With such a large influx of information on the web, the number of SEO agencies and consultants all around the globe has increased significantly, and so has the general savviness of the average business and their marketing departments.
Due to this evolution, succeeding in SEO has become less about being familiar with optimization tactics and strategies, and more about being customizing a strategy that takes advantage of your business’s own unique strengths and weaknesses.
In today’s article, we’ll go over how you can go beyond just thinking about SEO tactics and hacks and, instead, start focusing on how you can develop SEO strategies based on your unique competitive advantages.
The 3 Pillars of SEO
Before grasping SEO strategy at a higher level, there needs to be a strong understanding of foundations and basics.
When we talk about SEO, the basics come down to three main pillars:
- Digital PR and Link Building (and Referring Domains) – which refers to the efforts to get hyperlinks from authoritative websites to yours and to improve your brand’s visibility in the media.
- Content Strategy (i.e. development and marketing) – which refers to the regular creation of relevant, optimized content for your website or landing pages.
- Technical SEO – which refers to a series of tasks you can do to help Google properly crawl and understand your website, including internal linking, website structure planning and site speed optimization.
Every single optimization strategy, no matter how complex it is or which type of SEO it refers to, will boil down to these three pillars in varying mixes and degrees.
So when a competitor’s website ranks higher than yours, it’s usually because they’ve optimized one or multiple SEO pillars better than you have.
Align Your SEO Strategy with What You Already Know
In order to understand what type of SEO strategy your business should opt for, you need to know what your business already excels at.
This starts to bleed into classic business strategy concepts from the Michael Porter school of thought where a business will find superior financial performance if they can cultivate a competitive advantage. This means that compared to your rivals, you operate at a lower cost, command a premium price or both.
This is important because many SEOs and marketers have come to terms with the fact that a business has countless priorities and that search optimization isn’t the only thing they’re going to do. They have orders to fulfill, clients to talk to, internal operations to improve, and many other marketing responsibilities. This means one thing: in order for their SEO efforts to be successful, they need to align and fit in with the way their business operates, marketing-wise and in general.
For example, if a business’s competitive advantage is its ability to foster a loyal and passionate brand community, then the SEO team would benefit from engaging with their users on user-generated content and community surveys that can be developed into reports. This is key because then SEO efforts would be directly in line with what the business already excels in on a day-to-day level, rather than having to pitch and win buy-in on a whole new campaign that a company is not experienced with.
This is simply a reality that many consultants, firms and internal teams have to deal with – getting the business to commit to an SEO or digital marketing plan, while also compromising in terms of how much is asked of the business as a whole.
And that’s exactly where the three pillars of SEO can come in handy. How, you may ask? The three examples we’re about to dive into will make it all crystal clear!
SEO Pillar #1: For Companies with a Strong Brand, Media & Community Presence
If you’ve managed to build a strong brand and media presence for your business, then link building and referring domains will be two of your best friends.
In other words, whether…
- Your business has close ties within the industry and trade
- You have developed press contacts who regularly talk about your company
- Your business has been winning awards and getting more and more community recognition
… then your company already has a unique competitive advantage when it comes to our first pillar of SEO.
The reality is that link building can be one of the most difficult aspects of SEO because it relies on your ability to successfully acquire links from third-party sites, which you’ll quickly find is not something you can do overnight. On the contrary, link building requires you to build meaningful relationships, provide value and grow as a thought leadership resource in your industry.
Therefore, if your business is already benefiting from the strong brand presence we discussed above, then your best choice is to double down and engage in a link-building strategy by continuing to push the awards, getting in the media, pitching your business to publications, speaking at podcasts and interviews, and more.
A great live example is the software development company Vincit. The agency received the award for Best Workplace in Finland and Europe and it just so happens that Finland is the happiest country in the world according to a UN-sponsored report. So I like to joke that Vincit, not Disneyland, is the “happiest place on earth.” Sorry, Mickey!
The company actively pursues a strategy of innovating and improving its happy workplace (on their “about” page they declare: “Our two goals are employee happiness and client happiness.”). This helps them by continually attracting the best talent for their company, but also on an SEO level they are able to translate this to links from awards, features and thought leader articles that talk about how they developed their culture.
Doing this will help you boost your link-building and referring domain strategy, which is still one of the best ways for companies to get an edge over other websites.
This is because link building is still the most difficult part of SEO, especially when we are talking about white hat methods. Why? Because when optimizing for SEO, it is exponentially easier to make edits or add content to your own website, and much more difficult and labor intensive to get a third-party website to add a link that points to your site.
Below is an Ahrefs screengrab from SEMrush that shows a site that has ratcheted up their link-building efforts which resulted in a large increase in referring domains:
So, whether your business is already doing this or you feel like it has the potential to fit into this mold, my biggest recommendation is that you develop your SEO strategies heavily on this front.
And if you need a little push on some ideas, here are some possible link-building campaigns:
Have an interesting approach or experience with rising trends? Link build through thought leadership.
Building links through thought leadership is one of the most coveted forms of link building because it provides not just links, but also exposure and credibility.
However, I find that many companies have imposter syndrome about this strategy. Before they even attempt to try this, they shoot down the idea because they feel that their business isn’t up to snuff. The short answer is that’s incorrect; there are many opportunities for which a business can provide thought leadership without having to be the at the cutting edge of their industry. If you’ve ever been to a “taxes 101” seminar, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Attendees don’t care how accomplished the speaker is, as long as they have the ability to communicate valuable information to the audience.
Ultimately, thought leadership is a great way to link build by becoming a contributor for other publications, joining podcasts, and sharing your stories through interviews.
Got a stand-out brand personality? Get fun with creative content.
Not everything has to be serious and business-like. Some of the best content out there is fun and engaging. If you’ve ever found yourself taking a test to check which Friends character you are, then you know first hand what I’m talking about! People love sharing entertaining content on their blogs, sites and social media, and if your company can bring its personality into its content, then use that to link build.
ZenDesk is a great example. When ZenDesk was a fairly new company, they had a problem. People were searching for the keyword “ZenDesk alternative” on Google, rather than clicking on the ZenDesk site. Instead of taking the typical path, the company created a piece of branded content that went viral for them: They set up a mini-site for a fictional rock band named “ZenDesk Alternative” and pushed visitors back to the ZenDesk homepage!
Industry and community recognition? Keep applying for more!
Some companies justifiably get a lot of recognition. It can be for many reasons: community involvement, technology, culture, etc. Regardless of the reason, it’s a great way to link build. Beyond just getting a link from the organization providing the award, community and industry publications love to talk about these awards.
For example, if your business wins a community award for its public involvement, it’s very likely that the story would be of interest to local newspapers, news stations, blogs and so on. It also translates easily into thought leadership because people often want to learn how you did it, and you can then go out and speak, educate and talk about it. In other words, more link opportunities.
What I want to emphasize is that your business getting press coverage or winning awards doesn’t mean you’ve done enough. It doesn’t automatically mean that you’re gaining SEO value and, to be honest, it often doesn’t directly lead to that. On the contrary, it means that your business is in a great position to take that asset and go further, doubling down on your link-building efforts to earn greater SEO value.
SEO Pillar #2: For Small Firms Starting from Scratch
If you’ve read the article this far, you might be thinking: “Yeah, it’s easy to talk about a firm that is popular and getting awards, but not all of us have reached that level yet.”
I completely understand – in fact, many of the clients I’ve worked with during my career fit that mold.
When it comes to small businesses that want to win at SEO but don’t have the branding or industry connections necessary to develop a strong link-building strategy, investing in content development and content marketing is typically a smarter route to take. The reason why is quite simple:
Content is one of the fastest ways for a business to boost their SEO efforts.
Unlike link building and referring domains, which are heavily dependent on a third-party website that wants to provide you with the opportunity to add a link to your website on theirs, content is something that is completely independent and 100% controlled internally. You can add new pages and content to your business’s website whenever you want to because you are the webmaster.
Note: In my experience with large and enterprise companies, they often have way more things that could slow down and stonewall the process. All stakeholders (including legal) have to check the piece before it gets published and the writing team has too many requests from different departments. I find that unless it’s already built into the company’s strategy to be a content machine, it’s like going to the DMV when trying to get a piece for SEO, let alone a whole calendar out. That’s why this tip focuses on small firms and start-ups.
The chart below shows a Search Console report of a site showing a healthy growth of pages and content:
For some reason, many companies and marketers still undervalue content and how it can impact a brand’s search presence. But, much like an active social media page you constantly update and add value to, content is something that can help your SEO greatly.
Creating a landing page and having it rank #1 is a long shot in many SEO fields, so a lot of companies opt to have entire content libraries devoted to certain topics and keywords. If you feel a bit of imposter syndrome while seeing your competitors getting great media coverage or becoming too large to compete with, you can take an alternative approach by finding more niche keywords and competing with your ability to scale content.
For example, a highly competitive keyword is “ecommerce development”. It’s a tough arena with dev agencies, companies like Shopify and Magenta, and DIY articles. This is something that could be too difficult for a business to get into, but if you drill down further, you can find less competition. Choose keywords that are more specific, like maybe WooCommerce Development, BigCommerce Development, etc. By narrowing it down, you can concentrate on less competitive keywords and pool your content resources more effectively to rank for the keyword.
SEO Pillar #3: For Brands with Strong Technical Abilities
Certain businesses, most commonly those with strong internal tech capabilities, benefit from their ability to quickly scale and grow a website.
Examples of this are websites that show a wide variety of products or services, or websites that utilize a social, user-generated source of content from many users and about many topics. If that’s the case with your website, then technical SEO will be your best friend.
User-Generated Content Capabilities
If your website is growing at a fast pace (or has the potential to) due to the increasing number of people who are signing in and interacting with your content, you have a valuable crowdsourced asset in your hands, which you can use in order to win at SEO.
Instead of having one or two team members try to tackle content development internally, you’ll have thousands of users who can contribute to your website with their own content.
Admittedly, this is also a difficult position to attain, as getting user-generated content can be quite challenging, let alone trying to acquire users. But once you get there, you can use this position to your business’s advantage by using the content that is published by users to optimize your website.
The more content that you add, the larger your website will become, and the bigger your chance of links being driven. Ultimately, your website will grow organically and your proper use of technical SEO will help leverage this growth into SEO success. How? Well, your technical SEO efforts will ensure that Google can properly crawl all the new pages you’re creating, as well as understand what each page is trying to rank for and, finally, index them.
Although this might sound like a no-brainer SEO strategy, there are also drawbacks linked to it. One of them is that you need to guarantee that Google is indexing areas of the website that you actually want it to index. Users might post content that Google perceives as going against policy guidelines, being spammy, or just not appropriate. If this is the case too often, your website can end up being penalized.
Note: I approached this point with sites that are forum-like (a la Moz community). With that thought in mind, UGC is something that becomes more of a technical SEO exercise than content because most of the content is not being developed internally, but through users. So the SEO task is more about making sure you optimize and index the content that is generated by users.
Dynamic Site that Grows with Its Database
Another way that this can be achieved is by having a website that is dynamic enough to create new pages based on users’ interactions.
- Example 1: A nutrition app that people use to create and track their diets. They may want to create a plan based on unique foods, a different number of meals or that has set caps on calories. The site would have to be able to allow users to input unique data and then automatically return customized plans.
- Example 2: An e-commerce site like eBay, where users can list new products or offerings on their own. This is common with websites that have large databases, which can pull up an almost infinite number of variations and create pages instantaneously as users look them up or add their own information.
This creates a huge advantage for companies that can vastly increase the size of their website, as it allows them to position themselves to rank for all the different keywords.
The problem here though, is that to corral the growth and ensure that Google can read all the pages, many websites that grow very quickly can have major crawling issues and end up having entire sections of their website undiscoverable. This is due to an issue with crawl budget where Google’s crawlers have a specific number, or “budget,” of pages that they will crawl in one day. Once they hit that number, they stop and restart the next. If a site is improperly optimizing it’s crawl budget, then you can have crawlers crawling the same pages over and over again, and Google will never see or index new pages.
A common situation where a site may need to address this is if a retailer is launching a seasonal sale with a new line of items. They need to make sure those pages can be crawled and quickly indexed to give as much exposure as possible to the campaign.
However, if this is where your business has its strength, by ensuring that you maximize crawl budgets, internal linking structures are placed properly and your business can win at SEO with technical expertise and a vast-growing website.
Bonus Pillar: Going Niche with Local SEO
Although it’s not necessarily another pillar of SEO, local SEO has become a rising star of the digital marketing world – so much so that it could be considered another SEO pillar.
An increasing number of searches have become localized and with the continuing demand for services like food and grocery delivery, locality and geographic considerations have become even more important. As such, local SEO is another realm where your business can compete, provided that it fits with its strengths.
A lot of businesses believe that, in a world that is so digitally advanced, they can service the entire globe, no matter where the client or customer is located. Although this may be true for many companies, it doesn’t mean that you should ignore all local factors.
On the contrary, the fact that so many Google searches are now localized has caused local results to be a become a big part of many SERPs, which has two major implications:
- It has caused many keywords to have unique results for each city or locality in a certain country or in the world, meaning that instead of one single keyword, there is an infinite number depending on the location.
- It has lessened the competition, as the keywords are split by location, which will naturally reduce the competitor pool for each local search.
So, when developing your SEO plan, it’s always worth doing some research and considering whether or not investing in a local strategy can be a way to succeed in SEO:
Each locality will be different and unique, and every territory brings its own unique challenge. Some areas are more competitive than others, certain counties or cities have long names that affect your SEO tags, etc.
If your business has strong roots and connections within the community and is a big player in your local area, then developing a local SEO plan can be a path to pursue for a simple reason: Since your business has already done the necessary work to establish itself in the community, it becomes much easier to build the reputation and needed assets to rank high locally.
Plus, with local SEO being less competitive, getting a win doesn’t take nearly as long as with other components of search optimization, and you’ll be providing benefits from local leads and customers.
In short, winning at local SEO can give your business the ROI it needs to reinvest into bigger pools.
Final Thoughts on Developing a Winning SEO Strategy
When you try to be someone you’re not, you always end up losing. It’s one of those cliche statements that we’ve all heard before but it is true and it certainly applies to the world of SEO.
When businesses try to compete in SEO by pushing a strategy that isn’t genuine and authentic to their brand, they’ll have a much harder time seeing results, as well as staying committed to their marketing plan.
As such, the best way to win is to ensure that your strategy is organic and complimentary with how your business operates so that you can leverage your existing business into SEO success.
To summarize, if your business:
- Has a strong brand presence, has been winning a good number of awards or has seen its community recognition grow significantly, you should invest in the first pillar, Link Building, Referring Domains and Digital PR.
- Is still small and/or doesn’t have a solid brand identity just yet, you should invest in the second pillar, Content Development and Content Marketing.
- Has strong internal tech capabilities, you should invest in the third pillar, Technical SEO.
Additionally, including the unofficial fourth pillar, local SEO, will help you grow within your area which, as you know, is more important now than ever.