SEO – SEO meta-skills: How research on goal setting can make you a better SEO

SEO - SEO meta-skills: How research on goal setting can make you a better SEO


Mastering SEO is not just about understanding which optimizations will drive the desired outcomes but also a reflection of meta-skills like learning and goal-setting that enable us to achieve our goals. 

In our previous article, we delved deep into the meta-skill of learning advanced concepts that elevate one’s SEO game. Now let’s focus on what many might argue is the most crucial of them all: achieving the goals we set. 

What is the most valuable meta-skill you can learn as an SEO? 

Whether you’re trying to grow revenue on a client’s website or managing your website, much of your success hinges on your ability to set goals and make them a reality. 

The SEOs who can persistently execute against their plans, whether through their own work or the systems they build, are usually the ones with the most remarkable results.

Consistency is arguably more important than in the past.

In semantic search, success tends to be a product of sustained effort. Semantic SEO and topical authority often favor websites that consistently produce quality content and links over time. 

Ask yourself, how often do you get a great idea, learn a new skill, or start a new affiliate project, and you never see it to completion? Or worse, you begin a new project with a surge of excitement, and then the gradual wane of that initial enthusiasm dies down, and eventually, you abandon the project.

If you’ve experienced this, you’re not alone. It’s what behavioral scientists call the intention-action gap.

The good news is that, like learning research, there are many practical takeaways to help you develop better plans that you are more likely to stick to. 

Because this meta-skill is so important, I’ve invested time reading and testing ideas from this topic and want to share the most practical and key takeaways that I have found beneficial. 

Goal-setting frameworks

As best-selling author James Clear insightfully points out, merely setting goals is insufficient; it’s the systems and processes we establish for achieving these goals that set us apart.

One such system that can improve the odds of success is goal-setting frameworks. Let’s start by diving into goal-setting frameworks to help bridge the gap between what we intend to do and what we actually do. 

What are goal-setting frameworks?

These acronym-based systems extend beyond mere adherence to a rigid set of rules or the mechanical filling out of a worksheet. Instead, each letter in the acronym embodies a fundamental principle that experts and researchers have identified as effective in goal setting. 

The true essence of these frameworks lies in grasping these core concepts, enabling an adaptable application of these insights to various goal-setting scenarios rather than in the rote completion of a template.

Many of us were introduced to the SMART goals approach during our educational years. Yet, often, this introduction was geared more toward completing worksheets than deeply understanding the fundamental principles intended to enhance goal setting. 

When you get the core ideas and the big picture of turning ideas into real action, these insights become more powerful. 

Since many of you are already acquainted with the SMART framework, I will devote the majority of my discussion to newer frameworks and insights that might be novel to you. 

However, I want to emphasize the importance of specificity (the “S” in SMART), as it has significant ramifications across all modern frameworks and is a vital takeaway for SEOs.

Why does specificity matter in goal setting?

Many know the importance of specificity, yet its significance is sometimes underestimated. 

Drawing from my experience as a programmer, the absence of specificity in requests for new features can be a challenge. 

In software development, minor alterations can necessitate a complete overhaul. A lack of specificity not only burdens the developer cognitively but also complicates predicting timelines.

A valuable insight I gained from a mentor in digital marketing is the significance of pinpointing the exact issue we’re trying to address. 

They often remarked that many campaigns falter not due to lack of effort but because of a failure to define objectives. 

Let’s take, for instance, the task of optimizing a website for conversions. It’s not just about increasing web traffic; the specifics matter immensely. 

Are we looking to boost newsletter sign-ups, enhance ecommerce sales, or encourage more video views? Each goal requires distinct strategies, tools, and metrics to gauge success.

Suppose we don’t define the goal with enough precision. In that case, it becomes challenging to assess whether we are on track or off track and to determine if a change in strategies is needed – a common scenario in the ever-changing world of SEO.

Let’s summarize why is achieving clarity through specificity so important.

  • Reduced cognitive load: Our working memory has finite capacity. Addressing a vague problem requires juggling various interpretations and potential solutions. Specific problems, however, allow the working memory to channel its focus, streamlining the cognitive process.
  • Clear starting point: Ambiguous problems can stymie action due to the challenge of determining the initial step or subsequent course of action.
  • Avoiding cognitive tunneling: Ambiguity can cause the brain to fixate on less relevant aspects of a problem. Specificity mitigates this, ensuring focus on what truly matters.
  • Boosting motivation and reward: Our brain’s reward mechanisms thrive on clear objectives. The dopaminergic pathways, integral to motivation and reward, function optimally when goals are precisely defined.

Dig deeper: How to build your own SEO ‘second brain’ (and why you need it)


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Why is specificity so important to SEOs and developing SEO plans?

If you work with clients, how often have you heard, “we just want more revenue.” Usually, clients in this position don’t have a firm grasp of what drives revenue from digital marketing and thus pass the task onto the SEO of figuring out how to achieve it. 

The wrong approach is to agree to drive more revenue. The better approach is to get as specific as possible about how much growth can be produced and, specifically, what needs to be done to achieve it. 

Many of us have invested sweat and blood to master assessing this from a distance and providing accurate answers.

Let’s say we will increase revenue, but we don’t assign any specificity:

  • Lack of feedback: A few months in, we won’t have real-time feedback on what we are doing on-track or off-track. 
  • Inability to make audibles and pivots: When we develop the plan, we won’t adjust the parameters to be in accordance with a specific number, e.g., how many content pieces or how much effort should go into link building. 
  • Focus on the wrong things: We might engage in many checking check boxes that are good in SEO theory (e.g., adding alt tags to all images) instead of recognizing our time constraints and executing the work that can actually deliver on our goals. 

Without these detailed targets, we’re navigating without a compass, unable to genuinely measure whether our strategies are fruitful. This not only stunts our growth and expertise in SEO but also robs us of the chance to refine our approaches for future projects based on past insights.

Summarizing SMART goals

SMART isn’t just a rigid framework for goal setting but a consensus on important concepts simplified into an easy-to-apply acronym.

It has served us well for decades, and one of its core principles, specificity, has been inherited by newer goal-setting methodologies. 

Recent advances in behavioral science have introduced a new model, WOOP, which can be applied to help limit your intention-action gap. 

Introducing WOOP

Years of research in behavior science have produced a new framework called WOOP that builds on the concepts of SMART but adds a few additional concepts. 

WOOP stands for wish, outcome, obstacle, and plan. 

Let’s jump into what each letter in the acronym represents. 

1. Wish and outcome

At the core of every SEO campaign lies a wish and a desired outcome. It could be reaching Position 1 for a list of high-value keywords, 10xing organic traffic, or elevating a brand’s online visibility. 

This wish serves as the bedrock of an SEO professional’s aspirations. However, what differentiates a fruitful SEO strategy from the rest is its ideal difficulty. 

However, there are key parameters to consider when picking a desired outcome. If you pick something too vague or too difficult, it can serve to demotivate you over motivating you. 

  • Ideal difficulty: Drawing parallels from AI model training, human learning and motivation also thrive on an optimal level of difficulty. If a task is too easy, it doesn’t stimulate growth. Conversely, if it’s too hard, it leads to frustration. The research-backed “85% Rule” suggests that the right balance is struck when there’s a 15% failure rate, offering enough challenge to foster continuous learning and improvement without disheartening. This principle holds true in various domains, promoting a culture of learning and adaptability essential for navigating dynamic landscapes like SEO.
  • Clarity is key: The wish should be specific. In the world of SEO, rather than just saying “I want more traffic,” it should be more aligned, like, “I want a 20% increase in organic traffic from search engines over the next six months.”

Dig deeper: SEO outcomes vs. SEO outputs: Understanding the difference

2. Obstacles

In her book “Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation,” Gabriele Oettingen discusses her expectations from her research. 

At first, she thought that thinking positively about future goals would make them more likely to happen, a common belief and teaching. 

The idea was that the most successful people stayed optimistic the whole way through. However, her findings repeatedly showed that unbridled optimism can be detrimental. 

Strategically considering potential roadblocks and challenges were found to be:

  • More motivating: Oddly enough, visualizing successful outcomes sometimes had a demotivating effect. In contrast, pondering on the obstacles led to motivational shifts.
  • More likely to succeed: Time and again, those who employed what Oettingen calls “mental contrasting” – weighing the pros and cons – ended up achieving their goals more frequently.

For an SEO professional, this means that during goal-setting, it’s crucial to also envision and account for potential challenges.

One key takeaway from mental contrasting is the value of realistic planning, which means seeing both the good and the bad in a situation. 

Unlike the common belief, especially in Western culture, that just thinking positively will lead to success, mental contrasting shows that a more balanced view can be more effective. 

This approach suggests that it’s not just about hoping for the best but also about understanding and preparing for possible challenges. 

It’s a philosophical shift toward seeing things as they are and planning accordingly, which can actually make reaching our goals more achievable.

Peter Gollwitzer

3. Planning

A cornerstone of the WOOP framework is “planning,” represented by the letter P. The significance of this component is backed by research conducted by Professor Peter Gollwitzer at NYU. 

He introduced a concept called “implementation intentions.” These are short and precise statements (e.g., “If situation X arises, then I will perform response Y”). His findings highlighted that creating these intentions led to several major benefits:

  • Automaticity in response: The act of creating these implementation intentions prepares the mind to respond automatically when faced with specific obstacles. It’s akin to setting up a mental reflex.
  • Increased likelihood of action: The simple exercise of formulating these statements made people two to three times more likely to act on their intentions.
  • Mental preparation: Knowing in advance how to tackle a problem reduces hesitation and doubt when the problem actually arises.

For SEO professionals, the implication is clear: while developing strategies, it’s beneficial to anticipate possible challenges and devise short, actionable plans for each one. 

When combined with a comprehensive understanding of potential obstacles, as advocated by the WOOP framework, the impact on outcomes can be profound.

Let’s put it all together: 

  • Wish and outcome: The goal is specific, measurable, and time-bound, aligning with the SMART framework while also reflecting a clear wish and envisioned outcome.
  • Ideal difficulty: The goal is challenging yet achievable, adhering to the “85% Rule” to foster motivation and continuous learning
  • Clarity: The goal is clear and specific, avoiding vague aspirations like simply “increasing traffic.”
  • Mental contrasting: By identifying potential obstacles, a balanced view of the goal is established, promoting realistic planning.
  • Planning: The use of implementation intentions in the planning stage prepares for automatic responses to anticipated obstacles, increasing the likelihood of action and reducing hesitation when challenges arise.

This multi-step process, rooted in the WOOP framework, provides a structured, realistic, and proactive approach to SEO goal-setting, enhancing the likelihood of successful goal attainment while promoting a culture of strategic planning and adaptability.

Mastering SEO: The crucial meta-skill of goal-setting

As discussed above, one of the main issues so many people run into is that when they begin a project, their motivation is at its peak. As time goes on, motivation dwindles and important projects get abandoned. 

One advantage of meticulous upfront planning – identifying potential obstacles, setting specific goals, and devising plans for handling each challenge – is that it lays a solid foundation for fostering realistic expectations about the outcome.

A key idea based on related research is that motivation is at least partially influenced by our expectancy of a successful outcome (see expectancy theories). This is often termed self-efficacy. 

If you expect success, you’re more likely to aggressively pursue it, but it’s also not something you can lie to yourself about. That is why your desired outcomes must align with your internal compass of what is actually possible. 

This final insight illustrates that without confidence in our systems or seeing others succeed, maintaining motivation becomes challenging. Therefore, goal-setting should leverage past victories to improve our confidence.

Goal-setting is a crucial meta-skill for SEO professionals to master as we set targets for ourselves and clients, whether long-term objectives or daily micro-goals. Having an effective framework optimizes our chances of success.

SMART and WOOP frameworks

By internalizing these goal-setting best practices, we can boost motivation, persistence, and performance. With each achievement, our confidence and expertise also grow through a culture of continuous improvement.

Ultimately, marrying knowledge of SEO strategies with meta-skills like intentional goal-setting gives us our best shot at delivering results for our brands, companies, and clients.

Though the web landscape evolves, the psychology behind achievement remains constant. With the right outlook and preparation, any target can be within our reach.

The post SEO meta-skills: How research on goal setting can make you a better SEO appeared first on Search Engine Land.


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