Marketers usually discuss SEO and content marketing from a single perspective of driving key performance indicators, such as keyword rankings and internal and external links. But, too often, they don't tie those KPIs back to their overall goals. Why do keyword rankings matter? Has anything improved since receiving additional backlinks?

Basically, they stop short of asking the really important questions.

One real estate client we produced content for was struggling to see the value of our efforts. In response, we were trying to prove value by overwhelming the client with SEO-specific results about increased traffic and keyword rankings. After nearly losing some of the client's business, we performed a fuller-scale analysis alongside our paid media team and found a 10% reduction in cost per click for its paid search efforts. Subsequently, the client experienced a near-immediate increase in cost per click when it paused its organic content efforts.

Ultimately, we saw that it wasn't just the routine SEO KPIs we'd been sharing with our client that were most important for its overall goals. By identifying ways to measure success that were tailored to the client's specific objectives, we found that the organic content we were creating was having a direct impact on the costs of the client's paid search efforts. And that allowed us to prove our value.

Obviously, measurement is important; but there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

'There Is No Spoon'

In The Matrix, Keanu Reeves's character Neo has an epiphany when he's watching a child bend a spoon with his mind. Neo realizes the spoon doesn't actually exist: "There is no spoon," he says. I felt the same way when I realized there is no single right answer to which SEO metrics are the best for measuring results.

To be clear, I don't disagree that there need to be foundational, standard best-practices and metrics for success; I just believe that the way we discuss them is misguided. SEO and earned media should help you elevate your business in organic search, but what that looks like is different for every industry and every business.

One of the biggest mistakes we make is not recognizing those differences and not being flexible enough to adapt to them. Many marketers and their clients expect SEO to be a predictable, standard set of steps designed to always achieve the same results. When their efforts don't go as planned, clients can sometimes feel cheated out of their investment or they might feel as if they got sold on a gimmick; either way, that leaves marketers scrambling to prove their value.

Fortunately, sticking to white hat search tactics and optimizing your website and content for users instead of trying to trick search engine algorithms will usually lead to some form of boost in organic results.

It will also give you the insight to know what's working and what isn't, and the flexibility to add, alter, or eliminate practices when necessary.

Navigating a System You Can't Control

With any marketing campaign, being able to pivot and adapt to any situation is vital. That sort of flexibility is even more vital in SEO strategy. Maybe you or your client have an older site and any changes you want to make to it have to go through a delayed chain of command. Although that might seem like a hitch in the process, use the time it takes to get approval to drive improvement someplace else.

Similarly, if three months into your SEO campaign you've done everything by the book only to find that your site rankings are going down, you have to be willing to adjust and realign. Do you need more time to see results, or do you need a different approach to drive movement in the shorter term? Consider deploying other more effective strategies if things aren't going as planned. You don't have to quit—just adjust.

Your strategy has to be flexible to identify and adapt to the data that most closely relates to your goals. As your business goals evolve over time, the strategy should also be able to evolve and keep up.

With the following four tips, you can shift toward that flexibility and enhance the value of your SEO strategy.

1. Set highly specific goals

It isn't enough to say that you want organic growth: You have to define what that means for you or your client. If you want to improve existing keyword rankings or enter the conversation surrounding a bucket of industry-related terms, your strategy will have to be tailored to that specific goal.

If your goal is to improve rankings, look at successful content that already ranks well for your target terms. If you want to enter the conversation for topics related to your industry that your site currently doesn't cover, perform a keyword gap analysis to identify which topics your audience is looking for and see which of those you aren't currently covering. Then, build your strategy around that information.

2. Listen to your audience

Getting users to your content, whether organically or through paid promotion, is only the first step. Getting them to stay with your content and turning them into loyalists is the next. That takes intentionally creating highly personalized content that's not only engaging but also relevant to your audience.

Use social listening and market data to craft the right voice and choose the right media for your content and audience. What topics are they most interested in? What types of images do they click on most? What challenges do they face, and how can you help overcome them? The answers to those questions will drive your strategy and how you measure your results.

3. Bring other channels on board

Successful content marketing has to be relevant to your audience, but it should also align with the tenets of your overall marketing strategies. Therefore, all of your marketing channels should work together to ensure your messaging remains consistent.

Meet regularly with other teams in your marketing department—such as those working on paid search and social—to see whether you can harness their data to assist them in researching topics. Conversely, you can help paid teams use your content and drive its success by including it in their native advertising, paid social posts, and more.

4. Don't stop measuring

Even with the best research and collaboration, not every piece of content you create will rank at the top or drive improvement for direct KPIs. But it's key to understand how each piece contributed to—or failed to contribute to—overall goals so you can adjust your future efforts accordingly.

Be critical of your content performance to better understand how to fine-tune the direction you take in the next phase. Furthermore, don't pass up opportunities to go back and optimize any existing content that didn't perform exactly as you would have hoped the first time. Rather than throw everything away and start again from scratch, use what you have and make it even better.

* * *

SEO will never be an exact science. In many ways, it can seem chaotic or too tricky to try. However, when you strategically go about performing it—including how you measure it—it can be a major driver of success.

With a strategy that balances every aspect of your marketing efforts, you can better understand and adapt your practices to achieve your clients' or your own goals.

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image of Joe Arduini

Joe Arduini is the director of SEO at Internet Marketing Inc. He has 9+ years of experience in online marketing.

LinkedIn: Joe Arduini

Twitter: @jaarduini