SEO can be hard to wrap your brain around because search algorithms are continually updating and embracing new ways to judge content as rank-worthy.

Listen to it later:

Don't miss a MarketingProfs podcast, subscribe to our free newsletter!

Headings, frequency of terms, security, indexation, page experience, accessibility, expertise... A myriad of factors play into achieving that coveted first page Google result.

Franco Valentino is what George B. Thomas calls an "SEO ninja," and he spends the latest episode of Marketing Smarts recommending tools (Screaming Frog, Semrush, Surfer SEO, Market Muse), covering the four pillars of SEO (security, speed, indexation, crawl), and explaining how crawler-bots get around your website (they really need a site map).

"Google and other search engines really are basically human brains at this point," he says.

And that's exactly why he recommends writing for readers first and optimizing for on-page SEO later: "From an on-page standpoint, just write it for the user and then back it up with some tools that can give you those insights on the'll get better results."

SEO is more complex than ever in 2022. Good thing we have ninjas like Franco.

Listen to the entire show now from the link above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode.

"Marketing Smarts" theme music composed by Juanito Pascual of Signature Tones.

Full Transcript: A Marketer's Guide to SEO in 2022

George Thomas: I am super excited, like every week. I just get excited when I get to talk to big-brained people. I'm excited because I get to talk to a friend, Franco Valentino, about SEO. Really, why I'm excited in this episode is for you because we take this SEO conversation past the typical on-page SEO. We talk about everything from accessibility to outbound SEO. Let's get into Franco's intro, and then into the interview. Trust me, this one is some good stuff.

Franco is the founder of Narrative SEO, a technical marketing consultancy. His guidance gives industry leaders a strategic edge by optimizing their website across digital sources for an increase in leads, conversions, and sales. Narrative SEO is a partner to internal brands like Avis, Liberty Safe, and the Panama Canal. Franco founded Narrative SEO after working as a network engineer and in IT program management with AT&T and IBM. Today he consults with CEOs and CMOs on industry trends, providing elite insight to increase sales effectiveness from digital marketing platforms.

Marketing Smarts, I am really excited because today we are going to talk to what I would call a ninja at SEO. Obviously, you just heard the bio. I want to dive into the good stuff because we have a limited amount of time. You guys are busy, we need to help you with SEO and the mindset and the things that you need to think about.

Franco, here's the deal. SEO today seems very much like a moving target anymore, so I want to look at the last three to six months and what has happened that maybe skirted right by all the marketing professionals that they should start to think about, look about, know about right now.

Franco Valentino: Thanks for having me, George. I'm very excited to talk about all things technical SEO and SEO. The biggest changes within the past few months have really been the continued focus on speed. Google Search Console, Google, we're going to focus on Google a little bit because that's 94% of B2B traffic, other search engines notwithstanding. Page experience, they're trying to drill down to the technical bits, but figure out how the website is responding to actual users. One of the things they added was desktop page experience. That wasn't in there before because most sites are mobile-first index.

From a high level, it's still speed, how does the website feel to the user, but now they've actually got some metrics behind it within Search Console. This kind of caught us by surprise very quickly because all of a sudden your search visibility would change if your desktop experience wasn't as good. What are we talking about there? Whatever content management system you're using—WordPress, HubSpot, Shopify, etcetera—the components that you use to build the theme can have a really big impact on that core user experience.

The challenge with that is where do you go? You really need your developer to say, "I have too much Javascript on the file, my images are too big." These are things that we've been talking about for a very long time, 20 years on in technical SEO. Images are still the biggest problem for most everyone, but now they're looking at it through a different lens. How can we make the website feel better?

That's one component. The other component is the AIs. Google and other search engines really are basically human brains at this point. They're looking for related words on the page. What I mean by that is if we look at nouns, if we look at your company as an entry within an encyclopedia, there is going to be frequency and commonality between certain terms. If you're talking about a particular subject, let's say sneakers, and we're talking about Adidas, you're expecting to things like foam soles, you're expecting to see things like laces, you're expecting to see things like running shoe or track shoe. Taken as a whole, that's how they make sense of a page and decide where to put that on SERP, or the results that you see on Google.

The content and the way that you write the content is extremely important these days. The synonyms have become more important. Less so backlinks. Backlinks are still important, but these days it really shouldn't be a focus area. There are guys in our industry that are literally writing Lorem Ipsum text and using things like New York, SEO, and expert with Latin text and ranking number two. What that tells you is that the machines are optimized to the inputs that you're giving it and your content has to reflect that. The usage of reverse engineering tools, like Surfer SEO or Market Muse, the content marketer today to better match what those machine inputs are looking for.

At a very high level, those are things that are outsized for us right now.

George: Marketing Smarts listeners, it was the first question and it's already a rewind spot because there were so many good nuggets in there. I just want to unpack a couple of little things that hit my brain. You mentioned content management systems like WordPress, HubSpot, Shopify. If you're a marketer or a business owner or somebody listening to this and historically thought a free theme is good enough. Free isn't always free. It might have been built in a way that is slugging down the speed that you need, so this might be something that you want to think about.

I also liked the fact that you brought up this inherent thing of, by the way, it's a historical truth of life, words matter. Words matter more on the page now than probably they ever have. I even like the fact that right now we're talking about this conversation from an inbound or a content perspective.

Before this interview is over, I want to talk about outbound and SEO and the technical side of that. We're going to get there. But you also skirted past a couple of little tools, so my next question for you. If somebody is listening to this episode and they're like that's great, words matter, speed matters, this and this that George and Franco are going to talk about here in the very near future matters, what are a few tried and true SEO tools that marketers should know about or have in their SEO arsenal that they might not have right now?

Franco: This is always fun to talk about as well because we have massive toolsets, we have every tool known to man. The ones that we tend to lean on pretty much on a daily basis, I'm going to give you a couple of technical ones and then a couple for content.

Screaming Frog is very technical. What it does is it actually looks at your website, and it can be tuned to look at your website just like a search engine does. It will mimic the user agent, the website server basically thinks it is Google coming in. Then it will follow the links and tell you you've actually got 50 broken links on your internal links on your website. It will build diagrams and maps about your website infrastructure, which again is critically important when you're talking about things like content pillars for content marketers. Screaming Frog is a great one and it does a lot more than that. It's a surgical tool, so wonderful platform.

Another one is Semrush. Pretty much everybody at this point knows who Semrush is. Great for keyword research, great for backlink research as well, and great for project management. It's a very large toolset, it really is a digital marketing toolbox. Love those guys at SEMrush, they provide a lot of value.

From a content standpoint, Semrush has a content editor as well, but the ones that we tend to lean on, I'll give you two. I'll sort of lean towards Surfer SEO. Surfer SEO is one that we use heavily. When you're trying to do content research, let's say you're trying to outrank a competitor, you would go to their website, you would go to Google, and you would see where the positioning is, where they rank and what the titles are, the meta descriptions and all of the normal things. What a tool like Surfer does is it reverse engineers the AI essentially, the machine, and it says here's the top 10 or top 20 pages, this is what they're ranking on, page one and two of Google, here are the words that they use and the frequency of words.

Then you can do a competitive analysis to your content and it says you're not using "Adidas" or you're not using "sneaker" enough, we see 15 to 20 variations as the average on these other websites, you need to up that frequency by five or six. It does an overall content score. As you rewrite the content, it will grade you and it has sort of an accelerator on there. Wonderful tool. A lot of the tools do that same thing where the closer you get to a better content score, the better metrics you'll have. It does tend to work, you do tend to outrank those other pieces of content because, again, we're feeding the right inputs to the machine.

You have to lead with making it valuable to the user. We cannot say that enough. If it sounds like you're writing to the machine, the machine knows that, and the users know that as well, so you want to make it valuable to the visitor. Surfer SEO is great.

Market Muse is another one. It's a little bit more of an enterprise tool. There's another one called Frase, which does basically the same thing. All of those tools are wonderful toolsets to have at your disposal and they provide outsized results. It's leverage in the marketer's toolbox.

George: I don't know about you, Marketing Smarts listeners, but I just wanted to head over and buy the software immediately when you were starting to talk about that. I got a little giddy inside as the nerdy marketer, like please give me more. Definitely we'll put links in the show notes, if you want to go and check those out. Here's the thing. I want to almost treat this next section as a little bit of a speed round, maybe one or two things on each of these. Again, keep listening, we're going to get to this whole conversation about outbound SEO as well.

Usually, what I've found when I'm having conversations with marketing buddies, they're like on-page SEO, and I'm like it's so much more. What I did is I broke down a couple of those sections that I feel like we should all be paying attention to and I just want to dip into your cranium for a hot second, one or two things about each of these. Not necessarily a speed round, but a little bit of that vibe. We'll just start…

What should marketers know or think about pertaining to SEO when it comes to accessibility?

Franco: Accessibility is critically important. There are law firms out there that are actively looking for websites that don't do anything with accessibility to target them. I am not a lawyer and I don't claim to be one, so take this advice with that in mind. As long as you are working on accessibility, that sort of meets the requirement from the legal view. Again, talk to your attorney about this.

From an SEO standpoint, on-page, since you mentioned that. If you have your H tags in line, meaning you have one H1, you have an H2 for your subheading, and H3 as a topical subheading for that particular subheading, screen readers, people that have difficulty seeing, for example, and use those type of devices, those devices actually lean on those on-page features. That's pretty important. If you multiply your H1s, it could sound like there's multiple titles to the page. That's a very small example.

Accessibility, there are plugins. For example, we mentioned WordPress earlier. There are accessibility plugins that meet the WCAG standards. It would be worth investigating and adding. They don't add a lot of weight to the website, but they do meet the requirement of I am considering this and it's something that's important to us, and that reflects that to the users.

George: What should marketers know or think about pertaining to SEO and their mobile experience?

Franco: Critically important. Most of the SEO third-party tools that we use, like webpage tests and metrics, you should be looking at your website always as mobile-first because that's where we tend to search initially. Pay attention to Google Search Console. If you don't have Google Search Console, install it immediately. Look at your historical data, look at your page experience. There literally is a dashboard for page experience specifically for mobile usability. That is the entry point. You'll make your users happy, which will then turn into more trustworthiness and more leads and contacts.

George: This one always becomes a little bit of a fun conversation. What should marketers know or think about pertaining to SEO and security?

Franco: We could spend another podcast on security. Very high level. Cross-site scripting, there are hackers trying to get into your website right now, I promise you, regardless of the CMS that you're on. That's just the way life works these days. Again, mentioning WordPress, because it's a big install base.

If you're not using a tool for security, Securi is a good one, WordFence is another great one. One of the things that we do for our clients is we have a non-negotiable request, if they're on WordPress, we ask them to pay $99 a year to get WordFence. That closes 99% of the holes. You also get a lot of visibility and early warnings. It's a great early warning system with a web application firewall, which basically says most websites that we see on our network are getting hacked because this plugin went south and wasn't updated, and it will close those security holes for you. As far as WordPress, that's great.

Other platforms like HubSpot and Shopify that use Cloudflare, they already have brilliant DDOS attack protection and provide all of that security for you. Highly recommend Cloudflare, highly recommend Shopify, and HubSpot. All of those platforms are very mature, and they've solved those issues well. One of the difficult things is your users. If you're sharing passwords, that's always a weak point. Have some type of corporate security or access policy and make sure you revise it every once in a while and check logs.

George: Marketing Smarts listeners, I know this is supposed to be a speed round, but I hope you're taking notes. You should have the paper and pen out and you should be like these are things that we haven't thought about or check yes, we're good to go. Let's keep on going. We have a couple more before we dive deeper into this almost out of inbound experience, if you will. What should marketers know or think about pertaining to SEO when it comes to crawling and indexing?

Franco: I love the fact that you asked that question. One of the things that we as a framework adopted a while ago, and this is our lens that we use to look at any website, is actually called the four pillars. The four pillars are these; security, which we already covered, speed, which we covered relatively, and then indexation and crawl. So, thank you for asking that question.

In Search Console, if your website is not crawlable, meaning you have some type of infrastructure problem, your site maps, for example, aren't readable or are in the wrong format, if the website has server errors, you're on a shared server like a Bluehost or HostGator—nothing wrong with those guys, it's just you get what you pay for if you're paying $5 a month for a host—there could be noisy neighbors. What that means is somebody else, there are a thousand websites on your IP address, all of a sudden one gets terribly noisy, the crawler has a hard time, your server has a hard time responding to Googlebot as it comes in.

It basically uses headless Chrome, it's trying to find your related pages and crawl your links. If that slows down, it has to go crawl a trillion websites, so it doesn't have the bandwidth to stay on your site and figure out the URLs, so it has to come back later. That can affect the amount of keywords, because there is a delay, essentially. Indexing and crawling are highly dependent on speed and your site maps.

There are a couple of configuration fundamentals that are really important to any website. As a marketer, you should probably know these already. Your site maps, generated by your CMS, and the robots.txt file. The clearer signals that you can provide to those crawlers, the quicker the crawlers can crawl it and figure out where to rank your content.

Again, it boils down to speed. Everything is interrelated. The faster your server responds, the better the crawler can navigate through your website. And 404 pages and 500, if there is a server error, the crawler tends to leave because there is no server if you have a 500. With 404s, it has a lot of broken pages, so it will tend to leave and say they're not maintaining the website. Again, just make sure your infrastructure is in good place. The better you can help the crawler, the better search visibility you'll have on SERP.

George: So much good stuff. I'm just saying. Marketing Smarts listeners, I'm going to let you know, it's okay if you need to Google some of the words that Franco actually used in that last section, because not everybody is an SEO ninja. We've finally arrived at the last speed question. What should marketers know or think about, and everybody is already talking about this, pertaining to on-page SEO?

Franco: I'm pausing a second because it's a very broad subject. We look at it with that lens of the four pillars. We need to make sure the page is secure, the page is fast, the page is indexable, and it's crawlable. From the content standpoint, there is a standard template. We talked about accessibility and the fact that your H tags and having a hierarchical order for your H tags is really important. That's also important for Google and for the search engines, because they understand what are the most important terms on the page.

There are important yet minor signals as a percentage of the whole of a page of where your keywords lie. If you adopt a keyword early in your H tag, that tends to have a little bit stronger signal for search visibility. Those tools that we mentioned earlier—Surfer SEO, Frase, Market Muse—they will give you some of those descriptors and say you could use your topical phrase in the H2 of your first paragraph, or you need a couple extra ones in the paragraph of that particular H2 or H3.

From an on-page standpoint, one of the tools that we use to diagnose a page very quickly is SEOquake, a Chrome plugin that's actually built by SEMrush. There's a diagnosis tab on that, and it's a wonderful quick shortcut to check the health of on-page. When you run your page through that, it will give you what your H tags are. It's a really awesome tool for looking at the structure of the page without having to actually inspect the page or login to your CMS.

I would use a tool like that, and it will give you errors and warnings, and the typical your title tag is a certain length, your H1 is a certain length, you have an H1, and your content has this particular structure. From an on-page standpoint, just write it for the user and then back it up with some tools that can give you those insights on the gaps as far as words on the page, you'll get better results.

George: More knowledge bombs being dropped. Here's the thing I've been teasing out the entire way. Not that we're closing the conversation about inbound SEO, but I want to open it up to something that many of us, and I'll raise my hand, I really haven't thought about this idea of outbound SEO. Take a couple of minutes and wax poetic on this next layer that should probably be inserted into an SEO strategy that marketers and business owners should have of outbound SEO.

Franco: It's difficult for us as SEOs to ever think about anything other than inbound because we're structuring pages and we live in that data link layer, the interconnections between the greater internet and your website. However, if we're looking at ourselves as what we should be, as lead gen specialists, we have to look at a website wholistically and say, "Where are there gaps? Where is my Pareto, what are those 20% of things that are providing outsized results?"

One of the things that we've seen over the past few years, and we've known about this as content marketers, is content is building assets, essentially. These things will provide value for a very long time. George, you know, historically you and I have worked on some sites that have pages that have been out there five, six, seven years that produce millions of dollars a year just sitting there. The problem or the challenge is for a new website, it takes time to do that.

Assuming your industry is competitive, as it should be, there's value there and there's money there, it will take you time to build out the right content structure. In the interim, there are many things that you can do. I'm old enough to remember, I was an outdoor salesman and proud of it because it's very difficult to get rejected every day. There are companies that still do that, there are companies that still knock on doors. Pest control, think about those.

Let's use that example because I think that's a really good one, if we're looking at a website and we want to rank a pest control agency in a certain location. You would do your content, you're going to talk about insects, you're going to talk about the different changing seasons, you're going to talk about how the process goes, all of those questions that the users are hungry for. But it's going to take you time. It may take a year or a year-and-a-half for that content to rank, especially in a highly competitive environment. What do you do? You put your sales staff out on the road and they're knocking on doors and putting flyers out.

There's also the fact that you are a local business. This is a different type of SEO. Let's talk about two things, Google My Business and local search ads. Those two platforms taken by themselves can be a solution for leads almost immediately.

From a very high level, let's talk about GMB first. You set up your Google My Business or your Google Business profile, and you have an address because you have a physical location, you have your warehouse where you store your chemicals and have your trucks. If you then take it a step further and you take pictures of the jobs that you're performing, you have the exif data, the data that's in the pictures. You know when you go on Flickr and you see this was taken on a Canon F50 lens, etcetera, there's also a latitude and longitude in there.

One of the things that we're seeing is when you post those pictures on GMB, it can actually help expand your service area on your Google My Business profile, and what that turns into is more phone calls because when somebody is literally driving by that area or they're on a phone and they're looking for a pest control company, it will actually put you in that local pack on Google and say this is the number one or number two entry, and that leads to a click.

That has nothing to do with organic SEO from the website standpoint. It's completely its own environment. So, post your articles on Google My Business, geotag and latitude and longitude those images that you take at job sites and put them on there, because the clients are looking for that, they want to see that you're trustworthy. You're inviting them into your home, so you want to make sure that social proof is there. That's one.

The other one is local search ads. This takes a little bit more doing. Google has a program with Google Ads called Local Search Ads. It can actually get you a verified checkmark on Google, and what it will do is keep your cost per lead very low and you get outsized results, because you've been proofed. You do have to submit a background check to Google. I highly recommend everyone look at it who has a brick and mortar business. It can expand your service area. Imagine that you have a verified by Google green checkmark on Google when a customer is searching for a pest control company. That alone from what we call the EAT side—expertise, authoritativeness, and trust, which is also an algorithm issue—trust signals, essentially, that is massive right now.

I highly recommend that you look into both of those and tune them just like you would tune your website. That's much more outbound. You're putting yourself out there, but you also have that badge of trust on your lapel that says this is an honest business, I welcome them into my home, they're also fair and will do a good job.

George: Marketing Smarts listeners, I hope you heard what I heard. One is pay attention to the micros. Two is pay attention to how can we show or create or actually be trustworthy in the things. Did you just hear maybe the next actual steps that you should be taking past your inbound SEO? I don't know, that's up to you. I want to keep on going.

Of course, if you've been listening to the podcast for the last couple of episodes, you realize one of the things that I love to do is help people look out for those hurdles, even though I believe it's the hurdles that help us grow. What are some historical hurdles you've seen have really bogged down marketers in the past, so we can maybe help them miss those potholes and hurdles and learn from things that we've learned historically?

Franco: That's a great point. I think it's getting lost in the weeds. Taking action sort of trumps everything else. Even if you get it a little bit wrong, it's better that you've actually got it wrong and you did something. This is one thing that we see historically throughout our customer base is they'll have brilliant people sitting in certain seats in the marketing department, but they get a little bit scared because they don't want to make a mistake.

I would venture to say make the mistakes, because that's a learning experience. Taking action is far more important than getting everything right. The beautiful thing about being digital these days is you can make changes instantly. Try everything. This discussion about GMB, this discussion about local search and outbound in general is from us not wanting to do it initially, but saying let's try something, and having outsized results because of it while things were happening in parallel. Again, action is more important.

Don't discount new platforms. One of the things that this pandemic taught us, in being locked up and everyone having to go digital, is that everybody is connected these days. We have connected TVs, we have smart TVs. There are opportunities today to spend very little money and do an outbound campaign with a TV ad, for example, that gives you wonderful metrics, TV has gotten a lot better, for very little money. If you are a brick and mortar retail business, I would say investigate those as well. You can target a DMA. I'm in Nashville, for example. If I want to target DMA and get 100,000 impressions, I can do that very inexpensively. And you can turn it on and off and scale.

Again, this is outbound, this is a little bit different than we typically do, but when we're trying to be the best resource or the best consultant to any client, you have to look at all of it. Again, test things, take action, and measure your results, because you might find a golden nugget somewhere.

George: One of the things I love to do, because I get the opportunity to talk to a lot of smart brains on this show, I like to just see when I ask the question, "what are some words of wisdom that you would want to leave the audience," what actually comes out. It can be SEO related, it can be life related, it's wide open. What are some words of wisdom that you want to leave the listeners?

Franco: Let's start with being kind. Be kind to your audience, because that reflects on your website. Be genuine. Everyone is digital these days. When you read a blog post, everyone has a BS filter. Right? If you're trying to sell them on something instead of providing value and educating, then you're going to fail. That just doesn't work anymore. That might have worked 40 or 50 years ago. It's okay to sell when it's appropriate to sell.

We're all in business to make money and provide value to our users, but do it genuinely. Write as you would, instead of trying to be somebody that you think they want you to be. Just be yourself. I think it's okay to be vulnerable. We all make mistakes, that's how we all learn. Just have that reflect in your content, have that reflect in your brand that we're all human, we do a really good job, sometimes we don't get it right, but we iterate through until we do. I think that's the biggest takeaway for today.

George: Such a great human answer. I absolutely love that. There is so much good in there, vulnerability, be kind, be of value. Rewind point number two, right now, hit the rewind and listen to that again. Franco, if people want to connect with you, if they have more questions, where do you want to send them?

Franco: My email is I'm on Twitter and Facebook as well, @francovalentino. I'd love to connect.

George: Marketing Smarts listeners, did you take lots of notes? I have to ask, what is your one thing, your number one execution opportunity after this podcast episode? Make sure you reach out and let us know either in my inbox or on Twitter using #Mprofs. I know for me one of the most mind-blowing sections of this episode was this conversation of outbound SEO and this mindset of trying something new just to see what happens. So powerful.

Listeners, we'd like if you could leave us a rating or review on your favorite podcast app, but we'd love it if you could share this episode with a coworker or friend. Until we meet again in the next episode where we talk about how to identify what advertising strategy is best for your business, I hope you do a couple of things. One, reach out and let us know what conversation you'd like to listen in to next. Two, focus on getting 1% at your craft each and every day.

Finally, number three, remember to be a happy, helpful, humble human. We'll see you in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast.

...sign up for free to continue reading

Sign up for free resources.

Continue reading 'A Marketer's Guide to SEO in 2022: Franco Valentino on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]'

Don't worry ... it's FREE!

Already a member? Sign in now.

Sign in with your preferred account, below.

Don't miss a MarketingProfs podcast, subscribe to our free newsletter!

Published on