Beginner's SEO

How to build an effective SEO strategy

Written by

Tyler Scionti

When you run a quick Google search for 'seo strategy' you'll get a slew blog posts that tell you to build a big list of keywords, write blog posts for each of them, and then do email outreach to get backlinks.

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

Not convinced? Here's a short story you may find familiar.

Suppose Mary, the content marketing manager for an online pet supply shop, wants to build an SEO strategy for her business. Following the traditional methods of doing SEO, Mary will sign up for a free trial of a popular SEO tool and pull a bunch of keywords all related to 'pet food'. Following the popular guides online, Mary orders them by 'keyword difficulty' and filters out keywords that are not getting any search volume data.

This leaves Mary with a few hundred keywords, and a massive laundry list for her content team.

The problem? Mary's competitor, Carl, is doing the exact same thing.

Carl works at another pet food supply shop and he used a similar tool to Marry and pulled the same list of keywords. He then read the same guides as Mary, and ended up with the same laundry list to bring to his content team. In fact, there are dozens of other marketers from online pet supply shops doing the exact same thing all over the world.

While Mary and Carl duke it out over who can blog the fastest, massive players in their industry with huge content teams are dominating because they can create content at scale. People like Mary and Carl, on the other hand, are stuck in a race towards the bottom.

The way we build SEO strategies is broken. It does not work (unless you have mountains of cash to create content at scale).

What is the answer? Can Mary really rank on Google?

Take a deep breathe. SEO is not dead, and it is possible to rank on Google. What you need, is a strategy.

In this post I will detail what strategy really is, and how you can build a strategy that wins. It's a framework I have developed over the years and it's the same framework we use to build effective strategies for our clients and teach in our group coaching programs.

Don't have time to read the entire post? Download an ebook version to read later.

What is strategy is not

Strategy often feels this way, doesn't it? Source dilbert.com

People often mistake strategy for two things:

  1. Mission/vision
  2. Tactics

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

A mission is an overarching goal or vision. While missions are important 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 important but without strategy they are not going to be coordinated and will result in haphazard actions that get you nowhere.

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. By results I mean things like traffic, subscribers, or customers - the lifeblood of a growing business.

One of the primary reasons I have seen SEO not 'work' for a business is the absence of strategy. When executed without strategy, SEO is uncoordinated. This is causing websites all over the world to merely participate and languish in search results.

You don't want to simply participate though. You want to win - and strategy is how you get there.

What an SEO strategy really is

So, what exactly is strategy?

Strategy is a coordinated set of decisions designed to win.

In other words, strategy is how you group and order tactics in order to reach a specific goal.

Most SEO articles talk about SEO strategy in terms of tactics. This is a great way to create a lot of content, but it's not a great way to take down your competition. 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.

Strategy is not complex, but it is hard.

Talking about winning vs participation may harken back unpleasant memories from gym class or high school sports. Don't worry, it's not quite as scary. In this post I will talk a lot about winning as a metaphor to guide your thinking. In practice, it can be quite simple. All you need is the right framework.

In this post I will break down the 4 principles I use to build highly effective SEO strategies. Ready? Let's get started.

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' found this framework works remarkably well when applied to SEO, and I use it for my clients and teach it in our SEO group coaching program. Like the best frameworks, it is quite simple. But don't be fooled by the simplicity, while this framework has been honed down to just four key principles each is extremely important and effective.

Just like an effective exercise program, there may not be a long list of to-doss but you will get out what you put into it. 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?

Those are all tactics. They are not strategy, though they are important tools you may use to execute your strategy. We'll detail when and how to choose these tools in the next sections.

1. Start with a winning aspiration

An effective SEO strategy starts with a winning aspiration. This is the case for any effective strategy in general.

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

Aspirations are the guiding purpose of a business. A winning aspiration must be more than a goal. 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? Who are your ideal customers? What does it mean, or look like, to win them?

That's right, a good SEO strategy does not start with SEO, or even content marketing. It needs to go a level higher. The more in line your strategy is with your customers, the more likely you are to be successful.

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. We want to help the little guy. 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 mediocrity. The winning aspiration is the starting point, the rest of the strategy will dictate what you do in order to reach it.

Now that 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

Where you will compete is one of the most important decisions you will make in your strategy. This, along with how you win, will dictate how effective your strategy is and how successful you are.

There are two key decisions that go into deciding where you will play. The 'playing field' of SEO is the Google search results page, the key decisions you need to make are:

  1. Who is doing the searching
  2. What are they searching for

Behind every Google search results page is a real, live person. Pulling massive lists of random keywords tends to abstract that. It is worth repeating, don't forget this important fact: there is a real person behind every search, and they have a question that needs an answer.

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

Some playing fields are advantageous (you have a decent chance at ranking, and you'll be in front of the right people) and some are disadvantageous (your chances at ranking are much slimmer, or you are getting in front of the wrong people). It is critical that you know the difference and set yourself up for success.

Go after the wrong persona, or a keyword 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

I use buyer personas as a helpful exercise here. Buyer personas are an extremely effective tool that, frankly, have been talked about to death.

If you'll allow me to talk about them one more time, let's think about buyer personas in the context of search engine optimization.

We all know that we should be creating buyer personas, yet we rarely give them a fair shake - and people rarely talk about them in relation to SEO. 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 break these down into 5 sections:

  1. Who is the person doing the searching? What is their job title? What questions are they asking?
  2. What stage of the funnel are they?
  3. What type of content are they looking for?
  4. What is the CTA that will help them?
  5. 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, 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.

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.

Rather than dive right into head keywords and long tail keywords start with topics. 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 usually a good way to get the juices flowing and some stuff started on a whiteboard.

From there, I drill down into the questions. What questions are your customers asking related to these topics?

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.

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.

Check out 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

You may call me a heretic, but I'll say it: blogging is not always the answer.

Put down your pitchfork and let me explain.

Let's use the illustration of a red ocean vs a blue ocean.

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 downtown, 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 2-10.

Rather than simply pull a list of keywords, 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:

  • Would a content library help your personas?
  • Would a series of downloadable assets help?
  • Would a tool available on your website solve a problem?

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.

We've worked with 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 an asset 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. We detail a full list of tactics you can use to give any piece of content a better chance at ranking.

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.

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

I recently saw someone ask what the most important first step for a new website is. Most of the replies listed the usual suspects:

  • Do keyword research
  • Create 50 pieces of content per month (yikes),
  • Build backlinks

No one mentioned reporting.

People tend to forget about reporting. Because of that, they never seem to know whether all their hard work is paying off.

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 here. 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, and provided by Google:

  1. Google Analytics
  2. Google Tag Manager
  3. Google Search Console

Google Analytics

Google Analytics is a free tool provided by Google for tracking visitors to your website. You can see who is visiting your website, where they are visiting from, how long they spend on your site and more.

It's 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:

  1. Organic traffic
  2. Top organic pages
  3. Referral traffic (to see if I have any backlinks generating traffic)
  4. 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, or new content you add, helping you perform better in search results and get more visitors to your website as a result?

Google Analytics provides a nice traffic overview at a glance

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

Organic traffic is nice, but it's an aggregate metric. What is far more interesting is seeing which pages are getting the most organic traffic, as well as whether the pages you created/optimized are getting more traffic over time.

You can learn a lot from your top pages

Tracking these pages is key in order 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.

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.

Referral traffic

I don't see this metric talked about much when it comes to SEO, but referral traffic is important.

Referral traffic measures the traffic you get from other websites. The most common referral sources are social media (especially if you are active on social media marketing) however if you pay attention you will see other websites that are linking to you.

Backlink monitoring software can be expensive (easily over $100/month), fortunately by looking at your referral traffic you can see your backlinks for free - as long as you are getting traffic from them of course. To see your referral traffic click onAcquisition then click All traffic > Referrals, this will provide a full list of referrals and the traffic stats for them.

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?

Event tracking is a must

When people think about SEO they often think of it as 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, and essential, tool for analytics tracking. Google Analytics does not track activity on your site out of the box - things like form submissions and button clicks are lost without Google Tag Manager.

Google Tag Manager allows you to send information to Google Analytics to record event completions. Whenever someone submits a form, downloads a pdf, or makes a purchase you can trigger a tag in Google Tag Manager to send that that information to Google Analytics.

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.

It is an incredibly powerful tool, I like to use it for the following:

  1. To monitor performance for top keywords and pages
  2. To monitor keywords and pages with the lowest click through rates
  3. 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 line is desktop, dotted is 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.

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. When do you course-correct?

It may be tempting to change course soon into a strategy. After all, the sooner you catch a mistaken assumption the better, right?

Not always.

SEO is a long game, and for a reason. There are over 200 ranking factors and billions of other pages on the web. The landscape is changing dramatically, as a result there is no such thing as a quick win. Google works fast and will recognize changes on your website however it will take time to get results.

How much time? Typically I try to give an SEO campaign at least 3 months. This is no hard rule, newer sites will take significantly more time to get results than larger, 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):

  1. The goal was not realistic
  2. The playing field was disadvantageous
  3. The execution was not competitive enough

Download the SEO strategy template

There you have it, our complete guide to building an effective SEO strategy.

It's not a list of tactics, or a to-do list (for that, check out our SEO roadmap guide). This is a blueprint for how you can carve out a unique spot on Google and win at SEO. It's the same framework I've used consulting across industries, and the framework we teach in our group coaching and one on one coaching program. Download the ebook to share with your team and start outsmarting your competition on Google and transform your business.

Updated on:

June 26, 2021

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