving separately. When first beginning, you should take the time to patiently learn how to handle all of the individual pieces of on-site website optimization. Learn not only about H1 tags, titles, meta description, categories, keyword ratios, minification, image optimization, and so forth, both in regard to each piece on its own, but also dig deeper about how to put the pieces together properly for well-coordinated synergistic effect.

In fact, trying to simply focus on perfecting each individual piece, and not exploring the depth and nuances to the art of putting them together – and it is very much an art – could well lead an SEO novice into over-optimization, which can get a website penalized. Where did the SEO student go wrong in such a situation? Their mind was not in the right place.

As an SEO practioner, you are engaging in a dance, and your partners are the search engines. You must learn to move in harmony with them; they do not respond well to such obvious deliberate attempts to control them as a too-perfectly-optimized website. No – we must first earn the trust of our partner through correct action and the demonstration of both our competence and integrity, and our partner will see this and begin to dance together in harmony with us. This philosophy is at the very heart of either building a solid SEO foundation that will be strong over time, or a house of cards that will eventually fall. Google only gets smarter, and yet many people still try to employ SEO tricks that can only possibly have short-term results at best. As a business owner, it’s critical to future of your business to avoid a spammy backlink profile for your business!

Integrity and Balance

My comments about demonstrating our integrity and right-mindedness also apply to off-site SEO such as content marketing, brand optimization, etc. It’s very easy to focus on a simple mechanic of link building, for example – which you should not do for its own sake, by the way, since it’s against Google’s TOS – and think that ordering a few thousand of them will do the trick, when in reality this would be much like yanking crudely on the partner you’re supposed to be dancing with while demanding in a loud voice, “Come here!” They won’t like it, your dance will be clumsy and awkward, you will lose their trust, and your partner might dismiss you, wanting nothing further to do with you.

A Light Touch

In Kung Fu, we perform training to learn to sense and respond naturally to very small changes in your partner’s position or momentum. For this to work, a light touch is needed. You must be relaxed and fluid, unfixed in your intent, so that you can sense and respond in the moment. This is easy to say but difficult to learn, and the same thing is true with our SEO. If your position and intent are fixed and rigid, determined on what you are going to do, you will no longer be open to sensing the subtle ranking signals from search engines that you might otherwise have detected. Perhaps you pushed too much, or your movement was off-center, or you were so intent on pushing that you failed to detect that your opponent was laying a trap for you, using your own momentum to let you put yourself off-balance. (I only use the term opponent to indicate the partner with whom there must be able to give and take, not to suggest any adversarial relationship, since such thinking will only get you into trouble.) In the world of SEO, things change daily. Having strategy is essential, but you should always be ready to shift and adjust.

Stillness in SEO

Hurrying with your SEO is very likely to get you nowhere fast. In Kung Fu, Sifu will say that to move forward, we must think back – and it’s very much true. As odd as this may sound, sometimes we go faster by slowing down, and to understand movement, we must first understand stillness. It is also this way with our SEO practice. Rather than getting caught up in the movement of performing one series of actions after another, it is vital to maintain and move from a place of internal stillness from which you can observe the movement around you as the search engines give you clues. There is a term used within SEO circles called “the dance,” which refers to a process in which search engine rankings may begin to respond to changes they’ve detected, and it isn’t at all unusual for rankings to actually drop initially when this process commences. As normal as this is, it almost always still causes alarm. Internal stillness is required so that you don’t get caught up in the moment and take a rash action, when what you really needed to do was to be patient and stay the course. In fact, once this begins, if you continue trying to mess with things, you might really confuse the search engines, or potentially even make them think that you’re up to no good depending on what you do.

SEO Strategy

Just as no two situations in Kung Fu will call for the exact same strategy, the same thing is very true of our SEO. Naturally, you cannot simply seek to keep applying the same formula and expect it to work on everything equally – and yet SEO is often sold this way. Each situation calls for its own strategy. For best results, it is important to be able to step back and consider the whole picture of your client’s online presence and the changing market conditions around them before ever beginning any application of SEO methods. You must be open to doing what is needed – not just doing what you expected to have to do. This will ensure that you are not investing resources into efforts that will only have temporary or minimal business impact. One example of this is to study the Google trend data for a search phrase for their locale, and then discuss this with the business owner. The resulting strategy might be to go after some part of that business realizing up-front that it is on a steady decline, and thus limit the amount of effort expended on it, while also expending effort on a different keyword which is increasing in popularity over time, but which may be more competitive. Perhaps in such a case you will strike some balance of efforts between the two for both short-term and long-term financial benefit. You must also consider the goals, nature, and characteristics of both the business and their typical customers, so the most effective methods can be used to connect the dots for search engines in a way that is healthy, legitimate and beneficial.

SEO Fu

It is my hope with this article to explain that while you may get lucky, consistently good SEO requires that we step back, consider the big picture, find our place of stillness, temporarily suspend our formulaic expectations, and allow ourselves to exist in the moment of an ever-changing competitive landscape with our opponents seeking to best us for the top positions. We must sense the subtle movements of the search engines, remaining fluid and ready to act in partnership with them when presented with the right opportunity. Recognize that any backlinking formula is like kata. It is a vehicle for facilitating understanding, but should never be a prescription for blind action.

Realize this does not mean that we act mindlessly – quite the opposite! Our full attention is on our SEO, but neither are we distracted by our SEO itself. Through practice, the mechanics of our SEO such as on- and off-page optimization become second nature to us. At this point we can allow our mind to consider the overall strategy, implementing what we know needs to be done while remaining entirely flexible to adjust our movements at any time. This brings me to three specific points.

  1. POSTURE. Maintaining an upright posture and stabile foundation are as key to success in long-term SEO as they are in Kung Fu. You should no more build your SEO on spammy links and thin-content than you should try to perform Kung Fu with errant legs and feet. Seek to have integrity in your structure, and challenge yourself to physically sit or stand up straight. Be ready without being tense, and be attentive without being fixated.
  2. ALIGNMENT. All parts should focus on the one single end result. Very often, people new to SEO will see it as adding a little bit of this, then a little bit of that, and then perhaps adding a bit of the other. Unfortunately without well-considered overall intent, this would be like the hand and the foot working against each other. No part is moving in isolation; all parts move together.
  3. TIMING. All things must come together at the right time, and yet this moment can change. Move too slow, and the opportunity will pass by. Move too quickly, and your recklessness may throw you off balance and result in your being compromised.

Is this all a bit philosophical? Quite so – but this depth of philosophy is the difference between mediocre SEO, and good SEO. Google makes search engine algorithm updates, on average, on a daily basis. While there are certainly best practices – and they do evolve over time – if you’re looking for a blueprint you can just nail out, you’re going to be disappointed. Strategies, yes – but blueprints, no. It also doesn’t make logical sense to expect mediocre content to beat out quality content marketing, and yet this is exactly what a lot of people try to do – thinking that if mediocre content isn’t working, then they must just need more of it! This is not the way. If you find yourself thinking such things, you may want to ask yourself how a quality dance partner for Google would handle such a situation. What are you doing that’s truly worthy of attention? If you have no ready answers, then you may have found at least part of your problem.

Google Ranking Magic

To complicate things for those trying to learn the art and science of SEO, I must hear about some new miracle ranking formula or free traffic source at least once a week, like the latest “ninja trick” of the SEO world. I’ve already heard about two new miracle products this week, and the week is young. While certainly there are things to be learned and tools that can make our life easier, it’s also quite easy find yourself chasing your tail because your mind wasn’t in the right place to start with. SEO is a dance that we perform together with Google, and there are a great many perfectly legitimate ways of improving website rankings and earning legitimate backlinks without necessarily building them for their own sake, which, again, is against Google’s TOS and will get you in trouble.

Just like in Kung Fu, a true deep understanding of the basics is far more powerful than a couple of fancy secret moves, and yet when we first begin, these basics seem so simple on the surface, as if the real secrets haven’t been shared with us, when the truth is that we simply allowed our mind to skip along the surface to the next cool move without seeking to explore the depth of what was already in our hands. It is only over time that we come to appreciate the power these seemingly simple things have when we begin to truly understand them. This depth of understanding comes only over time, with right-mindedness. Begin with basic moves that show Google you’re a worthwhile partner before concerning yourself with trying to master strategies with deeper levels of nuance.

SEO Consulting

SEO Clients should know there are essentially two types of SEO, and to ensure satisfaction with the results, it’s critical that the SEO methodology employed be matched with the client’s expectations. The first approach – the one that makes the most sense if you want to achieve results – is predicated on the assumption that the SEO consultant has a high degree of expertise and can, in fact, deliver success. In a consulting engagement, there will be a high degree of flexibility in the approach. There is only one, and only one, deliverable, and that’s improved website ranking. Specific individual components and work activities should be understood up front to be dynamic and may change over the course of the engagement. In an SEO consulting engagement, the client is paying first and foremost for sophisticated skill and knowledge, and secondarily for the actual execution of any resulting work activities. The degree of interaction with you may vary by client; offer different levels of discussion to your client up front so your clients will have clear expectations about how much time you’re going to spend talking with them. Some clients will be happy to simply see results, while others may want more time to understand what you’re doing. Some may even be interested in having you train their staff. All of these approaches are fine, but you should be clear about your different offerings and their associated costs.

The second – and cheaper – type of engagement results either because a client doesn’t think they can afford SEO consulting, or because they didn’t know that such advanced services were available. In this scenario, you’re really just delivering groceries. Everybody agrees up front that you are going to provide a very specific set of deliverables on some predetermined schedule. It’s a script that they are paying you to follow. While such a script may improve their rankings, it’s focused entirely on the idea that the client is paying for time spent – not for results. Sometimes this will work out great for the client and they’ll get excellent results. Other times they may not get the kind of ranking results they wanted, but they still got exactly what they paid for. This is how most SEO is bought and sold across the market in general, even though it isn’t necessarily what most businesses would want if they understood the difference.

Clients should understand the rather significant difference between these two approaches and decide early on which approach best suits their business.

As an SEO practitioner, you should consider where you are in your SEO fu and determine what to offer your clients. When paired with a well-run business, your SEO has the potential to transform that business into a market superstar. Consider this in who you take on as clients. Does that business know how to cost-effectively grow, and are they prepared to actually be successful? Will they be a good client to work with? Do they truly want more traffic to their business? As a business owner, are you ready for more inbound leads?

Conclusion

As this writing has now gone on far longer than I ever even imagined or intended, it must come to a close for fear that I will otherwise have written a book. I found myself beginning another section just now but decided that it can wait for another day. While I could have chosen other metaphor to use in my discussion of SEO, I like this one in particular because the goal of SEO is to create a strong relationship between your online brand and search engines – and that’s an excellent way to see it. It is neither a conquest nor a one-off activity, and it requires nurturing to stand the test of time. Success with SEO requires finesse, attentiveness, integrity, and patience.

If you need a Raleigh SEO company to help, contact us.