Knowing which lever to pull: Creating SEO strategies that deliver ROI
Search Engine Optimisation

Knowing which lever to pull: Creating SEO strategies that deliver ROI

20th August 2019

Image of steering levers in a vehicleKnowing where to start to make headway in the SERPs can feel overwhelming.  Depending on your budget, resources, management structure and sign-off process you might not even be able to work on the actions that you truly believe will bring about results.  It can be frustrating.  It’s a scenario SEOs know too well.

Part of creating an effective SEO campaign is understanding which lever to pull, and when, in order to yield the greatest reward.  How do we determine if now is the time to launch a digital PR campaign or focus on our local rankings?  Would it be better to channel resources into fixing the site’s technical issues or to optimise the click-through rate of the top landing pages?  These are the questions cash-strapped and time-poor marketers often have to ask.  When competition is fierce, and resources are limited, knowing how to prioritise is one of the hardest aspects of the role.

What are the levers?

We are all familiar with the concept of three main pillars of SEO; on-page, off-site and technical.  However, this is a very narrow picture of a highly complicated discipline.  They are a good categorisation for tasks that fall within most “traditional search engine” focused campaigns but they are somewhat of a simplification.  Depending on your industry and business goals, the likes of Google, Bing or Baidu might not be the only focus of your SEO efforts.  If you are an e-commerce business ignoring Amazon SEO might cause you to miss out on a lucrative revenue stream.  If you are a brick and mortar shop then forgetting the benefits of local SEO could be highly damaging to your store footfall.

In modern SEO we must look beyond only optimising content, earning relevant backlinks and ensuring our sites are crawlable.  Before we dive into our SEO campaign we should consider some of the other elements which may not be front-of-mind.

SERP domination

With the organic search results being pushed further down the SERPs we need to remember the other areas of real estate up for grabs without a paid budget.  For instance, featured snippets, utilising FAQ schema and the Google jobs listings are all great ways of increasing your brand’s visibility in the search results alongside the standard “10 blue links”.

Video SEO

For many sites video plays an important part in increasing engagement and conversions.  However, trying to get your video noticed outside of your own website can be very hard.  Video optimisation can cover a range of platforms, not least, YouTube.

Amazon SEO

For any brand selling online, even if you are not utilising Amazon, it is important to be aware of what is being sold through the e-commerce giant.  Fakes, similar products and market innovations can all impact your e-commerce bottom line.

The temptation for shoppers to start their product search on the e-tail giant is huge; almost 90% of UK shoppers use Amazon, 15 million of whom have Prime memberships.  This is nothing in comparison to Amazon’s share of the US market however where there are a reported 103 million Prime memberships.  If you sell products and aren’t on the Amazon platform then you may be missing out on significant sales opportunities.  If you are selling through Amazon, understanding the search algorithm and the factors which will cause your listings to be favoured is crucial.

Local SEO

Having a web presence isn’t enough for brick and mortar stores who are looking to drive foot traffic as well as search traffic.  Promoting your business online to your local audience relies heavily on Google My Business, local citations and other aspects of local SEO.

Reputation management

The SERPs give a lot of exposure to a brand, some of it unwanted.  If your branded search reveals a proliferation of negative comments, a competitor’s comparison piece or some critical job site reviews, your website may never get the click.  Conversion rate can be drastically impacted by web properties outside of your control ranking for your brand terms with a message that isn’t complimentary.

Online reputation management (ORM) is frequently considered too late.  SEOs are often only called in once the negative reviews start appearing and the question of “can we get those deleted?” is raised.

Click-rate optimisation

Ranking high in the SERPS can be a thrill for search marketers.  However, without traffic going to the website the efforts put in to get that visibility can be wasted.  SEO is not just about rankings; it’s about ensuring relevant traffic gets to the website.  Tailoring search result snippets to encourage searchers to click through to the website is a critical job of an SEO.

Image search

If you are using anything other than stock imagery on your site then image search could be another source of traffic.  Moz’s study with Jumpshot in 2017 suggested that images account for 3% of clicks in the US Google SERPs.  It also listed Google Images as the second most popular search website in the US, only beaten to the top by Google.com.  With this in mind, optimising images for search has to be a consideration for image-rich websites.

App store optimisation

Apps being returned in the Google SERPs and in the various app stores are both of paramount importance if it is an app you are trying to promote.  There is a lot of crossover between traditional SEO and what is being termed “ASO” or “app store optimisation” but ensuring you align your strategy to the platforms’ algorithms is important.

International SEO

If your business is operating in more than one country or language then international SEO will be near the top of your strategy’s priorities.  Ensuring your page content is localised to the country you have written it for is key.  Making sure your technical SEO all points to who the intended audience is will help you gain traction in the search results within other markets.

Which are the most important levers?

There are many moving parts to a successful SEO campaign.  Depending on which professional you speak to you will likely get a different answer.  We all have our specialisms and preferred “go-to” routes to success.  To increase qualified and converting organic traffic to your website it is highly unlikely you’ll be able to put all your eggs in one basket.  SEO strategy is about understanding your market conditions, your digital competitors, your audience and their intentions.

Choosing the right lever at the right time

Understanding which is the best aspect of SEO to focus on at what point in a campaign depends largely on the following factors:

  • Your industry
  • Where your brand should be appearing
  • Your website
  • Budget limitation
  • Business needs

Your industry

Knowing your industry is of course incredibly important to your campaign.  It is paramount to understand what your competitors are doing in order for you to compete.  Discovering why you are being outranked by your competitors can give you an idea of where you need to focus your SEO efforts.  For example, do you competitors have better content than you for your target keywords?  Is it the strength of their backlink profile that is powering their SERP success?  Have they mastered local SEO and that’s where you are falling behind?

One good trick for determining if it is their content that the search engines are favouring is by using custom search engines.  Google allows you to create your own search engine, using an index of the websites that you want to track, and shows you how each of those sites’ ranks for a particular keyword.  It is essentially a mini-Google that only takes into consideration the websites you have specified.  It works within a sandbox environment which means no links or external factors are taken into consideration – just the content on the pages.  For example, plug your website and 9 of your competitors’ sites into your custom search engine.  Then search for a keyword you are being outranked for and see where, in this cut-down search result, you appear.  If you notice that you are lower down the rankings in the custom search engine than you are in Google’s normal organic results it may be that your content needs improving to be more relevant.  Your site appearing higher means your competitors are likely outranking you because of external factors such as backlinks.  If you want to find out more on how to use a custom search engine to power your SEO strategy then my colleague Chris Parker has you covered, hat-tip to Rory Truesdale for bringing this to our attention at this year’s SearchLeeds event.

Once you determine that it is your webpage’s content that is causing it to be beaten in the SERPs then on-site SEO is an obvious next step.  If that’s not the reason, then digging deeper into what is should be your next step.

Using tools like AHREFS, SEMRush and Majestic can give you better insight into your backlink profile in comparison to your competitors’.  Cross-checking your competitors’ backlinks against your own can give you an idea of whether there is any low hanging fruit for you to capitalise on.  If you notice a big discrepancy between the strength of their backlink profiles and your own then you can consider outreach as a priority.

Where your brand should be appearing

As we’ve already seen Google, Bing and Baidu are not the only concerns of the SEO.  We need to look at other platforms and channels which act as search engines relevant to our industry and ensure we are optimising our content, products and services to appear on them.  For instance, if you are in the hotel industry then ranking highly on TripAdvisor is essential, so ensuring your customers are leaving positive reviews about your business becomes a high priority.

Ranking well on Pinterest might be important to your business if you are in a creative industry.   Although there might be a bit of crossover between SEO and social media responsibilities Pinterest is essentially another search engine, one that can be optimised for.

As already discussed, Google Images can be another great way of driving traffic to your site.  Those with very visual products or services can capitalise on their imagery to climb the ranks for image seeking searches.

As we can see, without fully appreciating engines outside of Google we might be missing out on critical visibility with our target markets.  If competitors are also focusing their attention elsewhere then these more niche search engines are a great way to drive quick wins.

Your website

There’s little point building links to your website, or encouraging traffic to your site, if your website usability or content is poor.  Conducting a gap analysis on your content to identify where you might be lacking critical information and assessing the user journey is a good place to start when auditing your site.  Equally, it is imperative that your technical SEO is up to scratch.  This often requires the assistance of other teams, notably developers, and getting your requests actioned quickly might be tricky if they are not seen as a priority.  The CMS, the outside teams and agencies that might need to assist you, and ultimately the sign-off process for getting changes made to the site can all impact how easily your work can be completed.  If making changes to the site is not a simple process than focus may need to be on off-site activity whilst you are waiting for your implementations to be made.

Budget limitations

We would all like to operate with the million-pound marketing budgets of some large enterprise websites, but in reality most people are conducting SEO with far more limited funds.  Sometimes the area of SEO that you need to focus on is entirely determined by the team members you have available to you.  If you don’t have the means to hire your dream team of SEOs then utilising an agency for a few hours a month, or recently upskilled internal staff might be the only source of SEO support you have available to you.  If that is the case then large-scale technical SEO refinements or an asset heavy outreach campaign may be beyond your reach.

Auditing your own and your team’s strengths will help you to ascertain where skill gaps lie and if you are in a position to fill those gaps or if you are better off focusing your resources on an area of SEO you can make more headway in.

It is always important to think outside of your immediate team or agency for help.  Technical SEO challenges almost always need someone with coding experience to help fix them.  Copywriting in certain industries needs to be completed by an expert in the field, not an expert copywriter.  Partnership managers and account directors might be able to help you in your quest to get listed in relevant online publications.

At the end of the day, most SEO campaigns are limited by budget in some way, either through the cost of creating assets or utilising developer time, or through the need to hire additional staff or agencies.  What skillsets you have available to you might be the deciding factor in where to take your SEO campaign next.

Business needs

What you think is best for the organic visibility of your website and what your client or boss feels it is can often be out of alignment.  ROI and growing visibility are of course primary objectives for most SEO campaigns but how that is to be achieved, for what products and which markets is usually hotly debated.

Overarching business and marketing plans will play a huge part in how your SEO strategies are devised.  If the business needs increased sales of their FMCG, then a strategy for pushing the product through Amazon SEO, ranking the product page in Google search and improving their click-through might be your focus for the next few months.  If a company is looking to gain more visibility for its careers or events then utilising structured data might be a priority.

Conclusion

Knowing which lever to pull to get the best return on your time and resources is not simple.  SEO strategy is complicated, it needs to be regularly adjusted in response to industry conditions and business needs.  Keeping your campaign providing results means maintaining a close eye on your competitors and your industry whilst utilising all of the search engines relevant to your business.  It is clear, however, that to do SEO well, learning to prioritise is essential.

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Written By
Helen is the Head of Digital and lead SEO at Avenue Digital, and has over ten years of experience in digital marketing, SEO and analytics. She regularly speaks at industry events and loves sharing her knowledge through teaching and writing.
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