In Search Podcast: Growth Planning


What has growth planning got to do with SEO? And what can SEOs learn from growth planning?

That’s what we’re discussing today with a man who’s been battling Google and helping brands grow through sustainable SEO and content strategies for the last seven years. He’s founded several of his own businesses and is currently chief growth officer and managing partner at RevenueZen. A warm welcome to the In Search SEO podcast, Ken Marshall.

In this episode, Ken shares 6 things SEOs need to know about growth planning, including:

  • Shareholder’s expectations around ROI planning
  • Understand your client’s business model and sales process as well as they do
  • Center your keyword focus around the client’s right-to-own
  • Plan campaign tactics for short-term, mid-term, and long-term value
  • Monthly and quarterly analytics
  • Stay in close communication with your clients about their ever-changing business priorities

SEO Strategic Planning for Business Growth

Ken: Hey, David, thanks for having me. And that was a fabulous introduction, couldn’t have said it any better myself.

D: Well, let’s hope that you consider the rest of the content fabulous as well. You can find Ken over at revenuezen.com. So Ken, what does growth planning have to do with SEO?

K: The long and short of it is SEOs I think tend to get over-excited and over-indexed on tactics and specific technical implementations. Versus in today’s climate, particularly for B2B, it’s about aligning to business objectives and focusing on how you affect those business metrics, like customer acquisition, revenue sourced from organic, customer lifetime value, those sorts of things. And I think aligning there is how you win with SEO and with the clients that you serve.

D: So today, you’re showing six things that SEOs need to know about growth planning. Starting off with number one, shareholders have expectations around ROI planning.

1. Shareholder’s expectations around ROI planning

K: I used to be tentative to say to think of revenue and customer acquisition when planning an SEO campaign. But now the campaign doesn’t start until we understand those expectations. Again, it’s about alignment. If you understand how much money the client is trying to make, and how many leads they’re trying to generate, you can tailor your tactics specifically to that. So at the beginning of the engagement, try to help them forecast and plan as much as possible.

D: Superb, so you genuinely think that SEOs have a better understanding of ROI and the actual financial impacts of what they’re doing nowadays?

K: I think they almost have to, if they’re worth their salt, and they want to be kept around long term, either in the organization or as an agency. We’ve all heard about the layoffs and the macroeconomic climate, so you have to prove your value in terms of revenue, sales, and the customer lifetime value over time, I think those are the most important things.

D: I’m going to stick to this again just for another second. If an SEO perhaps has to deal with perhaps unrealistic expectations from a client, if they’re expecting an incredible amount of ROI in a short period of time. How would you advise an SEO to push back and manage those expectations a little bit more effectively?

K: The first thing is you don’t have to be a data scientist to understand how to forecast or plan at a basic level. And that might be as simple as saying you have this keyword positioning, you have this much organic traffic today, let’s work together to understand in 14 months what that revenue source might be like. But the first KPIs in the first month should be impressions, clicks, and keyword movement. So if the client says that next month I want more revenue, but they’re getting zero users from organic or any target keywords, then obviously, the expectation setting there is to say that the appropriate KPIs for the short term are content publishing and indexation, impressions, clicks, and keyword movement. But you yourself have to be informed about those KPIs and how they affect leads and sales in the pipeline. And if you’re not, you’re just saying don’t treat me this way, or I want my money without being held accountable for it. So I would just say, be really familiar with forecasting and understand how to work backwards from their target objectives. And then you can set expectations really well.

D: That’s a great piece of advice because I think many less experienced SEOs would be tempted to draw a straight line from where they are at the moment to where the client wants to be in maybe 12 months’ time or so. And then figure out halfway to reaching where they want to be from an ROI perspective instead of 2x is just 1x. But that’s not how it works because all the work of potentially getting to maybe a top three position in half the time is only going to take them to maybe page two and hardly any click-throughs, and hardly any SERP views. But the back process is actually working. So you must find some other metric to demonstrate that the destination that you’re trying to achieve, you’re actually well on the way to achieving that.

K: Bingo. And not only the metrics and KPI tracking against their overarching goals, but you’re also the expert as far as what tactics we need to do to get us there. So if they want to be in position one for a certain term, but your competitive analysis tool says that they all have 400 linking domains to get to that first page, and your client has zero to their page that’s ranking, building one link a month will not going to get there, just do the math.

If you do a gap analysis, then setting those expectations with what tactics they need to do to get there can really help you make your case. And if they’re not willing to let’s say, expand the budget, but it’s a really competitive space, and you can show them those gaps, just say that it’s fine if you don’t want to expand the budget, but we’re going to get half as quickly to the result that you want. We can make informed decisions that way.

D: And the number two thing that an SEO must need to know about growth planning is you must understand the client’s business model and sales process as well as they do.

2. Understand your client’s business model and sales process as well as they do

K: Yeah, this is one that I’ve personally made a ton of mistakes on in the past. So I learned this from experience, I’m not just sitting on my high horse here. But the best way I can illustrate it is, we focus on the tactics, publish a bunch of content, build a bunch of links, and drive a ton of traffic. Yay, everybody’s high-fiving, and clients got 200x organic traffic coming in. But you look into their sales pipeline, and they’ve closed zero deals from organic. Is that a celebratory reason for celebration for the client? Absolutely not.

What I mean by that is at the beginning of the process, instead of just thinking about keywords in terms of this keyword sounds good, one thing that I do personally have the client give it a priority score from a business standpoint that this is what has the shortest sales cycle, or makes us the most money on average from a customer lifetime value standpoint. So if you can understand their priorities as far as their product and service, what they want to be known as in the market, and then match that to your keyword opportunities, what you’ll find is that even if their traffic doesn’t explode, the people that are coming to the site are much more likely to become customers and give your client or in-house team money, versus just driving traffic for the sake of traffic. So what it does is it helps the traffic that gets to the site and is much more likely to convert into those really juicy business metrics that we all want.

D: And talking about keyword priority, your point number three is every keyword priority or topical focus must be centered around the client’s right to own.

3. Center your keyword focus around the client’s right-to-own

K: Yeah, right to own is a metric I throw around a lot internally. All it means is, if we were to target this, for this client, at this stage of their growth, with all the assets they currently have, what’s the likelihood that in a reasonably short or straightforward period of time, they’re going to be able to not only rank well but drive qualified opportunities and traffic to the website. A few of the metrics that go into that are not just keyword volume and opportunity score. Those are all things that tools give us available freely and are available to us. What I recommend is diving deeper and asking if a client is already ranking for this. Is everyone in the space an expert like we are? Does the client give it a high priority score in aid? If you look in Google Search Console, what’s the average position? Is it 100? Is it 10? You can take all of those metrics that you find in the tools like volume, keyword difficulty, and click-through percentage. And all you have to do is bolt on a few different things that matter to you and the client. And that’s one way you can determine the right to own, i.e., is this going to perform well for them over time? How confident can we become about that? For us, we know hanging our hat on a SaaS SEO agency or B2B SEO agency is our future. And that’s why we know that we might particularly have the right tone for that.

D: And I was thinking that you’re going to be talking about expertise and whether or not you’ve demonstrated trust and bringing in perhaps Google’s E-A-T at this stage to demonstrate that you do have the rights to rank for those sorts of terms. Is that part of this as well?

K: That’s part of the optimization phase after you’ve determined the priority or you determined that you have the right to own but for us, we actually have the right to own planning, like during onboarding. That’s even before we start to deploy any tactics. Because again, we don’t want to get eight months down the road and realize our tactics have been great but our strategic Northstar was broken all along because we’re going to drive traffic that isn’t as meaningful to the business. But you’re 100% correct, that it should be something within your wheelhouse, how you want to be positioned in the market, and your expertise.

D: And the fourth thing that SEOs need to know about growth planning is to plan campaign tactics for short-term, mid-term and long-term value.

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4. Plan campaign tactics for short-term, mid-term, and long-term value

K: This one is unique to us as well but something I think everyone should consider. It’s very easy for us to look at a client and say, “Hey, it’ll take 14 months when they’re paying us $10,000 a month.” But their CFO is looking at their P&L every month and sweating bullets. So what I always recommend to our strategists and do myself is, what are the low-hanging fruit wins that we can show traction right up front within a few months that benefit our clients? What’s our long-term vision of where we want to end up when everybody’s high-fiving in 14 months and they’re driving new business to the site? How’s that going to happen?

And then in the mid-term it might be that we have some content that’s been hanging around page two or three for priority terms. It’s not going to happen in the next two months but we should be making serious progress over the next six or so months. And so what that does is it gives you a reason to stick around in the short term, like you’re showing value up front, and nobody questions the progress. But long term, you can still help them understand that the game that we play does take time, and we want to get you to a good place, just know that it’s going to take a little bit of time. So it’s given them something upfront, but continuing to be a good partner for the long term.

D: Great. And I’m imagining that this ties back to perhaps cost per conversion. And maybe what you’re able to do here is say that your cost per conversion is going to be higher after three months, and you’re looking to get it lower after six months and twelve months. Is that a metric that clients are keen to measure against?

K: Yeah, so mid to long term, we’ve got a lifecycle of what KPIs we’re going to help the client with and how we’re going to be responsible over time. And right around that six to eight-month mark is cost per acquisition, how many qualified leads they’re getting, if they’ve gotten any customers, and what type of customers are those. And short term might be as simple as page load performance took four seconds, but within the first week, we prioritize that, because we know when you decrease load performance, people convert more. That’s just been proven over and over again. So that might be one example of low hanging fruit, twice as many people might convert. In the short term, we can do that very quickly versus long term, we’re going after this huge head term that’s really competitive and that’s not going to happen overnight.

D: I remember a metric from a long time ago. It was something an engineer from Amazon released unintentionally. Some kind of metric that every 100-millisecond improvement in web page speed got X percent improvement in conversions. I didn’t remember the metric off the top of my head because it was so long ago, but are you aware of any metrics like that? That you can say if you improve your page speed by X percent, we’ve seen in the past different clients improve their conversion rate by X percent.

K: I know for a fact that that’s listed on our site, I did a big study on different metrics that SEOs can use, and that’s one of them. I think it’s called B2B SEO statistics. That was the Amazon study and it was a 1 to $3 million improvement.

D: I’ve got it here. The survey from Amazon found that every 100 milliseconds of latency cost them 1% in sales. Which is massive.

Let’s move on to number five. And that is monthly and quarterly analytics. And attribution analysis is the best way to make good decisions about strategy.

5. Monthly and quarterly analytics

K: Yeah, I’m going to sound like a broken record but a lot of this is our own systems and this is the way that I think about the world. I used to get clients that wanted weekly performance reporting updates when a piece of content took two weeks to get indexed. And so we got this weird mismatch of expectations versus what we could actually do. And there was nothing wrong with the strategy but because of the client sentiment, it seemed like the campaign wasn’t going well.

So my workaround for that, especially for our team, was we deploy things on a monthly basis and we do check certain metrics. But changing based on a weekly basis, or a monthly basis especially with all the volatility that we’ve seen lately, just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s like changing a strategy every two weeks would be silly.

A lot of companies have QBR (Quarterly Business Review). That’s what we do on a quarterly basis or even a yearly basis at a high level. Let’s say you’re focused on one keyword hub, for instance, that corresponds to a Business Unit that they want to prop up. But are the tactics that we’re deploying working well towards that quarterly or yearly goal? But I don’t think you should be changing the strategy very often. Because there’s a lag time to see if it’s actually working or not and being overreactive to day-to-day or week-to-week fluctuations ends up shooting people in the foot and they used to drive me crazy.

D: What’s the best practice in terms of attribution models nowadays? Because they’ve been around for a while, you can obviously have a different linear focus on last click, first click, and everything in between. But do you think that any particular model tends to better reflect something for a particular industry? Do you go into an industry and then suggest an attribution model based on that? Do you have clients that favor certain ways of measuring things? What’s the best practice at the moment?

K: I’ll let all my marketing and rev ops people chime in on this, but I’ll answer the two ways we do that within an SEO context. Google Ads, right now is data-driven and that has its own black box magic of attribution. But for SEO purposes, what we’re trying to do is understand which keywords relate to what pages, which of those pages contributed to a lead, and when that goes into somebody’s CRM, when and how they become a customer. There’s no way that I know of to connect keywords to revenue in an automated fashion that isn’t a custom solution.

But the way that we get around that is by saying, during the sales process most people have a form that asks how you heard about us. We recommend to our clients, and we do it for ourselves, that that is a required field that’s unstructured so they type in whatever they want. The salesperson, and this is really good CRM hygiene needed but we have B2B clients with normal, longer sales cycles, they take that phrase, dive into it on the first discovery call, put that in the CRM, and then we can merge the data from Google Analytics and HubSpot Analytics.

So we know that somebody came into the site as their first viewed page from the source, let’s say it’s organic or search. And then that’s confirmed by the client or the prospect when they say, “I typed something in and found you, this is what it was.” So it’s not a perfect attribution but what it does do is say that we’ve confirmed that it’s search versus those other models who try to guess if that was their second or third touch. They’re not HubSpot in particular, they’re not always going to get it right. But the client usually gives good insight into their customer journey, which to us is important. But we still have the data from the analytics that says, and this is how we attribute it from a more programmatic perspective. This was the first page from the first source that was viewed. And if it’s a page that we’re working on as part of the campaign, that’s how we can also contribute to it.

So those two things in tandem are how we get at that, but I don’t have a specific time decay or U-shape. I think it’s a bit outdated. And again, with cookie blocking and all these different types of tracking blocking applications, I don’t think that data is actually that accurate within attribution modeling, with most tools anyway.

D: I love how you started off with pages because it shows that you’ve got a content-centric view of whether something is a success or not on your website. You can see how long people are on a page, what they’re doing on the page, and how they’re interacting with it. And at the end of the day you know which channels are referring. I think many people would probably start off from a channel perspective approach and say that people tend to, first of all, discover us through SEO, and then perhaps use PPC to search for a brand name. But that is fairly one-dimensional and not a full picture of what the user actually does. And at the end of the day, content is everything that they engage with. And even from a paid perspective, content is key to whether or not they decide to stay and do business with you. Does that make sense in terms of how you approach things?

K: Absolutely. You’re hitting the nail on the head. It’s like if somebody went to a conference, looked at your LinkedIn, and then typed in your brand name. That would get attributed as Search in Google Analytics and in HubSpot. That would get attributed as a search because even your brand name is considered a query instead of branded search. And so if somebody purely looked at the data, they’d say look at how awesome we did with our SEO, but it was a branded query. So why would you consider their point of discovery? But that’s why I mentioned the sales call on the form, being able to dive in further and maybe you do want to attribute that half to LinkedIn and half to search. But I would contribute that to the event, our LinkedIn profile, or all three. But you don’t get to know that unless you dive in beyond pure, simple channel-based attribution.

So you’re exactly right and it’s much more about that. And at the end of the day, if the keywords are increasing proportionately until we see those organic qualified opportunities and sales, really showing that connection to the client is important versus trying to get “credit.” That’s why we say we’re a trusted advisor, not just an SEO agency. We want to help everybody grow through as many channels as we can. I think that’s a much better game than just trying to knit and pick at every one SQL that comes in through SEO.

D: And now the sixth and final point that you’re highlighting today as to what SEOs should be aware of when it comes to growth planning is to stay in close communication with your clients about their ever-changing business priorities.

6. Stay in close communication with your clients about their ever-changing business priorities

K: Yeah, a really good example would be recently, we have a lot of B2B SaaS companies. And Silicon Valley Bank, for everybody who’s in the States and is aware of that, there was that scare. And a lot of our clients were running around, and there was some, there was a lot of shakeup in that industry. And so our focus shifted from SEO to what was the experience on the site, and then do we have enough leads in your pipeline to hold you over until things start slowing down? And we actually recommended to one client that they do some outbound on LinkedIn, in the short term, is that the model of their agency? Not necessarily, but again, as their growth advisor, their revenue partner, that’s the right thing that we have insight into and suggest for them. Getting them clarity on their CRM implementation because they didn’t know where their revenue was exactly coming from at the time they started. And so diving into their CRM for free and consulting on these are actually what channels what this is coming from. This is actually how much revenue you source to date. So let’s pour some gasoline on this channel and remove this one. So nothing to do with SEO but staying close to clients in their whole business helps you integrate further with them and makes you stickier as a business versus just providing one service to one channel. And when you learn about the other parts of their business, you can actually provide your service in a better way that’s much more in-depth.

D: Absolutely great advice. And if you’re really ethical with saying something like, “What I provide as a service is probably not appropriate for you at the moment. I’ve had a look at what you’re doing and what you should probably focus on is this at the moment for three months, then come back to me, give me a shout, and then I can help you out. And then they’ll really trust you more, and hopefully stay with you for the long term.

K: Bingo, you got it. And that’s a huge value of mine is turning people away. I do a lot of sales calls for our company with the CEO, Alex. We’ll say that you’re not a good fit, you should have a team of people emailing right now to get enough leads or money in the bank, and then reach out back to us in a year. So I totally agree.

D: Let’s finish off with the Pareto Pickle. Pareto says that you can get 80% of your results from 20% of your efforts. What’s one SEO activity that you’d recommend that provides incredible results for modest levels of effort?

The Pareto Pickle – Solve People’s Problems & Build Links

K: I’m going to cheat. I’m going to do a 1A and 1B. The 1A is, again, we work with a lot of B2B technology and services companies, I see a lot of information about features of the product or things they’re proud of about their service. What I don’t see a lot of are solutions to people’s problems. We’ve heard the term landing pages\solutions pages. I think you can’t have enough solutions pages. To me, you’re trying to have a choose-your-own-adventure game with your prospect or the user on your website. So having information about what industries you serve, and how you serve them, instead of just talking about we do keyword research, say what the end result is. They get clarity on their market opportunities. That’s an example of a solution and by building those out for every potential use case you can think about what person in the organization can get a benefit from your product or service. And how does it benefit the CEO versus the VP of marketing?

So thing number 1A, make as many solutions pages and as many use cases for as many types of people that you serve as possible. Throw them up and see how they perform, and I guarantee you they will perform well because that’s where people tend to convert in our sales cycles or customer journeys on the website.

And the second thing is link building is not dead. Just doing it in a stupid, spammy way is dead. But there is no downside to going out to industry-respected publications and writing for them, joining a podcast like this, being on their YouTube video, and doing that. So digital PR link building, whatever you want to call it, builds relationships with really important people that you like and want to partner with often. That’s it’s not a cheat code, but I guarantee it will 180 your results if you start doing that systematically.

D: Love it. Make your website into a choose-your-own-adventure game. I’ve been your host David Bain. You can find Ken Marshall over at revenues n.com. Ken, thanks so much for being on the In Search SEO podcast.

K: Thanks for having me, David. Cheers.

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