Practical data tips for a competitive edge in SEO
More than 60% of marketers say improving SEO and growing their organic presence has been their top priority for 2021, according to HubSpot’s latest State of Marketing Report, and this is expected to remain the same for 2022 and beyond. Clearly, SEO is still a priority for marketers and it should be when organic search produces 53% of all web traffic - more than every other channel combined.
The issue for marketers is that competition in the SERPs is increasing every year, making it harder to build a stronger search presence. The answer lies in data analytics and, more specifically, identifying search opportunities before the competition so you can respond faster and climb above them in the rankings.
Search marketers say SEO is getting more difficult
Back in March, prominent SEO figure Aleyda Solis posted a poll on Twitter asking search marketers whether SEO has gotten harder over the past five years. The final results saw 43.6% of marketers say SEO had become more difficult over this period while 26.2% simply said they just wanted to see results.
Only 11.7% said SEO had become less difficult and 18.4% said it was just as difficult as it was five years ago.
According to The State of SEO 2021 report, published by Search Engine Journal, the biggest challenge search marketers faced over the previous 12 months was budget cuts (37.6%), some of which was presumably a result of the Covid-19 pandemic - although the pandemic itself ranked as the fourth biggest challenge (27.9%).
Aside from budget cuts, the most common challenge listed by search marketers in the study was “strategy issues” with 34.8% of respondents selecting this among their top three concerns.
The report doesn’t detail any of the specific strategy issues SEOs are referring to but it’s a safe assumption they mainly relate to ranking for top keywords and beating competitors to the most valuable traffic.
After all, this is why we’re all in the SEO game, to begin with - right?
9 data strategies for beating the SEO competition
If SEO is getting harder or you’re facing “strategy issues” with your search marketing efforts, the good news is you’re not alone. You’re in the majority and, as Timothy Carter writes for Forbes, the complexities of modern SEO are a good thing because they make it difficult for your rivals to catch up again once you overtake them.
The key is getting ahead of them, in the first place, and this is what the following data strategies will help you do:
- Spot emerging trends
- Identify new content opportunities
- Expand beyond search data
- Use data from other channels to inform SEO decisions
- Automate competitor research
- Optimise & update your content
- Prioritise campaigns & marketing actions
- Move first with predictive analytics
- Use real-time search data to inform business decisions
With these SEO data strategies, you’ll discover new opportunities before your rivals, giving you a head start that makes it difficult for them to make up the lost ground.
You’ll also identify your competitors’ biggest weaknesses, respond to the demands of your target audience and understand the external factors that impact the performance of your campaigns - all in real-time as these factors change from one day to the next.
By making full use of all of the data at your disposal, you can implement a proactive search marketing strategy that seizes opportunities while the rewards are the biggest. Responsiveness is the key to getting ahead in modern SEO and these data strategies open up the insights you need to move first - so you can jump ahead of your competitors who are still reacting to last year’s search trends.
#1: Spot emerging trends from search data
One of the most effective way to identify opportunities before your rivals is to spot emerging trends in search data before they become obvious to everyone else. If we look at Google Trends data for 2020, there was a surge in searches for “how to make bread” during lockdown with a steep incline lasting for around a month before the peak of interest between 29 March and 4 April.
If you’re paying close attention to the search data, you would notice a dramatic rise in relevant queries, allowing you to respond before the peak of interest. For example, search volumes between the periods of 23-29 February and 8-14 March almost tripled before multiplying even further, by more than 300%, over the following three weeks.
Admittedly, that graph illustrates an abrupt Covid-19 trend but historical search data for 2004 to the end of 2019 shows plenty of opportunities to take advantage of rising interest in this query.
Even using one data source, you can identify immediate and long-term search trends to inform your SEO strategy. Google Trends may not be the most advanced SEO tool but you might be surprised by the quality of insights you can get from it.
Aside from using it as a keyword and content research tool, we routinely use Google Trends to find powerful business insights for our clients, such as identifying new products to sell, monitoring seasonal peaks, comparing demand in different locations and plenty more.
Given how much we can do with data from Google Trends, the possibilities only expand once we start pulling in data from the Keyword Planner in Google Ads and dedicated SEO analysis platforms like Semrush and Ahrefs.
#2: Identify new content opportunities
Google keeps telling us that roughly 15% of searches it sees every day are new, which means new content opportunities are emerging all of the time. Search interests are also constantly evolving and companies that optimise for these new opportunities first have the biggest advantage in the SERPs.
To identify these new opportunities, you have to keep a constant eye on search volumes, keyword data and CTRs. Doing this manually is unrealistic but you can automate this process to flag up search queries that meet your minimum search volume and CTR levels.
For the best results, you’ll also want to get your data from multiple sources (as many relevant sources as possible to create a larger data ecosystem from which to use) because each source produces slightly different data (even for the same keywords) and they each have their own gaps, inaccuracies and the occasional technical issues.
With automated keyword research and multiple data sources, you’ll have a reliable system that instantly flags up new opportunities, as soon as they offer value.
You can use the same system to identify existing keyword opportunities that you’ve missed and fill in the gaps of your SEO and content marketing strategies. By comparing keyword data from Search Console, Google Ads and other tools, you can build a complete picture of the SEO opportunities available to you and prioritise them in order of importance - something we’ll cover in more detail later.
#3: Expand beyond search data
Search data isn’t the only type of data you can use to guide your SEO strategy. As the Covid-19 pandemic has proven, search habits are directly related to consumer interests and concerns, which are affected by a wide range of factors: economic, societal, cultural, political and more.
Search data tells us that three out of the five top searches in 2020 were related to coronavirus and shows the dramatic increase in searches for delivery services during lockdown. However, we can gain deeper insights by looking at consumer data that shows how the spending habits of people in the UK changed and how people are still spending more of their money online than before the pandemic.
These are important insights that should inform your entire online strategy, including how much budget you dedicate to online channels, the type of content you’re producing and the touchpoints you target as the consumer journey changes.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that people will continue to shop more online after the pandemic but you can also use data to verify or disprove ideas that seem obvious or likely. For example, the UK reported an inflation rate surge of 3.8% in October, reaching a 10-year high of 4.2%, significantly worse than projected.
With product shortages, fuel issues, Covid-19 and ongoing Brexit uncertainties, you might expect soaring inflation rates to dent consumer spending yet the data shows people in the UK are continuing to spend more money during the festive build-up.
Once again, these insights can guide crucial business decisions during the most important consumer event of the year. While logic might encourage stakeholders to be cautious with marketing spend during this holiday season, the data suggests companies should invest in consumer confidence and take full advantage of Christmas spending habits, which can drive recovery for businesses that have suffered so much over the past 18+ months.
#4: Use data from other channels to inform SEO strategies
Every marketing channel produces valuable data that you can use to inform decisions in other channels and strategies. For example, your social media data might help you understand why certain pieces of content are more engaging than others and which type of content you should continue to produce in the future.
By comparing search engagement data with social metrics, you can gain a deeper understanding of how people interact with your content on both channels.
PPC is another valuable data source for improving your SEO strategy.
First of all, you can use keyword data to identify queries with high click-through rates. Then, you can look at conversion tracking to identify queries with strong purchase intent. Next, you might analyse remarketing data to learn which low-intent and longtail keywords lead to conversions further down the funnel - and those that don’t.
Going back to the point of using external data sources, PPC is an excellent channel for gaining insights into how short-term changes affect consumer behaviour.
Another external data source we often use is weather data from the Met Office to identify how weather patterns affect sales for our customers. Many customers will see increases or decreases in purchases (both online and offline) during times of rainfall, spells of mild weather or weather warnings.
We use this data to optimise PPC bids for our customers so we’re always directing their budget to the moments that generate the highest ROI.
Once we understand the relationship between weather patterns and consumer interactions with our customers, we can apply these insights to other channels. For example, we may see a decline in online conversions from organic content during periods of bad weather and attribute this to rainfall, instead of the latest algorithm update.
#5: Automate competitor analysis
Naturally, competitor analysis is a key aspect of beating your rivals in the SERPs but this isn’t something you can perform once - or even once a year - and rely upon. Like all aspects of SEO analysis, competitor research is an ongoing process because the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors are changing all the time.
This has a direct impact on the search opportunities available to you and the difficulty of securing them.
For example, some competitors may perform weaker for certain keywords over time or their keyword coverage for certain topics may reduce as new search queries emerge. In other cases, some competitors will suffer more from algorithm updates than others and you also want to know how you compare against the competition after each update.
This requires constant analysis of competitor performance and, once again, this requires automation.
If you implement the data tips we’ve already covered in this article, you’re almost certainly identifying new keyword opportunities that your competitors are missing - or, at least, you’re identifying them first.
#6: Optimise & update your content
Search engines like Google assess your website at the domain level and web pages individually. This means low-performance pages can drag down the overall ranking of your website so it’s important to keep a constant eye on engagement metrics: CTRs, time on page, bounce rates, etc.
Set minimum thresholds for performance and address pages that fall short after six months from their publishing date.
For example, you might set the following minimum requirements:
- Ranking in the top 30 positions for the target keyword
- Average of 70+ seconds spent on the page
- CTR of 3%+
Whatever performance requirements you specify, any page failing to achieve all of them after six months should be flagged up for optimisation or removal.
This initial six month period helps you identify new pages that could potentially hurt your SEO performance but older pages also demonstrate declining performance over time. We live in a fast-paced world and content naturally loses relevance over time, which is why search engines like Google specifically look at content freshness as a ranking signal.
In extreme cases, where pages are either generating little-or-no traffic or tanking on engagement metrics (time on page, bounce rates, etc.), the best course of action is to remove the page entirely and rethink your approach for the target keyword.
#7: Prioritise campaigns & marketing actions
To get ahead of the competition, you want to achieve the biggest positive impact you can with the resources available to you, in the shortest time frame possible. This means you have to pick your battles by prioritising campaign ideas on a balance of rewards vs achievability.
The ICE framework is a common method for prioritising marketing actions:
- Impact: The projected results calculated for a specific marketing action.
- Confidence: The capability of your team in achieving the marketing goal.
- Ease: The relative ease or difficulty of completing the marketing action in question.
In truth, the ICE framework is overly simplistic but it does illustrate the importance of weighing up opportunity vs ability and difficulty when prioritising campaign ideas and marketing actions.
The framework is also easy to implement and adapt to the needs of your team. You can simply add components you consider an important part of the calculation and score each component out of 10. Then, you add the score of each component together and divide the sum by the number of components.
ICE = (Impact + Confidence + Ease) ÷ 3
Let’s say you decide that resources and cost are key components missing from the traditional ICE methodology. You might also decide that confidence and ease are similar enough to combine into a single score and come up with your own calculation, called a RICE score:
- Resources: The availability of resources required.
- Impact: The predicted results of the campaign.
- Cost: The calculated expense of all marketing actions.
- Ease: The relative ease or difficulty of achieving the campaign goal.
In this case, you score each component out of 10 and divide the sum by four to get a RICE score ranging from 1-10.
Your calculation doesn’t need to have a memorable name, either. What matters is that each component is scored using reliable data
#8: Move first with predictive analytics
In this article, we’ve looked at how you can use first-party search data, import data from other marketing channels and gain insights from external data sources to inform your SEO strategy.
Even with all of this data, you’re still limited to what you can do with it if you’re only responding to events that have already happened.
Predictive analytics uses large historical datasets and machine learning to identify patterns and predict outcomes, allowing you to take action on events before they happen. Earlier, we talked about using weather data from the Met Office to discover the impact rainfall has on sales volumes for our customers and this is one example of how we can use predictive analytics to inform our search marketing strategy.
Once we understand the correlation between rainfall and sales volumes we can use weather forecasts to predict sales volumes for the next weekend and adapt our strategy.
In another scenario, our data may reveal peaks in search interests at certain points of the year, as you can for “wild camping” interest during the summer.
While it’s pretty obvious that interest in something like wild camping would be higher during the summer months, there are a couple of things to keep in mind here. First of all, not all seasonal trends are this obvious and you can learn a lot by looking at historical data for search interest.
Secondly, even the most obvious patterns allow you to predict future outcomes and you can see a major spike in the graph above that correlates with the first summer of the Covid-19 era.
Even though increased interest is expected between April-May, a predictive analytics model would detect an unusually aggressive spike by May and predict higher-than-usual interest for the summer ahead, allowing you to adapt your campaigns and capitalise on the higher demand.
Without predictive analytics, you would be responding after the peak where demand is already waning and the real opportunity is missed.
#9: Use real-time search data to inform business decisions
Search data provides real-time insights into consumer demands, concerns and behaviours. The importance of this was emphasised by the Covid-19 pandemic, which produced such drastic shifts in consumer activity that all reports and historical data from pre-pandemic times were rendered almost useless beyond the act of comparison.
All predictive models built on pre-pandemic data were as clueless as the rest of us and the only data that mattered were the live, real-time insights that could tell us what was happening at that very moment and what had changed in the past hour, day or week.
Search data was the only open, widely available source of real-time data that showed us the booming interest in home improvements, baking recipes, personal fitness, mindfulness and the most obscure consumer demands (balloon home deliveries have to be a contender).
These insights allowed businesses to respond to the challenges of lockdown, as seen by local bakeries building a fast online presence to meet the demand for deliveries in their communities and the high-end nursery furniture shop that built itself bigger during lockdown by going all-in on social media.
Search data can inform key business decisions that make the difference between surviving and thriving, but this has been true for many years - the pandemic simply emphasised this role.
Real-time search data allows you to react to the most abrupt changes in consumer demands and identify disruption before your competitors. Compare this data against historical insights and you can detect these potential shifts as they happen, such as which product ranges to prioritise this Christmas or next summer.
During less volatile times, the same search data can also inform long-term business decisions, such as the ideal locations to expand your business or the brand image to promote for the next five years.
Get there first with data analytics
With increased competition, marketers who respond first to new opportunities stand the best chance of climbing up the SERPs. If you can claim your spot at the top of the results page early, you make it difficult for your rivals to jump ahead of you, leaving them to fight it out amongst themselves for the lower positions.
As we’ve seen throughout this article, search opportunities aren’t linear. They peak, decline and fluctuate as user interests change. Identifying these opportunities early allows you to take full advantage of the peak while competitors who catch on late are battling for diminishing returns.
Better yet, if you can predict increased demand before it happens, you can put strategies in place to ride the entire wave.
- Collect search data from multiple sources
- Expand beyond search data
- Automate analytics & reporting
- Move first with predictive analytics
- Use search data to inform business decisions