"Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat."
I read The Art of War in college, written by the Chinese general Sun Tzu (author of the quote above). While his actual existence is debated, his work is often considered as brilliant military strategy and philosophy. Thus, The Art of War is often co-opted into business for obvious reasons. Throughout the book, you'll realize tactics and strategy are not interchangeable terms.
- A method or plan chosen to bring about a desired future, such as achievement of a goal or solution to a problem.
- A plan of action or policy designed to achieve an overall aim.
- The art and science of planning and marshaling resources for their most efficient and effective use.
These definitions vary slightly, but the essence is the same. A strategy is not constrained by size or application but promoted by planning and effectiveness. Let's be honest, the word "strategy" is a term that isn't always used the same way in the English lexicon (or our industry).
On the other hand, tactics can be isolated or serve as components in your strategy. They are actions you would impart as a step in the plan, or used as a stand-alone, typically with limited resources.
For some this is straightforward, but for others new to marketing or traditionally focused on tactical work, a strategy can be a difficult concept that requires practice. Perhaps understanding the purpose is key to dividing these terms. Let's try this:
"The purpose of a strategy is to identify goals and build a plan of attack towards achieving those goals. The purpose of tactics are for smaller goals that could feed something bigger."
Before you read on, please note: this is not an article devaluing tactics over strategy (despite the Sun Tzu quote). My goal is to inspire thought that can help you be more effective as a modern SEO, and possibly consider a strategy where you haven't before.
A military analogy
I find analogies go a long way in describing lofty concepts. I could easily go with a football or legal example, but a military example might be the most comparable to what we do in marketing. And because I know my audience, I decided to go with Star Wars.
The Galactic Empire thought they could take over the galaxy with fear and brute force. They developed plans for a space station with firepower strong enough to destroy a planet. Under the command of Governor Tarkin, the Death Star was created. They tested the completed Death Star on Princess Leia's home planet of Alderaan, which gave Obi Wan Kenobi shivers.
However, the Rebels put together a counter-strategy. Piecing together intelligence about a deliberate design flaw, and developing a plan featuring waves of small battalions, the Rebel ships would take passes at the target. They would work together in designed waves to equally defend and attack during this campaign.
As basic as that scene was at the end of Star Wars, it's a strategy nonetheless (albeit a small one).
Confusion of strategies versus tactics — a real-world example
To make this a bit more relevant to SEO, here's an email shared with me by a prospective client. They were looking for a new agency after they received this from their current agency:
I object to several things written here. Guest posting is a tactic, not a strategy. There is no plan here, just an action. A measurable or attainable goal is never made clear.
We need to do better. *desk flip*
Selling the SEO strategy
SEO tends to rely on the support of several different departments (e.g. developers, copywriters, business managers, etc.), usually with their own predetermined goals. Enter the SEO to add more complexity.
There's often a top-down marketing strategy already baked before you get to pitch your SEO work, to which you may find opportunity on a battlefield where access is not granted. It's reckless to assume you can go into any established company and lob a strategy onto their laps, expecting them to follow it with disregard to their existing plans, politics, and red tape. Candidly, this may be the quickest way to get fired and show you're not aligned with the existing business goals.
Instead, you need to find your areas of opportunity that work with the company's business goals, not against them. Effective marketers don't try to be a square peg in a round hole. Get to know the players, the existing playbooks, the silos, and the available gaps.
It's not about being a yes-man; it's about best playing the hand you're dealt. You simply can't successfully sell a strategy until you know where your strategy will fit and support the current business goals.
Before you begin mapping out the strategy
If I've done my job, you're eager to put pen to paper, but you still have digging to do. Get your shovel.
Some people are better suited to design plans in a non-linear fashion. If I'm writing anything, be it an article or a piece of music, I'm bouncing back and forth throughout the piece as inspiration strikes. But for others who are more straight-minded and less frenetic, a reference of considerations and characteristics might be helpful.
Enter the mind map. Simply stated, a mind map is a visual representation of concepts and connections. As defined here, it is a visual thinking tool that helps to structure information, helping you to better analyze, comprehend, synthesize, recall, and generate new ideas.
It's your sketch pad. Jot down all the ideas, concepts, and relationships you can possibly think of.
Think of this document as a living communication between you and your client or boss. It is a document you should refer to often. It keeps all parties on the same page and aligned. I recommend sharing it in a collaborative platform so updates are shared between all viewers without having to constantly send out new copies (nothing sucks the life out of efficiency faster than "versioning" issues).
There's no shortage of things to consider in your mind map. Here are a few common items from my experience:
- Timeline details
- Details about the industry or different channels
- Other marketing learnings
- Customer/visitor details
- Demographics and psychographics
- Details about the customer journey
- Competitive details
- Product demand details
- Current search visibility
My fellow marketers, this is not an exhaustive list by any means. Gather all the information that is meaningful to you.
Drafting the strategy
At this stage, your initial gathering is complete, so now you're on to development. Hopefully you've had some visibility and buy-in by your clients or boss to date, so it's crucial to keep that momentum going. Don't build a strategy in a silo.
Remember, a strategy is a plan. A plan has steps, dependencies, and future considerations throughout. I think it's very important for your team and the client to "see" the strategy in a visual format, and not just conceptually. Use a spreadsheet, slides, or Word document — whichever tickles your fancy. At Greenlane, we've been using Google Sheets:
If you work in an agile framework, the strategy is going to change. Everyone should be able to see revisions to the strategy with an indication of what's been changed and why. That's a benefit to documenting every important detail.
Earlier you put together a mind map to put preliminary ideas on the table. You considered things that you'll now need to thoroughly scrutinize. Here is a list of considerations to hold your SEO strategy against. Make sure your final draft of the SEO strategy can clearly speak to each of these.
And since we're on a Star Wars kick already, I present my dusty childhood toys (recently found in my mother's basement).
Consideration 1 – Understand the client
Each business is an entity. Each entity has characteristics. You need to know these characteristics if you're going to build anything for the company. So, make sure you know the answers to these questions:
- What's your company vision? A great vision statement can inspire great things, including an SEO strategy. And why not? If properly developed and executed, the company has already set you up for a better chance of success.
- What are the company's core values? Every company can only be so many things to so many people. A well-branded company knows exactly what they are and what they aren't. Use these core values in your campaign, as they should serve as your campaign perimeter.
- What is the leadership like? What kind of culture do they cultivate? In smaller companies, the leaders tend to influence the culture. In larger companies, unfortunately, this can get lost. But if you have access to the leadership, spend some time learning about their vision. It should match up to the company's core values, but sometimes there are more gems locked in their minds.
- What are the pain points? What things drive the members of this organization to drink? From the customer support to the higher-ups, there are things that knock the company down. How do they get back up? Why are the pains they're looking to work around? It may not be realistic to interview the whole company, but ideally you can get a representative to answer these.
Let's pause for a moment.
If you're at this part of the article, and you're thinking, "Whoa — why the hell would I do all this to get a few rankings?" then you're not thinking strategic yet. True, it's possible these bullets aren't all relevant to what you're building, but the bigger your strategy needs to go, the more you need to know your client.
Consideration 2 – Understand the goals
If we're going to be creating goal-oriented plans, it make sense to start with a smart goal or two. And by smart, I mean SMART. For those who aren't familiar with SMART goals, it stands for the following:
Specific: This is for the "why" and "how" of your goal. What exactly are you trying to do, and why? If you were a retailer who sells a little of everything, you might have a statement like this:
"At the end of February, we noticed our customers begin researching lawn and patio furniture. Customers are favoring items that look more elegant and can resist weather."
Measurable: Be very detailed. Are we trying to make money, or are we trying to make five hundred dollars? Are we trying to draw traffic, or are we trying to bring 500 new visits that engage with our website?
A retailer might have a statement like:
"Our goal is to increase organic conversions of the Lawn and Patio section by 15% YOY in Q2 and Q3, with lawn chairs driving 75% of those sales. Target revenue $500,000 in Q2, and $300,000 in Q3."
Achievable: Make sure you're grounding your goal in reality. Sure, you can't control a massive Google update, but using the history of your sales and competitive data, you can make some inferences. You also need to make sure you have agreed-upon goals. Get buy-in before you set the goal in stone, leveraging the thoughts from the leaders, merchandisers, analysts, and anyone who might be able to provide insight into the likelihood of hitting your goal.
Realistic: (There is some blend between realistic and achievable.) Do you have the appropriate resources in place? Does your client have the flexibility to make the necessary changes within the proposed timeline?
A statement to help framing could be:
"We are going to rely on resources including copywriters, researchers, merchandisers, and developers to make on-page changes within the time frame of this plan. We expect to need 40 hours of time from copywriters, 50 hours from web development."
Time-bound: We will need deadlines for dependencies. Assign due dates to each step of the plan, and keep the players accountable. Make sure you have an appropriate start-to-finish date.
Consideration 3 – Understand the audience
This is critical. If you don't know what your searchers are looking for, you're guessing. That's a bad idea. Especially today, where we have troves of data.
But it's important to find the stories in-between the numbers. With that said, your audience can't be measured solely by the 0s and 1s that comes into analytics platforms. I've written about this in The Down Side of Analytics in Marketing.
But I've recently heard some chatter voicing the polar opposite. I've heard the sentiment to wholly ignore certain data points because they don't represent the real person. To me, that's bad advice — directional data is better than the romantic notion of success based on your "gut" feel. Estimated search volume, clicks, and even impressions give credence not only to a keyword, but a bigger theme. This starts to create direction and an understanding of need, which leads to your next few rounds of audience recognition.
Using the available data helps a marketer understand which dollars are more effective than others, and how to identify different audience groups within the buying cycle.
With the demographics and site usage details from GA, different types of users (researchers, comparers, buyers, customers) can be grouped and classified, and the marketing dollars and messaging appropriately tailored.
AdWords and Facebook are further vehicles for reaching the appropriate audiences with more refined messaging. I think it's important to create personas for your current visitors and the type of visitors you want to attract. It might be valuable to create personas of those you don't want to attract, to keep in the back of your mind as your content and advertising calendar is being built following the delivery of your overall strategy.
Consideration 4 – Understand the competitive landscape
Without knowing the landscape, you really don't know what opportunity lies ahead. Understanding your competition's success allows you to learn from their wins (and mistakes). Reinventing the wheel burns unnecessary minutes.
There are a few competitive tools we tend to gravitate towards in our industry. SEMrush is a fantastic tool allowing anyone to look up a website and get an estimated search visibility and traffic share. Drilling in shows how well pages perform independently. Gleaning through exports can quickly reveal what topics are driving traffic, to which you might replicate or improve your own version.
Backlinks can actually serve as a proxy for interest. In Google's vision of a democratic web, they considered links to function like votes. Google wants editorial votes to influence their algorithm. So, if we assume all links are potentially editorial, then looking up backlink data can illustrate content that's truly beloved. Grab your favorite backlink data provider and pull a report on a competitor's domain. Take a look at the linked pages, and with a little filtering, you'll see top linked pages emerge. Dive into those pages and develop some theories on why they're popular link targets.
Social media — it's more than cat memes. Generally, non-marketing folks share content that resonates with them. Buzzsumo offers an easy interface for digging through the depths of social media. Have a general topic you'd like to pursue? Enter it into Buzzsumo and see what you get.
Let the creative juices flow. Look for topics you can improve under your own roof. Even the nichiest of niches can have representation in Buzzsumo.
Maybe this feels a bit too scattershot for you. Buzzsumo also allows you to find and observe influencers. What are they sharing? By clicking the "view links shared" button, you'll get a display of all the unique pages shared. Sometimes "influencers" share all types of varying content crossing many topics. But sometimes, they're pretty specfic in the themes they share. Look for the latter in this competitive research stage.
Consideration 5 – Understand the roadblocks
Every company has obstacles. Each one has built its own labyrinth. Don't try to blanket an existing labyrinth with your ill-prepared strategy; instead, work within the existing inroads.
Reality bites. You could draft up an amazing strategy, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, to which you're rebuilding an entire category structure of one of the website's most lucrative lines... only to find out there's a ticket queue for the necessary resources that's more than 6 months long. Despite your brilliant idea, you're going to look bad when the client calls you out on not understanding their business.
The best way to avoid this is proactively asking the right questions. Ask about resource support. Ask about historic roadblocks. Ask to be introduced to other players who otherwise hide behind an email here and there. Ask about the company's temperature regarding a bigger SEO strategy vs. short, quick-hit campaigns. Don't be your own biggest obstacle — I've never heard of anyone getting angry about over-communication unless it paralyzes progress.
A few final thoughts (from my experience)
It's time for my Jerry Springer moment.
Not all strategies have to be big. Sometimes your window is small, and you're forced to build for a distinct — or tiny — opportunity. Maybe you don't have time for a proper large-scale strategy at all; a tactic or two might be all you can do to carry in a win. Just make that very clear with your boss or client. Don't misrepresent what you're trying to build as an SEO campaign.
I understand that some SEO agencies and departments are not built for the big SEO campaigns. Strategic work takes time, and speeding (or scaling) through the development stage will likely do more harm than good. It's like cramming for a test — you're going to miss information that's necessary for a good grade. It would be my pleasure if this post inspired some change in your departments.
Lastly, it's important to remember that paralysis by over-thinking is a real issue some struggle with. There's no pill for it (yet). Predicting perfection is a fool's errand. Get as close as you can within a reasonable timeframe, and prepare for future iteration. If you're traveling through your plan and determine a soft spot at any time, simply pivot. It's many hours of upfront work to get your strategy built, but it's not too hard to tweak as you go.
Written on moz.com