SEO consultant, Natalie Mott, talks about the basics of a good SEO strategy.
What is a strategy? Almost as importantly, what isn’t it? What things should you include in a good strategy? What tools can help you?
How can a SWOT analysis (strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats) help you formulate a good strategy? Where do tactics fit in? How do you prioritise all the things to do?
Get answer to all these questions and more.
Video & Slides
A bit about me, I’ve been agency side for eleven years-ish, and so I’ve seen a lot of things happen in SEO over those eleven years – a lot of different ways of doing things agency side.
There’s lots of different agencies – you know it’s all pretty much the same job, but lots of agencies try to have a different way that they approach SEO strategy, and I’ve picked up a few things along the way.
I’ve recently gone freelance, which has been, it’s been a whole other thing, but it’s really exciting and it’s really good to get my hands dirty with lots of other projects.
From being at one agency you’d be working on all the same clients, you don’t necessarily… you do get exposure to lots of different challenges, but sometimes, if you’re working on the same clients, it can get a bit – you know… It’s good to get some diversity.
Anyway, that’s where I’ve come from and what I’m doing at the moment, and this is designed to be just an introduction to SEO strategy really. There’s some things that I touch on on a surface level, so some things about auditing that’s kind of for another talk. This is about sort of SEO strategy on the top level.
What is SEO strategy?
Starting with a definition of what is SEO strategy, which I found quite interesting by Googling it – there’s a featured snippet, a rich result for that query.
The result that Google is seeing as the most relevant for just the keyword SEO strategies – an article from HubSpot which actually I don’t feel really describes SEO strategy – I think it does a little bit of a disservice where it just says it’s the process of organising a website’s content by topic. There’s a bit more to it than that.
This is describing website taxonomy work, this is one one part of SEO, so I found it interesting that there’s this article that’s out there, that’s not as in-depth about the topic as you would hope.
Go further with the other results that are coming up for SEO strategy, and if you’re in the industry you’ll be familiar with these “ultimate guide” posts, the “step by step” posts, and these kinds of things.
There’s a lot of good stuff in here, but again, it sort of doesn’t tell the full story. And what was also interesting about those results is that everything is very well optimised for 2019, and it’s a standard in the industry to be optimising your content for 2019, but I had to ask the question – what’s really so different?
What so different about SEO strategy in 2019?
As Andrew said, there’s a lot of Google updates – you need to understand the improvements that Google’s making to its algorithm to ensure that everything you’re doing is within the guidelines, but pretty much – Google have been saying to do similar things.
For as long as I’ve been a SEO, it’s always been about the user and highest quality content that can answer the query, the best way you can. So I find that quite interesting that we’re still saying 2019.
But just for some things that might have changed the goal posts: there was an update in 2018, about a year ago now actually, known in the industry as the medic update. There’s a set of guidelines called the Google Quality Rater Guidelines which is some information provided to humans that, in summary, sort of sense checks what the algorithm does to make sure that the search results are providing the best experience for the user.
But the thing is about this, the industry kind of lost its mind a bit over this update. There’s been a lot of “how to optimise for EAT”, but the fact of the matter is, this has been something that’s been in those Quality Rater Guidelines for… so I will have seen them in 2011-2012 – you know a long time. It’s really interesting that in 2018 the industry kind of started to jump on this en masse.
Voice search – there’s a lot of talk about how you optimise for voice search, but I have a few thoughts about voice search.
I’m probably not indicative of the world as a whole and how they use voice search, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the stats that are out there saying fifty percent of all searches are now voice search… I wonder how useful those searches are? But it’s kind of interesting.
Clients will come saying we need to make sure we’re optimised for voice search, and the thing is optimising for voice search isn’t so different to optimising for the search in general.
The difference is that anyone making a query with their voice, it’s usually more of a long tail query, more data – it’s more phrased like a question. But essentially it’s still pretty much the same job.
How do we optimise for mobile?
Every year since 2011 has been the year of the mobile. It’s just kind of interesting that it’s one of those things in there.
And as Andrew was saying, one of the most recent updates last week or so – it’s been a change to how Google categorises its links. It’s given some options to people on how to categorise outbound links to a website, and as Andrew said, the industry is losing its mind over it a bit. But again, you know – it’s the way things have always been.
The reason I’m making the point about SEO strategy in 2019 is how it’s, if done correctly, it’s not so different… the point I’m trying to make here is that the word strategy is something that’s often misused.
We misuse the word “strategy” all the time
People will come asking for a strategy, and then proceed to define it in a different way. Marketers and their clients misuse the word all the time.
And then the meaning is also frequently forgotten in the context of SEO as a channel specifically.
Your boss or your client will come to you “I want to strategy, I want a roadmap” – but the roadmap isn’t really the strategy, and a strategy is not just a project plan. It’s not just a set of KPIs, it’s certainly not ranking number one for something. That may be one of the objectives that you want from your SEO strategy, but that objective is not a strategy in and of itself.
It’s also not a checklist, this is from one of the results that it was in those in first few results for SEO strategy 2019, or SEO strategy.
With these results, I understand why it’s doing it – it is to try and make it accessible for people, to demystify this as a practice, as a science or as an art – what people do is: “oh yes, follow these easy steps and you too will be an SEO.”
But it’s not one size fits all, it’s just a bit misleading to be saying that this is how you do SEO strategy.
And the thing is, you often need a list of actions to execute on your strategy, but this checklist isn’t the actual strategy is.
The thing that is the point of difference is this: find an opportunity keyword, that’s what these steps are designed to do, they’re saying this is how we’re going to increase traffic to your website – we find a keyword that’s going to be less competitive and then and all this other stuff is kind of standard.
So you’ve got this checklist of this is what SEO strategy is, but take an example, (I absolutely adore this graph, if anyone who can’t see whose site it is, it’s the Daily Mail’s organic visibility over the last two years and it’s glorious), you’ve got that strategy of: well to do SEO you need to find an opportunity keyword, and then you need to optimise metadata and you need to do all of this stuff…
That “strategy” is not going to help the Daily Mail, it’s one strategy for one type of business and one type of website, it’s certainly not how you would do SEO strategy in this situation. Yeah, just strange.
I stole this – I like this wording from a colleague, from somebody in the industry – Hannah Smith.
She’s a creative strategist, she was very clear about strategy being making specific recommendations for a particular company, in a particular market to achieve a defined objective. SEO strategy should be bespoke to the specific situation.
And context is everything.
So a bit of strategy 101 just in general business, you know any strategy, whether it’s SEO, marketing, digital marketing, business strategy, the things that you always need to assess are: where is the client or where where is the brand’s website now, what they want to achieve from their website, where they want to be, and then how do they get there.
There’s some practical things in here now, so I always start with a situation analysis – first thing I would do. And I also need to caveat this with, I don’t often approach SEO strategy in exactly the same way with every single thing that comes to me, it is entirely situation dependent, but generally these are the sorts of things that I recommend people do.
Understand your position in the marketplace
So the first thing is to understand your position in the marketplace. So there’s these paid competitor analysis tools, they all do very similar things – they all do bits of it a little bit better than, you know some do things better than others. If you’re in the Sistrix training, you know what it does inside out, but these are its competitors.
Agencies have access to all these tools, and it gives you the most well-rounded view of a website’s position in the marketplace against its competitors.
But if you don’t have access to that industry toolset, you can do quite a robust meta analysis just purely by googling. I’d say the Daily Mail wouldn’t need something a bit more at scale, but you know, you can get a sense of who your competition is simply through googling things.
And there’s this plug-in here that most people in the industry use called “Keywords everywhere”, you’ll see that you know it’s about volume, cost per click – it’s not directly related to SEO, but it gives you a sense of how much it would cost you to get that traffic if you were paying for it. So it gives you a sense of the competition and whether you would want to be going after this keyword or not.
It’s possible to do SEO competitor analysis without tools, I’d prefer not to, but you can do it.
The best and richest source of data about an SEO strategy is from Google Analytics and Google Search Console – the data that they have on your brand… If it’s a brand new website then you obviously won’t have access to this data, but any website that has been going for a while, you can get an awful lot of interception from data that you already hold.
Something I often see, and it’s so simple, there’s a way to tie Google Search Console with Google Analytics data – you literally just pair them within the admin panel on Google Analytics.
So many people forget to do that, and you get less data in Search Console itself, you get much more of it if you pair it with Google Analytics. You get to see all of the queries that are driving traffic to your site, or at least a close approximation of them. But in general it’s a good thing to have.
Define your objectives
So once you’ve done the marketplace assessment, you need to define your objectives – actually perhaps define your objectives first. I’d try and define them first, see where you are and then redefine, just tweak and and understand if it’s something you can actually do.
What do you, or your client, want to achieve from SEO?
You need to know what you want to achieve from SEO, subliminally it’s usually money, but it may not be – there might be something else you wanted to get out of SEO. You need to understand whether you can realistically achieve it, and you will do that by analysing all the data that’s out there.
So for example, seeing what’s happened to the Daily Mail, you know they’re not recovering anytime soon – if somebody in the Daily Mail said “right we need to double our traffic in the next three months”, you’ll know that’s not realistic from the previous performance.
You need to be honest about what can realistically be achieved.
Do you have the patience and/or the budget?
Do you have the patience to undertake an SEO program, or a series of SEO tasks? Because you will hear – SEO is the long game.
You can achieve some (I hate the phrase quick wins but…) “quick wins” in SEO. There are some things you can make a quite a swift impact with, but generally it’s about layering on incremental improvements, and seeing things go up over time.
So if you’re in the market for SEO services, you do generally need to be patient.
Here’s an example of a brand (so this is going way back now but) AO.com before they were AO.com, they were appliances online.
In 2013 they had a website called appliances online.co.uk, and they rebranded, they botched up the migration and then when they finally resolved the technical issues, they were still absolutely nowhere near.
So this is (for anyone who’s not familiar with Sistrix, this basically shows how much traffic, how much stuff a website is ranking for) the visibility index, it’s a close approximation of how well a website is doing in search.
It was doing incredibly well, the best it ever had. Then it dropped a little bit, and then down when AO.com was launched.
It took them three years from that migration to make a recovery from the initial migration, and the reason for that was – this bit here, its technical issues, most of this is link penalty – so they had a domain that was known as a bad neighbourhood – it had lots of terrible spammy links from porn sites and things you know. It just couldn’t perform.
Then it saw that huge spike in visibility in the end of 2016 because of a link related algorithm update, but it still took them (so they got the best that the best performance they’d ever had) six years from from the migration.
I’ve laboured the point, but you know, SEO really is the long game and it’s important that people understand that.
SEO quick wins?
There are some, but when people labour the point about quick wins, I just think, dial down your expectations a little. It’s not the channel for you if you’re thinking there’s going to be quick wins.
“First page of Google”
What else do people ask for? People ask for first page of Google, and the question is for what? What what do you want to be first page of Google for?
So often, what the business believes people will be searching for and how it understands its products, is not what the audience is searching for.
I’m just trying to think of niche industries… businesses will say people will be searching for photographic equipment in Cambridge, but they’re not. You must do your keyword research to understand exactly what you want to be going after.
Of course, that’s what most marketing activity is designed to do. But you need to understand from whom – you need to do an audience analysis to understand exactly where you think these leads may come from.
“Someone to do the blog”
Someone to do the blog is something you get. You get people who come asking for SEO services, and they want a strategy, they’ve already prescribed the strategy to you – they want you to their blog.
Now, sometimes a blog is part of a well-rounded content strategy, sometimes it is going to drive SEO improvements. But if it’s just literally “to do the blog”…you know, it’s a strange thing. I would question someone coming in and asking for that alone.
You need a robust content strategy, you need to have done the research to understand exactly what’s going to go into the blog. Just creating content willy nilly is not going to cut it.
Sometimes they’ll come asking for links… again what links? Where from? Link building in SEO is an art, and it’s getting harder to do this at scale. You need to define a strategy in order to get these.
Double check that SEO is going to provide the results you are seeking
So double-check the sort of thing you’re expecting SEO to achieve, and be realistic whether it is as a channel going to provide the results that you want.
It may be after you’ve done the analysis (so say you’re in a position like AO.com, it’s totally tanked and the site’s just not going to perform any time soon), you may wish to be looking elsewhere. You may be thinking about PPC, or investing in branding, or something else – SEO may not be the channel for you at that at this time.
[tweetshare tweet=”So many SEO packages are sold without due care and attention to what the client actually needs. – @njmott speaking at an #Optimisey event” username=”optimisey”]
This is the industry, but so many people will sell SEO packages to somebody who says “I want to buy SEO” – everyone’s letting each other down in that situation, because they’re selling something that isn’t necessarily going to solve the problem, and then the buyer’s not going to be satisfied because they’ve been sold something that’s not going to work, because it’s not actually what they need.
Both suppliers and buyers have a responsibility to do the right thing. SEO providers can refer you to other people that are going to solve the problem for you.
So that’s about being realistic and understanding exactly what’s possible from the situation analysis you’ve done with competition and market landscape.
Develop a deep understanding of your audience
You need to develop a deeper understanding of your audience.
The way that I usually will do this – I try to find good audience analysis tools, but I’ve never really found a substitute for keyword research and really understanding how people search for your products, your brand, really understanding how your competitors perform for all these kinds of keywords.
So you have the usual tools, but “Keywords Everywhere” is a free tool, and it literally does put keyword data everywhere.
This is one of favourite parts of what the tool does, it will give you all of the search volume results within the search engine results pages, and lots of suggestions for other keywords that you might be relevant for.
But within Google Analytics itself, within the Search Console report, it will put volumes against clicks and impressions – it’s a good time saver, it helps you understand exactly which keywords would be likely to drive the most traffic if you were going to be competing for them.
I do just mention here that you can get demographics data from Google Analytics – I don’t always find it massively helpful, it will typically say it’s 50 percent male, 50 percent female, between the ages of 25 and 54.
It sometimes can be useful, but I wouldn’t use it as the only definition of what what your audience is like, but it’s there.
Gain a deep understanding of the competition
You need to gain a deep understanding of the competition as well as yourselves, so find out who links to your competition and why. These are paid tools – OpenLinkProfiler is quite good, it’s a fairly new tool. It gives you a hundred results for free, it can give you a good, just a quick short, sharp test of who’s linking to you and who’s linking to your competition.
If you want to do an in-depth analysis, Ahrefs, Majestic, SEMrush also does it, but Ahrefs and Majestic are the leaders.
What do they rank for and why?
Find out what the competition ranks for with these kinds of tools. Ranking reports are quite quite expensive because you have to send a lot of queries to Google really to understand where things are ranking, so that’s why these tools sort of corner the market in that sort of thing. But it’s a good thing to get a benchmark on.
How is their technical SEO health? (Is it better than yours?)
And check your competitor’s technical SEO health. So this is all about auditing and it’s a talk in and of itself, but just top level – you need to understand how well the sites are being crawled and indexed and ranked according to technical factors.
So Screaming Frog and Sitebulb are good tools for this. You have Google Lighthouse which is free and within Google Chrome, and it does have an SEO audit function. There’s other tools that will give you a much broader look at how to do an SEO audit, but Lighthouse is a good starting point, especially for free.
Understand your own site’s SEO strengths and weaknesses
As well as the competition, understand your own website’s SEO strengths and weaknesses, and check the same things. Understand here who links to you – is there anybody who shouldn’t be?
There’s link building – there’s two sides of assessing a link profile, there’s looking at the high quality links that are coming into your site, and looking whether you can sort of replicate those or build on those further, and there’s also looking at your link profile to see if there are low-quality links coming into your website from from disreputable sources. So it’s important to deal with that, and you can do that using what’s called a disavow file.
What do you rank for and why? What don’t you rank for and why?
Get a sense of where you rank, what you’re ranking for, and why don’t you rank, and start to build a picture of why the competition is ranking this set of keywords, and why I am not. Understand the disparity between the competition’s website and your own – try and paint a picture there.
How is your technical SEO health?
Also, assess your technical SEO health it’s, because basically, it’s quite extreme, but if you can’t be found, if your site can’t be crawled, then it’s not going to succeed in SEO. It’s probably the first thing you need to do.
Then, take all those readings and be honest about what you can achieve. Combine your findings into a SWOT analysis – I don’t always do this but it’s a good way – it’s a normal standard business tool to get a sense of where the strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats lie.
I just tried this with the Daily Mail – from an SEO perspective to look at what their SEO strategy should be looking at (this is very basic it’s not that detailed) this, would they be trying to build on their strengths, do they need to rectify their weaknesses, would they go after an external opportunity, or do they need to neutralise threats?
I’d say their biggest issue at the moment is the fact they have an awful lot of SEO weaknesses, and if I was to go in and deal with (I don’t know why I’d want to deal with the SEO strategy for the Daily Mail!) the things that are an issue, for example the quality of their content – it is what it is, but if you compare what’s within Google’s guidelines for expertise or authority and trustworthiness, which is what EAT stands for… it’s the Daily Mail, it doesn’t really stack up.
So they want to address that. But they’ve also got lots of technical issues.
This will sort of give you an idea of what to pick off first. If there’s more in one corner you’ll know what to go after in general.
Prioritise SEO issues and opportunities in order of impact and effort
And then doing a deep analysis off the back of an audit, you’ll have a huge (well, it could be huge) …you’ll have a list of SEO issues and opportunities, and you want to order them in terms of effort and impact.
So for example, I typically use some tools from the agile toolset, so I just looked at a few things that might be wrong with a website from an SEO perspective. Look at how large the task is, so you’re doing it in t-shirt sizes – is it a small task, medium, large or extra large, or extra extra large
Prioritise them in terms of whether you must have them, because it absolutely has to be done in order to perform from an SEO perspective; what you should do; what you could do; or what it won’t have this time.
I’ve included a task in here that I don’t feel is particularly important, it’s one of those things that if you do a huge audit, you’ll pull out all meta descriptions – the meta descriptions need sorting out.
Arguably, they probably don’t on a website – on the blog. They’re not a direct ranking factor. It would be nice to have, but I probably wouldn’t do them initially. But it’s good to order these things in this way.
I’m not an SEO native, how will I know?
So I’m saying this as an SEO, saying “oh yeah you need to work out which are the priorities and hit them”, but how would you do this if you weren’t an SEO native?
You can get information, you get a sense of what is going to make the biggest splash from an SEO perspective, by looking at ranking factor surveys.
But the thing you need to know is that these are based on people’s opinions. They’re based on the opinions of people that have been doing this for a living. but it is opinion based and it’s not scientific. So you need to tread with caution, but it gives you a starting point.
[tweetshare tweet=”Failing that, always think what in the way that Google thinks as well – make changes that are going to be beneficial for the user. – @njmott speaking at an #Optimisey event” username=”optimisey”]
Make any changes that are going to improve your value proposition overall. Anything that is an improvement, and not something that you feel that you’re doing for “SEO purposes” to get some keywords on the page, generally that’s going to have a beneficial impact on your SEO.
Hire an SEO?
If you’re not comfortable with it you can always get a professional.
But I just want to wrap up with this to say – these are the building blocks of SEO, these are the basics you know – isn’t isn’t everybody doing this by now?
You’d be surprised that they’re not.
How do I stand apart from the rest?
But if you are working in a competitive vertical, I’ll just finish with a few things that will help you stand apart from the rest.
So you do need to do all of the above, but then how would you differentiate yourselves?
I’ve just given a few different ways that you can do this, and if budget is limited, you can only focus on one thing at a time or a subset of things, perhaps you establish a point of difference in a certain area of SEO.
So if you assess how fast your competitor’s sites are, can you have a superior site speed? Can you beat them on links? Can you have better content? Can you improve user experience?
You know, try and pick an area if you’re limited in terms of budget and resource.
Look for crossover with other channels – this is something that’s often overlooked.
Digital marketing channels often operate in silos, the second you start to merge in sites from channels you can do a lot better.
So for example, with Google AdWords data you can get a sense of what’s working well for if you are running PPC, what’s working well on PPC – apply that knowledge to SEO and vice-versa.
If you are running (so this is for larger brands) activity on the Google Display Network, you can inform your digital PR work by understanding the placements that work well.
If it’s a competitive industry, maybe the thing you need to do, providing the strategy is okay, providing you know exactly what you want to do and you have a sense of what it’s going to do, perhaps you need to accelerate by investing further.
I got my SEO strategy wrong for a large proportion of my career
I’m saying all this, I did get this wrong. I’ve been successful, but I think I approach this a bit wrong for a lot of my career.
In as much as we were always encouraged to do huge audits to try and find absolutely everything that was wrong with a website, but I’m coming across these now where some of the places I’m working at, and I realised that there’s an awful lot of noise, there’s an awful lot of stuff that it’s irrelevant – that you don’t really need to do. You really don’t.
SEO is not a quick and easy process, but it doesn’t have to be too painful.
If you stick with some of the themes in this presentation, it’s less of a facing. You don’t have to go with all of those huge audits really. It doesn’t have to be too painful.
Hopefully the tools in this presentation will allow you to choose your battles and win them.
Thank you for listening.
How is your SEO strategy shaping up? Are you going to change anything or how you approach it after listening to Nat’s talk? We’d love to hear your plans and ideas in a comment below.
We are currently under lockdown restrictions in the UK so unfortunately we can’t run our exciting events. If you want to use SEO to help your business survive these turbulent times, check out this post with lots of resources I hope you’ll find useful.