SEO is like an onion

Disclaimer: I did absolutely no keyword research to determine whether referencing Shrek when talking about SEO would gain me organic traffic.

SEO has layers. So. Many. Layers.

At first blush, it doesn’t really seem like it. Do whatever makes Google happy and set off on your way. You’ll be just fine!

Three parts of a sliced red onion, showing off the layers inside.
Behold: the SEO onion. You’ve got keyword research, link building, site maps, content clusters, crying silently, and data analysis. (Photo by Avinash Kumar on Unsplash)

That’s how I felt when I first started optimizing content for SEO. As a bright-eyed little achiever, with the guidance of some really smart coworkers, I felt like I had a handle on the whole thing. I knew to write and check for keywords! To write headers and decks and optimize image size and write a caption. I could go look at how well an article performed to determine topics readers wanted. And I was taught repurposing by an awesome group who always looked for every which way content could be twisted and turned to take them to their full potential.

I confidently strode into my next position. I understand SEO, I thought.

Then I didn’t.

SEO walks this interesting line for me and I tend to flop over either side of it on any given week. On some weeks I think, yes, SEO is common sense. Just write the best content you can and then you’re done. Other weeks I look at technical issues and the data and my brain falls out of my ear. One day I’ve reached the center of the onion, if you will, and the next, I realize I’ve only peeled back the outer layer. 

I look at my efforts and the numbers with complete uncertainty. Does anything I do make any difference to our audience at all? Do I know how to look at customer journeys the right way? Are the numbers trending upward? Do I even know what a number is?

While Socrates was super annoying a lot of the time, he was onto something when he said, “I know that I know nothing.” Anytime I start really diving into a subject and learning more about it, the more I become aware of all the things I don’t actually know. It’s the college freshman syndrome. Take your first social science class and the world suddenly makes sense! Take your sixth one and you realize just how dang complicated people are.

SEO is a lot like this. On the surface, SEO makes sense. It really does. Clear as could be! Write compelling, helpful content. Target topics and keywords that people search for. Make sure the information is accurate and up to date. Include CTAs. 

Right? Clear. Straightforward.

When I think about it in that way, no problem. I have a clear vision of what I need to do.

But then everything becomes weird and labyrinthian. Even if I’ve read ten articles on a topic and attended five sessions on that same topic, I can walk into session six and halfway through go, “Ohhhh. Yes! It’s all so clear to me now!”

Why does this happen? Do I have the memory of a mayfly? (I mean, yes, but still.)

It’s all about peeling back the layers.

It’s the same problem I have with my weekly to-do list. I write down five things I need to do. Five tasks? No problem. I’ll be done by Wednesday.

Then, on Friday afternoon, my hair is standing straight up and I’m frantically trying to get out the last thing of the week and I go to look at my list and somehow I’ve only checked off one-half of the first item?

One of my former managers helped me break down this down once when I told her I felt like my productivity had tanked. She pointed out that the problem wasn’t my drive but the list itself.

If item one is “Write and post an article,” it seems straightforward enough. But it doesn’t take into account all the tasks you need to do: research the topic, gather the information, talk to an expert, write the draft, go through revisions, check for keywords and headers, find and the refine the images, decide on internal linking and CTAs, and on and on and on.

Didn’t get the first task done? Maybe you actually got the first 17 of 25 steps done. 

This is where SEO comes back in. You look at your plan and decide to improve and target keywords.

Easy. All you have to do is decide which keywords to target. Determine what resources you’re going to use to research keywords. Who you should ask about their input on company goals. On topic goals. On keyword goals. Does anyone even know or do you need to do it yourself? How many team members can help you? What’s the timeline? Do you have an idea of the number of keywords you want to target, what you’re currently ranking for, a posting schedule, a content calendar? How soon do people want to see results and does the organization even understand what those results mean?

Whew. This is the largest onion known to all of history.

The journey continues and somehow as you peel back the layers, you learn more and get better. The questions that you answered last month make next month’s tasks less daunting. The plan starts shaping up. When I look at numbers from last year and numbers from now, I can really start to pinpoint what’s working and what we can do more of in the future.

I’m reading the newsletters and attending the sessions and continuing to try new things.

Today, I’ve got this.

Tomorrow, I’ll know that I know nothing.

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