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PHOTO: Sweet Ice Cream Photography

Digital marketers are often asked to wear multiple hats. Some of us come from business backgrounds, IT, engineering, data, you name it. But at the end of the day, the goal is largely the same: help our companies grow as consistently and economically as possible.

Those of us working for growth-oriented businesses that rely heavily on organic search can fall victim to a critical (yet understandable) mistake: we think of search optimization as a fast-growth channel. In my experience, however, that fast-growth mentality rarely leads to viable long-term results when it comes to hitting your company’s objectives.

Imagine one day you decide you want to run a marathon, but you're currently fairly out of shape (with a pair of dusty running shoes last seen somewhere in the basement). Signing up for a marathon next month isn’t your most sensible move. Instead, you should start jogging a few times a week, and put a 5K on your calendar for a few months down the line. 

The same logic should apply to your company’s approach when crafting an effective SEO strategy.

Every website has a certain baseline credibility in the eyes of search engines. You may have heard the terms “domain authority” or “trust flow” before, but regardless of the specific quantitative metric you’re looking at, a website will have an initial ability to rank for keywords at a certain level of competition based on a number of factors including the quality of the site, number of links coming in and, most importantly, the quality of those inbound links.

Related Article: How Content Marketers Rank SEO

SEO Growth: Know What's Within Reach

For marketers interested in growing via SEO, the most important initial task is to determine what level of competition your website can face and still achieve first page rankings. Thus, if you’re reviewing a list of 100 keywords that matter to your business, sorting your list by the highest search volumes is, in many cases, the wrong way to prioritize your content development and SEO strategy.

Instead, the first question should be: “What’s within our reach?” Homing in on the answer to that question was one of the first steps my team took towards becoming the No. 1 site for organic traffic in our industry.

The most effective search specialist is one who sets realistic goals and dedicates his or her company’s resources towards realistic outcomes. Instead of creating an on-page strategy focused on the biggest search volumes in your vertical, evaluate the competition level for your target keywords as well. If competition is high, ask yourself if your site has been able to reach the first page for that level before. If not, what reason do you have to believe you’ll be able to this time around? Are there major technical site improvements that have been implemented recently? Have new, high authority links come directly into that page? If not, it’s safe to assume your rankability, so to speak, will be the same as it was before.

A second way to efficiently sort your keyword lists is by the buyer’s stage of the funnel. Of those smaller volume and lower competition keywords that looked unappealing upon first glance, ask yourself if any of them may be high converters. Refocusing your keyword strategy around search queries that indicate a lower-funnel buyer may not drive overall traffic growth as much, but it can go a long way towards improving your conversion rates. Tools like Alexa.com’s Competitor Keyword Matrix can also help find these longer-tail keywords, as well as filter for those with buyer intent.

Related Article: The Future of SEO Is Not SEO

Understand the Nature of Search

Another difficulty that SEO-focused digital marketers face is the volatile nature of search trends. Many of us have had weeks where we celebrated an unexpected surge in traffic one day to later mourn its prompt decline, realizing the “growth” was short-lived. Whether it’s a regional promotion, a media event or (being in the solar panel industry) a blast of tweets from Donald Trump, most Americans today respond to new information by first verifying and investigating it on search engines. This search-first consumer behavior can drive significant up and down swings.

Let’s face it, tracking the algorithm updates of search giants like Google can be complex. It’s difficult enough to keep track of the long list of quality guidelines to follow and potential penalties to avoid. When traffic dramatically drops off one day, it can be hard to stay calm and resist the urge to sound the alarms.  But the key point is this: any digital marketer working on a website that relies on inbound search for 30 percent or more of website traffic should forecast and be prepared for volatility. Expect search trends to ebb and flow, and factor that reality into your growth strategy.

Are you working for a product that has seasonal lifts in search traffic, such as winter sports apparel or beach equipment? Use tools like Google Trends to look at what typically happens in certain months for your vertical in terms of online search, and build those waves into your monthly forecast. Use your off-months to get in place for your most attainable lower funnel rankings, so when peak SEO season comes around you’re already in a top position in the search results to maximize traffic and conversions.