Editor’s Note: This is a section of our completely redone SEO Guide. Enjoy!
“Strategy.” Strategy is something we talk about internally on our weekly SEJ editorial calls.
“Strategy is hard.” As an SEO writer and consultant, I spend all day, every day strategizing. Keywords, meta data, competitive analysis, analyzing data, creating custom content for different channels, and sending outreach emails.
And getting it right every time? Hard. Making sure your user experience and website structure flow is solid? Also hard, argh! So, I’m trying to make it easier.
Building a cohesive SEO strategy isn’t just all meta titles and sitemaps. When I create a strategy for my clients, I actually use a plan that’s custom to their needs, wants, and market landscape. Your SEO strategy should be reflective of your client or brand. It should sound, act, and move consistently and authenticly—just as they do. Because, after all, search marketing puts your client or brand in front of their ideal customer.
Five years ago I started keeping track of my SEO strategy — the processes I use, the ones I don’t — and I’ve shaped my ideas into this guide to help this ever-evolving landscape remain a steady, solid platform for increasing organic search traffic to your website. But, the number of algorithm updates is growing fast, and it’s important to stay focused on not only how, but why you build a cohesive SEO strategy.
So, here it is: I’ve built this SEO strategy from my internal experiences working with 100+ clients into an external resource that can help empower other SEO beginners from the ground up.
So, to start off, let’s take a look at your audience.
Understanding who your target audience is, then building different searcher personas surrounding this can help you reach your ideal customer base. It gives you a structured look at how your business goals align with their goals. And, you can match your content, messaging, and product with what matters most to them. It’s like profiling your customers in a non-mug shot prison kind of way.
Creating an SEO strategy without building a searcher persona profile is like getting dressed in the dark. It’s not pretty. And, you come out looking like you’re in a bad 90’s music video with The Hoff. To begin building your searcher persona profiles, start by identifying your customer goals. Ask yourself these questions:
- What words would my customer or target audience use to describe their current problem?
- What is the biggest hesitation before trying out my product or service?
- What is the best possible way for me to engage with them?
While this may feel a bit like mind-reading, there is no crystal ball or feather hat involved. It’s all about understanding your audience. If you can answer these questions, your keywords, content, and link building strategy will, ultimately, create meaningful, authentic content that converts searchers into customers.
Keywords are still valuable. They give a theme to your site, structure to your pages, and benefit your site by guiding searchers to a specific page: keywords don’t just help content, keywords craft content. Don’t take my word for it, just look at Rand Fishkin’s comment on this Moz article.
I’ve always viewed keywords as another avenue to help guide my clients talk to their customers the way their customers talk to search engines. And, customers don’t talk to search engines any differently than the way they talk in natural conversations. With new technologies being introduced, like voice search and natural language, conversational queries and questions are becoming an even bigger footprint. Having worked on sites with over six million visitors in one year, I thought it might be useful to see the process behind the curtain to my keyword discovery.
Here are the key principles that power my keyword discovery:
Break Out Your Keyword List Based on Your Ideal Searcher
Using Google Sheets, I start by making a list of words I think my ideal customer or searcher would type into the search box. I Google it and scroll to the bottom for Google Suggestions. And, I’ll even pop over to the Thesaurus to check out different variations of words. Then, I’ll use tools like Ubersuggest, Keywordtool.io, Keyword Shitter 💩 (No, I did not make that up and yes, it really exists) and Wikipedia to give it a little umph! Here’s what my list looks like right now:
Next, I’ll do a little trick my good friend Brian Dean taught us all in Google Keyword Planner. Take a similar blog topic you’re writing about that a competitor wrote about and copy the URL into the Google Keyword Planner under the “Your landing page” section. See below:
Here’s a list of keywords I can add to my list that my competitors are ranking for:
Pretty awesome, right?!
Crunch the Numbers
After I pull around 50 keywords or so, I’ll paste the list of keywords into the Google Keyword Planner. I delete all the other mumbo jumbo that comes with it, but I keep the goods. The goods meaning keyword, competition, and volume. Then, I remove all the keywords that aren’t relevant to my article. So, for example, if I’m writing an article on keyword discovery in 2016, I wouldn’t need a keyword like ‘keyword research 1999’ unless we’re linking to this Matrix meme, in which case it’s completely necessary.
Bucket Keywords into Categories
[Insert scary music scene] It’s time to make the big decision: What keywords are you going to go after? I bucket my keywords based themes or topics into different categories. I segment these based on pages or blog posts I can write about. This allows each page or blog post to target a different set of keyword themes. Under each keyword theme or bucket, I list my five or so keywords by volume, including any geographical elements that may be helpful. This also allows me to identify any gaps or opportunities I may be missing to drive relevant traffic.
Stalk Your Competitors
Stalking your competitors is often an overlooked but super important part of creating an SEO strategy that your client (or your business) will love. Understanding what your competitors are doing and your differences allows you to understand what sets you apart from your competition. Then, you can focus your energy on creating things that get your ideal searcher personas to click.
This competitive analysis can be a daunting process for depending on your market landscape if you’re new to this particular field. You don’t know what separates you from competitor to the next. It’s your job to find out what makes your client’s brand memorable, what makes them better than the rest? Professor and author, Theodore Levitt, says: “Differentiation is one of the most important strategic and tactical activities in which companies must constantly engage.”
To follow Professor Levitt’s advice, I break my competitive analysis into three phases:
1. List All Potential SEO Competitors
When I’m starting my SEO process for a new client or industry, I use my Google Sheets to start making a list of all potential competitors. Think about location, services, content, keywords, and don’t limit yourself to one specific industry. I’ll plug and play using the standard Google search box, Google Maps, and Alexa.
2. Research Your Competitors
Now, I take my list and analyze each competitor to see if they are ranking for any keywords I may be targeting and if they have any organic search data that may be useful using SEMRush. I’ll also pull any inbound link data available using Open Site Explorer from Moz.
3. Compare My Site to Competitors
With all the relevant data and keywords listed, I’ll analyze the information and compare it to my own site to see what competitor I can target and who I think I can beat as a starting point in terms of content.
Search marketing is just as much about the user as it is about the search engine. It’s important to stand out in the search results, but for the right reasons. Knowing your competitors gives you insights into who your customers really are and what they want from you. You can make a positive difference in their lives and yours by learning how to isolate data and dive into competitor research.
Content Gap Analysis
As an SEO manager at a startup, larger company, or even working for yourself it feels surreal to do what you love and see your efforts achieve a positive endeavor. Chances are, the content you produce prides itself on creativity, thought leadership, authenticity, and grit. Owning your content, keyword research, and finding your own distribution channels makes your organic traffic increases all the more meaningful.
Alas, like all SEO’s, you are also apt to conduct a content gap analysis to identify where you can grow and what assets you’re missing. It’s important to assess where you stand compared to your competitors and current content for certain keyword terms — what is the consumer’s path to purchase, and how can I improve? Every now and then, I use tools like MindMeister to map the customer journey. Here is an awesome example of a customer journey map. Mostly, I open up Screaming Frog SEO Spider to perform my content audit using Google Sheets.
Here are the following data pieces I pull from Screaming Frog:
- Meta Page Title
- Format (HTML, Image, etc.)
- Word Count
- Persona (This matches up with my client buyer personas)
- Phase (What phase of the buyer cycle does this fall under?)
- Link-Worthy (Yes/No)
- Share-Worthy (Yes/No)
- Outdated or redundant? (Yes/No)
After I pull this information from Screaming Frog and make my own personal suggestions, I’ll pop over to Google Analytics to add more data to each page:
- Overall traffic
- Organic traffic
- Organic conversion rate
- Inbound links
- Social traffic
- Bounce rate
- Time on site
Next, I sort my spreadsheet from lowest to highest. So, the pages with no traffic and no inbound links were at the top of my spreadsheet. Then, I’ll manually review all these pages and make the notes you see above.I’ll make sure to mark any pages or posts I believe to be low quality and low performing to recommend to delete these later. If I want to preserve these, I’ll 301 redirect these instead.
Note: If you have a big website, I recommend starting with your blog first. This can be a tedious task.
These are the preferences I use, but feel free to adjust for you and your clients’ needs. Ideally, after your content gap analysis, you should have a list of action items that will improve your content. These action items are the holes you identified in the customer journey.
These holes could be anything from repurposing old content into white papers or webinars or webinars that can be turned into evergreen blog posts. The trick is to find content that is not serving a purpose for any of your key searcher personas and revamp it. Find out what type of content performs best for you and at what phases, then do more of that!
Crafting awesome content takes a lot of time to create, especially if you’re targeting a competitive set of keywords. My super talented friend Brian Dean publishes one post a month on Backlinko, but I know every single time I get an email it’s going to be something worth reading, sharing, and linking to.
Check out this email he sent (and yea, I clicked it!):
Learning From Your Data
Website traffic is worth a lot and costs little. This opens opportunity: when you can’t out-pay your competition, the solution is to out-smart them. When SEO strategists are given the chance and time to analyze data, only then do companies get to truly see what SEO is all about. After six years in the industry, I’m able to identify trends and patterns in data by looking at numbers in analytics. Data should tell a story. Plug your numbers into Google Sheets, Excel, or Google Fusion Table (my favorite!) to watch the story unfold.
Think about this way: Visually mapping your data allows you to interactively display your variables and allows you to draw conclusions quicker. You can pick through the data and identify your pain points much faster. Visually telling your story of data helps you to tell your client or your company why there was a spike in traffic this week or why our domain authority dropped one month. You can see the data mold together.
Your SEO strategy has one main objective from which it should never stray: Send quality traffic to your website and provide a positive user experience for high conversion rates. SEO can either be nothing more than a few keywords sprinkled into your blog posts, or it can be a dynamic part of your whole marketing strategy. Creating an engaging user experience and establishing a cohesive SEO strategy will give customers a reason to love your company. Cultivate these tactics, and I guarantee you’ll be on your way to Google page 1 status.