Mindset Shifts for Strategic SEO

How to think about growth, not just audits

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As I speak to SEOs looking to push into more senior, more strategic roles the more I realize that your mental model of SEO changes the kinds of projects you pitch and how you talk about projects at the executive layer.

And it’s easy to get stuck in the weeds. It’s easy to focus on the tactics and small optimizations - causing you to lose confidence at the executive layer and struggle to get buy-in and resources.

So if we want to think strategically, and we want to secure expanding budgets and resources here’s some mindset shifts that might help us:

  • From keyword research to TAM

  • From fixing to iterating

  • From optimizing to creating

  • From competitive analysis to competitive advantage

  • From static solutions to complex systems

  • From incremental SEO to “algo holes”

Let’s dive in:

From keyword research to TAM

TAM stands for “total addressable market” and it’s one of the first mindset shifts we need. Sometimes I talk about this as “bottoms up strategy” vs “top down strategy”:

Let’s take an example. Let’s say you work for an online stationery ecommere site. You’re trying to persuade the company to invest in content. You could look at the existing content rankings, look at the next 50 pieces of content you might write - essentially try and model out some growth bottoms up - starting with what you have today.

But top down, we might try and find a reference point to see what the total opportunity is. Turns out Hallmarks’s content hub ideas.hallmark.com gets 21m visits / year (~40% of all of Hallmark’s organic traffic).

Now there’s all sorts of reasons why this may or may not be a good analogy - and who knows how much of that traffic is revenue-generating. But if I’m an executive at company competing with Hallmark, I’m likely paying more attention to your pitch than I was before.

From fixing to iterating

Too many SEOs gets stuck “making recommendations”. This often looks like an audit or a report tossed over the wall to the engineering team. Ugh. I dislike the word audit and everything it stands for - and one of the reasons is that it anchors us to a binary definition of broken and fixed. 

In reality however, for important parts of our site and important parts of our strategy it’s not about fixing anything but rather about continually improving them.

We should be thinking of ways to continually invest in high impact projects - for example if we get 50% of our organic revenue from a single page template (e.g. like category pages) we shouldn’t look for ways to improve them, we should look for ways to continually improve them.

This might involve not just a single project but actually a dedicated workstream or team that is focused on the task at hand.

Continuous improvement might also look like re-writing and re-writing content, testing titles, testing body content. Testing content modules (FAQ, reviews, testimonials, features etc), improving layout and conversion pathways, adding features that make the page more sticky, adding pathways for more user intents.

From a strategy perspective - think about ways not just to surface insights but to continually surface insights. For example - we might think about running some user testing interviews for our product pages to diagnose and understand problems. Ok, but what about creating a pipeline of quarterly user testing? What process, budget and resources do we need to continually surface insights into our product pages? Continually surfacing insights naturally leads to continually improving them.

For valuable pages, our work is never done - so let’s not pitch a single set of improvements but rather pitch for the resources to continually improve them.

From optimizing to creating

As a counter to the above - while continually improving our most valuable assets is important, some of the biggest gains you can get as an SEO is often about creating new assets. This sounds…. obvious?

You can debate the validity of the mantra “content is king” but I think there’s a general principle that as SEOs we too often get stuck optimizing assets that others are handing to us vs thinking about creating scalable assets - increasing our surface area and expanding our opportunity for growth.

Now, I’m not saying that bigger websites are always better (we all know culling pages and improving focus or quality can make a big difference). But! It’s also true that the winner in a particular niche is very often the site with more pages and more depth of content.

If you want to win you need to figure out how to scale up your quality content beyond what’s there today into new areas, new page types and new site sections.

Which brings me to:

From competitive analysis to competitive advantage

If you’re going to make pages you need to think about your competitors not through the lens of competitive analysis but through the lens of competitive advantage.

Competitive analysis asks: what do we have and what do competitors have?

Competitive advantage asks: what can we do that competitors can’t?

This is the kind of mindset that executive team’s often operate on. Not simply asking how do we grow, but how do we build defensible growth - how do we build a moat around our business to create deeper value.

Example - I’ve worked with a number of sites in the product reviews space, the kinds of sites that compete with The Wirecutter. Unfortunately The Wirecutter has lost their way a little but at least for a while they were the “gold standard” in terms of commerce content. So on the one hand it’s useful to try and copy them. But on the other hand think about how limiting The Wirecutter’s strategy and brand is for them - think about the kinds of content and the types of pages that they are unable to create because of their positioning.

Often we look at strong brands with jealousy but a strong brand positioning can often lead to a more constrained strategy (that’s often the point!) - competing head to head with them is competing on their terms. Instead look to change the rules and play in areas they can’t.

Now as an SEO embedded in a large organization we might not understand the competitive landscape well enough to really understand our competitive advantage. But, as you travel around the organization and speak to stakeholders and executives you’ll get people paying more attention to you if you use this kind of language and ask “how can we do this in a way that competitors will have a hard time copying?”.

From static solutions to complex systems

When you’re junior it’s more common to say things like “we should improve the content” or “we should improve site speed”. We have a limited understanding of the outcomes, but very little understanding of what the process actually looks like. That’s ok to a degree - you might have never been involved in an engineering project to improve site speed! Or you might never have sat with an editorial team to see their workflow!

But for more senior leaders - it’s not good enough to simply say “we should just improve X….”. CEO’s are going to demand more rigor and depth of understanding to say “how are we going to improve X - and how will we know when we’ve done it”.

So, we need a deeper understanding of what improvement actually means. I talked about this in a previous newsletter: the uncanny valley of SEO strategy.

In short, you need what I’ve started calling “a full accounting” of your recommendations. What will it actually take to improve the content? What are all the parts of the system that need changing?

As you go down this rabbit hole you start to get a much deeper appreciation for the organization as a complex system - as you start pulling levers unexpected things happen. Every part is related to every other part! Sometimes figuring out how to improve the content is a mixture of executive buy-in, resources, education, reporting and culture change.

And it’s hard to know ahead of time all of the roadblocks, challenges and consequences of the change project.

Changing complex systems is hard and every system is different - but one mindset shift is from thinking not only about “what does better look like when it’s complete” but more like “how do we know if we’re improving over time, are we going in the right direction?”

So for example, if we’re trying to improve the editorial workflow it’s not enough to just measure the outcome once the content goes live but also what % of content is written in the new way? How long is it taking? How much are we spending? In short - we’re not just measuring the outcome but measuring the change itself.

From measuring static outcomes to dynamic systems.

This can be crucial - because at some point half way through your project someone is going to ask “how’s it going?”. And if you want to keep your budget and keep working to improve things you need a better answer than “We’re still prepping for the first piece of content go live”....

Maybe something like “We’ve rolled out training to 75% of the writers, and we’ve got 50% of the new content running on the new briefs - so far we’re seeing the new content briefs taking the same amount of time as the old ones which is a big win because we think they’re going perform much better. Next month we’ll see the new content start to roll out”

And by the way - this isn’t just for the sake of “managing upwards” but this kind of thinking and measurement is important to ensure you’re actually changing things and moving in the right direction. Sometimes your initial hypothesis is off and you’ll need to adapt - don’t wait till it’s too late to find that out. We call them complex systems for a reason!

From incremental SEO to “algo holes”

Kevin Indig used this phrase recently and I like it - traditional SEO thinking (and likely the mental model of most CEOs) says “Non-brand organic traffic accounts for 60% of our revenue. And our SEO team is working to improve that realistically by 10-20%. So my SEO team is responsible for 6-12% of the businesses revenue”.

However, for some niches - especially “your money or your life” niches like finance and health - the reality for algo updates is that if you’re not one of the winners you are one of the losers. We’re well beyond the idea of penalties and reversing penalties. Your total site traffic might swing wildly between updates like this with “algo holes”:

So how much traffic is your SEO team responsible for? You could argue in this case that they’re responsible for ~70% of your traffic (in the graph above, 6m is the low, 22m high).

Not at the week to week, month to month level but at the algo to algo level (which maps let’s say roughly to quarters or years?).

If the mental model of your executive team is still in classic SEO and doesn’t understand these kinds of “algo holes” then two things:

  1. Educating them that you’re actually responsible for 70% of revenue, not 6-12% of revenue might instantly get you more resources and buy-in

  2. You’d better be prepared to get fired when your traffic drops off a cliff with the next algo update, even if you’re “doing everything right”

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I’m still developing these mindset shifts but they’re appearing so commonly that I thought it might be useful to put them down and explore them.

What are some other mindset shifts you see being useful as you get more senior and start getting more executive visibility?