SEO Strategy vs. Tactics

by Chris Thompson with Hardy Kalisher

Do you have an SEO strategy? That question might be the most important question you can ask your SEO agency. Yes, “SEO strategy” has become something of a trendy term and as a result is it is used by many, yet understood by few, and developed by even fewer.

Google Trends Report on SEO Strategy

All you have to do is start researching SEO on your favorite search engine and you will find lots of SEO articles about changes to Google’s algorithms and dozens of SEO tactics. As a result, many well-intentioned marketers are confusing SEO tactics for SEO strategy. However, understanding the difference can mean achieving your goals or wasting your valuable time and resources.

Let’s look at how strategy is used to develop tactics and achieve goals. There is arguably no better example of a master strategist and tactician than Coach Bill Walsh, one of greatest NFL football coaches of all time. He is considered the mastermind behind the most influential football strategy of the past 30 years. Coach Walsh’s “West Coast Offense” strategy established the San Francisco 49ers as the most dominant professional football team of the 1980s, with three Super Bowl titles and six first place finishes in the NFC West Division.

What can a Marketing Executive learn from Coach Walsh? Coach Walsh had a specific goal of winning the Super Bowl. Does your business have specific measurable goals?

Inspired by his goal, Coach Walsh decided on a specific strategy, the West Coast Offense. Within that strategy Coach Walsh, his staff and his quarterback decided on specific plays depending on the state of the game. Where Coach Walsh distinguished himself from many marketers is that his play calling was within the context of his overall strategy. He was not reactive or random in his play calling in hoping to get lucky with a few successes or get on a roll. Good coaching is not rolling the dice in Las Vegas and neither is running an online marketing campaign. Coach Walsh’s plays were his tactical moves based on his strategy.

The Catch!

In SEO marketing, your tactical plays should be within the context of your strategy or they will just be reactive and random or inspired by the latest SEO buzz. Sure we all can get “lucky” in Las Vegas, and a football team just might score a touchdown on a random Hail Mary pass to the end-zone, but over time, the data will show us that tactics within the framework of your strategy with provide you with more consistent, efficient and normalized left-to-right results.


def: the art of devising or employing plans toward a goal

At Parallel Path, we define strategy as “an organized set of tactics to achieve a defined goal”. It all starts with the goal. The goal will determine the size of the gap between you and your competitors. Do you want to win the Super Bowl? Do you want to slide into the play-offs or are you just happy breaking even? SEO is one big competition. A bunch of teams trying to win the Super Bowl. For every step towards that goal your competitors are making moves too. You have a goal and your competitors are standing in your way. If you are the front runner, your competitors are likely working twice as hard to overtake you. Every competitor has its goals, but do they have the right strategy? Their strategy is out of your hands. What you do control is whether or not you have a strategy. Having a clear understanding of the gap between you and your competitors will allow you to determine which strategy is needed and what tactics are selected to help reach your goals.


def: a device for accomplishing an end.

Much like selecting to run or pass the ball on first down in a football game, SEO tactics are singular activities that accomplish a specific task. We all know that the sum is greater than the parts. The sum of your tactical choices, within the scope of your strategy, will determine the level of your success. Yes, making the wrong tactical call can cost you some progress, but if your strategy is sound, you will win more than you lose. For example, adding keywords to page titles and content will increase the page’s relevance for a given topic. Submitting an XML sitemap will help the search engines to crawl and index your site. And writing content will generate inbound links. These are all valuable tactics – good plays – but independently they lack impact, and they alone will not win you that Super Bowl. This is especially true for enterprise organizations in competitive markets, where optimizing page titles and meta descriptions will not produce the desired results. Your tactics need to match your strategy, and the strategy needs to be based on your goals.

The Difference Maker
The major difference is the goal. An SEO strategy requires a measurable goal to provide focus on how you will reach success. Without a goal you are aimlessly employing tactics, randomly calling plays based on the moment rather than within the context of your goal. Random tactics might gain you some spikes, but it can also create some dips and in the end a lot of activity can happen without achieving your goal.

Just like Coach Walsh’s playbook there are volumes of SEO tactics out there. Nearly every day, as the search engines alter their algorithms, more SEO tactics emerge. You can exhaust all of your budget, time, and resources optimizing every last nook and cranny of your site, but it still may not be enough to generate results.

You need to understand what your competitors are doing, where they stand in relation to you, and what opportunities exist for growth. You need to know your strength and weakness. Most important, you need to intentionally build a strategy with a series of proven tactics to achieve your goals. Without that critical strategy you will be wasting valuable time and resources. You might get lucky, but do you really think you can lead your team to a Super Bowl victory based on luck?

So – what is your SEO “West Coast Offense?”

Part II of this topic: How to develop SEO Goals to drive your SEO Strategy.

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