Search engine optimization (SEO) can be difficult to implement but well worth the effort once you start seeing results.
The “once you start seeing results” part is key. SEO can take time, energy, and consistency to pay off, and the lack of immediate results can be frustrating for businesses— especially if they aren’t sure where to get started.
In order to see results in the more-competitive-than-ever search engine results pages (SERPs), we talked to SEO and content marketing expert Brad Smith about how brands (even those with new websites!) can invest their time strategically with SEO and content to boost search visibility and site traffic.
Brad Smith is an owner in three content marketing companies (Codeless, uSERP, Wordable). He’s been featured in Forbes, The New York Times, Business Insider, The Next Web, Search Engine Land, and more. And he’s worked with some of the web’s fastest growing brands, including monday.com, Robinhood, Miro, Remote, Freshworks, PandaDoc, and more.
Every year, there’s a new flurry of articles declaring something in marketing is dead. SEO has been declared dead so many times it’s almost dizzying… and yet the businesses investing in SEO successfully and ranking well certainly are reaping plenty of benefits.
Brad stressed that SEO has changed in the past decade, but that it’s the opposite of dead:
SEO was dead after Panda. Dead after Penguin. Dead after Alexa. Dead after the Knowledge Graph. Dead again after AI.
SEO doesn’t die; it’s a cat with nine lives. It evolves everyday. But the underlying fundamentals and principles have remained the same for at least the past decade.
Search engines want to:
- Index the web’s content, then
- Organize it logically, then
- Categorize the best sources from the mediocre or terrible, and then
- Surface the right answers to the right person at the right time
The unfortunate reality is that new sites will struggle to rank compared to larger and more established sites. Their domain authority is starting from scratch.
Making the right moves early, however, can help with the momentum you need to rank well in the SERPs over time. And when you’re getting started with a new site, starting with topical authority is key.
New sites fight the sandbox and entrenched competition. Not to mention, lack of credibility, authority, and popularity. All of which are required to rank for anything in the first place!
That’s why you need to establish a “beachhead” ASAP.
You need to develop topical authority. Somewhere. Anywhere!
Ideally, you’re looking for a place that intersects (a) relevance to your core product and how you solve customer pain points, along with (b) easier-to-rank topics over the next six months. So go deep and narrow in a particular space before moving too horizontally and spreading yourself too thin.
And then keep doubling down, month after month. ‘Cause your SEO results next year depend on this year’s efforts.
Keyword optimization and selection is an important part of SEO, because it can impact which searches your site appears in. Choosing the right keywords can be difficult, because you have to strike a specific balance of “as much search volume per month as possible” and “the lowest competition possible.”
And that specific balance will vary depending on your ranking potential and your domain authority.
You also want to make sure you’re choosing keywords that match with the search intent, delivering content that audiences actually want.
We developed the Planning Predictor to help answer this exact question, so you know how to reliably predict potential results before publishing a single article.
Essentially it’s a five-step process, where each step builds on the next:
1. Harvest demand: What are your customers searching for, when, and why? Perform both top-down and bottom-up analyses to build out initial keyword lists starting with relevance, volume, keyword difficulty (KD), and cost per click (CPC).
2. SERP competitiveness: How difficult are the corresponding SERPs, and can you realistically compete based on the average domain rating (DR) and quantity/quality of referring domains – right now and in the years to come?
3. Topical authority: Are you already seen as a topical expert in these spaces, or will you need to build it from scratch? (i.e., Are you already ranking for similar queries or hitting a glass ceiling?)
4. Organic CTR: Can you realistically rank in the top ~3 for this given keyword now and in the future (assuming increased competition)?
5. Payback period: What’s your ideal payback period and risk tolerance? (Zero to six months, 6-12 months, 12-18 months, 18+ months, etc.)
Content marketing is often a critical component for many brands’ SEO strategies, allowing them to rank for more keywords and building topical authority in their industries.
And if you want to have a strong SEO campaign, content marketing is still important.
You can’t really “do SEO” without content. Here’s why.
B2B SaaS companies often have the same exact problem in the early days. Look up their primary sources of traffic and keywords they’re already ranking for, and you see the same pattern time and time again:
An over-reliance on “branded” traffic, or people going to the website by searching for its name.
On the one hand, that’s good! It means you’re doing a good job generating brand awareness in a particular space through offline, paid ads, PR, and whatever else.
Now, here’s the problem. Your branded traffic is only a tiny, miniscule, sliver of the overall subset of people who could and should use your product.
In other words, if you want to start moving “upstream” in the funnel to reach more potential buyers, it means you need to also start ranking well for topics and keywords that address your customer’s actual pain points and buying cycle -- and not just your brand name!
So in plain English, this means that you HAVE to create non-branded or unbranded content in order to have any chance whatsoever of eventually ranking for this stuff.
This is literally impossible to do in competitive spaces without content. Lots of good, highly-relevant content.
This is the ultimate goal— have as many site pages and site content rank as high as possible, ideally within those top five coveted positions.
And when it comes to ranking higher, putting in the work consistently with the right strategies is the only way to start coming out on top— especially when you’re trying dislodge established sites.
Unfortunately, your “direct” product competitors aren’t actually your “direct” SEO competitors.
Instead, you’re fighting E.V.E.R.Y.O.N.E. in the Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs). That means indirect competitors, category leaders, giant publishers, review aggregators, and more.
All of which, of course, probably got started 10+ years ago and have been investing in SEO + content for just as long.
So. If you want to rank in a competitive space (read: where the real money is), it means you need to do everything better.
To compete with big sites, you need to become a big site yourself.
Look up the biggest sites in your SERPs and you’ll notice some patterns. All have:
Lots of content! (We’re talking 1,000+ pages minimum.)
Lots of good content! (We’re talking subject matter experts and insight.)
A high Domain Rating or similar. (A proxy for brand strength and popularity.)
Lots of high-quality links, PR or distribution for their top content. (Look at the quality and quantity of referring domains to their best performing pages.)
The dirty-little-SEO secret that no one likes to talk about is that if you solve for those four underlying things above, you will (a) naturally pick up things like featured snippets, etc. even if (b) your underlying page titles or content formatting, etc. aren’t the best.
Your overall brand size and strength is like a rising tide that lifts all boats.
See: Forbes.com. A content mill filled with crap for sure. But one that also ranks for EVERYTHING, regardless of quality or page titles or snippet optimization and more.
- A reliable, consistent way to continually generate new & update existing content. (Read more.)
A reliable, consistent way to continually generate new high-quality, relevant links. (Read more.)
Don’t take my word for it. We’ve surveyed 800+ SEOs annually over the past few years. And the results often come back with “more companies doing all these things well” vs. any one shiny tactic that saves the day.
There is no silver bullet in SEO.
Organic SEO efforts can be effective once the hard work starts paying off and your site starts ranking. Paid search campaigns, however, can have nearly immediate results.
In many cases, combining both campaign types to increase site traffic is a great choice if the budget is there.
Paid is great. It can help you get traffic instantly or convert leads within a few days. But it’s expensive, and it only gets more expensive over time.
Just look up the average Cost Per Click of “personal injury attorney” today vs. five years ago and you’ll notice that auction-based platforms (like digital ads) only trend one way over time.
Organic search, on the other hand, is building an asset. You invest more early on then you need to years from now. But that investment has a payback period (often ~6-24 months), where the flywheel starts to go and your ROI compounds over time.
So the question isn’t “one vs. the other.” It’s: both.
Example: We recently have a client that started seeing paid success for an “AI”-related keyword.
Now, this keyword (and space for that matter) didn’t really show a ton of results a year ago.
And yet we were able to work with their paid team to start creating new organic content around similar queries -- and they now see the best of both worlds!
This can substantially bring down the expense needed on the paid side, or simply double (if not triple) their ROI from a single keyword.
Expand this across dozens-if-not-hundreds of similar opportunities and the ROI question quickly becomes moot.
It’s always devastating to feel like you’re doing everything right, only to realize a single mistake or pitfall was keeping you from achieving the results you were working for.
So let’s take SEO mistakes that all site owners (beginners and experts alike!) need to avoid.
There are almost too many to count.
But here are the top five SEO mistakes I see time and time again:
1. Poor operational systems that create self-imposed “glass ceilings.” Ideally, you can’t just focus on publishing a high volume of articles, nor can you only publish a low volume of really high quality ones. You need to do both!
2. They lack internal processes that simplify. The type of content that generates the best results, is also the hardest and most complex and resource-intensive to create.
3. You have the wrong people in the wrong roles. Your ninja rockstar writer might be a good wordsmith, but that doesn’t mean (and often guarantees) that they’ll be bad editors and terrible content managers. Each role requires distinct skill sets that are often diametrically opposed to one another (think: ingenuity vs. standardization).
4. You’re “guessing” instead of “knowing” what works. Any trained chimp can export a list of 1,000 keywords from Ahrefs. The trick is in knowing what you should prioritize in sequence to give yourself the best shot at success in the shortest amount of time. All before writing or publishing a single article.
5. You haven’t transformed “subjective” elements into “objective” ones. All SEO campaigns fail when people’s directions change, points of contact move on, and any institutional knowledge is lost with that person because it’s in their head and not in black and white ink in a defined workflow or process.
You can read more about these mistakes here.
Keywords and alt text get a great deal of attention when it comes to SEO… but what about other more technical aspects of SEO, like HTML sitemaps?
The key comes down to (a) your bandwidth or ability to get stuff done and (b) prioritizing ruthlessly to solve the right things at the right time.
For example, should a relatively new site with only ~two dozen pages worry about their sitemap? Nope! A complete waste of time. You need more content, ASAP!
Now, what about a 10,000 page publishing behemoth? Your content hierarchy, website IA, and site map are now critical! You don’t need to optimize for new content or links as much, ‘cause you should already have lots of existing content to update (ASAP!) as well as domain strength and history to help you rank for just about anything related to your category.
Starting with the right foundation and good SEO practices is always a solid idea, but putting your efforts where they’re needed most should be the priority.
Some brands start optimizing their sites and their content and expect a near-overnight results in the SERPs… but that’s rarely the case.
So how long does it take to see results?
This is a loaded question.
Big brands can see results within days. But most can’t or won’t.
For most mortal brands (with a DR of less than 90+), it might take anywhere from 6-18 months. Depending on:
- how well you’re choosing topics and keywords,
- whether or not you’re publishing on top of existing topical authority (or whether you need to build it from scratch, using the “Beachhead Principle”), or
- whether you’re adding “fuel to the fire” in the form of high-quality, relevant backlinks.
If you can’t commit to at least six months of one direction from an SEO perspective? Then don’t bother. Just put that money into ads or somewhere else.
Realistically, it’s going to take most websites 12+ months to see the best results in SEO.
SEO may seem like the easiest marketing channel to tackle, but while it is valuable, it can take a little while and some serious work to see long-term results in tough markets.
And yes, it is getting harder and in some cases more complicated. Google’s layout and AI can shift the goal posts.
But, as Brad says,
“There’s a reason that Google’s ad business is their own #1 money maker - despite all the other crazy stuff they fund or come out with… SEO, done correctly, prints money. That’s not about to change anytime soon. And it’s not going to get any easier to “wait” vs. starting immediately.”
And if you start now? He says “You’ll thank me in ten years.”
Implementing new SEO campaigns? Sign up for MyTracker to track referral sources, including organic search traffic.