How to make an SEO strategy
And what does it mean to think strategically?
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Fixing an XML sitemap doesn’t feel very strategic, it’s just a tactic right? But acquiring a competitor's website feels, somehow more like strategy? That’s kind of a wide spectrum though… Where does something stop being tactical and start being strategic?
The trick is to recognize that something isn’t inherently either strategic or tactical. It’s not a binary spectrum. You can’t look at a list of proposed activities and label some as strategic and some as tactical.
Instead, you can think of a strategy as a wrapper for a set of actions. An “SEO strategy” is the communication and framing of a set of proposed actions.
In this post we’ll take a pragmatic step by step approach to putting together an SEO strategy. And it all starts with this quote, from the book Good Strategy / Bad Strategy:
“The kernel of a strategy contains three elements: a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and coherent action.”
Let’s look at these one by one:
Diagnosis: A combination of situation & cause
Remember that a strategy is about communication and coordination. Typically among senior executives. The first mistake is assuming everyone is on the same page - so you need to quantify and align on the current situation. The second mistake is assuming that numbers alone tell the story, so you have to add an expert opinion on the cause.
A diagnosis is NOT: “Traffic has been declining year over year”
That’s like going to the doctor and them saying “you have chest pain”. Ok. But, why?
A better diagnosis is something like “Traffic has declined 15% year over year, driven by increased competition and our lack of expert content in competitive niches”.
Notice how the diagnosis requires some expert opinion or judgment. It’s not a purely objective read, it’s an expert assessment of the facts. And note that a diagnosis doesn’t need to be focused on a problem, it could also be outlining an opportunity.
If your strategy is focused on an opportunity then you want to quantify the size of the opportunity, combined with an expert opinion of how you’ll capture the opportunity: “There is an opportunity to capture 200k - 400k additional visits / year through expanding our plant care guides, this will require between 200-300 new editorial pages”
(For more, see the previous newsletter: don’t solve problems, show opportunities).
Guiding Principle: A simple statement that shapes the solution
Ok, so we have a diagnosis - now we need to create a high level framing for how we’re going to tackle the situation. Again, remember that a good strategy is about communication. We need our strategy to be understandable across the organization - so we need to avoid jargon, avoid technical details and focus on the key information.
A good guiding principle gives you enough direction to understand how we’ll tackle the problem/opportunity, but without all the specification and details.
So if our diagnosis is: “Traffic is down 20% YoY because competitors are out-ranking us for core commercial queries with better pages and faster link velocity”
Then a guiding policy might be something like: “We will invest in improving our core category pages with updated content, and increased link building efforts”
A good test of a guiding policy is to leave room for different initiatives and and different approaches, without changing the guiding policy. So in the above example you could imagine that we might reasonably work on some of these initiatives:
Improving schema markup for our category pages
Re-writing content for our category pages (and/or rewriting our content on a regular basis)
New product photo shoots to add original imagery to our category pages
Running a pricing survey to add original pricing content to our category pages
Content marketing based link building
Manual outreach based link building
Hiring a content marketing team internally
Hiring a content marketing agency
All of the above could potentially fit within the guiding principle - in reality we’re almost certainly not going to do all of these, but we might experiment with a few different initiatives depending on resources and results. All without changing the diagnosis or guiding principle. It’s essential that a good strategy leaves room for experimenting and iterating on the exact solution and projects, without having to re-write the whole thing.
A set of coherent actions: “coherent” is the key word here!
Now we get to the actual actions. The exercise here takes our laundry list of proposed actions and groups them into 3-5 distinct initiatives that are coherent with our guiding principle. Note that we’re NOT trying to cram everything we want to get done into our strategy - but to focus deliberately only on those initiatives that meet the diagnosis & guiding principle.
You should focus on making these initiatives clearly defined and distinct from each other. This allows you to discuss them individually, assign budgets to each one etc.
For example, let’s say our diagnosis & guiding principle was something like this:
Diagnosis: “There is an opportunity to capture 200k - 400k additional visits / year through expanding our plant care guides, this will require between 200-300 new editorial pages”
Guiding principle: “Produce 200-300 best in class plant care guides through leveraging our expert knowledge”
Then our key initiatives might be something like:
Create editorial content
Build new editorial page templates
Fix XML sitemaps and schema issues
Ooh. Notice how the third initiative is not strictly related? This is ok, if only if, we believe that the initiative is necessary for success.
This is the crux of good strategy - it’s building a strategic frame that is easy to communicate, gets buy-in, AND lets us invest into initiatives that we believe will move the needle.
This requires a bit of nuance (and understanding who you’re presenting the strategy to). I’m NOT giving you a green light to jam everything from a site audit into your key initiatives, but you can see how a well crafted strategy is compelling to the business and let us work on initiatives that are not explicit in the guiding principle but are necessary to achieve success.
Build the business case: show me the money
Finally, you can’t talk about strategy without quantifying things. A good strategy has actual figures in the diagnosis to quantify the situation, and a business case attached that outlines how much it’s going to cost and what the return will be.
A business case should come with a full accounting of all the costs (see more about a correct accounting for SEO costs here: is SEO worth it?). And it should come with some projections for return.
I’ll write more in the future about putting together a business case (both SEO MBA courses explore building a business case in depth), but what we’re looking for is essentially an easy to understand model that exposes your assumptions and says if we invest $X then we’ll get $Y in return.
Again - because strategy is designed for communication across various stakeholders, a good business case isn’t too complex and jargon-heavy but focuses on making the assumptions and inputs legible so that everyone can understand how the investment and return are calculated.
This can get complicated depending on the size of your business and size of strategy but in essence you want something like this:
(Don’t look too closely at the numbers, it’s all dummy data)
Of course, estimating impact and return for the various initiatives can be challenging, but without some kind of business case you’re going to have a hard time convincing the organization to invest.
Bonus round: give your strategy more weight
Strategy, a hypothetical concept lacking in gravitational mass, is going to have a hard time having any weight. But regardless, if you want your strategy to have more chance of succeeding then consider the following three bonus ingredients:
Bonus #1: Align your strategy to the company strategy
Remember that strategy is about coherent action across the organization. So to make your strategy more compelling you should align it with the broader company priorities and strategy.
Read more about how to do that in this email: are you making SEO strategically important?
Bonus #2: Find evidence to back you up
Notice how there are various parts of the strategy that rely on “expert opinion”. That’s fine, but you want to avoid building a big strategy off the back of “I think I’m right” so, where you can, find evidence that your diagnosis is correct and your guiding principle is correct.
One way to do that is running surveys to gather evidence: using surveys to increase executive buy-in.
Bonus #3: Find a believable big number
Your business case should be grounded in the near-term opportunity. What is the return on this investment in year 1 and year 2. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get people excited about the bigger picture. What happens if we extrapolate out a few years? Does this strategy lead somewhere bigger?
Read more about finding a north star and believable big number: managing expectations by finding comparisons.
Yes, strategy matters. Sure - putting together a strategy is more work than doing an SEO audit and throwing all the recommendations at the product team. But a lack of strategy - a lack of some cohesive wrapper that communicates the project clearly and with a business case - is why SEO recommendations don’t get prioritized and why SEO teams get marginalized.
Creating a strategy is work. Valuable work. Regardless of whether you’re trying to convince the product, engineering, marketing or editorial teams to allocate resources to your projects - at the end of the day, if you’re not making a compelling case you’re going to get left behind.
This is a somewhat practical interpretation of how to put together a strategy, but defining strategy and “thinking strategically” is a slippery subject. Here’s some further reading that might be of interest:
A plan is not a strategy (video) by Roger Martin - good for understanding how strategy might come together across multiple teams and disciplines.
How to think more strategically as an independent consultant by me - good for independent consultants and freelancers who want to be more strategic and do better work for more money.
The last da vinci by Hannah Smith - good for better understanding what it means to “be strategic”, with some real examples of different kinds of strategies
How to think strategically at work by Lesley Sim - good if you’ve ever had your boss tell you to “be more strategic”.