It's tempting to jump right into SEO by digging into analytics, researching keywords, and looking at what competitors are doing. That’s what SEO is all about, right?

Starting in the Right Place

At Station Four, we’ve found that gaining a strong understanding of the client, their business, and their current marketing initiatives before we dive head-first into the SEO pool gives us a stronger foundation when conducting research. To get a jump-start on this client research, we like to go straight to the source.  

A short discovery conducted with the client during our kickoff meeting serves as the perfect starting point for the initial stage of research. We ask about the company’s background and structure before covering the technical details of their site and any past digital marketing efforts. In addition, we discuss the history of their web presence and SEO efforts. This gives us a full understanding of what our clients have done and how they represent themselves both on and offline.

Company Background

The best way to start the conversation with a client is by asking a few questions about their company background and structure. This gives us insight into how we can make better decisions for optimizing their website and targeting their other digital marketing efforts.

  • What is your company's vision?
  • What is your growth profile?
  • Have you recently experienced rapid growth? Stagnation?
  • What's different about what you offer when compared with your competitors?
  • Who are your competitors? (Keep in mind that competitors mentioned are often offline. Identifying search competitors usually requires additional research.)
  • What business relationships/partnerships do you have?
  • What events do you attend or sponsor?
  • What organizations do you belong to (e.g. chambers of commerce, professional associations)?
  • What internal resources interact with the site?
  • What sales processes are connected to the site?
  • What resource will we be reporting to?
  • Is there a different set of resources we might interact with for local search (confirming profiles from search engines, soliciting reviews, getting basic data)?

Site Details

Once we have a basic understanding of the company, we focus on getting deeper information about the website and target audience. Too often, agencies take a tactical approach to SEO by focusing on ranking for a set of keywords without regard for how their efforts impact actual goals. We like to ask questions that help us approach SEO more strategically. 

  • What CMS do you use?
  • Are there any modifications or plugins that we should be aware of?
  • Are there limitations to what can be modified on the site?
  • What is the purpose of your site?
  • What are you trying to get users to do once they reach the site?
  • Who is your target audience?
  • Does that audience reach beyond the US?
  • What are your expectations for the site's performance?
  • Is there a clear seasonality in your business that would impact search?
  • What SEO efforts have you undertaken in the past?
  • Who performed the work?
  • What was done?
  • What was reported on?
  • If it was another agency, what worked or didn't work about the relationship?
  • What keywords do you believe your target audience uses to find your products and/or services?
  • What keywords do you want to rank for? (Answers about target keywords should be validated with further research.)
  • What's the history of your web presence? (It's usually worth going back about five years. Discuss redesigns, changes to domains, domain forwarding, CMS changes, whether they have multiple sites/subdomains, etc.)

Marketing Efforts

Whether on or offline, all a client's marketing efforts should be holistic with a common strategy. To gain an understanding of that strategy (or lack thereof), we like to spend time discussing any current or past marketing initiatives at the beginning of a project. 

  • What other marketing efforts are you currently undertaking?
  • What have you done in the past?
  • What social media platforms have you used? What successes have you experienced?
  • Have you done any PR (offline and/or online), paid media, email, direct mail, TV, and/or radio campaigns?
  • What content marketing are you doing?
  • Do you have a blog or news page? How is it used?
  • Who is producing the content?
  • How often is new content added?
  • Is content being produced according to a strategy with a content calendar or on an ad hoc basis?
  • Is there offline content that could be repurposed?

REVIEWING CLIENT-PROVIDED INFORMATION

During our discussion with our client’s team, we try to think critically about what they are sharing with us. While this information is unquestionably valuable and the best place to start, it’s important to try to see an even bigger picture. For example, competitors provided by the client may include offline competitors but miss important search competitors, especially if a search competitor doesn’t actually compete with the client offline. during this discussion, we also ask the client to share access to any tools they use (e.g. Google Analytics, Webmaster Tools, and CMS) as well as examples of internal or past reporting.

Post-kickoff Research

After meeting with the client, we start initial evaluations to get big picture information that may impact the overall direction of our efforts. Our team dives into areas like competitor research in more detail later on in the discovery, but taking a quick look at competitors early on in the process can help give us initial ideas for keyword research. This is also the time when we confirm that we have access to analytics and platforms used by the client. These may include Google Analytics, Webmaster Tools, and their CRM,  but is specific to each client.

Competitiveness in the Search Space

When we take our initial look at the search space, we start with preliminary keywords to get a sense for the competitiveness of a few key terms. When conducting this research, we find a tool bar tool like Mozbar allows us to quickly scan basic stats on search results. In addition, it’s possible to tell how competitive a keyword is if we see well-known sites with optimized title tags for that specific term dominating the top 10 results. If the top 10 search results for primary keywords are dominated by major players that clients would never be able to outrank, we may need to focus exclusively on a long-tail keyword approach. However, if the top few spots are dominated by big players but the rest of the top 10 is weak, it may make sense to continue to focus on the term, understanding that there might be a ceiling.

If our client’s site is new or ‘newish’ and competing in a space where most top 10 domains have been around for over 5-years, we have to take that into account. Domain age doesn’t have a huge impact, but it can mean that competitor has had time to accumulate links and may be seen as more credible and authoritative.

Preliminary Competitor Research

When doing our first round of competitor research, the goal isn’t to go in-depth on a handful of competitors. That comes later. During this phase of the project, we are just taking a brief exploratory look. We start by using common sense and information provided by the client to perform some keyword searches. Are there common phrasings of keywords used by competitors? Are there clear strategies about site size and content that competitors are using? Are there axillary keywords that are being targeted by competitors that didn’t come up during the kickoff meeting?

Conclusion

SEO is more than attracting web traffic; it's attracting the right web traffic. The first step to understading how to do that is learning everything we can about our clients’ organizations, competitors, and previous marketing efforts by asking a lot of questions and doing some initial research. Once we get who they are and what they've done, we can start our SEO work in the right place. 

Chris Olberding Chris Olberding

Chris Olberding is a mediocre ukulele player who owns more Funko Pop figures than any grown man should. In spite of this, he has run a successful agency for the past 10 years by providing creative vision and strategic guidance to the S4 team. Chris has been recognized as one of Jacksonville Business Journal’s 40 Under 40, and S4 has been named to the Gator 100, a list of the 100 fastest-growing businesses owned or run by a UF alumni, for the last two years.

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