On-site SEO - How to focus on getting the right stuff done
Much of the time, SEO ‘in theory’ is relatively simple. Most of us working in SEO have a reasonable idea of what should work and what effective SEO should look like.
In the real world though, more often than not things are a bit more tricky (i.e. they often go to shit). We never have as much time or budget as we’d like, and frankly, it sometimes feels like the world is conspiring against us getting done what we need to - with Google’s changing goalposts, internal politics and sometimes less-than-understanding developers.
So, in this post we’re going to focus on two things:
How to decide what is the ‘right’ stuff
How to get it done
Throughout the post I often talk within the context of carrying out an SEO audit and getting recommendations implemented, but the same principles can be applied to most SEO work.
And although probably most relevant for consultants or agencies working on behalf of a client, the same ideas would apply to an in-house SEO working with internal stakeholders.
Avoid the Perfection Trap
In an ideal world, we’d find every SEO issue and opportunity across a website, and all of our recommendations would get implemented in days. We’d have a perfectly optimised website that ticks all of Google’s boxes and rank no.1 for every search term we desire.
If only! We all know that this sounds ridiculous. But a lot of us (myself included) have a somewhat misguided urge to try to find and fix every single thing on a website. The result of this is often that we spend longer than we should, creating pretty looking reports hundreds of pages long, accompanied by spreadsheets listing hundreds of subsequent actions to be implemented.
“If you try to do everything, you'll accomplish nothing.”
I’m not sure where I heard that quote, and I don’t fully agree that you’ll accomplish nothing, but the sentiment rings true.
We need to remain focused on what actually matters, and that means prioritisation. Prioritisation of both where we spend our time investigating, and prioritisation of what we take forward to be implemented.
Layers of Consideration
When you’re considering which factors you need to look at when assigning priorities, the obvious place to start is by looking at what will have the biggest SEO impact.
Without having the fundamentals in place, optimisation is redundant. For instance, there’s no point of optimising on-page elements, if you’ve got issues which are blocking those same pages from being indexed in the first place.
It’s been around for a while now, but Rand Fishkin’s ‘hierarchy of SEO needs’ still effectively illustrates the hierarchical dependencies within SEO.
BUT… only considering SEO factors is a flawed approach.
SEO doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And if we take a blinkered approach, ignoring the wider factors we set ourselves up for failure.
So what are these wider factors? I’ve grouped them into four key layers of consideration:
Business - In the past I’ve referred to this as the ‘client’ layer, but essentially it equates to the wider business, whether that of a client or your own. No two businesses are identical, they’re all in different situations. If you know that most profit is driven by a certain group of products or particular service, then it makes sense to focus on that part of the website. Equally, if you know that the business has minimal resource for creating content, there’s no point in prioritising recommendations for creating hundreds of new pages.
SEO fundamentals - As we’ve already mentioned above - some things are just essential for all websites to rank well.
Current search landscape - SEO fundamentals have remained largely the same for some time now, but anyone working in SEO will know that the goalposts for ranking well in the SERPs change frequently. It’s important that you keep up to date with Google’s current priorities. This will also vary based on the specific SERPs which the business is competing in.
Industry/vertical - We’ve already covered the needs of individual businesses, but there are also big differences at an industry level too. For example, certain types of structured data could be considered essential for publisher websites in today's search landscape. Whereas for finance websites, structured data would probably be seen as a lower priority opportunity.
The order of these layers is far from set in stone. But the first layer: ‘business’, should always take precedence. If what we do has no benefit to the business, then it’s redundant, and in turn, so are we (pun intended).
What Are You Trying to Achieve?
We’ve now covered the need to focus on what actually matters, and what we need to consider when doing that. But we’ve missed out a vital question: What are you actually trying to achieve?
This question is often overlooked as a no-brainer - “Surely we’re trying to ‘improve SEO’, and increase rankings?”.
Nope. SEO should never be considered the end goal, and even rankings are just a means to an end. We need to ensure that everyone (i.e. any stakeholders), are very clear on what we’re really trying to achieve.
This doesn’t need to be some fancy mission statement, but you do need something to remind yourself what you’re aiming for.
Even something as basic as: “to increase more sales through organic search traffic” can be helpful. This means that you can prioritise areas most likely to have a direct impact on money pages.
There might be several things you’re trying to achieve, that’s fine, as long as you know what they are.
Prioritise Your Efforts
Priorities are often something which are addressed at the end of a piece of work - an audit is carried out - you’ve got a long list of issues and opportunities - and then priorities are assigned to each of them.
This is still an inefficient use of your time.
The layers of consideration should come into play before you begin any actual work.
If you’re working with an ecommerce website, and they’re only able to update their blog every couple of months - disregard that section of the website, it’s a non priority. If you’re auditing a publishing website, you know you’ll need to prioritise reviewing their Schema markup.
Remember - your time is limited - use it where it matters!
This is where audit checklists and rigid processes create inefficiencies. Both checklists and processes can be useful, but they need to be adapted to the specific use case in hand.
So the audit is complete. You’ve identified a long list of issues and opportunities to implement. And now you need to prioritise them.
In its simplest form, this can just be a matter of making a judgement call and assigning a level of priority, whether that be 1-10, or just high, medium and low.
(Very) basic prioritisation example:
This is the bare minimum for prioritisation. It’s quick and easy, and a process I used myself for years. But to really make sure we’re prioritising the ‘right’ recommendations, judgement alone often isn’t enough. A more methodical scoring system is needed to ensure we’re taking the right factors into consideration.
Although I’ve experimented with models which include lots of different factors, the core set I keep coming back to are these:
Risk - The risk of not implementing.
Opportunity - The potential benefit of implementing.
Resource - The resource required to implement, in both money and time.
Likelihood - The likelihood of it actually getting implemented.
Admittedly, this approach still relies on judgement, but it does so at a more granular level. By considering factors individually, it becomes easier not to be driven by any single factor alone. For example, it might be easy to dismiss a recommendation if ‘political’ pressures meant it would be unlikely to be implemented. But if all other factors score highly, then it’s clear that it’s something you need to push for.
It’s worth noting though, that things can start to get a little more tricky when working with these models. Even in the simple example model below, one factor needs to be treated differently to the others: Resource is scored inversely when calculating overall priority scores. In other words, a lower resource score, contributes to a higher overall priority score.
Example factor scoring based model:
You can find the spreadsheet containing this factor scoring based model example here.
Basic models like this also assume all the factors to hold the same value. Whereas in reality, not all factors are created equally. For example, if you were lucky enough to have a client with a “money is no object” attitude, then you’d want to reduce the weighting of the resource factor on prioritisation.
Internally at Sitebulb, we use Airfocus scoring functionality to help guide our product roadmap. We score each potential product feature based on Customer Value (how helpful it will be to the end user), Complexity (how much development resource it will require) and Impact (how much we think the feature will get used).
Example Airfocus prioritisation model:
As it’s been working well, we’re already expanding our usage of it to cover on-site website changes, and I’m looking at how to adapt the process for SEO specific applications too.
Using a specialist tool like Airfocus may be overkill for most SEO situations, but what it’s confirmed to me is that judgement alone is often ineffective for assigning priorities. We’ve had several instances where an opportunity looked great on the surface, but upon ‘scoring’, it soon becomes clear that the pros are outweighed by the cons (or vice versa).
Less is More
There will always be a limit to the amount of resource to work with, whether that’s in the form of time or budget - if you don’t, I’m very jealous of you. This applies not just to us as SEOs, but also those that we rely on to implement our recommendations.
So if we accept that we’re working with a set amount of resource - and that we won’t have sufficient resource to implement every issue and opportunity. Then we must also accept that for every recommendation that does get implemented, another one won’t.
The solution, in theory, is simple - we need to prioritise what’s important, over what isn’t. We’ve already covered that throughout this post, and It’s likely you’re doing this already to some degree or another.
But if you give a client or dev team a long list of recommendations to implement, regardless of all of your careful prioritisation, you’re still essentially putting it in their hands which ones will or won’t get done. It’s all too easy to skip over a tricky ‘high’ or ‘medium’ priority task in favour of ticking off a handful of ‘lows’.
So this is where you need to play the psychological game and ensure that the focus remains well and truly on your high priority recommendations.
I’m going to suggest something that feels really counterintuitive: deliver less recommendations.
It can feel like a bit of a cop-out. But if everyone’s clear that you’re just going to focus on the recommendations which you’ve taken steps to identify as the highest priority to meet your objectives - then it becomes a matter of efficiency.
A less drastic approach to this can take the form of a tiered approach to delivering recommendations.
I’d suggest that you always put forward your three (or thereabouts) key, actionable recommendations within a short few sentences. This will form your executive summary and also get included in any emails when delivering your work.
The rest of your high priority recommendations would be included in an actions document or spreadsheet. And then the remaining recommendations would sit within supporting documentation.
The key principle here is to always ensure that the focus remains on what you consider to be the most important actions. Don’t dilute people’s attention with lesser priority issues.
The most important thing to remember is that SEO is just a means to an end, and as such all of our effort should be focused on ensuring benefits to the business.
Figure out what will have the greatest impact and disregard the lower priority ‘clutter’.
Don’t get caught up in idealistic dreams - you can’t do everything - focus on the most important areas.
Remind yourself what you’re trying to achieve and ensure everyone agrees on this from the start.
Make sure you consider factors beyond the SEO bubble - if it doesn’t benefit the business, it’s irrelevant.
Prioritise both where you spend your time, and your subsequent recommendations.
Focus on getting the most important things implemented - don’t get distracted.
Always include a short, concise summary when delivering recommendations - highlight areas of priority and give ~3 key recommendations.
About the author
Geoff has been around the block and dabbled in most areas of digital marketing and SEO over the years. These days, he spends his time on the other side of the SEO fence marketing the SEO auditing tool, Sitebulb, with a spot of farming on the side.