Ecommerce SEO: The Ultimate Guide for Business Owners
What results should you expect from your ecommerce SEO strategy? Where should you really invest your time and money? We cover it all in this essential guide for business owners, CMOs and other decision-makers.
You can’t throw a stone without hitting an ecommerce SEO guide that deftly earns its superlatives. Some guides are definitive. Some are simple (but complete). And some are even ultimate. What are the plucky SEO pros at Studio to do when we want to provide a helpful guide — dare we say, an ultimate guide — that doesn’t simply rehash what's out there?
We write the guide that business owners and decision-makers need. Part how-to, part analysis of the landscape, and part budget-minded reality check, this guide will help you stay up to speed with any SEO strategy and decide where to move your resources next. If you want to DIY your entire SEO strategy, the three guides linked above will help you out. If you’re wondering which parts of your strategy to DIY and which ones to delegate, stick with us. You’ll also learn:
checkWhat is the going rate for each part of an SEO strategy?
checkHow long should each portion take?
checkWhat priorities should you focus on?
checkWhat results can you expect, and when?
checkWhat are the most important ranking factors in 2020?
And of course, we’ll cover the basics. We want to make you well-informed and SEO-fluent no matter how active you decide your role in the SEO strategy will be.
What Is SEO?
It’s Google’s job to serve the most useful, relevant possible pages for billions of search queries per day. It's the SEO strategist's job to make pages useful and relevant.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a collection of strategies that help websites rank higher in the search results for relevant keyword searches. Individually, these strategies accomplish goals ranging from better website navigability to more interesting, readable content. Collectively, they're focused on one thing: making a page or website the perfect fit for its target audience.
To grasp SEO conceptually, consider the business goals of Google and its parent company, Alphabet Inc:
People use Google’s search engine to make 3.5 billion searches per day. A small percentage of those searchers will choose to click on an ad instead of an organic listing, and that small percentage creates the bulk of Google’s revenue.
Functionally, Google is an advertising company. It just happens to sell ads on the search engine of choice for 92% of searchers worldwide.
When someone Googles a query, Google’s profit model depends on its ability to return the best the internet has to offer on the subject. If the search engine returned off-topic, hard-to-read, or slow-loading pages instead, we’d all switch to a different search engine and render Google's ad real estate useless.
The question is, how does Google sift through the billions of pages in their index and find the best ones every time? They create a set of objective metrics, called ranking factors, which stand in for our subjective experience of usefulness.
That’s where SEO comes in. By understanding Google's ranking factors to the extent that we can, SEO strategists help websites become as search-friendly and competitive as possible.
To put that another way: it’s Google’s job to serve the most useful pages possible, and it's the SEO strategist's job to make pages as useful as possible.
Google's Ranking Factors In 2020
Industry-wide, when we reference “Google’s search algorithm” we actually mean “Google’s many search algorithms.” Each algorithm explores a different facet of website or user behavior, then it's weighted with the others to determine the final rankings for a page.
Google’s ranking factors are of fundamental interest to SEO strategists so we can know how to optimize the page or website to better meet Google’s criteria. Unfortunately, they’re also closely guarded by Google. While we may know the specific weight given to each of Google’s 200+ ranking factors, we do know what the most important ranking factors are:
How much do the results meet the needs of the query? Signs that the page is relevant include code and content that aligns with the search query; links from relevant, high-authority pages; and signals that the user found what they were looking for.
Authority and Expertise
Does the site have authority, and does its content display signs of expertise? A major tool for Google is the “You are who your friends are” approach: links from high-authority sites are votes of confidence that pass authority to the site that’s linked. The search engine can also use brand mentions, linked or unlinked.
What’s happening on the rest of the site also influences authority. If the site has already built authority via inbound links, a new page will start performing better and faster than a new page on a low-authority site. Similarly, if we write a blog post about some facet of SEO, we’ll demonstrate more authority on the subject if we’ve written useful content about other facets of SEO before.
How good is the user experience? Does the site load swiftly? Is the site architecture friendly for people and search engines? Is the site free from broken links and other experiences that slow down or dead-end the user? Is the mobile experience just as user-friendly as the desktop experience?
How secure and trustworthy is the site? You can consider the HTTPS protocol one of your “ticket to ride” ranking factors. Without it, you’ll have a hard time competing at all.
Additional Ranking Factors
For some search queries, additional ranking factors come into play more heavily. For example, if the search is related to a trending topic then Google’s “freshness” algorithm will kick into high gear because it’s likely the user wants the most up-to-date information possible. For queries seeking information that doesn’t change over time, like “how to tie a tie,” the freshness algorithm is more of a background player.
The Building Blocks of an SEO Strategy
The tactics that make up a full SEO strategy are designed to establish authority, relevance and trust site-wide and eliminate obstacles for search engines and people. They’re fundamentally intertwined with other marketing strategies like PR, content, social media and web design — PR and content so much so, in fact, that they could be pulled under the umbrella of SEO.
Because SEO includes such a comprehensive set of tactics, individual strategies need to be tailored for the website. However, the bones of SEO look more or less the same across strategies. You can expect a full SEO strategy to include some combination of the following:
An SEO Audit
You could look at the front end of a website and capture initial SEO takeaways within 30 minutes, but it takes a deep dive to build a full inventory of opportunities and issues. Site audits also examine the factors that impact crawling and indexing, ensuring that your optimizations can actually take effect.
These site-specific improvements could be as quick and easy as updating tags on a page, or as ongoing and time-intensive as working on site speed optimizations with a developer. It completely depends on what your audit turns out and how priority those issues are compared to other on-site improvements.
Depending on the size of the site and the scope of the project, some specialists perform keyword research one page at a time while others create a keyword map for the whole site. The former can yield better results at the page level, while the latter helps you identify gaps or redundancies in your site architecture.
Once you know the target keywords for a page, you can optimize the page’s content and meta data to reinforce the relevance of those keywords. Additional on-page improvements to make the page more usable or align it better with the search intent can also occur.
Websites can build a lasting relationship with their audience, reinforce their subject authority, and target a diverse net of long-tail keywords through their content strategy.
What’s good for the user is (almost always) good for SEO. UX improvements take aim at the website’s navigation, site design and the experience it provides for both desktop and mobile users.
These are the strategies that generate critical signals of trust and authority by earning backlinks and mentions from relevant, high-authority sites. Off-site SEO overlaps heavily with PR; both strategies are invested in thought leadership and newsworthiness.
And of course, every SEO strategy has KPIs and a system for measuring and reporting on results. Formalized reports usually happen on a monthly basis, but strategists use reporting tools much more often than that to diagnose issues, build strategies and test theories.
DIY, Agency or In-House SEO?
Whether you choose to work with an SEO agency, hire an in-house expert or go it alone depends on your budget, goals and strengths. In the following chapters, we'll walk through each element of an SEO strategy more carefully. This time we'll discuss the skills and tools needed, the level of expertise required, and the amount of time each tactic takes.
Basic SEO Setup
Connect your site to Google Analytics and Search Console as early as possible so can access to your site's historical data when you need it.
Prior to getting started on any SEO work, take care of the basics: add and configure Google Analytics, add Search Console and submit your sitemap, and configure your website’s settings for optimal crawlability.
Basic SEO Setup: To DIY Or Not To DIY?
We always encourage you to DIY this part! It's easy to set up Google Analytics and Search console, and key players at every level can benefit from getting comfortable with these powerful tools. If you need resources, check out:
checkGoogle’s free Analytics Academy
Once you move beyond the basics into specific Google Analytics configurations like goal-tracking and filters, the choice of whether to DIY or not is up to you. If you're going to learn anything that’s outside the purview of your role, Google Analytics is an excellent choice; it’s extremely useful and has a friendly learning curve.
Cost-Savers To Avoid
If you’re not interested in learning Google Analytics, don’t DIY configurations just to save money. Specialists can perform these tasks quickly, so the amount of money you’d spend having a professional do it would be cheaper than the amount of time you’d spend learning.
AT A GLANCE:
Basic SEO Setup
checkWorking knowledge of Google Analytics
checkWorking knowledge of your ecommerce platform
checkAbility to perform research as needed
No soft skills apply
Adding Google Analytics and Search Console to your site and submitting your sitemap: Depending on how much you already know about adding Google Analytics to your site and how much you’re interested in learning, 10-60 minutes.
Developing a working knowledge (not advanced understanding) of Google Analytics as an absolute beginner: if you spend up to an hour per day for 1-2 weeks working through these Google Analytics for Beginners courses, you’ll feel confident using the tool.
The SEO Site Audit
An SEO audit is a front- and back-end survey of how a website measures up against SEO best practices. The takeaways allow you to address major technical issues early and prioritize your SEO strategy moving forward.
Wondering why so many SEO strategies start with an audit? Take a look at a pyramid the SEO experts at Moz have dubbed Mozlow's Hierarchy of SEO Needs:
You'll notice that content, despite being the long-reigning king of SEO, isn't the base of the pyramid. That’s because there are more fundamental things that impact how well the content can be crawled and indexed in the first place.Technical issues can hamper or even halt the impact of further optimizations, and sometimes the only way to catch some of them is to take a detailed look under the hood.
To see how detailed that look is, refer to one of our favorite audit checklists. It’s a big project! Fortunately, most SEO pros don’t move through a list like that step by step; they use initial data pulls and their subjective observations to make inferences about what to analyze next.
SEO Audit: To DIY Or Not To DIY?
Even if you DIY everything else in your strategy, we don’t recommend DIYing the SEO audit. To run a successful audit, you have to know exactly what you’re looking for, how to interpret the information you’re seeing, and where your results will lead you next. Only experience and applied knowledge can give you that level of fluency.
The good news is, once you have your audit and recommendations, you can decide who should take on each individual strategy.
If your website is small, fairly new, and built on an out-of-box platform without any custom functionality, you can get started on an effective SEO strategy right away without running an audit. At that point, you can make some assumptions:
checkThere likely aren’t dire technical SEO issues because your platform will have done its best to prevent them
checkThat means the fundamentals will take your website far: keyword research, on-page optimization, and excellent content. You’ll be able to work through the basics for quite awhile before it’s time to move into a more advanced, customized strategy.
Just be aware that the second you change your website’s default settings, add plugins, purchase a custom theme or add custom functionality, you change your platform’s out-of-box SEO-friendliness. Read the reviews for plugins and themes carefully to make sure your additions are speedy and SEO-friendly.
Cost-Savers To Avoid
Website audits can’t be fully automated. In fact, they’re not even mostly automated. Even the simple ones, like our free website checkup, require a healthy dose of subjective feedback. We might use tools and templates to make our process scalable, but at the end of the day there’s at least one marketing pro with a vested interest in your site performing each test and interpreting the results. Be skeptical of audits that aren't highly customized for the website.
Additionally, revisit Chapter 1's components of an SEO strategy and look for evidence that your audit covers everything. Most of the cheap SEO audits will only include information that’s freely available in Search Console, like the number of missing or duplicate title tags or meta descriptions a website has. That’s important information to know and it will usually be included as part of the audit, but it’s not complete information until it’s weighed against the other factors and put into perspective.
To that last point: imagine your doctor orders a series of lab tests as part of your annual physical exam. Then imagine that when the results come back, your doctor simply emails you files of the raw data instead of interpreting the information for you and helping you develop a plan to address priority issues. Beware the audit that yields only raw data without helping you complete the puzzle.
AT A GLANCE:
The SEO Audit
Advanced understanding of search engine behavior - including:
checkHow to diagnose a crawling or indexing issue
checkEvery attribute tag and when to use them
checkExactly which tools to use for each task
checkHow to interpret and prioritize the information from page speed or mobile usability tests
checkWhat the most likely causes of duplicate content are and how to fix them
checkWhat each error code means
checkWhat different URL parameters mean
checkHow to analyze sitemaps and robot.txt files
checkProficient with crawling and debugging tools
checkProficient with Google Analytics, Excel, and data analysis
checkComfortable with web developer tools
To knock an SEO audit out of the park, a person should be:
checkSavvy about branding and design
checkIntuitive about how people search and the messages they respond to
The amount of time an audit takes depends on the website’s complexity and the depth of the audit. Many audits come part and parcel with a competitor analysis and social media, content or conversion audits, which add time. An experienced SEO strategist with access to the right tools can perform a basic SEO audit in a day, and the complexity builds from there.
Unless your website falls into the category we mentioned earlier, very high. Audits are even built into most advanced SEO strategies by default, because your SEO specialist doesn’t want to blindly move forward with a strategy that won’t produce results.
Ecommerce Keyword Research
What search phrases do customers use when they're looking for your products or content? Keyword research helps you answer this question and more, guiding you to the best keyword opportunities for your website's priority pages.
If we copied a unique sentence from your website and pasted it with quotes (an exact-match operator) into Google’s search bar, your site would rank #1 for that query. But because nobody will ever search for that query again, it’s not a valuable keyword for your site. This is an extreme example of why keyword research is important: if you’re going to spend time optimizing each page for keywords, you’ll want to make sure those keywords matter.
High-opportunity keywords are relevant, targeted, and have a combination of search volume and competitiveness that’s realistic for the page. Keyword research is the process of finding these keywords, 3-5 per priority page.
Keyword research uses a blend of tools to generate ideas, expand the list, pull data for each keyword on the list, and sort the data according to opportunity. Once you've narrowed down your top keyword contenders, you'll lean on subjective analysis to make your final choices: what is the search intent behind the keyword? What do the keyword’s search results look like? Can your page compete?
Keyword Research: To DIY Or Not To DIY?
Two things that inhibit the cost-effectiveness of DIYing keyword research are the learning curve and the paid tools.
If you have a Google Ads account, the free Keyword Planner tool can be used for some parts of the keyword research process, but its search volume metrics won’t help you. Google closely guards its organic search volume data, so paid tools like Ahrefs, Moz Pro, SEMRush and Majestic triangulate the information that is available to make well-informed guesses. These tools have the only reliable search volume metrics you’ll find.
What’s more, each tool has its own strengths and weaknesses, so most people use a blend of them for each stage of the keyword research process. It’s also a best practice to cross-reference search volume data between at least two of the trusted paid tools, bringing in a third as a tie-breaker if needed. Search volumes can vary wildly between tools because they all have to extrapolate.
If you’re going the DIY route and can only use one paid tool, make it Ahrefs. For the price, it’s more reliable and comprehensive than its competitors.
Cost-Savers To Avoid
While there are many wonderful free options for idea generation and seed list expansion, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a free tool that will give you accurate search volume data.
AT A GLANCE:
checkProficiency with keyword research tools
checkProficiency with Excel
checkFamiliarity with idea generation strategies like autosuggest tools, competitor keyword research, related searches, etcn
checkSolid grasp on synonyms and the ability to think of phrase variations on the fly
checkUnderstanding of search behavior, semantic search and voice search
checkWorking knowledge of how keyword breadth, volume and competitiveness changes according to the keyword’s position in the site architecture
checkWorking knowledge of how keywords change according to each page’s goal and funnel stage
checkAbility to think like the searcher
checkAbility to put information into context
For SEO strategists, 1-2 hours per page
Varies with page priority — for important pages on your site, keyword research is a very high priority
On-page optimization is the process of optimizing each page for its target keywords, making it as relevant and search-friendly as possible.
Once you’ve selected 3-5 high-opportunity keywords for a page, you’ll optimize the page for those keywords via meta data, on-page content, and (to a lesser extent) the URL slug, H1, H2s and alt text. Here's a quick run-down of each element:
The Title Tag: Google gives the keywords in title tags a bit of extra weight because the philosophy that governs the title tag is the same as the one that (loosely) governs book titles: they summarize the corresponding content in a brief, understandable way. You have 50-60 characters to do just that, using your page's priority keywords.
Title tags also appear in the SERPs, so they can't just be stuffed with keywords — they need to be useful and informative for people, too.
The Meta Description: Unlike title tags, meta descriptions are fully for users; the keywords in meta descriptions aren't ranking signals. They do get bolded in the search results, though, so it's helpful to include them to reinforce your page's connection to the user's query.
In 160 characters or less, the meta description provides a compelling description of the page and gives the user a reason to click. You can almost think of it as ad copy.
Schema Markup: Google displays knowledge panels, images, rich cards and other information directly in the SERPs in an ongoing effort to provide a richer search experience. Optimizing for SEO in 2020 means optimizing for rich search results by adding Schema markup to your pages.
While there are hundreds of markup types available, you can't (and shouldn't) add all of them to your site. Prioritize review markup and the forms of markup your business and/or SERP competitors use.
On-Page Copy: Optimized pages include fantastic, gripping, keyword-rich content. There's not a hard and fast word count rule for page copy. View the other pages that rank for the keyword and set a word count that's on par with what performs well. Let the top-ranked pages inform your format and subject matter too.
H1s: Because H1s are the main header on the page, the keywords included in an H1 tag are given a bit of extra weight. Optimize your H1s for keywords whenever possible, remembering that H1s are one of the first things the user will read on the page. When in doubt write your H1s for customers, not search engines.
Subheaders: Headers and subheaders (H2, H3, and so on) help Google understand the architecture of the page, so they’re a great place to add keywords. While you should only use one H1 per page, you can use as many subheaders as it takes to organize your content.
Internal Links: Internal links help Google understand which pages are most important and introduce users to additional content. Adding too many internal links to your content looks spammy and will hurt your cause, but if you add 2-3 links that naturally align with the content, you'll help crawlers and people discover related pages.
On-Page Optimization: To DIY Or Not To DIY?
DIY if you're a fantastic writer and you have time to familiarize yourself with on-page optimization strategies and do the work. While writing abilities are nothing to sneeze at, the technical learning curve for basic on-page optimization is low. That makes time your biggest barrier.
While we’re always thrilled to write copy, there are benefits to writing your copy in-house and passing it off to an SEO strategist to optimize. First, doing so ensures that your passion and personality are infused into the website, even if the copy needs to be tweaked later.
Second, you’ll get more bang for your buck. If your copy is already shored up, your specialist will be able to come up with a bulk optimization plan that addresses a high volume of title tags, meta descriptions and other page adjustments.
Cost-Savers To Avoid
Assuming you actually want people to read and enjoy the on-page content, don’t use a content farm. You’ll spend just as much time rewriting the content as you would creating it from scratch.
AT A GLANCE:
checkUnderstanding of Title tag and meta description best practices, and the ability to write for clicks in the SERPs
checkBasic understanding of keyword optimization
checkExcellent writing skills
checkCreative and solution-oriented
The time investment required depends on the page, how much content is needed, and how much (good) content is already there. If you were starting from scratch, you could expect to spend about two hours writing 300 words of keyword-rich content and optimizing the page.
If the content is already solid, you know your keywords, and the page just needs to be optimized, you could do it in 15 minutes. Creating the content from scratch calls for a much more significant time investment.
Build brand awareness, foster a relationship with your audience and target an ever-widening net of long-tail keywords through your content strategy.
Let’s return to our library metaphor and say you’re looking for a book on physics. Search engines favor fresh content for the same reason you’d pick a new physics book over an old one: you can generally trust that the new book has the most accurate and up-to-date information available, regardless of how good the old book is.
For Google, content freshness doesn’t just denote accuracy; it’s also a sign that an ecommerce business is still fully operational and focused on delivering a great customer experience.
If you optimize your site’s priority pages and then go into “Set it and forget it” mode, Google will have a hard time understanding your site’s purpose over the long term. You’ll see a boost in traffic to your optimized pages, followed by a gradual but steady decline as Google starts to serve fresher content from your SERP competitors.
The solution? If you were a physics expert, you’d write more books. For an ecommerce business, you’ll deploy a content strategy. Through blog posts, resource articles, knowledge bases, ebooks, guides, videos, podcasts, infographics and more, your content strategy carries your brand voice and builds your community over the long term. Other benefits include:
checkYour brand maintains relevance
checkEach piece of content will contribute incrementally to a diverse base of long-tail keywords for which your site ranks, casting your net ever-wider as you introduce new searchers to your brand
checkThe additional content lends contextual authority to your brand’s focus areas. If you sell camping gear, for example, a steady pool of camping-related content will reinforce the connection between your brand and camping-related products.
checkYou can connect with your audience through genuinely helpful, entertaining, thought-provoking or otherwise engaging content
Using keyword research, competitor analysis, customer personas and empathy, the content strategist identifies the information that matters most to your audience and the frequency with which each topic or persona should be addressed. Then they build out an editorial calendar, deploy a workflow, and continually refine their strategy as they learn which topics and messages resonate most.
Because a content strategy can serve so many different purposes, set goals and KPIs based on your overall website goals. Are you interested in organic traffic? Conversions? Leads? Pageviews? Brand recognition? The type of content produced will change according to the goal.
Content Strategy: To DIY Or Not To DIY?
It’s easy to fall into a trap of false comfort with skills like content strategy or social media management because so many people have maintained their own blogs and social media profiles. In reality, experienced content strategists have a similar technical background to experienced SEO strategists, and fluid movement between the two fields is common.
That said, many ecommerce businesses can and do work around having a true-blue content strategy by putting a skilled writer at the helm of their blog posts and other content. If you’re a natural storyteller with a knack for understanding what your audience wants, that person might be you.
Like on-page optimization, a content strategy's biggest barrier is time. It takes significant effort and regular blocks of uninterrupted writing time to produce content that gets results. Unless you’re so passionate about content that you absolutely can’t let this task go, let someone with less on their plate manage the strategy.
It might not be running, but walking regularly can still work wonders for your health. Similarly, posting in your blog regularly is far more beneficial than doing nothing — as long as you make a good-faith effort to give your audience information that's relevant, useful and on-brand. The posts will build momentum for your website and give you valuable insight into the kind of content that connects with your audience.
Assign this job to an aspiring marketer or content strategist on your team to get the ball rolling. When you’re ready to formalize a strategy, an SEO agency can either train your in-house writer or take on the strategic portion themselves.
Another way to simplify your content strategy is to break it down into batches that recur on a monthly basis (as opposed to knocking your annual content calendar out in one fell swoop). Every month, set aside time for:
checkIdeation: come up with 5 - 10 topics and add notes about why you think they would help you meet your goals
checkResearch & analysis: spend some time vetting your topics, looking at competitors and refining your approach
checkDocumentation: create templates and systems you can use so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel with each new blog post
checkWriting: schedule this for the same day and time each week so it becomes habitual
Cost-Savers To Avoid
Be extremely wary of Writer Access, Textbroker, Fiverr, and other platforms that farm out content for peanuts. If you’re purchasing content for 7 cents a word, it’s probably not going to help you rank and may even negatively impact your SEO by diluting crawl bandwidth and link equity. On top of that, if your visitors repeatedly encounter articles that lack substance or are riddled with errors, they may lose trust in your brand's subject authority.
If you want the kind of useful, heavyweight content that ranks well, turn to a writer with proven expertise in your niche. Promising in-house writers are usually your best option because of their in-depth knowledge of your brand (and their ability to grill in-house experts when they need to know more). However, skilled freelance writers and agencies are also adept at writing many different types of content. This is especially true for ecommerce websites that don’t sell highly technical products.
AT A GLANCE:
checkSpellbinding storytelling abilities and anunderstanding of the modes of persuasion
checkImpeccable spelling and grammar
checkAbility to modify voice for different audiences
checkAbility to create and style web pages
checkProject and people management
checkGoogle Analytics and reporting
checkFirm grasp on the strategic portion of content strategy — the job is much more than scheduling blog posts
checkA full SEO background is a huge plus
checkAdaptiveness — able to quickly accommodate and respond to outside newsworthy events
Your strategy comes before the actual content writing and can vary depending on your topic, industry, and goals. The longer you strategize and plan, the more successful your content is; however, some strategies can be planned out quickly and easily and yield just as many results as an in-depth analysis. If we had to pick a time commitment here’s what we’d recommend:
checkFor a blog post/resource page: 1 - 2 hours of planning and strategy
checkFor topical, short form blog post: 30 minutes
checkFor a core page on your site (i.e. homepage, about page, main category or service page): 1 - 2 hours
checkFor the writing portion, the time commitment varies from 1-4 hours for a short blog post to 40+ hours for a guide or other meaty piece of content.
Build thought leadership, introduce your products to new audiences and generate critical trust signals from high-authority websites with a linkbuilding strategy.
Let’s go back to the library and say you’re looking at two different physics books that seem comparable in style and subject matter. Would you pick the one you’ve never heard of or the one everybody is talking about?
Now take it a step further. Say you’ve heard people chatter about the first book but none of those people share your tastes. Meanwhile, the second book’s back cover sports glowing recommendations from your favorite author and several physics experts. This time you’d adopt a "quality over quantity" approach and choose the second book.
That’s the same logic Google uses with backlinks. For the search engine, backlinks are an objective metric for a highly subjective experience: the degree to which people find your site useful, informative and interesting. They're votes of confidence, as long as they contextually support the site’s authority in its subject area. In other words, links from relevant, high-authority sources are the name of the game.
In the early days, link building was a numbers game, a simple task of obtaining as many links as possible. That led to manipulative tactics like using spammy, low-quality blogs and directories to artificially inflate a site's backlink profile. Google has since learned how to spot and penalize link manipulation and adopted a more nuanced approach to weighing backlinks.
Today, link building looks similar to PR; it’s just grounded in SEO tools and strategies. The role of the link builder is part content strategist, part salesman, and part data scientist. Building links at scale takes a strong understanding of SEO, the ability to source or produce great content, and an aptitude for connecting with others in the target industry both online and off.
Linkbuilding: To DIY Or Not To DIY?
As long as you focus on relevant, high-quality backlinks and avoid too-good-to-be-true backlink bundles, linkbuilding can be a great thing to DIY or handle in-house. You likely have existing industry relationships and partnerships that you can leverage, and the additional relationships you form with industry influencers through linkbuilding will live on with your business instead of walking away with your linkbuilder.
On the flip side, professional linkbuilders usually have access to a network that you don’t have, developed through past linkbuilding efforts. For example, they may have contacts at Inc.com, Huffington post and other large, general-purposes publications. They also have tools and databases that make the linkbuilding process swift, high-volume and scalable.
If your business is new and you’re still trying to grow your network, build links and relationships in-house as time allows. If you hit a wall or your business grows and you need a more scalable, high-volume linkbuilding strategy, call in a pro.
Prioritize the highest-authority sources and industry influencers you can and invest extra effort into courting those relationships. When you get one high-authority source talking, you create a cascading effect as smaller blogs and publications join the conversation. This is ultimately less time-intensive and more scalable than investing tons of time in middling links.
That said, plenty of low-hanging fruit opportunities exist that aren’t spammy or manipulative. Mine the backlink profiles of your top competitors and identify the websites that link to products and businesses like yours. Reclaim broken competitor backlinks and scout out unlinked mentions of your brand. Guest post on industry blogs and work the connections that exist in your own network. Get creative!
Cost-Savers To Avoid
While you should stay wary of purchased link packages in general, do not engage with anyone offering a lot of links for a low price point. Serious linkbuilders can’t specify a quantity; they can only offer to work their connections at high-authority sites or sleuth out additional opportunities. The link building marketplace is littered with low-quality, spammy backlink scams. Avoid at all costs:
- PBN (personal blog networks)
- Guaranteed batches of links
- Web 2.0 backlinks
- Directory backlinks
AT A GLANCE:
checkExcellent follow-up skills
checkGreat people skills
checkUnafraid of cold outreach
If you're just getting started, expect to spend plenty of time researching, performing outreach and coming up empty. Once you start to find great partners for link building, though, you’ll be able to get high-quality links with a lot less work.
That’s complicated. If you’re only concerned about organic traffic, link building is a medium to low priority that shouldn't supersede fundamental on-page SEO improvements.
However, a well-executed link building strategy has major brand-boosting benefits. If generating buzz is a critical part of your marketing strategy, make it a high priority to enlist a linkbuilder’s help. If you're already running a PR program, your link builder can work closely with the PR team to maximize the impact of each effort.
The ROI of SEO
What should you expect from your SEO strategy, and when? SEO ROI isn't as straightforward as other channels, but it's not a mystery, either. You just have to understand the type of investment you made.
Now for the million dollar question: what return on your investment can you expect if you hire an SEO strategist or agency?
The short answer: when you combine a sound SEO strategy with a sound business foundation, you can expect to see results. On average, our SEO clients see an 81% increase in year over year organic traffic to their store, accounting for revenue increases of up to 973%.
The long answer: so much depends on the amount of time or money you invest in SEO and the context in which your optimizations occur.
Think of SEO as the secret ingredient in a recipe. Used as intended, the ingredient will turn your final product into a mouthwatering dream. But if your recipe calls for a cup of the secret ingredient and you only add a dash, all you've done is waste a fancy ingredient.
What if you add the right amount of secret ingredient but you're missing other essential ingredients? Your results won't look great, but it doesn't follow that the secret ingredient is to blame.
Welcome to the slippery world of SEO ROI. Marketing is an ecosystem, and the right conditions must be met before an SEO strategy can thrive. And even if you have a gorgeous website and sell a great product, it can be difficult to get a new ecommerce site off the ground organically unless you invest a significant amount in SEO or you you run your SEO strategy in tandem with other marketing efforts like paid search, advertising, PR, email marketing and social media.
When Can You Expect Results?
To complicate things even further, SEO ROI isn’t immediate. One of the most common questions to ask of any SEO strategy is, “When can I expect to see results?”
While timely pieces of content might produce results near-immediately (remember, Google’s “freshness” algorithm kicks in at that point), on-site optimizations can take 3-6 months or even longer to show signs of movement. And when your organic traffic does start to move, it does so incrementally: a small amount each day until somewhere down the road, you reap back your investment in full — and then some.
The Compounding ROI of SEO
Let’s say your friend Joe asks to borrow $25 and tells you he’ll pay you $30 back next week: all the money he owes you plus $5 for your trouble. You know he’s good for it, so it’s an easy yes — after all, in a week's time you’ll have your entire investment back, plus a little extra.
Now let’s say you have another friend, Jane, who also wants to borrow $25. The only thing is, she can’t pay you $30 next week; she won’t even be able to pay you back in full next week. Instead, Jane can give you $1 next week, $2 the next, $3 the next and so on, for the next three years. You won’t have to work out much math to know that over the long term, you’ll end up with a lot more money in your pocket if you lend your $25 to Jane.
Joe and Jane represent the difference between the more straightforward, immediate ROI of a strategy like PPC (Joe) and the slow-building, compounding ROI of SEO (Jane).
Once your SEO strategy takes hold and you get a page ranking well for a target keyword, you can expect your page to continue ranking for that keyword until Google has a compelling reason to believe that another page is a better fit.
Depending on the keyword and your site authority, it could take months or even years for a better fit to come along. Each additional optimization you make in the meantime builds on the ones that are already in play (this is why Jane can pay you back $1 extra each week instead of a fixed $1 per week).
Now, does this make picking Jane over Joe a no-brainer? Not necessarily, because your money is much more liquid with Joe. If he pays you $30 next week, you’ll be able to respond to any changes that emerge with your full $30. You could respond to an emergency, buy an item that’s on sale, jump on another investment opportunity, or save your money for the future; the choice is yours.
With Jane, you almost have to consider your $25 a sunk cost at the beginning. If anything comes up in the next six weeks and you need $25, you’re out of luck — you don’t have it. Moreover, Jane requires a leap of faith; you have to believe in her for seven weeks (in this example) before you can rest easy knowing you didn’t lose money. After that, the payoff will continue until you end up far beyond where you started.
The Case for SEO
If you could only choose one marketing strategy to commit to for the long-haul, SEO is the smartest option. The high-return strategy's secret weapon is that it doesn't stop producing return if you stop investing in the strategy. If you need to cut back or shift your SEO budget for a couple of months, the progress you've already made will continue and your organic traffic won't fall off a cliff during your short breather.
That's not the case with ads, which produce return conditionally -- when you stop paying, they stop too. Even social media and email require a consistent time investment to thrive. By comparison, SEO is like a large ship. It takes longer to reach full speed and it's impossible to turn the ship on a dime, but on the other hand, it's impossible to turn the ship on a dime. Come foul weather, your ship will stay on-course.
Finally, consider the goal of SEO: to create pages that bring value to users and connect your business to the right audience. In the unlikely event that you invest in SEO and your traffic doesn't budge an inch, you'll still walk away with a host of assets you probably would have paid for anyway: a conversion-optimized website, excellent marketing copy, helpful content, and mentions from buzzworthy publications.
SEO Vs Paid Search
Ultimately, though, the question of whether Joe or Jane is the better choice is the wrong question. Either Joe, Jane, or both might be the right fit for your business. Joe (PPC) will help you build momentum and produce a return that you can immediately reinvest, and then reinvest again, which gets you off the ground quickly and gives your budget flexibility. Jane (SEO) can’t offer the same sense of momentum or liquidity, but her long-term ROI is huge compared to Joe’s.
That’s why there's not a general answer for whether SEO or PPC is a better investment: it’s the wrong question. The failure to treat SEO and paid search as two different types of ROI can lead decision-makers to choose a strategy that doesn't meet their business goals and risk tolerance. That can lead to frustration and disappointment even when a strategy performs exactly how it was supposed to.
If you’re a numbers person who likes to see exactly where your money is going at all times so you can make quick, outcome-based decisions, you might prefer “Joe” strategies like:
checkOther paid advertising
If you understand marketing as a “relational” field — you can see how each effort rebounds past its immediate ROI and impacts future efforts — and you’re financially comfortable making a long-term investment, you’re a natural fit for “Jane” strategies like:
Most businesses benefit from a diverse array of marketing strategies from both ends of the spectrum.
Finding Your Blend
To find the strategic blend that works best for your business, try a mix of strategies and carefully track their performance each month. Give each channel the amount of time it needs to thrive, and modify your conversion expectations based on which part of the purchase funnel each strategy targets.
Email, for example, is a high-conversion strategy because it hits the lowest funnel stage: people who already know your brand and are interested enough to subscribe. By contrast, strategies that hit the top of the funnel can expect to see lower conversions because there's a lot to accomplish between introducing a new visitor to your site and triggering a purchase decision.
Understand the function each strategy serves, the audience they reach, and the funnel stage(s) they target, then tailor your KPIs accordingly. Don't let an apples-to-apples comparison make you decide to discontinue a high-funnel strategy that wasn't pulling in as much revenue as low-funnel strategies. Without the high-funnel strategies, the low ones can't exist.
Behind every successful ecommerce SEO strategy, there's an ecosystem of factors that all contribute to the long-term health of your business. Understanding what to expect from each one is a major step toward setting up the conditions that will help your online store thrive.