When you think SEO, do you think possibly sinister, keyword-stuffing, black-hat tactics from the early 2000s? It's time to rethink what you know about SEO — because search remains an incredibly powerful tool for brands of every size and industry.

Regardless of whether you're a marketer for a local restaurant or a Fortune 500 software company, customers are discovering, researching, and forming opinions about your brand through search.

It's hard to overstate how influential search is today. Here's how Yext explains it:

"With about 3.8 million Google search queries per minute, the world has grown to rely on search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing to provide them with the answers to life’s many questions. Whether delivering answers to mundane or extraordinary questions, search engines are machines that scan the internet (and its 1 billion websites) for specified keywords and respond to users with the most relevant websites or pages to their search."

As marketers, we simply have to harness the power of search. Getting lost on page 10 of Google results isn't gonna work.

To get up to speed on SEO for the modern era, I talked to Garrett Mehrguth, an expert in SEO and CEO of Directive Consulting, a B2B search marketing agency. He's a frequent writer, speaker, and thought leader on how to integrate your SEO, PPC, content, and social into one beautiful marketing package.

I co-host the Marketing Cloudcast  —  the award-winning marketing podcast from Salesforce  —  and I'm pleased to share that this week's episode considers how a modern SEO strategy can inform your other marketing, how you can use data to inform everything from PPC to content, and how independent industry sites are a key component of any SEO strategy.

Unless you've stayed in lockstep with SEO trends since day 1 of your marketing career, I'm positive you can learn something from Garrett's insights.

Not yet a Cloudcast subscriber? Thousands of smart marketers around the world listen every week! Check out the Marketing Cloudcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle Play MusicStitcher, or anywhere you subscribe to podcasts.

Preview the episode here:

From our conversation with Garrett, here are four practical (and actually doable!) tips you can integrate into your search-engine marketing and SEO strategy this year.


1. Modernize your approach to keyword research.


Many people think of SEO as something you use to manipulate Google, but, according to Garrett, “The reality is that great SEO is just great audience research in 2017.” Instead, you should think of keyword research as something you use to understand how people are researching your product — and how their buying journey transpires.

Here's another way Garrett described it in a recent article:

"Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is no longer how you can optimize your site to rank for keywords; instead, SEO is about how you can optimize your company to be found by your target audience for different queries and on various sites throughout the search engine."

Keyword research helps you understand how people research your products. Research is a critical pipeline to purchase decisions in 2017. Garrett says this means “you can prioritize decisions you make based on actual data and actual research" about your brand instead of just what keywords are popular.


2. Broaden your SEO to sites beyond your own.


A recent McKinsey study shows that this year, two-thirds of all US retail sales will involve some form of online research for product evaluation and consideration. Today’s buyer has become a world-class researcher, which explains why SEO has reemerged as an important marketing tactic.

Garrett explains, “SEO is no longer about your own website.” If a buyer ends up at your website, they’re at the bottom of the marketing funnel. Instead, you need to figure out how to get involved with them earlier in their buying journey. “Your own website is no longer the best answer to someone’s query in Google’s mind," he continues. The sites that consumers actually trust are independent sites that publish their own research (AKA, the 20 best vacuums for moms in 2017).

Influencer marketing is a smart way to get started. What influencer blogs do customers in your industry trust most, and how can you build a relationship with them?

Garrett also suggests finding third-party sites that rank well for your keywords, and then using Google Display Network to target those sites with customized ads, marketing, messaging, and a landing page. This allows you to drive traffic straight from those valuable independent sites without having to ask.


3. Crush your marketing competition with hyperlocal search.


Mobile search, unfortunately, may not be what you think it is.

When a potential customer decides to search on his or her mobile device for a particular company in the area, the top above-fold results for any local search are actually all ads. Below that, you’ll find a map. Then the top organic position will actually be the 7th result on the page. Yep — local search is tricky. How often do you look all the way down to the seventh result on Google? My guess is, not often. Most of us look at the first few results on page 1 and go from there; perhaps we look at the second page if it's a topic we're super interested in.

The good news for small businesses is that you actually have an advantage against your competition when it comes to local search. “Huge national companies don’t have the bandwidth to be hyper-local,” Garrett explains. So if you’re a local business, you can rely on expert-level location targeting and hyper-local content that appeals to the people you know and want to attract. Your advantage is that you have local knowledge, so use it to stand out in search.

If you adopt a more locally-focused SEO strategy, you're much more likely to appear higher in those mobile search results.


4. Respect different search topics as different stages of the funnel.


We can look at data to tell us what drives our revenue, but let's say you have the top-ranked ad and the top-ranked organic search result for a given keyword or key phrase. You’re still probably looking at a combined clickthrough rate of around 25% (and likely lower). So, how do you capture the other 75%?

For Garrett, you need to understand what is really driving the revenue. “Not all keywords are created equal, and not all searches are at the same part of the funnel.” The problem is that you don’t have the same keyword data that you used to be able to get from Google, so you don’t know what keyword is truly converting.

This is where PPC comes in because you can mine the results for keyword data you can use to inform your marketing team for content, landing pages, social, and more. As Garrett puts it, “Great search campaigns have SEO, PPC, and content all working together" — and everything is focused on proper stages of the funnel, instead of assuming that everyone who searches your brand name is either ready to buy or in need of introductory content.

Did this pique your interest in becoming a more effective search marketer this year? We talked about much more with Garrett (@gmehrguth) in this complete episode.

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Tweet @youngheike with marketing questions or topics you’d like to see covered next on the Marketing Cloudcast.