SEO: a Process NOT a Project

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Organic search engine optimization (SEO) is not a one time project, it’s a process. Similar to a garden, you must tend to it. Sometimes you have an existing garden where the weeds have grown over or nothing is growing. Sometimes you just have a section of yard you are going to rope off, till, then plant stuff in. Like a garden, organic SEO takes time and attention. It may be as simple as setting a timer to water or as complex as starting from scratch. Organic SEO is like a garden – if you don’t water it, it dies.

Soil Considerations

What is the history of the things that have been done to your website for SEO purposes?

Do you have pages chock full of links to websites unrelated to your company, where some of the website no longer exist or even some link to an “adult” website? Did someone hide a bunch of keywords the same color as your background at the bottom of the page? Maybe the site you are going to work on has commented out a bunch of keywords in the HTML code? (I know this is 2009, but some company, somewhere, has this on its Web site, right now.)

Sunlight, Rainfall and Other Factors

Traffic Analysis – Are there metrics on the company’s website? What kind of information can you gather from the statistics on what is going on with keywords, referrers, exit pages, entry pages, bounce rate, etc.? What metrics program does your company use?

We always ask our clients to install the website analytics program we use –

Hitslink – simply because it provides the measurements we need for our clients and also allows for consistent report formats for all clients.

What Plants shall we put in our garden?

Keyword Research – Gather the keywords out of the client’s current website metrics and obtain client input on what they think someone might type to search for them.

We usually use a method that I have used for many, many years. We ask the CEO, (get’s them involved at the top), the receptionist, the sales managers, the marketing director, the CFO and the COO (these two help get things done and also make sure you get paid) to provide five to 10 keywords each and not to share them with each other. This becomes statistically significant when you have different people come up with a keyword phrase more than once. Take these and put them into spreadsheets so we know what department wants what traffic and also to refer to later.

This is the primary keyword stage. You can also correlate what keyword terms got the most traffic and the lowest bounce rate to their Web site compared to what the client expects. Now obviously, you must factor in the fact that if the content doesn’t exist on their Web site right now, they won’t be found for it.

What kind of pesticides would be best to use to combat bugs?

Competitive Analysis – Look at the competitor’s HTML code, what can you observe about the competitor’s SEO strategy? Do they have one? What keywords are the competitor’s using? How do these differ from what the client gave you? Do they all apply directly to the client? Are the competitors using CMS systems, does the HTML code reflect the presence of another SEO firm?

These are the people your client thinks are their competitors in the business sector, not neccessarily on the web. Sometimes this works in your favor because the people your client thinks are your competitor may not be you, the SEO’s competitor, and as such you may rise above them to obtain market share over the competitor’s rather quickly.

What plants grow best in your locality?

Competitive Keyword Research – What keywords are crowded? What keywords are open? Does your client provide a niche service where very few people in the channel are doing SEO? Is your client a start-up, where the market is bare or are you going for terms in real estate or insurance that are very crowded already?

Audience Metrics – What do clients think of when they search? In addition to Web site metrics, what does your client’s customer think of them in terms of search? Can you obtain some of your client’s customers’ contact info? (say that 3 times fast)

Purchasing your plants

Keyword finalization – With the market up and down so much these days, if you tied your key performance indicators (KPI) to your client’s Web site traffic, you are indeed in trouble. While some people say keyword-specific search engine ranking is a poor measurement of SEO success, I would disagree and state that qualified converting keyword rankings ARE important.

If three out of 10 times a certain keyword phrase motivates Web site visitors to fill out your client’s contact form, then this is a qualified converting keyword phrase. The fact that you are number one or number 31 for that term is somewhat important to your client and their potential customers.

This is just the beginning of SEO. We haven’t even started modifying the Web site yet. Send the final round of keywords to the client for them to sign off on before you do your baseline measurements. Also at this point it’s a good idea to make sure to find out what the company’s “bread and butter” is and what areas it is growing in its organization.

Knowing this will help you pick your first keyword focus point for quick ROI and know what areas you are going to help the company grow in. The client’s expense for SEO should give them at least a triple return on its investment after a year.

Baseline – Where does client rank now in the search results of Google, Yahoo! and MSN for the agreed upon keyword terms and phrases? You can shoot yourself in the foot if you try and measure vague terms. Your best bet is to use what will make the cash register ring and track qualified keywords on a monthly basis to show progress. You might also want to measure the market share against the client’s specified keywords and show them a competitive market share baseline.


Planning – What needs to be done and who are the people to be involved client side and agency side? You don’t want everyone watering the plants at the same time.

Prioritization – What needs to be done first? What needs to be done last? This is critical so that there is no wasted effort or wasted expense to client. Is there a new Web site in the future for the company? Make plans so you are not wasting the client’s money.

Garden Upkeep

The biggest misconception in SEO is that you can “do” SEO once on a Web site then you can just walk away. Just like a garden, if there is no water the plants die.

The nature of SEO is simply this: Today’s rules or procedures may or may not work tomorrow. Google is usually the target we aim at for SEO, but that target moves quite frequently. Google, in fighting off the “bad people” who spam the listings, will change the way they rank Web sites often. By monitoring results on a weekly and monthly basis you can see which plants need more water or which ones are getting eaten by bugs.

Apply that to keywords that may be on page three of the results but need to move up because they are highly converting keywords. Just like you would get rid of weeds, get rid of bugs or change the angle of the hose for irrigation, there are steps you must take full time to keep your SEO growing.

Linkage and Niche Marketing for a Web Site or Company Channel – submit the Web site to Yahoo! directory, DMOZ and other places on the web where applicable.

Monitoring and Maintanance
– observe statistics weekly, water the Web site where it needs it the most.

Baseline reports – Refer to your baseline reports. Did that plant have three leaves last week or two? It was one inch tall two weeks ago, but now it’s four inches. Report this progress to the client.

Bounce Rate and On-site Modifications – If you notice one of your plants is doing really well, give it some more space, more room to grow or more soil to spread out into. In other words, you can be number one out of 380,000,000 results on Google, but if being number one doesn’t bring the company business, you want to adjust your strategy. Change your focus to the keywords that convert, remove the weeds that are growing in your garden and prune the keywords on a page to come to a bounce rate of zero percent. Organic SEO, like a garden, needs to be tended. It’s a process not a project.

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  • Loren Baker, Editor

    Wow Steve, in depth stuff. I had no idea so were so into gardening!

  • Nick Stamoulis

    This is a great analogy. I like to often times refer to link building as a spring board to try dumb things dumb for people that can’t wrap their head around it.

  • Lee Odden

    Someone is going to scrape this to a gardening blog I’ll bet. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Great post Steve and an excellent analogy. SEO needs to break free of IT/web dev mindsets and live in marketing where it can really grow.

  • steve

    @loren Thanks.

    @Nick thanks.

    @LeeOdden thanks, i’m a hacker that works at an ad agency/pr firm, so i totally agree.

  • Arshad

    this is why i do seo myself.i always knew its not a project.

  • Metapil

    Gee wiz. Is this the kind of writing we’re reduced to?

  • Jeffrey Smith

    There is nothing wrong with using analogy to drive home a point. Essentially with the attention funnel getting broader, bridging the gap is important for those seeking related products or services.

    Sure, while most SEO’s may not dig into this post, no tens inpunded, somewhere a few snippets like this used to convey a point just boosted organic SEO conversions.

    Don’t blame the messenger for the message – “Good post Steve”…

  • Marvin

    Great article and, in my opinion the garden reference is entirely appropriate. SEO really is a process not a project. After all the internet is dynamic not static, websites change, the market changes competition changes so it’s logical and reasonable to assume that the SEO for any site would need to change, update and be tweaked for effectiveness as well.

  • steve

    @marvin @jefferey

    thanks… next article is SEO: is a long term committment, not a short term quick fix..

    Loren and i spoke about this at length today.. it’s time SEOs became the electric company and the phone company.. someone you must have employed to do business.

  • steve


    reduced.. ???

    let’s raise the bar and provide the best service possible to our client and form lasting long-term relationships with our clients.

  • Metapilot

    I wrote not of anyone’s service. My opinion is simply that more resourceful substance in some of the stuff I’ve been reading lately would be a nice change.

  • Lea de Groot

    Nice – I usually use the metaphor of car maintenance to explain SEO, but I like the gardening one too ๐Ÿ™‚

  • steve


    maybe you could list maybe 1-10 things below you are personally interested in seeing, and Ann Smarty and/or Loren Baker (editors) could possibly hook you up?


    Thank you

  • Valerie DiCarlo

    Thank you for this great in-depth post! It is unfortunate that a certain reality still remains: so many clients / companies simply don’t “get” that SEO is a ongoing process & committment – even after much consulting, training and education.

    And most decison makers’ mind-sets fall in that IT/web dev mind-set (as Lee Odden mentioned in his comment) of SEO being a one-time finite “project”… do it once and we’re “good to go”…

    How do we get an article like this one in front of the “right” folks that need to read it?!?

    Thanks again for your contribution!

  • Steen Ohman

    Very good post – despite I don’t like garden work at all.

    The process part is very important, as most people think a SEO can make a once and for all fix.

    I think the most important thing about SEO is that the webmaster should understand, think and live SEO 24/7/365.

    A SEO expert should always focus on getting people to do the SEO themselves, and not thinking about selling the next hour.

  • steve


    I would completely disagree with you on the last part.

    I notice things each week in google. of course i have been watching how google works since it was brought online. my eye and mind is trained to see the small little differences.. like.. how google sometimes pulls it’s description from DMOZ… for one keyword/one page but not for another keyword on the same website, or the same page.

    that is one thing among MANY, that i can’t teach someone else to do.

    an “seo experts” job is to always be thinking 10 steps ahead and being able to modify them on the fly based on data… bounce rate, etc.

    however there is such a thing as an “in-house” seo.. but most of the time i deal with a CMO or marketing director, who has us to ftp in and do the IT dept’s part or work with the IT dept. to see changes are done. It isn’t the IT departments job to learn SEO, that is why they hire me.

  • Agent SEO

    Some great tips! I love how you’ve related it to gardening as SEO does take that kind of nurture, especially for large campaigns.

  • Michael Martinez

    I’m surprised no one thought about the “SEO” trademark issue that was such a hot topic last year. The refrain of “it’s a process” is still ringing through my ears.

    Maybe this article will be cited in a legal proceeding.

  • steve

    lmao.. that would be funny MM.. i would LOVE to be an expert witness in that case..


  • Kim

    Brilliant article. Regarding the comment above about how to get the right people to read this? Well we source good SEO articles on the web, print them and take them to potential clients to read. The fun part is watching them go from being in kindergarden and then graduating to primary school with “ok you have convinced us – now where do we start?”

    No matter the title they love a good SEO article. By the way ,as an editor for an online publisher, the gardening article… really well done! It also helps my SEO guys sell.

  • Justin Brooke

    Wow! What a great analysis and comparison. You’ve just cited very important points on SEO and all the things that construes it.

    Thanks for this worthwhile post.

  • Short selling stocks

    i am agree with you give me best example of garden

  • Josh Millrod

    Seriously good post! Covers just about everything. One great way to calculate keyword competitiveness is supply and demand. Using # of pages available for a keyword as supply and # of monthly searches as demand. The ratio will give you a good idea of the competitiveness of a keyword market.

  • Scott Dylan

    Very interesting read here.

    Scott Dylan

  • Jenny

    Excellent post! It is essential for people to understand that to gain effective results in the search engines the process needs to be done so properly as well as being maintained.
    The analogy you use makes perfect sense…the up keep of the site needs to be constant. Consistent and accurate content, article marketing, link building, because without this, the results you worked so hard for are sure to wither.

  • Richard Vanderhurst

    I definitely agree on this. thanks for the post!

  • Jeff Lancaster

    I have been hearing this garden analogy coming up a lot more recently in speaking about SEO (and social media) – but I like it, it’s a great way to break things down for clients who don’t really get it.

  • Mobile phone

    I definitely agree on this. thanks for the post!

  • love ugg boots

    nice points

  • Scott Lifts

    I have found that keyword density is not that important. So many people focus on this aspect of SEO as it seems logical but it simply is not. If you look, google does not hold one patent on keyword density in all of their many patents!