The author’s views are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.
If you’re familiar with the blue ocean marketing strategy, you know that SEO is inherently a “red ocean” industry. With fierce competition to attain rankings, links, and authority, SEOs are constantly trying to one-up their competitors. In this environment, is there any hope for creating a “blue ocean” — innovating to avoid the choppy waters of the current market?
In today’s Whiteboard Friday, PJ Howland of Leaders.com suggests that a blue ocean SEO strategy is achievable through creating realistic content for your customers. Watch to learn more!
Hey, Moz fans. Welcome back to another Whiteboard Friday. I am PJ Howland. I am the Head of SEO and Evergreen Content at leaders.com. So my background is kind of that sweet spot right in between if you’ve got SEO over here and content and editorial over here, that middle ground where SEO and editorial and content collide.
If you’re familiar with that world, you know that we’re dealing with thinner margins, we have fewer resources, and we have less clear direction. So this is the world we operate in. It’s a place where we’re trying to just get a little bit of an advantage over our competitors, and it’s kind of created this fixed mindset of just trying to scrape by to just get a little bit of an advantage.
However, I think that there’s a mindset that can really help break this mold to make sure that every single month is actually your best month ever. So it’s the blue ocean SEO strategy.
What is blue ocean strategy?
So what is blue ocean SEO strategy? Well, start with what blue ocean strategy is.
Maybe you’ve read the book “Blue Ocean Strategy.” Maybe you’ve heard the term thrown around. Maybe you haven’t heard of it at all. Give me just one minute and I’ll kind of explain this with a story.
So back in the days when circuses were traveling the countryside, there were two predominant circuses, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, and they would spend lots of time, energy, and resources trying to one up each other.
They were producing who can have crazier stunts, who can have weirder clowns, who can have more eccentric animal tricks or whatever. It got to the point to where they were competing so hard with each other that they forgot what their customers really cared about. The sentiments of the day were that, hey, we don’t want to see multiple rings. We don’t like looking everywhere. Put it back down to one ring. We don’t like the animal tricks. They’re cruel. They’re outdated. But these circuses were so fixed on competing with each other that both of them ended up losing out.
Then who should come along? This new player, Cirque du Soleil. Now, if you’ve been to a Cirque du Soleil show, you probably know where I’m going with this. It’s unlike a traditional circus. In fact, it’s unlike anything else out there. But what they did do is they took what worked and excluded what didn’t work from a traditional circus. So they cut out the cruel animal acts. They also kept in the clowns and the acrobats, because those were working in the traditional circus, and they brought in this kind of third heat of this theater element, this fine theater experience.
If you’ve been to a Cirque show, you know what I’m talking about. There’s definitely a narrative there. So what they’ve done is they’ve created a blue ocean. They’ve created a world where there really is no direct apples-to-apples competitors.
Now, Cirque du Soleil isn’t the only player out there who’s done this. We could talk about iTunes. What were your options before iTunes? Netflix, same thing. Before Netflix was on the scene, where were you watching your stuff? Airbnb. You see where I’m going with this, that all three of these businesses or products launch, there really wasn’t anything out there. It was a true blue ocean.
Blue ocean SEO
So how do we get that from an SEO perspective?
Well, we need to start by realizing where SEO is right now. So SEO is a fixed mindset game. Inherently it is a red ocean strategy. If you don’t believe me, let me illustrate it this way. You have this situation where you’ve got a keyword.
You look at your competitor and you see, hey, they’ve got 100 links. You say, “Big deal. I’ll get 200 links.” Their site speed score is 80. I’m going to make it 90. We’re going to have 90. They write 1,500 words. You see where I’m going with this. We write 2,500 words. That’s not blue ocean thinking. That is fixed, red ocean, fierce competition mindset thinking, but it’s where a lot of SEOs find themselves. Heck, I’ve been there. That is essentially skyscraper content.
It’s skyscraper article building. Hey, there’s been a place for that, but at its core it really is red ocean, fixed mindset thinking. So how do we get over that? How do we as SEOs, digital marketers, content marketers, how do we get over the fact that we’re playing a red ocean game?
Start with the customer
Well, it starts with the customer.
So picture this. Picture you’re sitting down with a customer, except you’re not a marketer anymore. You maybe work on the fulfillment or service or product side. You sit down with them and you say, “Hey, we are enhancing our product, our service, our fulfillment. What is going to make it a better solution for you?” Just picture a great conversation where they’re going back and forth with you.
You collect valuable insight, and at the end, you produce a better product and that customer is grateful for it. Now picture that same customer except swap out yourself as a product marketer and now you’re a marketer marketer. You’re talking about your SEO strategy and you say, “Hey, so what we do is we look at the competitors and we add more words. We see the links that they build and we add more links. What do you think of that? How does that benefit you?”
The customer is going to look at you and say, “That doesn’t help me at all. That’s not what I asked for. That’s not what I want. That’s not the deal of how businesses work. You’re here to make my world easier.” Truth be told, when we add more words to a page, sometimes we’re just making more words out there. Do you know what I mean? It’s something that the customers don’t want to deal with.
Set your writers up for success
So we live in this reality though, where as SEOs, as editorial professionals, as content marketers, we’re in this place where we’re tasked with almost an impossible task. How do we deliver exceptional content when the people producing that, maybe it’s an SEO, maybe it’s a writer, aren’t necessarily the subject matter experts?
So it starts with what you give the writer or the SEO to actually begin this project. So I have found so many people start with they just say, “Hey, here’s the keyword. Go for it. We’re trying to rank for this. Just get that piece of content out.” Inevitably, you will produce a skyscraper piece of content with that. That sets everyone up for failure.
Nobody wins when all you do is start off with a keyword. Instead what I have found is it really takes detailed write-ups that begin with interviews with subject matter experts. My outlines that I produce with my team, I’ve never seen one under two pages. Most of them are between three to five pages that we produce for these individual topics. That all has to come from your own insight with like your team. I can’t really produce what your customer wants. That’s something I invite you to figure out on your own. However, I have found that customers, no matter what industry you’re in, I don’t care if it’s B2B, B2C, I don’t care if you’re selling SaaS, or if you’ve got an e-commerce platform, whatever, the person that says, “Yes, I want to buy that,” is always a person.
People want reality
Ten times out of ten you’re dealing with people. So what do people want? People want reality. They want authenticity. So there are three things that I think can help anyone, regardless of the industry that you’re in, boost up your content. When I’m talking about content, that could be articles. It could blog posts. It could be landing pages. It could be white papers, whatever. The point is that people want reality.
So here’s how I’ve been able to find really good delivery methods for this. Stories. My world is a lot more article focused, but we try to start every article with a story. People love that.
I find a much higher time on page when we lead out with stories. I know what you’re thinking. It’s like, “Well, Wikipedia is someone we’re competing against, and they don’t start with a story. Nobody starts with a story.” Okay, decide if you want to be a red ocean player or a blue ocean player.
The next thing is advice. Now, again, going back to the reality of it is that we’re dealing with situations where we’ve got writers who aren’t subject matter experts.
That’s okay. Nobody is in trouble for that reality of the situation. But it does matter that you seek that advice out. So schedule interviews with subject matter experts. Buy your team a book. Have a book club within your organization. Make sure that you’re building expertise within your group.
Finally, examples. People want reality. They want authenticity. If you have customer data, if you have case studies, I don’t think you should be gating all of that necessarily. There’s a great use case to be made for just letting that stuff out there. People want to see real examples happening in the wild.
How to measure success
So you come up with this blue ocean strategy that only you can produce, because you should know your customer better than me, and you want to figure out how to measure it.
Well, if you’ve been doing content marketing for more than, I don’t know, the last 30 minutes, you know that there’s a big gap between the first piece of content produced and the dollars in the pocket of the organization. There’s a lot that happens in between there. So how do you actually make sure that you can come through on this with proper measurement? I have found that time on page is the first thing that goes up.
So before we kind of rolled out this with leaders.com, we were seeing average time on page between 3.5 to 4 minutes. Not good, not bad. Fine, whatever. But after rolling this out, we’re seeing average time on page of between 5.5 to 6.5 minutes. I have pages that are almost 3,000 words in length that actually get read.
We have articles that have average time on page of eight minutes or higher, and that’s a really validating thing. I believe that after time on page goes up, then you can start seeing if your rankings and traffic go up. Now you can see right here there’s no tinfoil hat. I’m not making a direct insinuation that there is a correlation between time on page and the rankings that Google is going to hand out to you.
What I am saying is that good content gets noticed, and when it gets noticed, you’re going to see those links come in. You see how this works. We’re starting backwards. Like a lot of the times we lead off with saying, “I want more links.” But in reality, is that really going to serve us? I would rather play a game where links come as a byproduct of good content. So what’s really the takeaway here?
I think it’s a mindset takeaway. In my organization, we’ve buried skyscraper content. It’s dead. It’s in the ground. Now it doesn’t mean we don’t look at competitors. Obviously, that would be silly not to do. We’re in SEO.
However, I think that if you want to really transition to a blue ocean, limitless mindset, there has to be some kind of reality check where you say, “Hey, at some point I’m not going to be listening to the competitors for every little word that I write on my web page.” Thanks for watching the video today. I look forward to hearing your comments. For anyone that’s done this type of shift in the organization, look forward to engaging with you in a good discussion in the comments below.
Thanks for stopping by today. See you on the next Whiteboard Friday.