On-site/technical SEO still matters. For brands that already enjoy a healthy amount of inbound links, there is usually a good deal of unrealized value in:
- Solving crawl problems
- Optimizing site architecture and internal links
- Managing redirects/canonical tags to consolidate/reclaim existing link equity
- Increasing page speed
- Enhancing mobile functionality
- Improving on-page keyword targeting
But inevitably even the most technical campaigns turn to the off-site factors. Links. Social shares. Authority. Preferably attracted, not “built.”
And in the content business, we talk a lot about the need to clarify the values and vision of the brand, to agree that fostering a community and publishing content to serve that community are worthwhile long-haul engagements, before a single post or visualization is created.
Then there is the reality: the stakeholder who needs to see results this quarter, or this month, to justify sustaining the budget (and your job).
How Long is Your Runway?
How long can you run your campaign in the red before the powers that be decide to pull your plug?
Two months? Two quarters?
How about a year and a half?
Kapost, a content marketing software company, conducted a study of 50 of their customers, ranging from small businesses to large brands, from less than $100M of annual revenue to over $1 billion across multiple industries. They analyzed the costs and compared leads generated through content marketing to those from paid search.
It took over eighteen months on average before these customers were generating more leads from their content than they were from paid search.
After that, of course, it is all gravy. But that is a hell of a runway. Try telling your boss/client that it will take roughly a year and a half before they will see a return on the investment you are asking them to make. The average CMO is ousted after 43 months. Assuming yours did not start yesterday, how far out do you think she is planning?
Design a Campaign for the Long-Term
Values, vision, community – these are crucial pillars for a content strategy (and therefore a competitive SEO strategy). They inform the kind of content, and for whom, you should be creating.
Your marketing overall will benefit from getting clear on these pieces. Without bold ideas about your role, about how the world could and should be and how your organization wants to help make that a reality, you’re stuck talking up the features, specifications and applications of the work you do. Unless the work itself is remarkable, this is both boring and does nothing to build a competitive advantage.
Given enough time, an authentic content strategy to create value for your community can create exponential growth for the business. This is owned, not rented, media, and the upside for most businesses is well beyond their expectations. Extend that upward and rightward trendline on the Kapost ROI chart another year and imagine what kind of growth that generates.
But let’s not kid ourselves about the kind of time we have to prove a concept and demonstrate results. Ideally, eighteen months would be acceptable, but since time is money and runways are always short…
Include Short-Term Wins
Many SEOs will claim they have “zero risk tolerance” in the work they do. I call bull shit.
Embeddable infographics with optimized anchor text? These are risky. Badges with choice anchor text? Risky. Product giveaways for blogger coverage? Risky. Ghostwriting freelance copywriters who loosely pose as members of the organization? You get it.
These might not constitute the kind of risk that’ll get you penalized or banned from the index, but eventually the value generated by these tactics is prone to evaporate (particularly if you’re doing these things in dumb, traceable ways).
All of the above tactics, however, can (when carried out with smart methods) yield quick wins when the business demands authority results now to sustain the budget.
Back at SearchLove Boston in April of last year, Justin Briggs gave a great presentation on Link Building Reporting. In it, he touched upon paid links* as a potential leading tactic, a way to build authority now while your legitimate content campaign builds steam.
* Justin didn’t qualify what he meant by “paid links,” but knowing how smart he is let’s assume he meant hard-to-detect, crafty methods of paying without links without “paying” for them, things that might get devalued later but would not draw a penalty
Justin’s point is that “paid” links (and I’m extending this to links built with some of the tactics mentioned above) can serve as sound early investments in your site’s authority, ways to move the needle, while you push on the flywheel of your bigger, grander, values- and vision-based content campaign.
The idea here is to emphasize the “short” in “short-term.” Go-to tactics like guest blogging, product giveaways and contests might work now, but if they make up the entirety of your strategy you are dangling at the end of a fragile limb. You need authentic authority to build sustained SEO traffic in the long-term.
Presenting options for quick wins should be accompanied by serious talk about the tradeoffs you are making to get results on a short timeline.
1. Get clear, and loud, about the risks involved
Paint a vivid picture of what happens if these tactics are carried out foolishly, or if the big, authentic strategy is left aside too long in favor of more scalable, predictable (read: manipulative) methods. Share it with stakeholders and everyone else involved.
Businesses who let their appetite for links drive foolish decisions, who relied heavily on link networks and similar manipulative tactics, have been hurt in the last year. Some of them have had to close up shop entirely.
These are real risks. Considering Google’s share of the search market, stepping far enough out of line of their interests can result in a serious burn.
Getting clear and vocal on what short-term solutions are available and the risk level associated with each tactic creates shared accountability. Document everything.
2. Create a plan to mitigate the risks
- Vary your anchor text on blog posts.
- Lighten up on links to product/sales pages that look unnatural to users
- Don’t use the same boilerplate author bio / byline for all guest posts (this seems obvious but apparently it is not)
- Let go of “[money keyword]” anchor text in embeddable elements (infographics, badges and similar) in favor of more defensible, literal anchor text (the name of your business is a good idea)
- If you are engaging paid link sources (high risk, not recommended), find out ahead of time what the process is to get the links removed. Get it in writing.
Specify these requirements in writing and share them with every vendor, every team member who will be working on the campaign. Get these contributors to agree to be accountable for the details fo the way they carry out their portion of the work.
Most of the tactics Google ends up penalizing will live on in some fashion. Stick to the smart and careful end of the bell curve.
3. Set goals to scale down the quick win tactics as the big strategy gains momentum
I am not advocating for the efficacy of quick win tactics as a sustained component long-term SEO strategy. Ideally we would steer clear of any tactic that even smells reliable, as when it comes to link building, as far as Google is concerned, reliable = scalable = manipulative.
These tactics should be scaled back and eliminated as early as possible – as soon as the authentic content strategy you have been investing in all along (right?) is generating sustained results.
Get down to business metrics and determine what sustained results will actually mean. Do not accept vague notions of “knowing it when we see it.”
The reality of doing business is that the ideal situation rarely presents itself. Selling a stakeholder on a visionary content strategy is no easy task. Selling them on 18 months of running in the red before a ROI is expected? That’s like trying to convince a close friend that his deeply-held political views are foolishly based on heuristics with no basis in statistical fact – not only nearly impossible but painful and often a deal breaker for the relationship.
What say you? Is this smart, pragmatic thinking, or dangerous balderdash? Let us know in the comments.
Mike Tekula is a SEO Consultant at Distilled in NYC.