What is SEO?
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the act of improving the rank given to your website by search engines, making your website more visible to search engine users. The rank is the position your website holds on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) for specific searches. SEO is part of the overarching activity known as Search Engine Marketing (SEM), which encompasses all marketing strategies and activities related to search engines, including paid and organic search queries. Paid ads on SERPs fall under Search Engine Advertising (SEA). The importance of SEO lies in the data; each second of the day, Google handles over 80,000 search queries. Without a robust SEO strategy, this could translate to a potential loss of thousands of chances your website could have been visited. SEO not only affords you the ability to enhance your rankings, but also to improve upon the user experience.
The S.E. in SEO: Search Engine
SEO is an ongoing, dynamic process, not a one-time project. As search engines become smarter, using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and new algorithms, their criteria for ranking websites changes. It is important to regularly monitor search engine guidelines and updates to maintain a good standing and ideal SERP placement. Following the guidelines, maintaining the integrity of your website, and constantly working to improve your ranking is referred to as “White Hat SEO”. This approach will help you avoid penalties, thereby avoiding a low ranking.
Search engines gather information from websites using a “bot” or “crawler” (also called a “spider”) in a process known as indexing. This information is then stored in an index and when a search query is made, the information displayed to search engine users is pulled from this index. For the search engine to display relevant information based on a search query, they catalog websites based on different factors and then position the websites accordingly.
Each search engine has their own scoring rules, but there are standard factors the major search engines consider, including relevance, authority, and content. Arguably, the most important aspect of search engine positioning is the production of valuable content. Think about it this way: the job of a search engine is to rank your website in relation to the information or offering it pertains to; the more it can learn about your topics, the better chance you have of getting a good ranking.
The spiders scan the webpage content, URLs, and hidden metadata within the sites HTML code to determine the topics each site covers. They then search for ‘quality’ or ‘true’ inbound links. Search engines give a higher authority rating to websites with a larger amount of these inbound links.
Content does not simply refer to the written words. Content includes any digital asset or verbiage that is hosted on or associated with your website, such as images, videos, downloadable documents, blogs, and written sections on your site. By focusing on the production of quality content you are not only able to improve your ranking score in the search engines, but you are also informing your readers on topics relevant to their searches. The more information your website visitors have to consume, the more they will engage with your site. Since the length of time visitors browse your site can also impact your rank, engaging content is the trifecta. Keep in mind though, it is not about how much you write for one piece of content, it is about the quality of that content as it relates to potential search queries your customers will look up. Your content should be unique and specific and should be freshened up regularly. Regularly updating older content will trigger the bots to re-crawl the page, letting the SE know this page is being maintained. Grooming current and updated content will ensure you are keeping up with the search engine changes and maintaining a superior SE ranking. A rule of thumb for creating unique and fresh content is to consider your product offerings and use your content to answer any questions your target consumer may have.
Pro Tip: Do not overlook the SEO value of updating the content displayed on SERPs. When a user searches a specific keyword or phrase, the first thing they see on the SERP is your page title, URL and meta description. The meta description should be clear, concise, and informative. This does not have much of an impact on your overall rank, but it will benefit your CTR (Click Through Rate).
Next to content, relevance is the most important factor in search engine ranking. Relevance is all about how relevant your content is to particular search query keywords and phrases. To boost your relevance factor, focus on using keywords in your content that users may search for, but do not get wrapped up in using one keyword repetitively because that could actually harm you rank. To determine relevance, search engines analyze your webpage text, the structure of your text, the use of keywords in content and in URLs, page formatting, and headers.
The authority of your website is mostly established through inbound links. Also known as backlinks, inbound links from other websites and social media channels to your website are examined by search engine bots. While it is great to have many inbound links, the relevancy and quality of these links is just as important; your backlinks should come from trusted sources.
In addition to content, relevance, and authority; search engines consider your website’s internal links, structure, responsiveness, load times, and user friendliness, as well as the accessibility of your server and the geographical location of your prospects.
The O in SEO: Optimization
Website Structure & Content
A top-ranking website will provide tremendous value to the user with unique content and an unparalleled user experience; therefore, page creation is crucial to SEO efforts when developing or upgrading your website. Each page should have its own purpose, with relevant and unique content and assets. You don’t want too many pages, especially if you don’t have enough information to include because pages with thin content will score low in search engines. A best practice method is to consider the code to content ratio, with content making up no less than 25% of the page.
Before deciding on webpages, begin by researching the most beneficial keywords for your target audience. Are people interested in specific locations for your store? You may want to include a Locations page. What if they want to learn more about specific services you offer? A Services page would most likely reel them in. Maybe you want to consider a Knowledge Base page if you offer a SaaS or complex product. Keyword research will offer clarity on what your prospects are searching for and ultimately, what you should be providing for their searches. Optimize your homepage to convey your high-level messaging and value proposition using standard and popular keywords.
Every website should have a Blog/Articles page. Blogs are one of the best ways to produce regular, unique, and fresh content. The impact of articles on SEO is massive, as each new article is counted as a new page. Try to tackle subjects that have not been covered yet by other websites, or at least those that have not been addressed in depth. Be careful to avoid using the same keyword over and over; the best way to optimize your articles is to use several different keywords and sprinkle them throughout the article in different ways. Include assets to your articles such as graphics, images, videos, and white papers to keep the readers engaged. Long blocks of texts and 2-page articles tend to lose readers more quickly. Format your articles with short but descriptive headings so readers can jump throughout the article if they are looking for something specific. The best part about blogs? They can be shared via social media or on other website’s, creating inbound links to your website.
Each page of your website should be unique to avoid duplicate content and cannibalization. Cannibalization simply means that 2 or more of your webpages are competing against each other in relation to keywords. It is easy to fall into a duplicate content trap, as sometimes search engines can ding you for several reasons. For one, you will get a duplicate content error if your content is available at more than one URL, such as www, http, and https or if there is a URL with and without / at the end. If you employ a hierarchical structured for your URLs, some of your pages or content may be getting indexed under multiple categories, tags, or whichever system you use. In these instances, the search engine is unable to choose the best version of the URLs throwing duplicate content errors, causing your site to fall in the rankings. You may also see duplicate content errors if content from multiple sources on your site are being indexed, such as print, PDF, etc., or if your website is automatically generating lists or documents. It is inherent that you remedy any duplicate content errors as soon as you can. If you can access the website using more than one URL, you should use 301 redirects to point to https only URLs. Canonical tags are another great way to fix duplicate content errors. Canonical tags tell the search engines which URL is the original and should be indexed. The search engine bots will then ignore the URLs that are copies, not originals. Add the canonical tag to each original page that points to itself and a tag on other pages that point to the original. Check your URLs for accuracy and don’t use relative URLs.
A best practice for optimizing your website is through content curation. This refers to the gathering and redistributing of popular content in a way that provides value to your target audience, often by highlighting the connection to your business. This includes content others have published, as well as content that you have already published; it does not, however, mean that you should plagiarize the work of others. It simply just means that you are gathering information about popular topics and making it your own, providing new or varying perspectives. If something is trending on Twitter, create content about it! Consider distributing your content in various forms of assets, including surveys, e-books, white papers, case studies, expert interviews, and guest blogs. This diversification will no doubt have a positive impact on your ranking.
Along with content curation, be sure to refresh content you have already published. To effectively republish your existing content, start by analyzing your webpage Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) like bounce rates, traffic, and scroll behavior to find your most popular content. Update any statistics or images included in the original; add new infographics or videos; restructure and reformat the text; and review the content for any new perspectives or information you can offer. An old article will look brand new yet require a fraction of the time. As a bonus, search engines increase your ranking for updating older content as long as it is all the more relevant. Be sure to update your meta descriptions and titles when republishing.
A robust SEO strategy includes on-page and off-page SEO. On-page SEO refers to everything you can do to optimize your own website, while off-page includes activities outside of your website that influence your rank, such as inbound links.
There are various on-page SEO steps you can take. As mentioned above, you can investigate duplicate content errors and optimize for those. Adding relevant content on each page and adding a blog section will increase your chance of covering a variety of keywords on several pages. If you write valuable content and believe most of your readers will leave pleasant comment, you can add a comments section on your blog pages. Promote opportunities to leave reviews through a form. Posting an FAQs section will showcase that you are ready to answer questions and provide a quick and easy way for your base to find their answers.
The best way to control how search engine bots index your site is by creating a robots.txt file and/or an XML sitemap. The robots.txt file provides crawling instructions, specifically telling the bots what to crawl (allow) and what not to (disallow). It will force the bot to read the file before it can begin crawling. The sitemap provides the bots with a list of all your URLs and meta data, including details about how often a URL is changed or the last time it was modified. Its literally a map for the search engine to read to help it navigate and index your site. Once created, the sitemap should be submitted to the search engine for an accuracy review and approval. Once approved, save it to the root directory of your site. Be sure to keep the sitemap or robots.txt file updated regularly and check for accessibility errors.
A simple yet easily overlooked method for helping search engines understand your content is to create friendly URLs. Eliminate all special characters and any reference to directory levels from your strings. Uniform and hierarchically structured URL strings that include keywords are ideal. Users like URLs that are simple, straightforward, and informative, and so do the bots. These types of URLs help reduce bounce rates and increase dwell time. Uniformly structured URLs allow bots to crawl faster, thereby indexing faster and staying within their allowed crawling budget. Proper URLs also have benefits for marketing purposes, informing users of what they can expect on the landing page just by looking at the string. It is considered best practice to stick to a directory structure of 4 levels (parent, sublevel 1, sublevel 2, etc.) and stick as close as you can to the root domain. URLs don’t necessarily have to be short because search engines can handle long strings, but it should still be easy to read to help with user experience. Bonus tip: shorter URLs can also be fully viewed on SERPs.
Pro Tip: Avoid words like “the”, “a”, “an”, “and”, and “or”.
Your homepage - the link juice is strong with this one. This is from where users will navigate to all your other pages. Your navigation menus should be intuitive and easy; users want to get where they want to go and get there quickly, so make your click paths short. This also allows bots to use crawl budget to index more of your pages, since they can access sub-pages with just a few clicks. Pro tip: allow your user to get to any page in less than 3 clicks. The items in your menus are internal links as well and these are completely within your control, meaning you control which pages the bots view as important. In addition to easy navigation menus, add breadcrumb navigation to allow users to properly orient themselves. Your entire website should have an easy-to-find smart filter and search function. If you have pages that do not link to other pages, these are known as “orphaned” or “dead end” pages and will force stop crawling as bots can only move from link to link. To fix this, find a way to link these pages to other relevant pages, using anchor text, CTA’s, or other buttons for example.
Using anchor text for internal links is a great way to attract the search engines’ attention. Anchor text links are links in which a keyword or key phrase is linked, instead of just displaying the desired URL. Instead of having your customer click on an unsightly URL, anchor texts allow people to click on keywords people understand and are redirected by the URL hidden behind the anchor text. Naturally, the corresponding keyword on the landing page should be used in the phrase of the text used to anchor your internal links. It helps search engines to identify keywords and relevant information. Not to mention, it makes your website friendly. Best practice is to use the same keyword across your site when referencing a specific internal page. This increases the number of times that page is referenced and helps build that page’s relevance factor.
Keep your site fresh by checking for any broken internal links that result in 404 errors. 404 errors (page not found errors) are a death sentence when it comes to search engine crawling, ranking, and not to mention user experience. If it finds too many, it will assume your website is not being maintained and may stop crawling altogether, dropping your ranking due to poor maintenance. This means that a good percentage of your website may not be getting indexed. The solution? Redirect bad URLs using 301 redirects. If you are undergoing a server relocation, you can use 302 redirects temporarily.
Behind the Scenes
An image is worth a thousand words, a truer sentence could not be said here. Images should be used to separate large amounts of text, to get your message across and as an attention grabber to help keep your audience interested. Most importantly, images communicate with search engines through your website’s source text, so be sure to name the image files appropriately before hosting; SEs are not able to interpret the full content of images without textual support, not to mention labeling the image will boost your accessibility rating. Be descriptive. For example, the name “purple_hickory_root.jpg” is more useful than “pic123.jpg”. Best practice is to also add alt attributes to your images, which adds a short phrase to your image, which is only displayed in the browser if an alternative is needed, like if the image cannot be displayed or the image is broken. Any alt attributes added get integrated within the image link in the HTML code and briefly describes the contents of the graphic. These alt attributes have another purpose, they make your website more accessible for the visual and otherwise impaired. An example: automated reading programs for blind visitors can read the alt attributes so the reader is aware there was a descriptive image on the page. Be sure to include your keywords in these ALT texts.
Title Tags & Meta Tags
One of the most important activities regarding SEO is the creation and maintenance of title tags and meta descriptions. These are the first 2 things that users see in their SERPs; the title tag is the blue link and the meta description is the blurb of text just below that link. Both have character limitations so pick strong keywords, including your website’s central keyword or brand name. Be unique, relevant, and to the point. Adding a proper meta description for each page of your website keeps the search engine from adding their own from random text on that page. Try and end your description with a CTA and tell the user why/how you can provide them value.
For every header you have on your website, especially within content, be sure to add a headline tag in your source code. This helps the search engines sort through and categorize the content on your site. Best practice is to only use one heading (h1) tag per page and to use the central keyword to that page. For multiple headers, use other h tags in chronological order, i.e., h2, h3, h4, etc. Keep the tag short. It is best to not use ‘h’ tags to format text.
The Mobile First Mentality
Mobile use is on the rise and has been for many years so do not forget to optimize your website for mobile use. The requirements for mobile website versions are different from those of desktop versions. How mobile friendly your site is, is an important ranking factor. At least 50% of your users will likely view your website on their phones or some device other than a computer. First and foremost, optimizing your website to be responsive will lower the amount of mobile only updates. “Responsiveness” means the content of your site should automatically adapt to the size of the respective devices. All content should be formatted to be legible on small-sized screens and touch/tap operation should always be considered.
The purpose ofoff-page optimization is to enhance your authority and reputation, primarily through backlinks (AKA “link building”) and marketing efforts.
Quality, not quantity. While having lots of inbound links to your website can boost your rank, the amount isn’t quite as important as where those links come from. You must be careful with backlinks though because certain links can be flagged as spam, hurting any good you are trying to do. If you have too many flagged links, not only could you drop in the rankings, but you could be excluded from the index altogether. Inbound links should come from “unique content” (like blogs and articles) that provides added value and should not be created artificially. Relevance is important in terms of backlinks because search engines are smart enough to detect if a link is related to the content of the page on which it’s located and the page that it links to. Search engines can even recognize where exactly on the page a link is located. If you don’t want a link to be crawl and indexed, use the nofollow tag. Use the follow tag to help bots be more efficient.
Buying links is an absolute no-go! This will end up ruining your reputation, not improving it. If the backlink is using anchor text, be sure that a keyword is being used and that the same keyword is used to link to a specific landing page and the keyword matches the content on the landing page.
Social & Email Marketing
Social media is the best way to expose your content. Be sure your social media audience is made up of true prospects, or else you won’t get much interaction. Search engines also track “social signals”, which are inbound links from social networks. Although the effect on rank might be lower than other activities but they can certainly have an impact when searches relate to something current on the social sites. Not to mention, social sites are great for link opportunities that link back to your site. These links could be shared and viewed by many people. Social posts are of course also a great way to increase traffic, which in-turn has positive SEO benefits. Interactions on your social sites are also logged by Google, helping the SE review the relevance and determine the quality of your content. You can boost posts when an highly interesting post is likely to expand your customer reach. Be sure to preview and check how your posts are displayed before posting. Using images and videos will help make your posts more attractive, interesting, and likely to be interacted with.
Afraid of your email’s inbox? Us too! Email is one of the top methods of external communication for most of the workforce. The majority of people also use their personal email accounts for communication from doctors, real estate agents, family, etc. This makes email a very popular channel for marketing efforts. It also means our inboxes are overloaded. With the overcrowded inboxes and the quantity of spam people get, it is especially important for email marketers to provide value in as quick and clean a manner as possible. The call to action needs to be noticeable, and for SEO purposes emails should have plenty of images and links for your prospects to engage with. Email marketing will help your content get seen and increases your website traffic, both of which will result in SEO benefits.
Guest Articles/Off-Site Blogging
A great way to improve your SEO rank is to enhance your relevance and authority through guest articles. Writing or partnering with another organization to write an article for someone else’s site will give you a chance to add backlinks and provide content to be seen by a whole new audience.
PPC Marketing Campaigns
Using paid SE ads is an important way to get your brand, products, and services out on the web. Companies who use ads in addition to best SEO practices have a better chance for their website pages to be at the top of the search engines, which is what the primary goal of SEO is all about.
Promoting your business in a way that paints you as an authority is made possible through many different SEO practices. Stay consistent by always using the same business name, address, email, and phone number displayed on your website for entries in business directories, marketing emails, etc. Google is the biggest SE, so it is important to register your website on Google MyBusiness to prove your company is legitimate. Posting images of the owner/ founder, store fronts and branding on your Google MyBusiness page will allow people to visualize the company. Putting the city or state in H1 headlines, titles, and meta descriptions ensures you get customers from the proper region. Using your service or business field as a main keyword will help when users search for a specific service or product. Use markups to mark the company data in the source code. Add your business in popular business directories like Yelp or other pertinent directories for the company. Then, encourage your users and followers to ‘like’ and review you online.
One of the very first steps you should take in your SEO strategy is to perform some keyword research. Which keywords are going to be the most valuable to your potential customers and search engine users? Make a list of these words and categorize them into “transactional” and “informational” columns. Transactional keywords are words that people will use when they are already looking to make a purchase. Informational words are those that people will search for when they want to gather information about something. Then, groom or sort those words by priority, relevance and use in relation to your business. This list will morph over time so be sure to keep it fresh. Also be sure to optimize for location-based keyword searches.
It might seem counterintuitive, but the best keyword strategy is to focus more in unique, niche keywords. Popular keywords are going to be much more competitive, especially if you wish to use PPC ads. You may have less people searching for those niche keywords, but you are more likely to “convert” those individuals into customers than those searching for popular keywords because they know exactly what they are looking for, and there you will be. This is what is known as the “long-tail theory”. More traffic is not necessarily as good as better traffic.
Using Analytics to Your Benefit
Analytics tools like as Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and HubSpot were created to enable you to examine the most important details about your website, customers, and usage. For example, Google Search console and HubSpot are 2 tools that can identify which keywords are already organically driving traffic to your website. These organic keywords create a solid base of “core” keywords, providing a list of keywords that can be used to measure the performance and efficacy of your other SEO efforts. These tools also help find the keywords that are already being used to find your website in the SERPs, and collecting data on bounce rates and CTR’s. With this data, you will instantly know how satisfied, or not satisfied, your users were with the results of their search. You can then use this data to adjust and improve your content, meta data, and keywords accordingly.
Continued Keyword Research
Other than studying web analytics and using keyword research tools, there is another rather simple method: use the search engine itself to perform your own keyword research. Your desired SE can provide answers to key questions:
- How much/ what competition is out there? Determine how many search results there are for any given keyword. If there is an overwhelming number of results, ask yourself whether it is worth the time and trouble to compete in that space.
- Where do your competitors rank in comparison? Select a keyword you want to optimize your site with. Check out the top 20 or so results. Are your competitors in the top 20? Are you in the top 20? These answers should help you find the niche for your business. Be sure to choose some where your competitors are not appearing. If you are also in the top 20 it may be worth you joining the arena for that keyword.
Performing keyword research helps to identify keywords that appeal to your target audience, expand the reach of your content, and are more likely to lead to convertible leads. When you use research tools, it allows you to use professional tools that help properly identify what kinds of content your target audience is looking for. Always try to make time for keyword research. When selecting keywords, be sure you keep the voice and message of your website in mind. Stick to words and phrases that align with your services and products. Go for transactional keywords if sales of a service or product is main intention, or informational keywords if your goal is to provide readers with key information.
SEO is a fickle little beast. Consistent analysis and marketing efforts are imperative to stay high up in the search engines. Stale content, keywords, or ad’s will eventually stop producing favorable outcomes. What is the point in investing all of this time and effort if you cannot see the benefits? Luckily, various metrics can be reviewed and measured on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis to help keep your SEO strategy on track and will help you to visualize your success.
While there are many different tools on the market for analyzing the success of your website, Google offers some great and free tools. Google Analytics and Google Search Console, are widely used standard website monitoring tools. Other commercial providers may also offer other free tools that can help perform your SEO tasks.
It is recommended that bi-weekly or monthly, an analysis of your websites organic traffic should be reviewed. This review will enable you to see if changes from previous weeks or even months are influencing your website visitors.
Analytic tools, like Google Analytics, make it super easy for you to identify how many “conversions” there have been on your website. These tools enable you to set up different definitions of “conversions” (visitors, leads, etc.), so that you can get an accurate idea of your SEO ROI (Return on Investment).
Identifying the number of search engines that have indexed pages from your website is one way to see the growth of your site, resulting from your SEO efforts. The more pages that have been indexed, the easier it is to get ranked for even more keywords. To determine this number, you can log into your Google Search Console tool. Then navigate to “Google Index”, then “Index Status”. This will show you the total number of indexed pages.
The number of Inbound links is the easiest way to see how successful your off-page SEO has been. Companies like MOZ and HubSpot’s Website Grader provide a platform for you to determine metric. It is recommended to check this number monthly. Any bit of growth is good here. If there is a sudden decline or abrupt change in the number, you should do a more in-depth examination of the cause(s). Always check your inbound links, especially if you get a notice from Google about unnatural links. Using the Google Search Console will allow you to see these notices. Having ‘unnatural’ links is dangerous and can quickly take away your ‘authority’ in your competitive space.
Always keep an active list of keywords that bring quality traffic into your site from organic searches. Study your organic search traffic once a month, and analyze which keywords brought in the most traffic. Keep in mind, your branded keywords are generally responsible for most of this organic traffic. Determine the difference between brand keywords and other keywords.
While you may have a vast list of keywords you find coincide with your brand, create a list of the top 10 keywords for which you want to achieve true rankings with. Try to do a search once a month on Google for those top 10 keywords and see where you stand in the rankings. Keeping a record of the rankings will allow you to visible see the progress of your SEO efforts.
SEO is not a one-time action; these efforts must be ongoing and monitored regularly. It takes a consistent optimization process. Regular monitoring is one of the key tasks of SEO, making it possible to react quicky to a drastic decline in traffic or any other occurrence.
A previous Google study has shown that more than 80% of users now-a-days search stores and service providers online before visiting the physical location. This fact alone should make it important to optimize your website using SEO, helping you to be found when and where your customers are looking. Your online presence is a base for more leads and ultimately more sales.
SEO Quick List:
- Create a list of keywords
- Regularly groom your keywords
- Create pages using keyword focus
- Set up a blog to provide consistent and valuable knowledge
- Create a link building plan, then execute it
- Review and monitor SEO Progress
- keep up to date with SEO news and methods