Lee Odden

Why SEO is Relevant When It Comes to B2B Thought Leadership

b2b thought leadershipI’ll start this post off with my point: Dismissing search is ignoring demand from buyers & the media.

A digital marketing exec I follow on Twitter shared a CMI article that posted this weekend: “Why SEO May Be Irrelevant When It Comes to B2B Thought Leadership”. As a long time realist about the role of search in online marketing, I wasn’t sure if this was simply linkbait or a well reasoned, data-informed argument.

It’s a cliche to respond to “SEO is dead” articles because those writers are almost always uninformed or have an agenda unrelated to optimization. However, this post was on CMI, a highly respected site.

The article does offer some great tips on building thought leadership including advice on academic and professional journal publishing, publishing on client-facing media outlets and public speaking opportunities.

After that, it gets interesting starting with this logic: “getting found online is not an important objective in large, strategic B2B sales. And then, “the GTAA president’s job depends, in part, on knowing how to find an answer to the question”.

Ironically, the article is about building thought leadership and credibility. Unfortunately  contradictions like the one above doesn’t help the author’s credibility.

The author’s point: “…it’s not about “getting found.” It’s about “looking good” and “looking credible” to clients that are assessing the expertise of potential service providers.”

I understand the value of creating great content relevant to the context of a particular buying experience. But how can you “look good” if no one involved in the buying cycle (or the media for that matter) can find you?

Even in niche B2B scenarios like a category mentioned in the article, “remediation of contaminated soil”, has an audience using search to find information that can benefit companies and thought leaders in that industry.

For example, search Google for “remediation of contaminated soil” and there are over 1 billion search results. The first page is a cornucopia of useful information from scholarly articles to videos to industry press. At the top are companies in the business of providing soil remediation services.

If search visibility is in no way important to establishing credibility with niche B2B industries, then no one would be searching, right?

A quick check of Google’s Keyword tool shows demand for hundreds of variations on “soil remediation and testing” for queries at different stages of the buying cycle:

  • soil testing 110,000
  • what is soil remediation 14,800
  • soil testing companies 1,000
  • soil remediation companies 200

Even using simple data to identify search demand for niche topics seems a more reliable decision making process than dismissing a tactic out of hand based on – a contradiction.

Another consideration is the effect of search visibility for members of the media doing research. Discovery of subject matter experts and story sources via search is a daily occurrence.

“I begin every day at search engine. It doesn’t matter what story I’m working on, it always starts with a search.” Jason DeRusha, WCCO (CBS) TV News Reporter

Inclusion in industry trade publications is highly credible as suggested by the author in their suggested tips for building thought leadership. Why not make it easy for the media, peers and even bloggers to find thought leadership content? The credibility of being “the best answer” is priceless – especially in combination with visibility in industry publications and public speaking.

In fact, many B2B buyers will read thought leader content in trade publications and then Google people, companies and topics to drill down. Optimized content can play a role in all aspects of where and how niche B2B content is discovered.

Search connects people with information at the moment they need it most.  Deciding to ignore that seems perilous.

The article did have some good advice on building thought leadership for niche B2B markets, but why invest in thought leadership content and then dismiss making that content easy to find?

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. I do work in an industry very similar to the one the article refers to. Huge, complex sales cycle where differences between competitors is relatively small. Even within a single customer, there are are different audiences involved – from technical to economic to political. The content produced must appeal to diverse, audience pain points, concerns and information deficits – all of which are moving over time. I look for brand ubiquity throughout the cycle, which can stretch on for years and touch dozens of people. I want it impossible for anyone to go online without running into the brand. For example, a presidential election can alter the plans for a large construction firm dramatically, especially if they are heavily involved in environmental programs. The target keywords/SEO content is aimed at this moving target – an audience on a carousel horse. You must predict their motions a turn or two ahead of time and make sure content exists, and can be found to address the information gap and advance your brand.

    • Thanks Scott – what you’re describing is buyer centric marketing, anticipating their needs and interests. “Brand ubiquity” is a great way to put it.

  2. Avatar Dawn Comber says

    Thank you for this well-thought out post. I don’t understand why there is an insistence to make content marketing and search mutually exclusive. I think they are complementary and both bring value to clients, customers and businesses

  3. SEO is relevant when it comes with business to business because SEO is basically a huge platform for all businesses.There is always a need to meet together for raising traffic on websites.

  4. I think if somebody does a search for information relevant to your business and you keep appearing on page 1 I think you’ll look pretty good!!

  5. Great post, Lee. Touches the very core of what I’m trying to do internally but sometimes it falls on very deaf ears..

  6. Avatar Hemanth Malli says

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.. Building content development strategies and responding to our audience by answering specific questions makes website visible on search engines and It also brings us sales !!

  7. For B2B i would like to suggest social media marketing which gives some boost to your brand.

  8. Hi Candyce,

    Thank you for sharing your example.

    Search is a tool and it’s successful application depends on the situation. It’s not always the answer.

    I don’t think you’re presenting a contrarian view. It seems more like a linear one. i.e. search as a linear experience from awareness to purchase. That is rarely the customer journey with any B2B sale.

    Of course there are situations where only personal networks are used to source and engage vendors with no involvement from search. Does that mean a company’s content “findability” should be ignored?

    Search is not just a direct path to purchase as is the case with short sales cycle and commoditized offerings. As an information connector at all stages of the buying cycle, search can certainly direct a qualified buyer to a transaction, but it’s more often the case of an assist.

    Long sales cycles involve many information touchpoints and to assign the last touchpoint as the only one that matters, “How did you find the vendors you considered” is an attribution problem that has plagued digital marketers for years.

    It’s an easy choice: where demand exists, search optimization is applied as a best practice to make relevant content easy to find. Relevant audiences for search are not just buyers, but also the media, employees, analysts, investors, etc. The investment in findability pays dividends over and over again without any increase in cost.

    With regard to, “SEO is important, but they can’t rely just on publishing great content on their blog and optimizing it for search.” Of course, and no one has said that. This is a big part of the problem with how search is viewed.

    Without a broader perspective of how buyers use search across the sales cycle (as well as other relevant audiences) and focusing only on the last touchpoint for attribution, SEO and PPC will always seem limited. That is a disadvantage for those who subscribe to it.

  9. Avatar Pontus Staunstrup says

    Hi Lee, thanks for posting this. I commented on the original post on CMI, and tried to make the same point you’re making now (and did there) with more eloquence. What I still don’t get from the original post is why you wouldn’t try to cover all possible parts of the purchase process, including making sure your content is easy to share and and optimized for search, even in “complex” B2B sales. It seems to stem from an outdated view of have buyers gather information.

    • Thanks Pontus. Of course SEO isn’t the only answer, but as we’ve both said, it seems negligent to dismiss it outright without thinking of how buyers use search across the sales cycle.

  10. Avatar Sheetal Sharma says

    Thanks for sharing your views Lee,I think engaging your audience with meaningful and useful content always serve the business purpose, however, answering queries of customers on a public platform all the more boosts marketing efforts.

  11. Fixed blog link. Never thought I’d be doing that on a comment with a link 🙂 – Your comment is the touche to any argument about whether search plays a role in niche B2B industries. Thanks.

  12. This post misses the value of long tail search: if you’re waiting for a buyer to search for “companies who sell X” you already missed the earlier stage of information gathering. Top companies instead focus on the long tail search terms such as “trends in using X in your organization” or “review of product X” which both provide more information about your audience and allow you to differentiate on content

  13. Thank you for responding to ignorance with data, Lee.

  14. Blogging with the purpose of being “Googleable” always trumps blogging to be admired. I’ve found the only time SEO is irrelevant in thought leadership blogging is when one is already pre-admired as a thought leader.