Balancing Short-term Authority Gains with a Long-term Content Vision

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
  • etc
But inevitably even the most technical campaigns turn to the off-site factors. Links. Social shares. Authority. Preferably attracted, not “built.”

We are all in the content business.

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).

runwayHow 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.

kapost-roi

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?

longterm-growthDesign 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...

quickwins

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-briggs-decaying-paid Justin’s model visualized the value of paid vs content based links over time

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

If you are going to utilize tactics that you know Google’s Webspam Team is gunning for, you had better be smart about how you proceed.
  • 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

Mike Tekula

Mike joined the Distilled NYC team after managing a small business consultancy and heading up digital strategy at a New York ad agency. He specializes in organic search but has worked on a wide range of web projects across channels. Outside of work...   read more

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11 Comments

  1. Hi Mike,

    Just discovered Distilled, I will definitely be checking in regularly.

    Good article addressing important issues.

    I have found that my clients are getting less tolerant for spending time or money adding content. They want to please their visitors but are reluctant to pursue strategy that may or may not keep Google happy, there is far too much misinformation and noise relating to SEO and a resultant lack of trust.

    Quite agree that there is absolutely no way I could sell a client on an 18 month ROI on content, I do get complaints if results are not seen in 3 months!

    Whilst my business focuses on white hat techniques I concede it is often not enough to keep clients happy and short term tactics can be required. I cling (albeit shakily sometimes) to the belief that Google is heading to a place where sites will get rewarded on their own merits and sudden algorithm changes will cease to be perilous events for sites trying to do the right thing without breaking any rules.

    reply >
    • Mike Tekula

      Thanks Dave!

      I think we're always going to see false positives with algo updates, as well as businesses trying to operate in good faith who get penalized/banned for rules they didn't know they were breaking (or who hired agents who break the rules without telling them).

      When authority-building is the core need for a SEO client, aside from massively viral content campaigns (difficult to execute) there are few methods to build authority quickly that don't skirt the guidelines a bit.

      The ideal is always to set the right expectations about the long-term investment in content and community. But the ideal is rarely the reality in the world of business. Taking measured risks, provided there is shared accountability and clarity on the potential downside, can be a legitimate approach to short-term gains.

  2. A timely post, Mike. As you correctly point out, just like farming, and I mean in the true sense of growing crops and raising animals, you need to include as much variety as you can manage so that if one thing stops delivering, you don't get caught with your pants down.

    We are gradually shifting clients into the "content and outreach first, links later" mindset, but it's like weaning a junky off drugs because of the expectations you highlight here i.e. they want results now and they are not prepared to wait 18-24 months for an ROI.

    I think the biggest challenges facing SEOs is not so much selling in the theory behind this shift, but in having the confidence to actually make the shift happen whilst simultaneously retaining the client and effectively managing expectations.

    We, as SEOs know the risks associated with the short term approach, but we also harbour concerns that we may loose clients if we push too hard on the long term "owned media" agenda.

    So we are effectively in a race against Google's updates where we know what we have to do and we have every intention of doing it, but our clients are often reluctant to take the plunge.

    reply >
    • Mike Tekula

      I don't recommend farming with your pants down. :)

      It's a good fight to fight, but I hear you on the difficulties. Not only are you pushing to change the businesses's internal appetite for links first, but there are still plenty of "SEO agencies" out there acting as little more than link salesmen.

      Agree 100% - we're having no trouble talking up the theory of the shift in SEO. It's everywhere. But keeping clients happy in the mean time, balancing the ideal, long-term vision with the reality that businesses have a hard time swallowing a steady expense when there is no clear ROI in sight (just a promise), is a massive challenge.

      We all want to do work we can be proud of, but when the boss wants results that lofty ideal is quickly kicked aside.

  3. Mike,

    It is very tricky setting expectations with clients. We are being hired to provide an effective web presence, tell a client the truth that results can not be guaranteed in their market and very few will take a speculative view.

    I take a softer approach now and try not to set expectations too high. Thankfully many of my clients have competitors who dont do much by the way of SEO.

    reply >
  4. Great post Mike. The way Google has updated its algorithms, its takes us back to the olden days when SEO was non existent and it was more of a voluntary link earning that used to help sites rank better in search engines.

    SEOs found a way around the algorithm building backlinks that weren't necessarily authoritative. But now the changes with Penguin and Panda have meant that sites not only need to be designed and developed great but they also have to earn their links.

    And if you need to earn links in the long run and build a community, you need to build a good presence where people would like to link to you.

    reply >
  5. Fantastic piece Mike! I work exclusively in the real estate vertical, which has a long history of having little patience for digital marketing tactics (let alone any strategy). We have been working very hard and have struggled with recalibrating our clients' notion of SEO, and the shift to Inbound.

    Because of this lack of patience they are VERY susceptible to the charlatan SEOs out there and we usually end up doing massive amounts of clean up before the real work can even begin. But agree 100% that short term results are essential. Our tactics for short term focus more on heavy CRO to get more out of the traffic they're already getting, until long term offsite efforts etc start paying off.

    Anyway, loved your post. I'll definitely be leaning on it to help in our ongoing client education.

    reply >
    • Mike Tekula

      Thanks Rivers. Having worked some in the real estate vertical myself, I feel you. :)

      It is not an easy fight. Most companies by this point have had at least one engagement with an SEO agency, and the precedent that's often set is precisely the wrong one - that they're buying outputs, not a long-term strategy.

      Sounds like your approach is the smart one - CRO is a great way to generate some initial sustainable impact while the long-term authority building builds momentum. Keep up the good fight!

  6. Mike,

    This is wonderful - 18 months?! I'm new to this so this big-picture view of a (hypothetical) client's concerns is beyond helpful. It's enlightening!

    Sarah

    reply >
  7. Very interesting and enlightening post. 18 months is a long time, but it makes me feel better to know that. I'm a real estate agent who's been doing all the right things and still only moving forward at a snail's pace online.

    There are times I feel my efforts are for the birds, this post helps me to see that I need to be in this for the long haul. Thanks for that.

    reply >
  8. Hi Mike, thanks for a well-written piece.

    This statement really resonated with me:

    "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."

    If we were able to take an aggregate look at the overall volume of links built in the marketing world to clients, I would suggest approximately 90% of them fall under these categories.

    Any organization or system that builds guest posts for you follows the same pattern of scale.

    One day, in Google, all you will have is either a fantastic product / service, or nothing.

    reply >

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