Tactics are the servants of strategy

My understanding of an SEO strategy has changed drastically over the years, but underpinning this is another question that is bigger and broader but also more important in many ways… and that is; “What is a strategy?”

The word strategy has been bandied around quite a lot over the past year in my life and after a while it became something of a holy grail that I was starting to think was in fact a red herring… Words like ‘plan’, ‘strategy’, ‘tactics’ at first glance might seem interchangeable and not being particularly fond of semantics I decided that some clarity around this needs to be gained.

My first port of call was Wikipedia, which states:

Strategy (Greek “στρατηγία”—stratēgia, “art of troop leader; office of general, command, generalship”[1]) is a high level plan to achieve one or more goals under conditions of uncertainty.

Apt and succinct though this is, it doesn’t seem to provide the clarity i was looking for… I also read Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”, his learnings had passed the test of time and it’s the benchmark for all modern strategy. Sadly though, the proverbial penny was slow to drop and insightful though The Art of War is, it is designed for military strategy.

Ultimately the moment of epiphany came when watching some video tutorials on Chess strategy. In fact the title of this post is a quote from a master chess player and it was this in the context of Chess that was the catalyst for a personal revelation.

Chess Tactics

In the fine game of chess there a handful of tactics, for example a tactic could be to pin a piece in place. The image below demonstrates this, by moving the rook, White pins the Black bishop such that it cannot move or it will put the king in check.

Another tactic is illustrated in the image below; whereby a knight has moved onto a square that allows it to put pressure on two pieces simultaneously, whilst not being vulnerable to attack in the next turn. Thus the black player is forced to move the king and lose the rook.

But these are tactics, not a strategy, and there is a fundamental difference. Tactics are driven by goals that serve the strategy; hence “Tactics are the servants of strategy”. It is not the goal of chess to (excuse the pun) fork your opponent, or even to check the king, the goal is to checkmate the opposing king to win the game.

So where is the SEO in all this?

What this made me realise is that a strategy is a combination of tactics intended to support and achieve the strategic goal/s. One last reference to Chess..! The tactic of forking is used to effectively reduce the number of opposing pieces and in turn reduce the opposing team’s ability to mount an attack or defend against yours.

I think the analogy to SEO strategy is a small step from this example; if we consider that SEO tactics are the actions you can take, such as guest blogging, on-page optimisation, or link reclamation a strategic mind sets follows shortly. A strategic goal could be anything from generating more leads to protecting your brand from negative mentions to increasing brand awareness.

If we take the first example, ‘generating more leads’, and say that this site has a quote form that generates the leads. There is usually a choice of tactics and more often no single best solution and time is always an important factor, whether it’s the hours you have available to spend on the project or the deadline for getting results. However the sub-goals or tactical goals can often be grouped into broader themes for which you could use any number of tactics.

An Example of an SEO Strategy

Continuing this example it is fair to say that we can either increase traffic to drive conversions or improve the rate at which the site converts traffic. Obviously this would depend upon how much traffic the site receives and from where and how well it converts it currently. If we assume the site is converting paid traffic, but not very well and it doesn’t receive much by way of organic or referral traffic and never has… We can start to formulate a strategy;

We want to provide the client with results as soon as possible, so weighting the strategy so that more work is undertaken in the initial phase is a good idea. By splitting the time between UX / CRO & off-page promotion we can aim to improve the user experience and improve the conversion rate, so that when the link building starts to take effect and keyword rankings improve delivering more traffic and the site is able to capitalise on it.

If the SEM / PPC campaign has been delivering converting visitors for some time, there are likely some quick wins to be filtered out of the data that could be give some good keyword ideas. The diagram below shows how this concept feeds into one another and form a strategy:

This could be further expanded to include more specific techniques, as it is said that “technique is the servant of tactics”.

This could be represented in a time line which illustrates the weighting of work over time, because a strategy must always play out over time and usually with time sensitive goals:

A Strategy for Anything!

It is also possible to consider strategies on a both a micro and macro scale, each able to support the primary strategic goal. For example; you could create a content strategy that constitutes a part of the overall off-page tactic. The goal of a content strategy could be to build authority for the site through gaining high quality links to the site. The tactics employed to achieve this could involve producing some journalistic content and getting it published on an authoritative site or produce white papers to attract links and shares.

A keyword strategy designed to deliver good rankings and increasing volumes of traffic could use the tactic of targeting keywords of increasing difficulty over time. Or in a highly competitive market it could be to target longer tail keywords with a higher relevancy until the site has the authority to target more competitive terms.

Sun Tzu Again

This leads nicely into the next bit… Some valuable lessons learned from The Art of War are that your strategy must be adapted to your enemy, play to your strengths and play on their weaknesses. It sounds obvious but all too often SEO is treated as prescriptive or sold in one size fits all packages, when really every client, site or business should be treated uniquely.

So I want to finish this with some quotes from The Art of War and an example of how I think they can be applied to SEO:

“He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious.” – Pick the right keywords and do not pick the wrong ones.

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” – Create a strategy and a project plan before you embark on any activity.

“Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.” – Understand where you  can leverage the greatest advantage by playing to your strengths. Understand where there are niches and pitfalls in the landscape of possibility.

“To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence.” – Copying or following the norm is not what facilitates excellent SEO, be unique and creative.

“Of all those in the army close to the commander none is more intimate than the secret agent”

“It is only the enlightened ruler and the wise general who will use the highest intelligence of the army for the purposes of spying, and thereby they achieve great results.” –  Pay close attention to your competitor’s data, use good tools to evaluate the competition.

“If fighting is sure to result in victory, than you must fight, even though the ruler forbid it; if fighting will not result in victory, then you must not fight even at the ruler’s bidding.” – Always have your client’s best interest in mind.

“The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.” – Using trend analysis and mapping your activity to your client’s marketing calendar will enable you to capitalise on seasonal search spikes.

“Prohibit the taking of omens, and do away with superstitious doubts.” – Take a logical and well reasoned approach, back up and qualify your recommendations with evidence and data. That which can be asserted without evidence can dismissed without evidence!

 “The enlightened ruler is heedful, and the good general full of caution.” – A good client listens to your advice and it is warranted that they do.

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