…Because Most SEOs Don’t Know What Strategy Means

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There seems to be some confusion when people talk about SEO strategies that could lead to problems for your own efforts…and your clients.

What’s interesting is this confusion seems to be created and sustained not by people who don’t know what they are talking about, but the very people who should know what they are talking about…

The SEOs themselves. Let me explain.


Jump on Google, search “link building strategies” and you’ll get a lot of great results.

Unfortunately, they might not be the right results.

The problem is that SEOs are using the term “strategies” wrong. How do I know this? Jump on any of those results for my original search term and what you’ll find is not strategy, but tactics.

See, these terms are not synonymous, which can lead to confusion and frustration for searchers.

You might argue that most people who search for “link building strategies” are actually looking for tactical stuff…so no harm done.

I disagree.

First off, there are those people who really want a strategic view of SEO…not the nuts and bolts tactical stuff. They want to understand the why behind SEO link-building campaign.

Second, since tactics and strategy are not the same thing, and a great strategy is fundamental to making any SEO campaign succeed and ROI increase, I’m afraid most SEOs aren’t even thinking about true strategy when it comes to SEO work.

That is why I wrote this blog post.

What is SEO strategy?

Your strategy is the basic, high-level way you are going to accomplish something. If you were an army and your objective was to conquer Iraq, then your strategy might be to cut communication, bomb critical cities and capture the capital.

Those are your strategies.

In business, one of your objectives might be to gain market share. One strategy is to grow your blog presence…and one tactic to do that is SEO. But once you then focus on SEO, you need to start from the top again.

See, when you think about strategy and tactics, it’s the same at each level…the scale just changes.

So, what are SEO strategies? I’ve outlined what I think an advanced SEO strategy might look for most websites on my post 5 Steps to a better SEO strategy, but let me summarize it here:

  • Step #1: Assess how search-friendly your site is – The first step is to find out where you stand. Perform a whole-site assessment to see if your content is visible to search engines. You might think that since your site is in HTML that you won’t have any problems, but you shouldn’t skip this step. Take the time to evaluate your content and keywords before you even think about optimizing.
  • Step #2: Evaluating your competitors – Your next step is to look at your competitors. Who are they? Are they who you think they are? Ask a friend who knows what he is talking about or hire a consultant. I’ve often found that who people think their competitors are and who their competitors really are don’t match. This is important, because if you want to top your competitors, then you need to target the right people and companies.
  • Step #3: Generate profiles on your targeted audience – After you nail down your competitor list, find out who your audience is. Do all the necessary research to identify and classify. Find out their age range, pain points, sex and location. The more you can draw a picture of your target audience, the better your SEO efforts will be.
  • Step #4: Generate seed keywords – Develop an extensive list of keywords and put them into a spreadsheet. Do the typical analysis of these keywords and then score them based upon how important they are to your site, looking at the competitive nature at the same time.
  •  Step #5: Become a great writer – You can’t become a great SEO unless you recognize great content as being king…and being central to any effective campaign, which is something you should think about before you launch into tactics. This also means you need to hire someone who writes great content and understands the post-Panda needs that content has.

Naturally, before you even start to think about SEO strategy, you have to understand what your objective is. A strategy doesn’t appear out of nowhere. It should be tied to an objective. But once you have the strategy, you can move on to the tactics.

What are SEO tactics?

Tactical SEO is basically what most SEOs are talking about when discussing SEO. It’s the things you to help you rank higher.

For good reason the hot tactic now is link-building. So people are going to be clamoring to build links or hire people to build them without thinking about why they are building and the consequences of doing them one way versus the other.

In the bigger picture, link building is a tactic. Not a strategy.

Once you understand why you are linking building, it is easier then to discuss tactics. To give you an example of what I mean by tactics, here are Ten Hard-Hitting Link Building Tactics That’ll Boost Your Rankings that I shared a while back. Here’s a summary:

Tactic 1: Collect and share content

You can accomplish this by creating a site that does nothing but aggregate content, like a Huffington Post or Mashable once did, create ultimate lists or publish regular round-up posts.

Tactic 2: Business and institutional links

With a little investment of time you can get links from businesses, your local chamber of commerce, library, colleges and governments.

Tactic 3: Testimonials or opinions for an article

You can also get links to your site by putting up testimonials on your site. The person then may link to show off his testimonial. You can also gather opinions from pro bloggers about special topics, post those opinions and then pray they link back to you.

Tactic 4: Interview big bloggers

Convincing big bloggers to interview you is not really that hard. Most of them do not mind sharing their thoughts if it means a little exposure. Getting the time may be another thing.

Tactic 5: Good CSS design on your website

If you have a beautifully designed site using CSS you should submit it to a CSS gallery. If you get accepted, you’ll get a link back to you site. Good places to submit are CSS Elite or CSS Mania.

Tactic 6: Contests

Create a contest that encourages competition based upon simply entering information to have a chance to win something or where they have to produce something. For instance, you could give away two seats to a conference for the winning 100-word essay on some topic.

Tactic 7: Competitor link data

One of the most common tactics to good SEO is making a list of all of the links coming into your competitors using a tool like Open Site Explorer…then going after those links. Rand explains the fundamentals of competitive link analysis.

Tactic 8: Social media

There are so many signals coming from Google that suggests they are using social media to rank content. So, building links to your content through a social media strategy is critical.

Tactic 9: Re-purposing your content

Building links back to your site can be done in some pretty simple ways if you take content you have now and turn it into further products. For example:

  • Create a PDF out of a series of posts and then publish on Scribd or Docstoc.
  • Create a slide share out of another a series of posts.
  • Submit your great content re-purposed to sites like eHow and Business Insider.
  • Use content as a script to do a series of podcasts on a topic.
  • Submit content to Vimeo or YouTube.

Tactic 10: Social bookmarking-worthy post

Use a site like TechMeme or tool like Google Trends to see what is trending…then write a post of original content that piggybacks off of the trending idea. Have people submit it to Digg or reddit for you.

What is operational SEO?

After strategy and tactic, we need to talk about operations. Operation is where the rubber meets the road. This is how you are going to translate the strategies into tactics. The strategy was the why and the tactics was the what. This is all about the who, when and the how.

To answer the who question…is that going to be you? If so, will that be DIY SEO or a in-house staff? Or are you going to hire someone? If so, a consultant or a company?

This about rounding up that team and creating the project scope/leader needed to make sure the right things get done.

In addition, you need to make decisions about the timeline that this is going to be pulled off. What are the milestones…and who is in control of monitoring your progress?

Finally, this is about the how…the tools to get the job done…and for that you must read Aaron Wall’s Ultimate List of Must-have SEO Tools.


Listen, the age of simple SEO is over. In the last five years your responsibility as an SEO has changed dramatically by a sea change of SEO trends. You need to keep up, and one of the more fundamental ways of doing that is by understanding SEO from the big picture down to the nuts and bolts.

The benefits from embracing this larger change, however, is crucial in two ways: positioning yourself as a SEO or SEM strategist, or whatever title you want to create, means you will become something more than your vanilla competitor. And that kind of positioning can lead to more deals and, ultimately, more money.

So, what do you think about this idea that SEOs are missing the importance of strategy and tactics?

Neil Patel
Neil Patel is the co-founder of KISSmetrics, an analytics provider that helps companies make better business decisions. Neil also blogs about marketing and entrepreneurship at Quick Sprout.
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  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    Without a strategy, it’s impossible to determine the right tactics to use. You need to prepare before launching an SEO campaign. This means doing research and determining what the right strategy is for you. An SEO strategy looks different for every business.

  • http://www.searchlaboratory.com/ Daniel Frank

    Neil you seem to be everywhere today! I’ve been finding that agency side there is a definite disconnect between strategy, tactics and operation. Of course you mentioned that there has been a big change in responsibility for SEO’s in the last five years, which suggests that regular reviews of SEO strategies are also essential.

  • http://www.onlinemarketingblog.com.au Vahe

    Sir Neil, awesome post! This one is probably your best one out of the ones you have posted live yesterday. Few comments.

    1. Firstly SEO is one part of an online marketing (inbound marketing) acquisition strategy. We need to show clients how we can bring or refine additional traffic coming to the site. Alot of this ties in with (a) Making sure your site is accessible by search engines and users in a relevantly structured platform (b) content marketing for your owned, paid and earned assets (c) link building (building relationships direct or with social). (d) Engagement – make an effort and answer the questions your target audience is looking for when searching your site. This includes adding macro & micro goals.

    2.I would go into further detail for operational and include that it is also about removing the pain points (frustrations), so that the SEO tactics are done with maximum efficiency. This ties in with what you have mentioned about who,how and when.

    3. To be honest people are “interchangeably using” SEO strategies instead of tactics”, demonstrates the need for SEO professionals to develop business acumen. Learning basic business management skills is how you can connect and generate more sales from clients. I know this might shift away towards the technical side of SEO (which I am a fan of), but if I don’t know what your saying about how you can help me build my brand online with SEO (keyword targeting and understanding user behaviour), then you’re not getting my business.

    Cheers for the post Neil.

  • http://www.local-business-marketing-specialists.com/ Patricia

    Thanks for this great information, actually I’m just starting to learn a bit more about SEO strategies (key words / phrases, and descriptions). I seems a bit complicated at times because you sort have to have a plan when you are trying to target an specific audience so that you get more traffic on your site. Thanks again for this great post!

  • http://www.atilus.com Zach Katkin

    Great post Neil. Always amazing content from you – and I can’t agree more. I think step 3, 4, and 5 are absolutely more important. Everyone wants more traffic right? I’d disagree (to borrow your phrasing from above) – what they *need* is to attract an appropriate audience, effectively communicate their message, and then get their visitors to act.

    Much of that has NOTHING to do with tactics, in some ways, that’s the easy stuff, time consuming and taxing, but easily repeatable. Instead as you suggested, businesses should start by focusing on their message, and getting their house in order for the deluge of traffic they’ll get from reading your material.

    (Now I’m just pandering 🙂

    Thanks again,

  • http://userpsychology.wordpress.com User Psychology

    Really good read Neil. Please post more on SEO strategy…

  • https://plus.google.com/115326789223681674036 Rajesh Magar

    Awesome post..

    And yes Pre-planning is strategy and the way to execute that work is tactics. this is the perfect content which give fill of knowledge to get job done in correctly, not just about seo it’s the rule needs to be follow to accomplished .

    Special thanks for “Ultimate List of Must-have SEO Tools.”

  • http://theseorapper.com The SEo Rapper

    Great Post…

    I do believe there is a thin line between Strategy and Tactics and the two could really be intertwined.

  • http://www.michaelrurupandersen.dk Michael Rurup Andersen

    As a general rule I dont think that SEO’s are missing the importance of strategy and tactics. But as you point out they might misintepret the difference between the two, which might lead to confusion in the SEO process as a whole, hence not fulfilling the potential of the SEO campaign – there not providing the best result possible. Just like Vahe points out it is therefore important for a SEO’s to have business acumen.

    Thanks for sharing a good article!

  • http://www.webindia.com kumutha

    Informative post.

    Now a days no one is doing this strategy. They are applying the tactics alone. What is the use of applying tactics before doing strategic plan. I hope this strategic plan will give many answers to the business inquiry and for the leads too.

    Thanks for the post

  • Alan Bleiweiss

    Sweet article! I think it’s exactly the lack of comprehension of strategy vs. tactic that causes many problems in our industry. Too many people get hung up on individual tactical methods, because they totally lack a grasp of the strategic impact of those tactics. Cavalier usage of the word strategy by those who should know better just fuels the fire.

    If an SEO professional does not properly define a high level strategy, or consider the ramifications of various outcomes of achieving that strategy, the tactics they implement will be myopic at best, harmful at worst.

  • http://www.ryanmjones.com Ryan Jones

    well said. so many people are focusing on the “what” that they’ve completely lost track of the “why” aspect.

    The forest – it’s right there behind the trees.