There are many good resources on the day-to-day steps you can take to improve your SEO, but not enough, in my opinion, on how to create a strong SEO strategy that works in the context of your business.
Part of the problem is that discussions around SEO are rarely focused on the business models they are supposed to be supporting. As a result, they are usually discussions about how to use various tools, or implement page-specific best-practices (“use keywords in your title tag”). None of these help people think about SEO as an operational function of their business.
There is nothing wrong with the existing resources out there, but when I advise customers and friends about their SEO, I try to help them think more strategically. This is a guide to help you do the same, and is the first in a series of posts to come over the coming months on this topic.
A Simple Content Strategy Guide
At the end of the day, it’s about the content on your site. This has been repeated so many times that people roll their eyes when they hear it now.
In order to make this statement more useful, I came up with a rough scale, from 1-5, for the three major constraints companies face when implementing SEO. Finding the right balance in the midst of these constraints in a way that makes sense for your business can help you take concrete steps towards improving your site’s performance in organic search.
Don’t look at this as an overly scientific framework (‘cause it’s not), but rather a set of relative guides you can use to structure your SEO efforts.
- The stage of your company (scale of 1-5: startup to mature) (It’s primarily a resources question, but I phrase it this way because it is also a branding issue.)
- Your content quality goals as they reflect on your brand (scale 1-5: 1 = low-quality, borderline SEO spam to 5 = peer-reviewed, academic level)
- Keyword difficulty for target market (1 = easy to improve rankings to 5 = very competitive keywords (such as “computers”))
There are many other factors to take into consideration, and I will discuss these more in later posts, but breaking these basic factors down and explaining how to build an operative SEO strategy based on this framework will take you far.
Business Models on the Web
The best way to see these factors at work is to build some case studies and study their example. Let’s break some common online business models / site goals into some rough categories (not by any means exhaustive):
- Branding / Customer Engagement
- Paid Subscriptions
- Ads / Sponsorship
- B2B Response or Lead Generation
- Donations / Contributions
- Social Games / Social Networks (often combing many of the above business models)
Already we can see that just telling people to “create high quality content” is almost useless advice on its own. The type of content and appropriate level of investment in that content varies greatly depending on not only the business model, but also one’s approach to that business model.
The thing you should be thinking about is “what is the most scalable way for a given site to create lots of content at the appropriate level of quality for their business goals?” My friend from Japan and well-known entrepreneur / SEO expert / blogger Patrick MacKenzie sums it up very well: Content + Links = You Win. He calls this content strategy “scalable content generation” and demonstrates how he has effectively used this strategy in his own business and helped his clients to great success. The one thing I would add to his approach is that the level of quality you choose for scalable generation should be taken into consideration along with the other factors I mentioned above: company stage, content quality goals and keyword difficulty.
Let’s talk about each of the above business models and work backwards to understand what their SEO strategy might be and how they could potentially improve it.
In each of these examples, I won’t cover the following: link strategies, how and why certain sites are highly ranked for certain keywords, and what on-site content optimization techniques sites can use. These are all worthy topics to discuss that I will cover another time, but today I want to focus solely on the nature of the content that the business models in these case studies create, how this content can be more easily created, and how it relates to our factors listed above.
eCommerce sites have a big natural advantage when it comes to SEO. The very nature of their business is to create content, and lots of it, on valuable keywords. But they also have a natural handicap when getting started, because all of their competitors have the same advantage.
So, the SEO content strategy for companies in this space is relatively simple: research the keywords your audience is looking for and build your catalog around those terms. A key factor in making content creation scalable is using a content management system (CMS). Most large eCommerce companies run on in-house platforms, and these are created from the ground up to exploit their particular approach to the market.
There is an additional trick you can use to differentiate yourself from your competitors, both in the search engines and in the eyes of your users. Create supplementary content: user reviews, external reviews, how-to guides, etc. around your main product keywords. This will help with the long tail and attract more links for the simple reason that you’re adding more value.
In the eCommerce category, the keyword difficulty tends to be higher, sometimes even a 5. In this case, having a company that is more mature (closer to 5) may provide some advantages, but eCommerce is still a wide open playing field, so providing high-quality, unique content at about a 3 can drive serious competitive advantages at scale. The key here is in differentiating content, as I describe above.
SEO for Brand Marketing and Customer Engagement
SEO for brand marketing and engagement is tricky. The problem is that for many brand sites, they aren’t actually selling anything online, so it’s hard to know what keywords to optimize for, and even harder to measure performance.
Some brands use an internal system of “marketing points” where they will assign a point weighting to the type of conversion, and create metrics around improving the number of points for a given marketing activity. For example, if a user watches a video on your site, that would be 10 points. If they download a PDF, that would be 3 points. And so on.
The other aspect that makes SEO for brand marketing tricky is that the content created has to be approved by many people in the company, including brand managers. Almost by definition, you can’t go Demand Media on a brand site (nor would you want to). This means that in our framework, content quality is pegged to a 3 and above from the very start. This obviously slows down the entire process and drives up costs, so it is really important to determine 1) how important SEO really is for branding and customer acquisition and 2) the best keywords to target that meet these goals. This in itself is a big topic, and I’ll have to dedicate an entire post to it at a later date.
For now, let’s conclude that SEO for brands is tricky because content quality is 3 and above, keyword difficulty tends to also be 3 and above, unless you go very long tail. The problem with a long tail strategy for branded sites is that you need a lot of content, and it’s tough to scale the production process to meet the search demand. One way of getting around this is to create two types of content on the site: branded, curated content and user generated content (UGC). Brands still don’t do nearly enough UGC, in my opinion. I can talk about this in much greater detail later. The quickest advice I can offer is to look at new platforms like Quora as one model for hosting Q&A in your industry.
SEO for Paid Subscriptions
The primary question around paid subscriptions is content quality. Unless you’re doing a product in the “project management” space, chances are, you can come up with a decent list of long tail keywords relevant to your product or service. Speaking broadly, keywords that people often target for paid subscriptions can be quite specific (long tail) and drive an enviable number of conversions.
Taking Patrick’s business above, he found a very specific niche (bingo cards) and built a SaaS app around it. He also discovered that there is a category of keywords relevant to his business that is both long tail and cheap to build content. He did the smart thing, automated himself out of a job and turned a very niche product into a money machine. To use our framework, he was a 1 on the company maturity scale (close to or considered a startup), found a content category with keyword difficulty around 2-3, and was able to mass-produce content at or around level 2 quality, and turned it into a very successful operation.
Let’s look at another SaaS business where this could work, but with different branding goals.
SurveyMonkey provides a webapp to create online surveys, and is rumored to be making north of $45M a year doing it. On very competitive keywords, they are already very successful with SEO (ranked #1 on Google for “online surveys”).
However, after reviewing their site, I saw additional opportunities built right into their site. On their tour page, they have a Survey Templates section, where they list a dozen or two survey ideas. Each one of these sample surveys could be a separate page, with keywords like customer service survey, and would drive even more long-tail-ish traffic to their site if they optimized well.
In this particular example, they would probably want to create somewhat higher quality (around a 3) as it is closely associated with their brand and they are a mature company.
SEO for Ads and Sponsored Sites
One of the oldest business models on the web, Demand Media is the most recent, high-profile company in this space. They are pursuing the content level 1, maybe 2 in some cases, keyword difficulty level 2-4, and have the resources of a more mature company (say 3-4 for an IPO-filing firm). Their revenues are high and they are growing. Anyone can compete in this space and many more are entering, but you have to build in scalable systems upfront and find the cheapest possible source of content for your sites.
I mentioned Quora earlier. They will generally have a higher level of content (between 2-3) than Demand Media sites, but it seems pretty clear so far that they are also pursuing a long-tail, ad-supported model. It isn’t clear to me that the keywords they have content for are very monetizable from a search perspective, but we’ll see. Facebook is also in this space, though it hasn’t been discussed much. Their primary strategy is to build a robust, social graph. However, one of the benefits of producing such a rich graph is that there is almost limitless potential for monetizable SEO.
SEO for Donations and Contributions
Two of the biggest site categories in this space are NPOs / NGOs and political campaigns. They have similar sources of keywords: news and evergreen issues (such as gun control or human trafficking). As a whole many organizations in this category do poorly at SEO. The reasons for this are many, but many times it’s due to a lack of resources or conflicting priorities. This category does have some natural advantages, however, if they were to take advantage of them.
First, they tend to have lots of data. It’s probably unstructured but if these organizations could organize their data, get it indexed by the search engines, they could potentially drive tons of traffic from organic search. One example would be queries like companies that benefited from slavery in their supply chain.
There are journalists and researchers looking for data like this all the time and it’s a shame that this demand is not met. To use our framework, if donation / contribution-oriented sites could easily and affordably turn their data sets into indexable content, they could create content on a level 3-4 in terms of quality, for keywords of 2-3 level difficulty, and even smaller, immature organizations (perhaps as low as 2) could operate at scale and drive lots of SEO traffic.
SEO for Social Games and Social Networks
I love this category, because it is simply exploding. One of the more amusing comments I hear from time to time is “Google is dying and SEO won’t be important because of Facebook and social games.” In truth, it’s the opposite. Search is about to explode, again, in terms of innovation, diversity, volume and speed. This means that getting discovered via search regardless of industry is going to be more critical than ever. Attempting to do so without the aid of automation tools that can meet this challenge (as is the case at almost all companies today) will be suicidal.
This will be particularly true in the case of social games and networks. These are viral mediums and evolving quickly into platforms in their own right. Right now they grow through promotion along the social graph (and this won’t change), but as demand for social apps and games increases, search will probably be the 2nd or 3rd most valuable channel for acquiring new customers. Some of the search terms will be so heavily branded “farmville” that (assuming you are Zynga), you won’t need to optimize and some search terms will be quite long tail (“farmville promotion codes”) and valuable (just ask 7-11).
This is still a new space, so it’s a little harder to provide a concrete strategy now, but if I were a third-party trying to plug into one of the social platforms, I would be creating content at a quality level between 1-2 (maybe some 3), and go for keywords with a difficulty level of 2 or 3 (recognizing that the difficulty level for this category of keywords is going to skyrocket over the next year or two.) It’s the wild west in this space.
What about me?
I try to eat my own dogfood in everything I do. I use my own seo tools to build, monitor and improve my performance in organic search. I also apply this framework to the content that I create, and here is the analysis I run on Ginzametrics.com.
Ginzametrics is a startup and a young company. The SEO tools space is quite competitive and yet, here I am, because I think I have something new and valuable to offer. Being only a few months old, the ginzametrics.com domain is young and will not have some of the natural advantages that my competitors have.
Content Quality & Branding Goals
The value that I bring to my customers is that I’ve worked on a lot of large-scale SEO projects and, specifically, have helped companies succeed many times with better automated tools. In order to convey this experience and build a Ginzametrics brand that people can trust, it would not help me to farm out my primary website content and blog to the lowest bidder to generate hundreds of pages of content.
The brand I’m building will be successful to the degree that I can demonstrate to people over time that there are newer, better ways of doing SEO and that my company can help you get there. This means that I have to create most of the content. One potential, additional strategy for me would be to invite guest bloggers (which I’ll probably do) who can write authoritatively about topics that matter to my readers. So, on a scale of 1-5, most of my content quality has to be about a 3 (typical for high quality blogs), for a keyword difficulty level of 4-5 (with some long tail 3s).
Tasks & Takeaways
I’ve provided what I hope is a lot of food for thought, but you may be wondering how to actually turn this into work you can start on today. Here are some tasks I would recommend to people who are both getting started and also for those who may need to refresh their sites.
- As a first step, use the framework that I’ve provided to assign some rough numbers to your company stage, thinking about both the resources at your disposal and how your company is perceived / you want it to be perceived. Use this to apply the scale for the new content you could create and, finally, get very specific and come up with keywords / new content ideas that are the right match for your content, with the right level of difficulty given your resources and branding goals.
- If you’re at a big company and things move slowly, start with a small section of the site that you can control, and make quick changes. Try some of the techniques we discussed here in new ways and see if you can reach better economies of scale with your content production in a way that does not sacrifice your branding goals. Build a case study around this and demonstrate to other groups within your company that it can work. Repeat.
- Regardless of your company’s size, it is worth reviewing your site’s internal architecture and on-site optimization. I’ll talk more about how to do this in future posts, but look for easy opportunities where you could be creating more content around less competitive keywords that happen to convert for your business. Make sure it is well-linked to and optimized for the basics of SEO.
- If you’re still stuck on keywords, try this. I agree that it is a hard problem and that Google’s Keyword Tool is sometimes mediocre, but I’m willing to bet that if you just went into brainstorming mode with the keyword tool open on your laptop in a conference room with your colleagues, you could easily come up with 100 new keywords that could potentially help your business. Test these with AdWords, and if they work, build the content for SEO.
This is a long post, but the truth is, I’ve only scratched the surface on this topic. It is worth running through these exercises and case studies with your business in mind. If these are useful to you in building a stronger SEO strategy, or you have additional suggestions, let me know. I’ll incorporate feedback into later posts (and revisions of this post) and share additional case studies from people who write and are willing to share their own.
Editorial note: because this post is more of a guide and less of a blog post, expect to see frequent revisions and improvements to this content as I incorporate feedback from readers.