The Shift from Tactics to Strategy in SEO

Why is SEO strategy more important than just tactics? Read our blog on why the SEO industry could use a good shift in that direction.

Everybody’s Trying To Give A TED Talk - The Shift From Tactics To Strategy In SEO

In 2012 I’ve had the honor of attending almost every notable SEO conference from Australia to Israel and all points in-between. Walking through the crowds and passively eavesdropping on conversations I’ve heard many attendees express the same sentiment with the same exact phrase many times.

“It’s like everybody’s trying to give a TED talk.”

Those people seemed to be brimming with disgust at the idea that they’d just attended a talk or conference that didn’t center on new tricks for gaming the algorithm or how to build links while playing video games – the SEO equivalent of a fool’s mate in chess.

Ladies and gentlemen, you have been enriched, not swindled.

I’ve watched in awe as Joanna Lord redefined Conversion Rate Optimization, broadening it beyond button color testing to include better servicing and setting expectations of the customer. I’ve nodded in agreement and pumped my fist as Wil Reynolds pushed SEOs to embrace more actual marketing with his “Real Company Sh*t” platform. I’ve played in the band as Rand Fishkin sang the praises of Inbound Marketing as a paradigm shift that will all but euthanize Advertising and push manual link building to the side. I stroked my chin as Rhea Drysdale explained that Online Reputation Management is more about fixing businesses and changing the way people think than making social media profiles rank in the place of flame posts.

Here’s the thing, the focus of those talks wasn’t tactics; they were talking about strategy and as a growing industry we need that now more than anything else.

We Already Have Enough Tactics

The other day Wil Reynolds and I did a panel on Link Building and he mostly stuck with his RCS campaign interspersed with a few awesome tactics to find engaged audiences. I started with a brief discussion on the guest posting plague and how people need to diversify. Then I launched into a list of link building tactics.

Hypocrisy, I’m sure.

Here’s the kicker, most of them weren’t new or they were derivatives of things other people (namely Paddy Moogan, Adam Melson, Carson WardEthan Lyon and myself) have introduced before, but all of these tactics fit very well within the context of the RCS strategy that Wil had just laid out. The combination of the two approaches made for not just a highly-effective and complementary panel that left people with great ideas they could implement, but also with a strategy to weave their tactics together.

Wil and I talked beforehand about how people always want new tactics, but realistically they aren’t using the ones we’ve already told them about. How many people are actually taking their brand or competitor’s twitter followers, seeing how many are following them have blogs and reaching out to them as quick hits? How many people are identifying bloggers, creating dashboards and alerts to engage with them at the right time and create a relationship? How many people are having blog contests? How about outreach via social? How many people go through Jon Cooper’s collection of link building tactics (those are tactics Jon, not strategies) and build a custom solution for their client?

Very few.

I know this because I’ve seen the (anonymized) data from Buzzstream. We are all starting to see a lot of agency’s guest posting footprints. We also don’t hear too much about bigger picture campaigns that SEO companies have done in the wild. It’s a struggle even at iAcquire to get client buy-in beyond guest posting since everyone wants “scale” and for link building to happen in a silo. I get it.

However the point is that we as an industry have enough tactics, we just don’t employ them. That’s why it’s pretty easy for me to do this…

…and find all your clients. I’m not a PhD so I’m pretty sure Google can do this too.

We Need Better Strategies

Strategy is a term thrown around loosely in digital marketing and even more so in SEO. Guest posting is not a strategy, it’s a tactic. A site audit is not a strategy; it’s a practice that informs a strategy. Testing button colors is not a strategy; it’s a tactic to better inform your strategy for improving conversion rates. What SEOs often pass off as content strategy as an industry is not content strategy; it’s usually just a few ideas for link bait that is not really connected to a specific audience but to a keyword itself.

What SEO needs right now is more strategy.

SEO needs to come to the table with a story, not spreadsheets of rankings. Strategically it needs to be about the consumer, their decision journey, maintaining their loyalty and winning them back rather than just about algorithms, meta tags and the link building flavor of the day. The high-level execs need to be led to the promise land with a story as to how a user is looking for them and investing in SEO improves all channels.

That’s not to say we should forget the tactical things that differentiate us or push them to the side, but sound strategy needs to be the layer of polish on top of what we do. SEO needs to command respect, attention and budget, but first it has to respect itself.

SEO needs more push internally to grow up the way that other digital capabilities have. I’m sure if webmasters from 1995 time traveled to 2012 they’d tell you “we don’t need these silly wireframes, information architectures and why is frontend and backend development separated?” I’d couple those same characters with SEOs that don’t believe they need to know HTML or embrace social media and then I’d invite them all to move down south and join a Civil War reenactment.

More and more CMOs, VPs and Directors in companies are getting a better understanding about what SEO is and what it can do, but we as an industry still position it as such a low-level initiative. We’re still undercharging for what it’s worth. We’re still comfortable with “oh, well we won’t be able to get the client to do that.” All of these things need to end.

Realistically Search is maturing into something that is much more than Google and Bing. Search is going to be about cross-platform and cross-channel experiences and we need to be able to play in all of those spaces.

That’s only going to happen with (wait for it)…strategy.

Breaking the TEDium

Ultimately, this is nothing I haven’t said before. At this point, more than enough sustainable tactics have flown around the SEO echo chamber, it’s time to diversify our tactics, change the way we think and the way we present ourselves. I’m not saying it’s time to stop sharing tactics. New ways of doing things will always be valuable and I strive to continue to do just that. What I’m saying is strategy is far more important to our clients, improving the perception of SEO and the maturation of our industry.

In 2013, I’ll definitely be that guy that’s trying to give a TED talk. I’m trying to change the game. The question is are you ready to play at a higher level?

TIPS, ADVICE, AND EXCLUSIVEINSIGHT DIRECT TO YOUR INBOX

We unpack industry news, updates and best-practicesin our newsletter