Forest for the Trees: How the Best SEO's Think Big Picture First

The best SEOs know to think big picture, first. To do this, you must define your unique search value proposition (USVP) early. It will make or break your SEO efforts long-term, every. single. time.

If you are a veteran SEO, you will have seen this ring true over and over again. You have been in the trenches and observed every conceivable SEO tactic tried somewhere or another, each to varying levels of success. After a while, and after seeing so much, you instinctively know how easy or hard it will be for a particular site to rank in a given SERP. You can read between the lines and have seen that without a strong USVP, a site will never really reach the next level.

The best and most successful SEOs don’t think about tactics or algorithms, they think about value propositions and communities. And when they think about value propositions and communities, they define their unique search value proposition as soon as they can.

What is a unique search value proposition, and why does it matter?

A unique search value proposition is what your content – or website – will provide to its audience, thought about from an SEO perspective.

Experienced SEOs have learned to consider their website from the point of view of a search engine. To a search engine, your website is not a single entity online. It does not exist in isolation! Instead, your website is part of a collection of resources about a particular topic. The job of your USVP is to determine where and how you fit into and contribute to this collection.

The USVP is the ‘what’s in it for me?’ every person who spends precious time with your content deserves to come away with. It is what you plan to give, the idea you would like others to participate in and internalise, the value you offer.

The most successful websites get their USVP right; the failed websites never even knew to consider it. This is the reason why some websites reign as king while others… how should I put this nicely… don’t.

Rand Fishkin and team at Moz are one of the strongest examples for what can be achieved with a well-matched unique search value proposition. Four or so years ago, Rand openly shared (thank you, Rand) with us readers that the value proposition of the Moz blog was ‘to make you a better marketer.’ [Note: trying to find this post but it’s really old and may have been deleted, will keep looking. Check point 1 here in the interim if you would like]

Rand made sure that every post to Moz or YouMoz firmly delivered on this unique search value proposition. By staying true to his USVP, Moz blog content fostered trust, authority, and – especially in the early days – inspired a higher level of SEO thinking. Rand’s readers became fans, linked and shared to his posts, signed up to try his service, and probably joined the partner program too. His USVP of making you a better marketer fit perfectly with the company’s mission of creating marketing and SEO software. The message was clear and consistent. Moz became a powerful voice where there was none before.

What if Rand had not defined the Moz unique search value proposition so clearly? Who knows what direction the blog would have taken. I doubt the readership would have been anywhere near as strong, which would have impacted sales figures and the perceived value of the business – especially important during the VC funding phases.

Lesson: your USVP is vital both for SEO and your businesses bigger picture.

What’s in a USVP?

Three simple ingredients:

  • Unique – only you provide it (your way)
  • Search – you understand that your website exists alongside many others online. It is part of a collection of resources on a topic. To consistently deserve to rank well in search results, your website must add something to the topic selection of which it is part.
  • Value Proposition – what you will give to your visitors

It would be fair for some to say “it’s hard to be unique in a crowded marketplace!”. I agree. Your USVP is an opportunity for you to find your creativity as a marketer.

Standing out in a crowded marketplace

Let’s consider one of the most crowded marketplaces in the world: car sales. In theory, the problem a car solves is getting you from A to B, right? Not exactly. If that were correct, everybody would probably drive a Toyota Camry that got great gas mileage, was reliable and easy for any mechanic to fix, and that would be the end of it. And yet there are thriving markets for Mercedes, Ferraris, Jeeps, Hyundais and Teslas. Why? In theory, the Camry should have been a perfectly suitable fit so these other companies should have failed. How can these other car manufacturers exist, and even be selling their products for several times the price?

The answer: a car does much, much more than get someone from A to B.

Think about all the reasons a person chooses a particular car. A car can be a statement about the owner, a clue about what is important to the driver, about engineering or safety, or world class driving experience, or off-road adventuring, or luxury, or success, all of which exist alongside the A to B problem. Consider the fuller picture of why people choose what they choose and you will begin to find opportunities to differentiate and develop your uniqueness in a way that complements your audience.

How to design your unique search value proposition in 8 steps

As you start this process, keep it simple! No need to get fancy. And remember to have fun (this is about creating something that others will enjoy and love enough to share – good on you!).

Step 1: Think about what you want. What are your online marketing goals? What would you most like to achieve? Write down as many points as come to mind.

  1. 3 points or more is enough to start, and more is better

Step 2: Think about the people you want to reach. We will call these people your content community. Be practical. These individuals could be just like you, your friend, your uncle, your neighbour, or that girl you haven’t seen since college. Create a clear mental picture.

  1. If you want to get fancy, you can create personas. Kevan Lee rocks the persona creation process here.

Step 3: Consider how your content community forms opinions. What do they read online, watch or listen to? Note these down, and consider why.

  1. What’s currently ‘in it for them’? What’s not?

Step 4: Visit and investigate these sources of influence. Consider any (or all) of the following questions:

  1. Who are the individuals, the specific people, that are driving the conversation?
  2. Why does your content community choose those people? Define these values and principles.
  3. What topics (and subtopics) are already being covered at length?
  4. What topics (and subtopics) are out of date or missing?

Answer any of these questions you can. If you don’t know, that’s fine. You can safely move on. The goal is to think about the big picture here as there will plenty of learning about specifics later on.

Pro tip: Collect all your findings and share them with the other people on your team. More brains = better. And if you can collectively come up with a USVP you all like, you’ve built in enthusiasm and buy in (and saved yourself time briefing everyone later).

Step 5: (Vital) Identify which of your influencers is active online now in discussions, content production, social channels, etc. If one of these influencers hasn’t done or said anything for a while, remove them from your list. The objective here is to find the fertile members of your content community, and focus on them first. These are the people who are spreading messages now, and who can link and socially share now.

I repeat, you must aim to connect with the fertile members of your content community first. Targeting someone who is absent will be a waste of your time.

  1. Focus on sites that are regularly publishing. Ignore sites that haven’t had an update in months.
    1. Aren’t the links from websites that don’t regularly publish also important? Yes, they absolutely are. You will reach these people later once the active members of your content community have helped put you on the wider radar. Those are ‘phase 2’ links.

How to think about groups and influencers – three things to keep in mind:

  1. Every online community will have groups and sub-groups. These groups are made up of people. Some of these people will be more influential than others in that group. Keep the most influential members in mind.
  2. People can be members of multiple groups. A person who has influence in one group may not have influence in another. Be aware of the related interests a person has by virtue of the groups they belong to.
  3. As people are members of multiple groups, consider how a single powerful idea that earns popularity in one group can then be spread to all the other groups a person is involved in.
    1. E.g. a post written for a person in the marketing department could reach the CEO, who then shares it with her peer group of fellow CEOs. This is an excellent outcome.

Step 6: You are now ready to start defining your unique search value proposition. Use everything you’ve learned so far and start brainstorming short statements of purpose. For example:

  1. To make every person who visits a more effective X
  2. To entertain and educate the next generation of people interested in X
  3. To be a truly independent source of information on X
  4. To give all the facts – and no fluff – about X
  5. To help people accomplish more with practical tips about X
  6. To teach people how to save time and money when they want to X
  7. To visually inspire people with who are thinking about X with practical ideas and examples
  8. To show people how they can do X while introducing Y and Z
  9. The new way to X

Step 7: Thinking about your top 2-3 unique search value propositions:

  1. Revisit your thinking and discoveries made about your content community. Does everything still match up and feel right? Which one feels best? Why?
  2. If you want to, ask for a friendly ear from somebody in the content community of your choosing. Get direct feedback! Because your intent is to deliver value to an audience group you’re planning on becoming a part of, you may find yourself being welcomed in.

Sanity check your USVP by asking yourself two questions:

  1. Does your USVP fit neatly within your content community?
  2. Does it align with your marketing and communications goals? These were outlined in Step 1.

Step 8: Bring your unique search value proposition to life by using it to shape your entire content production process. Because you’ve done your homework, you can be confident in your approach and will stand a far stronger chance of becoming a valued member of the online communities you would like to join and contribute to.

With your USVP guiding content direction, you will be ready to gain fuller value from content marketing resources such as:

Your USVP is your most important long-term SEO ranking factor

With a well-matched unique search value proposition, you will be warmly invited into the online communities you would like to participate in. SEO will then become much easier as you naturally pick up links and social shares from the people you’re creating content for. This is when online marketing becomes pleasurable and exciting.

Likewise, skipping the unique search value proposition process is dangerous. Don’t be ‘That Guy’ who nobody likes because he’s ruining everyone elses time by being where he shouldn’t. He’s the guy that needs to resort to spamming because whitehat SEO is ‘too hard’. He’s missed the mark, unfortunately, which is:

  1. Give first.
  2. Receive later.

Question: have you logged onto Facebook and seen a status update like:

“This is an awesome site… [link]”
“Love this!!! [link]”
“Hey @someone, you should see this [link]”

These are all examples of a USVP doing what it does best: giving your audience something so good, the act of sharing it with others makes them feel great. This is about creating positive online karma. The more your sew seeds of ‘awesome’, the more the universe will want your stuff to be found. This is how you align yourself with the long-term aims of search engines.

Wrapping up / final thoughts

  1. Search engines only want to rank ‘awesome’
  2. Your website can be awesome by creating a well-matched USVP
    1. The strength of your USVP will determine how many online communities you are invited into
    2. The number of online communities you are invited into will determine the quality and quantity of links and social shares your content gets
      1. Links and social shares factor into the wide number of signals search engines use to rank content.
  3. Strong USVP = excellent reception online = shows search engines you’re awesome = rankings

Beyond SEO, if you can evolve your unique search value proposition into a unique search value promise by delivering on it every single time, you will transcend the internet noise and truly be an algorithm proof brand. And that’s exciting!

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3 Responses

  1. […] post shows how the big boys think about their USVP (unique search value […]

  2. Excellent !

  3. Awesome post.

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