Consider the following scenario:
John runs Chicago Marketing and he recently closed 2 new SEO deals with vastly different clients:
Talladega Heating & Cooling (The Cool Things Blog): an HVAC company looking to generate more sales through their blog
Delilah's Bakery: a local mom-and-pop bakery who want to attract out-of-town customers
It's no surprise that these two campaigns will need to be custom tailored to fit each business's respective objectives, but before John can start diving into keyword research, optimizing title tags, crafting editorial calendars, and more, he needs to first understand each client's overall business objectives and how those will affect their SEO strategy.
Success: The Accomplishment of an Aim or Purpose
One of the most important questions to ask when formulating a new SEO strategy is how you will define "success". For most SEOs, it's easy to simply fall back on keyword rankings as an indicator of success. There's nothing wrong with tracking keyword rankings. In fact, it's one of the most tried and tested metrics in the industry, and any campaign that does not track keyword rankings is certainly missing out. That being said, keyword rank isn't always the most relevant metric to track for every campaign.
Ultimately, what you and your client consider "success" depends on a variety of factors. Every client has different business objectives which will affect the key performance indicators (often called KPIs) that you'll want to track.
Are they looking to increase sales or drive a particular action on their site (e.g. newsletter signup, file download, etc.)? Are they looking to increase their brand visibility on a local scale? Are they looking to take their brand national? Are they trying to improve the usability of their site? A well-planned SEO campaign should help make improvements in each of these areas; however, to maximize the effectiveness of your campaigns, it's important to choose your primary KPI wisely.
Sometimes Conversions Mean More Than Rank
Talladega Heating & Cooling are an HVAC company that specializes in modern heating and air conditioning systems. The client recently saw a YouTube video discussing how blogging & SEO can help drive more revenue, and is determined to get their site to rank number one. Their blog, The Cool Things, focuses on the newest gadgets and technology in the heating and cooling industry. It already ranks on the bottom of the first page for many HVAC-related terms, but they still haven't seen any new leads come in from their site. John is confident that he can get the site to rank in the top 3 by doing a bit of on-page optimization, so he sets up an automated monthly ranking report and doesn't strategize further.
Fast forward 3 months. The site is ranking number one for a handful of targeted keywords and the monthly keyword ranking reports are showing plenty of growth, but sales are still down. The client continues to send email after email to John, wondering why they aren't getting more clients if they are ranking number one now.
How could John have prevented this somewhat sticky situation? Most importantly, he should have set proper expectations at the beginning of the campaign. SEO is tough to understand for most people, so it's not surprising that some clients will cling to keyword rank as the end-all-be-all judge of success. As an SEO, it's your job to translate what the client says/wants into an actionable strategy that will help them improve their business. If the client's expectations are misguided, it's your responsibility to steer them in the right direction.
Because John chose keyword rank as his KPI, the client was given a false sense of success. His on-page optimizations helped get the site to the top spot of the SERPs, but didn't do much to increase sales. Since the client's main objective was to increase sales, conversion tracking would have been a much better way to gauge the success of the campaign. For example, if John had configured Google Analytics to track new form submissions or installed a call tracking plugin to monitor the amount of new leads coming from organic referrals, he would be able to tell a much more compelling story that speaks directly to the client's main goal.
Know When Visibility Is Important
Delilah's Bakery is a local mom-and-pop bakery. They opened in 1975 and have been providing delicious baked goods to customers in their area ever since. Residents of their town love their cookies and cakes, but business has been declining as of late. They're hoping to attract more customers from neighboring areas. They are adamant about optimizing their site to try to rank for the nearest big city, but they are about 75 miles away from the city centroid. John agrees to try to build new landing pages and attempt to rank for the big city, since that's the client's stated goal.
Fast forward 3 months. Even though John has worked his hardest, he still can't seem to get the site to rank for the nearest big city. The client is starting to question whether or not they would be better off spending their marketing budget on flyers and other print media, since they know those have worked for them in the past.
In this example, John's approach was flawed from the onset. Even though the client explicitly stated that their main goal was to rank for the nearest big city, their underlying objective is to expand their reach. Getting a small business website to rank for a city located nearly 100 miles away is a daunting (if not impossible) task. Helping a small business grow their average monthly organic traffic is much less difficult and can be equally as helpful. It's your responsibility as the SEO specialist to communicate this to your client.
By focusing on keyword rank, John limited the narrative he could tell with his data. Keywords can only tell so much of a story. A better approach would have been to track the incoming traffic to the site. Using Google Analytics, John could have segmented the traffic data to track the amount being sent from each of the surrounding areas. Taking a more targeted, local approach and attempting to build up rank in smaller areas first would likely have led to much more success in the eyes of the client.
Rank Isn't Everything
Success is relative: what defines success in one SEO campaign may not signify success in another. Ranking well doesn't always translate to a successful campaign, and identifying when another KPI may be more beneficial is crucial. As an SEO professional, you must understand your client's business objectives so you can choose key performance indicators. It's your job to take the raw, ugly data and use it to tell an engaging narrative that speaks to your client's goals. The fate of each campaign rests on your ability to determine appropriate KPIs and communicate the most compelling pieces of data in an easy-to-understand fashion.