Posted April 10, 2007 8:30 am by with 16 comments

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By Marios Alexandrou.

Ask 10 search engine optimizers if they know the difference between a strategy and a tactic and I bet all 10 of them will nod their heads. If you then asked those same 10 people to give you an example of a strategy, 9 of them would in fact describe tactics instead and not even realize they did so.

Pointing out their error would likely elicit a response along the lines of, “It doesn’t matter if I don’t know the difference. I can optimize a site better than anyone!” Except it does matter because one day they’re going to have to compete for the opportunity to work on a very large SEO project and what’s going to really help them land the project is understanding the language that senior management uses. This understanding will help them craft a message that resonates with executives who are then more likely to sign the contract.

Vision, Strategy, and Tactics
When a big SEO project comes your way, it’s often accompanied by a vision from the project stakeholders that goes beyond the “get me more traffic” requests common of mom-and-pop sites. The vision will probably be something along the lines of “be the leader of such-and-such” or “be the most respected for this-and-that”. The best response to a vision statement is a strategy that describes the overarching approach to achieve the vision. And only when the strategy is vetted and has received general approval should you dive in to the actual steps i.e. the tactics that you’ll use to fulfill the objectives of the strategy.

I’ll admit that I once had a hard time wrapping my head around what having a strategy really meant. Yes, I was one of the 9 optimizers that would list tactics when asked for a strategy. What actually helped me understand the difference was working backwards. First, I listed all the things I do as a professional SEO such as keyword research, writing keyword-rich titles, removing session IDs from URLs, submitting links to directories, and analyzing web traffic reports. The list, as you can imagine, ended up being quite long. The light bulb started to brighten when I moved to the second step of marking each item as either being a tactic or a strategy. Much to my chagrin, not one of them qualified as a strategy. It then all came together with one simple question that popped into my head. If I executed a selected set of tactics perfectly and the results were as expected, how would the client’s situation change over a period of 6 to 12 months? The answer to that question is the strategy that, had it been identified up-front, would’ve led to an appropriate list of tactics.

Strategy in the Real-World
The problem is that while this backward approach is helpful for understanding concepts, it can be a time waster in practice since a lot of thinking can go in to figuring out the tactics that end up leading to a strategy that fails to address the vision. Instead, it is much more effective to start with a strategy and work your way through to the tactics.

Are you still unsure of the difference? Here are a couple of generic, but hopefully illustrative examples:

The Client’s Vision: The CMO of Company A has been charged with making her company the market share leader for the recently developed Product A.

Your Analysis of the Situation: Company B’s web site which sells Product B is such an established authority that Company A’s web site will never rank #1 for relevant, high volume keywords.

Your SEO Strategy v1: Increase the perception of quality of Product A so that more people will buy from Company A.

Partial List of Tactics v1: Build a comprehensive resource around why Product A is better than Product B and use SEO best practices to obtain first page rankings. Use catchy browser titles to draw attention away from Product B’s #1 ranking.

Your SEO Strategy v2: Build awareness for Product A with potential customers when they are in the research phase of the buying cycle so that when ready, they’ll buy it instead of Product B.

Partial List of Tactics v2: Publish an information site that discusses issues and trends in the industry. Apply SEO techniques to the site to obtain search engine traffic. Place banner ads in highly visible locations on the information site to drive buyers to a site where they can purchase Product A.

Depending on the scope and budget, you could have multiple strategies and most certainly your list of tactics would be longer than my examples. You might also find that with your SEO projects there is significant overlap between the tactics used for different strategies and visions. Overlap is to be expected given that there’s only a limited set of SEO tactics and many are closely related. The key idea is that a strategy will help you win the backing of senior management in a way that droning on and on about duplicate content, h1 tags, and PageRank will not. In addition, explicitly developing a strategy will help guide your team’s thought processes and decision-making throughout the engagement.

So, what’s your strategy?

[This has been an entry for Marketing Pilgrim’s SEM Scholarship contest. Keep up to date with all entries and other marketing news by subscribing to our rss feed.]

  • A very interesting article! Something I’d like to add to it: In this time where SEO is something rather new for many business managers (especially old-fashioned ones), for the strategy presented to them, one must consider the language and words used to get to them. It must be clear enough for them (who might not be very internet savvy) to understand perfectly what they’re getting into, and what they’ll get out of it.

    Ron E.

  • Ron,

    You are correct about the need to speak in the language of business managers. That is part of my message i.e. when you speak about strategy you come closer to speaking the “right” language. SEO tactics are what confuse people that are just starting to wrap their heads around SEO.

  • A good article Marios. I think you should have mentioned one other item here though: Objectives. Continuing with the client’s vision as the example, when you implement your strategy, you would know if it works if you had an objective to get say 20% of market share by the end of period 1, and so on. So working with the strategy, you’d have objectives, and then tactics of reaching those objectives.

  • a serious article.i think to have a well page ranking depend from an complicated algorithm and not necesserly convince the unknowen surfer with no garantee to turn into client ,i think that there s many successful strategy to follow like building an UPS,MLM ,B2B ,mailing news letter …….. .
    so there is many strategy to populate the website/business ,and not only once resumed in one question :-: How to get visibility & trafic ? …try somme niche market is more benefict than an exchange banner programme
    you know in the world there s more than 1500 search engein so the SEO project should be not focused to atract only the most player in the filed like google & yahoo ,altavista ,abacho with a considerable percentage to fail Vs PPC advertiser

    I mean the affiliation programme is more benefict ,you get more link back which is concederated in the SE algorithm and in the account balance too .

    TO your success

  • Sherwin,

    You make a valid point. I think I could rattle on about this stuff quite a bit more, but the contest had a word limit which I got pretty close to already. Still, adding a bit about objectives could make for a good updated article once this contest is over.

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  • I still don’t think you’ve hit on the ‘real’ definition of strategy. Strategies capitalize on distinct capabilities.

    “Your SEO Strategy v1: Increase the perception of quality of Product A so that more people will buy from Company A.”

    That’s a tactic! A Product A that is actually of better quality because you did X and Y to differentiate it is part of your strategy. 😀

  • Barry,

    I think where the discrepancy lies is that your scope is. Within your overall marketing strategy, you have tactics such as SEO. However, within SEO you have a strategy. So what looks like a tactic when looking at the broader picture is actually a strategy when you narrow your focus.

    Or did I completely miss your point?

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  • Ajit Chauhan

    A Strategy To Get Them

    Very good articles and we have to manage it very confidently and try to implement good strategy and focus on delev. on time with good quality.

  • Very useful article

  • An additional challenge to this is to maintain the direction of the discussions. I often find that clients will invite people of many disciplines to participate in SEO decisions. They will often have questions of both strategy and tactics. Without strategy, the tactics mean little, but if the last SEO wowed them with attractive words they did not understand, you must be prepared to defend that.

    When you have a CEO, marketing VP, CTO, and a few others in the same room, you will often find that their objectives have conflicts. Also, it is not unlikely that somebody will lose interest along the way. Controling the dynamics can be a challenge. I agree that the best way to create the common bond is speaking to their needs with a strategy first and foremost.

    Mark Aaron Murnahan’s last blog post..Ethicon Sutures: Endo Surgical Sutures