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How to build a search marketing strategy

27th Mar 2014
Managing editor
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With investment in search marketing creeping up year-on-year, some seriously big bucks are now being pumped into paid search.

In some cases, the investment figures are enough to make your head spin. The UK Search Engine Marketing Benchmark Report 2013, for instance, revealed that 20% of those surveyed were spending between £500,000 and £5m on paid search every year - with 5% spending in excess of £5m. 

But whether you’re spending big money on search marketing or not, you’ll still want to ensure that you’re getting the maximum bang for your buck. And that requires a robust search strategy.

“So much internet traffic passes through Google and without a search marketing strategy you’re almost certain to miss out on a lot of this,” says Jimmy McCann, head of SEO at Search Laboratory. “Search marketing is a competitive business and if you’re resting on your laurels without a strategy you can be sure your competitors are not. Therefore, it’s crucial to have a strategy in order to maximise the potential of search as an acquisition channel and tie in with other marketing efforts you may be undertaking.”

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for search marketing efforts to lack strategic guidance. And according to Danny Sullivan, founding editor of Marketing Land and Search Engine Land, often very little thought goes into search marketing at all.

“The biggest mistake that occurs is that SEO and paid search just aren’t thought about, particularly in terms of how they integrate with everything,” he explains. “They are either overlooked or they are an afterthought. I think both of these activities work better when you consider them from the start along with all your other marketing. They’ll work better that way.”

Doing the groundwork

So where do you start when building a robust and comprehensive search strategy cover? Alexandra Tachalova, brand manager at SEMrush, says that the first step of any strategy should be planning.

“As with offline strategy, it should factor in market and competitor research,” she advises. “Using this intelligence, it’s possible not only to create the search marketing strategy based around your individual company needs but also identify competitors’ weakest areas and work towards outperforming them. 

“Carry out market research so you know your market, target audience and their purchasing requirements and priorities upfront. Include your budget in planning and set up strategic and measurable goals from the outset.”

Kelvin Newman, managing director of BrightonSEO and tutor on the IDM Award in Search Marketing, elaborates on the growing importance of understanding your audience to search marketing.

“The big area that a lot of people in search marketing are getting excited about, and which is certainly its becoming far more vital in successful search marketing, is around understanding the customer – search is becoming customer-centric,” he explains. “That’s involving things like persona development at the beginning of a campaign, whereas perhaps in the past it’s been more keyword driven. In the past a search campaign would be created in excel spread sheets, now it’s more created in brainstorming sessions or focus groups.”

Also of key importance to any strategy, is to ensure that it defines a clear over-arching goal for everyone to work to and have visibility of.

Once the research and goals have been worked on, there are then a number of other areas that need to be covered within the strategy. Tachalova summarises: “SEO activity such as keyword research, a link building plan, website optimization work and a full content plan should also be included in a search marketing strategy, as well as paid search and keyword research,” she says. “Reporting is also essential: measure the results of your work as you go along and use the insight to inform future search marketing activities.”

Let’s examine some of these areas in more detail.

SEO strategy

A typical search marketing strategy will have both search engine optimisation and paid search components. The SEO component is very much about building an ongoing process of on-page optimisation and the creation of good and relevant content.

“SEO ideally starts with the technical aspects of a company’s website, such as initial design and build, and the technology behind the site – including the content management system (CMS) and the service,” says Jane Copland, SEO consultant at Ayima. “It also takes in optimising the way the website is structured to deliver the most important information for users in a simple and effective way, but also such that search engines can identify information they believe is important for users. These factors are classed as ‘on-page’ activities.”

SEO also embraces ‘off-page’ activities, which are designed to increase the ‘popularity’ of a company’s site and thus its rank within results pages – for example, the number of people that link back to a company’s website and the ‘strength’ and quality of those links are taken as a primary signal of quality and authority by search engines.

Copland continues: “In essence, ‘link building/development’ is like seeking votes from other web users for being the most relevant or best resource for a particular type of query or search topic.”

But link-building and keyword targeting must be approached with caution, she says.

“In the eyes of search engines such as Google, there are techniques considered as good SEO (‘white hat’), and those that are deemed bad (‘black hat’). These are penalised either by being ranked lower, or at worst by being severely penalised, resulting in a website’s near or total de-listing from the search engine’s index.”

Nevertheless, a website featuring unique content that is refreshed regularly, with the right keywords distributed carefully throughout, and with links pointing back to this content from other relevant sites, stands a good chance of being ranked highly by search engines.

Sullivan adds: “You want to ensure that you integrate SEO into everything that you normally do, so that it becomes part of your regular routine. And if you want to do better with particular words, then look at building out certain resources that give you the content to do well for that. This is something that people miss – SEO is most successful when you have a good content strategy. If you have the content, you have something to attract people. So if you want to attract people and therefore you do some SEO work, you may be thinking about it backwards. It’s a content creation thing really, rather than SEO.”

Paid search strategy

Pay-per-click is a way of getting immediate traffic to your site: you set up an account, design your ads, and away you go. 

“In some cases you will want ongoing campaigns, because you’re always going to be trying to attract visitors, but in other cases you will want very specific things that happen at very specific times of the year,” says Sullivan. “With Valentine’s Day, for instance, you might want to change up how your search engine marketing happens specifically for Valentine’s Day in the short-term.”

With PPC, you bid on specific search terms and when a relevant search term is entered, your advert is displayed on the right or at the top of the screen, depending on criteria such as quality score and what other people are willing to bid. If they click on your ad they get directed to your destination URL.

Therefore, strategic planning needs to cover not only the search terms that are required, but also the landing pages that visitors are taken to.

“Ideally it should be a specific landing page with a concrete call to action, rather than your homepage,” notes marketing consultant Gareth Beck. “You’re paying for this and you want them to do something, right?”

He adds: “It’s a complex task to get right and you need to keep a close eye on budgets, clickthroughs, and which keywords are performing well while your campaigns are running. Any PPC keywords that are getting good traffic and conversions should be added to the organic SEO strategy. That way, when there is organic traffic from the term, there is the option to remove it from the PPC campaign.”

Keyword strategy

A good keyword strategy is an integral part of the overall search marketing strategy.

“A good strategy will have relevant keywords that work to generate leads, which eventually convert into sales,” continues Beck. “For example, it’s worth optimising for phrases with less volume that you know will convert well. Sounds obvious, but having too much of the wrong traffic can be detrimental.”

When it comes to hashing out a successful keyword strategy, Beck believes there are numerous ways that businesses can go about it.

“It’s worth brainstorming what terms customer are likely to use (it’s likely that you’ll know some industry specific keywords that an SEO consultant won’t necessarily find), using keyword tools like the Google Adwords traffic estimator or Wordtracker to find out which ones are the most competitive and, ultimately, running a PPC campaign to identify which keywords get the best quality traffic and convert into a positive action.

“What you want to end up with is a group of phrases that clearly describe what the site is about,” says Beck. “The site homepage and other content within the site should share a theme so that there is continuity throughout. That way, the search engines will be more likely to find the site relevant to the terms that people search for.”

McCann adds: “The wrong approach to keyword research is where a lot of businesses fall down. You should start with what you’re good at and maximise visibility from conversions for search traffic that is in your ‘sweet spot’ and then build on this. Too often you see people look beyond their specific niche on broader high volume terms that won’t convert as well as those people who are searching for the products that the business actually excels at.”

Ensure usability is part of your strategy

Equally important is to plan what you want visitors to do once you have successfully attracted them to the site.

“One of the mistakes I sometimes hear of is just not thinking through what should happen after the click,” says Sullivan. “Driving the person to your site is fine, but what happens when they arrive? Are you showing them different landing pages? Are you making sure that they can transact well? If they’ve come to you from a mobile device you should make it really easy for them to convert that way.”

Beck adds: “Having an idea of what you want customers to be doing is vital to ensure that the navigation and customer journeys make sense. Usability isn’t concerned with just SEO but applies to any visitor to the site. In your analytics package it’s worth setting up goals to ensure that your business objectives for your website are being met. Things like purchase and registration processes should all be highly visible.”

He continues:  “When you’re looking at any page on your website, asking the following questions helps to determine whether any work needs to be done: is the customer where they need to be? Can they see what to do? If the answer to either of the above questions is ‘No’, then it’s worth considering some changes.”

Integration into the wider marketing strategy

It’s also important to recognise that search marketing cannot operate in isolation. It must be considered a core pillar to the wider marketing strategy.

Copland notes: “The challenge for C-level executives is to ensure that SEO is embedded firmly within corporate strategy, and that it is approached as another key channel that is tightly managed in line with all of the other online channels and different stakeholders responsible for a website. This way, SEO activities can be undertaken safely, consistently and robustly to drive sustainable results and business outcomes over time.”

Tachalova adds: “Good search marketing is not simply about ‘working with the website’. Indeed, in reality SEO is not self-sufficient. However, if you combine all your marketing, PR and content marketing efforts with SEO it is likely to yield strong results. The strategy should consider how all channels will best work together to reach the brand’s goals and contribute to transformational plans that will actually work for the business.”

However, aligning SEO and paid search objectives with existing corporate objectives, and obtaining buy-in from multiple stakeholders, can prove difficult, and can require some significant groundwork. For example, those responsible for marketing might argue that brand, messaging and user experience take precedence over any functional changes designed to drive traffic and conversions.

Therefore, the strategy should also consider how to build important interfaces between the various stakeholders.

Copland says: “One approach is to bring all stakeholders together to share ideas on best practices with regards to PPC, SEO and social media, as well as to agree a framework for delivering a more joined-up approach. Such stakeholders might include: digital acquisition managers and marketing executives; direct retail managers; PPC, SEO, and social media managers; and heads of legal, procurement, and web development.

“Training sessions are another beneficial activity. They don’t have to be long, but placing an experienced SEO professional in front of different teams to ensure a better understanding of the SEO process can deliver significant benefits.”

The benefits of this kind of integration also include the ability for search to driver your other marketing.

Sullivan recalls: “There was a good example where HTC found in its search data that people were looking for a purple HTC phone. They didn’t make a purple HTC phone. But because people wanted it and were looking for it, it drove them to create a phone in this colour. So that’s an example where search could drive everything for you.”

The challenge

Search marketing is a broad discipline, encompassing search engine optimisation, paid search and usability. For a search marketing strategy to be effective, it must therefore take a holistic view of all of these elements.

As Beck notes: “SEO is great, as is PPC. But without a clear, well designed site all that traffic is no good. Equally, a great, clear site with no traffic is no good either. When devising your search engine marketing strategy thinking about all these elements is critical in ensuring that the objectives of the site - whether that’s selling products, producing leads, customer self-service or just reading content - are fulfilled.

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