The Ten Year SEO Plan

More than ten years ago I decided the best thing I could do for a Website that needed to optimize for search was publish content that I would enjoy reading again and again through the years. Following that one simple principle has brought me search success on many Websites. When I reported a Panda downgrade for Xenite.Org two years ago it was obvious to me why the site had been downgraded. Fixing the downgrade and recovering the traffic was simple. I removed all the lazy, autogenerated content and relaunched the site with a fraction of its former content. From there I built out the site again, once more with real content that I myself produced. Xenite.Org is going strong today.

SEO Theory and my other Websites never took that hit. I haven’t had to change anything for search engine optimization on any site where I manage the content and produce the content myself.

Given a limited amount of time in the day, you have to decide whether you’re going to spend that time placing links or creating content and leaving it to other people to place the links. Now I do place links — I place them for all sorts of reasons. But my links are part of my content. I create them with purpose, expecting (believing) that someone will look at them and maybe click on them.

Links Have Not Lost Their Importance

Link building isn’t dead. Only the sleazy link building practices that people relied upon for ten years have lost their glitz and glamour. The long drunken night is over and as people wake up in a strange place they see their partners are not beautiful and sexy after all.

The downside of all this — even for me — is that as people seek help with their Websites they are now afraid to talk about “link acquisition”. “We did that and all it got us was pain,” I hear again and again. I guess it’s a good thing that I haven’t built my business on link building but to be honest, you’re not going to come back from your current nightmare scenario without acquiring new links. Nor are you going to grow your traffic without links.

That’s the bittersweet reality that people are struggling with. All this “content marketing” and “earned media” felgercarb is going the way of the dodo in another year or two because it’s just another quick fad, a typical knee-jerk reaction to changes in the search environment. If you weren’t running a “digital content marketing” business ten years ago you won’t be running one five years from now.

How the Ten Year Plan Works

No ten-year business plan is based on recent changes in the marketplace. New businesses rise up in response to new consumer needs and demands, but once those needs are met the businesses have to evolve or they fail. In most industries the marketplace abhors a vacuum of competition, and sooner or later competitors appear to slice off pieces of the growing market.

Organic search works exactly the same way. You define a new set of keywords around some concept and demonstrate success for a while; but then the marketers smell money in the SERPs and they come charging in with their cheap content and their instant replay Website strategies and suddenly you no longer own the market.

A ten year plan therefore embraces both change and competition. In short, a ten year plan works by playing on the expectation that every successful strategy will invite competition and emulation. Hence, the only way to plan ten years ahead is to plan for all the changes that you cannot foresee.

Search engine optimization works the same way today that it did in the 1990s. You develop a Website, see how it performs in the SERPs, and make some changes to improve that performance. SEO should be only part of the Website marketing process — but despite occasional warnings from across the SEO blogosphere (“Google should not be your only source of traffic”) many people invested in the simple marketing solution of “optimizing for Google”.

It’s not the fault of search engine optimization that people misused it for quick, unsustainable gains. In a ten year plan you don’t think in terms of “how much can I make today” but rather in terms of “what will I invest every month?”

How much money will you invest?

How much time will you invest?

How much of your own interest will you invest?

You are not an affiliate or a small business owner; nor are you an SEO expert in an agency or cushy corporate job. You are a publisher, maybe by proxy, maybe as part of a committee. But in order to optimize for search you MUST publish. It has always been that way.

Quick, unsustainable gains are not optimal. Churn-and-burn SEO demands a very different approach from single-site SEO, but even churn-and-burn SEO can provide a long-term return on investment. You just have to have a ten year plan. That plan embraces the rapid death and loss of many Websites.

It was the mistake of sole-site publishers who borrowed ideas from the churn-and-burn community that led to the failure of the system. The “system” in this context is all that you think you know about SEO and Web marketing. You used the wrong model and you got burned.

Components of the Ten Year SEO Plan

To create a ten year SEO plan you have to define a purpose for your Website. It’s news, it’s entertainment, it’s a product marketing platform. It’s not CNN, it’s not EW, and it’s not “a reseller for Brand X products”. If you are an affiliate marketer your site may sell plastic pens and paper plates today but in ten years it might be selling tents and survival kits. Same Website, different products, all managed under a single, coherent plan that anticipates change and ruthlessly abandons non-performing ideas.

Much though I hate them (because they lead to formulaic SEO practices) here is a brief checklist of things to include in your ten year SEO plan:

  • Statement of Website purpose (for your eyes only)
  • Your credentials for marketing any product or service
  • The message you will sell (your elevator pitch)
  • The value you will create for your visitors

The statement of purpose is not something written in corporate communications speak. It’s a plain and simple statement like “my Website is about SEO theory”. There may be reams of explanation and illustrative examples that go with that statement (so that someone else can understand what you’re talking about) but as far as you are concerned you have only one purpose for your Website. If you cannot articulate that single purpose for yourself you will be lost long before the ten years are finished.

Your marketing credentials consist of your 1) experience, 2) knowledge, 3) resources, and 4) your network (people, not websites). These credentials don’t have to exist on day 1 of your ten year plan but they WILL exist on the last day of that ten years. All you have to know on day 1 is what you need in terms of experience, knowledge, resources, and a personal network (of people, not Websites). These are the elements that make YOU special, that turn YOUR Website into the one site no one else can replicate. There will be fakery and wannabes but you will easily stand out from those crowds.

Your message is a classic “value proposition”. You want Michael Martinez on your SEO team because he has been through just about every negative blowback imaginable in organic search marketing and he has come out on top every time. I put my experiences on the Web. You can read a thousand articles here on SEO Theory detailing some of those experiences. You can read about them in dozens of Web forums, blogs, and more. I can help you with technical SEO, sustainable link acquisition, strategic content planning, and Website growth planning. That is my message. That is my value proposition. I have lived it a thousand times over.

The value you create for your visitors is not your “mission statement”. It’s your unspoken elevator pitch, your 10-second ambient spiel that makes or breaks a visitor’s decision to buy from you and not from someone else. This isn’t the spiel you write or speak — it’s the spiel a visitor feels. Why do some men get their shoes shined by hand rather than electric buffed? Why do some people take their cars to detail shops instead of through gas station spray washing services? Why do you fly on your favorite airline as much as possible instead of just accepting random seats on whatever comes along?

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We place our loyalties where we see value that we want. In electronic commerce some people work only with their own banks; some people prefer Paypal; some people prefer Amazon; some people prefer Google Checkout. They may not have made their final choices but they are loyal to the services they choose because of the value those services provide through every experience.

You break the value you create for your customers by creating problems and frustrations for them. Value is a fragile will-o-the-wisp that comes and goes. If you want to be running the same Website ten years from now you need to create real value for your visitors that transforms them into loyal customers. Otherwise you could just as easily replace your site every six months. It won’t matter.

And How Does Content Fit Into All This?

Ask people in Web marketing if they would enjoy the challenge of promoting a photography Website and I think most of them would say “no”. I can’t prove that, but in my experience with other Web marketers photography Websites seem to have a bad reputation (as prospective SEO clients/projects), not least because photographers want to:

  1. Only showcase their work
  2. Make it impossible for people to download their images
  3. Earn simple conversions without having to “do all that Web marketing”

Choosing photography as your career should be a choice made out of love, not necessity. But if you’re responsible for bringing in your own customers then you have to compromise on something so that you can do real marketing. This is a hard conversation to have with some photographers because they are focused (pardon the pun) on doing their business, not running their business.

There are a thousand industries like photography. People with highly specialized skills — married to at least a minimum of acceptable talent, if not truly exceptional artistic capability — just want to be able to do what they love and get paid to do it. These people are terrible at producing “SEO content”. And that’s where we come in.

And yet, we make such a fuss over having to deal with these tough clients. So the photographer won’t allow you to put words on the page or in an ALT= attribute. You still have content, though. Those pictures can be marketed in a thousand ways. The less time you spend rolling your eyes and drawing deep, heavy sighs, the more time you can invest in the marketing.

Imagine yourself running a Website that only publishes pictures for the next ten years — growing traffic for that site, earning links, and doing all the cool stuff that SEO is so famous for. If you can NOT imagine that you’re in the wrong business. You’re not optimizing for search if you don’t see the potential for growth and reward over ten years in any one Website.

In other words, content is not “articles”, and it’s not “product descriptions”, and it’s not “embedded videos”, and it’s not widgets, or cartoons, or 140 characters. Content is all of these things at once and a million other things. Content is whatever you put on the page, and that is what you work with.

Every Ten Year Plan Begins With An “audit”, not an Audit

Many people in Web marketing usually make two mistakes when they take on a new client or project:

  1. They run an audit looking for things to change
  2. They draw up a “content plan” that calls for changing or adding keywords in titles, meta descriptions, and page copy

I never yet met an SEO who was expert enough in any random business to know what needed to be changed on a Website. If you’re going to do an audit it should be for your benefit more than for the client’s. Sure, there are people who sell Website auditing services that specifically look for problems. But that’s not the same thing as the audit an agency should be running on a new account, or the audit that an in-house SEO needs to run on the company’s Website (and business).

You may have been hired because you can “hit the ground running” but you still need to come up to speed on what the business is, how it’s being managed, and what the goals and targets are. If you don’t know what the business is trying to accomplish you have absolutely no valid or credible SEO advice to offer. None. Stop looking for broken links. They are not as serious a problem as your lack of understanding of what is going on there.

If you’re starting a new project you need to design that first audit with YOU in mind. Sure, everyone expects some sort of report — but don’t be surprised if some VP throws you out on your ear if your report fails to mention the very special needs of his (line of) business. An SEO audit is as much a competency test as it is a first step in improving a failing marketing process. Failure starts with the first mistake, not in spite of it.

There Are No Sprints in Ten Year Plans

I’m an old-school software engineer. Back in the day we were expected to finish a project before showing it to the end-users. The first time I heard some programmer guys talking about a “sprint” a few years ago, I had to quietly ask my boss what that meant. He explained that software development is now broken down into “sprints” (usually 2-4 weeks long) where everyone gets just as much functionality done as possible.

And people wonder why so much of today’s software is absolute crap.

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If this is how you do your Web marketing, you had better be doing real churn-and-burn SEO because that is all that sprints are good for. Sprint-based development is clearly a wrong-headed response to “where is it now” demands for progress reports and releases. This is worse than vaporware (announcing a product before it exists) because once you put an incomplete application into a user’s hands you forever prove to them you are an incompetent moron.

No amount of bug fixes and upgrades will ever take that foul taste out of a disgusted end-user’s memory. It just doesn’t happen.

In Web marketing you get one chance, maybe two, to build a relationship with a new visitor. If they leave your site disappointed they won’t be back unless real desperation drives them. You need to be the only provider of that product or service if you want to create such a bad experience because you “have to get it to market quickly”.

The Ten Year SEO Plan leaves room for unexpected breakdowns, not sprints. You market nothing before it’s ready. You release nothing before it’s complete. You announce nothing that isn’t already live. In the cold, heartless world of the Web failing to deliver on a promise is the only failure from which you cannot recover because there is always another, more reliable Website out there. It’s just one SERP away.

Your Website is allowed to grow, change, and expand (or shrink) without expectation in a Ten Year SEO Plan. But you publish NOTHING before it’s finished. People DO talk about incomplete and non-functioning Websites on forums and in social media. They WILL spread bad news about you faster than good news. The next time someone says “we won’t be completely ready for the Monday launch but let’s do it anyway because we have to get to market,” you have my permission to roll your eyes and take bets on how many disappointed visitors won’t come back.

The real marketing plan begins the day AFTER the Website is ready for primetime, not the day before.

Mistakes happen all the time. Technical flaws surface. Technology fails. Shit happens. You learn to deal with it and you don’t panic because you’re working on a ten year plan.

Search engine optimization hasn’t changed one bit in the last ten years. It’s never going to change as long as we use search tools to find products and services. The ten year plan is the only way to provide truly sustainable SEO value.

When you’re looking ten years down the road, all you know for sure is that the Website will still be there, still doing its thing. The details will change over time but you plan for change. If you’re only reacting to change you’re not operating with a ten year plan.

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Post By Michael Martinez (993 Posts)

Michael Martinez of SEO Theory is the President and co-founder of Reflective Dynamics. He was previously the Director of Search Strategies for a Seattle area startup and Senior SEO Manager for a Bay Area company. A former moderator at SEO forums such as JimWorld and Spider-food, Michael has been active in search engine optimization since 1998 and Web site design and promotion since 1996. Michael was a regular contributor to Suite101 (1998-2003) and SEOmoz (2006). Michael Martinez is also the author of the SEO Theory Premium Newsletter, a weekly publication loaded with "how to" articles and in-depth SEO analysis.

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6 comments for “The Ten Year SEO Plan

  1. Valerie
    October 15, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    Thank you, I will be presenting some of your key facts tomorrow as I help a business with their SEO plan. Great points to consider going forward!

  2. Charlene
    October 16, 2013 at 11:16 am

    You mentioned above recovering from autogenerated gibberish content. I am in a situation now. I confess placing hundreds of keywords generated using keyword tool on my website and then saw my rankings drop from 6 to 28. Panic followed, and I removed them all and immediately created real quality content (500 words write-up). 10 days passed, and my rankings have not recovered. Will it ever recover? Please tell me what you think. Is there a way out?

    • October 16, 2013 at 11:40 am

      Charelene, without being able to see the site, I can’t offer you much of an opinion.

      However, in general when you remove content you need to redirect the crawl it once received (using 301 status redirects) to something that pushes the crawl through the rest of your site. If you don’t have similar, relevant content then I put up a page that says, “What you’re looking for is no longer available on this site”. That is NOT a 404 page, which is a generic document that any well-designed Website should return by default when a visitor goes to a non-existing page.

      It’s better to make the redirects hierarchical but that is more time-consuming.

      Meanwhile, the search engines have to reassess your Website and that usually takes more than 10 days. It took about 2 months for Xenite.Org to get sorted out. Fortunately for me, I had plenty of natural inbound links that sent a lot of interested traffic. I was able to use those referrals as a guide for figuring out what to restore from the old content, or where to place new content that would better serve those visitors.

      So, in short, you don’t just delete the old stuff and wait. You have to monitor your crawl and referral traffic and build new pathways for it to follow so that it reaches relevant content. I have, on some occasions, even redirected traffic to other Websites if I could no longer provide the content those people were looking for.

      Hope that helps.

  3. October 16, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    This is great stuff. I’m loving your site Michael. The one thing I didn’t quite understand was the Audit.. I mean “audit” section; particularly your critique of what you may have seen other SEO specialists do.

    Here’s a “simplified” version of my usual audit process:

    First, I’ll look for the obvious architectural problems, previous practices (linking, content publishing, etc.), and then do the same thing to the top ranking competitors.

    If the client is simply under performing (in search), with no sign of being penalized by updates, I’ll call out the discrepancies between client/competitors to try and determine which items to investigate further.

    If it’s apparent that the client has been penalized, I will first look at remedies, then go into the competitor/landscape analysis.

    I just went back and read your section again after writing out my process, and I’m a little more clear on what you’re saying..

    [paraphrase] If you haven’t done full research into the site’s current/past state and don’t understand past/current/future goals, DO NOT make knee-jerk “SEO” recommendations.

    Thanks for the informative content!

    • October 16, 2013 at 1:42 pm

      Jeremy, as you saw on your reread, I wasn’t talking about what you do or how you do the audit but WHY you do the audit. Audits are necessary but they are now so commonplace that people just seem to be going through the motions.

      Before you can help the client improve their business practices you have to learn their business. Otherwise you’re just shooting in the dark.

  4. October 16, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    Every SEO plan of a site should be carried on a sagacious perspective that would not less value worthy. Although this issue has taken a time to finish the last line but having lots of points that are most useful for the entrepreneurs who seeks a sustainable web marketing approach through his dearest site. I think, in my blog building these points will bring sense to form the marketing contents and to add a significant value in SEO operation. Thank you very much to find share with this issue through alltop.

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