It’s fair to say that the world of SEO is going through somewhat of a change. With the rise in AI technology and new AI content generation tools entering the market on what feels like a daily basis, it’s leaving a lot of SEOs wondering what’s going to come next and how it might impact their work.
Regardless of the technology or process used to carry out SEO activity though, one thing will always remain critical – SEO strategy.
All too often, I hear people talk about tactical-level activity as though it’s a strategy. A strategy is not ‘optimise the meta data’ and ‘build domain authority’. Strategy statements or pillars should give strategic direction to all of the activity. By design, these pillars should be higher level and less granular than tactical execution and they should allow all stakeholders to easily understand the direction of the SEO campaign.
Although strategy statements are brief by design, the research behind them should be detailed and carried out thoroughly.
One of the pieces of work we undertake as part of building an SEO strategy is comprehensive keyword research and competitor benchmarking. All too often, only the first of those two things are done but taking the keyword research further by categorising it and comparing the results against the main competitors really allows you to understand the market and unpick the reasons for performance in certain areas.
Not only can it provide a blueprint for growing organic search traffic in key areas but it also allows you to be very data driven when it comes to measurement and focus areas.
So, how is it done? It all starts with keyword research …
Keyword research is the starting point of building any search strategy.
A point to note here – some people don’t like the phrase ‘keyword’ research as they feel like focussing on specific words and phrases as opposed to topics can lead you down the wrong path. If you’re one of those people, I get the argument and I’m happy to call it ‘topic research’ if it makes you feel better. Either way, people still use words and phrases to get search results, so forgive me but I’ll continue to call it keyword research …
Which tools and techniques and tools are most effective for keyword research are beyond the scope of this article but whatever your tool(s) of choice, we always recommend that for benchmarking purposes you build a comprehensive keyword list that you feel represents your market.
The size of the list is dependent on the size of the market and what topic areas it’s made up from. That could be 250 – 350 keywords for a small and narrow industry or into the thousands for an industry with many more facets.
The more work you do at this stage, the more granular you’ll be able to get with the categorisation and the more opportunity and insight you’ll unearth.
Again, this is a labour intensive task but one that’s absolutely worth spending the time on and getting right.
I’d like to think that AI can assist with this task at some point but right now, I just can’t seem to get ChatGPT or Bard to do it as effectively as I can doing it manually. That may be down to my prompt inadequacies though …
Each keyword needs to be in one primary category and where relevant, can be in multiple secondary categories.
I’d recommend keeping the number of categories to a manageable number which will again depend on the different facets of the market but a good range is from 12 – 18. Each category should have at least a dozen keywords in it to make it viable and the keywords should have search volume.
It would be nice to recommend task-specific tools here with fancy UIs and cool names but I typically find myself working in Excel. It’s not fancy but it works.
Once your keyword research and primary and secondary categorisation are complete, it’s time to take some benchmarks using your keyword ranking tool of choice.
Here are some pointers when taking the benchmark positions:
Once the benchmarks have been taken and you have a list of keywords with the rankings against each one for your website and that of each competitor, the next step is to come up with a visibility score, or a share of voice score, or whatever other name you can think of which labels it in the right way.
The benefit of assigning a specific score to each keyword ranking position is that it can be aggregated at the category level and overall.
There are different ways of calculating visibility, some of which use a click curve that takes into account the average click-through rate at certain ranked positions whereas others simply implement a linear scale from position 1 at 100% visibility down to position [insert your own cut off point here] TIP: by the time you get to the middle of page two, for a typical search engine results page with the typical features you now find present on them, the click-through rate is generally down at below 1%. Going beyond say position 30 where it’s likely to be a consistent zero doesn’t make a lot of sense so if you’re unsure where to cut it off and you’re doing this for the first time and want to keep it simple, implement a linear visibility score from positions 1 through 30.
I’d recommend expressing the score as a percentage (using the simple model above, any keywords at position 1 would have a visibility score of 100% and position 30 would have a visibility score of 3.33% – anything below 30 would have a score of 0%).
Once each of your keywords has a visibility score assigned to it for both your and your competitors’ websites, you can now aggregate the data to calculate the visibility at the category level. This could be as simple as taking the average keyword visibility score for each category.
We visualise the data using donut charts and typically show the score vs each competitor relative to the total visibility of all the competitors combined (as opposed to the absolute visibility in the market which can be difficult to visualise if the category visibility is very low).
As you can see from the example above (which is from a client benchmarking project we recently did with the category name and companies anonymised), there is a clear winner here with competitor 1 far out ahead in terms of visibility for this particular category.
This is actionable because you can start to dig into the reasons why. It could be that their site is structured in a specific way, that they are putting a big focus on the topic from a content perspective, or that they’re particularly well known in that category and have built up a lot of topical trust and authority over time which is translating into good rankings. It could be any combination of those things.
Whatever the reason, it’s clearly highlighted through the benchmarking process which makes it hugely valuable.
You’ll normally find that different competitors score better in certain categories and once you’ve establised the reason why, you’ll be presented with a blueprint to improve your organic search performance and guide your SEO strategy.
Hopefully, you now understand the value of SEO benchmarking. Not only does it allow you to take a comprehensive snapshot of where performance is currently at so that you can compare against it as you carry out your SEO activity, but the arguably more valuable outcome from the process is the insight it presents you with to help develop your strategy to drive more value from organic search.