Eight things you should know before starting SEO work for a brand

Starting a new SEO campaign that will generate ROI requires a good knowledge of the website, its industry and goals.  So what do you do when you are working on a brand that’s new to you?

It’s understandable that when you start SEO on a website you would want to take what’s in front of you and improve it.  This desire to get results quickly will serve you well in your SEO career.  However, it’s important to take a step back and ask the necessary questions that will help you enormously in the long run.

There are some critical factors that will impact your success.  Some of these may be set in stone or already happened, but it is important to identify them and ascertain how to progress.

This article is going to take you through a checklist of questions you should ask before starting SEO work on a website.

1. What SEO work has been carried out on the site before?

No matter what audits you run for a website you will not be able to accurately answer the question “why is this the way it is?”.  It’s important to understand how content ended up where it did, or what fueled the decision behind a sub-domain versus a folder.

Getting the history of SEO activity on a site can help you to understand the reasoning behind decisions.  If you’re lucky you may be able to speak to the person who managed the SEO activity. More often than not you’ll be taking over the reins from a person or agency that is no longer available.  If this is the case then ask as many leading questions as you can to people who may have been involved in the projects.

There can be SEO decisions made that were influenced by business needs or technology restrictions.  If you don’t understand this you could end up making suggestions that have been made many times before or just hitting a brick wall with your recommendations.  Understanding the history of the website can assist you in moving forward.

If you don’t have a person you can ask you may be able to access work-logs through project management tools.  If you are taking over from another agency then ask if you can have copies of previous audits or recommendations made.  This may assist you in identifying the strategy that has been previously followed.

2. What other marketing channels are active?

A critical factor in your success may be what other marketing campaigns are being carried out for the brand.  If for instance there is a high level of PPC activity currently running on brand terms then this may mean the share of organic traffic is diminished.  Social media campaigns can have a direct effect on how much your brand is searched for.  Ensure you are aware of the work the brand’s social media team is doing.

Offline campaigns may help in driving awareness of the brand that can have an impact on the search behaviours of its audiences.  This could cause there to be peaks in organic traffic to the site that you could not determine the cause of from a analytics review alone.

It is important to liaise with other marketing channel owners who are impacting your organic search traffic.  If possible ask for an understanding of their marketing calendar so you are aware of when there may be increases in organic search that you can capitalise on.

It is important not to treat SEO as a discipline in a silo but work alongside your colleagues in other channels.  This can be tricky if the other channels are managed by agencies or contractors who you are not in contact with.  It would be a good idea to push for more integration of the marketing campaigns.

3. What is the seasonality of this site?

Getting a full understanding of a website’s seasonality may go beyond looking at its Google Analytics data.

It is prudent to speak to the teams who work directly with clients or sales to get their idea or data that highlights why there might be peaks or troughs in organic traffic.

Getting insight into major events in the brand’s calendar can help you plan for activities like digital PR and product promotion.  Without this insight your won content calendar can become very disjointed from the activity of the whole business.

4. Who are the main competitors?

There are two types of competitors in search. There are the competitors the business owners are aware of, and those that are competing for the same keywords in the SERPs.  It is important to find out both sets.

Competitor research will likely be a staple aspect of most organic campaigns. The difference between your SERP competitors and your business competitors might be great.

It can be tempting to run-off and discover the search competitors for yourself but excluding the business’s competitors can be highly detrimental.  For a start it is often these competitors that your boss if you work in-house, or your client’s owners if you are working in an agency or freelance, are more concerned with.  This means they are likely to want to follow the activity of these competitors more.

These “offline” competitors are also a good place to look for ideas of how to better compete in the organic SERPs.  If they are not ranking for the keywords you are targeting and therefore not identified through your own competitor research, then perhaps you are missing out on some keyword targeting.  If these are companies they brand managers are more aware of then they are obviously competing with them a significant level in sales, targeting or audience.  Therefore, they should not be ignored.

Conversely, understanding the digital competitors is extremely important for organic search success. Just because the a competitors may not be in the awareness of the brand’s management does not mean they are not taking a share of your online audience way from your own site.  Make sure you have a firm grasp of which companies are competing for your target terms.  Don’t just identify your top 5 online competitors, split then out by product range and content.  You may notice Company A ranks well for keywords associated with your main product line, but Company B is competing on your long-tail keyword strategy.  Ignoring Company B would be detrimental for your top-of-the-funnel strategy.

Starting a project

5. When did this website last have a migration?

Website redesigns and moves can go very well but if not, they can also be devastating to organic traffic levels.  It is important to know whether a website has been through a migration previously.  This will greatly influence the strategy you create.  Migrations should result in redirects being put in place, it can also result in content being cut or the theme of the site changing. This historic action whether recent or years ago, can still have implications on the current performance of the site.

Find out when the last migration happened. If it is less than a year ago chances are the website may still be experiencing the effects.  Your strategy may need to be tailored more towards remedial actions. If you are fortunate you may be capitalising on the success of the well-actioned migration.

If the work you are planning includes implementing new redirects you will need to be aware of any existing ones.  This will help to prevent the creation of redirect chains or loops.   The development team is likely your best place to start asking questions about existing redirects.  You may even be able to access a list of all redirects currently in use.

6. Who else will be making changes to the site?

It is crucial to know who else might be making changes to the website.  If there are other people who make amendments to it then their changes could be detrimental to the SEO success.  Ask to be involved in their processes to ensure SEO good practice.

Save yourself a lot of headaches by ascertaining if there is anyone else you need to run your changes past.  If you are part of an in-house SEO team then you will hopefully have these processes explained to you.  If you are in an agency you may need to ask the client questions about sign-off processes before making changes.  From experience, it’s not easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.  If you make changes without understanding the sign-off process you can expect some angry phone calls.  Be warned.

7. Has the website always been focused on this product/service?

It is also important to understand if the domain has always had the same content and focus as you currently see.  It may be that the brand has changed focus over time, or the domain used to belong to another company.

Backlinks, existing URLs and citations may not have been cleaned up when the brand pivoted. The search engines may therefore still be associating the website with its previous positioning.

If you determine that the site has changed its focus then look at analysing the backlink profile.  Seek to change the anchor text that might be using terms that are no longer suitable.  You may need to begin a strong backlink campaign to build out the site’s profile with more relevant links.

If owned before you will need to look into the history of the site prior to its current ownership.  A good step is using a website like WayBackMachine to look at the content of the site over time.  This will give you insight into its targeting before the current iteration of the site.

8. What restrictions are there?

There may be substantial restrictions on SEO implementation that you will need to be aware of before carrying out work.  For instance, there may be processes that need to be followed in order to correctly upload content.  The site may be using a complicated CMS set-up that easily breaks if used in the wrong way.  Ask to be shown how to upload content even if it is a CMS that you are familiar with.

Ask the team responsible for the ongoing maintenance of the site to show you how to change crucial elements.  Learn how to edit header tags, page titles and add no-index tags their way.  You will be surprised how often elements are linked together in a way you would not expect.  Often changing them in one area of the CMS alters them elsewhere on the front-end of the site.  A common one is the page title field powers the anchor text linking to the page in the main navigation.  That’s never a fun discovery when applied to a live site.

Conclusion

The key is to ask as many questions as possible.  Hold a meeting with new clients to run through this list with them.  Capture the important background information.  It will stop you making a mistake that could greatly impact the success of the campaign.

Post from Helen Pollitt