The other day an acquaintance I met earlier in the year called me about SEO. She is a marketing director for a large insurance brokerage firm that specializes in life insurance, specifically term life insurance. Apparently she downloaded an SEO checklist from a well-known and respected industry website. After spending 6 months implementing everything on the checklist including paying an offshore company firm to develop nearly 1,000 links, the site still had not secured first page rankings – at least for the high volume keywords.
Frustrated, she believed that the list was either not complete or did not apply to the insurance market. She remembered me because of my past policies and asked if I could send her an SEO checklist for the company’s website.
I explained that while I appreciated her confidence with my experience, the funny thing is I don’t have an SEO checklist. I stated that experienced SEO generally don’t rely on a list to optimize a website. In addition, a list itself does not contain the invaluable knowledge and experience an SEO provides a campaign. I then described 5 key areas where relying on an SEO checklist as the basis of campaign typically falls short:
1. Understanding short vs. long term campaign goals
2. Evaluating competitors strengths and weaknesses
3. Identifying new market opportunities
4. Appreciating internal resources and website constraints
5. Critiquing whether the optimization techniques have been implemented properly
1. Understanding Short vs. Long Term Campaign Goals
Clients typically want to be ranked for their money keyword – that high volume keyword such as “term life insurance” that costs a lot on a per click basis and often takes 6, 9 or 12 months to develop. At least 75% of the time a critical path to long term success involves developing content and link, both of which take considerable time to develop properly. Content must be researched, written, approved and then appropriately integrated to the site via physical vs. virtual silos. Links should also be developed with the same attention and care, especially with anchor text and types of links. In the meantime, often clients have short term goals such as developing the rankings and associated traffic for other keywords. In many campaigns we find lower volume keywords on page 2 or 3. By initially targeting these “low hanging fruit”, clients can achieve a faster return on investment from their SEO campaign. An SEO checklist cannot find “low hanging fruit” nor can it appreciate return on investment.
2. Evaluating Competitors Strengths and Weaknesses
An SEO campaign is not about beating the search engines but really about dethroning the top ranked sites to maximize traffic and revenue for the targeted keywords and the process involves evaluating your competitor’s strengths and weaknesses to find the opportunity to win. An SEO will determine what keywords for which your competitor’s are receiving traffic. An SEO will determine how did they develop their rankings (what combination of content and links)? Within a specific competitor, what rankings are their strongest and weakest? An SEO checklist cannot evaluate competitors nor can it evaluate how these issues impact the clients SEO Action Plan.
3. Identifying New Market Opportunities
An SEO checklist cannot identify market opportunities. Throughout the year we typically encounter 2, 3 or more opportunities for clients to target. Sometimes these are short-term opportunities and sometimes long term. For example, a warehouse of a competitor recently caught fire, leaving that competitor without stock for at least a 3 month window. To leverage an opportunity, we implemented a press release syndication campaign for our client announcing the availability of these items. This bumped their rankings for a set of products they typically don’t market.
4. Appreciating Internal Resources and Website Constraints
Even for web-only businesses, resources are not unlimited. For the most part, businesses cannot pour an unlimited amount of staff and money into a website. A checklist cannot appreciate the resource investment into improving a website. Nor can a checklist appreciate the constraints of a website. For example, at the beginning of an SEO campaign, we discovered that a client’s content management system (CMS) prevented us from creating unique Titles and Descriptions. The SEO needed to be paused for at least 30-days in order to upgrade the CMS.
5. Critiquing the Implemented Optimization Techniques
Finally an SEO checklist cannot critique if the optimizations tasks have been implemented with best practices. While chatting with the marketing director, I quickly found a dozen problems with the items implemented as part of the SEO checklist, starting with the Robots.txt file. Yes, the Robots.txt file. In creating a Robots.txt file, an error was made and one optimization opportunity was missed.
In terms of the error, the file contained an incorrect command making the Robots.txt file technically invalid, and that likely contributed to site indexing problem the site had. In terms of the missed opportunity, the Robots.txt file did not reference an XML Site Map. I explained the incorrect command and missing XML Site Map probably was leading in part to a site indexing problem. If the site was not getting all the web pages properly indexed, it would limit its ability of getting well-ranked.
By the end of our conversation, the marketing director understood that SEO is not as simple as implementing a checklist. While anyone can implement an SEO checklist, SEO is about knowledge and expertise, knowing what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.
SEO is about knowing what optimization tasks need to be completed as they relate to the short and long term goals. Good SEOs know that optimizing X should yield Y improvement to acquire both the low hanging fruit versus long term ranking goals. An SEO checklist cannot provide that insight.
SEO is about knowing how optimization tasks need to be implemented in order to yield optimal results. As illustrated earlier, a good SEO not only knows how to properly implement a Robots.txt file but also to validate it. An SEO checklist cannot validate itself.
Finally SEO is about prioritizing optimization techniques based on resources, competition and ranking value to the search engines. For example, if a content management system is preventing the optimization of Titles and Descriptions, this could be the critical path for the campaign. An SEO checklist cannot make business decisions.
Not understanding and appreciating the value of an SEO in these key areas is the exact reason why sites can publish checklists as the list itself is not providing significant value. At the conclusion of the call, the marketing director asked one more question, “Do you know how to assemble kitchen cabinets from IKEA?”