In 2012, I was privileged to handle SEO for some of the biggest Norwegian e-commerce sites. This is the story about how I doubled (and even tripled) revenue for them by following a simple, easy, yet unconventional approach that anyone — even you — can implement starting today.
At the heart of this accomplishment lie two things which are related to one another:
- A focus on uncovering user intent, and then filling that need
- The ability (and budget) to do all that’s necessary
This may sound easy, but when you consult with a business that is stratified and compartmentalized into watertight departments and divisions, this presents many challenges.
Part 1: Managing SEO Activities
The first half of this success story involves the approach I took in terms of strategy and implementation. With competition getting tougher by the year and the rules of the game constantly changing, putting together an SEO strategy that won’t quickly become obsolete is important.
A. Critically Evaluate The Situation
There have been major changes at Google over the past year or so. With local business search, maps have taken over the SERPs. More users are on mobile devices, with GPS and location data impacting results. Searches for people are more often dominated by authoritative social sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Yet, despite all these new developments, many of which have made the competition even tougher than before, SEO budgets remain the same.
To be effective, I had to think differently. My client sites already had large volumes of traffic, but tracking visitor counts without studying Web analytics led to an illusion of being in control — when really, they weren’t. I determined that it wasn’t just about getting more traffic. I had to get the right kind of visitors — people who would buy!
I had to adjust my strategy by stepping back to ask critical questions:
- Where is Google headed?
- Where will Web search be in the next few months? Or years?
- What could I expect to blow up or become important?
B. Identify Trends You Can Leverage
By answering the questions above — and by digging deep into all available data, analyzing patterns, and studying clients’ current SEO practices — I came to several important conclusions:
1. Relevant Is No Longer Good Enough
People are on Google looking for answers. If search results don’t provide them, users will go elsewhere. Google wants to become the best “answer engine,” so it’s no longer good enough to provide a page of content that is “relevant” to a given keyword. If you’re not answering the searcher’s question, you won’t last long in the top spot.
2. Identity Is Important
Google wants to determine searchers’ identities and interests. It also wants to know who authors specific content, and how trustworthy and authoritative they are.
3. Sites Must Get Attention By Standing Out Amid The Noise
Rich snippets and authorship are affecting SERPs. It will soon become much harder to compete and win away attention from those who make use of these tools — even if you have the top spot and they don’t.
4. Online Is Global, Not Local
Products and services that are available for purchase online are less likely to show up in local search results. Traditional SEO campaigns are still necessary.
5. Personal Signals Are Critical
Google considers geo-location and GPS data while serving up answers to search queries and tailors results to your location. Additionally, people’s voices count for more, and social search is gaining importance.
C. Chart Out Your Strategy
Based on these insights, I took a step back to work on our strategy. Rather than rigging up advanced SEO tools and running complex audits right away, I had to draft an overall plan that was “evergreen” (or, at least, one that would survive for 12 to 24 months!).
So, what was the common factor among the insights above? What can you really do that will not become obsolete as the Web changes?
Simple. You find the user intent behind web search – and build your strategy around that.
It’s an old marketing cliche that guys who buy drills don’t want an instrument — they really want the hole. Realizing how this relates to SEO work will become your biggest “a-ha” moment.
When Matt Cutts says one should focus on the user, you should listen. Google’s attempts to simulate a human brain’s thought processes mandates that we move away from technical SEO and quick-fixes and move toward understanding user intent.
D. Uncover User Intent
I’ve written previously about SEOnomics, the complex interaction between human psychology, SEO and business economics. Every expert SEO consultant applies this approach to get inside the head of a client’s typical customer, understand their deepest needs and desires, and then weave this information into a winning SEO strategy that delivers great value. You can begin to figure out user intent by asking the following questions:
- What do your customers want?
- What are their biggest problems?
- How are they affected by these problems?
- What are the solutions they seek?
- How badly do they need a solution?
- What are they willing to pay for it?
The answers lie hidden within your analytics data. Web analytics are more than just a traffic counter. They unmask secret needs, intentions and expectations that drive prospective customers to a website. Keywords tell you what problems visitors have and what they are looking for to solve them. Searchers often want answers or more information. They are looking for assistance or reviews.
Web analytics can also reveal what they do after arriving at the website. What actions do they take? What path do they follow? What content is of interest? A talented SEO can even use analytics data to predict what will sell, what visitors want, and what they will do on the site.
All this analysis provides precious insight into consumer intent. It can serve as your guide to giving users a great on-site experience. It will let your business solve their problems and convince them to spend money on your products and services. Knowing what’s going on in your ideal prospect’s mind, you are now ready to take action.
E. Think, Act, Measure & Then Act Again
Build smaller, focused, iterative processes rather than big and time-consuming ones. Whenever a change we made was successful, we did more of that. If it wasn’t as effective as we expected, we did less of it — or even stopped doing it. This may not sound revolutionary or exciting, but was one of the most important ingredients of our SEO success in 2012. These were our insights from using this strategy:
- Things change rapidly online. You must adapt fast. Yes, strategy matters. But a tactical focus and the freedom to respond quickly to changes will ensure faster deployment in your e-commerce store.
- Before you act, slow down enough to make sure you are working on the right things. Taking time to step back and evaluate is not a sign of weakness, but of strength.
- Don’t spend money on anything that is not measurable. Any important variable is measurable. Measure everything — but only include actionable data on your list of things to review.
- Focus on strategic and economic goals. Remove everything that’s merely “nice to have,” because it will only distract or confuse.
Part 2: Managing the Client
If you’re working with smaller business clients, this process is relatively simple and straightforward. But as the size of your client business grows, so do the problems. You’ll have to interact with more people, sell them on the value what you do, and then get them to buy in to your strategy, allot you an adequate budget, and stay out of your hair until you get things done!
Unless you get this right, you’ll waste most of your time on internal squabbles and power struggles, answering to several bosses, and fighting budget cuts. Not surprisingly, such a situation leads to having less time to focus on implementing your SEO strategy, resulting in a poor performance.
And then, everybody will blame you!
Here’s how I get around such problems, following a set approach that you, too, can adopt profitably.
A. Position Yourself To Win Trust
For a marketing manager in a large organization, SEO is just a tool. The business owner or CEO may not even be aware of your role as an SEO consultant. It’s difficult to get in a position to talk with the right people.
But that’s because you’ve not demonstrated your true value.
Here’s how you can do it: stick to simple, vivid descriptions. Saying “Google is responsible for xx% of your online revenue” will be very effective. “Google” may not mean much to a corporate executive — until he knows it brings 50% of the business’ online revenue.
Once he is aware of this, he’ll see you in a different light! He’ll come to you. He’ll depend on you. And for SEO consultants and internal marketing managers alike, this is a nice position to be in.
B. Keep Things Simple
For board meetings, I simplify my data into easily understood presentations. If someone unfamiliar with SEO makes investment decisions about SEO campaigns, you must provide your intermediary with simplified information that can be conveyed quickly and effectively — and ensures that you get the budget you require.
Extract the most critical financial data (not SEO terms or ranking data) and present this as a one-page document. With the aid of a designer, I made an infographic that the e-commerce manager could display in the office. Everyone understood it. It spoke for itself.
C. Never Justify
Most clients just want your conclusions. Not your rationale. Or arguments.
Build trust – then trust your customer to trust you. If you don’t succeed at this, keep trying… because without trust, you are doomed. You’ll waste time trying to convince your client, or defending your budget – instead of growing your client’s business.
D. Work Together
“If you need to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Don’t be the “SEO geek” — adopt a “business development” mindset. Work hard to get close to your client. Involve your employees in various processes. Your task is to make everyone understand how important SEO is for the company. Show department heads that you are helping them deliver on their own sales results and growth.
Once I started reporting my results in terms of revenue rather than traffic, more people understood what I was talking about — “10 million unique visitors” is not as meaningful as “$2 million in profit.” Everyone understands money. Cash is king!
E. Get Clarity Before You Begin
Ask why. Ask often. Don’t begin anything before you understand why you’re doing it. Then (and only then), figure out how best to do it.
Ensure that web analytics and business goals are aligned. Measure the right data. Verify that it can be acted upon. Make a dashboard in Google Analytics (or other web analytics tool) and share it with everyone. Buy a screen and place it in your office where everyone can see.
- How much money did we make from Google today?
- Are we on target?
This screen motivates people and spotlights the impact of SEO on revenue. For one of my clients, Google accounted for 60% of revenue. Demonstrating this visually was very powerful.
Takeaways & Lessons
- Keyword research and analysis matters, but the user intention behind those search terms is crucial. Optimize your site for people, not search engines.
- Your SEO toolbox and the mix of your tools still means a lot. No single tool can tell you everything you need to know. In my own toolbox, I always have the Google Keyword Tool, Market Samurai, Search Metrics, SEOmoz Pro, Mozcast, Screaming Frog SEO Spider, Open Site Explorer and Microsoft Excel. For project management and collaboration, we use Jira.
- Keep things simple so that it is easy to explain your process to clients. Getting them to buy in to your strategy and winning their trust early on can be crucial to the success or failure of your SEO work, especially when you work with bigger businesses.
- Strive for constant improvement. Listen to real experts to constantly refine your process.