The conventional SEO strategy goes like this:
- Research keywords
- Optimize site for those keywords
- Link internal pages using keyword loaded terms
- Get links from other sites with keywords in the link
These days, this strategy isn't working as well as it used to.
If a site isn't genuinely interesting and isn't worth remarking upon, it can be difficult to get links, attention and rankings.
These are essentially marketing problems.
By basing our SEO strategy on fundamental marketing principles, we stand a much better chance of dominating the rankings, no matter what niche we choose to target.
This document is intended for those who know basic SEO principles, but are new to marketing concepts and theory.
If you're new to SEO, there are helpful tips throughout the document, and links to further instruction on SEOBook.com.
Principles That Form The Foundation Of This Strategy
- 1. Market Analysis
- 2. Competitive Review
- 3. Positioning
- 4. SEO
- 5. Economics
In the past, marketing was a last-minute ad on.
A company knocked out a product, then it was handed over the wall to marketing, whose job it was to get the product out into the market. Marketing put a colorful picture on the box, commissioned a jingle, and bought up millions of dollars worth of media time.
These days, marketing is more integrated. A product or service is designed with a clear audience in mind, although many SEOs might disagree, especially when asked to bolt an SEO strategy onto a Flash site consisting entirely of animation!
The internet offers us the opportunity to design with a clear audience in mind, but with a lot less risk than brick-n-mortar companies.
We can figure out if there is a market, and what that market demands, test that market, and then build a site to cater to that market. We can do this quickly and cheaply, using the power of search marketing.
Find Clear Space & Consumer Demand
Like SEO, marketing is part art, part science. Even if you cover the technical aspects of SEO, there is no guarantee you will rank well. Likewise, if you follow a marketing strategy, there is no guarantee of making money.
The trick is to find a place in the market that has two key aspects: clear space and consumer demand.
How do we find these places in the market?
Let's start with a basic marketing analysis.
Perform Market Analysis
Ask yourself three questions:
- What does the consumer need?
- How many consumer need this product/service?
- What is the buying process?
You must fill a genuine need in the market.
Is there demand? It's no good trying to sell something, be it a good, service or opinion, if there is no demand for it. For example, do you know why most blogs don't get read? It is because there is a very limited demand for opinions from unknown writers. Demand is spread very thinly across the opinion/news space, and supply is virtually infinite.
How do you find out if there is a demand for your idea?
The SEO has a valuable tool at his/her disposal for determining demand. Keyword research involves mining databases of previously searched for keyword terms to see if there are existing traffic streams (demand) they can tap into. Any volume of keyword searches indicates demand. Generally speaking, the higher the search volume, the greater the demand, although there are traps, which we'll get to shortly.
For those new to keyword research, here's a step-by-step, using the SEOBook Keyword Tool
Example Of An SEO Marketing Analysis - Gone Wrong
The SEO aims to build a revenue generating site.
The SEO undertakes keyword research and finds there are a lot of searches for Britney Spears pictures.
It turns out that there are approximately 135,000 searches for Britney Spears pictures each month.
Our first two questions - "What does the consumer need? (Britney pictures)" and "How many consumer need this product/service? (lots!)" - appear to be answered. So the SEO licenses a collection of Britney pictures, sets up a site that charges a small membership fee, and ranks well for Britney related keyword terms.
And fails to make any money.
There are various reasons, but the main reason is that the SEO failed to ask "what is the buy process?" Conventional SEO-led strategies often fail to include this step, however it is crucial if your site is to succeed.
The buy process is, as the name suggests, the steps a person takes when they are interested in buying something. Had the SEO examined the buy process, she would have realized people don't pay for Britney pictures online. Granted, this example is a little silly, but this problem occurs often, especially when search traffic is viewed in isolation.
Offline, people may buy gossip and celebrity magazines, but when online, they expect to look at Britney pictures for free. Online, the buy process for Britney Spears images simply doesn't exist, except in a very narrow B2B market between photographers and publishers.
So what happens next?
Choose Niches With A Commercial Imperative
The SEO, discouraged that his first idea didn't work, chooses to run ads instead. Where there is traffic there is money, right?
Again, this approach is likely to meet with limited success, especially when compared to other niches she could have targeted.
People looking for Britney pictures don't tend to be in a buying mode, and so advertising, especially action based advertising such as Adsense, is likely to go unclicked. The activity "looking at Britney pictures" doesn't have a strong commercial imperative, whereas an activity such as "buying toys", does. Such sites need a very high number of page views to make much money.
One way to determine if a commercial imperative exists is to examine the bid prices for Adwords. Almost always, the higher the bid price on the keyword, the more transactional the niche.
Think Of It From The Advertisers Perspective
The SEO also needs to understand the buy process in order to choose the areas which will be most effective for advertisers. The most effective Adsense sites, for example, are sites where visitors are looking to buy something. That's the only reason advertisers use Adwords - they need to sell visitors something*.
In reality, it's a little more complex than this.
Non-commercial searches can and do result in sales, however searches directly related to commercial activity - such as transactional searches - are most likely to result in higher income for your site and make for more profitable niches. See my article on the three types of searches, navigational, informational, and transactional for more information.
What makes someone buy something? Will they buy it online, or offline? Are they even capable of buying something over the internet? If visitors are in a buying mode, then what stage of the buy process are they at? Are they ready to buy right now, or are they looking for information?
Look at demographic details for competing sites and keywords to get inside the mind of the searcher. Don't just look at search volume, but also consider the intent behind the keyword, how you would monetize that demand, and the visitor value.
*The one caveat is to drive brand awareness, but this also has limited effectiveness. When was the last time you clicked on an adwords ad that focused entirely on building brand? And if people don't click, you, as the publisher, don't make money.
I hope I've impressed on you the need to evaluate keyword terms within a marketing and business framework.
Competitive Review - Strengths & Weaknesses
- Query the search engine results pages under the keywords you want to rank for
- Pick out the top ten sites in your niche. The top ten sites will usually appear under a mix of keyword terms relating to your niche
- Determine the strengths and weaknesses of the competition
- Determine the strengths and weaknesses of your own site, relative to the competition
Once you've decided on a niche to target, you then need to determine the level of competition within that niche.
A SWOT analysis can help you determine how your site compares to those already in the niche. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. You perform this analysis on your own site, and the sites of your competitors.
You can can go into incredible detail with a SWOT analysis, but it doesn't need to be complicated. You simply need to determine what you're good at relative to the competition. Draw up a chart like this, and complete:
If you can't find any areas where you are better than the competition, either refine the niche, choose another niche altogether, or figure out a plan that will make you better than the competition. Ranking well doesn't really help, because a searcher will not stop at the first site they find.
Keep in mind that it is easier to be successful if you already know a lot about a market. Any experience you have lowers the investment needed to research the market and ensures you can write at a higher and more compelling level than people who do not know the market.
By doing a SWOT exercise, you'll also get a feel for any opportunities your competitors might be missing.
- Undertake keyword research
- Look for a niche that is "worth remarking upon" and is new, or doesn't have a lot of existing competition
- Select a brand name and domain name the describes the niche ie. SEOBook.com. It is useful to include a keyword term
- Build a site that focuses exclusively on this niche, and no others.
- Conduct SEO campaign
- Monitor results.
What do you think of when someone mentions the name "Google"?
How about IBM? Computers. Hewlett Packard? Printers.
If you aim to be the first in the customers mind when they think of a keyword term, you can easily win the ranking game.
Who was the first president of the United state.George Washington. Who was second? Who was the first man on the moon? Neil Armstrong. Who was the fourth. It is important to be first. Being first is memorable.
But wait a minute! Google wasn't the first search engine!
Correct. However, they've overcome this by being first in people's mind when it comes to search. Yahoo was the first search service, and whilst it's star has faded of late, it is still a very wealthy company. It is no good being the tenth anything. Aim to be first. And if you can't be first....
If You Can't Be First, Be First In A New Niche
You'll face the problem of not being first whenever you enter an existing niche. And on the internet, that's "most of the time"
Look at the top sites in your chosen niche. If they got in early enough, chances are they enjoy the linking benefit that comes with being first. Typically, Google's linking algorithm favors long established sites, as opposed to newcomers. To find out why this occurs, check out Mike Grehan's "Filthy Linking Rich". Those who are first to occupy a niche have a much easier job of getting links because they are remarkable, simply by virtue of being unique.
So what to do if you arrive late to a niche?
Invent a new niche, and be first in that.
Say you sell holiday rental accommodation in Palm Springs. Unfortunately, there are a lot of holiday rental accommodation services in Palm Springs. So to differentiate yourself, you might decide to focus on "the cheapest rental accommodation services in Palm Springs". Or "the most upmarket rental accommodation services in Palm Springs". Or "the best rental accommodation guide for solo travelers in Palm Springs".
Focus on a new angle that your competitors aren't targeting. This is called market segmentation.
Make Sure The New Niche Is Worthwhile
One of the traps of market segmentation is that you might segment too finely i.e. there are not enough customers in your newly segmented niche to be worthwhile.
When you do your keyword research, look at the keyword volume for niche keyword terms. Are there any keywords that have good volumes AND cover an angle that you competitors aren't already targeting? Find a suitable keyword term, and make that your niche. Also, look at demographic details for competing sites and keywords to get inside the mind of the searcher. Remember, there needs to be a commercial intent.
Take Your New Niche For A Test Drive
This strategy has been used in PPC for a while, however it's outlined really well in the book The Four Hour WorkWeek by Tim Ferris.
Once you've decided on a new niche that you can be first in, you need to test the niche to see if it delivers enough revenue to make the effort worthwhile. You can test a niche quickly and easily by using PPC, like Google Adwords.
A lot of SEOs don't use PPC, but they're missing out on a tool that can save them a lot of time and effort.
For those new to PPC, check out Aaron's Guide to PPC.
Run a short Adwords campaign targeting the keyword terms that relate to your new niche. You may only need to run it for a week or two, and it shouldn't cost you more that a few hundred dollars. The aim is to answer the question: "do people who search on the keywords want to buy what I'm selling?".
Ensure your site has a clear call to action that will help you measure actual buyer interest. For example, a sign-up form offering more information, a sales inquiry, or an actual purchase. You don't need to have your site finished to do this. A basic three page site will do.
Monitor the campaign and do split/run testing on the ad-copy. This means you compare one set of wording against another. Helpfully, Google Adwords has this functionality built in, and they provide a free product called Google Optimizer if you want to test you page copy. Check out my article "Tested Advertising Strategies Respun For SEO".
Again, this exercise can be as simple or complex as you want to make it.
Start off simple, and change the wording to make the offer sound more appealing, and make a note of the wording that works best. You can use this wording in your title tags during your SEO campaign. The wording that receives a click in Adwords is also likely to receive a click in the organic listings.
If visitors are searching for your keyword, clicking on your ad, and moving to desired action, then you've found a great niche. Remember, most people will click the organic results rather than Adwords listings, so the fact you're getting click-through further demonstrates that there is little competition in your chosen niche in the organic results.
If you aren't getting click thru and/or sign-up/purchase, try the same strategy, but with different keyword terms. Keep going until you find a winner.
It is a lot cheaper in terms of time, effort and money to test keywords at this point, rather than commit to a brand and an SEO strategy that targets the wrong keyword terms, and the wrong niche.
Marketing Within The Niche
Choose a trading name, and domain name, that can be used generically, and, if possible, aligned with your keyword term.
One approach is to take a simple keyword phrase people are familiar with, and will search for, and combine it with something else. For example, SEOBook, AfterMail, FaceBook, HotelFind, etc. This approach works well if you don't have a large budget for brand building.
Non-descriptive brand names, such as Kellogs, or Mooch, don't work so well for SEO, especially for low profile companies, because people need to know your name before they search for you.
Become Synonymous With Your Niche
It's hard for anyone else to sell a book on SEO without people also stumbling across Aaron's site. Aaron has selected a keyword-loaded brand name that is aligned with the niche. He has also worked hard to dominate this tightly defined niche within the broader SEO market. Whenever someone promotes any book on SEO, Aaron is likely to benefit, because he is #1 in that niche.
If you dominate your niche, and the niche is relatively new, then any promotion of that niche will also benefit you. If you're a leader in your niche, and become synonymous with that niche, then latecomers and generic copycats will have a very difficult time competing with you. Any promotion of the beverage "Cola" benefits the market leader Coke, because they dominate their niche. Likewise, promotion of PCs will benefit Dell, promotion of smartphones will benefit Apple, and so on.
Position Against The Leader
Let's assume you're competing against an entrenched leader. What can you do?
Position yourself against the leader. For example, if the leader is offering "cheap SEO services", you might position by offering "valuable SEO services". You could warn people against using cheap SEO services by highlighting the problems and risks, and showing how your price is linked to achieving better value. Figure out what they're doing, and define yourself against them.
Avis did this against Hertz. They acknowledged they weren't the top of the rental car niche, but made a virtue out of it. They adopted the phrase "we try harder". The market dominance of Hertz became a weakness.
Barriers To Entry Are Your Friend
On the web, there are few barriers to entry. Anyone can start a website and copy your idea.
However, not everyone can start a Google. Or an Amazon. Or a Facebook. Those companies have barriers to entry in their markets, mostly to do with the scale of operations. It's very expensive to do what they do.
Look for areas where there is some difficulty in starting up. Does your idea require capital? Do you have valuable information that no-one else has? Do you have a pre-established reputation or brand? Does you idea require specialist software? Is the service or product unique, or difficult to obtain elsewhere? Such barriers will dissuade a lot of people from entering the niche, which means you'll face less competitive threat.
The lowest barrier to entry is the affiliate site where the supplier provides a template site. They might even set it up for their affiliates. For free!
See the problem?
If it's that easy, then there is no barrier to entry, meaning anyone can do it. Even with the best SEO in the world, it would be very difficult to defend such a site from the hundreds of webmasters who arrive tomorrow, the day after that, and so on.
So when you evaluate the competitors in your niche, also consider how difficult it will be for followers to compete with you.
- Build content. Get a list of 50 keywords and write a page on each. Include how-to's, generalist information, news (use Blog software), video, photos and maps. Tag all graphical content with keyword terms
- Write naturally, stay on a single topic per page. Forget keyword density, it is overrated
- Layout site. Place most important (money) pages at the top of the hierarchy, one step away from the home page
- Create a Google Site Map to ensure crawlability
- Once the site is complete, submit to the top directories. We recommend Yahoo!, BOTW, and Business.com
- Issue a press release. Ensure you include a link back to your site.
- Open Twitter and Facebook accounts, and update each time you add a page of content
- Add one new page of quality content to the site per day
- After 30 days, examine your stats. Look for long tail keyword terms, choose the most popular term, and write a page about it. Use this list of long tail keywords as article starter ideas
- Every 15 days, do the same thing again
- Remember to write a new page of quality content every day
- Find the top ten sites in closely related niches, and offer to write articles for them. Include a link back to your site
After six months, you should be ranking well, and your traffic should be climbing.
Need more detail? Join our team :)
*Hat-Tip to Brett Tabke's "Successful Site in 12 Months with Google Alone"
Economics & Risk/Reward
Are SEO visitors really free?
They're only free if you value your time at zero dollars.
Of course, you time is worth money, and this must be factored in. One of the great things about SEO is that unlike conventional adverting, your visitors don't stop arriving when you stop paying. The downside is that you must spend a lot of time up front, and with no guarantee of success. The search engines could also drop your site, at any time, and without reason.
So it's a good idea to ask yourself the following questions:
- What are my costs?
- What is the break even point?
- How long before I get payback?
A lot of SEOs will persist with sites that enjoy high rankings, even when the economics of the site don't make any sense. If this happens to you, bite the bullet and drop these sites, or convert them to another use. There is no value in ranking highly if the visitors aren't doing what you want them to, and/or they aren't spending money.
Once your put a value on your SEO efforts, you'll clearly be able to see how much your site is actually making you.
If the site is making money, that's great. If not, then try to determine if the problem is to do with marketing. Have you identified the niche correctly? Are you dominate within that niche? Is there sufficient demand?
SEO works best when it is integrated into your business and marketing strategy. There is no point ranking well for terms that don't advance your business goals. Find a profitable niche you can make your own, and dominate it.
Follow this strategy and lucrative search traffic will flow you way.
Gain a Competitive Advantage Today
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