The complete guide to building a winning SEO strategy

The key to your SEO success is not a tool, it's not a growth hack - it's your strategy. Here we'll outline our proven 4-step framework for building an effective SEO strategy.

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91% of pages do not get traffic from Google.

That means that over 9/10 pages on your site will not get any traffic from Google.

Nada.

Zero.

Zip.

Doesn’t it often feel like 10/10?

Believe it or not, you can improve those odds.

Hey there, I’m Tyler. I’m the founder and head SEO coach here at Centori.

I started blogging over a decade ago, and began my career in SEO 4 years ago. Since then I’ve built an SEO coaching company, Centori, where we help startups and SMBs build effective SEO strategies.

I take the same things I've learned over my years doing SEO for SaaS, consulting, and e-commerce clients along with the tidbits I picked up during my 5+ years at HubSpot to help companies succeed at SEO - and I'm not just talking about ranking for vanity keywords. When I say results I mean results.

You do not need to buy backlinks, or to pay someone on Fiverr to ‘SEO your website’ (whatever that means). What you need is a strategy.

The key differentiator between you and your competitors is your strategy.

SEO tools are not enough

When I run a Google search for 'seo strategy' all I see are blog posts telling me to build a big list of keywords, write skyscraper content, and build links.

That generic approach may have worked in 2005, but it doesn't work today. And it certainly won't work in the future.

Not convinced?

Suppose you want follow these best practices.

You’ll probably sign up for a free trial of a popular SEO tool and pull a bunch of keywords all related to a broad industry keyword. Then you’ll order them by 'keyword difficulty' and filter out keywords that are not getting any search volume.

This leaves you with a few hundred keywords and a massive laundry list for your content team. And there’s a problem: your competitor is doing the same thing.

Your competitor is using a similar tool, pulling the same list of keywords, and using the same guides to get the same laundry list for their content team. In fact, there are dozens of other competitors doing the exact same thing.

While you duke it out over who can blog the fastest, massive players in their industry with huge content teams dominate by creating content at scale.

People like us on the other hand, are stuck in a race towards the bottom.

You can break the cycle though.

Let your competitors follow the outdated advice, here you will learn what strategy really is, and how you can build a strategy that wins. I developed this 4-step framework over the years and it's the same approach we use to build effective strategies for our customers and teach in our group coaching programs.

What is strategy is not

Why does strategy always feel like it’s saved for the last minute and crammed into a meeting or a Google doc?

I see folks mistake strategy for two things:

  • Mission/vision
  • Tactics

These are both important, however they are not substitutions for an effective strategy.

While missions are vital they are not strategy. Missions without strategy are dreams. Dreams are nice, but they won't put food on the table.

On the flip-side, tactics are significant but without strategy they are uncoordinated and will result in haphazard actions that get you nowhere.

I see this a lot when it comes to SEO.

Embarking into SEO without strategy will result in a dream of making it to page one of Google and few blog posts here, a few SEO optimizations there, perhaps some backlinks and a whole lot of nothing for results.

When executed without strategy, SEO is uncoordinated. This is causing an epidemic of websites all over the world to merely participate and languish in search results when they could be winning.

If you want to win on Google, a strategy is how you get there.

What an SEO strategy really is

Strategy is a coordinated set of decisions designed to win.

SEO is a zero sum game. For you to appear on page one of Google means someone needs to be bumped down to page two. Going into SEO doing a mishmash of tactics is a wonderful way to participate, but making it to page one requires winning.

In this guide I will talk a lot about winning as a metaphor to guide your thinking. In practice, it can be simple. All you need is the right framework.

Next up I will detail the 4 principles I use to build highly effective SEO strategies. If you are strapped for time, download an ebook version to read later.

How to create an SEO strategy

I first learned this framework as a product manager at HubSpot where I built product strategies to help HubSpot be a leader in marketing software.

I’ve found this 4-step framework works remarkably well when applied to SEO, so we use it for our clients and teach it in our group coaching programs.

Don't be fooled by the simplicity. While this framework has been honed down to just four key principles each is critical and effective.

Each principle will require thought, creativity, and is best served when you can chat through it with your team (or a patient spouse or friend).

These are the four elements of an effective SEO strategy.

  1. Define your winning aspiration
  2. Choose the right playing field
  3. Create content that wins
  4. Measure and reassess as needed

That's it.

Surprised to not see keyword research or backlinks listed? How about technical SEO? Don’t worry we’ll get there.

First, let’s go through each of these principles.

1) Start with a winning aspiration

Unfortunately Lewis Carrol's Cheshire cat was wrong: if you do not know where you are going, just taking any road will get you nowhere.

You need a winning aspiration.

Everyone wants more traffic or to appear on the first page of Google, there is nothing unique there.

What does it mean for your business to win?

Goals and missions are lofty, but they are not strategy. These are the starting point: the winning aspiration defines the purpose, the guiding mission, and your aspirations in strategic terms.

Never gave your winning aspiration much thought? You might be surprised how few folks do. Let’s start with your customers. Who are your ideal customers? What does it look like to win them?

I love Starbucks’ winning aspiration:

To inspire and nurture the human spirit - one person, one cup, one neighborhood at a time.

At the end of the day, Starbucks sells one thing: coffee. But how they sell coffee is radically different from, say, Dukin’ Donuts. What Starbucks aims to do is foster community. To inspire creativity. To be a meeting ground for writers, entrepreneurs, and neighbors all under one roof.

Here's our winning aspiration as an example:

We aspire to be the leader in SEO education for SMBs and startups.

Note how customer-centric it is.

We know who our customers are: small to medium sized businesses and startups. Are we missing out on potential marketshare? Maybe. But as they say: marketing to everyone is marketing to no one.

Note also that we aspire to lead.

We are playing to win, not playing to participate.

Participating looks like writing a bunch of blog posts to say we tried. Winning looks like being in front of our target customers with answers to every question they have and content to support them in their journey.

It's important to start here because forming a winning aspiration around your customers forces you to aim high and be grounded on the people you serve. Aiming too low, or forgetting your customers, is a recipe for poor results.

The winning aspiration is the starting point, the rest of the strategy will dictate what you do in order to reach it.

What is your winning aspiration? Take a moment to sit down and really think it through. What does winning mean for your business. How can you use this winning aspiration to guide your strategy? What goals can you set that support this winning aspiration?

Your strategy should support your goal. For us, we want to be a leader in education so that means having an answer to every question our target market is asking. Where SEO comes into play is ranking for those questions and creating compelling content resources on our site to help our customers.

To ground the winning aspiration into something bit more tactical, I like to use SMART goals to help me focus and ground my winning aspiration on something tangible, like organic leads or revenue.

We aren’t the leader in SEO education if we aren’t building an audience, so you can see how the winning aspiration comes first, and the goals follow.

When you've got a winning aspiration it's time to make one of the most important decisions: where you will play.

2. Choose your playing field

The 'playing field' of SEO is the Google search results page. You’re not just going up against your competitors, you’re going up against anyone vying for the top spot in Google search results.

There are two key decisions that go into deciding where you will play:

  • Who is doing the searching
  • What are they searching for

Behind every Google search results page is a real, live person.

I know, crazy right?

You’d be surprised how easy it is to forget that though. People love to focus on keywords with difficulty and search volumes, but that just abstracts people out of the equation.

You need to have a firm grasp on who is doing the searching, and what they are looking for.

Some playing fields are advantageous and some are disadvantageous. You must know the difference and set yourself up for success.

Go after the wrong persona or a query you cannot rank for, and you've got a recipe for appearing on the 10th page of search results and getting no traffic. Or getting unengaged traffic.

Sure, it's a participation trophy but it won't bring in any new customers.

Let's examine these decisions in greater depth.

Who is doing the searching

It all starts with your customers: who is behind the screen when they’re looking something up on Google?

It’s simple: by understanding your ideal customers you will naturally create content that resonates and draws them down your funnel. A poor understanding of your ideal customers results in content that is jumbled and speaks to no one.

The easiest way to build your personas is to describe them, their job title/career, a day in the life, their goals, and challenges. I like to go a bit further though to frame these personas for SEO. I break these down into 5 sections:

  • Who is the person doing the searching? What is their job title? What questions are they asking?
  • What stage of the funnel are they?
  • What type of content are they looking for?
  • What is the CTA that will help them?
  • What device are they most commonly using when searching?

Check out our guide on how to make SEO buyer personas for more information. Once you have a firm grasp of your personas, it's time to make the second decision: keywords.

What are they searching for

Traditional SEO advice tells you to put a 'head keyword' into a keyword research tool and load up thousands of long tail keyword suggestions.

That's a great way to pull a generic list of keywords to order by arbitrary numbers. Let your competitors do that, I’ll show you how I like to approach it with our customers.

With your personas in hand you need to understand how they buy; the pain points and questions they have; and what they are looking for in a solution.

What topics do your personas care about that overlap with your business?

There are two sources of topics I usually go to: the product you sell, and what your competitors are blogging about. This is often a good way to get the juices flowing and something started on a whiteboard.

From there, I drill down into the questions.

These are not generic long tail keywords that no one actually uses, these are real questions that real people are asking.

Websites like Quora and Reddit are goldmines for brainstorming these questions as is the data Google provides through their auto suggest and people also ask features.

Let’s use an organic dog food company as an example. Quora has a variety of interesting questions to get started:

Maybe my target demographic is purebred dog owners (seeing as purebreds are more expensive than rescues, and folks with more disposable income will be more likely to buy organic foods), here’s a sample of questions a Bernese Mountain Dog owner may ask:

Suddenly many compelling questions, and content ideas, emerge.

A guide on Bernese Mountain Dog diets may be useful. As would the top stomach ailments and how to treat them. Perhaps a post on energy-dense foods to keep your dog satisfied.

Suddenly something as simple as ‘pet food’ got a whole lot more fascinating!

I love to sit next to a whiteboard to draw out the relationship between topics and questions, allowing me to research and draw as I dig further in. Tools like Miro or Milanote help here if you do not have a whiteboard handy.

Have a look at our full guide on keyword research and keyword brainstorming for more guidance on this process.

Once you have a healthy list of questions, it's time to make the second-most important decision: the content you will create to win.

3. Create content that wins

Blogging is not always the answer.

Okay, Put down your pitchfork and let me explain. Have you ever heard of a red ocean vs a blue ocean? Here’s an illustration:

Red oceans are busy.

They are crowded with competition. Everyone heard this was a good fishing spot so everyone flooded there and can't catch any fish.

As Yogi Berra said, “nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.”

Blue oceans on the other hand are untouched.

No one found out about them, and they are wide open for the taking. Like the secret parking spot or the secluded strip of beach no one seems to have discovered them yet, providing you with a massive opportunity.

Traditional keyword research tools create red oceans.

You pull the same list of keywords as everyone else and create the same content. Suddenly we're all fighting on the same playing field and writing generic blog content destined for pages 3-10+.

Look at your list of questions and ask yourself what is missing.

  • What are your competitors missing?
  • What area of the buying process, or research process, is being forgotten about?
  • What unique resource can you create that adds value to your personas?

Blogging may be the answer - we write blog posts after all - but it's not the only answer.

Here are a few non-blog resources you could consider:

  • A content library help your personas
  • A series of downloadable assets
  • A tool available on your website
  • A directory of similar pages addressing common questions (what is the price of such-and-such home project?)

The possibilities are endless. If you start with your personas and address the specific needs and questions they have, your chances of winning increase dramatically.

One of my favorite examples is HomeAdvisor.

HomeAdvisor is a subsidiary of Angi.com, and they have loads of comprehensive content to answer “How much does <home project> cost?”.

From installing recessed lighting to putting in central air they had it. When I was renovating an older home, I found them time and time again for every single search.

I’ve done similar work with our clients to transform their websites from flat 2D brochures into dynamic resources that their customers can engage with and learn from.

Think of your website as a product that your customers can use and you will be miles ahead of your competitors who are stuck writing the same blog posts.

Once you do have your content mapped out, you need to give it a fighting chance at taking down one of the pages already ranking.

To do this, you can study the content that currently ranks for gaps or opportunities to overtake then. Learn our secret to giving any piece of content a better chance at ranking.

Now that you’ve got a content strategy in place, it’s time to make sure you’re measuring the impact of all this hard work (and the ROI).

4. Measure your progress and reassess as needed

You've got a winning aspiration, your playing field defined, and a plan to execute - you're done, right?

Wrong.

You would not believe how many folks leave reporting out of the equation.

How are you going to prove that you've won? What’s the ROI you'll report to your boss to justify all this hard work?

It’s easy to forget about reporting. Reports aren’t sexy and crunching numbers can be intimidating.

I get it.

But remember your winning aspiration from before? This is where you can demonstrate how effective your strategy is at achieving it, and how you'll know whether to stay the course or reassess.

There is a lot to reporting, but it all boils down to two critical steps:

  1. Pick a metric that matters
  2. Find a way to measure it and attribute it to SEO

That's it.

The following tools will be helpful in finding metrics and measuring them but don't feel that you need to go overboard and track everything. Just pick what matters and measure it. You can always add more, but it's hard to detangle things when they get complicated quickly.

There are 3 tools I consider necessary for any SEO campaign. All are free, provided by Google, and will make you an SEO reporting ninja:

  • Google Analytics
  • Google Tag Manager
  • Google Search Console

Google Analytics

Google Analytics is an incredibly powerful tool, and with it you can track a variety of key SEO-related metrics.

The primary reports I tend to focus on are:

  • Organic traffic
  • Top organic pages
  • Organic events

Organic traffic

Organic traffic is a fairly straightforward metric, and a good one to keep tabs on to get a sense of where things are going at a high level.

How much traffic are you getting from organic search? Is that going up, or going down, over time? Are the changes you make to the website helping you perform better in search results and get more visitors to your website as a result?

These are simple questions, however you would be surprised by how little people keep tabs on whether their traffic is increasing or decreasing.

To generate the above report, click on Audience>Overview to see traffic to your website over time. You can then apply a filter for OrganicTraffic to just see results for your SEO efforts.

Measuring organic traffic is fine, but I like to know which pages are getting traffic and how that changes over time too.

Fortunately that is fairly easy to find in Google Analytics as well.

Top organic pages

Its is far more interesting to see which pages are getting the most organic traffic, as well as whether the pages you created/optimized are getting more traffic over time.

To generate the above report click on Behavior > Site Content > Landing pages to see your top pages and apply a filter for Organic Traffic to see the top performing pages for search.

Tracking these pages is key to have a firm grasp as to how you are reaching your goals. Is the content you just created getting any views? Are people bouncing off or sticking around?

These are key questions that can easily be answered by viewing your top organic pages and their performance.

Organic events

Lastly, and arguably the most important - what actions are people taking on your website and how many of them are driven via organic search?

When people think about SEO they often consider it to be the top of the funnel - writing blog posts that get people to your website.

That's great... but that doesn't do a whole lot for your business. How many subscribers are you getting? How do those subscribers become leads? Is SEO driving any real customer growth? These are all questions that can be answered by proper event tracking.

To view your events head to Behavior > Events which will provide an overview of actions people take on your website.

Google analytics does not track things like button clicks or form submissions out of the box - to do that you need Google Tag Manager which will be detailed in the next section.

Google Tag Manager

Google Tag Manager is another free tool for analytics tracking.

Google Tag Manager allows you to send information to Google Analytics to record events - things like button clicks, form submissions, or purchases.

This is essential if you want to see how many leads or customers are driven by organic search.

If you can set up sales and dollar amounts you can even display the ROI of your SEO efforts. There are many ways you can set up Google Tag Manager - that is the beauty of it, however it is also a danger.

The easiest way is to set up a thank you page that your form redirects to when submitted. You can set up a trigger for when people visit that thank you page, which will allow you to tally up when someone submits a form on your website. Things get more complex from there, especially if you want to track sales and revenue data on your website.

One of my favorite resources on setting up Google Tag Manager can be found here.

Google Search Console

Google Search Console is like a cheat code for SEO.

It shows you data from Google to show you how well your website is performing in search results, what keywords it is shown for, how much traffic you are getting for those keywords, and where you rank.

The best part is it is all straight from the horse's mouth.No estimates here, this is data straight from Google on your website.

I like to use it for the following:

  • To monitor performance for top keywords and pages
  • To monitor keywords and pages with the lowest click through rates
  • To analyze performance across devices

Monitor performance for top keywords and pages

One of the most commonly used features in Google Search Console is to view your site's performance, along with the top keywords/pages.

It's great getting an aggregate overview, but you can learn more by digging a bit deeper into your top keywords and pages.

For starters, I like to start with the top clicked keywords and the top clicked pages. This gives me a good idea of which keywords/pages are getting the lion's share of clicks and traffic, and on the flip side if there are any keywords/pages that are appearing but not getting many clicks.

Monitor keywords and pages with the lowest click through rates

What's the better way to increase your search traffic in a short amount of time: write 50 new blog posts and publish them in a week, or optimize your pages for more clicks?

I think we all know the answer to that one.

If you have content that is ranking, but not getting clicked on, then this is a great opportunity to increase traffic by optimizing for click throughs. Suppose I have two pages, both getting thousands of impressions every month but only a handful of clicks - I can easily capitalize on those thousands of impressions and turn that handful into hundreds by optimizing the title or description to bring in more clicks and traffic as a result.

Analyze performance across devices

Another biggie that I feel gets overlooked - how is your content performing across devices? This can be great to see if your position is different between devices, but it also gives you an incredible clue as to how your personas are searching.

Take us for example (solid lines are desktop, dotted are mobile):

Our position is virtually the same (just a hair better on desktop), however we get 5x as many impressions and clicks on desktop as we do mobile. This tells me that our personas are primarily searching on their desktop rather than a mobile device, meaning that the CTAs we provide should be geared towards desktop users and our content should be optimized for desktop reading.

Sure, you should always optimize for mobile, but this is a great way to understand the mindset and location your personas are in when they search and land on your website. The more you can create content that serves them in the moment of search, the better the chance they convert.

There are more elements to Google Search Console, and more technical things you can do with it, check out our guide to Google Search Console for a complete overview.

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When to reassess your SEO strategy

No matter how much preparation you put in, there is always a chance your strategy will not lead to a land flowing with milk and honey.

What do you do?

Suppose 1 month down the line you are not getting any more traffic. It may be tempting to change things up early into a strategy. After all, the sooner you catch a mistaken assumption the better, right?

Not always.

SEO is a long game.

Google works fast and will recognize changes on your website however it will take time to get results.

Typically I try to give an SEO campaign at least 3-6 months. This is no hard rule, newer sites will take significantly more time to get results than well-established sites. 3 months is a decent chunk of time though for headway to have been made on content or website changes and to see if things are indeed paying off.

If after 3 months you are not making progress, it's time to stop and ask why.

  • Are you not creating enough content?
  • Are you not creating the right kind of content?
  • Did you make a wrong assumption somewhere about your personas, or the questions they really care about?
  • Is the playing field you chose too difficult to compete on?

It's not about pointing fingers, it's about getting to the bottom of things to understand why you are not making the progress you hoped for.

Usually it comes down to one of three things (sometimes a combo of all three):

  • The goal was not realistic
  • The playing field was disadvantageous
  • The execution was not competitive enough

Run through the questions in this section, write honest answers, and run through your decisions on “where to play” and how to “create content that wins” again. You may find you needed to invest more time, or that your assumptions were wrong.

Either way it’s okay. SEO is an iterative process, by adapting you can succeed.

What does Centori SEO coaching provide?

We view our SEO coaches as a head of SEO for a fraction of the cost for your team. Just like any head of SEO, our coaches partner with your team to build an effective SEO strategy and guide you to implement it.

We take a “done with you” approach to SEO that guides your team to build and implement a successful strategy that grows your business.

All our coaching programs include:

  • Zoom sessions with your SEO coach. These can be one:one or include your team. Sessions can be recorded and saved.
  • A strategy home built with Notion to manage your content calendar, link to essential reports, and hold notes from previous sessions
  • A personalized progress report every month
  • Access to our proprietary software platform we designed to make SEO simple
  • Access to our private SEO slack community

Interested in learning more? Or perhaps you still have a few questions?

Let’s chat.

We offer a free consultation to discuss your business, your goals, and how SEO can help you reach them.

Book a free consultation

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