Online Positioning: Picking a Keyword Mix

It seems like every 5 minutes a blogger writes about how to do SEO.

But there are only scarce fragments and side notes on how to actually research and craft a comprehensive strategy & plan for how SEO will be done most effectively for a particular website.  This is staggering.  The competition online is simply too fierce, too large and too varied to risk compromising on strategy.  In this post, I’ll provide a few of my own SEO mental models and some concrete guidance for those who want to get their SEO efforts right the first timeIt’s not rocket science, but it does take some discipline, attention to detail and analysis. 

So here we go.

First, the 80-20 rule.  Ideally about 20% of your time allocated to SEO is spent on prep/strategy, while about 80% is spent actually doing the SEO – creating & optimizing content, improving site structure and building external links.  But from my experience, roughly 80% of success in SEO is the result of effective strategy and planning.  For one particular site that required about a month of SEO research, organic traffic had increased 100% within just 3 months of the initial roll-out of the 1st phase of content/structure changes. And don’t get me wrong – the site was already ranked fairly well across a variety of terms.  It just hadn’t picked the right terms – it was not yet positioned hierarchically or around the core value prop. or target audience.

Research, Analysis & Keyword Selection

SEO Process Cycle

Just like any marketing plan, you need a competitive position online that is based on your specific value proposition and core audience.  You can’t say “me too” online for very long.  There’s far too much of that going on.  The key to SEO positioning is centering your keyword mix on the differentiating factors of your value proposition.  You need differentiation to have a position that attracts quality traffic, but you also need to test these keywords.  This is especially true for smaller sites and smaller businesses.  Understand who your competitors are online and study their ranking and website content to ascertain where they’re strongly positioned and where they’re vulnerable.

High Quality Keyword Mix
Jump into Google Analytics and look at organic traffic and conversion rates by keyword.  Pick the top performing candidates. If you don’t have historical conversion data associated with particular keywords, a modest AdWords budget is an ideal channel for discovering how to refine keyword mix and gain some quantitative support to the keyword mix in consideration.

Highest Possible Search Volume for Keyword Mix
Using keyword traffic research tools, you want to pick the most popular keyword variants within your mix of candidates to be the focal point.  Use AdWords keyword research tool and Google Trends. The operative word here is highest possible – don’t sacrifice quality for quantity unless you plan to be a gigantic traffic eating monster like Wikipedia or eHow.

As one hypothetical example, it is possible to take a word like “craft beer” and turn it into longer, more specific keywords, like “seasonal craft beers” and “IPA craft beers”.  In this way, the core of your focus is around a broader, high-volume keyword mix; but you extend and diversify your keyword array around those core terms.  This makes it easier to rank high for keyword variants that competitors may not have thought of.  The nice thing about longer keyword phrases is that they tend to produce higher conversion rates.

Keyword Strategy: Visualizing Structure, Defining Variants,  Applying Keywords to Site

The Plan

After the keyword mix is visualized and clearly defined, it is crucial to have a concrete plan and timeline for executing an SEO strategy.  The first phase is site/content optimization.  The second phase is content creation (blogging would be an ideal example of this for small businesses).  The third phase is external link building.  All of these can be done concurrently, but it is important to at least emphasize each of these phases in the stated order.

The final component of the SEO plan is a roadmap for measuring and improving upon the SEO strategy over time.  If you can’t quantify the impact of an SEO strategy, it’s a waste of time and money.

What to measure:

  • Rank is still a useful leading indicator; however, don’t forget that there are thousands of keyword variants used to find your site.  So even if you don’t rank that well for your core keyword, you could be taking #1 spots for lower traffic, higher quality terms.
  • Traffic – Relative and absolute growth month to month of organic traffic
  • Conversion Rate of organic traffic high-level and broken down by keyword.  At the very least, track registrations (or the rough equivalent of that for your site) and transactions (or, if revenue is not your business objective online, whatever most desired action defines the whole of your site)
  • Retention & Customer Value $ (Advanced) – You need a database/eCRM for this.  But it is extremely helpful for quantifying the outcome of SEO efforts. If you don’t have a database or eCRM solution, there a good make-shift solution: take the number of new user registrations by month (even if that is a simple .xls file of email addresses w/ dates) and subtract your Google registration conversions.  Then, apply your AOV or average annualized customer value $ to the share of new registrants that acquired through organic search. By taking these two simple steps, you are now at least able to quantify the share of new users acquired organically through unpaid search and the approximate share of annual revenue those new users produced.

A few pointers on how to measure and analyze effectively:

  • Annotate EVERYTHING – every major change to site structure/content, every ranking milestone, every major Google algorithm update, every major external link building effort.  I guarantee you’ll need to look back in order to do effective analysis and be able to articulate the story of your SEO growth.  There are far too many variables to keep track of in your head.
  • Use Rank Checker to document rank improvement over time.  Later on, you’ll want to overlay this data with traffic & conversion data from organic traffic.  You can automate this Firefox add-on to run routinely and check a long list of keywords.  Make sure you’re logged out of Google, etc. when you run it or your rankings will be skewed to your personal search history.
  • Everyone can afford to set up a free Google Analytics account and pay a web admin or developer to add Google Goal TrackingGoogle Webmaster tools is an important insight tool – I particularly appreciate the previous month comparison chart for keywords.  It shows you how much you’re up or down for any given keyword (traffic, click-throughs, etc.).  Webmaster tools also provides html suggestions, which is helpful for those just getting started in SEO.
  • Use AdWords keyword research tool.  It’s still one of the best tools.  While your at it, setup a modest AdWords campaign ($500) and get some initial conversion data on different keywords you’re considering.  Although, make sure your statistical sample (number of click-throughs) is large enough to actual warrant any serious conclusions.
  • Review & Analyze weekly, monthly, quarterly & annually – experiment with SWOT analysis approaches and document everything you find.  When you annotate your changes, try to include a concise summary of the analytical justification for the change as well.

That’s about it.  If you follow these steps at the outset, you’ll have a clear sense of where you’re going, you’ll know where to get started and how to prioritize the phases of execution, you’ll know what to do when things aren’t going well, you’ll be able to explain to others why things are going well, and you’ll know how to continually build on the growth and momentum you’ve started.

I highly recommend SEOmoz, SEO Book and “The Art of SEO“.  Great resources for the beginner or aspiring expert.  These thought leaders provide far more insight and expertise than I do on the subject and I couldn’t have had success without them.


Testing Your Way into an SEO strategy

A lot is at stake when you dive into organic SEO.

For one thing, an SEO strategy is dynamic and constantly evolving.  Google, your customer and your competition are changing daily, so to stay in the race SEO demands a perpetual uphill battle (even for those holding #1 rankings).

Perhaps just as important, SEO tactics carry long-term consequences. When it comes to positioning your site’s organic SEO strategy around a certain set of keywords and phrases, each step of progress will impact your site months down the road.  If the impact is negative, immediate remedies will still take months to take effect, and even then you may have done some difficult to repair damage.

For several weeks I have been thinking to myself – “What can be done for the SEO marketer?  Is there a way to take low-risk non-committal steps towards changing and developing your SEO positioning?”  Then it dawned on me that maybe paid searches have redeeming value for all websites.

Why not use paid search campaigns to test similar keywords and phrases against each other and against existing site keywords/phrases to determine the relative and absolute winners (or losers)?  The winners then inform the organic SEO strategy – how the website content, link structure, meta data etc. evolve to support these new keywords/phrases.

AdWords are relatively “non-binding” in terms of how closely Google associates paid search words with your site.  Also, AdWords don’t cost as much and can provide very immediate and meausurable results.  This is a perfect sandbox for organic SEO marketers!

Then I came across Aaron Wall’s post on SEObook that basically made this exact suggestion and articulated how it is done.  I just wanted to share it in the event that some frustrated SEM marketers are looking for a more significant role in the organic side of SEO.

Perhaps I am alone in downplaying the universal value of SEM for all businesses.  But personally, I have seen really solid SEM campaigns fail for companies strictly because it doesn’t fit their industry and product. Also, the temporary “bump” in traffic hasn’t shown to significantly improve site ranking.   Using AdWords as a brand awareness tool just seems a little silly to me – like saying a telemarketer is positively contributing to “brand awareness” even if the individuals receiving the calls are angry or indifferent when they receive a call.

Using AdWords campaigns to test into an organic SEO strategy and continue to evolve it is something any company can benefit from trying.

For marketers of any sort, this is a good lesson in making both cautious AND aggressive steps in maintaining and developing market position.  It takes the weakness of paid searches and uses it as a strength to serve a weakness of organic SEO.

Excellent SEO: Satisfy your visitors, not just an algorithm

SEO is often veiled behind abstract concepts, web 2.0 lingo, and apparent structural complexity.

All of these are realities, but I think at the end of any conversation on SEO it is important to remind ourselves that there is a common thread behind every SEO tactic and every variable evaluated by Google algorithms: How credible and relevant is the content on your site and how easy is it for users to get what they want on it? 

I have heard many marketers use the complexity of SEO as a way of mystifying prospective clients, wooing them with big words and ideas.  Just do a Google search for “SEO strategy” and read any blog that comes up.  You’ll see what I mean I am sure.  But honest online marketers will you that SEO is not rocket science. 

It is possible to discuss and achieve an intuitive grasp of SEO theory and practice even if you have never looked at html in your life.

The apparent complexity of SEO is simplified by a very simple concept: user experience.  Excellent SEO requires marketers, together with developers and front-end designers, to think deeply and strategically about user experience

Algorithms don’t just look at H1 tags and alt tags anymore.  They are getting better and better at identifying themes across content on sites that they look for not only in isolated pages, but even in the site structure. 

Picture yourself in the shoes of a user who comes to an e-commerce site and looks straightaway at the site map.  Now what questions would you naturally start to ask yourself, however subconsciously?

What are the different product categories this site offers?  How are they arranged and presented within the site navigation and structure?

Looking at the site navigation and structure, how do these categories seem fit together under a common theme? Is this a consumer electronics site or more of a home appliance site? 

How does my experience of this site, as I dig deeper into it, help me move naturally and seamlessly throughout the site, so I don’t have to use the “back” button in my browser, bread crumbs, top menu nav or site map?  Am I able to scan a page and have naturally placed “landing spots” to catch my attention with something relevant and interesting if I get lost or lose interest?

On one level, these questions are obviously reducible to usability principles for web design.  Questions that every designer should be asking in the first place.  But these are also extremely relevant to internal link structure, a factor increasingly important for Google algorithms.

Many speak as if Google’s algorithms were completely incomprehensible divine mandates we must blindly follow – “You just put keywords near the top of the page cause that’s the way Google likes it.”  This is to completely overlook the purpose of Search Engine Optimization.  It is not just to get visitors to your site, it is to get the right users to your site.  It is not just about getting users to navigate around your site and spend time there, it is to give them a positive, seamless experience demonstrated in increased conversion rates and revenue

To get a grasp on SEO, it is crucial to leave behind the superstitious religion of our SEO forefathers and get in step with what Google is really doing – getting better and better at helping people use the internet.  Google is not interested in your business, they are interested in your customer.   If you can’t help the customer, sooner or later Google will probably notice and dock you for it.  This doesn’t just mean the “black hat” techniques designed to trick people into visiting a site, but also the clumsy, confusing and frustrating aspects of website content and navigation.

It is true, a web usability professional can evaluate user experience better than a web crawler… at this point in time.  But people are creating the algorithms, which means they will become increasingly keen to bad user experiences.

I’m not suggesting we don’t try to understand nuances involved in algorithms.  I’m just making the point that we can lose perspective if we make our focus the algorithms instead of the customer experience. There is common sense and intelligible purpose behind SEO.  User experience is the glue that ties together the diverse variables involved in SEO, and if you get user experience right, you are bound to take huge strides towards Search Engine Optimization.