Setting SEO Strategy

Setting SEO Strategy
Tory Gray is the Founder of The Gray Dot Company, a consultancy that helps businesses grow ROI through digital strategy, with a focus on strategic and technical SEO. In this guide, she outlines how to plan SEO, from identifying the right keywords, to building a sound keyword matrix, to creating ideal content and optimizing page structure.

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Questions covered in this guide

Why is it valuable to invest in SEO optimization?

Investing in SEO is like investing in your retirement – it’s the thing you should do that grows over time, if you make little efforts here and there, it compounds. Just like retirement, invest early and often, and make bigger investments as time goes on.

Search is where your customers go to learn – ideally, they’re getting information about your product and your industry. They search at every stage of the customer journey – so meet them where they are and showcase your offerings as the solution to their problems.

Increase total lead volume and decrease total lead cost (over time) – you don’t want to be paying $20 or $50, or $1,000 for every single lead you get. You want to be getting some of those leads for free. It does take time and it’s not as exciting or as sexy as pay-per-click (that you can turn on immediately and get results), but it does help increase your total amount of leads, and it means that you don’t have to work as hard for or pay as much for every one of those leads.  

When should a company start thinking seriously about SEO?

You should always care – it makes sense for any business; if people are looking for your products, or if your customers are looking for solutions to whatever their issue is, you want them to find you when they search.

You should care a lot when expenses or traffic is high – if you want to reduce lead generation expenses, or if you accidentally have a lot of traffic and you want to make sure you’re leveraging it and that you’re getting the right kind of leads.

What business strategy factors impact SEO strategy?

Make sure you have a clear growth strategy – along with brand goals outlined. Start with what you want to do with your business, where you want to grow, and who you want to target. Identify your key business strategies & tactics, and build an SEO strategy that can support those goals specifically.
  • Going international? SEO can help!
  • Reducing costs? SEO can help!
  • Want to aid customers in helping themselves in order to reduce the load on the CS team? SEO can help!
Know what stages of the funnel you’re targeting
  • Awareness – one of your goals can be awareness or driving traffic to your site. Once potential customers are on your site, you can do retargeting. If you’ve collected their email, you can do email marketing for them.
  • Consideration – people look for what their problem is and potential solutions to their problem. As they’re considering and evaluating different solutions, and right before they go to purchase, they might look up your brand and the reviews. That’s when they’re deciding if you’re a good and reputable company. You want to make sure you show up as those potential customers make those final considerations and evaluation decisions to actually purchase.
  • Post-purchase – in terms of advocacy for your client base. Are you supporting them from a customer service perspective? Are you answering their questions? Are you giving them content that they care about that helps them better leverage your toolset and make them happy customers? You could answer specific questions that they have in your strategic content.

SEO content can target all stages of the funnel, but it’s likely easier to “start somewhere” and grow, filling in the gaps, over time. 

Consider how established your industry is – if you’re a brand new solution to a problem people don’t know they have, theoretically, SEO is going to be a little harder. It’s a different challenge. The play is more around looking for people who’re suffering from this problem, but don’t have a solution, and then see if we can capture them and position our product as the solution. 

How does the tech that runs your website impact your SEO?

Vet the functionality of your CMS (content management system) – against your needs as a business and choose carefully in terms of your platform. Be thoughtful about what all your broad needs are so you’re reducing platform changes as much as possible. Include SEO in that decision because certain platforms are going to be better or worse for SEO, on the whole. However, you’ll still want to make sure that the platform fits with the basic needs of your company first.

Be careful with a Single Page Applications (SPAs) for websites – rethink single page applications driven by JavaScript because search engines can have trouble handling them. They also don’t serve a 404 error out the box. Not working with a SPA for your website will be much simpler for your business. That said, building your core product functionality (which search engines likely don’t/shouldn’t have access to) doesn’t matter, and it is possible to do good SEO with a SPA; it’s just a lot harder.

Who should own SEO? Where does it sit in the organization? What can you outsource?

SEO often lives in marketing or product or both – technical SEO fits very well in product, and can work from the marketing team. Content SEO and link building SEO, along with other subsets fit more on the marketing team side, generally speaking,

Outsource for skills you don’t have in house – many companies want to have more junior/ mid-level SEO people in house, but not the senior person. It can be difficult to have a senior SEO person in house because they’re pricier, hard to come by, and more specialized. It’s common for companies to have teams that focus on content SEO (copywriters who understand their brand and how to talk to their audience), but they might not have in-house expertise in competitive or keyword research or technical SEO.

How do you start to build an SEO strategy?

Nail down your targeting – understand who you’re talking to, what their needs are, and align that with keyword data.

Do keyword research  – find the keyword data. Where are the people and what are they looking for?

Let keyword data inform your site’s information architecture – structure and incorporate a keyword matrix, which is a spreadsheet of what content maps to what search intent. This will make sure you’re not creating different pages that go after the same thing. You don’t want two different pages on your site going after the same intent. We often align multiple keywords on the same page, such as a target keyword and multiple supporting keywords, but we usually try to organize it around the intent of the search.

Incorporate keywords onto pages – making sure you’re speaking to your audience. There are two levels for this.
  • The first is, what is your brand? For example, my company is the Gray Dot Company (and I want to show up when someone searched for my company name – if you can’t rank for your own name, chances are, you won’t rank for much at all).
  • The second is, what does your brand do? Align the storytelling for your brand around what it does and find what type of keywords describe your business so you show up for those. For example, the service I provide is SEO consulting. So, SEO consulting is not branded, but I want people to think of me an SEO consulting firm, so I want to aim to show up for that. That becomes a target for your core pages.

Create strategic content – this tends to be for long-tail terms. They’re queries that tend to be more words. For example, your brand is one or two or three words and your product has probably two to five words in it, but your strategic offerings are often longer versions of that – e.g. “how to do X” or why does Y matter” or “what does X mean.”

What are the technical SEO basics?

Technical basics:
  • Robots.txt file – make sure you’re blocking anything you don’t want search engines to have access to. Conversely, make sure you aren’t accidentally blocking anything you DO want found.
  • Google Search Console (GSC) – it’s going to give you a lot of organic search data. It’s your only primary source for which keywords are driving traffic to your site on Google.
  • Make an XML sitemap (submitted to GSC) – most of the common CMS’s will build a dynamic one for you. The sitemap is a digestible list of URLs you submit to search engines to tell them, “these are all the pages, go forth and crawl them and rank them, please.”
  • Make sure you have metadata, such as titles and descriptions – on all pages that you want indexed. Make sure they are accurate and interesting.
  • H1 on every page – make sure you have one (and only one) H1 header per page.
  • Alt tags for images – you want to describe what’s in your image so that search engines can understand them, but also specifically so users can understand them.
  • Site speed – Core Vitals are of growing importance. Often this has to do with the complexity of your site, not the size of it. A faster site also typically means more conversions.
  • Analytics suite – set up with goal reporting.
  • On-page optimization – putting the right keywords in the right places on the page.
  • Accessibility – to both search engines and your users (e.g. ADA compliance).

What are the steps for good keyword research?

Step 1: get a good keyword tool – a good starter source is the Google Keyword Planner Tool, which you get for free if you’re advertising with Google. Ahrefs or Semrush are great (paid) third party tools, and there are a host of free tools of varying quality.

Step 2: have a brainstorming session – what you want to go after, what do you want to be known for, if you were in your customers’ shoes, what would you look for? What would you call your business? What questions would you ask? Write all of those things down. 

Step 3: validate your ideas with data – ideally, you get the Google keyword data and you get third party keyword data and marry those together. Get insights into the language your customer uses to describe the problems they’re having, and the solutions they’re seeking. It won’t be perfect, but it helps you know approximately how many people are looking for something. 

Pull competitor keyword data for more ideas.

Be careful with trends – check out Google Trends or Pinterest Trends to see what’s shifting or what people are starting to search for. For example, Coronavirus changed the way people were searching for things overnight, rendering historical keyword research tools pretty useless for a time. 

Step 4: Select keywords – a few tips to keep in mind:
  • Accuracy is critical – Be sure to Google search your core terms to see what type of pages do pop up for it. Does it make sense for you to show up there?
  • Check “Do people look for this?” – if you Google your phrase, and you see that your competitors are popping up, then it may be a good phrase to go after.
  • Check “Can I rank for it?” – be sure to look at how competitive the phrase is or at the other kinds of companies that are currently ranking for it. For example, you’ll struggle to rank for a phrase if there is an actual company out there with the same name for their business. If you have no history, go after less competitive terms that still accurately describe your business or your service offering.You can should should change your keyword strategy as your site gains history & context & authority.

Step 5: Map page to keyword alignment on a Keyword Matrix – in a spreadsheet or a template, have the first column be for a page on your website, the second column be for a target keyword, and the third column be for supporting keywords. Some people like to add search volume for each of those things, if they want to keep track of that.

A matrix helps you organize the content you have based on your site already; it should be maintained as you grow your site over time. 

Step 6: Implement on-page optimizations.
  • Put the target keyword in the title – (sometimes called an SEO title) ideally toward the front of the tag, so it’s more impactful. 
  • Put target keywords in meta description – this isn’t a ranking factor, but it does get bolded, so it can help the user determine that you’re what they’re looking for. 
  • Put target & supporting keywords in the H1 (on-page title) and sub-headers – include your target keyword in the H1 along with other headings. You can only have one H1, but you can have multiple H2 headers. You can also have H3 headers, but only if you have H2 headers. 
  • Put target, supporting & related keywords in the body – include the keyword naturally multiple times with supporting or related keywords. A target keyword would be this thing is the most accurate and the thing I want to go after the most. Supporting keywords are those variations of things that are the same thing as the target, and with the same intent. The related keywords are the other things that you should be talking about in the context of the broader subject matter (e.g. in talking about SEO strategy, here we are talking about keywords – a critical related subject.)
  • Use the user’s language – reflect that back to them so they know that they came to the right place and you’re solving what they’re looking for. Consider working with a copywriter that understand your brand’s voice & positioning – AND SEO – to marry these core needs together in an effective way.

How do you think about which keywords to use for SEO vs. Paid Search (Pay-Per-Click)?

Share data between SEO and paid search efforts – with Pay-Per-Click, you can learn much more quickly what keywords convert well for your business, how expensive they are, and what the conversion rate is, and how good/valuable that lead or sale is. As long as you’re communicating, you can work to develop a more layered strategy over time. 

With SEO, consider going after the keywords that convert, but are expensive – as you learn from your PPC efforts, start to build an organic strategy around valuable but expensive terms, then you can continue PPC for the cheaper ones. Having organic keywords convert will save you money in the long run. Think about:
  • What trends do you see around the best performing headlines/selling points/offers (where you see the best click through rates), and how can you use that to inform SEO meta data?
  • Which keywords/queries convert best, and how can you focus on those?
  • Which keywords perform well, but are expensive and you’d ideally like to reduce costs? 
  • Do any keywords just not convert as well as expected, that SEO can/should ignore?

What are the more advanced components of SEO strategy once you have a big, complex website?

First, the definition of “big” can vary if you have a simple 5-10 page site, plus a blog with 500 blog posts, you really only need to care about pagination and your keyword/content strategy.

Conversely, If you have an e-commerce site with the same number of pages, you’ll want to make sure you have a simple site architecture to follow, good internal linking, and best practices around the use of facets & filters (e.g. good technical SEO is a more important requirement.)

A good rule of thumb for “when you need more hands-on SEO help”:
  • Do you have a lot of traffic, and you want to figure out what the heck to do with it?
  • Do you feel like your efforts have plateaued, and you want to figure out “how to take it to the next level”?
  • Did you have a lot of organic search traffic, and now you don’t? (Whoops, too late! Hurry up and get help!)

Some things you might need a hand with include: 

Technical SEO – the bigger/more complex your site is, the more technical SEO becomes a requirement. Things like accessibility (for search engines, and also users), crawl budget, and scalability become increasingly important. So does SEO QA, to ensure you aren’t breaking things that will impact traffic & your website visitors. 

SEO consulting – how do you make better decisions for your business, with SEO in mind? Aligning your SEO/marketing tactics with actual business goals – and your customers’ needs –  isn’t as simple as “go do SEO”; people who have that approach often end up with a lot of unqualified traffic or traffic spikes that go away – and customers that do, too.

Website migrations – you’ll inevitability change the technology that powers your website; your budget and requirements early on can and will change. If you have existing SEO traffic you want to maintain or grow, you’ll want to work with an SEO professional to ensure a successful transition. 

Schema implementation and core vitals optimization – typically marketing teams aren’t comfortable handing this (albeit – that varies! Some marketing teams are highly technical!)

Advanced data collection, segmentation and storytelling – this isn’t core to SEO per say, but as one of the more technically inclined digital marketing disciplines, it’s often a strong skill set. 

What tools make SEO easier?

Keyword research tools – you want a tool that helps you find and evaluate keywords, so you can find and fix issues & opportunities. Look at tools like Ahrefs, Semrush, and Moz. If you want to track trends, try Google Trends.

SEO crawlers – something that mimics crawling your website like a search engine would. Some all-around tools that you might use for keyword research offer this functionality, and there are also auditing crawlers such as Screaming Frog, Netpeak, and Sitebulb.

Content editing and optimization – improve the quality of the writing across factors like spelling, character count, and readability. Check tools like Surfer SEO, Semrush Writing Assistant, Hemingway, and Grammarly.

Analytics – to know how website visitors behave. Google Analytics is a free must-have tool.

Google Search Console – helps you view your website’s traffic and performance, and you need this to submit your sitemap to search engines. This will indicate to them that it’s time to crawl your site again, and it will help them do it more efficiently. This is beneficial to run after you put up new pages.

SEO plugins – if you use WordPress, a plugin like Rank Math can help with broad technical SEO optimization, like editing metadata and image alt text.

What are the most important pieces to get right?

Know your customer & their needs – deliver against that need. SEO is just a tool to find them and to talk to them.

Make content that will actually matter to your potential customers – with each post you put up, you’ll learn how people respond and how it grows over time (or doesn’t). You can find your right audience, you can see what works, you can adapt and evolve and change based on how that works for you, in many cases.

What are the common pitfalls?

Not understanding search intent – picking keywords that don’t make sense. If you aren’t Wikipedia or, you won’t rank for “car”, for example.

Creating content just for SEO – that doesn’t consider things like your brand, brand voice, or your audience – not to mention sales or lead conversions. Or, sprinkling keywords everywhere in a non-strategic manner. 

Never pushing the changes live – it’s better to do something that’s not perfect than to not do it at all. I’m not advocating for “move fast and break things.” In many ways that’ll cause you pain, but you need to move fast enough that you’re doing something. If you don’t put it out there, it won’t matter and it’s gonna take time to matter.

Don’t put strategic content at a “blog.” subdomain it won’t help you nearly as much as if you put it on your true website. A subdomain does not equal a subfolder (e.g.; it’s technically a different website.

 Having no real business/growth strategy – and/or not aligning the SEO strategy with it – too many business owners think of SEO as something you “do” that will magically work. If only!

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