Essential SEO Questions to Start Campaigns Smarter

Most (good) campaigns should start with the focus on what the business needs & how (SEO in this instance) will help achieve that, BUT what a lot of kick-off’s miss is some simple-yet-powerful questions which will help your recommendations make it into action.

If you’ve worked in SEO for any length of time, you are probably used to being pretty reactive – so much of what we do is dependent on other factors – other staff, external agencies and Google, Facebook, Bing etc.

But that doesn’t mean that all your campaigns need to be at the mercy of everyone else!

The campaign kick-off is the best chance for you to get on top, understand how the campaign is likely to run, where the significant hurdles are and what is going to cause you problems. What follows are the questions which have helped me the most – or are the ones I wished I asked at the start!

10 Questions (with jump links)

  1. What is Your Experience with SEO in the Past?
  2. What is Your CMS(s) and Who Owns the Platform(s)?
  3. Are There are any Limitations to Who can Edit Content on Your Website?
  4. What is on the Dev PIPELINE in 6-12 Months?
  5. Who are Your Knowledge-Experts and What can I do for An Hour of Their Time?
  6. Who Has the Final Say Over Which Content Gets Published?
  7. What Are the Most Frequent Complaints About Your Product/Service?
  8. What Can You Offer That No One Else Can?
  9. What Metrics Do you Report on Internally? (What Gets Obsessed About at Board Meetings?)
  10. What do you Need to Achieve as a Result of this Campaign?

1) What is Your Experience with SEO in the Past?

There are so many reasons why this is hugely important for any new campaign or business relationship when SEO is involved.

Why? The reasons are mostly related to one of two things:

Expectation Setting

Whether the perception is that SEO has/hasn’t worked before, you need to understand what the feeling of this was. The new campaign is going to be judged against this, even subconsciously and you need to be aware. In my experience, one of the hardest mind-sets to counter is “it worked when we did it before” when “before” was five years ago in a fast-changing market and success was previously found via questionable link-buying tactics.

When you’ve spent time at the top & lost it all – there’s a good chance you’re going to be hanging onto what worked before

Finding Unexpected Surprises Quicker

Possibly not as crucial as it was 4-5 years ago, but understanding what SEO work has been done can get you some key actions in the early stages of the campaign. We’re not seeing anywhere near as many manual penalties for bad linking practice, but if you hear something akin to “Our last SEO built links from something called, Fiverr?” you may want to prioritise containing that potential-mess first.

Not a good place to start from…

These aren’t excuse-making reasons for asking these questions, in my experience, they’re always better conversations to have when you start off. When you have these conversations with an unhappy stakeholder after a disappointing report, it’s going to be far less convincing.

2) What is Your CMS and Who Owns it Within the Business?

If we’re assuming that there are going to be technical SEO changes taking place on the platform, you need to know what the platform is. In some cases, you’ll be fortunate enough to work with a platform you’re familiar with, in which case it will be easier to understand limitations, sources for issues AND ways to fix them.

However, the sooner you learn you are about to use a CMS which you have no experience with, the better. Get research time in now & ask peers in the industry for advice, favoured plugins, tactics etc.

Also, if you hear, “Which CMS?”, “We don’t have a CMS?”, “What’s a CMS?” then you need to double down in research or education in the early stages.

You can use https://builtwith.com/ to assist here too

Areej AbuAli put it far better than I could when she said that “Technical Problems Are Also People Problems” and when you’re starting a new contract, you need to ensure you know who the key decision makers/owners in the technical setup are, understand their skills/knowledge and establish where you may encounter problems in the future.

Bonus Questions

  • Do you own any other domains?
  • Can you tell me all of your known staging/development environments?
  • Are you able to share server access log files?
  • Do you use any CDNs (what are they/how do you use them?)

3)Are There are any Limitations to Who can Edit Content on Your Website?

At a really basic level, what you are trying to understand here is “can I jump on and edit/publish content myself, or am I going to have to go through/via someone else first?”

Except, that’s only part of why this question is key. If you have a larger content team it can help you understand who else can publish content how many of them there are.

In most cases, having a large & active content team is an overwhelmingly good thing – however, if you find that there are 10+ users who can (and do) publish to the website you need to emphasise, teaching, guiding, monitoring & policing content as the strategy progresses.

Bonus Questions

  • Has anyone with publish permissions had SEO/content training recently?
  • Do you have an internal content QA process?

4a)What is on the Dev PIPELINE in 6-12 Months?

Most SEO strategies should start with an audit/discovery phase (obviously, there will be some exceptions!), generally speaking, by the end of month three you’ll have finished and have planned out the key actions.

But nothing (and I mean nothing) has the equivalent destructive power over freshly-laid SEO plans like the DEV PIPELINE.

I’ll never forget a parting remark from a client after presenting tech-audit actions only for them to casually drop in that they were about to sign-off the design visuals for a new site build. How this was missed I don’t know (a little over four years ago now, I didn’t work directly on dev builds as frequently), but I guarantee I’d have spent the first month’s budget MUCH differently with that knowledge beforehand.

4b) What is on the Dev Roadmap in 18-24 months?

This is a bolt-on question, but for larger or more forward-thinking companies, understanding what’s in the Roadmap (not even Pipeline level) for the next two years can give you the best chance you will have to impact the long-term success of the digital strategy.

5) Who are Your Knowledge-Experts and What can I do for An Hour of Their Time?

We’re shifting focus more to content now, but if you are going to be producing content as part of the strategy, knowing where the expertise lie is the most critical element of the campaign.

You can usually tell the expert in the room as their eyes light up when they’re talking about the product/service, they can go on for hours & hours, but they’re often not as connected to the day-to-day marketing.

These people are critical for content ideas which are really forward-thinking, but they’re only subject experts because they spend their time worrying about their craft, not necessarily because they’re helping your efforts.

Find these people, make friends with them. Establish 5/10 questions for stimulus (with some prior research), secure at least 30mins (although an hour is better) with them, set up a recorder in between you & set them off.

There are loads of voice recorder apps out there, but a decent one will let you record & share interviews with your team

Pound-for-pound this is the best way you can establish a content strategy which turns heads & gets attention. You’ll have a recording which is a gold-mine for content ideas AND they’ll feel flattered/thrilled to take the opportunity to do it.

6) Who Has the Final Say Over Which Content Gets Published?

This one is not about who can hit publish, it’s over who has the say over what is published. It is usually whoever owns the content calendar, the Tone of Voice document etc, but the job titles can vary wildly. Whoever it is, they’ll be one of the most important to your strategy because of all your recommendations for optimisations, additions or removals will need to be signed off by them.

Ensure you maintain a relationship with this person & invest additional time in ensuring they understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, not just what you’re doing. Get their buy-in and the friction for getting new content live will drop sharply.

7) What Are the Most Frequent Complaints About Your Product/Service?

Knowing why/how a brand is likely to get negative attention is so critical to an SEO campaign – this goes far beyond the “obvious” reasons.

The largest part of this is the brand’s ability to fulfil the search intent, which is largely linked to people searching out the brand and engaging with the websites. If people are complaining about a product/service from a brand, there’s a good chance that searches for that brand will drop. Dropping branded search over a prolonged period is a huge signal that the site is of lower quality and the ability to rank beyond the brand will be harder.

An increase in searches with negative modifiers like this one could suggest some wider problems.

More than this though, if via uncovering a brand’s weaknesses you realise that expectation management & clarity via the site content is at fault, you have a clear chance to act. Use content as an opportunity to clear up any ambiguities there may be.

8) What Can You Offer That No One Else Can?

As a counter-point to #7, another huge opportunity is really utilising the USPs of your brand to really drive home to users why your content/offering stands above the rest.

But, there’s a less-positive motive here.

If you ask a company what they believe is their true USP is and they either a) can’t answer or b) struggle to produce anything compelling, that’s a sign the campaign may struggle. No USP means that differentiating your content/offering is going to be tough – whether there is actually one or not.

In my experience, the biggest reason a business can fail online is if the offering is of no significant merit over the rest of a market place. It’s possible to help find a USP (or at least define it), but that’s not the best use of an SEO’s time. Help the business realise this sooner or later and – if you need to – use it to fail fast.

9) What Metrics Do you Report on Internally? (What Gets Obsessed About at Board Meetings?)

The goal of asking this question is not so you can just report back in the way they always have done (even if it’s wrong), it’s to understand what the current norm/expectation is.

If the “most important” stats include things like “bounce rate”, “new visits” and “average time on site” (to name a few) ear-mark some time/energy to educate what these mean (and what they don’t mean). There’s a chance that these might not be used correctly and likely have caused a few missteps in the past.

Unless the current setup is perfect, there should be a willingness to accept you’re going to add/remove KPIs – or even just change the emphasis.

10) What do you Need to Achieve as a Result of this Campaign?

I mean NEED – not what do you want, or anything which started with “It’d be really great if…”. It’s not great to start with a negative, but a key question is, what do you absolutely need to achieve or something bad is going to happen.

Even if the project feels like the main objectives are based on vanity (particular keywords ranking highly), understanding the absolute floor means you know what the stakeholders are being measured on and therefore the impact on your work. You might not be able to directly impact this goal/target, but that doesn’t matter if you are consistently missing it.

These are often the most straight-forward metrics to identify because they will be the ones the business owner/CEO/MD care about the most and (hopefully) at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

You probably cannot measure yourself and your progress by being better than the low-water mark, but it helps you keep your feeling of progress grounded and educated.

What Have I Missed?

There are some of my essential questions from starting campaigns, but I’m certain I’ll have missed some really critical ones – please share them below, I’d love to hear how asking (or not asking) for details like these have made the difference between success & failure.

Chris Green

About Chris Green

Chris Green is Head of Search at StrategiQ, a full-service marketing agency based in the East of England.