Kaci Bower

Search Marketing: The importance of an SEO Process

I know those three buzz letters in the headline – S, E, and O – likely grabbed your attention and are the reason you’re reading this blog post. But I want to tell you why you should focus more on the last, and perhaps least buzzy, word in that headline – process. First of all, put a mirror up to your current search-engine optimization activities for just a moment and ask yourself…

  • Do I have a well-developed strategy for my SEO program?
  • Do I have an action plan for achieving my goals?
  • Do I have a process that enables me to concentrate my organization’s limited resources on the greatest opportunities?

Well, do you? Or do you jump straight into execution, pulling tactics together in what you hope will be the right mix?

If you nodded yes to that last question, you’re not alone. In the 2011 MarketingSherpa Search Marketing Benchmark Report – SEO Edition, we learned that 46% of marketers have an informal process they randomly perform for their SEO programs and 20% are basically flying by the seat of their pants.

Chart: SEO maturity

Q. Please select the statement below that best describes the process your organization uses to perform search engine optimization (SEO) practices.

Click to enlarge

Keeping track is not the same as forethought

Some organizations know that they have no process. Others, however, may think they have a process because they document their plans. But does that documentation look anything like this “process” I followed in a past work life?

4:53 PM – Frantic phone call informing me that next quarter’s plan and budget projections are needed by COB. Of course, this is the first any of us are hearing of this.

4:54 PM – Pull up the most recent plan. Change the dates.

4:55 PM – Google the latest and greatest tactics. Replace what we had been doing with these. (Since newer is always better, right?)

4:57 PM – Adjust the budget ask by 50%. Double the ROI projection. (Rationale: if I had twice the money, I am sure I could produce twice the return on investment. Fuzzy math, but who’s paying attention.)

4:58 PM – Email it, marked URGENT

5:00 PM – Sign off, and call it a day

Obviously, I am being facetious with this example. But, there is still an element of truth to it. These exercises were often needlessly rushed, leaving us with the feeling that we were throwing money at the market instead of spending money to market. We often recycled the same set of tactics out of habit. But, we were equally guilty of trying something new because it was new – and not because we determined it was a more efficient or effective way to reach our objectives.

Action is nothing without direction

Now, if my earlier example sounded too contrived, consider some of these responses from marketers, collected during last year’s Search Marketing survey, when asked how they plan their SEO strategy:

  • Identify opportunity keywords, optimize, sit back and watch the love roll in.
  • Every quarter we “guesstimate” how much to invest in strategy.
  • No strategy. We just repeat key phrases.
  • We have no true strategy. We look at traffic and sales, try to figure out what areas need help, and focus on those.
  • We have no real plan, just routine efforts to improve page content and keywords as well as tie in social media efforts.
  • We do a lot of planning to optimize for search, but, once done, we have no on-going strategy except to monitor performance.
  • We are actually working on putting in place a real process for SEO, because, in the past, some actions have been done at random, like: put a title on some pages, a description on others…
  • HIPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). That would be me. It is all done by gut and needs to be revised.

At first glance, these comments may not seem too alarming. Most are actively doing something. So what’s the concern?

The issue is this: Organizations that adopt a strategic approach to SEO management by formalizing their SEO processes receive the greatest benefits from their SEO tactics almost across the board, as indicated in this chart:

Chart: Very effective SEO tactics by SEO maturity

Click to enlarge

As if that were not enough, strategic organizations are also able to more effectively use SEO to achieve their marketing objectives, as the next chart reveals.  For example, 52% of marketers in the strategic phase, or those with formalized processes, said that SEO is very effective at increasing lead generation, but only 28% of marketers in the trial phase, or those with no SEO process, could say this. Similar performance gaps exist for other standard objectives.

Chart: very effective SEO objectives by SEO maturity

Click to enlarge

Elements of a successful SEO process

Unfortunately, it becomes difficult to know whether you are really getting the most for your money without a process in place. While the most effective process varies by industry and company, the system you develop should ensure that you consistently:

  • scan the marketplace
  • review your capabilities
  • define objectives
  • assess alternative courses of action
  • measure progress
  • and make adjustments based on all of this business intelligence.

If you have not developed a systematic process for the development and management of your SEO programs, I encourage you to take the time to do so. It may be the best SEO investment you make this year.

This week marks the opening of MarketingSherpa’s Eighth Annual Search Engine Marketing Benchmark Survey. If you’re involved in search marketing, please take the next 5 to 15 minutes to provide data and insights.

As a thank you for your time, we are offering a complimentary report titled “Research on Integrating Social Media with SEO.” This report provides data aggregated from more than 2,000 marketers on their goals for search and social integration and the platforms used for achieving them.

Please help us spread the word by tweeting or posting the following invitation too: Search marketers share your insights. Take the Search Engine Marketing Benchmark Survey at http://bit.ly/hi19OQ

Related Resources

Search Marketing: Three questions to help you think like your potential customers

Search Marketing: Tips on mastering the latest innovations in this mature category

Search Marketing: How to avoid and remove Google penalties (Members’ Library)

Search Engine Optimization: The SEO value (or lack thereof) of domain name keywords



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  1. April 6th, 2011 at 08:08 | #1

    Great reminder that true optimization is an ongoing effort that requires constant review and revision to realize maximum benefit. Same “process” approach is key to paid search and social media marketing as well but alas is woefully lacking in the latter.

  2. April 11th, 2011 at 09:02 | #2

    Great article! You have made some excellent points. It is extremely important to have a well-developed SEO strategy in place before any work is done because like you said “Action is nothing without direction”. Having a plan will not only ensure your own efficiency but it will keep your clients informed of your work efforts and manage their expectations as well. With any type of project I think SEO should incorporate the project management cycle of initiating, planning, executing, and closing all the while monitoring and tracking the progress.

    Thanks again for the great information,
    -Dustin

  3. April 11th, 2011 at 15:53 | #3

    I may have missed it, but somewhere in the above post I really wanted to read about someone involved in developing this “process” who really understands and is current with what Google is tending and trending to look for. This could be something as simple as that person knowing who Matt Cutts is and paying attention to what Matt says. My point being that, in my opinion, it is critical for an SEO process to acknowledge and provide the elements that a Google or other search engine algorithm is most likely looking for.
    my .02
    Jeff Bach

  4. April 11th, 2011 at 21:01 | #4

    Kaci,

    I could not agree more. Isn’t it ironic that may SEO’s entire purpose is to optimize websites, but very little time or thought is spent optimizing the SEO process? Having a consistant, repeatable process will enable much more efficiency and better results. Additionally, it will free up time to spend on higher level strategy – the stuff that is fun and creative for most SEO’s…

  5. April 11th, 2011 at 21:24 | #5

    Good post…. couldn’t agree more with having a seo strategy in place… the difficulty I find though is either dealing with clients who are under-staffed or don’t budget for this, ie.. who don’t have the time or money to address, or those that have the attitude that they must have results immediately, and cannot justify spending time/effort for work that may/may not result in future sales… a lot of employees are concerned with the “now” and not with the “future”. How do you alleviate these issues/roadblocks?

  6. Kaci Bower
    Kaci Bower
    April 13th, 2011 at 11:10 | #6

    @Marc Engelsman
    Marc, thanks for the comment. I like how you say that is it an ongoing effort. Reminds me of the old German proverb: “Rest breeds rust.”

    You’re right that a process approach is also needed in PPC and Social. In our 2011 Search Marketing Benchmark Report – PPC edition, we saw similar results as to what I reported here in this post. Namely, companies with a strategic process to PPC also were better able to use PPC to meet their marketing objectives.

    As for social media marketing, our Research Director has devised a “Step-by-Step ROAD Map to Plan and Execute a Successful Social Marketing Strategy.” The handbook and executive summary (for preview) are available in our Sherpa Store at http://www.sherpastore.com/SocialROADmapHandbook.html I encourage you to check it out. It may give you hope!

  7. Kaci Bower
    Kaci Bower
    April 13th, 2011 at 11:10 | #7

    @Dustin
    Dustin, I like your thinking! Exercising the discipline of project management would certainly be beneficial here.

  8. Kaci Bower
    Kaci Bower
    April 13th, 2011 at 12:38 | #8

    @Jeff Bach
    Jeff, good points, and definitely worth far more than 2 cents! :)

    Although I agree that planning to Google’s algorithm would be ideal, I feel that doing so just isn’t practical. Google algorithms are extremely secretive and constantly changing, so definitive answers aren’t available.

    That said, I think a process should still, as you say, help companies understand what Google and the other search engines are tending to look for today. (I would caution against devoting too much time and attention to seeking to understand what they might be looking for “tomorrow”, as this would likely be an exercise in futility.)

    To do this, the process needs to build in steps that will help companies maintain an awareness of these developments. That step was addressed in the section of the post that said “the system you develop should ensure that you consistently…scan the marketplace.” This idea and the next in that list – review your capabilities – are loosely based on the classic SWOT model. In other words, a company should assess where it stands with its internal readiness, as in Strengths and Weaknesses , when it comes to SEO. It should also scan the external environment, looking for new market Opportunities and identifying real and potential Threats. Some examples of how to look for opportunities would be these respondents’ comments we got during last year’s Search Marketing survey: “Keep abreast of industry media for trends, particularly for relevant key phrase usage for use in articles and press releases to promote our websites “ and “Check competitors’ sites to get insight into their strategies.” As for identifying real and potential Threats, to me this is the part that speaks to the awareness step. Working through this step could be something as simple as keeping up with some of the top blogs that speak to SEO optimization. Those harness a lot of collective wisdom in the marketplace about what SEO tactics work the best with search engines today and what tactics have decreased in their importance (i.e. meta keywords tag.)

    Thanks for raising this concern. I hope my answer helped clarify and fill out the recommended process guidelines a bit more.

  9. Kaci Bower
    Kaci Bower
    April 13th, 2011 at 12:50 | #9

    @Steve
    Steve, gotta love irony!

    Maybe the whole idea of process suffers from lack of adoption because it comes off as a stick rather than a carrot. Maybe it needs to be reframed into something more palatable. Like, to paraphrase what you said, rather than being a loathsome burden, process could be the means to the best SEO has to offer!

  10. Kaci Bower
    Kaci Bower
    April 13th, 2011 at 13:14 | #10

    @Simon Yohe
    Simon, you may have given me another idea for a post, something on client management. Hmmm…

    Seriously, though, you bring up a very real concern. I’d love to hear what has worked for others.

    For my part, I can just share what has worked in my experience, having been on both sides – a client and a consultant/service provider. Numbers. As in numbers talk the loudest. Grab their attention by showing the financial impact of having a strategic planning process in place versus moving ahead now with no planning. Show them the opportunity cost of their choice (as assessing opportunity costs is fundamental to establishing the true cost of any course of action.)

    The charts of this post (and in the more extensive array of charts in the Search Marketing Benchmark Report) could give you some data points to use in putting together these financial impact statements.

  11. October 6th, 2011 at 16:18 | #11

    I am so happy that you pointed out all the vital elements of an effective SEO process. Most prospective clients I have come across have been served in an ad-hock way. Either they jump from one fad to the other or just get persuaded by the slick sales person to do something fancy with graphics, images and traditional media marketing without any proper goal identification and/or evaluation and analysis in place.

    Every client of mine that we serve on an ongoing basis has seen dramatic improvements due to the processes that are in place. Every quarter we re-visit our objectives and pour over our analysis data to review what is helping us with out overall objectives and which ones need to be modified.

    This article really brings everything together. Thank you.

  12. November 13th, 2012 at 12:50 | #12

    You are so spot on Kaci… so many folks dive head first into SEO without even thinking about a process. I tell all of my clients that “SEO is a process” there is no quick ‘solution’ to getting “great rankings”. It’s all a work in progress; just as creating and expanding their business or organization, anything else is likely to be suspect in my opinion.

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