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Is Your SEO Program Chasing Unicorns?

Posted on May 12th, 2011
Written by Lee Odden
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    Keyword UnicornThere are many reasons companies invest in Search Engine Optimization ranging from a desire to attract new customers through online marketing channels to diversifying customer acquisition to ego.  That’s right, ego. Not every marketer makes SEO investment decisions based on pulling in prospects and customers to brand content for engagement and conversions.

    Often times, brands think of themselves as the leader in their category and therefore think their website should top Google’s list for queries on generic industry terms. The trouble is, leading an industry offline isn’t the same thing as being the BEST answer for a search query online.  Chasing after such terms is very much driven by ego and not unlike a fairy tale of chasing after unicorns where there’s an expectation that being #1 on a single word will magically solve their problems.

    However, going after broad industry terms isn’t a complete waste of time. When ego-driven SEO is productive, it’s geared towards building brand reputation and PR value. Of course, by “PR” I mean public relations, not page rank.  The affinity and credibility that comes from being in a top position for a generic industry term can add a lot of value to online public relations efforts, recruiting and investor relations.

    Achieving top placement on broad keywords can certainly drive a substantial amount of website traffic. In fact, TopRank Marketing has quite a few clients that have top spots for generic industry phrases and some with single word terms sending  a good portion of organic search visitors.

    In terms of buying cycle, broad queries tend to be “tire kickers” and have value for creating awareness and education but not conversions. And that’s ok, because the search experience isn’t just a single event – especially in B2B or with more sophisticated buying decisions. But brands that want those top spots need to understand what it takes to translate their offline industry dominance to search engines like Google and Bing.

    A while back I had a customer that said he wanted to be #1 on Google for the word “brain”. This client had a blog with a few thousand uniques per month.  While many SEO consultants will talk about how tough that will be and suggest options, my first response is to always ask “Why?”. Understanding motivation (chasing unicorns vs. a fighting chance at achieving goals) is essential for assessing the value and contribution to business goals.

    The client wanted to have top visibility for “brain” because it was a fairly relevant and highly popular search term. Top placement for such a word would send a significant amount of traffic and hopefully sales.  A few things to consider in such a situation include:

    • What is the potential contribution to website goals in what timeframe for a first page or top of fold position for the phrase?
    • What resources in what timeframe might it take to achieve this goal?
    • What are the current brand content and digital assets available to work with?
    • What is the current inbound link profile for the brand site?
    • What is the current position for brand content on the desired keyword(s)?
    • How many search results pages (SERPs) are there for the keyword(s)?
    • How many of those SERPs contain the exact match keyword(s) in title tags, on-page titles, in URLs?
    • How many inbound links are there to the top ranking pages for the target keyword(s)?
    • How many inbound links contain the exact match keyword(s)?
    • What is the distribution of website types as link sources? (news, blogs, web pages, .edu, .gov, etc)
    • How often are the top webpage URLs mentioned in Tweets, FB updates and other social streams?
    • What is the link acquisition growth over time for the current top pages for the target keyword(s)?
    • How many pages on the current websites showing well for the target keyword(s) are specifically optimized for those terms?
    • How old are the sites currently showing well for the target keyword(s)?
    • How much content is dedicated to the target keyword(s) on and offsite for top pages?
    • What is the difference on key metrics like quantity/quality of optimized pages, inbound links and social mentions of brand content vs. pages that occupy the top 5-10 positions for the target keyword(s)?

    A competitive assessment plus a forecast of resources, timeframe and business impact can paint a clearer picture for brands that want to chase after “unicorn” keywords and SEO.  When budget is not an issue at all, then by all means, satisfy basic business case requirements and go for it. But unlimited budget is rarely the situation.  Most SEO programs operate within a scope of work and resources must be allocated according to the SEO strategy.

    In the case of the “brain” client, a presentation of the numerous hospitals, universities and government websites plus the websites that had thousands of pages and many years head start with link building resulted in the conclusion that going after “brain” would be a losing proposition. Especially within the scope of available hours. The decision was made to go after a mix of keyword phrases representative of the interests potential customers might have in the cilent’s offering.   Better to go after keyword phrases that are achievable within a shorter time frame resulting in business outcomes like sales, than allocating a substantial portion of the program to a keyword that might take a year or years to achieve a first page placement on. This client’s blog has now achieved upwards of 350,000 uniques per month focusing on long tail phrases and opened up a new business model for advertising.

    Does this mean, going after all broad industry keyword terms is chasing keyword unicorns? No.  Go after the broad phrases or word(s) if:

    • There are substantial resources for content creation (creativity and diversity), link building, online PR, social media and networking and reverse link engineering.
    • The brand site is nearly the online leader in content and links for the desired keyword(s) and simply needs SEO refinement, targeted link building and process adjustments internally
    • The acquisition of top placement for the broad phrases is forecast within a reasonable time period and with a desirable outcome in comparison to resources and budget necessary.

    Companies that expect to drive customer acquisition and ongoing engagement through search should be focusing on customer-centric keywords anyway and not on ego phrases that give them a warm fuzzy with little chance of returning business value.  We’ve experienced a focus on keywords that represent consideration and purchase buying cycle behaviors to be more achievable more quickly. The interesting thing is, over time, broad phase visibility can still occur.

    The fork in the eye of my logic is when a senior executive with the brand simply wants the unicorn, period. They want that trophy and the internal marketer/SEO vendor are charged with finding a way to make it happen. If budget and resources can allow for succes – great. If not and logic fails, there’s not much more you can do.

    What’s your decision process for going after broad or single terms in a keyword mix? Do you dismiss in favor of long tail? Do you see it as a challenge and go after it anyway? Do you evaluate on the criteria I’ve listed above? What additional criteria would you include?