What I’m going to share about creating an SEO strategy doesn’t come from Internet research. It doesn’t come from formal training as an MBA. It comes from 19 years experience developing SEO strategies for multiple clients and several successful entrepreneurial endeavors. It also comes from a few SEO failures that occurred early in my career—but provided my greatest learning opportunities.
What does a winning SEO strategy look like?
If you perform a search in Google for “how to develop an seo strategy” (or “how to develop a winning seo strategy”) there are a number of reputable SEO guides that appear in SERPs, including SEMRush’s How to Create an Effective SEO Strategy, Adobe Marketo’s 7 Simple Steps for a Solid SEO Strategy, and Brian Dean’s How to Create an Effective SEO Strategy In 2022—to cite just a few. I would recommend reviewing these resources. Each provides useful frameworks for thinking about SEO, along with processes for SEO analysis and implementation. However, none of these guides provides a complete framework for developing an SEO strategy that is truly ‘strategic’.
In How to Create an Effective SEO Strategy In 2022 Brian Dean states, “An SEO strategy (also referred to as “SEO approach”) is the process of planning and implementing steps designed to improve organic search engine rankings.” He backs up this statement with the following: “In fact, this approach has helped me grow my website to 362,732 organic visitors every month.” He then outlines his approach to SEO in the following nine steps.
- Step #1: Create a List of Keywords
- Step #2: Analyze Google’s First Page
- Step #3: Create Something Different or Better
- Step #4: Add a Hook
- Step #5: Optimize For On-Page SEO
- Step #6: Optimize For Search Intent
- Step #7: Focus on Content Design
- Step #8: Build Links to Your Page
- Step #9: Improve and Update Your Content
These nine steps helped grow backlinko.com to over 362,732 organic visitors a month. So, if this process worked for backlinko.com, it should work for you too, right? Well… maybe. First, it depends if you agree with Brian’s definition of “strategy.” It also depends on your ability to implement these steps as effectively as Brian did for backlinko.com
The term “strategy” is often used quite loosely when discussing SEO. According to backlinko, “the process of planning and implementing steps designed to improve search engine rankings” would constitute an SEO strategy. From my experience, this definition of an SEO strategy is incomplete. It falls short of encapsulating the true nature of strategy as well as the ultimate goal of the SEO planning and implementation process, which is to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage—or a sustainable advantage over one’s competition. The definition fails to provide a basis for which to conceive a “plan”, build a “process” and implement “steps” that are unduplicatable, or not easily replicated by competitors.
In military theory, strategy is “the utilization during both peace and war, of all of the nation’s forces, through large scale, long-range planning and development, to ensure security and victory” (source: Random House Dictionary.) This is also the essence of SEO strategy. Sound a little dramatic? Well… maybe it is, but it identifies two essential elements of a strategy that most SEO newbies don’t recognize and many experienced SEOs fail to appreciate. The end goal of an SEO strategy is to ensure security [of rankings] and victory [in SERPs]. In other words, for a plan to be strategic, it must (1) create advantage and (2) maintain that advantage over the competition.
So what is a winning strategy? A winning strategy is one that achieves victory and maintains that victory long term.
SEO Tactics vs SEO Strategy
An SEO strategy provides the plan needed for accomplishing your ultimate goal—to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage in SERPs. Tactics are the individual steps that get you there. SEO tactics include best practices, specific plans, tools, technologies, etc. SEO strategy without correct tactics makes achieving rankings challenging. Employing SEO tactics without a clear strategy, usually leads to short-lived success at best.
I love the following quote by Sun Tzu from In the Art of War:
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
Most SEO campaigns that fail, do not fail due to lack tactics. They fail because they are not strategic.
A final insight about the relationship between tactics and strategies from Sun Tzu.
“All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.”
My professional experience as an SEO specialist has taught me the same lessons about the relationship between strategy and tactics.
Between 2004 and 2017, my company sold three Internet businesses built entirely on SEO driven organic traffic supported by multiple optimized web properties. The first sale occurred in 2004. The sale was not anticipated, nor planned. I was contacted by a technology company based in Houston, Texas expressing interest in acquiring an online career portal my company had developed. At the time, the prominent player in the space was Monster.com. Our web property was outranking Monster.com in SERPs for many top industry keywords. Our site was generating hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors. In less than 3 weeks we negotiated a price, accepted an offer, and closed the deal.
Over the next thirteen years I sold several more small businesses—some large, some small. But regardless of size, they all shared a commonality. Each employed a strategy that (1) no industry competitors had noticed and (2) no competitors could easily replicate. Competitors saw our tactics, but they did not see the strategy—until it was too late.
Where tactics are visible to everyone, a good strategy is hidden.
A 5 Step Framework
A strategy framework, or strategic framework, is a structured method used to define how tactics and plans are ordered and organized to achieve a key objective. Strategic frameworks also serve to maximize probability of achieving objectives.
Frameworks are often based on order of operations. In math, order of operations is a rule that outlines a sequence of steps for evaluating a math expression. Following order of operations in math allows you to solve different parts of a math problem. Not following order of operations in math results in an incorrect outcome.
While there are various approaches to SEO, my experience is that the most effective SEO strategies are based on frameworks that follow an order of operation. The following is strategic framework I use for maximizing SEO outcomes.
|1. Industry analysis
|Attempts to identify business opportunity and market potential. Is there a worthwhile opportunity here?
|2. Competitive research
|Assesses likely outcomes and requirements for success. Can we be extremely competitive in this market?
|3. Strategy Design
|Identifies keys for establishing a sustainable competitive advantage. What do we have to do to be the best?
|4. Strategy execution
|Aligns strategy with correct search engine optimization tactics. What is the best plan for strategy execution?
|5. Monitor & Adjust
|Monitor strategy execution and adjust tactics to ensure alignment. Are we implementing tactics correctly?
Step 1. Industry analysis
Industry analysis attempts to identify strategic business opportunity and market potential. Is there an opportunity here that makes sense? If successful in achieving SEO objectives, will the outcome be profitable? These seem like obvious questions to ask, but I can’t tell you how many times I have engaged prospective clients who assumed SEO is a no-lose proposition–or that ROI from SEO will necessarily be greater than that for other forms of marketing.
When conducting industry analysis businesses should try to answer the following questions:
- Who searches for our products and services online?
- Do our customers use the internet for research or for transacting?
- What will be the initial and ongoing cost to run a success SEO campaign?
- How many of our competitors employ SEO to market their products online?
- Is our business model as profitable as that of both direct and indirect competitors that appear in SERPs? If not, how should we position ourselves?
- What level of SEO success will be required to achieve profitability?
- What are the key metrics for measuring SEO success?
- Does my company need SEO to compete long term?
- What are the limitations and risks?
- What factors could negatively impact our ability to succeed?
Conducting thorough industry analysis to assess profit potential resulting from SEO investment is challenging for any company, but it can be particularly challenging for startups and new ventures. A new venture that is looking to SEO as a strategic marketing method should first ensure its business models and processes are well established, and that key conversion metrics have been identified and proven.
There are a number of online tools that can help answer the above questions and aid in the business analysis process. However, one of the most effective methods to support initial business analysis–as it relates to evaluating SEO potential–is to conduct targeted PPC (pay-per-click) keyword marketing. Conducting a PPC campaign will quickly get your business listed in SERPs in front of consumers and allow you to test how well keyword groups convert.
If you find PPC marketing is prohibitively costly on a per click basis, you should adjust your bidding to focus on less competitive keywords until you can identify keyword groups that generate an acceptable ROI and allow you to effectively identify and test conversion metrics. A successful PPC test marketing campaign does not predict SEO success. Nor does an unsuccessful PPC test marketing campaign suggest that SEO will not work for your business at some level. It simply identifies likely conversion value for different keyword groups and validates profit potential.
Small businesses without a website–where running a PPC test campaign isn’t possible–can use competitive analysis tools–such as SEMRush and ahrefs–to find estimated cost per click for specific keyword searches. By using cost per click figures and estimating conversion, small businesses can back into a conversion value and begin to assess strategic opportunity and profit potential for keyword groups.
Businesses can also assess SEO opportunity and profit potential by conducting competitive research. At this level, competitive research should focus on identifying direct and indirect competitors who are using SEO and PPC. How many rankings do competitor websites have in SERPs? How much organic traffic are competitors generating from SERPs? Do any of competitors consistently pay to appear in bid-ranked ad placements in SERPs? Answering these questions will help you better assess the likely value of SEO for your own business.
2. Competitive research and analysis
Competitive research assesses likely outcomes and requirements for SEO success. Where business analysis identifies the existence of strategic opportunity and/or profit potential, competitive research explores and confirms a company’s ability to take advantage of opportunity in a competitive environment. It focuses on identifying and assessing opportunity from a marketing perspective.
Competitive research should seek to answer two important questions. First, “Can we compete?” Second, “How do we compete?” A useful analytical framework for performing competitive research is SWOT–an acronym for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. When employing SWOT analysis to support competitive research, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats must be identified and assessed for all competitors.
Identify Your True Competitors
As an agency owner, whenever I asked a prospective client who their competitors were, more often than not they rattled off a list of the top players in their industry. This list typically consisted of direct competitors that had similar product offering and competed for the same market. Other types of competitors, were rarely mentioned. The first step in conducting competitive research is to identify who are your true competitors within SERPS (Search Engine Result Placements).
There are five types of competitors that must be considered when conducting competitive research to support SEO. These include: direct competitors, indirect competitors, replacement competitors, potential competitors and future competitors.
Figure 1.0 — Competition Chart
|1. Direct Competitors
|Offer a similar product and compete for the same market for the same customers
|2. Indirect Competitors
|Don't sell the same product, but compete the same market to satisfy the same need
|3. Replacement Competitors
|Provide an alternative to the services you offer that solve the same problem
|4. Potential Competitors
|Do the same thing as you and target the same customers but aren't selling in your market
|5. Future Competitors
|A likely to enter your market in the future but haven't entered your market yet
Let’s assume you’re a Seattle divorce attorney. You have a divorce website that appears in the fourth position in Google for the search term “seattle divorce.” Above of your website in position three is a divorce mediator website (indirect competitor), in position two a “.gov” divorce website offering DYI legal guides (replacement competitor), and in position one a free, privately owned non-profit directory of the “best” seattle legal firms (potential/future competitor).
According to a newly published study by Sistrix, 28.5% of Google users click on the first organic result in SERPs, 15.7% click on the second result, 11.0% on the third result, and only 8.0% on the fourth result. Even though there is no direct competitor above your position in Google for “seattle divorce”, roughly 90% of searchers will never click on your listing. Every online competitor–regardless of type–may cost you website traffic, market share, and business.
However, not all websites that rank higher than yours are necessarily your competitors, in the sense that they have a similar offering or competed for the same market. Notwithstanding, researching and analyzing any web page that appears in SERPs above your business, regardless of competitor status, will provide useful information that can help you compete more effectively. Continuing with the above example, if a news website with an article about “seattle divorce” appears in SERPs right above your seattle divorce services listing, it’s not likely you’ll lose business to this organization. But you should ask yourself, “What is this website doing that is allowing it to appear in SERPs above my business? Why is it outranking me?”
When conducting competitive research to support SEO, it’s imperative to research and analyze all levels of competition within SERPs. I recommend analyzing the top 10 websites that appear consistently in SERPs for the target keywords relevant to your business.
SWOT (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities, Threats)
SWOT analysis offers a basic approach to analyzing and understanding a business’s competitive position. It identifies competitive strengths and weaknesses, as well as opportunities and threats. For SWOT analysis to be beneficial for SEO, it must be carried out for all competitors—direct, indirect, replacement, etc. While conducting an indepth SWOT analysis for competitors can be a lengthy process, it is necessary for indentifying competitive opportunities.
A SWOT chart is a helpful visual aid for performing SWOT analysis. The top row of the SWOT chart includes strengths and weaknesses. Strengths and weakness are internal to the business. The bottom row includes opportunities and threats. Opportunities and threats are typically external to the business.
The left column includes strengths and opportunities, and should detail factors and attributes that will help a busines achieve its SEO objectives. The right column includes weaknesses and threats which may impede a business from achieving its SEO objectives.
SWOT Questions for SEO
The following are just a few example SWOT questions that can help you identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats as they relate to performing competitive research to support search engine optimization.
Strengths are internal factors and are typically the easiest to identify. Your strengths are often your competitor’s weaknesses. Your competitor’s weaknesses may be your strengths.
- What are your digital assets?
- What are your best assets?
- How are you better than competitors A,B,C,etc?
- What drives the most organic traffic to your site?
- What are the best links to your site?
- What keywords do you rank well for?
- What content do you rank well for?
Like strengths, weaknesses are also internal to the business. Weaknesses are often relative to the strengths of your competitors. A competitor’s strength may be your weakness.
- What do your competitors do better (businesswise)?
- Where are your competitors stronger (SEO-wise)?
- How far behind the competition are you? In what areas?
- What SEO failures have you experienced?
- What SEO skills are you lacking?
- Do you have the budget to invest in SEO?
SEO opportunities are born out of your strengths and your competitors weaknesses—from both a business and SEO perspective.
- Do you have more to invest in SEO?
- What strengths could be built upon to build momentum?
- What aspects of your website could be improved?
- Which of your weaknesses could be easily resolved?
- What content opportunities do you have to support link growth?
- Do you have newer web technology that can be leveraged?
Threats are identified by evaluating your business’ weaknesses in relation to your competitor’s strengths. Threats also include elements that might impede your ability to achieve and maintain search engine rankings.
- How far are you behind competitors?
- Do you have a limited SEO budget?
- Which competitors are strongest where you are weakest?
- Is the gap between you and your competitors growing?
- Do some of your competitors have larger budgets?
- Do your competitors have better business models?
- Do your competitors have multiple web proproperties?
At the competitive research stage of the SEO process, a business may or may not have a website. If your business already has a website, SWOT analysis should be performed taking into account strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats as they relate to both your business itself and your web presence. If your business does not yet have a web presence, SWOT analysis should focus primarily on your current business, as well as both the business and web presence of your competitors.
The following is an example SWOT analysis for a business with an established web presence.
- Industry expertise
- Expert content
- Established domain authority
- Strong ranking growth
- Strong online clientele
- Superior technology
- Duplicate content
- Lack of dev support
- Low link growth
- Low SEO budget
- New market entrant
- Grow link popularity
- Client generated content
- Newer website technology
- Unique product offering
- Large number of replacement competitors
- Low barriers to entry
- Growing competition from affiliate sites
- Growing competition from better funded competitors
- Search engine results constantly changing
For SWOT analysis to be useful it must focus on identify and evaluating your business’ strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in relation to the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of all your competitors—direct, indirect and otherwise. Performing SWOT analysis for your own business and just a few top competitors, while ignoring the rest, will leave you at competitive disadvantage. Never discount the little guys. They’re often the most dangerous.
By the time you complete SWOT analysis, you should know the competitive strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of each of your competitors, as well as those of your own business.
Business-level SEO Competitor Analysis
One of the most challenging aspects of developing a winning SEO campaign is knowing where to focus your efforts. SWOT analysis helps to direct resources and efforts where they’ll make the biggest impact. However, SWOT is simply a framework for evaluating competition, it doesn’t provide indepth business-level competitive analysis methodology specifically for SEO.
Business-level SEO competitive analysis requires researching content elements, including page structure, domain authority and keywords. In short, it’s an SEO comparison between two competing websites.
SEO Competitor analysis steps:
- SEO keyword competition analysis
- Page analysis
- Competitor backlink analysis
- Keyword gap analysis
- Content analysis
A lot of SEO competitor analysis can be performed by analyzing search results. There are also various SEO competitor analysis tools that will streamline the process and allow you to collect and analyze massive data efficiently and without performing unnecessary busy work. SEO competitor analysis tools I recommend include Ahrefs, SEMrush and Moz. Any of these tools can help you perform the analysis steps above.
3. Strategy Design
Strategy design is the most important element of the SEO process. It’s also where many businesses miss the mark. Why do they miss the mark? Well… because it’s hard to hit a mark you’re not aiming for.
Businesses simply do not understand what strategy is as it relates to SEO. And it’s no suprise. Go to Google and perform a search on the term “SEO strategy” and consider the explanations that appear in search results. The vast majority of web pages present “SEO strategy” as a concept, a plan, or a process. An SEO strategy involves many concepts, it does require a plan, and it incorporates a process, but these elements alone do not constitute a strategy.
Let’s refer back to our previous definition of “strategy.” A strategy (1) creates advantage and (2) maintains that advantage over the competition. Hence, in design a strategy must lead to a sustainable competitive advantage. For an SEO concept to be strategic, for an SEO plan to be strategic, for an SEO process to be strategic, each must help the business achieve a sustainable competitive advantage in SERPs. Unfortunately, the majority of seo strategies are not truly strategic.
As you approach developing an SEO strategy, ask, “Are we creating advantage? And, how will that advantage be sustained?”
Relevance is the measure of how well search engine results align with search intent. In layman’s terms, relevance is how well content matches what a user is looking for in Google. Relevance is the driving force behind search engine algorithms and is at the core of SEO strategy. A winning SEO strategy creates advantage in SERPs by maximizing content relevancy.
Google classifies four types of search intent:
To ensure content relevancy, and achieve advantage in SERPs, content must be optimized to align with each type of search intent.
In addition to search intent, Google evaluates a variety criteria in determining relevancy and search engine rankings. Relevance criteria includes both on- and off-page elements.
On-page optimization checklist:
- Use short descriptive URLs
- Include keywords in title tags
- Add title tag modifiers
- Optimize page copy for target keywords
- Optimize H1, H2 or H3 header tags
- Optimize images
- Link to relevant internal and external resources.
- Improve internal linking
- Indentify and fix crawl errors
- Ensure pages are mobile friendly
- Employ HTTP Security
- Optimized page load speed
- Publish original, authoritative content
- Include multimedia (images, charts, videos, etc.) in content
- Implement schema markup
- Create a robots.txt file
- Generate and submit a sitmap
Off-page optimization checklist:
- Optimize your Google business profile
- Add your company to quality business directories
- Conduct link intersect analysis
- Encourage reviews
- Turn unlinked mentions into links
- Build a strong social media presence
- Find new linking building opportunities