[feat-text]Summary: It is tempting to think of digital content marketing as a linear process. Publish text and start getting organic traffic. But the search engine optimization game is not this straightforward. Fortune favors the patient, persistent marketer who is in it for the long haul.[/feat-text]
The web was a simpler business ten and twenty years ago. That’s a refrain frequently heard in search engine optimization (SEO) circles. It was easier to get a website to rank in the early 2000s because there were far fewer businesses on the web, hence less competition. Even ten years ago, it was easier to get a high ranking than now because SEO was not quite the refined process, and it was easy to stumble into top ranking from sheer luck. People knew Google brought traffic in 2010, but attracting search engine favor was not yet down to a science.
Now the bottom line from launch to rank on page one is typically six months at the minimum. Maybe even a year or more. That can be how long it takes for a website to get the best search traffic results, even if you’re doing everything perfectly! If you’re not doing everything perfectly, you may never receive top rankings, and it’s sometimes tough to say what you even did wrong.
Here, we’re going to provide a reality check for what to expect from an SEO strategy. We’re also hoping to warn you away from unscrupulous agencies that promise instant Google results in an unrealistic time frame. Sorry to disappoint everybody, but there is no magic bullet, snake oil, or shortcut to this process.
Defining an SEO Strategy
Let’s clarify the target of an SEO strategy: Your goal is to launch a website or improve an existing one, such that it is attracting an amount of monthly traffic through organic search results. Ideally, you want to rank at least somewhere in the top 10 on a search engine results page (SERP) for relevant terms related to your industry. And also, ideally, you want those search hits to turn into conversions (sales, subscriptions, etc.).
Depending on your business model and volume capacity, you may have some leniency in the amount of traffic needed. For example, industries like legal, high-end home design, or landscape architecture only need a few dozen conversions per month. On the other hand, some retail businesses need thousands per month.
Now to unpack an SEO strategy and assess the components so you better understand the scope of an SEO engagement:
First, we need a plan. We’re going to corner the search engine market for your industry, whatever the specialty may be. We have to research the market landscape to determine how competitive it will be, assess the scope of the market, and determine who our target customer demographic may be. From there, we’ll dig into the specific tactics that will help you rank, like listing management, your website and technical SEO, content marketing, and link building.
Competition matters because online marketing is a crowded place. For established industries and markets, it can be incredibly challenging. In crowded urban markets, there may already be ten businesses just like yours. However, defining a truly unique selling proposition (USP) will help you find your place in the market and stand out—more on this below. Your USP can help guide your keyword strategy and connect you with searchers who are looking for services that only you can offer.
Gaining a thorough understanding of the competitive market will help you understand the search terms that are worth pursuing and the ones that aren’t worth your investment.
Next, you need a website (spoilers, huh?). You need a focused domain name and a site up to date on the latest Google-friendly practices. That includes developments Google has made in just the past few years: AMP (accelerated mobile pages), Core Web Vitals, E-A-T (expertise, trust, and authority) for certain topics, an up-to-date CMS (content management system, like WordPress), and more.
The logistics of your website determine your SEO success more now than ever. Google was patient in past decades with poorly-managed and out-of-date websites that still carried loads of content. In the new search market, Google prioritizes responsive, modern, mobile-friendly sites that load fast. A lot of your success hinges on the technical aspects. You can’t just dump 10K words of content onto any old HTML page and call it a day.
If your website is not technically optimized, you must fix that before moving on to creating content and building backlinks. Otherwise, those efforts will fail without a solid SEO foundation.
You’re planning to rank for these keywords, so just post a blog with a few keywords, and you’re all set, right? Not so fast. You do need to create content quickly; this is true. But you also need to decide the shape and form of this content:
- Is it better to have multiple pages on a topic or one big page?
- Is covering this topic more suited to blog posts, landing pages, an on-site wiki, a podcast, embedded video media, or… ?
- What content is actually helpful to our market, or is it just a lot of sales-talk hot air?
- Is our content connecting with what our audience is looking for?
- Should you target long-tail searches (infrequent niche search terms) or top searches (most frequent) or a mix of both?
On top of all this, you want to develop a link building strategy. There are many ways to gain links, like sponsoring community events, giving interviews in regional publications, getting listed in business directories, or commenting on discussion boards like Reddit or Quora.
Another way is through guest posting on relevant sites that will provide links to your main site. Backlinks are important for Google authority ranking, which sends a signal to Google that this site has a good “vote of confidence” as a useful website. Building relationships with businesses and website masters, pitching content ideas, and creating the content all take a lot of time. Not only that, you’re at the mercy of others if they’ll even agree to link to your website.
Unfortunately, earning backlinks is a delicate dance where it’s easy to misstep. Fly-by-night SEO agencies may guarantee overnight backlinks from high-ranking sites, using black hat tactics. The catch is, Google did not become the #1 search engine by falling for dumb SEO tricks, so it will find and punish websites that use a toxic backlinking scheme. You do not want to end up on Google’s blacklist.
All of the above takes time to set up and execute, possibly several months even for a large team (and it requires ongoing maintenance). But some functions can be outsourced, for instance, such as guest posting or citation management.
Never Underestimate the Competition
As we mention, the web is a more mature platform in the 2020s, with homestead sites established for decades that have a lock on search results. IMDB has a lock on movie listings. WebMD will always be present in medical query SERPs. Social discussion sites like Reddit and Quora will pop up for the most obscure niche queries. And of course, there are hundreds of news blogs covering every topic.
You’re never “done” with SEO because it’s a 24/7 Cold War. This means that even if you use the greatest content marketing team, a competitor could have a comparable team. You might rank #1 for a keyword this month, only to drop to #3 next month because another site launched a campaign targeting that keyword or secured a backlink from a highly reputable publication.
It’s not a completely hopeless prospect, though. It just takes hard work and dedication while applying a strategy to compete. If you do climb up the search results, it’s because you had an advantage that gave you an edge, whether that was finding an under-served niche, claiming a new market, having better research data, or simply pumping out content nonstop.
Just look out for competitors with deep pockets. There is no end to how much money you can spend claiming organic traffic.
A USP is a “unique selling proposition.” It’s the thing that makes your business stand out and helps you claim a niche in search results. Of course, it’s going to be hard or even impossible to start out with a new site and rank highly for broad, established keywords. But what if we add the unique dimension?
- There’s plenty of business tax accountants, but your firm specializes in the emerging cryptocurrency market.
- There’s plenty of health care services, but yours has claimed the emerging CBD cannabinoid medical niche in legalized states.
- There’s plenty of STEM universities, but yours offers comprehensive training in the cutting edge of artificial intelligence research.
- There’s plenty of kitchen cabinet installers, but yours specializes in modern shaker-style cabinets that are all the rage.
Whatever your gimmick, you should have a USP that encapsulates it and then focus your content marketing on that niche. You can come up with a USP in almost any industry if you look at what it’s selling, what people are searching for, and the gap between the two. “Find a need and fill it” is a time-tested axiom of business. Sometimes the best inspirations come from our own experiences. There are many entrepreneurs out there who wanted something, couldn’t get it and started a business providing that.
This applies to SEO because targeting smaller sections of an industry cuts down the competition factor. The broad general search terms will often be too competitive to bother with, but a small market niche can become your mainstay while you work on broadening your USP to gain a bigger market.
SEO: The Never-Ending Battle
The good news about digital content marketing is that once you have an established base of content bringing in regular traffic, after years of toil, you can count on having an established online presence that attracts searchers. But you can not just rest on your laurels! Maintaining an online SEO presence requires ongoing maintenance. For a top-ranking site to stay in the top ranks, you have to be vigilant in areas such as:
- Monitoring the competition and staying caught up.
- Watching for new trends and staying current with the market.
- Auditing the site regularly to keep the technical end robust.
- Following Google updates and developments and changing your strategy to adapt.
- Keeping your backlink portfolio fresh and reclaiming dead links.
Like any part of business, you do better minding the store rather than neglecting it. But if you want a one-shot, short-term effort to drive traffic quickly, you might want to investigate pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. Content marketing is a far more subtle art, playing the long game for long-term results.
Founder and CEO
Alex Membrillo is the CEO of Cardinal, a digital marketing agency focused on growing multi-location companies. His work as CEO of Cardinal has recently earned him the honor of being selected as a member of the 2018 Top 40 Under 40 list by Georgia State University as well as 2015 and 2016 Top 20 Entrepreneur of metro Atlanta by TiE Atlanta, Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 2016 Small Business Person of the Year,and the Digital Marketer of the Year by Technology Association of Georgia (TAG).