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The World Cup of SEO: Why Small Wins Matter

Insights // July 1, 2014

This afternoon at 4PM EST, the United States men’s national soccer team (USMNT) will face Belgium in the World Cup knockout round. But wait — didn’t they lose to Germany last Thursday? How are they advancing? Why is the U.S. celebrating a loss? As it turns out, the USMNT are moving on to the next round despite losing to Germany 0-1, and are that much closer to their ultimate World Cup goal. So, what is this idea of “celebrating a loss,” and what does the World Cup have to do with SEO? As it so happens, this “celebrate a loss,” World Cup rationale can also be applied to the tactics we implement to support a client’s SEO strategy. But first….

A Quick Soccer Lesson

For those of you who haven’t been following along, in the World Cup, there are eight groups total that are made up of four teams each, and the top two teams in each group advance to the next round. It’s 3 points for a win, 1 point for a tie, and 0 points for a loss. Each team in a group plays each other once, for a total of 3 games played per team in this “group stage” (highest possible points is 9, or 3 wins).

For the USMNT’s group, Germany won their first game against Portugal 4-0, and the U.S. beat Ghana 2-1. Then, Germany tied Ghana 2-2 and the U.S. tied Portugal 2-2. For the final games, Portugal beat Ghana 2-1 and Germany beat the U.S. 1-0, leaving the final point standings at: Germany (7), U.S. (4), Portugal (4), Ghana (1).

When two teams have the same number of points, as did the U.S. and Portugal, then the tiebreaker is based on goal differential, or goals scored minus goals let in. Because Portugal’s overall goal differential was -3 while the U.S.’ was 0, the U.S. made it into that coveted second spot behind Germany, advancing over Portugal. The U.S. had performed better overall.

What Does This Have To Do With SEO?

If we look at an SEO strategy through World Cup lenses, we learn the importance of recognizing and celebrating “small wins.” In order to win big, you have to first win small. The USMNT’s desired outcome last Thursday was of course to beat Germany and advance. While this didn’t happen outright, they were still able to advance towards their ultimate World Cup goal owing to a collection of small wins throughout their overall performance in the group round. Well-executed, strategic, and clean offensive and defensive plays, leading to a favorable ratio of goals scored vs. goals let in, worked to place the USMNT in a better position than when the World Cup started, and on the path to the World Cup finale despite losing to Germany. The team has been able to learn from their strengths and weaknesses, and every game is another opportunity to move forward.

For SEO, our ultimate goal might be a #1 ranking for a client’s page in the SERPs for a specific keyword, up from a deep page, off-the-map listing. In our own version of U.S. vs. Germany, the organic tactics we employ move the client to the first page of Google’s top 10 results for that term, ahead of schedule. While we have yet to reach the #1 spot, we are in a much better position than when we started, and we learn that what we’re doing is working. Along our journey to our ultimate goal, we experience a host of other “goals made,” or small wins, that work synergistically to keep us on the right path. In World Cup words, we sustain an advantageous goal differential over our competition, which comes with its own set of advantages. These wins may include the following:

Social Shares

Our various SEO-driven tactics all aim to generate a natural backlink profile for our clients. When running these tactics, however, it’s important that we don’t overlook or underestimate supporting marketing opportunities that result from our efforts. It’s often the case that a tactic will include a social tie-in via Twitter, Pinterest, or Facebook at the onset to encourage natural sharing. In some cases, tactics unfold in a way that results in an abundance of social shares over blog or static page links. This is still a reason to celebrate; social shares increase a brand’s visibility and traffic back to their site. Furthermore, while Google claims that social indicators are not part of their ranking algorithms, Matt Cutts recently revealed that a spike in social signals is likely to get your page recrawled more quickly, and these signals are taken into account when evaluating whether a backlink profile is natural or spammy.

Brand Mentions

Other small wins that increase visibility include unlinked brand mentions and “nofollowed” links. While an SEO’s knee-jerk reaction may be that of frustration or disappointment, these situations are still wins because they work to support the goal by moving the brand forward. While an unlinked brand mention or nofollow link do not influence the brand’s Google search ranking outright, they work to generate reader awareness and curiosity, promoting the possibility of branded search queries, direct traffic in the case of nofollow links, and overall general interest. The possibilities of organic visibility opportunities resulting from brand mentions and nofollow links are endless.

Positive Reader Engagement

Along the way, we’ve learned that more links isn’t always better when it comes to ranking, even though brands are often eager to quickly increase volume. In cases where volume is on the low end, there are still advantageous outcomes to focus on. Let’s say one tactic results in a handful of quality links on a relevant, active, and authoritative site. Before we know it, the post generates a stream of numerous comments within minutes of going live. From there, readers from across the relevant community are inspired to spread the information organically via their own blogs or social channels, thus creating a positive, widespread buzz around the brand’s name and identity.

Sometimes, for uncontrollable reasons, a physical or traceable result doesn’t always occur. Is that a complete loss? Not necessarily. When it comes to the smallest interactions between a brand and its audience, there is still opportunity for a win. Knowing how to interact with an audience is crucial to any marketing strategy, digital or otherwise, and will heavily impact a brand’s ability to gain influence. In the following example of an email response, while a relationship wasn’t fully established with the individual due to their time constraints, there was still a positive outcome that allowed the brand to move forward:

I do want to let you know that I get lots of requests, and you have been the most professional and personable of all the people I receive inquiries from. Thanks and good luck with your project.

Here, we still have a reason to celebrate because we learn that what we’re doing is working, and this individual walked away with a positive experience with the brand, which can only support the ultimate goal.

Without getting too pun-heavy, it’s clear that the World Cup, specifically the USMNT’s celebration of their loss to Germany, can teach modern marketers a lot about taking small wins seriously. Not reaching an ultimate goal immediately does not mean that there’s a lack of progress. SEO tactics and goals need to be built and executed with sustainability in mind, which implies the need for time and patience. In an effort to keep his players motivated, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann told his team, “Don’t be content. Nobody can claim that he reached his 100 percent yet,” so keep moving forward until you reach #1 and don’t forget to celebrate sideline accomplishments along the way.