We often talk about the risk of change in SEO. Correctly handling SEO during migrations, restructures or international expansions can be make-or-break for your brand’s (or your affiliates’) SEO performance, and even if your site is stable and performing well, algorithm updates could change that overnight.
What we don’t talk about enough, though, is the risk of continuing to slog away at longer-term, mature campaigns without a long-term strategy. Of ending up in a rut, spinning your wheels only to see your brand get left behind, whether that’s in a single big drop after a core update or a slower long-term slide into irrelevance.
To manage that risk, SEO’s need to be constantly reviewing, challenging and elevating their strategies. SEO has the potential to be far more than a list of increasingly nit-picky technical tweaks. Done right, it should be at the heart of your long-term digital strategy, helping future-proof your brand both inside and outside of the SERPs.
The SEO Treadmill: Knowing when to stop
The early stages of an SEO campaign are often the most exciting. Taking advantage of big technical and content wins can lead to big jumps in visibility, with hockey-stick performance graphs and the bragging rights to go with them.
Unfortunately, those big wins tend to be all too finite. Managing SEO campaigns long-term can be trickier, with fewer quick rewards, less glamour and a lot more legwork. You’ll quickly move down the cost-benefit hierarchy, from big sweeping changes to rote tasks generating lower returns and requiring higher levels of investment.
You could also start to worry about losing what you’ve built. With search engines changing constantly, performance is never guaranteed, no matter how long-established or successful your campaign. Big changes start to seem riskier, and you can never be sure whether the work you’re doing is having no impact, or if it’s stopping performance from going into decline.
It’s easy to waste vast amounts of time and money by unwittingly slipping into this sort of “treadmill mode” on your campaigns – churning the same blog content strategy, conducting the same tired outreach campaigns, and making ever-more-trivial tweaks to your image alt text in the hope that if you just do it long enough, it’ll all work out.
This inevitable slide from short-term wins to long-term slog not only tanks your SEO campaign’s ROI – it puts your brand at risk of being outpaced by competitors and left behind.
Doing well? It’s probably time to change your strategy
If you’re getting too comfortable with your SEO campaign, that’s a dangerous place to be. If you’re relying on tired old tactics or getting lazy in your execution (and by definition, doing well enough that this isn’t a huge problem right now), you’re putting yourself at serious risk of having the world move on without you.
It can be difficult to know when you’ve reached a tipping point where staying on the same path is no longer productive. Your team might not be forthcoming with that information either – if your agency has come to rely on your retainer investment, they’re unlikely to be the ones saying “this is getting a bit pointless now, guys” as they deliver their 42nd identical monthly activity report.
However, if growth has slowed and new ideas are getting thin on the ground, it could mean the time is ripe for challenging some long-held assumptions and asking some difficult questions. For example:
Stop looking at the letter and focus on the spirit
Of the many outdated narratives the SEO industry should really have jettisoned by now, by far the worst is the idea of “cracking the algorithm”.
In truth, machine learning means that there isn’t really some secret code to unravel anymore, at least not in a sense that we’d ever be capable of understanding.
If you’re focused on codifying SEO to the Nth degree, it’s easy to end up in a cycle of pointless activity for activity’s sake. This sort of thinking can also lead to over-reliance on loopholes or exploitative tactics, and this can be exactly what gets you into trouble when Google does inevitably catch up with you.
While there might not be hard and fast answers, there are a lot of very good, common-sense guidelines on how to make websites more accessible to search engines and more attractive to users. Instead of scouring the internet for the latest SEO acronym that’s going to fix everything for you, ask difficult questions instead.
Is my site still relevant? Does it really – hand on heart – deliver value for the search intent of the keywords I’m targeting, or am I just shoehorning keywords in for the sake of it? If my site wasn’t indexed anymore, would anybody really care? If not, how do I change that?
These questions are harder to answer (and will definitely take more soul-searching) than most SEO audit templates. However, taking action on the really big questions is likely to have far more impact on your future SEO visibility than jumping blindly onto the next jargon-fuelled bandwagon.
Apply SEO Insights to other channels (not just PPC)
Search is like no other marketing channel. It’s unique in that users actively request answers and information, interacting with brands rather than simply having them interrupt their day.
This makes for great conversion rates (provided you have a thorough understanding of search intent), but it also gives you a direct understanding of your potential customers’ needs, wants and worries.
Search is an opportunity to build a personal connection with stressed-out, advertising-blind customers in a way that’s increasingly difficult via other channels. If you don’t believe me, just look through your own search history for the past couple of weeks – it’s sometimes frightening how much of our lives is laid bare through the search bar.
While few people underestimate the value of search as a marketing channel, it’s easy to miss out on the potential benefits of search insight across a whole range of other areas of your business.
Search can tell you whether your niche is on an upward curve and likely to see an influx of competitors, or whether it’s contracting and you might need to pivot.
It can tell you whether you’re speaking your customers’ language, or whether you’re starting to sound outdated.
Search data could be the inspiration for your next product offering or your next marketplace disruption. If you’re only using it to decide your next blog post title, you’re missing out.
Reduce your reliance on SEO
While it might seem trite, reducing your reliance on SEO is about more than just dividing your business’ eggs into more baskets. Ironically enough, the less you need search engines, the more likely it is that you’re the sort of business they’d want to include in their listings.
I forget exactly who originally said it, and I’m probably paraphrasing it horribly, but a quote that’s always stayed with me goes something like this:
“Be the result that Google would be embarrassed not to show.”
If you’ve got a strong brand, a loyal customer base, and a consistently high level of users searching for you by name, you’re probably doing all the things that Google would want to see from a high-performing search result. If, on the other hand, you’re not offering anything beyond being first in the rankings, you’re at considerably higher risk.
“The spirit, not the letter” comes back into play here.
While it’s probably going to be regarded as some form of SEO agency treason, here’s an idea: if your SEO budget isn’t generating a noticeable level of ROI, stop investing and put that money into something more fundamental instead.
Not everybody needs to be investing thousands into SEO month on month to no end, and much as we’d like to believe otherwise, the SEO industry doesn’t always have the answers. I’d much rather see my clients pause or stop SEO campaigns to focus on bigger developments to their proposition or user experience than keep churning out rote SEO tasks to try and maintain an increasingly precarious position in the rankings.
Focus on what matters
In these times more than any other, it’s clear that change and instability is a fact of life. This is true for SEO too, and while losing visibility is a worrying prospect, the truth is that it’s impossible to prepare for every eventuality.
We’ve never really spent too much time tracking specific Google updates at Cameo Digital. Instead, we’ve always focussed on doing what seemed most in line with the spirit of what Google was trying to achieve, and it’s mostly paid off.
While there’ll always be idiosyncrasies that need specialist SEO knowledge (the need for a technically well-optimised site will probably never go away), good SEO is less about chasing the algorithm than its ever been.
While this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be prepared, it does mean we need to tread a fine line between hedging against potential losses and actually making gains. Continuing to run bloated, low impact SEO strategies might be helping you to maintain your rankings and prevent decline, but there’s always the possibility that money could be spent on something more impactful.
Continually understanding, developing and proving your value to your customers is the best way of ensuring a future for your business, and understanding SEO is a great way of doing this.