“Skate to where the puck is going.”
Simple in theory, but difficult in practice.
If next year’s SEO results come from what you’re doing (or not doing) right now, then too many SEOs want to have their cake and eat it, too.
They want long-term success. But too often, they are seduced by short-term shortcuts to get there.
Here’s why obsessing over lagging indicators like “traffic” or “trials” is a mistake and how you can better predict future SEO success by focusing on inputs and leading indicators instead.
Why ‘traffic’ and ‘trials’ are terrible indicators of SEO progress
Traffic, trials, leads and sales are nice.
They’re great. Money in the bank.
Up-and-to-the-right charts only get SEOs promoted, not demoted, at the end of the day.
And yet, it’s this exact same mindset that often sabotages your long-term ROI.
It’s like driving to a new destination while keeping your eyes fixed firmly in the rearview mirror.
You’re so focused on the output (traffic) that you’re neglecting to focus on what actually drives future performance (the inputs).
Traffic, leads, demos, opt-ins, and sales are all lagging indicators. That means they’re a byproduct of previous work.
They’re the end result – like your weight on a scale – and not the input that actually drives your ideal future state (like calories eaten, sugar consumed, or miles walked).
And because they lag, it often means you’re looking at old data by the time it does “work.”
Dig deeper: SEO outcomes vs. SEO outputs: Understanding the difference
The added problem is that “traffic” or “sales” don’t just lag a few days or weeks behind publishing a new article, for instance, but more often by years.
Let me show you a simple example.
Nobody on the Internet needs an introduction to monday.com. They virtually own all of the digital “project management” space.
And yet, it still took them over two years (plus several failed attempts) to eventually dominate the most lucrative keyword in the space, “project management software.”
This shouldn’t be a surprise.
This same phenomenon is even more extreme for more “mortal” brands that most SEOs often work across.
So let’s bring this back down to Earth.
Take a new-ish app, coming out of beta, with some money in the bank but virtually zero organic search traffic.
That means little-to-no unbranded/nonbranded traffic and no topical authority. Google doesn’t even know this site exists at this point.
And yet, over time, the same up-and-to-the-right charts that get SEOs paid:
What does this mean?
Does it mean that the first year of SEO was a failure, but the second year was a success?
Nothing at all changed. And that’s exactly why it ended up “miraculously working” after 12+ months.
Here’s why and how to replicate this same success on your own site.
You can predict SEO success by focusing on inputs, not outputs
No, you can’t guarantee SEO success. But you can 100% predict it.
The caveat, however, is that you need to know where to focus.
And the answer, as we saw above, is not traffic or trials or demos booked.
Advanced Web Rankings CTR study shows that ~70-80% of people click on the top five results.
In other words, only the top five ranking results are seeing the lagging indicators of traffic, leads and sales start to blow up their analytics.
SEO is a zero-sum game. Someone wins by someone else losing.
This means only a tiny, tiny fraction of the people publishing something will ever see meaningful results.
Now, this also means the inverse is true.
If you’re ranking in position 10, you might only see <1% of all potential traffic.
Except, that’s OK! It’s a great sign.
Under the surface, your SEO campaign is working. The swells and currents under the surface are slowly starting to come together, all but guaranteeing that it’s only a matter of time until your traffic explodes.
And yet, this is also the exact point when most people get antsy, lose patience, get distracted by other vanity or lagging metrics, and kill the project dead in its tracks.
Herein lies the big catch-22 of SEO that most know but ignore:
- You need a big site to rank for good keywords, yet…
- You need to rank for good keywords to build a big site.
Step 1: Identify and capitalize on what’s already showing promise
The “beachhead principle” is a simple technique to help mid-size sites compete and eventually dominate ultra-competitive categories.
It helps you balance both short and long-term results simultaneously, setting the bar high to rank long-term on a lucrative pillar keyword or page while using your supporting pages to rank faster on less competitive variations or longer-tail concepts.
The secret is that there is no secret.
You need to identify where you might already have some existing topical authority or some progress and then try to expand on that ASAP.
For instance, when we acquired Wordable, we looked at which content pieces were already working to some degree.
We isolated for traffic from organic search only and then immediately noticed a straightforward pattern:
Some of the biggest traffic drivers in those early days were coming from articles around “Google Docs.”
The product is related to Google Docs, which is a good sign. Albeit, most of these topics and traffic are very “top of the funnel.” So, generally speaking, there is very little buying intent, but higher volumes and less competitive (read: easier to rank).
Now we have our beachhead.
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Step 2: Target the right keywords at the right time
If we need to build a big site before attempting to rank for the best stuff in our space, that means we need to get busy ranking on something. Anything!
You’re managing your payback period at this point. You need to get some quick wins and short-term ROI while balancing to deliver long-term ROI years in the future.
So first, we’ll double down on scaling the quality and quantity of content around our beachhead.
And then only later will we start targeting more competitive and commercial terms that will eventually deliver seven-to-eight-figure returns.
How do you know if you’re picking the right keywords at the right time? Look at time to rank.
If you publish a page that goes from “not indexed” to ranking number four within a week or two, you’re doing it right!
Now, extrapolate this same effect out over the course of another year, and that’s when you start seeing the lagging indicators finally kick in.
This very simple yet practical approach drove a 360% monthly traffic increase in only a year.
But it’s also not great.
It starts to put us on the map. However, it won’t drive the big ROI that will ultimately add another zero or two to our P&L.
So here’s how to take the next step.
Step 3: Drive long-term ROI with patience and process
Not indexed to the fourth position in about a week?
The last example is a best-case scenario involving years of SEO sniper experience.
So let’s look at another more common example.
You publish a piece of content. It ranks within positions 10 to 20 within a week or two. That’s excellent news!
Over a decade of experience across potentially thousands of sites at this point has proven to me that “no index” to page two within a few weeks will correlate highly with future top SERP rankings.
It just will take more time. So keep doubling down on the same process!
Here’s how this looks in practice.
Notice the ~six-month “wilderness” period in the yellow box below, where the page bounces around for a bit in obscurity.
Nobody sees it. No one (other than you and Google) even knows it exists.
Now, fast forward to current day, and the green box shows a consistent, sticky top 5 position.
This is despite several SERP shakeups, like a proliferation of AI
crap content, as well as algorithm updates, like helpful content.
The catch? It took a little over two years!
So, you need to continue trusting the process:
- Focus on inputs rather than outputs.
- Remain patient while the swells continue to form across the horizon.
Here’s a final example that shows this delicate balancing act.
The beachhead principle below is starting to bear fruit, with some smaller, less competitive queries starting to rank really well, while at the same time, we’re waiting for the bigger ones to catch up.
- The stuff in green is your less competitive, supporting posts or top-of-funnel stuff, starting to rank in the top five.
- The stuff in yellow, more lucrative or even higher volume, is still just stuck outside the strike zone.
So, if you’re only looking at lagging indicators, the former looks like a “success” while the latter seems like a “failure.”
Except, as you’ve now seen, this is either misguided or simply incorrect.
The only true SEO success, measured in dolla’ dolla’ billz y’all, happens over years of consistently executing.
The ROI of SEO is a marathon that lasts years. This is the opposite of a few ephemeral sprints like referral or ad traffic, resulting in spikes of arbitrage that disappear almost as quickly as they originated.
Dig deeper: How long SEO takes to work
Your SEO is working – you just need to ignore ‘traffic’ and ‘trials’
You can and should go for quick SEO wins. You need them! They give you confidence and, better yet, your bosses or clients peace of mind that you know what you’re doing.
But stop obsessing over traffic and trials because those are lagging indicators, only confirming what you should have known over a year ago before setting down that path.
Instead, focus more on the inputs and leading indicators that help you better predict when your campaigns are showing promise.
To the untrained eye, it might look like failure initially.
But the real failure only happens when you pull the plug too early, before all those lagging indicators finally reveal themselves.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.