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SEO-for-Show: Why We Might Say No To Your Keyword Requests

Now and then, a customer will ask us to employ an SEO tactic or pursue a keyword theme that, in our experience, won’t be effective in supporting their business goals. Worse than just not working, it might rob them of great results by diverting valuable resources — time, energy, and money  — from more impactful SEO activities.

Feb 16, 2021

6 m read

We love working with customers that are jazzed about SEO. There’s nothing better than customers who come to us fully aware of SEO’s power to drive growth for their company and ready to get down to the nitty-gritty.

And because we love our customers, and want to help their businesses thrive, sometimes we have to say NO to them.

Now and then, a customer will ask us to employ an SEO tactic or pursue a keyword theme that, in our experience, won’t be effective in supporting their business goals. Worse than just not working, it might rob them of great results by diverting valuable resources — time, energy, and money  — from more impactful SEO activities.

This can lead to an uncomfortable impasse when doing what’s best for our customers in the long run requires us to gently inform them that what they’re asking for isn’t going to support their success.

What is SEO-for-Show?

SEO-for-show is the term we’ve coined to describe well-intentioned (albeit misguided) SEO requests that make absolute sense to stakeholders but do very little to help a business achieve its goals in the larger context of a search strategy.

Examples of SEO-for-Show

1 – “We want to rank as a category creator.”

We might hear something like this from a SaaS customer. Since success in the software world is less about beating the competition at the old game and more about inventing a whole new game, being seen as a category creator or first mover is an essential part of establishing dominance in uncharted territory.

For the sake of illustration, let’s imagine a fictional customer that’s ready to disrupt the file storage industry with a brand new product, called Nebulosity, that will make cloud services obsolete. Nebulosity founders are adamant that they need to rank for the brand new category of “mist storage.

What’s the problem?

If all goes well, and Nebulosity changes the landscape of virtual file servers, someday “mist storage” will become a ubiquitous search term that drives a high volume of search queries. But today isn’t that day. Right now, “mist storage” has zero monthly search volume.

No one’s looking for it because they don’t know it exists. Throwing resources into promoting something that no one is searching for won’t do anything to bring qualified leads to the Nebulousity website and, most importantly, won’t help them generate revenue.

My recommended strategy:

If Nebulousity created “mist storage” as a faster, cheaper, easier-to-implement solution for virtual storage, it makes more sense to center their SEO strategy around ranking for terms that frustrated storage administrators might be searching for, such as, “best cloud storage”, “best cloud storage for business”, or “Dropbox alternatives”.

2 – “This is a new term in our industry.”

Sometimes we have a customer who has coined a new term in their industry and wants to rank for that term. Let’s say our fictitious customer Nebulosity refers to the way they distribute files as a “drizzle network,” and the founders insist on building an SEO campaign around that term.

What’s the problem?

Similar to example #1, if Nebulosity successfully disrupts the cloud storage industry, “drizzle network” might become a high-volume search word someday. But, right now, no one’s searching for that term.

Focusing on driving traffic for that keyword would divert resources from an SEO strategy that might help them move from relative obscurity to a groundbreaking authority in a newly defined space.

My recommended strategy:

Much like my recommendations above, I’d prefer to focus resources on identifying themes that would put Nebulosity in front of their target audience for things they’re already searching for.

3 – “We’re very niche.”

Here’s the flip side of the coin from wanting to rank for little-known terms. Sometimes we’ll hear from a customer who doesn’t think “regular SEO” will work for them because what they do is so unique no one knows to search for it.

What’s the problem?

In this case, the truth is, “regular SEO” will work for them, and it won’t.

Here’s what I mean. The keywords that these businesses think they should be trying to rank for do have a low search volume for the precise reason they cite — not a lot of people are searching for what they do. So, in that sense, SEO for niche businesses can be very tricky. However, many aspects of SEO apply equally to highly specialized companies and are too important to ignore.

My recommended strategy:

First, focus on the universally applicable aspects of SEO — namely, technical SEO. Technical SEO best practices, like Core Web Vitals, site structure, hreflang tags, and canonical pages, are critical to SEO performance regardless of how niche a company’s offerings are.

As far as keywords are concerned, it can take extensive research and even some experimentation to find the sweet spot between keyword themes that are too general and those that are too specific. Here’s where having a team of experts to depend on is especially advantageous. Our strategists are constantly monitoring keyword performance and recommending changes to our customers to drive better results to their key business goals.

4 – “We want to include XYZ unrelated keywords in this theme.”

When I hear this request, it’s often because someone is trying to fit a square peg in a round hole with an existing page that combines unrelated keyword themes that they don’t want to split into two pages of content.

What’s the problem?

Here’s a classic example of, “When you speak to everyone, you speak to no one.” Unrelated keywords on the same page will confuse search engines, and they won’t be able to determine which query your page is most relevant to.  As a result, they’re likely to ignore your page altogether and return competing content that more clearly corresponds to a specific search query.

My recommended strategy:

Semantic search is the idea that when search engines evaluate how to rank web pages, they look only for keywords that exactly match the query. Instead, they try to determine the meaning of a search based on the collective intent of the words in the question.

Moreover, when a website contains pages of content that each answer a distinct question centered around one topic, Google perceives that site as having topical authority, which will help boost its overall rankings in search results.

My recommendation would be to split content covering more than one keyword theme and craft separate pages centered on one keyword theme per page. These pages will separately communicate higher relevance to a specific search query and work together to communicate the site’s topical relevance as a whole.

The Art of Compromise

All of my strategic recommendations don’t do a lick of good if you find yourself stuck between a rock and a hard place with key stakeholders insisting that you include their SEO-for-show requests in your campaign.

I understand.

Sometimes the best course of action is to take a measured approach to trial and error. I say “measured” because my primary objective is to use your resources wisely to bring you the highest possible outcome from your campaign.

For Low-Volume Search Keywords

In this case, I’d suggest we assess the competitiveness of the requested keywords in a way that minimally impacts the resources available for your campaign. For instance, we could create some themes within our keyword research that correspond to the request and judge how much movement we can achieve by optimizing metadata and building internal links to the page we’ve optimized for the test keywords.

This “wait and see” approach minimizes the dilution of campaign resources and allows for feedback around the keywords’ effectiveness. Since these are low-volume keywords to begin with, there’s a distinct possibility those simple measures can lift them to page one of the SERPs relatively quickly and with little impact on the overall campaign resources.

For Mixed-Intent Keyword Themes

In this case, I’d recommend a similar “light-lift” approach to experimentation. We might create a page of content that uses the mixed keywords and monitor the comparative progress of the “on intent” keywords versus those that are “off intent.”

Maybe we’ll see a jump in traffic for the “on intent” keywords faster than we see an uptick in traffic for the “off intent” ones. Suppose the test page appears to be ranking well for all keywords. In that case, we’ll continue to monitor that progress — we’ve seen similar situations where increased ranking for mixed-intent content stalls as it approaches page one of SERPs.

Suppose it turns out that the page is a viable prospect for first-page rankings (never say never). In that case, we can rest assured that dedicating more energy to maximizing external authority for the page is a wise use of your campaign resources.

Final Words

After reviewing the evidence, stakeholders in your organization might realize that their requests don’t serve your SEO campaign’s intended purpose — to target key business goals strategically.

At that point, we’d be happy to recommend other digital marketing tactics that might be better suited to creating traction for those specific outcomes. In the meantime, we’ll keep all of your campaign resources focused on building compounding returns on your investment with us.

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