Plenty of business plans are based solely on playing catch-up, and SEO is no exception. You could easily base your SEO strategy around scoping out your competitors' approaches to link building, on-site optimization, social media, etc. and just copying it.
Of course, it won't take long for people to see you for what you really are - a slimy bottom feeder who's merely an "expert" at ripping off others' ideas. I harbor a lot of ill will toward the capitalistic pond scum that operate this way.
If you actually care about your career (not to mention your reputation), you've got to do more than just copy, spy, steal and play catch-up all the time. Here are three big ways you as an SEO can establish yourself as a genuine leader:
1. Learn Like Most SEOs Aren't Willing To Learn
Most SEOs will learn the tactics required to do SEO. You've got to do more.
- Accept only empirical proof through testing and retesting new ideas on your own sites. Follow the data, not the hype. This is the only way to learn like a leader.
- Be very selective about what you read. Read blogs of other SEOs who do testing (SEOmoz and Michael Gray to name a few). Resist the urge to read everything SEO for fear you might miss something. I read everything when I was new to search marketing, and it didn't take long for me to realize that 90 percent of the content out there is either rehashed or unactionable. I've since scaled way back and have more time to do actual SEO.
- Diversify your skill set. Leading SEOs often double as designers, web developers, statisticians, PR specialists, and affiliate marketers. The more skills you can gain in these areas, the more you'll differentiate yourself or your SEO company from the crowd.
2. Work Like Most SEOs Aren't Willing To Work
The same is true in any industry. If you're willing to put in the time, you'll reap the rewards.
- Resist the urge to sprint in your SEO efforts. You'll either get burnout or look like a spammer to search engines. At the same time, always work with a sense of urgency. When it comes to tasks, if it doesn't impact rankings or conversion, your clients don't care about it, and neither should you.
- Use white-hat automation wherever possible. It will buy you more time to focus on tasks that can't be automated or contracted.
- Distance yourself from the competition by having a dynamic link acquisition and generation strategy that includes working toward links that will be nearly impossible for others to replicate.
3. Invest Like Most SEOs Aren't Willing To Invest
During my time in the internet marketing industry, it has become apparent that there are a ton of people marketing quick money schemes, SEO shortcuts, black hat techniques, etc. because there are a ton of people who are looking for them. You have to invest your time, your money, and your resources to get lasting SEO credibility. There is no quick fix.
- Spend money to make money. You can do SEO completely for free, but I promise that you'll go slower and be less effective than the best SEOs. A couple of SEOmoz tools have saved me more than enough time to compensate for the costs of membership and then some. Some article marketing and directory building services may be the kind of investments that pay for themselves. Time is the SEO's most precious commodity.
- Invest in networking. The value of relationships is huge in this industry because other established SEOs are the ones who really bestow credibility. Industry connections lead to learning and mentoring opportunities. Time and experience result in speaking opportunities, high profile blogging, etc. How are you helping other SEOs get to know you and more importantly your work? Take advantage of opportunities to establish your presence and build rapport by remembering the difference between high- and low-value networking approaches:
Having a "second-mover" SEO strategy isn't necessarily a bad idea if it's just one element of what you're trying to achieve. After all, if you were able to get backlinks from all of the domains that your competitors have links on, you'd have more links than any of them individually. Major win! Remember, however, that this is a short-lived advantage and won't help you lead the pack for long, nor will it enhance your credibility.
Ultimately, anyone can become a great SEO if they're willing to do what it takes. Talk to any major player in the industry and they'll tell you it wasn't just clever personal branding (although it takes some of that too). It's hard work to differentiate yourself from the many neon-colored deer on the lawn, but if you're serious about sticking in this industry you'd be crazy to give anything other than your best.