Every week this year I’ve been talking 1-on-1 with business owners, marketing managers, and marketing consultants about their SEO strategy. My key takeaway?

There is still a lot of confusion out there about SEO.

Here are just a handful of the frequently asked questions I hear:

  • Where should I start if I’m new to SEO?
  • What should I do after my site is “optimized”?
  • Should I be making edits each month to the same pages or is that “over optimizing”?
  • How many words need to be on a page in order for it to rank?

After walking through the same step-by-step process over and over again on calls, I’ve decided to publish this article in an attempt to clear the air once and for all.

You see, there is a proven SEO blueprint that literally every business should use. Sure, the nitty gritty details will change depending on your business and your situation, but the blueprint remains the same.

It’s similar to the basic blueprint for building a house. You know you need a strong foundation, walls, a door, windows, and a roof. The architecture and design may vary widely across homes, but the basic elements and process stay the same. And that’s true for SEO as well.

Before we dive into the blueprint, it’s important to take a step back and review a marketing concept I’m sure you’re familiar with…

The Marketing Funnel

Don’t worry, I’m not going to waste your time describing every step in the funnel… I just need to remind you of the marketing funnel and how it relates to search behavior. This is often overlooked and if you keep this concept in mind then SEO will become a lot easier for you.

OK, picture the classic marketing funnel that is wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. Something like this:

At the top of the funnel you have prospective customers that aren’t quite ready to buy; They are researching or browsing online to learn more in order to eventually become ready. Then at the bottom of the funnel you have your prospective customers that are ready to buy; They have done their homework and they’re now searching in order to pull the trigger.

Now let’s tie this back to SEO…

At the top of the funnel (ToFu), searchers are researching. They are looking for information that will allow them to make an informed buying decision. In other words, they are searching using research-intent keywords.

At the bottom of the funnel (BoFu), searchers are looking to buy. In other words, they are searching using buying-intent keywords.

And that leads us to the first key takeaway of this article…

SEO Is All About Search Intent: ToFu vs. BoFu Keywords

Research-intent keywords are phrases searched by prospective customers at the top of the funnel (ToFu). Buying-intent keywords are phrases searched by prospective customers at the bottom of the funnel (BoFu).

Unfortunately, there is no tool that will tell you if a keyword has research-intent or buying-intent. To determine the search intent of a keyword you need to ask yourself, “Is a person more likely to be researching or looking to buy when searching this keyword?”

For many keywords, the answer will be obvious. For example, “what is a dental implant” is a clear research-intent keyword. Alternatively, “implant dentist near me” is a clear buying-intent keyword. Easy enough right?

Well, some keywords are not so obvious and when that’s the case I recommend you search in Google to see what’s being highlighted. Google is constantly testing and altering their search results to give searchers exactly what they want. So if Google is showing a lot of informational articles at the top of the search results, then chances are good the keyword has more research intent. If Google is showing businesses and products at the top of the results, then you’ve typed in a buying-intent keyword.

OK, now that you understand search intent, we can move on to the second key takeaway…

Your Pages Must Match the Search Intent

This should be fairly obvious, but it’s worth repeating. You must match the content on your pages with the search intent of the keyword.

In practice, that means you’ll optimize a product or service page for buying-intent (BoFu) keywords and you’ll optimize informational articles or blogs for research-intent (ToFu) keywords.

To take this a step further, the amount of content and the layout of these pages should also match the search intent. Ah, I can see the lightbulbs going off! Google knows that when someone searches “massage therapist near me,” then that person doesn’t need a 2,000 word article. However, if that same person searches “massage techniques for back pain” then a 2,000 word informational guide makes sense and deserves to rank higher than a 200 word service page.

At this point, you have the basic SEO knowledge to dive into the SEO Blueprint…

Phase 1: The Foundation

Like building a house, you must start by laying a strong foundation for SEO. And it starts by optimizing for the buying-intent (BoFu) keywords.

For many (probably most) businesses, this will require building new product, service, and category pages that you may not already have on your website. For example, if people are searching for a specific service and you don’t currently have a page dedicated for that service, then you’ll need to build that page.

You’ll know you’ve completed phase 1 when you have built and optimized pages for all of the relevant buying-intent keywords for your business.

Many people I talk to mistakenly believe this is the end of the road for SEO work… However, the reality is that this is just the tip of the iceberg!

Phase 2: Building Up and Up and Up…

As mentioned above, Phase 1 work has a start and finish because you likely have a finite number of product and service pages to optimize. Of course, when you introduce a new product or service, you’ll need to restart at Phase 1 each time.

In contrast, Phase 2 can likely go on forever. To understand why, we need to take a closer look at the pages you’ll optimize for research-intent keywords. The informational pages you’ll need to build fall into two distinct groups:

  1. Evergreen pages – This is information that does not change much over time. For example, a guide highlighting massage techniques for back pain would be an evergreen page. The content will not need to be updated much every year unless a brand new technique is introduced. Generally I recommend building a “Resource Center” section on your website where these pages will be published.
  2. Time-sensitive pages – This is information that will only be relevant for a specific period of time. For example, an article about an upcoming massage class you’ll be teaching will only be relevant before the class starts. Blog articles work well for this type of content.

The sheer volume of relevant research-intent keywords (remember the large top of the funnel) means most businesses will never create all the evergreen opportunities, which is one reason Phase 2 lasts so long. Plus, there will always be opportunities to publish time-sensitive content.

As you build more and more of these pages, you’ll have more opportunities to rank in the search results and also more opportunities for other websites to link to your pages. This is how SEO traffic can start to snowball over time.

Now you may be wondering, how do you convert research-intent traffic into leads and sales? The reality is that those prospective customers aren’t ready to buy and an informational article isn’t going to do a great job selling.

That brings us to the final key takeaway of this article…

Your Offer Must Match the Search Intent

When you’re in Phase 1 optimizing product and service pages for buying-intent (BoFu) keywords, then your offer is going to be to buy or inquire about your product or service. In this case you know the prospective customer is ready to buy, so it makes sense to present your sales offer.

However, when you’re in Phase 2 optimizing informational pages for research-intent (ToFu) keywords, then you’re not likely going to convert with the same offer. Remember, these prospective customers aren’t ready to pull the trigger and buy yet. That means you’re better off presenting a free offer in exchange for an email address.

For e-commerce businesses, coupons are a great option to collect email addresses. For other businesses, you may need to be more creative by offering a guide, checklist, demo, or something else with enough perceived value that a prospective customer will happily give you her email address in exchange. From there, you can use email marketing to follow up, educate, and nurture until those prospective customers are ready to buy. And who do you think they’ll go to when they’re ready to buy? :)

Scroll up and take another look at the marketing funnel. The largest part of the funnel is at the top where prospective customers are searching research-intent keywords. If you’re only optimizing for buying-intent keywords, then you’re missing the largest part of your market!

To cast the widest net, you need to complete both Phase 1 and Phase 2 of SEO. Start by optimizing your product and service pages. Then build relevant informational pages, a compelling free offer, and an email marketing program.