One of the greatest military strategists in history was Horatio Nelson, a flag officer in the British Royal Navy (1758-1805). He is most famous for the “Nelson Touch”, a genius strategy used in the Battle of Trafalgar, which took place between Great Britain, France and Spain. Nelson won without losing a single ship.
How did Nelson do it? With a great strategy!
Creating an SEO strategy, or as I like to say “designing”, is something we don’t discuss often enough in the SEO world.
There are plenty of articles on the web that claim to be about SEO strategies but quickly venture into prescriptions (“focus on meta-titles”), which is not what a strategy is supposed to do. In fact, I haven’t found a single article that really explains how to set up a strategy. We often get lost in the day-to-day of SEO, but in this article, I want to cover the bird’s eye view.
The definition of an SEO strategy is a detailed plan that shows what is being optimized, when, why and how. However, there is more to a good SEO strategy that I will explain throughout this article.
A clear SEO strategy is crucial to success, whether you’re in-house or a consultant. A holistic SEO strategy allows you to figure out what resources (people, money, tools, material) you need, gives you a goal and provides clarity on what to prioritize.
As Sun Tzu, author of “The Art of War”, said
“The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.”
What makes a good strategy?
When I started thinking about the topic and doing my research, it became obvious that nobody talks about what the indicators of a good strategy actually are. It’s not enough to just have a plan - you need to know what distinguishes a good from a bad one.
So, I looked at what successful marketing strategies have in common and translated that into the SEO space.
I identified 7 core attributes of a good (SEO) strategy:
You need a north star that the strategy is aligned. A strategy should bring you from A to B, but if you don’t know what B looks like, it can’t work. This doesn’t have to be tied to a number or metric, it can even be a descriptive scenario.
You need to have enough resources and time to execute the strategy.
A good strategy can be sliced into tactics that are based on S.M.A.R.T. goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, timely. The tactics of a strategy are referred to as “objectives”.
Not repeating past mistakes is a major component of good strategies that are often forgotten.
A good strategy is easy to defend and justify. A helpful tool to make a strategy more robust is using “inversion”. Ask yourself, “what would happen if we did the opposite (or something else)?”. Assessing the opportunity cost of each objective helps you to justify it. The cost of each objective should be lower than not having it in the strategy.
A good strategy is worth nothing when it’s not relevant to the business. It must be driven by business goals. One way to facilitate that is to tie your SEO KPI to a business KPI like revenue.
Important stakeholders must be taken into account.
In application, not every attribute is always equally represented. A strategy can still be good without considering important stakeholders much, as long as it has high relevancy. Feasibility and relevance, however, have to be included. Without them, it doesn’t matter how visionary or considerate a strategy is. No attribute should be completely left out in your strategy, but some can take a more prominent position.
The difference between strategy, roadmap, and objectives
The core of an SEO strategy is the roadmap, a high-level plan of your objectives over time. Imagine you would bake a cake: the strategy is the type of cake for the right occasion, the roadmap is the recipe, and the objectives are the ingredients.
Strategy = roadmap + presentation x vision x transformation
Roadmap = objectives / time
Objective = component + goal
An objective could be to implement XML sitemaps by date x. Or optimize 75 meta-titles to get x% more traffic (more about traffic increases in a bit). The component is what you want to optimize.
If you used Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, the strategy would be the “why”, the roadmap, the “what”, and the objectives, the “how”.
Technical components of an SEO strategy
An SEO strategy consists of different “components” or fields of SEO. They determine your strategy's “what” (what to optimize?). Together with a quantified goal, they form an “objective”. I separated components into technical and content due to the prominent role content plays in SEO (post-Panda and Penguin update).
What components you use and by what degree depends on your business and market. A locally-driven business, say a retail chain, needs to focus on different SEO components than a B2B site. A marketplace or social network differs greatly from an e-commerce business or publisher.
I distinguish between six technical SEO components:
Technical SEO has become such a broad field that it’s enough to fill a role by itself, as I wrote in how to learn technical SEO. It’s one of the main pillars of SEO, next to content, and always has to be prioritized in a good SEO strategy.
Technical SEO includes:
- Site structure
- Structured data
- Page speed
- Status codes
Local SEO revolves around local search. Your business needs a physical address and provides some sort of storefront to be eligible for local SEO.
Local SEO includes:
- Citation management,
- Link management/building
- NPA streamlining
- Keyword optimization
Mobile SEO means optimizing the complete mobile user experience, which is more than just setting up a responsive design. Especially with the uncertainty behind Google’s rollout of mobile-first indexing, it’s important to keep a focused eye on this field.
Mobile SEO includes:
- AMP (accelerated mobile pages)
- PWAs (progressive web apps)
- ASO (app store optimization)
- Mobile page rendering
- Mobile crawling
- Mobile page speed optimization
Mobile SEO has gained tremendous importance in recent years, just like technical SEO. It might even bridge the gap between voice search and IoT (Internet of Things). Expect it to become even more sophisticated and important in the future.
International SEO can be a huge lever for business growth but also demands a good amount of effort.
John Mueller, Senior Webmaster Trend Analyst at Google and major connection to the SEO world, recently stated that getting the Hreflang-tag right is one of the hardest things in SEO.
TBH hreflang is one of the most complex aspects of SEO (if not the most complex one). Feels as easy as a meta-tag, but it gets really hard quickly.
— John ☆.o(≧▽≦)o.☆ (@JohnMu) February 19, 2018
One big pillar of international SEO is understanding the differences in search behavior across different markets. For example, when users in Germany want to buy a phone they search for “buy iPhone” (translated word by word). In the US, people just search for “iPhone”. The same intent is expressed with different (or no) modifiers. Such “subtle” details are very important for an international SEO strategy.
International SEO includes:
- Setting up Hreflang-tags
- Creating the right URL structure (subdomain vs. subfolder vs. ccTLDs)
- Translation vs. localization
- CDNs (content delivery networks)
Content optimization is split in two. It covers basic OnPage optimization and creating content that performs well in organic search. It plays into the role of content and keywords (next section) but looks at it from an optimization point of view.
Content optimization includes:
- Image SEO
- Video SEO
- Content structure and H-tags
- Entity optimization
- Google News (if applicate)
- Meta-titles and descriptions
- Content pruning
Content marketing is its own discipline (to me) because it’s such a strategic approach and revolves around a process that no other field covers. Marketing content and content marketing are not the same (to me). However, there is some overlap with content creation here.
Content marketing includes:
- Link building
- Skyscraper Technique/10x Content
Of course, this segmentation of SEO is not set in stone. Some sub-categories, like Google News or video SEO, are big enough to be their own category. Or link building, which historically is its own field but is often done by content marketers nowadays. The list doesn’t cover all details but is enough to get a high-level understanding.
So, what components should you focus on? It depends on your business, but here’s a question framework to help you:
|✅ = do
? = don’t do
~ = maybe do
|Technical SEO||Local SEO||Mobile SEO||International SEO||Content Optimization||Content Marketing|
|Marketplace / UGC||✅||~||✅||~||✅||?|
In every scenario, you should do technical SEO and content optimization. Those are the main pillars that every strategy has to stand on. International SEO and local SEO depend more on your business “situation”.
The components of an SEO strategy can also evolve over time. Just think of a business that matures and then starts to enter international markets or one that introduces an app.
To understand your gaps, you need to conduct a technical SEO audit. Since this is a strategy article, I will not explore how to do the actual audit. But I strongly recommend conducting one before putting together the strategy.
The role of content and keywords in an SEO strategy
Content plays a central role in SEO since it has become “the dominant ranking factor” and is the major driver of good or bad user signals (which also play an important role in ranking).
Instead of diving into what makes content good so it ranks high, I want to cover the strategic question, “How do you know what content you need?”.
If your business is based on user-generated content, you don’t have to worry much. You just need to take care of users creating content, which is not the same as creating a content strategy.
In any other case, it’s worth distinguishing between content for landing pages, blogs, and product pages. The latter must answer all questions around your product and describe and show the product in the best, most comprehensive way possible.
For blogs and landing pages, I personally like the “See-Think-Do-Care” framework, originally invented by Avinash Kaushik. It’s a segmentation of the buyer funnel:
See – Awareness
Think – Consideration
Do – Intent to buy
Care – Post-sales
You can apply this framework to your content and keywords to understand you gaps. It allows you to identify whether you have too much or too little content in one of the stages.
For a content gap analysis,
- Conduct comprehensive keyword research. I will not go into details about keyword research at this point because it deserves its own article.
- Map those keywords to the See-Think-Do-Care framework.
- Compare the relevant keywords to the ones you’re currently ranking for.
- Identify the topics (grouped queries) in the funnel for which you don’t have content.
To transfer that gap analysis into the SEO strategy,
- Pick topics from the gap analysis that have queries with high search volume, low difficulty and a searcher intent you can fulfill.
- Understand what content you need to create by assessing what ranks well on Google (competitive research).
- Prioritize content creation in your strategy based on what’s most feasible to do and yield the highest traffic returns.
Creating an SEO roadmap
The last piece of the puzzle is to put it all together into a roadmap. Before this step, you should have identified your goal(s), content and technical SEO gaps, resources, and constraints.
|Month 1||Month 2||Month 3||Month 4||Month 5||Month 6||Month 7||Month 8||Month 9||Month 10||Month 11||Month 12||TOTAL|
Every cell carries a quantified objective: “Add schema markup to increase CTR by 1% on average”, for example, or “Create 10 content pieces that target x that deliver organic traffic of y”.
The edge columns and rows of the spreadsheet should sum up the total traffic increment per month and per component. This way, you always know whether you’re on track or not. The combined cells in the “total” column at the end of the spreadsheet are the traffic increment you get if your roadmap works out as planned.
I suggest planning objectives every quarter as OKRs (objectives and key results). The name “OKR“ implies that we combine objectives with goals, as I mentioned in the previous chapter. A monthly segmentation on top of that makes it easier to map out actions per month, even though the objectives are planned on a quarterly basis.
Most SEO tactics need some time to unfold and show results. That has to be accounted for in your roadmap. So, if you plan tactic X and expect it to increase traffic by +5% you need to add that traffic incrementally. You will not get +5% right away, but after a couple of months, depending on what tactic it is. I give most objectives some time to add up to the traffic I expect them to bring in.
The goal of your strategy is the impact you can make on the business goal by following your roadmap. Most often, that is organic traffic, preferably conversions from organic traffic. The specific goal would then be +x% more organic traffic or +x% more conversions from organic traffic. It should be possible to forecast now that you know your objectives and can make a forecast on how much traffic that should bring.
However, if you’re given a goal, you must reverse engineer your strategy. You need to calculate backward what you have to do in order to achieve that goal. That calculation usually starts with a traffic goal, then figuring out the keywords that have the necessary search volume. You want to find out how much traffic you can realistically get per keyword to hit your goal and then how to rank (better) for it.
How to determine the impact of SEO objectives
“How much more traffic will we get if we do x?” is one of the most difficult but prevailing questions in SEO. You will have to deal with this if you work as in-house SEO. You have to show some sort of ROI to get the necessary resources.
You have a rough gauge of how much traffic you could get by looking at search volume and keyword difficulty. The difficulty lies in predicting the impact of your optimization tactics on the rank.
Now you have a couple of choices: make the best-educated guess, look for numbers from other companies (case studies, reaching out to industry colleagues), draw from past experience or test (roll change out on a small scale, measure, refine, scale-up).
The key to solving the problem is to find some success metric you can connect to an objective. It doesn’t have to translate directly into Dollars, but it should show a before and after, so progress can be measured at all.
Some objectives are easier to quantify than others. Title improvements are easy to measure by looking at CTR. The success of adding automated XML sitemaps might be a bit harder, but you could look at your server log files before and after to assess the impact.
One way to make an educated guess is to use a custom click-curve and then extrapolate how much more traffic a ranking improvement can bring, as I explained in How to overcome the Biggest Obstacles as an in-house SEO.
Constraints of an SEO strategy
We all just want to do cool SEO stuff, but that’s usually not how it works (only in rare cases). You deal with constraints when you live in a corporate environment or consult companies. Constraints translate your strategy from “optimal” into “realistic”. In a way, they steer your prioritization.
The typical constraints in an SEO strategy are:
Effort vs. impact
The number one factor to consider when creating an SEO strategy is to weigh the effort it takes to implement your recommendation(s) against their impact. The assumption is that the higher the impact, the higher the returns.
The effort should be determined in partnership with whoever implements your recommendation(s), often developers. The exception is, of course, when you can implement something yourself.
The constraint here is that it's not being done when something takes a lot of effort but has little impact. Be careful how “impact” is defined because the outcome changes with the metric you look at.
Once you add dependencies to an SEO strategy, it gets complicated. Some objectives build on others; not all can be implemented at any time. Optimizing meta-titles, for example, doesn’t make sense if a page on your site cannot be rendered by Google. Doing Content Marketing doesn’t help when your site is super slow. So, make sure you don’t put the cart in front of the horse.
The constraint is that some things can only be done when others are in place.
We usually plan SEO roadmaps over a year and segment them into quarters because that’s how many (public) companies operate.
The constraint is that some recommendations might take a lot of time, sometimes too much. That becomes a big problem when your business has limited funds, such as startups, before it goes out of business.
Another constraint is resources, mainly people and money. Say you need to create a lot of content but have no one to do it and no money to hire anyone to do it.
tl;dr - How to create an SEO strategy?
To summarize the process:
- Understand your business goal and the purpose of SEO in the organization
- Perform a technical SEO audit based on the most relevant components for your business
- Do a content gap analysis
- Understand the resources and constraints you have at hand
- Create a roadmap with defined objectives that have a clear goal and consider dependencies
- Check your strategy for being vision-driven, feasible, tactical, progressive, robust, considerate, and relevant
Creating an SEO strategy is one thing; executing is another. I recommend reassessing the efficacy every quarter: look at the greater picture and your progress, take notes on what works well and what doesn’t. Over time, this will help you to build better SEO strategies.
I want to answer some questions about this approach that I’m sure will come up:
Q: How “agile” is that approach if we’re planning for the whole year?
A: Semi-agile. I’m not a fan of planning everything a year in advance in a sturdy environment like SEO, in which a single algorithm update can disrupt your whole roadmap. However, especially in a corporate environment, it’s inevitable to at least attempt to plan ahead. Go into the offense, instead of waiting for things to happen! The here introduced approach should leave some flexibility. At the same time, investing in tactics like content and technical optimization like page speed will always pay off.
Q: What is “waterfall” planning and why is it not the optimal solution for creating an SEO strategy?
A: the “waterfall” concept comes from the field of software project management and revolves around the idea of planning every single step ahead. This concept provides more control and oversight, but it lacks flexibility and agility (hence the concept of “agile”). This is especially dangerous in SEO, which is changing ever faster. You need to be able to react quickly to certain changes, mostly algorithm updates.
Q: What tools do you recommend for strategic planning?
A: I’ve had good experiences with Excel (yes), Trello, or Confluence. Of course, I have used mostly Atlassian products since I work here, but I’m sure other products like Airtable, Monday, Asana, Basecamp, Smartsheet, Wrike, and others might do as well. However, I’m not an expert on these products.
A good tool for creating an SEO strategy lets you zoom in and out, customize your structure, and has a collaborative aspect.