I very rarely get to work with brand new brands when it comes to SEO. Usually, my clients veer toward the established brick and mortar businesses that are looking to provide another leg via online sources to help magnify their brand name. Most of the time, these clients come to me with preconceived ideas as to keywords that they want to rank for. It's my job to help rank them and just as importantly, to educate them through the process.
These are some of the beginning steps I take when I first take on a client and I think that even if you don't have any clients but are trying to reasonably do SEO for your own website without risking penalties for overreaching the "rules", taking these steps will help you navigate the treacherous waters otherwise known as SEO.
Focus on Your Existing Assets First
I call this the "inside-out" approach. The idea is to build up the organic search terms that you are already ranking for first, because those assets already are visible and could potentially help drive natural links to a webpage without a ton of work, which can quickly eat into a client's budget.
It's also smarter.
Beyond the front page (which is typically reserved for brand recognition), the majority of a website's traffic is going to fall to a handful of pages. In other words, 80% of your organic traffic (in a lot of cases, this number is closer to 95%) will go to a small handful of pages. For example, a 20 page local website may have 1-4 page assets.
These pages usually can be improved significantly for not only more traffic but also higher conversions. The benefit to focusing on existing page assets is that they can have an immediate impact on a client's return before you go about adding more pages and fleshing out a keyword strategy.
Learn to measure the right things.
Let me be real clear here. Traffic doesn't matter. Conversions matter. The rebuttal to this is almost always that high traffic volume can trump low traffic volume because low conversion rates will be compensated by more traffic.
But at what cost? For a small business looking to increase their traffic via new keyword sets, the cost of doing SEO can outpace the benefits.
Improve the value of the landing pages you already have.
That's almost always the first step I take. Rather than focus on adding additional keywords to the mix right at the get go, I think that you almost always look at what's currently working for you and search for areas of improvement within the pages first because they almost always have a much bigger (and immediate) impact on conversions.
It also takes the focus off of the add more pages for keywords for marketing campaigns, which is what most SEO businesses place as most important.
You can improve the value of your landing pages in several ways. My personal favorite is simply adding more content to the page and building keyword derivatives within the page.
Landing pages gives you clues to keyword sets that are working already.
I have heard a lot of moaning when it comes to the not provided analytics segment. While keywords are important, most of the time, a page isn't accessed exclusively via one keyword but semantic keyword sets. This makes understanding why a landing page is getting traffic more important that the focus on one keyword.
A seasoned SEO can take a look at analytics data coupled with webmaster tools and reasonably conclude what "key" words within the set is driving the traffic to the page. And it usually is dominated by not one keyword but a wide range of search queries that are associated with it.
A bonus to using landing pages as metrics for organic search ranking success is that it can clearly demonstrate to the client that the landing page isn't attributed to branding.
Establish marketing strategies for your most viewed landing pages.
Traffic for traffic's sake isn't enough. Each page should be optimized not only for organic search and SEO but also for conversions. It does a business absolutely no good if the page is getting traffic but a goal isn't accomplished.
This process is a balancing act for both the business and the visitor; you want the visitor to get what they are looking for and have those in line with why you have the page up in the first place.
Analytics can give you clues as to what the landing page means by your visitors. Things such as high bounce rates and time on site may (or may not) give you those clues though. Where the visitor went next (or clicked) may help you understand the real reason.
The inside out approach to building rankings for SEO is a smarter strategy for most smaller businesses because it limits risk and is perfect for a business that doesn't have a budget to sustain a long term SEO strategy. It also moves the focus away from the keyword heavy SEO strategies and puts coversions directly into the cross hairs of a marketing campaign instead.