As a business leader in an agile organization, how should you approach SEO in order to make it a continuous improvement machine? Here's our framework for doing just that!
If you are an SEO Pro looking to level-up your product/agile skills for SEO, we recommend checking out The SEO Sprint.
Hello, everybody, and thank you so much and thank you for coming to my talk today. I'm going to be speaking to you about Agile SEO and how you can build a continuous improvement machine for SEO for your brand. I'm, again, Tory Gray, I run The Gray Dot Company. We are an SEO consulting company we specialize in technical and strategic SEO. My background is that I've been an SEO and digital marketing for about 14 years. I've worked agency side and in house at startups of various sizes and stages. I've been in growth, product roles and marketing roles doing SEO and growth. And this experience helps me pattern match my way to successful results. So hopefully, I'll be able to do something new today.
Agile SEO 101: Building a Continuous Improvement Machine for SEO
Tory Gray & Sam Torres @GrayDotCo
First, I want to talk about why you might care about SEO.
I like to compare SEO to saving for retirement. Much like retirement SEO is not always sexy, because it's not always the fastest thing that you could be doing to make money today. And it's almost never the urgent thing you could be doing. Again, like retirement, if you have a car that's having issues, suddenly you need to fix that. And instead, much like in your business, there's always going to be fires to put out. SEO is rarely a fire; it's one of those "important not urgent" kinds of things. But what you miss out on if you don't do SEO is this sort of compound interest, you know, line that you're seeing here on this graph. Most paid channels act like simple interest where you put money in and you get money out. If you want a new user, you put up a paid campaign, you get X money in return, certainly work to optimize that. But once you turn off that paid advertising, the money stops rolling in.
SEO is wonderful, because your efforts in your work compound over time and add up to mean that you're not always doing the same work. The work that you did yesterday, is the work you did yesterday, and you can do today. And overtime that is meaningful. So SEO means: (1) your efforts compound, (2) your acquisition costs are reduce, and (3) you meet your customers where they are, whether they're looking directly for the products and services that you offer, or if they're looking for, say, how to solve a problem that you can resolve with your products and services.
Why SEO? Compound Interest vs Simple Interest
If you're lucky, and if you're really smart, you can also build an SEO moat. So what I mean by that is using SEO so well that you actually create a competitive advantage for your business. Airbnb is a great example of this, they saw an opportunity where many different people were looking for terms such as vacation rentals, Rome, or Denver, any city, you name it, there's many 1000s of searches for each of these individual terms and all the variations. And obviously they have homes that can be saved in in all of these locations.
They wanted a way to service all of these people. So what they did is built out 125k actually good templatized pages to help serve this need, with clean URLs, great UX, actually customized and the experience was great for what users were looking for. So it is definitely this templatized tactic is something I've seen many businesses go after, but it's not frequently done quite as well as they did it. And that matters to this story.
Thanks in part to this work, Airbnb was able to turn off paid advertising when COVID came about and somehow still managed to retain 95% of their site traffic. So during a time that was hard, globally, worldwide, you know, they were able to maintain their business and keep going and get more traction in other ways because of this SEO moat they built. Canva is another cool example. There's another similar version of this, there's a link at the bottom of this slide from Ross Simmonds and Foundations. They're a cool company, go check it out and read more about that.
Dominate with an SEO Moat: How AirBnb Created an SEO Moat That Seems Invincible
I'm going to talk to you a little bit about what SEO is - and what SEO is not - as well as what I mean by a continuous improvement machine for SEO.
SEO is not a tool. And this is a common misconception. Many people seem to think, "Oh, but I have Yoast on my website. I'm done right?"
Unfortunately, that's not the case. It's that's a tool, not a channel and not a means to grow your business over time. It's not something you can set and forget.
It's not spammy text. It used to be but it isn't anymore (thank goodness.)
It's not for Google or another search engine. It's actually for the user. It is searching for how to resolve some problems they're experiencing.
It's not really growth hacking, though, obviously, there are quick wins just like any marketing channel. I
t's also not a silo, and it gets treated like this too often, but SEO should be integrated with your other marketing channels. And it should be really well tied to your broader business objectives.
SEO is strategic. SEO is a relative game. And I think this is another misconception. SEO is a race - it's really more of a marathon because it takes a while. But each race can vary. And what you need to do to win to get each individual race again varies, so you need to understand the competitive landscape so that you can do a better job competing in that race.
SEO requires ongoing time and effort that you need to measure and improve upon overtime.
So today, what I'll be covering is, I'm not going to cover Agile and teach you how to do agile step by step I'm not gonna be talking about Kanban or Scrum, I'm not gonna be walking you through a particular skill toolset like a JIRA. Rather, what we're going to be doing is talking through a high level framework about how you how you can create a process - a process machine that lets you put the right inputs in at the right time to get the engine started and rolling forward and growing over time.
Continuous Improvement Machine for SEO
SEO is not:
A framework for data-driven, iterative growth.
What I want you to walk away with today is two things,
(1) what's needed to launch a program and what you don't need, and
(2) a process for improving SEO results in an agile fashion.
Plus, I'm gonna give you some resources to help you do this along the way. So let's get started.
Ideally, you'll learn:
What's needed to launch an SEO program (and What's not needed)
A process for Improving SEO Results in an Agile Fashion
Are you a startup looking to determine IF SEO is a good fit for you right now? Look no further. Also check out: what SEO work should you do, when, as a new startup?
The very first thing I want you to do is get started on a keyword strategy. To do so, you're going to look for some good tools. First, you can use Moz, you can use Ahrefs, Semrush the Google Keyword Planner Tool, you pick your tool, pick one, ideally two and pull from that data. What you're going to do is really seek to understand what users are looking for that might map to your brand.
As you use these tools, I want you to clearly understand the limits of this data, this this historical keyword data predominantly. So you're not going to understand, for example, "hot new trends" that are happening in the world because it's a 12 month rolling average of how frequently people are searching for thing every month. So if you want to look at new Hot Trends, you're going to go to Google Trends or Pinterest Trends. So pick the right tool and the right data set to solve your problem.
I want you to pick good keywords, which is harder than you might think. So almost everyone we talked to, you know if they have not done SEO before, wants to start with some big broad keyword. But the reality is, you're not going to rank for "cars," for example, unless you're Wikipedia or Cars.com, or Carmax, you're not going to rank on page one for the word car. If you are a car dealership in Birmingham, Alabama, you should probably be thinking about targeting terms that clarify that you are a car dealership, and your city and state that you're located in. So those words matter.
I want you to focus on accuracy, brand alignment, and opportunity for for growth for your business.
By brands aligned, I specifically mean choosing the right words that describe your product that align with your brand positioning. So an example there would be Monday.com, who is a "workflow platform", versus JIRA, who is a "project management software "tool set. People might have different willingness to pay for different versions of things because you know, framing in their head about what they think that that thing is worth. So you as a business are deciding what that is, obviously. But choose your keywords and align them well with your brand, especially when you're talking about your homepage and your core pages - so everything that's linked in your top now.
The next step is to organize it all into a matrix, which is - just picture a spreadsheet where you're really aligning keywords to the pages that you want to rank for that keyword. I want you to group them by keyword intent. So there's no real substantial difference between "car dealership Birmingham" and "Birmingham car dealership," right? So those are the same intentions when they look for those. So you can have multiple keywords to one page. Specifically don't want to "sprinkle your keywords around" is a common mistake. If you're not sending clear signals to Google about what page you want to rank for what term then they aren't going to know which page to show to users. So mapping that out helps you implement that way. O
Once you're confident in the keyword that you've chosen If you're not sure I recommend you Google it. They might not be perfect results. But that's Google's best and latest data about what people are looking for in relation to that term. So go see who else shows up for that and if you think you could hack it, among who's showing there.
But again, once you're confident in your keyword, I want you to go do good on page optimization work for those pages. So there's a ton of great guides out there, you can google just google on page optimization. Moz has a good guide, you know, take your pick, they're all pretty good. You can also use a an AI or machine learning tool like Outranking.io, or Clearscope - all great tools to help you do on page optimization.
Keyword Strategy for Core Landing Pages
The next thing I want you to do is start creating strategic content. So by strategic content, that typically means a blog. But it doesn't have to be it's just any place where you're creating content that is about your subject matter, but isn't what your product does, specifically. So, in the previous step, when you defined your keywords for your core pages, you defined what your battle, here we're talking about kind of everything else in relation to your brand.
That content can be content created for different personas, it can target different stages of the customer funnel. So is it a top of funnel brand awareness sort of keyword? Or is it a very longtail purchase oriented keyword, you can create thought leadership pieces where you share your unique perspective, or you do some hot take and press some buttons. You've got lots of options there.
What I want you to focus on is ideally identifying gaps that you see in the marketplace, because you know, in your industry, what your competitors aren't doing, are they not addressing some keywords? Are they not addressing the why when you know, they're telling everyone how to do it, but not why they might want to do it, for example.
See what you can do to bring something new to the table to provide new and unique value. That's really what you want to try and cover. If you can't do that, and or you're not sure where to start, I would just do some competitive research and understand what your competitors are ranking for and look at those keywords, and to the extent that those makes sense for you try and craft some content around that. And then try and do it better than them. Don't just do exactly what they're doing and put it out there and then expect that to do what I want you to experiment.
I want you to explore your options, I want you to play some bets and see how that works out. I want you to build quality content and work to gain context with Google and with your users about what your product or your service is.
So bottom line, I want you to publish stuff that you actually like - that you're proud of - and keep it up.
What subjects/keywords have you not already covered?
Publish stuff you are proud of
The next thing I want you to do is look at SEO best practices. Typically, this is technical SEO, or content quality best practices.
This one is interesting to me, because it feels like there's often people on both sides of the divide, wherein one group tends to believe in best practices and never wants to question them and you know, must adhere to them at all times. Another group perhaps thinks that that's silly, and that they want to test everything all the time and make it completely customized to their brand. That takes time and money to get there and can lead to uneven results where sometimes foundational basics aren't in place. So how we want you to treat best practices is a place to start and improve upon over time. If your AV testing shows you that there's something you could be doing better, that's not best practice, that's great, you should absolutely do that.
So best practices: a place to start.
SEO Best Practices
Then you're just going to keep going, keep practicing and execute, collect your data, evaluate it and work to improve your process.
Rinse & Repeat
While you do that, I want you to watch your funnel. So this is an SEO funnel specifically.
You might have heard that SEO takes a long time. And it can. It's a bit of a misnomer though. Because if you're starting SEO from scratch, you need to build up your funnel, you're not going to start having conversions from the work that you do until you have impressions until you start ranking highly until you start getting enough rankings and clicks to get enough traffic to get enough people on your site to convert. So probably don't expect conversions in month one. But at the same time, if you're waiting six months to see if you're trending in the right direction, you're probably doing it wrong.
So watch your funnel and make sure you're trending in the right direction.
Watch your SEO funnel & KPIs
SEO is slowest at the beginning, so watch for leading indicators to ensure things are moving in the right direction:
Okay, so what you might notice that this is not right now is this doesn't involve a huge big strategy of the game and that's purposeful.
It's something I see many smart teams do too frequently, they spend so much time planning and creating the perfect strategy that they don't get around to execution for six months, or nine months... or a year. It takes time for SEO to work and to grow. So if you're not "doing something," then you're losing time, and you're losing out on the opportunity to build context and authority.
So I want you to get the engine started by doing "something", even if it's not perfect, and then work to improve it over time and see how that works for you.
I typically see a transition here of maybe three to six months, where you just start doing things get things aligned, where you can then shift gears to creating a good strategy, and then use that to inform your cycle to get better.
I don't want you to be thoughtless about this work, don't move fast and break things.
But I do want you to develop a bias reaction, I want you to collect your data, I want you to refine your process, I want you to use that insight to inform your strategy.
One caveat here would be that if you have a great member of your team that can put together an epic strategy in a week, then you should do that. If you can afford to pay someone to put you together an epic strategy in a month, then that's fantastic. If you can be both smart and fast, then you should do that. But that's not a reality that most businesses experience at very early stages, and the key question here is is the time: don't wait six months to be a little bit smarter, or a little bit more perfect, or a little bit more polished.
Have a bias for action!
What this is not
6 months of Strategy + No Action
Don't: Move Fast & Break Things
Do: Have a Bias for Action
Okay, what's next. So while you keep executing, mind you, then you're also going to shift some resources to starting to collect more data points to help improve, to help put together your first strategic roadmap, and we'll review each of these inputs in detail. The first place to start is your business objectives: are you looking to increase acquisition costs? Or I'm sorry, increase acquisition at all costs? Or do you want to reduce your costs? Or do you want to go international? Or are you trying to get hyperlocal? Are you looking to position an executive team member as a thought leader in your industry, so you can get good PR coverage?
These are all things that SEO can support, so I want you to define what those objectives are, and prioritize them and see what SEO can support on in a timely manner and work gets those.
If you don't have real goals, or if SEO doesn't "know" those real goals, don't be surprised that you don't like your SEO results. Traffic is not the end goal of this work - it's simply a means to an end. So we want to move the right traffic from the right user at the right time. And that's where the magic happens.
Your SEO Strategy Inputs:
The first place to start is your business objectives. Are you looking to increase acquisition costs? Or, I'm sorry; increase acquisition at all costs? Do you want to reduce your costs? Or do you want to go international? Are you trying to get hyperlocal? Are you looking to position an executive team member as a thought leader in your industry, so you can get good PR coverage?
These are all things that SEO can support. So I want you to define what those objectives are, and prioritize them and see what SEO can support on in a timely manner, and work gets those.
If you don't have real goals, or if SEO doesn't know those real goals - don't be surprised that you don't like your SEO results. Traffic is not the end goal of this work. It's simply a means to an end. So we want to move the right traffic from the right user at the right time. And that's where the magic happens.
The next thing you're going to do is to find the opportunity, so we're looking to answer, "How can we achieve these objectives, and can we achieve these objectives using organic search today?"
I want you to define your brand's what I'm going to call a universe of keywords. So again, use your keyword research tools and your competitive data to find just all the keywords you can there everything related to your brand, directly and indirectly. Once you know those keywords, I want you to calculate how often are they searched for, how often are they clicked on? How much traffic and revenue? What does that translate for your brand?
What is the opportunity of doing this work? And what is the opportunity cost if you don't and if your competitors do it instead? So I mean, ultimately, you are defining your digital TAM - your addressable market, digitally speaking.
One thing I want to call out here is that some businesses are building new industries, and that's an SEO play that's pretty different than an established industry. Another different use case would be, you know, you have a new product line to solve the problem but a user knows what their problem is - versus they don't even know they have a problem yet, right? So they're all different scenarios and how you might approach those is different.
So look for the data, figure out where people are, and plan accordingly.
Defined, Prioritized Business Objectives
Because SEO is a race, you need to understand the competitive atmosphere: where are they today? And where are they going? So on the current site, that means viewing their site, you can be looking at things from how much do they charge for shipping and what is what are their price points, and how fast is their website? How well optimizes their content? How quickly are they pacing at content production, and how good quality is that content? Are they building links? What are they doing well, what are they doing badly?
On the investment side, I want you to do research to understand what people do they have doing which work. You can use LinkedIn to figure out how many people are on the marketing team or even on the SEO team if you want to dig in further there. I want you to understand - what's the size of their team now? Are they on a hiring spree? Are they raising money? And can you tell through internet research basically, how that's impacting results for them? So are they publishing? Are they a public company, and then you know how much revenue they have? Are they bragging about their new hires or their new results. You can pull that data, and then you can kind of back into some estimates of how that's doing. And really, you're going to want to compare this side by side. Um, so I've included there's a link at the bottom of this template, and you can click on that, and there's going to be some competitive audit templates that you can utilize, if you like.
What you're looking to define here - at minimum - is what work do you need to do to keep up, and better yet, I want you to identify gaps for opportunity, where can you really blow that competitor out of the water and do something substantially more impressive than then?
Competition Analysis: Current & Investment
Now we come to the classic SEO audits we know and love - everyone wants to do an SEO audit. But this is really about understanding where your brand is today. And the goal is to define the known tangible issues and opportunities that are classically SEO,
I'm splitting these into 2 tiers.
So let's talk about the first tier: that's around accessibility and index ability, which are related but slightly different.
Accessibility is, "do you let search engines in to your site in the first place?" And indexability means, "do you allow them to use your pages to show to their users that look for things on Google?"
So there are reasons why you wouldn't want to index certain pages on your site, like cart pages or account pages. But you don't want to accidentally not allow indexation on pages you do want to show up because that could bring you business value, right? So, tier one is really about classic technical SEO.
It is a critical tier, because tier two doesn't matter. If you can't solve tier one, you can't look more impressive if Google can't get in the door in first place. Right?
So that said, technical SEO tends to be less critical for small sites. So you may not need technical SEO to start, or you may be very little to just "check some boxes" to make sure you're not doing anything too silly.
The second tier is really about a trade off of the value versus the effort. So "are you giving Google enough enough goods to help their end users get what they want," versus the work that you're making them do it in order to do that.
So - it takes work for Google to do what they're doing. They're spending resources to crawl your site to index it, to store it, to serve it to their users -so make it worth their while, right? And these are more interesting, fun audits, because they help you "stand out." So things get more interesting here is what I call this, this can be Core Vitals, this is backlinking, this is E-A-T, content, quality, all of those cool things.
So really, you want to do enough to stand out, and make sure that the value you're providing to Google in the users is enough that it's worth whatever work you're making them do in order to get at that.
If you check out thegray.company/templates, it's the same hyperlink as some of those other links on the bottom -there's a maintenance checklist that can help you understand which audits to do relatively on what frequency to help you out there.
(Own) Site Analysis: What to Evaluate
Tier 1: Accessibility & Indexability
Do you let search engines “in the door”? When you do, do you allow them to index your content?
Potential Areas / Activities
Tier 2: Trade-off of Value vs Effort
Do you make it worthwhile for a search engine to do this work?
Potential Areas / Activities
Okay, now we're gonna shift gears and look at your results today. Hopefully, you've been executing on your content production this whole time, and you're starting to see some interesting trends!
So dig in, identify your gaps, look at your funnel drop offs for key users, or key users you're not yet addressing,.I want you to use these insights and create hypotheses as to why you think these happen, and use that to define what you should be doing more of - and what you should be doing less of.
Your Data & Results
Last but not least: critical one! I want you to talk to your stakeholders.
SEO works best when it's cross functional. So it can mean really dramatic effects in terms of your ability to scale your SEO, if everyone's doing the things in a "slightly better for SEO way". So if you want to maximize success, if you want to seek those efficiencies and reduce time and effort and duplication.
These are the teams that we like to coordinate with, typically to make sure that happens that might be more or less for you depending on your org. But you're looking for those Win Win scenarios. How can you help them succeed in SEO will succeed as well.
I want you to combine all of these inputs and put together a roadmap [a gameplan of how to execute your SEO Strategy]. You'll do this roughly every six to 12 months, or anytime there's a big change in your work. So that could be a really big strategic shift in the business; this could be something's really working, or something's really not working, right?
So all your inputs, your results, your objectives, your research, your audits - and then do the work to connect the dots. What execution are you doing, that rolls up to what strategy, that rolls up to what objective? That way when things change, or things are working or aren't working, you can clearly keep doing or not doing what you want to do there.
And then you're going to do it again, maybe six months later, or 12 months later, and keep going.
Now you've got a continuous improvement machine in the process.
.... One last critical addition
Consult your stakeholders, and prioritize those efforts that also support:
Okay, so now you have a game plan, how do you launch your SEO program? And then how do you grow strategically in it over time in an agile way, but is there more? Of course, there's always more he could be doing.
So be creative and have fun with it. Think bigger, play with scale.
Use user generated content, build the fastest, most beautiful website ever build a brand that users love?
And the SEO will follow.
Thanks again! I'm Tory Gray, there's a link again to all the resources that you can use if you want to take action on this. So let me know what questions you might have or how I can help.
If you need help from an SEO Agency, contact us to learn more.