SEO Automation: A Guide to Systematizing Your SEO
Companies scale because of systems. Every now and then, it helps to be reminded of that fact so you can think about what still isn’t automated in your business. I’m in the unique position to observe the state of SEO systematization inside hundreds of mid-sized companies, and currently it could be described as “barely there.” That’s puzzling to me because it’s easy for SEO to essentially function like a lead generation machine; you just need the right planning, process, and software integration. In this article, I’ll explain exactly how to do those things.
But first, let’s zoom out so you can conceive of where SEO fits in your larger marketing program.
SEO’s Place In Your Marketing Program
SEO is an online lead generation activity. It has the same basic result as other online lead generators like paid search or social media advertising, as well as offline lead generators like direct mail, outdoor advertising, and in-person networking. The mix of lead generation activities your business employs is typically chosen in an annual strategic planning meeting among your marketing leadership. A good strategic planning session involves not only choosing which lead-generation activities to engage in but also planning the steps after leads are generated—your website’s conversion funnel, analytics platform, and CRM software.
In the diagram below, I illustrate a company’s marketing system, sliding SEO into the slot that could contain any online lead generation activity.
With this context in mind, this article will now zoom back in to SEO as a lead generation activity and describe how to automate it. In the upcoming section, I describe the parts of the SEO system, and how to connect them so that very little time is required of your marketing team going forward.
Automating SEO doesn’t mean putting it on autopilot; it means building an organic lead generation system inside your company that’s a combination of human effort (strategy planning & writing) and software (marketing analytics platform & CRM). You can build this system in-house if you have the expertise, or outsource to an agency. Like your payroll system, it will require some up-front setup and a small amount of weekly maintenance, but soon can be executed with only 2-3 hours per month of a marketing team member’s time.
There are 5 parts to SEO Automation. The first, Strategic SEO Planning, is where you create the blueprint for generating leads from various customer types. It involves compiling your business’s most valuable keywords, narrowing them down based on search intent, and creating the most curiosity-satisfying page for each one.
The second, Technical SEO, is the prerequisite to ranking. It’s what most SEO companies mean when they say that they “do SEO.” Essentially, it means ensuring the site is fast, secure, and mobile friendly, with well-written meta titles tags on each page.
The third, Content Creation, is the engine of SEO automation, wherein you produce the actual pages each customer type wants to see when they type in a particular search query.
The fourth, Conversion Funnel Building, involves creating a set of pages that visitors are “funneled” to after they initially land on your website, leading them towards your goal of a sales inquiry.
The fifth and final part is Attribution, Tracking, and Reporting, which extracts hard data from your SEO, justifying its existence and indicating the directions in which you’ll steer the campaign in the future.
Now that you know all the parts of SEO Automation, let’s explore each one individually.
Strategic SEO Planning
Call me a nerd, but the planning stage really excites me. It essentially forces you to deeply understand your customers’ buying behavior. You’ll need to identify, in order of importance:
- How potential customers state a direct desire to buy what you sell
- The way they research and “comparison shop” companies like yours
- The problems they deal with before they start to have interest in a company like yours
While this is the reverse chronological order of the way your customers find you, it’s the correct order in terms of each persona’s value to your business. You want to begin by understanding the thinking of people looking to directly buy what you sell and progress towards the thinking of people who need what you sell but aren’t ready to buy yet. Too many marketers begin by trying to attract researchers and even people seeking definitions in their industry, when these folks could be a long way off from buying.
In any case, the purpose of understanding potential customers’ thinking is to figure out which search queries, or keywords, they’re typing into Google. Keywords are wonderful because they correspond to prospects’ seriousness—imagine if a retail worker could ascertain, via a bubble hovering above a walk-in’s head, whether they’re just browsing or looking to drop their paycheck at the store. Using SEO, that’s exactly what we can do.
Let’s look at a hypothetical: your company provides nearshore software development. An example of the first situation—a prospect stating a direct desire to sell—would be someone typing in the keyword “nearshore outsourcing company” or “nearshore outsourcing services.” These keywords so clearly express an intention to work with a company like yours, you might even say they’re among your most valuable keywords.
An example of the second situation—a prospect researching and comparison shopping companies like yours—would be someone typing in “nearshore outsourcing companies” (almost the same as the previous keywords but pluralized, which makes a major difference in search intent). These types of keywords are quite valuable as well, though not as much as the first situation since the prospect isn’t as close to the moment of purchase.
A keyword in the third situation would be something like “nearshore outsourcing benefits,” which implies an interest in working with a firm like yours but is further from transacting than a searcher in the previous two situations.
When organizing keywords, we typically begin with a brainstorming session to come up with a list of valuable keywords and conclude with a completely filled-out keyword table, rank ordering those keywords by revenue-driving potential. Here’s what that could look like:
|Value Rank||Keyword||Page Type||Content Plan|
|#1||“nearshore outsourcing”||Pillar Page||Link from header nav under “Specialties”; comprehensive definitional page with links to all supporting pages inside container.|
|#2||“nearshore outsourcing company”||Sales Landing Page||Linked from header nav under “Services” as “Nearshore Outsourcing”; Sales SLP containing a quick value statement at the top; validation logos; a How it Works diagram; and a brief deeper dive into Next Steps with CTAs.|
|#3||“nearshore outsourcing services”||“ “||Included in title tag of “Nearshore Outsourcing” sales LP, above.|
|#4||“nearshore outsourcing companies”||Super Landing Page||Comparison SLP with client and 5 semi-competitors listed in a table along the X axis with features along the Y axis, as well as a 1-5 star score. Features are each explained in their own bold section below the chart.|
|#5||“nearshore outsourcing benefits”||Blog Entry||List page: Immediate pros/cons list at top, followed by explanation of which companies it’s right for; companies it’s wrong for; a process diagram; and a How to Get Started section leading to a CTA.|
An abbreviated keyword table
You’ll notice that the table includes a page type for each keyword, which is basically the kind of landing page that is most appropriate for the searcher. For highly transactional keywords like “nearshore outsourcing company” a main, sales-oriented page like the home page or a key service page would feel most fitting to a searcher. For highly transactional research-oriented keywords like “nearshore outsourcing companies”, a super landing page, or elaborate, authoritative page with a comparison chart on it, would satisfy the searcher. And for more basic research keywords that still have value, a blog entry is the best match for the searcher’s needs.
The best page type for a given keyword is a subject unto itself, which eventually becomes quite intuitive, but for now, I’ll just give you the 5 SEO page types that exist on a website, in order of transactionality:
|Type of Content Page||Keyword Specificity||Searcher Intention||Search Transactionality||Example Keyword|
|Landing Page (sales, geotargeted, industry, use case, company type, etc.)||High||Buy||Very High||nearshore outsourcing company|
|Super Landing Page||High||Research to buy||High||[best] nearshore outsourcing companies|
|Blog post||Very High||Research||Medium||nearshore outsourcing benefits|
|Pillar / Hub||Medium||Research||Medium||nearshore software development|
|Wikipedia / definitional||Low||Research||Low||nearshore outsourcing|
The 5 SEO page types: decide which is the best fit for each of your valuable keywords
You can see live examples of each SEO page type by going to the header menu of this website. We have many landing pages linked under “Company > Specialties” and “Company > Locations”; Super Landing Pages linked under “Resources”; and blogs under “Blog”. Our guide to Pillar / Hub pages is a great place to start if you’re unfamiliar with the concept.
After deciding on page types for each keyword, it helps to describe what you’d like to see on the page, including any special features or graphics. That’s the last column of the Keyword Table and concludes the SEO Planning process. The pages are then passed off to Content Creation, which I cover after Technical SEO.
Technical SEO is essentially getting your “house” (website) in order, and as such is an important prerequisite to ranking. Because Strategic SEO Planning and Technical SEO demand such different skill sets (the former requires high level, abstract thinking and the latter straightforward web dev work), they’re often implemented at the same time by different teams. However, it’s a good idea for a single mastermind who understands SEO to oversee both processes, as certain technical items—particular meta titles—overlap with Strategic SEO Planning.
Once Technical SEO has been implemented, it typically doesn’t need to be overhauled for several years. Briefly, here is what you’ll need to have in place:
- Google Search Console. This is the dashboard that allows you to see what your website needs to improve its technical SEO. It’s Google’s way of directly communicating what it would like to see on your site. It will tell you when it finds 404 errors, duplicate content, slowly-loading pages, spammy backlinks, and a lot more. It also has a built-in keyword ranking and backlink tracker tool. Setting up GSC, checking it monthly, and receiving its notifications is a prerequisite to automating your SEO.
- SEO-friendly CMS. Most popular Content Management Systems (CMSs) are SEO-friendly, and simply setting them up properly and keeping them updated will ensure your site has a good baseline of technical SEO. WordPress is our favorite CMS at First Page Sage, largely because of its rich developer community that’s created many SEO plugins. In short, it gets the job done, technical-SEO-wise; it’s user friendly; and it’s frequently updated.
- Site and Page Speed. Google requires the sites it promotes in the search results to load quickly, and you’d expect nothing less in our age of instant information. Using Google Search Console and Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool, your development team should go through and make site-wide as well as page-specific changes to quicken load speed.
- Site Security. Your website must have an SSL certificate, marked by the use of “https” in your URL and the Google Chrome browser labeling your site as “Secure.” You should also have software that monitors your site for vulnerabilities. One of the easiest ways sites get hacked is through third party CMS plugins; if you’re using one that isn’t well-known, always Google it first to investigate whether it’s been hacked.
- Responsiveness. Your site must be on a “responsive” template that automatically adapts to different devices, mobile, and desktop.
- Custom-written Meta Titles Tags. Every page on your site must have an intentionally-written title tag (as opposed to just allowing your CMS to mimic the page’s name, e.g. “Home” or “About”) that is no more than 75 characters in length and contains 1-2 specific keywords. Our guide to keyword selection provides additional detail on writing custom meta title tags based on high-value keywords.
- A good UI / UX. One of Google’s ranking factors is Visitor Time on Site, which is directly affected by the experience each new user has when they land on your website. Best practices like the liberal use of white space, icons, attractive colors, and concise writing impact your visitors’ impression of your website, and therefore Google’s as well.
When we begin a campaign with a client, we usually spend about 6 weeks on Technical SEO, alongside the Strategic SEO Planning phase. For most websites, an experienced team can handle all of the above in that time frame.
Creating content is the engine of SEO Automation. It’s valuable for two reasons:
- Each new page that targets a keyword is a new opportunity to rank for, and thus generate leads from, that keyword
- When published at least 2x/week for 4-6 months, content increases Google’s trust of your website, activating a “News Website Bonus” and increasing all your website pages’s Google rankings
There are other benefits to content creation as well. Beyond producing leads and positive interactions with your brand, it also leaves you with a cache of original content that can be used in social media and e-mail marketing.
In our company, all content is planned out within a highly-organized Editorial Calendar. The Editorial Calendar is shared between writers, editors, and the SEO Project Manager who holds the vision for the entire campaign in mind.
While the editors and SEO Project Manager are essentially overseeing quality, the writers are the ones who must produce the content from scratch. This job is more complex than usual when the content is being fed into an SEO Automation system. The team producing the content should adhere to the following structure for the content to be successful at its goal of generating qualified leads:
- Writers are assigned pages to create content for based on the Editorial Calendar, which derives from the Keyword Table created back in Strategic SEO Planning.
- Writers must deeply understand the searcher’s intent and its connection to the specific type of SEO page they’re creating.
- Writers must follow best practices for creating content within their chosen SEO page in order to satisfy the searcher’s intent (see screenshot of a Best Practice Guide below).
- The page must have 2 calls-to-action (CTAs): one on the side of the page that follows the reader, and one at the end of the article.
- For all blogs and other thought leadership content, the last section of article must “blend” naturally from the subject of the article into its CTA.
While it can take a while to train a team of writers to deliver content that feels like thought leadership as opposed to just standard content marketing, as well as understand the difference between writing blog entries and landing pages, that “while” is the difference between a substantive ROI and a non-existent one.
SEO Conversion Funnel Building
The three parts of SEO Automation we’ve discussed so far will attract qualified leads to your website. Many businesses will stop there, short of actually converting the lead, as this is where the work gets more theoretical. If that isn’t your cup of tea, have no fear: the theory behind it is pretty simple and the results make it all worth it.
Building a conversion funnel for SEO simply means deciding which pages to push (or “funnel”) users to once they arrive on your site. A site usually has several funnels, one that suits each member of your target audience. Your target audience can usually be split up by industry, customer type, and use case. In each of those categories, you would have landing pages that speak to that particular audience member’s issues and needs.
The landing pages I’m referring to are typically (especially in the world of B2B SEO) the first page in a conversion funnel. Since there are several types of landing pages, the person on your team in charge of blogging strategy will need to choose the page type that is most appropriate, which can be an industry landing page, geotargeted landing page, customer type landing page, or—if the search query you’re targeting is research oriented—a blog entry.
After the initial landing page comes a case study or research piece demonstrating your company’s experience and capabilities. It’s essentially a deeper dive into your company’s thought leadership.
Next comes a validation page in order to inspire trust in the visitor, which is usually the About page.
Finally, the funnel leads people to a Contact page.
Here’s a theoretical illustration of that conversion funnel:
To get a real-world perspective on that conversion funnel, let’s take a journey through it from the point of view of the searcher:
- Priya, a member of your target audience, is doing research on a problem her business is having, so she goes to Google, and after a quick search, sees your blog page ranking at the top. She clicks on it.
- Feeling educated and impressed by your insights, she now understands how her problem should be addressed. However, she still needs more help so she clicks a case study linked from the article about a company that is similar to hers.
- After reading the case study, she starts to feel like she really needs a company like yours to get her the kind of results the company in the case study got, so she scrolls up to the header and clicks on the About page in order to learn more about your company.
- Impressed by what she reads, she clicks over to the Contact page to schedule a conversation with your company.
This is just one possible funnel that is based on a research query; there’s often anywhere from 2 to 10 different funnels that begin with various landing pages and progress to thought leadership pages (case studies, white papers, videos) before going on to validation and conversion.
Now, here’s where things get a bit more technical, preventing most marketing departments from getting the data they need for a successful lead generation campaign. In order to know which funnel is converting the most leads, you need to observe each of them and record the conversion rates. It could be, for instance, that the conversion funnel above performs better with a Service landing page replacing the About page. Therefore, you would want to use calls-to-actions on the Case Study to push users to the right Service page. But you wouldn’t if this is true unless you experiment.
You can observe the success of different funnels in Google Analytics, which allows you to set up conversion funnels and see exactly where users are dropping off.
Once you identify the pages where users are dropping off, you can go further and test variants of a single page, changing out a graphic or a text block, using a conversion optimization platform like Google Optimize.
Although it takes a dedicated, analytical team member to go through with properly setting up funnels, testing them, and modifying them based on conversion rate, it’s a relatively one-off type of job: once you put in the work, you can enjoy the benefits of a successful funnel for years.
For many of our clients, the relationship began because the CMO or Head of Marketing knew that nobody on their team had the experience or interest to implement conversion funnels, making the prospect of outsourcing attractive.
Attribution, Tracking, and Reporting
With your automated SEO system delivering qualified leads and converting them, everything is now in place. But here comes the intellectual part: how do you measure the results of your SEO system specifically, given that it’s part of a larger marketing system that’s also generating leads?
Thinking about how to separate your SEO results from that of other online marketing activities, e.g. e-mail marketing, LinkedIn, and paid advertising; as well as from offline marketing activities, e.g. conferences, networking, and cold calling, might lead you to realize how related all these things truly are. The SEO-focused blog post you published gets shared on LinkedIn, used as a landing page for a PPC campaign, linked in an e-mail newsletter, and utilized in a presentation at an industry conference. When content is repurposed and distributed like that, which channel gets the credit for the sale that was won through a combination of all of them?
This is where marketing measurement becomes a blend of logic and personal preference, an art known as attribution. Attribution takes place in the context of the conversion funnels found in your marketing analytics platform (Google Analytics, Hubspot, or another), allowing you to assign credit to each marketing channel you’re utilizing and ultimately determine the value of each one.
So, how do you decide how much credit to attribute to each marketing channel? There are several competing models. The simplest is “first touch” attribution, i.e. giving 100% of the credit for an eventual conversion to the first page the visitor landed on when they hit your site. Like so:
It’s tempting to use first-touch attribution for SEO, as a user that searches a keyword and then arrives on the landing page that you built specifically for that keyword should rightfully be called an SEO lead. But imagine they don’t convert in that session; instead, they leave and convert a few weeks later only after being reminded of your company through an e-mail blast. Now first-touch attribution doesn’t look so hot anymore: while SEO still deserves plenty of credit, the e-mail blast does as well.
Some people believe more in the “last touch” attribution model, which is to give 100% of the conversion credit to the last page the visitor landed on before they went down the final stretch of the conversion funnel. This model would give no credit to SEO in the above scenario.
Clearly, neither model is ideal, which is why we recommend a custom-defined attribution model where your marketing team, in conjunction with your SEO vendor (if you have one), decides what percentage credit to give each page in a funnel that results in a qualified lead. That process, in turn, determines how to assign credit to each marketing channel you’re utilizing.
Here’s an example:
In this attribution model, the visitor came to the home page first, which probably means they knew about the company already. They might be a referral or may have met a member of the company in person at some point. Therefore, we give the “Direct” marketing channel 60% of the credit for the eventual conversion. The visitor does not convert right away, though; they come back 3 days later after doing research on Google and recognize the site they visited, landing on a blog entry. Their later conversion is attributed 40% to SEO. Why? Well, they weren’t convinced enough to contact the company the first time around, and were enticed back after reading a blog entry. Therefore, while SEO doesn’t deserve the majority of the credit because it didn’t introduce them to the company, it deserves quite a lot. This is my subjective judgement, of course, and you might make a different one.
While all marketing attribution is open to interpretation, giving a fraction of the credit to the major moments in a successful conversion funnel makes the process far more accurate, ultimately allowing your marketing team to allocate their spend based on what’s genuinely driving revenue.
Note that you don’t always need to rely on your team’s judgement; marketing analytics platforms like Google Analytics 360 use AI to automatically assign credit to each step in your conversion funnel. It’s up to you to decide whether to trust an algorithm that is generally correct far more than your marketing team; or your marketing team, who knows your business better than an algorithm but may not have the time to go through dozens of moments in various conversion funnels and assign percentages.
Integrating Your SEO System Into Your Company’s Marketing
For most companies, getting SEO automated would be a tremendous accomplishment. It’s far more common to see paid marketing campaigns like Google Adwords and LinkedIn systematized; in fact, I can probably count on one hand the number of companies that had SEO fully automated before we met. And yet, for many companies, particularly B2B firms, SEO is one of the primary channels their target audience uses to find solutions.
The symphony of all your marketing channels running smoothly, with proper tracking, attribution, and reporting giving you the intelligence you need to allocate your marketing budget properly, is one of the keys to your company scaling. The others—operations and culture—are fascinating subjects for another article.
If you’re up for the challenge of using your in-house team to automate your SEO, I’d love to hear more about your efforts and the challenges you’ve faced. And if you’d like us to automate your SEO for you to support your lead generation efforts, we’d be happy to chat or you can read about our SEO Automation service here.