War is the realm of uncertainty. Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military thinker, widely acknowledged as the most important of the classical strategic thinkers, wrote this saying in his seminal book "On War". He explains this statement with the following:
…three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty ... The commander must work in a medium which his eyes cannot see; which his best deductive powers cannot always fathom; and with which, because of constant changes, he can rarely become familiar.
Online marketing, in lots of ways, is the exact opposite of that.
In today's data-driven marketing reality, every pixel, activity and campaign can be tracked and measured to allow marketers to get as close as possible to certainty.
If in war three quarters of the factors are wrapped in fog, in marketing we're making progress to have more than three quarters as clear and exposed as possible.
But even with all the technological advancements, some factors are still unclear and we need to make decisions based on partial data or the lack of data altogether. Moreover, in SEO, we are facing tremendous challenges, as data that was previously available to us is now being taken away, making it even harder to make educated decisions on SEO and content campaigns.
One of the most important organizing concepts in command and control, designed to address the issue of uncertainty, is the OODA Loop. Credited to John Boyer, a fighter pilot, this framework has been adopted by numerous organizations around the world including militaries, businesses and government entities.
The concept is simple: every decision is based on an ongoing, never-ending loop in which you Observe the situation, Orient based on your findings, Decide on an action and then Act. Your actions create a new reality that requires a repeat of the process.
Image Credit: Mind Tools
The experienced manager will operate in a constant state of reorientation as his actions alter the situation again and again, demanding him to observe the changed reality and react to it.
In order to face the growing uncertainty in SEO, you can apply the OODA loop concept to SEO campaigns. Here are the basic steps in the framework.
In this step, you observe the situation, trying to evaluate the important elements that will affect your plan and goals. Here are the four unique groups you need to observe when it comes to SEO campaigns:
- Target audience: Personas, keyword search volume, trends, news.
- Search engines: Changes to algorithm, updates, SERP updates, market share.
- SEO performance: Rank, visits, leads, conversion rates.
- Competitors: Rank, keyword targets, content.
What does it mean to orient? In essence, it means to modify your plan to address the observations you made in the previous step. Orienting based on the observations will result in a new set of possible paths you can take and will require you to make a decision as to what path you want to take.
In SEO, those might be:
- New keywords you want to target.
- New tools you want to consider.
- Updates to content.
This is the process of making the actual decision. In most cases this part happens simultaneously with the Orient step as you form your decisions while orienting based on the new observations. But in any case, a decision has to be made as to what path you would like to follow.
In SEO, a decision could be:
- Picking one term over another.
- Modifying a URL.
- Deciding to link to one page versus another.
This step creates a new reality that demands a restart of the loop. An action will impact the current situation, alerting the assumptions upon which your previous observations were based.
In SEO, like in any other practice, actions happen all the time and they affect your SEO campaigns in multitudes of ways. For example, changing a URL can result in an immediate drop in ranking. This new reality might warrant additional changes and adjustments but it might also be the projected result. But whatever action you take, there will always be a reaction that you will need to observe and react to.
How to Use the OODA Loop to Manage SEO
To demonstrate the OODA process and how it can be applied to SEO, let's run through a quick example.
Let's assume that you're a marketer tasked with the SEO efforts of your company. Your company sells video supplies and one of your target keywords is the term "video splitters." The term has 320 monthly searches (global, exact match) and you previously ranked on the first page in the top 3 organic results.
By your estimation, the term "video splitters" accounted for about 10 percent of your total organic traffic and the page it ranks for has been getting about 350 visits per month from organic search. After optimizing this page for conversion, you were able to get to a 15 percent conversion rate on this page, resulting in a steady flow of just over 40 new leads per month.
While you were preparing your weekly SEO report, you noticed that your total number of leads from organic search has dropped by about 12 leads. Digging deeper to find the issue, you ran a lead report broken down by referring keywords.
A large number of leads are associated with (not provided), but from the available keywords you have, you've noticed that leads from the term "video splitters" dropped to 0 from the weekly average of 10. On further investigation of the issue, you found that your rank for that term has dropped from the top 3 results on the first SERP to the second page, consequently delivering almost no clicks on your result.
After realizing that the core issue (or at least part of it) is with the term "video splitters" and its associated rank, you devise three possible courses of action:
- Audit the on-page SEO for the page and make edits to the page to refresh it.
- Check your inbound links to this page to see if you lost any and try to gain new inbound links.
- Analyze the competitor pages that rank for that term to see why they rank higher and build a plan to overtake their rank.
Upon analyzing the possible outcomes of these three plans you decide to first revisit the on-page SEO work you've done for this page before you take any other, more time-consuming action.
During your audit for the page, you find that new images on the pages were not sized and compressed correctly and your page load speed has gone up dramatically. You fix the image issues and verify that the page load speed has decreased and make a few additional updates to the page.
Since the issue you discovered required immediate attention, you check the rank for this page on a daily basis to see if your actions fixed the issues or if any additional actions are required (plans 2 and 3). After a few days, you see that your rank for the term has gone up and you're back on the first SERP.
With limited data about the causes for loss of visits and leads, using this framework you can make educated decisions to advance your campaigns.
It's important to know that this framework isn't as linear (or cyclical) as described above. You should be in a constant state of reorientation as data (feedback) keeps flowing back to inform you on the situation and the changes caused by your actions.
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