As a new series of the consistently excellent Mad Men kicks off its fourth series in the US, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on a few advertising rules from the gurus at Sterling Cooper that can equally be applied to SEO.

Rule #5: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation”

Reputation management can be a key part of an SEO’s job, especially as clients learn that Google is their new home page. So how do you deal with negative search results appearing for your brand name?

  • Change the conversation – Dell are a fantastic example of this; after the “Dell Hell” episode, Dell turned around their customer support, and with the IdeaStorm website actively showed their customers they were listening. There aren’t a lot of large companies that have the ability or will to turn that kind of thing around.

In SEO there are also a few other bits we can do to address reputation issues:

  • Change Suppress the conversation – just because an isolated voice has a grudge against your company, that doesn’t mean it’s justified. What about the hundreds of satisfied customers who’ve given you testimonials? By its nature, negative press gets more traction than positive press – a bit of link building towards positive reviews can help give your satisfied customers a voice. Of course if you don’t have any satisfied customers, that’s a different story entirely ;)
  • Change Influence the conversation – imagine you’re Microsoft and have just launched a flagship gaming console. People are searching for [xbox reviews] but the first thing Google Suggest throws up is “xbox repair” and “xbox red ring of death”. Search volumes are said to influence the suggestions box, and we know ATL advertising can have a significant effect on search volumes. For a large company like Microsoft, it’s possible a co-ordinated ATL campaign could influence searcher behaviour, if not to remove the RROD suggestion, at least push it down a bit. How about releasing a red Xbox and promoting that; phrases such as [xbox red], [xbox red 120gb], etc may start to populate the suggestions box. This example’s rather far fetched but I think it’s a valid point.
  • It's notoriously difficult to affect Google Suggest, but a creative ATL campaign may insert new suggestions

  • Change Buy the conversation – a dangerous road to go down, in that you’re rewarding your critics, but if there’s a result from a poisonous blog that just won’t budge in the SERPs, approaching them with an offer to buy the site may help remove them.

Rule #4: Change is inevitable – accept it & be ready for it

The narrative of Mad Men takes us through a world that’s constantly becoming out of date, but compared to the pace of change in internet marketing today it looks like a snail’s pace. Part of the challenge for search marketers is to be prepared for monumental changes to happen at the drop of a hat.

Danny Sullivan always does a great job of calling out those who can’t keep up with the pace of change in internet marketing. I like to characterise it as follows:

Modern SEO is indistinguishable from what it was 10 years ago, yet it’s still called SEO, and people still frequently proclaim its death. Part of the problem is that the label “SEO” seems too narrow to encompass what we actually do – personally I prefer something like “visibility marketing”, but even that’s too narrow really.

Professional SEOs who are able to keep up with the pace of change generally have a broad online marketing skill set, including copywriting and technical knowledge, an in-depth understanding of usability, social media, web analytics and conversion optimisation. As long as the internet’s around, this professional skill set is rare and valuable; so what if “SEO” dies?

Rule #3: Write well

Search engines essentially like two things:

  1. “Good” content – search engine algorithms are purely objective in their limited understanding of what “good” content is (hence the intended failsafe of point 2). Wikipedia’s content is highly rated by search engines – this does not mean the content is of academic quality or is necessarily true or accurate, but it does generally mean it’s readable and aligns with people’s search queries.
  2. Popular content – in an ideal world Content is King, and good content will naturally get you links, which boosts your popularity among people and search engines. The reality is of course more complicated, but that’s another issue entirely – as a rule, if you’re actively link building, good content does equal links, which equals rankings. Again Wikipedia serves as a good example, in that the quality of content on the site is recognised as “good” by people who link to it – with something like 96% of links pointing to deep content (in this case without any active link building).

Rule #2: “Advertising is about one thing… happiness” – create it

To quote Don Draper,

Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear

Freedom from fear is kind of what search is all about. People are searching in their hundreds of millions, multiple times every single day for answers.

  1. Finding answers makes people happy – if a searcher doesn’t find what they’re looking for, it can make them feel stupid, like they haven’t typed the right query…
  2. Making our answers more findable makes marketers happy…

Rule #1: Strategy is strength

A comprehensive strategy with SEO as an integral part of search marketing, internet marketing, and marketing overall is only getting more important for effective marketing campaigns.

The days of SEOs being siloed off in a corner, out of the overall marketing mix should be well and truly over. Professional SEOs have always worn more than one hat (pun intended), but we need to remember one thing:

…those people who used to cruise along on traffic from search engines — and search engines only — certainly need to realize those happy days are over. They have to be part of a comprehensive publicity program.

That was a quote from Danny Sullivan back in 1997 (maybe things don’t change as fast as we think.) What was true 13 years ago is only more relevant today – people still do cruise along on traffic from search engines alone – Facebook hitting half a billion users is a good example of why it’s a less viable option than ever.

A great example of how not to approach an integrated SEO strategy was illustrated by Orange’s £30 million “I am” campaign which prompted people to search for “i am” but totally neglected to do any SEO around that phrase. The effect of this would have been:

  1. inflated PPC costs with no alternative natural results to click on
  2. to leave themselves wide open to competitors who could:
    1. bid on the phrase, pushing up CPC for Orange
    2. optimise their own sites for the phrase
    3. plaster all the sites in the top ten for the term with banner ads for their competing networks
  3. to increase free traffic to (the #1 site at the time of the campaign)

Even within the SEO sphere alone, strategy can be something that’s overlooked, and often big brands believe (or are led to believe) a link development strategy is an SEO strategy, with no objective view of the quality or worthiness of the content on their websites, let alone of the wider marketing mix.

Amazon is a good example of an SEO strategy which seems to be largely cohesive across the business (although with minimal offline advertising). A few examples of this include:

  1. Affiliates – Amazon’s affiliates strategy stands out among many big retailers in that their affiliate links have passed link juice for a long time. Regardless of the actual SEO benefits, this is an example of properly integrated thinking that more big retailers should be practising.
  2. Contextual linking – Amazon recognise that linking to many different, relevant areas of their site on every product page and essentially at every opportunity not only adds value for their visitors, but also makes their site far more crawlable by the search engines.
  3. User Generated Content – customer lists and reviews on Amazon provide value and extra content for search engines. Reward systems encourage users to provide quality reviews (and lots of them) across the site, building consumer loyalty and good content.

So… some food for thought from Mad Men – if you haven’t watched it yet, I highly recommend you do so :)

Images: Search Patterns Design Library
Some more Mad Men inspired marketing tips can be found here: Top Ten Marketing Secrets from Don Draper


  1. SEO boy

    Interesting on Orange…I remember when the company launced ‘Orange monkey’ and realised the top ranking result what a listing from urban dictionary on a related karma sutra move..will let you try it for yourself.

  2. Jason

    Nice post. I liked that Madmen quip about changing the conversation… But SEO is very much about enhancing, leveraging, touching on the conversation itself… So not really sure if it is applicable to the SEO world.