SEO strategy should be the focus for all digital marketers in 2021 with how reliant we are to the search engines, especially Google, nowadays.
However, many people simply don’t know where to start when discussing how to develop an effective SEO strategy, and choose to neglect SEO altogether.
With that being said, here we will discuss all you need to know about developing a comprehensive SEO strategy to ensure an effective SEO campaign, and without further ado, let us begin right away.
Debunking Common SEO Myths and Naysayers
- SEO Takes Too Long To Generate Results
While it’s true that SEO is by nature a long-term game, it’s important to also understand that SEO would also produce sustainable results that last a long time.
If you pay to acquire leads and customers, for example via advertising, you’ll stop getting those prospects and customers as soon as you stop the ad campaign. That’s not the case with SEO: it may take months before your startup’s website can rank on the first page of Google, but once you do so, you’ll get more organic traffic and more prospects for years to come.
Think of SEO VS paid channels as the case of cost vs time: paid channels can generate short-term results, but can also be very expensive in the long run. On the other hand, while SEO may need a longer time to generate results, it is cost-effective and can even be totally free, which is a huge plus considering the sustainable results you’ll get.
- SEO Is Expensive
It might be surprising that there are people who thought of SEO as too expensive, while as we’ve briefly discussed above, it is actually one of the most cost-effective marketing channels available. In fact, if you do everything by yourself, SEO can be totally free.
Yes, there are SEO agencies and marketing agencies offering SEO services that can be very expensive, but even in such cases, SEO remains the B2B marketing channel with the highest ROI and lowest risk.
On the other hand, if you have the patience, focus, and are willing to invest just a bit of your time to learn about SEO strategy (that we’ll discuss in this guide), your SEO campaign will be even more cost-effective.
- SEO Is Too Difficult
There is some grain of truth to this one: today’s SEO in 2021 is indeed very competitive and it can be extremely difficult to rank for popular and valuable keywords. However, this doesn’t mean it’s impossible, and we have to consider two things:
First, SEO will only be even more important tomorrow than it is today. We know more people are now getting more reliant on using search engines for finding information than it was a decade ago, and today it’s virtually impossible to have a healthy business without any search engine presence.
Second, the competition is just going to grow even tighter, and the longer you wait to invest in SEO, the further ahead your competition will leave you on the ground.
The Foundation of SEO: How Search Engines Work?
One of the biggest reasons why people avoid SEO is because they don’t know where to start, and the best way to understand SEO is to first understand how Google and the other search engines actually work.
In a nutshell, the search engines “discover” and index billions of different web pages on the internet with the help of crawler bots. These bots—also called spiders or simply search engine bots—are programmed to automatically scan the web pages and follow the links on these pages to find even more pages.
Websites that have been crawled by these spider bots are then added to the search engine index, which is essentially the search engine’s database or data structure. This index will include important elements about the web page, including but not limited to:
- The URL and domain name
- The keywords discovered within the page. Search engine algorithms are getting better at understanding the context of these keywords and the topics covered by the page
- The type of content that is being indexed (via schema.org attributes), for example, whether the content is a product listing, a table/chart, or a simple article
- User engagement metrics on the page, how do and how often people interact with this specific page
- How recently and how often the page is updated (freshness)
The objective of these search engines in ranking the web pages is to present as relevant and as high-quality search results for its users, fulfilling the searcher’s intent or answering the question as quickly and as accurately as possible.
What happens during a search?
When a user entered a search query into a search engine, the search engine will pull all pages which are deemed to be relevant for this search query from its index.
Google will then rank this web page for the keywords included within the page by measuring various elements on the web page, known as ranking factors. There are more than 200 known ranking factors at the moment.
Nowadays, the search engine can also pull various information from your device to return more accurate results, including:
- Language: the search engine algorithm detects the language used in the query, and will prioritize results in the language of the user
- Location: in local-related keywords (i.e. “gas station near me”), Google will return results from Google Map. Google can also detect your device’s location to return location-specific results (i.e. news content relevant to your location).
- Device: you may get different results when searching from a mobile device than your desktop.
- Search history: search engines may study the queries you’ve previously searched for and may return different results based on this search history.
So, what is SEO?
Now that we’ve understood the basic principles of how search engines work, what actually is SEO?
First, it’s important to understand that SEO is not a secret hack or holy grail technique to cheat the search engine’s algorithm and magically rank higher. In fact, if any ‘SEO agency’ or ‘experts’ claims to be able to do so for you, we can be sure, 100%, that they are trying to scam you.
Instead, just as the name suggests, SEO is simply a series of optimizations so that your web page will align better to the search engines’ objective: being more relevant and valuable for the search engines’ users (some of them are your target audience). This is performed by optimizing both on-page and off-page ranking factors of your website so that Google and the other search engines will perceive your website as relevant and valuable for your target keywords.
Important Ranking Factors To Target In Your SEO Strategy
Above, we have discussed that at the moment, there are more than 200 identified ranking factors (Google keeps the actual ranking factors a secret from the public), and these ranking factors keep changing with algorithm updates.
Ideally, our SEO strategy should target as many ranking factors as possible, but these ten ranking factors we’ll discuss below are the most important ones you should include in your SEO strategy right away:
- Properly indexed
Above anything else, you have to make sure Google’s and the other search engines’ bots can crawl and index your website. Google should be able to visit your URL easily and understand your page’s content, and you can do it by:
- Ensuring your website is coded well. If you are using prominent services and CMSs (think WordPress, Wix, Squarespace) to build your website, this shouldn’t be an issue
- Make sure your robots.txt file is properly configured especially regarding which pages you’d like the search engine bots to index
- Make sure you have a properly optimized XML sitemap that includes all your pages
Google prioritizes websites that are secure for its users and may penalize your site (you won’t be included in the search) if your site suffers from security issues like being defaced by hackers, infected by malware, etc.
So, make sure your site is properly secured, and the first thing you should do is to ensure you are using SSL and HTTPS.
Since 2015, Google prioritizes mobile-friendly websites on their SERP (and so do other major search engines. Make sure your site is mobile-responsive by using Google’s mobile-friendly test tool and make the necessary adjustments.
Google and the other search engines prefer fast-loading pages, and users will quickly bounce from sites that load too slow (high bounce rate and low dwell time are also important ranking factors. Use Google’s Pagespeed Insights to assess where your site’s speed performance stands, and optimize it accordingly.
5. Optimized Content
How optimized your content is will obviously play an important part in determining the ranking of the page.
SEO content optimization, however, is a very wide subject to discuss and there are various sub-factors included within it. But, in general:
- Your content should answer the searcher’s search intent and is deemed valuable
- Include your target keywords in important areas like your title/headings, META description, and within the body of the content. However, make sure these keywords are included naturally and the content stays comprehensive for human readers
- Properly formatted with good readability
6. Website’s Age and Authority
Very few sites that are less than a year old are included in the top ten positions on Google SERP, and 60% of these top ten sites are at least three years old.
Domain names might also matter in some niches. For example, a domain name with ‘hospital’ in it typically will rank better in healthcare-related keywords. So if you are just planning to start a website, focus on a URL that represents your business well.
You can use Moz’s Open Site Explorer to check your domain and page authority scores.
7. Backlinks and Link Profile
There are three types of links to consider in SEO:
- Inbound links (or backlinks): links coming from other sites to yours
- Outbound links: links from your site to others
- Internal links: links between different pages on your site
Out of the three, backlinks or inbound links are the most crucial in determining your site’s ranking. A backlink acts as a vote of confidence of the internet: when a site links another site, it’s like saying that this site’s content is relevant and trustworthy.
Outbound links, on the other hand, are important to show that you are creating informative and valuable content with relevant resources, shown by linking to relevant and authoritative sites related to the information included within the content.
Last but not least, internal links are important to help visitors (and the search engine bots) find other pages on your site and to establish your site’s structure.
8. User Experience Metrics
Thanks to Google Rankbrain, Google’s AI-powered search algorithm, Google can now measure signals related to user experience, including:
- Bounce rate: the percentage of people who click on your page and quickly go back to the SERP (indicating that your page isn’t relevant for the search query). Your page can be demoted due to high bounce rate.
- Dwell time: how long visitors stay on your website. The longer the dwell time, the more relevant your page will be perceived by Google for the search query.
- Click-through rate (CTR): the percentage of people who click on the search result to visit your page, indicating your META description and title are properly relevant for the keyword.
Developing Your SEO Strategy: 7-Steps Guide
We should develop our SEO strategy while considering the ranking factors we have discussed above, as well as other factors that might be relevant for your specific niche. To do so, here we will share how you can develop an effective SEO strategy in just 7 simple steps:
Step 1: Define your SEO Objectives and Measurement System
Before anything else, we should properly define the objective(s) of our SEO campaign so we can tailor our strategy to achieve this objective.
It’s important to understand that SERP ranking is not the ultimate objective of SEO, but it’s just a means to an end. Ranking on its own won’t provide value for your business unless it can bring a significant number of high-quality organic traffic, and the end objective of or SEO is what we’ll do with this organic traffic.
This would depend on your business model, for example:
- If you are an eCommerce site, then probably the objective is for this organic traffic to convert and make transactional purchases on the website.
- Publishers and media: these sites aim to make money from ads, and so the objective is for the organic traffic to view and click ads published on the site
- Local businesses like restaurants would like a high percentage of this organic traffic to visit their business
- Businesses not selling their products online would like this organic traffic to learn more about their products/services and make their purchases online
Thus, you should think of relevant objectives that are:
- Specific and clear: you should easily explain this objective to a fifth-grader
- Realistic: if your team thinks that the objective is not attainable, it can hurt their morale instead. If necessary, break down bigger goals into smaller milestones
- Measurable: you should be able to assign KPIs and metrics to these goals
Here are some examples of SEO objectives that fit these criteria:
- Improving organic traffic to the site by 40% in a year
- Generating 1000 leads to your site in 6 months
- Increase email newsletter sign-up from organic traffic by 20% in 3 months
After you’ve defined the key objectives of your SEO, the next step is to set up a measurement system to track your SEO campaign’s progress against these objectives.
Your measurement system will vary depending on your objective, but you should:
- Set up Google Analytics and Google Search Console to monitor your site’s performance
- Setting up conversion tracking in Google Analytics if your site involves any conversions (i.e. sales, email subscription, downloads)
- Integrate your marketing tools and CRM tools with your lead capture system
- Map out all the metrics you can measure
If possible, you should also automate at least some of the reporting to ensure a more seamless measurement process.
Step 2: SEO Audit
Now that you’ve defined your SEO campaign’s objectives and set up the right measures, the next step is to audit your website to assess its current state against these objectives.
SEO audit can be a very technical subject and you might want to check out our in-depth guide on SEO audit to learn more about this, but you can start by using tools like Google Analytics/Search Console or premium tools like Screaming Frog to crawl your site.
Check for the following elements:
- Robots.txt configuration: check your robots.txt file to make sure your site is being crawled properly by Google and the other search engines. You can check out this guide by Moz on robots.txt configuration
- Duplicate content: check for duplicate content on your page as well as those published on third-party sites
- 404 pages: broken pages and 404 errors can cause your site to be penalized by the search engines. Check for their presence and fix them.
- Page speed: as discussed, site speed is a crucial ranking factor, so make sure to use Google PageSpeed Insights to check your site’s speed performance
- Mobile-friendliness: check whether your site is already mobile-friendly or mobile-responsive. Test on as many different devices as possible.
- Broken assets: check for things like broken video and image links, which can ruin your user experience metrics.
- Redirects: you might want to check out this guide on the best practices of using redirects for SEO.
- URL: check your URL structure. Make sure your URLs are short enough but can be understood by human users while including the target keyword.
If you have adequate tools, you can also perform a heatmap test on your website to assess your site’s user experience factors. You can, for example, try to identify which pages your users are dropping off, and why. Remember that optimizing user experience is now also important for SEO.
Step 3: Develop Buyer Persona
As discussed, SEO is mainly about delivering the most relevant and high-quality content for your target audience, so you simply can’t do it if you don’t know your target audience.
So, the next step is to develop a buyer persona so you can identify your target audience, as well as having a better understanding of this target audience’s behaviors, needs, and pain points.
A buyer persona is essentially a fictional model of your perfect target audience, the people who are most likely to purchase your product/service. We can use data gathered from market research, observations, quantitative analysis, and various other data sources to build your buyer persona.
An important consideration if you are a B2B business is that you might need to develop more than one buyer personas. A B2B sales cycle can involve more than one decision-makers in the process, and each might have different roles and needs.
By understanding your audience’s needs and problems, the goal is to develop relevant and valuable content to address these needs, and we can also use the insights to optimize the website and content according to this target audience’s preferences.
Step 4: Keyword Research and Identifying Opportunities
Proper keyword research is essential for any SEO strategy, and it should be based on your target audience’s needs and search intent.
You should develop your list of target keywords by answering the following key questions:
- What problems are your target audience currently facing?
- What types of search queries they might use in their research to solve this problem?
- How can your product/service help as a potential solution for this problem?
- What are the relevant features of your product/service?
You should also consider the competitiveness of the keyword before including it as your target keyword. Popular keywords obviously attract a lot of competition, and you should assess your budget and timeline whether competing for this keyword is worth it. There are always other keywords to pursue that might actually provide a higher ROI.
In this step, you’d also want to perform a competitive analysis to identify keyword gaps: keywords of which your competitors already rank, but you haven’t. You can use tools like Spyfu to help with this purpose.
While developing your list of target keywords, make sure to also consider your audience’s intent when searching for these keywords, so you can create the right content to answer this intent.
Step 5: Content Development and Content Strategy
Content is the heart of any SEO strategy, and your SEO campaign would only be as strong as the quality and relevancy of your content.
Your content strategy should consider three key factors:
- Your target keywords: fairly obvious, your content should cover a topic related to the target keyword, and should be optimized for this target keyword.
- Your target audience’s search intent: for example, if your audience’s search intent for the keyword is informative, then you should provide information rather than hard-selling your product.
- Your target audience’s current stage at the marketing funnel: whether it’s the first time for them to learn about your existence, or whether they are already considering your product as the solution for their problem
You should plan a content/editorial calendar that covers:
- The topic and working title of the content
- The target keyword
- The person responsible for developing the content
- The person responsible for promotion and publication
- The current working status of the content (published, on progress, revised, etc. )
- When the content is going to be published
- The distribution channel where the content is going to be published
- The promotion strategy for the content
Also, remember that while you should focus on your blog and other forms of textual content (i.e. research reports, white papers, eBooks), you can also diversify the content while including other forms like videos, audio/podcast, images, infographics, and so on to maintain engagement.
Step 6: Link Building
As discussed, backlinks remain one of the most important ranking factors in today’s SEO, so a core aspect of your SEO strategy should be about figuring out how you are going to build more backlinks to each page.
It’s important to note that Google and the other search engines are getting better at figuring out the relevancy and quality of backlinks, and so link building nowadays is no longer solely about quantity, but the quality of each backlink source is also very important.
With that being said, however, getting backlinks from authoritative, relevant sites in your industry can be easier said than done, so a proper link building strategy is required.
Above anything else, however, your link building strategy would only be as strong as your content quality: if your content is valuable, you’ll get those links sooner or later, and vice versa, no amount of strategy can help low-quality content to get backlinks.
However, we can help an already performing content to get more links by giving reasons for these sources to link your content, a concept we call link hook.
These hooks can be:
- A unique information (statistics roundup, research report, results from original study, etc. )
- A unique insights regarding a specific topic
- An interesting story
- Aesthetically-valuable assets like infographics, photos, etc.
If your content is already relevant with the right link hook, then getting more backlinks is just a matter of promoting it. You can outreach to relevant websites and influencers in your niche, a common strategy is to mention/link them in your content first before reaching out to them. Promoting your content on social media and your email newsletter is also a no-brainer, but you can also use various paid options (i.e. Facebook Ads and Google Ads) to promote your content.
Also, don’t underestimate the age-old but proven tactics like guest posting and blog commenting. They are still effective for link building when done right.
However, stick to the basics: make sure your content is good and caters to the reader’s search intent while including the right link hook.
Here are some important best practices regarding link building:
- Don’t pay for backlinks. Not only they tend to be low-quality and won’t likely help your SEO, but you can get penalized for buying backlinks.
- Monitor unlinked brand mentions (people who mention your site/brand but don’t provide backlinks). Outreach to them and ask for a link, most likely they won’t mind
- Find roundup articles (i.e. best SEO tools) that are relevant to your product. Make sure your product is mentioned and linked
- Competitive analysis is very important in link building. Figure out your competitors’ backlink sources, chances are, they might also want to link your site
- Get relevant influencers involved in your content, most likely they’ll mention this content and link back to your site
Step 7: Technical Optimizations
The next step is to optimize your site’s on-page factors to align with the search engines’ algorithms (read: their preferences).
While technical SEO can be a pretty deep subject, here are some key areas to optimize for each of your page:
- Identify the page’s target keyword
- Title tag: should be less than 60 characters, use your target keyword up front. Make sure it’s attractive to improve click-through rate (CTR)
- Meta description: should contain your target keyword while being attractive to encourage CTR
- Headings: H1 tag should be optimized for focus keyword, while H2, H3, etc. should target secondary keywords
- Your content should contain the focus keyword in the first 200 words. Include your keywords naturally and make sure human readers can easily read this content
- Add videos, images, etc. to the content and make sure they are properly optimized (include your keyword in the alt tag)
- Assign canonical tag to the right URL
- URL should contain the focus keyword and should be easily understood by human readers
- URL should not contain underscores and is less than 100 characters long
- Maintain internal linking structure, should contain at least one deep link to relevant content
- Optimize for social media metadata when possible
Last but not least, it’s important to remember that SEO is a long-term strategy, and so monitoring your progress against the defined SEO objective is essential. However, the payoff will be worth it in the end as you’ll get a sustainable source of organic traffic for the years to come.