One of my ongoing pet peeves is how so many people confuse tactics for strategy. Too many articles about digital strategies are just collections of tactics. A strategy is more than that, and needs to be given proper thought and time to develop.
When it comes to SEO, tactics get confused for strategy all the time. Do a search for ‘seo strategy’ and nine out of ten articles you’ll find will talk about the latest in on-site optimisation, adaptable linkbuilding techniques, and why you should use infographics.
These are all tactics. Without a strategy to guide these tactics, your SEO efforts will be haphazard and ineffective.
To develop a successful strategy means to have a deep understanding of what it is exactly you’re trying to accomplish. How this will be accomplished is the tactical part – by understanding the ‘what’ of your SEO project, you’ll find it becomes much easier to choose the correct ‘how’ tactic and deploy it effectively.
So what is it exactly that we need to understand to be able to formulate an effective SEO strategy? Here are my four crucial ingredients that you need to fully understand before your SEO efforts can lead to true success:
1. Understand the Client
I think that too often in initial prospect meetings, the SEO provider doesn’t listen enough to the potential client and quickly jumps to a conclusion about the kind of service the prospect might need. They’ll try to shoehorn the client in to their own way of working, without proper consideration of whether this will actually deliver the best results.
That sort of half-listening results in SEO services being sold to clients who might need something slightly different or more focused, which in turn leads to an unsatisfactory SEO project and a strained client-agency relationship. All this contributes to the negative attitudes that continue to surround the SEO industry.
One of the most important pieces of advice I ever got was to listen more than talk. In client meetings I try to ask questions and let the client do most of the talking. I want to understand everything about them:
- What are their goals and ambitions?
- What do they do on a day to day basis?
- What are their key strengths and differentiators?
- Who do they see as their key competitors?
- Do they have sub-specialities within their niche that can be exploited?
- What partnerships do they have that could be leveraged?
- What is the history of their online presence?
- What other digital assets do they have?
- and so on…
From these types of conversations I learn a lot more than from the copy on their website. During the course of these meetings I usually manage get a good sense of what their budgetary constraints might be, which will guide the kind of proposal I can put forward. I can also determine if perhaps they qualify for additional funding – here in Northern Ireland, organisations like Invest NI are keen to provide funding to enable growth for export businesses.
Without a thorough understanding of your client’s business and website, you’ll only be able to deliver superficial out-of-the-box SEO solutions. And you’re not going to set the world on fire with those.
2. Understand the Industry
When you have a good understanding of the client, you need to to understand the niche your client operates in and how their customers behave online, so that you can match your SEO efforts to these behaviours. Basic keyword research will unearth a lot of potential keywords, but the trick is to match those keywords to the right target audience to ensure you’ll be attracting actual customers to your client’s website.
Your keyword research needs to consider search intent and audience demographics. And this is more than simply determining the right transactional keywords and leaving the rest alone – it can be a perfectly valid strategy to focus on informational queries and build up a client site as an online resource in their industry, leveraging the resulting brand recognition for online conversions (from navigational queries). This is a more long-term SEO strategy and the client will need to understand this and adapt expectations accordingly.
The most important aspect is to understand how your client’s customers behave online. What are the types of searches they Google? At what stage of a purchasing funnel do they use those searches? Much of this will be pure guesswork but you can infer a lot from looking at your keyword research: the popularity of specific types of phrases containing key industry terms combined with the relative competitiveness of AdWords advertising on those keywords will give you a strong hint as to their commercial viability.
3. Understand the SERP
Once you have a good understanding of potential keywords, you need to actually type them in to Google and see what comes up. Google’s search results are multi-faceted and can contain a multitude of different elements. From images and videos to news results and knowledge graph answers, Google will serve up a variety of content on any given query.
You need to ensure that your SEO tactics align with the type of content Google likes to show for the keywords you’re targeting. If it’s a query that shows a lot of news results, good PR will help your client win visibility there. If the SERP features images and videos, you know your content strategy will need to incorporate those multimedia elements. If it’s a knowledge graph focused query space, you’ll have to start pulling together those expert resources and how-to guides.
Aligning your SEO strategy to the type of content Google wants to show ensures that, instead of fighting against the current, you’ll be riding the waves in the right direction.
4. Understand Link Acquisition
The last piece of the SEO puzzle is links. Earning links to content to make the client site rank higher is easier said than done. You need to properly consider how exactly you’ll be acquiring those links.
Here too you need to think about who you’re targeting. If your client’s target audience is the type of user that is not particularly active online, you know you’re not going to be winning a lot of links from them. It might be smarter to target your content at the people who run industry news websites or business portals, aiming to get your content linked from those websites.
Another tactic can be to not focus on the client’s audience at all, but on the client’s peers. Especially in web-focused industries, like app development and UX design, you can choose to write content that aims to elicit a response from other bloggers in the client’s industry – which could be competitors – either through controversy, commentary, or expert insight.
This is a tactic a lot of SEO agencies rely upon to build links to their own websites. If you fill your SEO blog only with explanatory content aimed at clients, you might be able to show off your expertise, but it’s not going to earn you many links. You’ll want a good mix of how-to content to build trust with prospects, and some of the more advanced or edgy stuff that can earn you links from your peers. This same tactic can be employed for clients, providing they operate in an industry that has its fair share of bloggers.
The core aspect of successful link acquisition is understanding the types of websites you can feasibly earn links from, and targeting those websites with the right content and outreach.
SEO Strategy Summarised
In the final analysis, successful SEO relies on understanding everything you can about what you’re trying to accomplish and how you can achieve this. Superficial knowledge will lead to superficial SEO, which is not particularly effective.
In-depth understanding of all aspects of the client, the industry, Google’s SERPs, and your link acquition is required to make your SEO efforts truly successful and deliver lasting value to your clients.