Lee Odden

Is Your SEO Program Chasing Unicorns?

Lee Odden     Online Marketing, SEO

Keyword UnicornThere are many reasons companies invest in Search Engine Optimization ranging from a desire to attract new customers through online marketing channels to diversifying customer acquisition to ego.  That’s right, ego. Not every marketer makes SEO investment decisions based on pulling in prospects and customers to brand content for engagement and conversions.

Often times, brands think of themselves as the leader in their category and therefore think their website should top Google’s list for queries on generic industry terms. The trouble is, leading an industry offline isn’t the same thing as being the BEST answer for a search query online.  Chasing after such terms is very much driven by ego and not unlike a fairy tale of chasing after unicorns where there’s an expectation that being #1 on a single word will magically solve their problems.

However, going after broad industry terms isn’t a complete waste of time. When ego-driven SEO is productive, it’s geared towards building brand reputation and PR value. Of course, by “PR” I mean public relations, not page rank.  The affinity and credibility that comes from being in a top position for a generic industry term can add a lot of value to online public relations efforts, recruiting and investor relations.

Achieving top placement on broad keywords can certainly drive a substantial amount of website traffic. In fact, TopRank Marketing has quite a few clients that have top spots for generic industry phrases and some with single word terms sending  a good portion of organic search visitors.

In terms of buying cycle, broad queries tend to be “tire kickers” and have value for creating awareness and education but not conversions. And that’s ok, because the search experience isn’t just a single event – especially in B2B or with more sophisticated buying decisions. But brands that want those top spots need to understand what it takes to translate their offline industry dominance to search engines like Google and Bing.

A while back I had a customer that said he wanted to be #1 on Google for the word “brain”. This client had a blog with a few thousand uniques per month.  While many SEO consultants will talk about how tough that will be and suggest options, my first response is to always ask “Why?”. Understanding motivation (chasing unicorns vs. a fighting chance at achieving goals) is essential for assessing the value and contribution to business goals.

The client wanted to have top visibility for “brain” because it was a fairly relevant and highly popular search term. Top placement for such a word would send a significant amount of traffic and hopefully sales.  A few things to consider in such a situation include:

  • What is the potential contribution to website goals in what timeframe for a first page or top of fold position for the phrase?
  • What resources in what timeframe might it take to achieve this goal?
  • What are the current brand content and digital assets available to work with?
  • What is the current inbound link profile for the brand site?
  • What is the current position for brand content on the desired keyword(s)?
  • How many search results pages (SERPs) are there for the keyword(s)?
  • How many of those SERPs contain the exact match keyword(s) in title tags, on-page titles, in URLs?
  • How many inbound links are there to the top ranking pages for the target keyword(s)?
  • How many inbound links contain the exact match keyword(s)?
  • What is the distribution of website types as link sources? (news, blogs, web pages, .edu, .gov, etc)
  • How often are the top webpage URLs mentioned in Tweets, FB updates and other social streams?
  • What is the link acquisition growth over time for the current top pages for the target keyword(s)?
  • How many pages on the current websites showing well for the target keyword(s) are specifically optimized for those terms?
  • How old are the sites currently showing well for the target keyword(s)?
  • How much content is dedicated to the target keyword(s) on and offsite for top pages?
  • What is the difference on key metrics like quantity/quality of optimized pages, inbound links and social mentions of brand content vs. pages that occupy the top 5-10 positions for the target keyword(s)?

A competitive assessment plus a forecast of resources, timeframe and business impact can paint a clearer picture for brands that want to chase after “unicorn” keywords and SEO.  When budget is not an issue at all, then by all means, satisfy basic business case requirements and go for it. But unlimited budget is rarely the situation.  Most SEO programs operate within a scope of work and resources must be allocated according to the SEO strategy.

In the case of the “brain” client, a presentation of the numerous hospitals, universities and government websites plus the websites that had thousands of pages and many years head start with link building resulted in the conclusion that going after “brain” would be a losing proposition. Especially within the scope of available hours. The decision was made to go after a mix of keyword phrases representative of the interests potential customers might have in the cilent’s offering.   Better to go after keyword phrases that are achievable within a shorter time frame resulting in business outcomes like sales, than allocating a substantial portion of the program to a keyword that might take a year or years to achieve a first page placement on. This client’s blog has now achieved upwards of 350,000 uniques per month focusing on long tail phrases and opened up a new business model for advertising.

Does this mean, going after all broad industry keyword terms is chasing keyword unicorns? No.  Go after the broad phrases or word(s) if:

  • There are substantial resources for content creation (creativity and diversity), link building, online PR, social media and networking and reverse link engineering.
  • The brand site is nearly the online leader in content and links for the desired keyword(s) and simply needs SEO refinement, targeted link building and process adjustments internally
  • The acquisition of top placement for the broad phrases is forecast within a reasonable time period and with a desirable outcome in comparison to resources and budget necessary.

Companies that expect to drive customer acquisition and ongoing engagement through search should be focusing on customer-centric keywords anyway and not on ego phrases that give them a warm fuzzy with little chance of returning business value.  We’ve experienced a focus on keywords that represent consideration and purchase buying cycle behaviors to be more achievable more quickly. The interesting thing is, over time, broad phase visibility can still occur.

The fork in the eye of my logic is when a senior executive with the brand simply wants the unicorn, period. They want that trophy and the internal marketer/SEO vendor are charged with finding a way to make it happen. If budget and resources can allow for succes – great. If not and logic fails, there’s not much more you can do.

What’s your decision process for going after broad or single terms in a keyword mix? Do you dismiss in favor of long tail? Do you see it as a challenge and go after it anyway? Do you evaluate on the criteria I’ve listed above? What additional criteria would you include?


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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. Avatar Alex Jansen says

    Honestly, I think we – as SEOs – have made this worse. We are so
    worried about anybody trying to put SEO anchor text onto our site that
    we are often willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater. When
    we’re killing any posts of SEO value (I’m guilty of this myself), there
    is no point in spammers putting any effort into the posts where they are
    looking for links. I submit this: If the user actually contributes to
    the discussion, do we actually care that they commented with the handle
    “Cheap Designer Hand Bags”??? I think if more sites were willing to
    put up with a little SEO in the comments, you’d see more effort put
    forth by the ‘spammers’ and less automated generic statements (although
    maybe I’m wrong on that). Comment moderation will always be a necessity
    on any worthwhile site, but I do wonder if we don’t make things worse
    by not rewarding posts that are more on-topic and white hat.

    Alex J

  2. Avatar Mattmikulla says

    I had a client once tell me they wanted to rank #1 for cloud computing. The term is somewhat relevant to their product but has nothing to do with what their customers or potential leads care about. Unicorns…sigh.

  3. I think that is a good point about the keywords being relevant to an overall page rank. Recently, I’ve been working on a yoga website and while the term “yoga” might be a bit tricky to rank for, I still list it as a subkeyword. It also really helps with local search and Google Places.

    • Absolutely – if the word is relevant, then it should be used in optimization. Expectations for that word to drive first page Google traffic is another matter 🙂

  4. I would like to rank first for the term unicorns. Can anyone help me with that? I also was approached by Ron Jeremy about ranking first for a keyword, which I’m pretty sure was just stroking his ego.

    • Hey Brad, your comment is funny and appreciated. Keyword stuffing the “name field” isn’t. Would love you to continue making comments here, just use your real name.

  5. Avatar Sydney @ Social Dynamics says

    Very valid points! I think essentially, both parties should stick to reasonable goals and workable measures. So there are no disappointments or false promises. 

  6. Your post has a really unique angle on SEO. I think that sometimes, we need to understand what’s behind a customer’s request in order to give him what he really wants (increase traffic, not being associated to one keyword). If a company hire someone to help them with SEO, it’s probably because they don’t know much about it.

    • That’s right Noelle. Part of being great at SEO is the ability to decipher client requests like “I want to be #1 for the word ball” into business impact.

  7. Very few SEO specialist stop to examine the client’s motive for wanting to rank for a certain keyword. It’s too easily assumed that the motive is profit, period.

  8.  Great post! It is always nice to rank for the most generic keyword in your industry, for example if you sell trainers it would be sweet to rank for trainers, however normally for my clients I see the best ROI come from targeted keywords, in this case something like “Nike Air Flex Trainers”! Either way is good :]

    • I agree Ian, both is best. I suppose this posts is more about managing expectations. Like recommending to the client that we can achieve top positions and revenue from specific phrases like “Nike Air Flex Trainers” sooner than “trainers” (which as a word can have different meanings according to context).

  9. completely agree I think there is huge importance of balancing offline and online marketing. I think brands have to acknowledge that whilst you may spend all your money getting to top rank, if you’re sat next to a competitor on rank 2 and they’ve invested more time and effort into building brand offline than you, it is likely customers will click on the brand they know not necessarily rank one 

    • Hey Hannah (please use your name when commenting) brand recognition does influence click through rates in search results – that’s something we’ve seen for years. Creating brand affinity towards a generic term is a long process. Think “kleenex” or “jello”. For companies that do invest a lot offline, it makes sense to create more lift in their search campaigns if they can coordinate or integrate efforts.

  10. Good point. On a smaller scale, I run into this w/ clients who think that once they have a website, their marketing problems will be solved. Sigh. That’s only the beginning. It’s part of a larger marketing effort that includes social media, PR, etc. I love anything that is free.

    The Pragmatic Marketer

  11. Excellent resource to direct client to who think the first word on the page should be “world leader” and for those who want to rank for terms because it makes them feel good.

    As you said, focus on “customer-centric
    keywords anyway and not on ego phrases!”


  12.  Interesting information. I try to make sure that my clients understand that the best way to attack is to get away from the “tire kickers” and get to those that are in a buying mood. Of course it all depends on your business, but you want the right traffic in the long run,  not just traffic.

  13. Avatar Andreas Lee says

     If you want to start immediately on building your online business, the good option will be to learn from best internet marketers at internet marketing forum

  14.  When dealing with Keyword Research, there is a lot that goes into this and a large percentage of online marketers fail at this crucial step. If you are a local business for example, then targeted long tail keywords with your city name in the keywords works best. For example: Instead of “Marketing Firms” go for “Kansas City Marketing Firms”. You have a much better chance of ranking highly for “Kansas City Marketing Firms” then you do for the term “Marketing Firms”. If you are a small business or an online marketer, you can not compete with the marketing firms that spend millions per year for the same keywords as you. Let me repeat this.. If you are a small business or an online marketer, you can not compete with the marketing firms that spend millions per year for the same keywords as you. Remember everyone is fighting for the same spots and for the same keywords. Guess who wins this fight? You guessed it.. the one with the biggest budget, correct strategies and tactics. Sure there are keywords out there that aren’t long tail, for your specific market, but how many people on a daily search are putting in that term? Is it in the correct order they are putting it in or Phrase to Broad Match? These are just a couple of the many questions you must take into account when doing keyword research. If you want bragging rights to tell someone to go search for the term “Marketing Ninjas#1” or “Most Awesome Marketing Company In The Whole World Located In Kansas City” and you rank first in the engines for that term, then more power to you. Just remember, it doesnt matter if you are number one on the search engines, if no one is looking for that term, then whats the point? If you want to monetize your clients and/or your efforts, then make sure you have the correct strategies and tactics to do so and you can do it without spending millions per year on it 😉

  15.  The “brain” example is a really good example because a lot of people doesn’t understand that the search figures are not the only thing to take in consideration, it is important to know what a “human” would type to find your product.

  16. I do utilize many items on the checklist but I guess I’m lucky because my clients are not chasing unicorns. My clients, for the most part, trust my recommendations.

  17. I have a client who came to me looking for profits. He had already had the basic SEO done, metadata, sitemap, by another company and was wondering why he was not found anywhere for a competitive term. I find it so frustrating to have to explain to business owners how SEO works. They think it’s a one time fee and immediately POOF!, they are position #1 for their keyphrase.

    I really like this post. It help to break down the myths and common mindsets behind SEO. I am going to implement a questionnaire of some sort to weed out the clients who expect the world for nothing and explain to those who are looking for first page rankings for words dominated by top name brands, the sheer impossibility of the situation.

    Thanks for a great post and your insight!


    • I’m glad the post was useful Jenna. What it’s really about is expectations management. Being a great SEO practitioner is just the beginning – managing accounts, clients and project components is a much bigger piece than tactics. One of the things I think a lot of companies appreciate from consultants is stepping back from the tactics and giving clients a big picture view before drilling down into the specifics that can cloud expectations.

  18. Great article, Lee.  Lots of good information about SEO marketing and strategies.  We are currently planning to hire an SEO company to give us a boost in our SEO marketing efforts.  Do you have any suggestions or tips for things to look out for or be aware of?

    • Thanks Jerry. As for hiring SEO agencies (like TopRankMarketing.com) I did write a post about that: How to Hire a SEO Firm – According to Google. Check it out and let me know if you need any more info.

    • Hi Jerry  —  I own a marketing firm here in Houston and we have hired an outside consultancy to handle our SEO efforts.  In our experience at least, the most important thing is to ask, ask, ask any and all questions you may have!  Any SEO company who is not willing to answer your questions is probably not the best choice.  We also found that the timeframe and goals of the SEO efforts were really important.  Our company was honest with us from the start – SEO takes time and no one can gaurantee you a #1 spot.  Obviously, SEO is different for everyone but thought sharing our experience might help!

      All the best, Aly

  19. Great post – SEO information is amazing to me, as I enjoy the challenge of implementing SEO tactics on my own sites.  Even with the basic information I have, I have had a bit of luck ranking for broad, general phrases such as “make money from home”.  thanks for a new perspective on things! 

  20. I don’t agree with the “brain” tactic. That’s like standing in front of a baseball stadium and trying to sell bibles.  Yeah, there is a large flow of people but not your intended audience.

    It is a challenge, agreed, but if you are looking for more bang for your buck I would advise consistency with your keywords and your product or service.  Especially with Google’s site preview feature.  People will be turned off by an unintended result.

  21. Avatar Adullah al-amin says

    great article.i am really interested this type of good post.The decision was made to go after a mix of keyword phrases
    representative of the interests potential customers might have in the
    cilent’s offering.thank you.

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  23. I learned that chasing broad KW’s is not nearly as fruitful as targeting longtails. I use Market Samurai to see what anchors the top 10x SERPs use to get links/traffic and pick the shortest path to success.