Although Web marketing practices have changed through the years I still follow the same basic search engine optimization principles today that I used in 1998. Very little has changed in search engine optimization over the past 18 years. You have more tools now and the search engines publish much more complex sets of guidelines but the basic structure of an optimization campaign remains the same.
We still follow the SEO Cycle although I streamlined how I define the SEO Cycle in 2013:
- Produce Content
- Place Links
- Measure the Results
The core strategy that I follow today is the same one I developed in 1998. In fact, I did not so much develop my core strategy as simply realize this was what I was doing: building brand recognition for the Websites I was promoting so that people would search for those brand names.
Brand recognition can be achieved through advertising, publicity, and word-of-mouth. In search engine optimization you can leverage your content to improve word-of-mouth brand recognition by arranging for your content to be found via random queries. Your selection of the queries is not random; it’s just that you only learn after the fact which queries work best for your content.
That is the optimal way to do it. Unfortunately Web marketers settled on the less optimal method of looking for queries people were using and creating content for those queries. And I did help people think that way, but now we advise our clients to focus on creating content for brand-oriented queries.
If your company name is Honest Dave’s Used Cars you want people to search for “Honest Dave’s 1964 GTO”, not “used 1964 GTO”. But the question that perplexes everyone is “how do you get people to search for ‘honest dave’ + [keyword]”?
That is where you have to think in terms of strategy (promote the business or Website name) versus tactics (rank for specific keywords). The strategic viewpoint holds that any combination of [BRAND] + [KEYWORD] is good so long as you get the best possible conversions. Your analytics, if set up properly, should tell you which combinations work best.
So the way to think about this is to say, “How do I tell the world who I am and what I do?” Let’s take a look at your options.
You can buy media advertising (commercial time on radio, television, and special venues like cinemas) or print advertising. You can also buy digital advertising either in the form of display ads or pay-per-click advertising (although these formats are blending). The distinction is more in the delivery and tracking method than in terms of ad design.
But there are other forms of advertising. For example, you can set up an affiliate program. This was how Amazon because such a well-known brand. Everyone ran Amazon search boxes on their Websites for years and the Amazon name and brand became ubiquitous. Other online retailers tried to duplicate Amazon’s success through less sophisticated affiliate programs. It was the search widget that turned Amazon into a household name.
So-called “content marketing” is another form of advertising. If you distribute infographics and embeddable widgets (including videos) that are clearly and prominently co-branded you can replicate at least some of Amazon’s marketing success. Small tag lines and URL credits are not sufficient. You need to make your logo a prominent part of the content you distribute to other sites.
Guest posting is a poor brand development strategy but if you can develop relationships with bloggers and media Websites so that they regularly write about your company, products, and services then you will have an effective content-based brand-building strategy.
I used to call this a “content-based strategy” but all the nonsense people stir up with their chatter about “content marketing” has confused the message. Your self-hosted content is the heart and soul of your on-site search engine optimization. We divide this content into three categories:
- Brand Value Proposition
- Product & Service Content
- Goodwill Content
Your basic “business brochure” Website pages fulfill the Brand Value Proposition requirement. These are the pages that tell people who you are and what you do. They are the pages that should appear first in search results when people search for your business name, trademarks, and special services. These are not the pages you should expect search engines to return for generic queries unless you just happen to be sitting in a sweet spot.
Product and Service Content fulfills your need to create content that matches [BRAND] + [KEYWORD] queries. These pages include standard product and service descriptions, use studies, user guidelines and documentation, and reviews.
Goodwill Content usually consists of blog posts, videos, forum discussions, and other content where you don’t expect a direct conversion to a sale but in which you speak as your company and maybe even speak about your brand.
Most modern SEO strategies rely extensively on self-hosted content although they often place too much emphasis on generic keywords. We call this “chasing keywords” because you use tools to look up non-brand queries that people use to find information or products to buy and you try to position your own content in those generic queries.
Self-hosted content can be a gold mine of long-tail queries. Google sometimes defines a “long-tail query” as any query that receives 10 or fewer searches in 28 days. Believe it or not, most Web marketers do not know this. I suspect that at least half of all marketers wrongly define “long-tail keywords” as queries of a certain length (some people say “more than four terms in the query”), but this is completely wrong. Some very long queries can become quite popular.
This is not necessarily guest posting although writing guest columns and occasional guest posts certainly falls into this category. The best off-site content is more creative, like a series of videos hosted on a major platform like Vimeo or YouTube.
Social media marketing is another channel for off-site content.
And, of course, you can distribute press releases, infographics, and free memes to help promote your brand.
Contests and other incentive programs that inspire people to create content about your company on their own sites also fall into this category. Although incentivization receives closer scrutiny from search engines and consumer protection groups these days it remains a strong and useful channel for building brand value.
Your marketing team should be thinking in terms of “how do we get other people to talk about our brand”, not “how many links can we get from other Websites?” Link acquisition does fall into this category, too, but link acquisition is inefficient. It takes a lot of effort with relatively little payoff in most cases (although some link experts like Eric Ward, Debra Mastaler, and Julie Joyce have compiled libraries of resources that they can turn to for targeted outreach).
Link acquisition should not be the focus of your off-site content; it should be complementary to the main off-site strategy.
So Why Do It This Way?
This is the “roundabout” method of search engine optimization. You are not trying to rank for queries, you are trying to build query spaces, preferably query spaces that you dominate, maybe even control. A query space consists of the queries people use to search for a certain type of content and the content that search engines determine are appropriate matches for those queries. There is nothing complicated about building a query space. If you want to rank for a query like “Type VIII Gonkulator prototype” then you have to do two things:
- Create content that matches this query
- Stimulate real queries for this kind of content
You can do this for generic terms no one searches on but the risk you incur is that someone else may come along and take control over those generic terms. As soon as people see value in the keywords where you build query spaces they will try to crowd those query spaces.
That is why it is better to build branded query spaces. People may still try to invade the query spaces but they are far less likely to succeed in dominating them. When you ow n the brand you all but own the queries associated with the brand.
The most efficient way to leverage brand value in search engine optimization is through Goodwill Content. Goodwill Content is not concerned with keywords, just topics. You can write about how to use a Type VIII Gonkulator without having to worry about ranking for it. Your content will usually rank for something and that will be good enough to bring people in to your site.
Your objective is to establish yourself as a knowledgeable authority on the topic. One of the most common mistakes we see Web marketers make today is they write inordinately long articles (usually in the range of 3,000 to 5,000 words) because “Google prefers long content” (that is not true but it is one of the SEO myths being circulated today). You only have to write as many words as are required to make a memorable point. Rarely do you need to use 3,000 or more words to do so.
Your Goodwill Content should be:
Goodwill Content has two objectives:
- Keep people reading
- Keep people coming back for more
They will pay attention to who you are if they want to come back and read more of your Goodwill Content.
Of course, Goodwill Content must create sufficient brand value so that people associate your content with your business purpose. If you sell Type VIII Gonkulators then your Goodwill Content should be labeled or written in such a way that it is obvious to people what you are selling.
You want to maintain as much efficiency as possible in associating your Goodwill Content with your brand and your products. But you don’t want your Goodwill Content to become bogged down with sales pitches and calls-to-action.
Either write sales copy or write Goodwill Content. Don’t try to do both with the same article.
Limitations of Goodwill Content
Unfortunately people read about how great content-based SEO is and they “try it out”. They publish a few articles, nothing happens, and then they give up. Sometimes they combine the Goodwill Content with outreach for links. There are several SEO strategies built around this concept.
But Goodwill Content works just like “goodwill” in business. You create intrinsic brand value for your Website over time with the content so that people come to trust your site as a valuable resource. That process can take six months, a year, or longer. You should be committed to the task of creating truly useful content for a long time.
It’s hard to keep clients, especially small business clients, focused on a Goodwill Content campaign. They want to see faster returns on investment than six months to a year.
Outreach-based brand building requires more effort but it can achieve results in shorter time frames. The client must still commit to continuous publication and action. “Action” includes adjusting targets based on reviews of the analytics. It’s a rare Goodwill Content campaign that gets everything right at the beginning; and the same is true of outreach-based SEO strategies that rely on “link bait” articles.
We recommend that clients allocate resources for other kinds of brand building. That may include building mailing lists, improving product packaging, and creating social components for their Websites (such as user review pages, feedback forums, and user testimonials).
Long-term SEO Depends on Consistent Content
Too much hyperbole is invested in rationalizing Web content as “great”, “awesome”, and “high quality”. Most marketing content is mediocre, although there are degrees of mediocrity. The less emphasis you place on marketing and calls-to-action the more likely you will actually create something “great”, “awesome”, and “high quality”. The marketing approach is therefore to use entertainment to capture an audience’s attention and emblazon the brand on it.
Entertainment can be humorous, include humor, or being entirely serious and dramatic. But it must be entertaining. It must capture the audience’s attention, spark their imaginations, and leave them wanting more. You start out telling a story that you never really want to finish (except when you wind down a successful marketing campaign). The problem with leading your market to the end of the story too soon is that they then subconsciously move on.
Hence, the long-term SEO strategy creates a never-ending story, a sort of “1001 Arabian Nights” concept that compels the visitor to come back and learn more about the brand and its message. In time they will become more interested in the products.
Search engine optimization can use long-tail queries to build this brand visibility that gradually transitions loyal audiences into more focus messages where the sales pitches become the primary focus. You just have to make sure people are confident in what they will find when they return to your Website.
The Advantage of Long-term Strategy over Tactics
The vast majority of search engine optimization campaigns have been planned around specific tactics with no real thought for the future. Because people are willing to settle for quick short-term gains a multitude of businesses and Websites have found themselves on the wrong side of manual actions (penalties) and algorithms when the search engines adjusted their filters and guidelines.
The rapid-ranking approach to search engine relationship can only ever be a tactical response to current search engine filters. It rarely achieves a long-lasting effect and when the inevitable downfall comes it comes hard and lasts too long a time no matter how quickly the problem is dealt with. Even today many people are still waiting an update to Google’s Penguin algorithm after more than a year (although we do have strategies to help sites grow traffic even when saddled by Panda and Penguin downgrades).
Reflective Dynamics, Inc. favors the long-lasting strategy over the short-lived tactic. We find the results are far more satisfying.
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