Offense vs. defense SEO

A good SEO strategy has both: offense and defense. In this post, I explain how to balance and prioritize the two.

Offense vs. defense SEO

For all too long, SEO has lived a “checklist life.”

Early on in my career, when I was a young SEO trainee in Germany, I used to be a silent participant of audit presentations in large conference rooms with expensive Mahogany tables.

We ran a scan of your site and found 250 blabla errors and 119 blubbediblub issues.”

Concerned faces.

That’s how we used to decide what to work on in SEO. We ran an [insert favorite crawler here] scan, sought out all the “errors” and systematically fixed them. Sometimes, we’d take it a step further and create content clusters, but our job was basically being professional auditors. We ticked off checklists.

That worked for a while but is not enough today.

These days, I think about most SEO projects in two categories: offense and defense.

Offense and Defense

Offense projects are for targeting net-new keywords or user intents: creating new content, building backlinks, internal link optimization, or title optimization.

Defense projects are all about maximizing traffic from content you already have: Content Tuning, technical SEO fixes, snippet optimization, Core Web Vitals, site hygiene.

Offense without defense is like filling a leaky bucket with water. You’re not going to get far. Checklist SEO, on the other site, ignores offense completely. The two go hand in hand. They reinforce each other and make the difference between slow and fast growth.

As I describe in The art of inhouse SEO, SEOs deal with 3 challenges:

  1. Getting resources
  2. Organizational structure
  3. Showing the value of SEO

Having the right offense/defense mindset helps you solve two of the three problems: resources and value.

Resources come, amongst other things, from showing a clear path to revenue. Without a good offense, there is no such thing because you don’t meaningfully expand your addressable market (how much total traffic you could get). Sure, defense projects can increase traffic for a short period of time, but that’s not how you win a market. Instead, defense sets you up for a good offense and solidifies your position.

It’s hard to show value without meaningful impact. Most executives won’t care about how many soft 404 errors you fixed, even though we all know it’s important, but how much money you made. SEOs understand that small factors can be the decision maker between position 1 and 3, but these factors are so noisy that their impact is nearly impossible to quantify. The saying offense wins games, defense wins championships is true in SEO as well.

So, you need to have both in your strategy, offense and defense. In reality, you can’t to everything. You need to prioritize.

3 of the most popular prioritization frameworks are:

  1. ICE
  2. MoSCoW
  3. ROI vs. duration

The ICE method is very straightforward: score a project based on Impact, Cost, and Effort. To keep it simple, you can use % (0-100), a scale of 1 - 10 (1 low, 10 high), or t-shirt sizes (S, M, L, XL). Score every project on these 3 factors and then stack rank them. You can go deeper by scoring each of the 3 factors across content, engineering, and design.

MoSCoW stands for:

  • Must-have
  • Should-have
  • Could-have
  • Won’t-have

As you can imagine, you can define each of the 4 categories for the projects you deem most important. This framework is more often used for features and isn’t the best to rank projects, but it’s well suited to define details of projects. I suggest using ICE in combination with MoSCoW.

ROI vs. duration simply takes into account how high the returns of the projects are compared to how long it takes to ship them. If you need results quickly, go for projects that ship fast. If you have a buffer, go for ambitious projects that take time. The elegance in this framework lies in that effort is already included in duration. The higher the effort, the longer it takes.

If that’s how you’ve been thinking about SEO all along, congratulations! Here is something most SEOs don’t think about. A third component of strategies that most companies miss: big bets.

SEO Bets

Most people would judge Ilya Brown’s announcement about Twitter Fleets as utter failure:

We built Fleets as a lower-pressure, ephemeral way for people to share their fleeting thoughts. We hoped Fleets would help more people feel comfortable joining the conversation on Twitter. But, in the time since we introduced Fleets to everyone, we haven’t seen an increase in the number of new people joining the conversation with Fleets like we hoped. Because of this, on August 3, Fleets will no longer be available on Twitter.” (source)

But I applaud Twitter for taking a bet. They took a risk, it didn’t work out.

When picturing bets, you probably think about flying to Vegas, getting drunk, putting $500 in your pocket (or $5,000, fancy!) and gambling it away. Business bets are not like that.

Sometimes, in life and SEO, you have to take a bet because not every important decision comes with a high degree of certainty.

In The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb writes about common flaws of forecasting (highlights mine):

The first fallacy: variability matters. The first error lies in taking a projection too seriously, without heeding its accuracy. Yet, for planning purposes, the accuracy in your forecast matters far more than the forecast itself. I will explain it as follows.

The policies we need to make decisions on should depend far more on the range of possible outcomes than on the expected final number.

The second fallacy lies in failing to take into account forecast degradation as the projected period lengthens. We do not realize the full extent of the difference between near and far futures.

The third fallacy, and perhaps the gravest, concerns a misunderstanding of the random character of the variables being forecast.

In other words, the accuracy of our predictions becomes worse the further we need to predict into the future. Tell me what might happen next year and there is a high chance you’re right (let’s leave 2020 out of this). Tell me what happens in the next 10 years, and you’re likely off.

If you wait for certainty, the opportunity to strike early or make a bold move is long gone. Bets are calculated risks; investments in uncertain futures.

Taleb goes on to say (highlights mine):

This idea that in order to make a decision you need to focus on the consequences (which you can know) rather than the probability (which you can't know) is the central idea of uncertainty.

It’s easier to spot the downside of not taking bets than the probability that they work out. So, as SEO you should reserve a little capacity for big bets.

How much? Opinions vary between 10% and 50% on the high side. Bring home a few calculated wins when you’re new on the job because it’s hard to get buy-in for Moonshots. Trust builds over time.

You can place bets evenly or asymmetrically. Most people go an even distribution, but that’s a mistake. You want to shoot for asymmetric bets, putting most of your big bets resources into one or two advantages you have as a company.

Remember that you can adjust and pivot bets over time. If you find growing evidence that they’re not going to work out but don’t adjust, you’re gambling.

With all that in mind, throw the checklist away and build an offense!