Maybe you're into video games, or you were at one point. Maybe you've thrown a few quarters into a pinball machine. Regardless of how you connect with my analogy, the SERPs are the leaderboard and I aggressively enjoy standing on the podium.
I get really (perhaps overly) excited for MOZ and other SEO reports. I get almost as excited seeing the fruits of my labor in those reports as I did dominating my brothers at Street Fighter II back in the early ’90s.
In short, I get a lot of joy and validation out of figuring out how to get the needle to move and then twisting the knobs and hitting the buttons to see how far we can push it. Especially against entrenched, high-budget competition.
The SERPS are the leaderboard and I aggressively enjoy standing on the podium.
When working with a new SEO client, especially SMB clients, the most common question is, "How long is this going to take?" The short answer is that you should never stop. But the tried-and-true processes I use allow me to create data-backed assumptions, test those assumptions methodically and tell you generally within a few weeks if those assumptions were correct. Within 6 months, I'm going to be able to tell/show you a great, personalized story about the value of process-based SEO.
I know there's plenty of tools out there to help plan for, implement and measure the results of SEO strategy. I use many of them (MOZ, Ahrefs, SEMRush, ScreamingFrog, Yoast & others), but there will always be something about the unadulterated, raw data from Google Analytics (and Webmaster Tools/Search Console) that tickles my fancy.
I went out and got my Google Analytics certification this year to bolster my resume and LinkedIn profile, but that was really just a formality. I've been a professional user since 2011 and an enthusiast before that.
This isn't going to be a deep dive into content clustering. In short, the process involves reworking your site's hierarchy/sitemap/architecture (whatever vernacular you use) to group relevant, bottom-level content around broader content topics.
By doing this, we capitalize on Google's machine-learning algorithm to build domain and page authority around the overarching topics by feeding sub-content, through strategic internal linking, back into the broader topic that will help our rankings across the board. It's a powerful approach to building on the long-tail keywords you already rank for and start making larger gains in the broader, higher-volume keywords that encapsulate the long-tail.
When I first started doing SEO, even at an enthusiast level, a top-3 (or even top-5) ranking pretty much guaranteed you'd show up above the fold on the SERPs for that given search. These days, that's no guarantee. A top organic ranking is still coveted of course, but between Google adding a 4th top-of-page ad space, adding the map pack for local-relevant results and various "snippets" and other SERP features, we're now at the point where we're often expecting the user to scroll before they see any organic results.
Granted, this mac n' cheese example is a bit of an outlier to prove a point. But the key takeaway here is that Thrillist has the 1st organic position plus enormous screen real estate with a rich snippet. Between the paid-ad carousel at the top and this rich snippet, the user needs to scroll to see even the second organic result. Trust me, Thrillest didn't get that by accident. They specifically structured their page and guided the result with schema markup to help Google pull that info.
On a side note, it's also interesting that the first organic result for a major brand comes from Annie's Organics and they don't show up until the 4th page. You've got industry powerhouses like Kraft, Annie's and others, with enormous resources, getting pushed way down in the results by consumer-focused content from "Mom's Food Blog." There are always great opportunities out there.
By Neil Patel's estimates, roughly 30% of search phrases do, or could, have a rich snippet attached to them, yet only .03% of websites are actively pursuing those rich snippets. That's a huge opportunity to gain screen real estate in the SERPs and it's likely an area you can gain a competitive advantage versus your competition.
Honestly, by including this here, it might be inferred that I think this is a unique skill set. I do excel at performing site and link audits, but here's the thing about technical site audits and even backlink audits: They aren't hard. There are a number of tools built for exactly this purpose. I tend to use a combination of ScreamingFrog, MOZ and Ahrefs along with a few custom spreadsheets.
The "trick" here is to simply have the structured process in place to make sure it's getting done, and that you or your team is acting on the results. On the site audit side, that's obviously addressing the red flags (e.g. broken links, missing alt tags, missing meta, etc.). Then systematically working through the on-page SEO triggers to ensure that those triggers align with your SEO strategy. The easiest part is doing it. The hardest part is doing it.
TANGENT ALERT: If I'm working with an SMB client that serves a local or regional market (any market where the map pack comes into play), you'd be shocked by how many times I've earned my first invoice by simply working through the data-aggregators (Social Accounts, Review Accounts, Directory Accounts) and ensuring there's consistent data. That simple, sometimes time-consuming process of ensuring completeness and domain version consistency (https & either www/non-www) — it's the lowest hanging fruit out there for localized clients.
Obviously, when working on national or global SEO campaigns, it gets more involved. Here's looking at you, link building outreach. On the active link building side, that's writing compelling emails, reaching out to relevant blogs, news and other PR organizations, connecting with influencers in the space, looking at potential content exchanges and more. I'm a sales guy who doesn't come off salesy. I build links.
I've recently begun testing a passive link building strategy — using creative commons attribution markup on original photos used within a given site. That's telling Google to list our original photos as free to use by whoever wants to use them, with the caveat that they must link back to the original image (our site). For niche markets, where the images would be very specific to that industry, the thought process is that any blogs or articles using that image would likely have relevance to the niche and therefore pass a higher level of Google authority through those links, rather than simply adding non-relevant link volume.
On the on-page side, it's all about having a plan, following it, refining it and following it some more. Great keyword research and strategy leads to great on-page optimization. Don't cut the corners, put a systematic process in place to ensure you're not, and then put your head down and get to work.