When Casey Nifong, owner of Mountain Laurel Digital, tells me she thinks search engine optimization (SEO) is “creative,” I have to say I’m a little surprised. So often we think of SEO as keywords, number crunchers and crazy conversations in a section of the Twittersphere we dare not enter.

But SEO is changing a lot — for the better. With search becoming more complex, people like Casey are at the forefront of turning SEO into a more holistic, human-driven industry. I talked with Casey about how SEO is changing, and what you can do to brush up on an often-misunderstood corner of our industry.

We associate SEO with algorithms and search results. But you describe it as “creative.” Tell me how you come to that conclusion.

I think because you have to create a process in SEO that works for the algorithms but also works for the client and the industry. It used to be a lot more jargony. When I started, it was all keyword manipulation, and you had to have a formula for where the keywords went.

But honestly, a lot of it has to do with the internet. The creativity comes from the evolution of the internet and trying to evolve with it. I essentially have been studying the internet for eight years. When I started in SEO, social media was just Facebook. Instagram had just started becoming a thing, and Instagram really started as just a photography platform.

As social media started to rise, a lot of people were saying, “SEO is dead because of social media.” It was obviously not true. The assumption was that everyone likes to consume content that way, which is just not true. There was also the belief that every type of content likes to be consumed the same way. Also not true.

Yes, the rise of social media has drastically changed SEO. But the reality is, if you’re in SEO, you have to be able to evolve with all the other internet channels or you become obsolete. With the evolution of the internet, there are just so many avenues to go down.

How has the evolution of the internet changed your work?

The biggest thing that’s changed since I started in SEO is the switch from keyword to intent-driven strategies. That’s been a big push in the industry the past two years. A lot of it comes from the rise of voice search.

There are also new channels. Amazon, Etsy and Facebook are now search engines. It’s not just Google and Bing. So you have to think about each of the people that you’re targeting and trying to communicate with, and that’s changed content. So not only has how we search changed, but how we want to consume content has changed.

Think about the rise of video and visuals. It’s less, “Oh this is nice to have a video,” and more “Um, where’s the video?” It’s an expectation.

What changes when you move from keyword to intent-driven strategies?

The difference between process-driven SEO and intent-driven SEO is long-term. What intent-driven SEO is doing is building a placement for the right keywords to generate quality leads. We’re still generating leads, but we’re generating leads that you want and will close.

We have some B2C clients that are very brand-targeted. I like to call them “brand-obsessed,” but I love brand-obsessed clients because they immediately see the value of what we do. Because that’s how they function, right? They didn’t just come up with a brand because they needed to sell something. They came up with a brand because they wanted to have a specific brand for a specific reason, and they want specific clients. So they need a very long-term SEO strategy. Their brand loyalty is actually bigger and more important to them than sales, because they have a different belief system around sales.

For us specifically, our SEO campaigns do depend on the business model and the brand’s ultimate perception. That’s why we like to be a part of the branding process upfront if we can.

Honestly, I’m hoping the industry will become more holistic. Marketing — especially digital marketing — is definitely seen as an easy automated service to sell. Right now, we’re just kind of put in the time bucket, which is really a disservice to the actual service of SEO. It should be so much bigger than, “You have this much time each month.” The reality is that the more research, intent and psychology you put into the upfront strategy, the more value you can add as an SEO consultant.

With so much in SEO changing, how do you find the time to juggle your obligations to your clients with educating yourself about the changes in your industry?

It’s prioritization. When it comes to professional development, I turn to certain blogs and websites that I find are the most accurate and up-to-date, and I read every morning for 20 to 30 minutes. But I only read those authors, and I also try to have a theme to what I’m trying to read.

So if I’m seeing a certain issue with my client or a question coming from them, I try to focus on that topic when I’m doing research. I find if I can strategically think about researching and training myself to meet my client’s needs, there’s more relevancy to why I’m spending time reading an article about something.

What SEO authors do you recommend reading?

Britney Muller is amazing. Russ Jones is another big one I like, and he lives in Raleigh, so I’ve seen him a couple times. A lot of SEOs are actually from Raleigh, which is actually kind of cool. And then a lot of them are local to North Carolina, which is wild.

I also try to create relationships with authors I really like, because Instagram makes it really easy to ask them questions. It’s really nice. I always tell people, don’t be afraid to reach out to your favorite authors, because most likely, they will talk to you.

Here are a few more people I follow:

There’s a stereotype that SEO is a cutthroat industry. The conversations online can get pretty hostile, right?

Once you’ve been in the industry for a while, you realize it’s actually just a group of really sarcastic people. But the sarcasm doesn’t really translate sometimes on the interwebs.

Yes, some of it is a little hostile and people need to apologize sometimes. But most of the time, the same people that are yelling at each other on Twitter are going and getting drunk the next day together. So it’s just like real relationships.

What would you like to see change about the world of SEO?

Communication. I think SEO consultants really struggle in a professional world of clients, less with each other. Even though it can get a little dramatic sometimes, we all play nice. But we have a hard time with clients because communicating values for something like rich snippets is so hard. So when I’m talking to a client that has an SEO consultant but is struggling with understanding some of it, II always try to help them try to align with the goals of their marketing.

One thing that’s really changed in the SEO industry is we’re not siloed anymore, because of the relevancy of SEO in search. So the big push right now in our industry is for us to stop isolating ourselves into just SEO and trying to educate everybody. We do so many things that are beneficial for a website, but we’re just really terrible at communicating why we’re doing stuff and why it’s relevant to a particular client.