Training non-experts to be able to identify the ways in which Search Engine Optimization takes on their own roles is an integral part of the development of any SEO program.

After all, anyone whose work touches a website has the opportunity to influence a site’s organic search performance – for better or worse. Getting SEO-literate allies on other teams is an integral part of scaling SEO strategies.

Basic how search engines work and factors affecting investment may allow them to consider the opportunities and risks offered by their work.

As anyone who has tried can tell you, training other teams in search engine optimization can produce mixed results.

Search engine optimization is a complex and ever-changing discipline with very few black and white answers. It makes for an exciting topic of immersion, but hard to make it easily digestible for the one who is more tangentially involved.

This column explores the analogy and ways to develop your SEO training activities that can help your non-SEO colleagues better retain search-related information, understand the context of your SEO efforts, and be better allies to your program as a whole.

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Training of non-SEO experts

Although with my education, years of SEO experience, and a curious and willing audience, teaching high-level SEO theory appropriately was a challenge for a long time. I have a long list of “things that didn’t work”.

Thorough and detailed basic training seemed like a thorough approach, but when people received large amounts of knowledge on a new topic – either all at once or gradually – they proved impossible to maintain in the long run.

On the other hand, although things are kept simple and people are taught only a small part of the related topic, it seemed more digestible, this was often at the expense of context. That, in turn, undermined confidence in their new knowledge.

The results of both approaches were the same: little data retention and little or no meaningful acceptance.

In order for people to be able to embrace education, assess their own understanding, and apply what they have learned to their own work, they need to understand concepts quickly and gradually fill gaps.

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One of the best ways to achieve this, by introducing new and unfamiliar concepts, is to harness the function of our brains through metaphor. Good metaphors can be an incredibly effective teaching tool because they allow us to take advantage of people’s current understanding of a familiar concept and use it as a framework for introducing a new, unknown concept.

Come in…

Google, librarian

As a teenager in the late 1990s, I want to photograph Rupert Giles, the school librarian from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But any librarian you choose will work.

Functionally, the role Google plays is incredibly similar to that of a librarian.

They both curated a directory of information and resources. And when people come to them with questions or topics, they use their knowledge of that directory as well as their experience of helping previous people to suggest a selection of resources that may include the content they’re looking for.

Explaining the concept in this way performs two important tasks:

  • It uses the library framework as a basis for something else SEO training.
  • It focuses on the person participating in the survey, not the search engine.

This second point is vital. It means building on SEO knowledge to “do the best for the user” rather than “ticking arbitrary boxes for the algorithm” – a useless notion of actual glitches and a focus on technical features.

With this context, we can now further develop the metaphor and begin to talk about the factors that influence which resources are selected for the user.

Website and book features

Suppose that each time a person enters the library with a survey, the librarian provides him or her with about ten books that he or she is most likely to find the answers he or she needs.

We know that books have special features that a) help ensure that they are indexed in the right place, and b) increase the librarian’s confidence in their suitability and relevance.

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What would be the value in terms of providing Google websites?

You can use any of the comparisons that work best at the point you’re reporting, but here are some I used earlier:

Book feature Website feature Category Indicates
Name of the book Page title, H1 Relevance Main topic / topic
Chapter headings Title tags Relevance Topics, content structure
Ad Content description Relevance Contents
Release date Page last updated Relevance Content up to date
Number of pages Word count Expertise Thoroughness, depth
Reviews, references Backlinks Authoritative Importance
Reputation of the publisher Domain Authority Confidence Reputation
Grammar Technical quality Confidence Overall quality

Genre and content

When Google crawls pages, it also responds to “browsing” the book to see if the content usually looks similar to the existing, proven best results. It also looks at whether the content covers not only the main topic but also the expected topics.

While this is a slightly more awkward metaphor, this is an important aspect of communicating – especially when you work content teams and copywriters who may pursue their own keyword research.

It is important for them to learn that expanding the content a bit to closely related topics can improve search performance with the main target term and correct the misconception of many non-experts that SEO means keyword fulfillment.

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User feedback and customization

Over time, similar people with similar queries visit the library. Every time a librarian provides them with resources, the way they respond provides important information about meeting needs.

For example, a person might take a book that looks promising, open it, and put it right away. If this happens often, the librarian may decide not to recommend it so highly next time.

On the other hand, if users continue to select and review a particular book, even if it’s a little further away from the pile they offer, maybe it should be placed closer to the top of the pile in the future.

Understanding that Google does the same thing, humanizes variables like immediate bounce rate and clickthrough rate, which can be foreign to anyone with no confidence in analyzing data.

Effective use of the analogy

In all the SEO 101 trainings and presentations I have given, the analogy of librarians has been the most powerful tool I have ever used.

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I have adapted it at times, going into as much or as little detail as the situation required. But it has constantly helped to communicate what needs to be understood.

Its effective use requires three main points.

First, make sure the comparisons you make serve the message you are teaching. If not, try to adjust it to your needs better. The examples given work well for my purposes, but it’s important to make it work for you.

Second, identify the limitations of the analogy. Know when you need to step outside of it to talk directly about SEO and search engines. Stretching a metaphor too far dilutes its power and confuses your audience.

Lastly, have fun with it. By analogy, teaching makes the subject more accessible, which encourages engagement, which makes education easier to understand and more memorable.

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