Have you ever been handed a client project or started a new role in-house and been asked to pull together the strategy for an organic campaign, and just thought ‘where the f**k do I even start?’. Then this blog is for you.
As Head of SEO at a digital marketing agency, I’ve formed a large number of strategies for business and websites of all sizes – from a one man band to a huge global eCommerce. But there are often times where after all of these years I need to pull a strategy right back to basics to make sure we’re targeting the correct areas to achieve the best results within the budget that the client has available. There are a number of aspects to consider for an SEO strategy before you even get to the website. In this article, I’ve pulled together the top things that I consider when it comes to an SEO strategy, before I get to the website, once the auditing process takes place and post-strategy.
Before even considering where to start with your SEO strategy, you need to consider the business objectives for the site that you are looking to work on. What really defines success for this business?
This is important whether working agency side or in-house, as each and every individual website and brand will have different objectives, and different measures of success. These measures and KPIs are not always obvious either. One notable example is an eCommerce site in the equine industry that I’ve worked with – the site sells products online so the automatic assumption is that their main business objectives would be to increase transactions and revenue. However, due to internal constraints, that is the opposite of what they’re looking to achieve with their website.
Due to not wanting to upset their retailers by pushing their products online, while they have the functionality, no marketing efforts either internally or via our SEO/paid efforts are directly targeting their product offerings. Instead, the aim of their website is to be the leading experts in their industry. Instead of revenue and transactions, they’re more interested in metrics such as page views, time on site, and performance of their key articles and seasonal topics such as laminitis and gastric ulcers. Understanding what the client and the website really wants and how they define their online success should be the first step to your SEO strategy rather than running straight away to a website audit.
Another example of this is working with a radiator eCommerce site. Their main objective isn’t focused on revenue through the website as such, but more specifically radiator unit transactions. This wasn’t originally measured via the ‘transactions’ on Google Analytics as that also included accessories but had to be broken down more specifically by type of transaction within the monthly reporting.
As you can see, the end goal of an organic SEO strategy isn’t always just an improvement in keywords or increase in organic traffic. Some businesses can have specific KPIs that they would like you to meet, and if you’re not fully aware of what these are before you begin to strategise the campaign, you may find yourself running into conflict early on in the relationship.
These measures of success can vary, but some of the most common include:
· Increased online visibility
· Increased organic traffic
· Increased enquiries
· Increased revenue
· Increased transactions
You may find that you need to guide a client or manager to help you answer the question, ‘what defines success for this campaign?’. This is particularly important for the types of clients who will answer ‘I want to be ranking position 1 for this keyword’ as we know that SEO shouldn’t be solely focused on one or two keyword rankings anymore. Therefore, it is really important to ask questions that can provide insight and help you to understand the whole business. Such as; what their overall business goals are for the year and beyond, that can help you to get a real understanding of what they will be happy with. Or what they wouldn’t be happy with and what is really going above and beyond with their online presence. Not knowing this, and going full steam ahead with a strategy that doesn’t meet their objectives (for example, with the equine client, pushing on products, getting many sales in but then ultimately upsetting their offline retailers and burning bridges) could lead you into a wealth of problems.
The next step of your organic strategy is understanding who you are marketing to. Who is the key target audience, and how can you attract the target audience to your website. This is where getting an understanding of the business and also the funnel of types of individuals who may visit the website is important.
For most types of websites, the standard 4 step funnel will apply:
In some cases, such as an eCommerce website, this can be extended further:
Awareness – the customer becomes aware of the brand
Interest – the customer begins to research the brand
Consideration – the customer may review some product information
Intent – the customer may begin to look at product demos
Evaluation – the customer may begin to conduct side by side comparisons of products or even brands
Engagement – the customer begins to engage with the checkout process i.e. add to cart
Action – the customer proceeds to purchase
Loyalty – the customer returns for an additional purchase and becomes a loyal customer
Your SEO and ongoing marketing strategies need to target each and every one of these points in the funnel, to not only nurture the potential customers that have already entered the funnel, but also to attract them in the first place at each point of the funnel itself.
A content marketing strategy can have a significant impact on the types of audience you are targeting and at what point of the funnel. The awareness stage is an area where many businesses may be missing out on potential traffic, as they are focused more closely on the areas of their site that may convert at a higher rate. For example, a B2B website may be focused solely on creating content that is surrounding their product or service offering in order to drive enquiries. Or an eCommerce site might focus specifically on optimising their product page or category page content and ranking for specific terms in these areas.
However, the amount of research a potential customer will do about a product or service is increasing. Market research from FocusVision showed that an average B2B buyer’s journey involves consumption of 13 pieces of content as of February 2020. And it’d be interesting to see the updated stats on this as the clear assumption would be that this is only going to continue increasing as consumers have access to more information about a brand than ever. Consumer journeys are now far from linear.
Shopify carried out some great research on eCommerce customer touchpoints and how to create a customer journey, which explains all of the various touchpoints a customer can have on a website from the awareness stage through to conversion in more detail.
Before you begin your SEO strategy, understanding who your audience is and what kind of content can help them at each stage of their journey, can help to improve your success rate – going back to those key measurements in step 1 – as well as your visibility online.
In the awareness stage, customers generally will consume longer form content. They are only just getting to see your brand and may be looking for advice or guidance that your brand has provided. For example, if you’re a cosmetic company that sells anti-ageing creams, an article on ingredients in skincare that can help to battle the signs of ageing may be of interest.
Some types of content that they may consume and interact with at this stage of the buyer journey include eBooks, tip sheets, check lists, how to’s etc. Your goal in the awareness stage is simply to increase your brand visibility by providing solutions to potential problems that your customer may be facing.
The interest stage is where the customer is already aware of your brand, and is looking more closely at your service or product offering. In this case, they may be reviewing product videos, case studies, testimonials, FAQs, requesting samples, requesting data sheets. This is where your product and category content needs to be engaging (as well as optimised of course) but also providing them with as much information about what it is they’re set to sign up for or to purchase. Your case studies and testimonials and other E-A-T factors will also be imperative here. According to TrustPilot, 89% of consumers will make the effort to read reviews before buying products online. Getting your review profiles up to scratch and beating your competitors will improve your visibility online but also your conversion rates!
This is the stage where your customer is almost convinced that they are ready to purchase. It’s the stage where a free trial, live demo, consultation or estimate might happen. So provide them with as many of the benefits, comparisons and information that they need to help them get to the finish line. For example, you may offer a pricing comparison with some of your top competitors or a features comparison to show how your service is the best option on the market (and why).
At this stage, the customer will complete a purchase, but that doesn’t mean that your strategy needs to end there. This is the kind of area where you may want to consider post-purchase marketing to get them to repeat their purchase or to purchase similar products. If you’re a B2B offering, you may tempt them into one of your other services if relevant.
So, now you know all about your business objectives and the type of audience that you are looking to target (and have a rough idea about how you’re going to target them at each stage of the funnel). And we haven’t even got to putting together a strategy yet! The next step is to take a close look at your competitors online, because more often than not, the way your competitors are performing can tell you a lot about what you should and shouldn’t be doing.
Where are the competitors performing well, what are they doing outside of just what tools are saying (i.e. keyword gap tool). Is there something industry specific that your competitors are all doing well and you’re not?
Competitors and your market can tell you a lot about what you should and shouldn’t be doing when it comes to your SEO campaign. Understanding which competitors are performing well can give you some direction – but copying or being a sheep in this industry will never make you a winner. When it comes to your competitor analysis, you should be looking at their strengths and weaknesses but also the competitive gaps – what are they not doing that you could be?
It’s important when looking at competitor gap analysis to not just rely on the tools. There are a huge number of fantastic competitor research and analysis tools on the market, with a personal favourite of mine being the SEMrush keyword gap tool. But I’ve had numerous SEO’s over the years coming to me with all sorts of ‘problems’ when it comes to their competitor gap analysis, such as:
Problem: But I ran a few competitors through the tool and there wasn’t much that came out except some long-tail blog ideas, so I guess there’s not much else we can do content wise.
Solution: This is one of my biggest pet hates – reliance on a tool without thinking a bit more outside of the box. Tools are fantastic and I have strategized plenty of campaigns using information from tools as the base point of my analysis.
But they won’t always give you everything – a competitor may have published a really strong content piece which is highly relevant and topical which you may not have capitalised on yet. But that piece may be so new that it won’t be ranking yet.
Or, they may have published some content without any SEO knowledge and therefore, aside for some long-tails that the piece has naturally picked up, there hasn’t been much in terms of performance from an SEO perspective – but that doesn’t mean that that piece of information isn’t highly valuable to the audience that the competitor (and you!) may be targeting.
Alongside using different tools to find out some more information on your competitor’s marketing strategies, you can gain more insights from just signing up to their email newsletters, reviewing their websites manually, taking a closer look at their articles, their eBooks, their blogs. Doing all of this can really help you to find where those gaps are and while the process may be longer than just running it through a tool and hoping for the best, that’s where your strategy gems are likely to be and where your client is going to gain the most ROI.
Problem: The link tool came up with some link gaps but they’re all big publications, but the client doesn’t do digital PR so I guess we can’t get them
Solution: No-one wants to be left behind by their competition, so building a strong case with examples from competitors can help businesses to find more budget internally for marketing channels like Digital PR.
But looking beyond that, while they may have limited budget for digital PR, could you be looking at natural link acquisition via strong content marketing campaigns? This will help to further enhance your brand’s visibility and have the potential to naturally pick up links from publications or be shareable on social media.
The links that the competitors have gained, are they actually relevant to your website? Often when looking at online competitors they offer something slightly niche so while on the face of it the competitors may be well outperforming your site, a little deep dive might show that this isn’t really the case.
These are just some of the questions that you should be asking when it comes to your competitor gap analysis. SEO consultant and international SEO manager at BigCommerce Lidia Infante spoke with Jason Barnard, Kalicube, about SEO gap analysis in more detail on the Kalicube Tuesday podcast alongside her amazing talk at BrightonSEO April 2022.
Going back to a point I made right at the beginning of this article, each and every industry has a different requirement. Scratch that, each and every website will have a different requirement for their SEO strategy EVEN if the website is in the same niche as another that’s performing well. Why? Because each website is different. From its technical health, its domain age, its existing marketing efforts, the brand’s existing visibility in the market, there are a huge number of factors that come into play which can impact the strategy that you put together for a client. This is the reason why a bespoke strategy rather than a whitewashed campaign can make all of the difference when it comes to success.
Too often I onboard clients who said that they were promised the world and were delivered very little. When I ask about previous strategy, they often have very little idea of what the strategy was or when information or documentation is provided, the strategy generally consists of a run through a tool like SEMrush and that’s about it. Oftentimes, even the page title is left as ‘Home’. Or E-A-T has been disregarded for a health, finance or YMYL site but 500 words of content has been plonked on the page with location-based keywords throughout it.
Covering the basics is imperative, and that will always be the case in SEO. Even with significant advancements in technology, covering the key areas is always a number one priority, but this needs to be determined based on the individual website and understanding its needs. Not just updating page titles or header tags for the sake of it because that’s what was done on the 20 other sites that have been worked on. Understand the niche, understand the website’s background, understand the resource and understand the priorities. And that’s your strategy.
Keyword research and keyword mapping is invaluable to your SEO strategy. This is the stage where you determine exactly what terms you want to target on which pages and build out your content strategy around this. Without a strong keyword mapping file, you can end up with cannibalisation and content conflict across your site, confusing Google and confusing the reader. Setting up a clear keyword map can provide transparency not just for your content marketing strategy for the future, but also for buy-in with the client, giving them a clear and full understanding of exactly what is being targeted, where, how and why. I previously put together a guide of how to build a keyword mapping file with a free template structure.
Keyword mapping can also allow you to properly structure your website, looking at information architecture and where your content should be placed in the most efficient place for the user. This can help you to build out your navigation bar, separate content hubs and discover content that can be really useful for your user that can also help to improve your brand and search visibility online.
Using all of the steps mentioned previously, such as understanding your audience funnel and the individual stages of the customer journey, as well as competitor analysis should help you to form your keyword map. Adding this information, alongside the target keywords for your existing service or category pages and any new pages that you could create in a clear format will help you to clearly map the terms you are targeting and therefore the audience that you are targeting.
With this information, you may also be able to pull together some rough forecasts on traffic levels based on previous traffic in Google Analytics and even search volume and trends. Tom Capper put together a great forecasting tool using Google Sheets and historical analytics data which can help to support your SEO campaign buy-in.
To summarise this stage, build a keyword mapping file which includes your target keywords (and monthly search volume for each for reference) for each of the pages that you are optimising on your website that already exist, and any new content marketing opportunities that you are building out. Within this, also begin to start mapping out your site’s information architecture, looking at your navigation bar. This can also help to inform your site structure from a technical perspective as well as assist with your internal linking as your content is created over time.
As part of any SEO strategy, understanding the technical health of the site is imperative. This can allow you to properly prioritise based on the time, resource and budget that you have to play with for your campaign.
For example, if you are working on an eCommerce site but the checkout process simply doesn’t work, you should make sure that this is the top priority for your technical / dev team. Even before you consider things like updating page titles or alt attributes as this holds far more value in terms of website performance. In the same way, if you have limited development resource you may be able to benefit from some quick wins by updating metadata via a CDN rather than relying on a technical team. Having this understanding of what remit you have and how you can best use technical resources to get the most out of the website can help lead you to SEO success.
Within your technical audit, you will want to group your audit into sections. Personally, when I’m conducting a technical audit, I will group this into the following:
· Page Experience
· Filters (if eCommerce)
· Structured Data
· SERP Features
· Historical Performance
In many cases, these points can be grouped more broadly into indexing, accessibility and experience.
Areej AbuAli has done some great talks on getting tech SEO implemented and prioritising technical SEO at multiple conferences including BrightonSEO, Mozcon and TurnDigi which really resonated with me and had some fantastic tips.
Once you have completed your technical audit and you understand the technical health of your site, you should take a step back and look at how the technical SEO work that’s needed on the site fits in with the rest of your strategy. Look at what is vital for the site to even be crawled and indexed, look at what is vital for user experience and how these fit in terms of priority with your content marketing and link building needs. This will help you to better prioritise and build out your overall SEO strategy.
Link acquisition and digital PR is vital to any SEO campaign. It’s not just important for search visibility but also general brand visibility, particularly for the clients with bigger budgets who can benefit from crafted content PR campaigns.
Understanding what the site’s needs are for the link acquisition is heavily influenced by competitor activity. Tools like SEMrush, Majestic and Ahrefs can give a good indication of link velocity and targeting, what anchor texts are being used, what publications competitors are being featured in and direct links to their campaign for you to analyse.
The strategy around your link acquisition will also be heavily dependent on budget as this will determine how much resource can be attributed. This will then allow you to distribute your time effectively between the likes of:
· Data-driven campaigns
· Content campaigns
· Reactives / Newsjacking
· Expert commentary
· FOI Requests
Link acquisition and digital PR is often the most time-consuming element of any campaign. Generally if I’m restricted by budget, I will prioritise the vital technical SEO and the content creation of a website prior to venturing towards PR. However, if brand visibility is what is really holding the site back according to your initial analysis and competitor research, then this is what will need to be at the top of the list for your SEO strategy.
Prioritisation is often the hardest part of putting together an SEO strategy, as more often than not you will be restricted by budget and resource/time particularly if you are working agency-side.
The way I look at prioritising is breaking each of the elements down i.e. the individual technical tasks, the content marketing requirements and the link building efforts that are needed. Once I have a list of the tasks that are needed, I’ll prioritise based on the following:
Impact vs. Effort is quite straightforward – prioritising the quick win opportunities that will generate the most impact with the least effort will often be my top priorities.
However, it is important to consider viability. Having worked with some complex CMS platforms which do not always allow you to make even some of the most basic changes, and sometimes won’t even allow devs to edit via cPanel. Getting a really clear understanding of exactly what you can and can’t do on a website regardless of time from yourself, your team or your devs, can help to better prioritise what work should be done and at what stage of the strategy.
You may also need to consider the sign off process when it comes to viability. This is particularly important for global brands or more corporate B2B websites. Knowing what changes you are able to make on the website and how you are going to get your changes over the line can also heavily influence your strategy.
I worked on a financial / investment website which was heavily corporate and international. They had recently approved all of their page templates and brand messaging / content after a lengthy internal approvals process (almost a year of sign offs by different individuals all the way up to CEO) prior to onboarding for SEO. As a result, we were restricted to the changes we were able to make to the home page and main service pages, and really any pages that were easily accessible through the navigation bar.
But they desperately wanted to increase their organic traffic. So, we were able to make a few small page title and header tweaks which went under the radar with sign off from the marketing team in-house, but that was all we could stretch to and even that took a little bit of negotiation.
So instead, we reframed the strategy and found new opportunities within sectors that they were targeting but had no pages or content for. We were able to build new sector-focused pages embedded within a content hub that was accessible via the footer and deeper within the site to help build non-branded search visibility. It wasn’t an ideal scenario but being able to properly strategise around the hurdles that you face when working with different types of clients, can help to avoid endless months of back and forth and negotiations that rarely go your way with very little implementation, which can actually end up ruining the relationship.
One of the key parts to any SEO strategy which also applies to all forms of digital marketing, is that it should not just be a one time process. An SEO strategy needs to consistently evolve in order to ensure that it continues to deliver results.
New competitors may enter into the market which can significantly change the space that you are trying to compete within, particularly if the new competitor offers a more innovative solution and/or their marketing strategy is strong. Some of your competitors may begin to notice improvements in your organic visibility (because who doesn’t have an eye on what their competitors are doing?) and may start investing more in their SEO. As a result, you’re going to have to be more strategic, more targeted or simply more visible to help achieve the results that you want.
Google could also shake things up – we all love (or hate!) a Google algorithm update and we can see as the industry is evolving that Google is getting smarter with its integrations of machine learning. As a result, your SEO strategy that you formed 2 or 3, or often even 1 year ago may no longer be relevant. It’s important to continue future-proofing but also not getting carried away with focusing solely on what Google’s up to.
Going back to our very first point, business objectives may change. A site that had an eCommerce functionality which you weren’t able to strategise around due to internal conflicts, may suddenly decide that eCommerce may be the right strategy for them after all a few years down the line. Continuing to evolve your SEO strategy can help you to continue with your successes.
And the final reason why your strategy needs to evolve is often one that SEO’s don’t like to talk about: your results might not be as expected. Unlike with paid media channels where you have an element of control, in SEO, you could be doing all of the right things and the results may not come as quickly as expected due to a number of external factors. SEO is a long term marketing strategy, but there’s only so many times you can say that to external stakeholders before they get impatient and even the quick wins that move the needle aren’t hitting hard enough. Identifying this, being transparent with this (this will really help to build trust with the stakeholders) and adapting to find an alternative solution is all part of evolving your SEO strategy.
Continually pivot your focus based on performance, market changes and new opportunities, and your SEO strategy will continue to grow with the business.
In conclusion, an SEO strategy doesn’t need to always follow a strict framework and it shouldn’t just be about running a site through a series of tools and finding the ‘problems’. It’s about identifying what the core people who you are trying to get buy-in from are looking to achieve, and how you’re going to achieve that based on a series of factors.
If you understand the business objectives, the niche, the website’s background, the resources you have available to implement the changes that you want to make, the priorities for the website and for the business and the viability of what you want to do – then that’s your strategy.
But don’t forget to ensure that the strategy continues to evolve with the business!