SEO is less complex than marketers make it sound. We promise. The field has been around since the earliest days of the internet, and the goal has always been the same — to rank as high on search engine results pages (SERPs) as possible.
As you could imagine, the competition in this space became very cutthroat, as more and more companies realized how important it was to rank for certain keywords.
In February 2011, Google reached their breaking point, and released Panda — the first of a series of user experience-driven search engine updates.
Almost overnight, “thin” or “shady” sites folded. Chaos ensued as multi-million dollar web businesses lost a large proportion of their web traffic.
And the sites that came out on top?
These were the Wikipedias of the world that focused on building a genuine and healthy user experience. Tricks and tactics lost, while relevancy and quality won.
Which brings us to the most important lesson of SEO:
User experience is everything.
If you’re not focused on building a genuinely great product, your SEO will suffer. So here we are in a day and age where Google and Bing have put total power in the hands of consumers. User experience dominates the search engine market. SEO and strong marketing go hand in hand.
Search engines are constantly monitoring your website for key user experience cues. As much as your website, marketing, products, and services need to support a strong user experience, you need to make sure that your strengths translate into a language that search engines can fully understand.
And this pressure pushed people to do some real shady marketing — buying links, keyword stuffing, link farms, arbitrage, and who knows what else.
Table of Contents
WHAT IS SEO?
It may sound counterintuitive, but focusing on SEO means more than just analyzing search engine technology.
Just think about it.
Search engines are designed to connect people with valuable information — immediately, when they want it. Quality and relevancy are crucial here, and Google’s goal is to ensure that the best possible websites are the ones that come out on top. It’s why we keep going back to platforms like Google and Bing — because we trust them.
Search engines can’t afford to display cruddy results. They are constantly looking for algorithmic signals that are indicative of a strong user experience.
You can’t fake it. To be quite blunt, search engines are getting smarter and smarter. Be genuine. Spending money to trick a search engine (buying links, keyword stuffing, link wheels, etc) will just be a waste. Focus on building a quality user experience instead.
SEO is the practice of improving and promoting a website in order to increase the number of visitors the site receives from search engines. There are many aspects to SEO, from the words on your page to the way other sites link to you on the web. Sometimes SEO is simply a matter of making sure your site is structured in a way that search engines understand.
MOZ, via The Beginner’s Guide to SEO
FIRE YOUR BLACK HAT SEO AGENCY
Google doesn’t like these practices, and they’ll ding you for it. Indefinitely. In the majority of instances, there is no bouncing back.
Once hit with a penalty, here’s what happens:
- A sharp drop in traffic
- A fast decline in sales
- A need to rebuild your SEO program from the ground up
I know of one particular company that was hit with a Panda/Penguin Penalty due to a lot of low quality inbound links.
This e-commerce business went from making $1 million in revenue per month to making about $10,000 per month from repeat customers — on a good month.
The owner was faced with having to let go many long-time members of his staff while simultaneously trying to get the penalty removed AND working on a new (non-black hat) SEO strategy.
CHRIS KILBOURN, CEO at TOFU Marketing (via his blog)
- Promises for a guaranteed number of links
- Relying on the use of social bookmarking, directory submissions, article spinning, and guest posting via content farms
- Promises that you’ll rank at a certain number within a certain timeframe
- Guaranteeing traffic
- Creation of fake social media accounts
- Pricing less than $1,000 per month
- Explaining that your links will be deleted if you terminate the relationship
- Mentioning a specific number of keywords that you can target
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Whatever you do, avoid the following at all costs:Step 1 of any SEO strategy is to understand what not to do. ‘Black hat’ is a term that marketers have used for years to describe shady SEO practices. These are techniques designed with the sole intent to manipulate search engines (Google and Bing) to rank a business by spamming the Internet.
REVERSE ANY DAMAGE
- Put together a list of all inbound links (use a tool like Open Site Explorer or LinkDetox.com).
- Remove links from low PR sites (many times you will have to simply ask the webmaster to remove the link and hope for a positive response).
- If you can’t get the bad links removed, use the Google Disavow tool (this is a last resort option — Google doesn’t like you to overuse it).
- Start building up good high quality content on your website via a blog and your main website pages — remove any keyword stuffing or other spam tactics.
- Put together a proper content marketing and/or public relations campaign that will help you EARN high quality inbound links.
If you’ve already been penalized (or suspect that you have — you won’t necessarily receive an alert or realize that something is wrong), you’ll need to submit a reconsideration request with Google. Only submit your reconsideration request after you’ve taken corrective steps. Google has no problem clicking ‘no’ if they feel that your efforts haven’t been enough. One forecast from Search Engine Land’s Barry Schwartz says that Google receives nearly 5,000 reconsideration requests per week.
Your request needs to really stand out. Be sure to provide supporting evidence for how you’ve modified or updated your website. Include this information via Google Doc(rather than an attachment or random link).
You submit your reconsideration request via Google Webmaster Tools, a resource that provides detailed reports about your webpages’ visibility on Google.
Image source: WebnotsLet’s say that you’ve accidentally hired a black hat SEO company. Don’t freak out. You’ll be fine. The good news is that you can still recover. Here are Chris Kilbourn’s most important tips:
SEO IS KEYWORD DRIVEN
SEO is based entirely on keywords.
Think about it from a user experience standpoint. The value of search engines is that they allow us to find information based on words, short phrases, or sentences.
We figured that you already know this, but now is a good time as any to reinforce the following mission-critical detail:
KEY ELEMENTS OF SEO
MANUAL & ALGORITHMIC EVALUATION
It’s an understatement to say that the process of indexing the web is challenging. It’s impossible to do manually. That’s why Google has invested heavily in creating an algorithm that factors “human variables.” But at the end of the day machines are machines. They’re not equipped to handle ambiguous scenariosGoogle incorporates a manual and algorithmic approach to reviewing webpages. This two-fold approach is designed to ensure that quality always triumphs.
Here’s an example situation that is likely to need a human eye:
Let’s say your website starts producing hundreds of thousands of pages overnight. From the eyes of an algorithm, this looks totally suspicious — as though you’re producing thin spam pages for the sake of having more content. Not cool.
But what if there’s a totally legitimate reason? Say that you’re an e-commerce mastermind, for instance, and you’ve needed to tear down and relaunch all of your product pages on a new website.
This is a situation where Google’s manual reviews would need to jump in.
The above discussion brings us to the most important principle of SEO. Don’t worry about chasing the algorithm. Focus on appeasing humans, and you will come out on top. Here’s why:
EVALUATION PROCEDURES ARE CONTINUOUSLY IMPROVING
Google’s algorithm is always changing. That’s why it’s completely pointless to try to reverse engineer it:Through a series of updates (nicknamed Panda and Penguin) Google has made aggressive leaps forward in ensuring quality.
- Google has teams of infinitely brilliant engineers and mathematicians
- These algorithms are always changing and improving
Even if you devote your life to reverse engineering Google’s algorithm, you’ll just be wasting your time. Instead, you need to focus on the following:
- Elements that influence user experience, quality, and relevancy and
- The communication mechanisms that translate this information back to search engines
Focus on big-picture themes that influence SEO.
- Indications of quality subject matter expertise (backlinks, content depth, social media signals, internal linking structure)
- Strong user experience (short page load times, sitemaps, original content)
- Authority (backlinks, longevity, site age)
For those getting started to SEO, SearchEngineLand’s Periodic Table of SEO Elementsis a great guide to quickly navigate the landscape. Here are the core components of SEO:
SUBMIT A SITEMAP
A Sitemap is a list of pages on your website. This tool will help ensure that search engines know about all the webpages on your site.Sitemaps are a way to tell search engines about webpages on your site that are otherwise hard to discover.
You can submit a sitemap through Webmaster Tools (described later in this chapter).
Sitemaps are especially important if:
- Your site has dynamic content
- Your site has pages that aren’t easily discovered by bots during routine crawls(for instance, pages with rich AJAX or images)
- Your site is new and has few links to it (bots crawl the web by following links from one page to another. If your site isn’t well linked, it may be hidden)
- Your site has a large archive of content pages that aren’t well-linked to one another.
Search engines don’t guarantee that they’ll index all of your pages, but they’ll use the data in your Sitemap to learn more about your website. This is important to making sure that search engines always do the best job possible when reading your website’s content. To get started, follow standard Sitemaps protocol here.
You can also create your Sitemaps manually via RSS feeds that update with new website content and text files (that you will need to update on your own).
The team responsible for SEO at Google is the search quality team, a group established more than 5 years ago to ensure the best possible user experience. The goal of this team is ensure that key signals of quality websites align with what’s shown on search engine results pages.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT BING
For the most part, this strategy can work. Even though the two companies have independent search engine efforts, they’re after the same goal. User experience.
Your user experience strategy for the two search engines should be the same in the sense that you shouldn’t let search engines dictate what you do.
What you need to do is be smart about how the two search engines are processing information from your website. Make sure that you do a technical audit of your website for both.
Bing holds significant market share for search traffic. Many marketers forget this fact and focus exclusively on Google.
WEBMASTER TOOLS WILL HELP YOU:
- Tell search engines to index your website
- Evaluate your internal links
- See the backlinks to the website
- Diagnose and fix problems
- Communicate with the Google Search Quality Team
- See which keywords are driving traffic to your website
- Identify crawl errors that are impacting your ability to show up in search
Both Google and Bing have Webmaster Tools platforms. As we mentioned earlier, this is a resource that can help you see how search engines are reading your website. Make accounts with Google and Bing. Keep in mind that Webmaster Tools is necessary for ensuring that your website is indexed in the first place.
LEVERAGE CONTENT MARKETING
As Femgineer founder Poornima Vijayashanker once told me (Ritika): your big idea (not SEO) should move you forward. You can always hire someone to clean up “the mess” you leave behind.
SEO is a discipline where art meets science. Content marketing is the technique to leverage, and here’s why:
- You’ll create a wealth of branded content
- You’ll increase your chances of receiving backlinks from partner sites
- You’ll build relationships with key influencers and position your company as an active discussion participant
Keep in mind that content marketing is NOT SEO. It’s a separate marketing initiative that (when executed correctly) will influence SEO.
HERE IS A FORMULA WORTH FOLLOWING:
- Create an infographic each week (around $1,000 per infographic)
- Write 2 detailed blog posts per week that are at least 1,000 words (up to $300/post if you outsource the work to a writer)
- Create a detailed guide every quarter (up to $10,000 if you outsource the work to a writer or subject matter expert)
Some additional steps to follow to sync up your content marketing with SEO — courtesy of Alex Chris from the Quicksprout forums:
- Create — amazing quality — lengthy content
- Maintain a consistent publishing schedule at 2-3 times per week
- Know which keywords you’re targeting — pick 3 primary and a list of less-competitive terms
- Implement Google authorship with an active Google+ profile
- Make sure that your pages load quickly
- Integrate your content marketing with your social strategy (to push distribution)
- Make sure that you maintain a good internal linking system to connect content on your website
Traffic growth on the CrazyEgg Blog has been on average 10 to 15 percent month over month, and subscriber growth really picked up at the six month mark.
RUSS HENNEBERRY, Former CrazyEgg Blog Editor via Interview with Ritika
Choose 3 core keywords for your blog categories. Then, identify a list of secondary keywords that are slightly less competitive to support your high-level effort.
HEATHER ANNE CARSON, Onboardly Co-Founder via Interview with Ritika
Before you start thinking about metadata, site load times, and sitemaps, focus on the big picture — the mechanism you’ll use to engage your audience.
BUILD AN SEO STRATEGY FROM SCRATCH
START A PPC CAMPAIGN
Most SEO professionals will start with keyword research. Running a low-budget PPC campaign will help you do just that. Instead of just seeing which terms people are searching for, you’ll see which terms are converting.
You can always use tools like WordTracker to figure out which keywords to go after, but very soon, you’ll realize that you need more revenue data. PPC campaigns bridge that gap.
Follow the keyword research steps here, and start a PPC campaign using those keywords and phrases. This test will help you understand the exact keywords that convert visitors into paying customers.
At this point in the game, it doesn’t matter how much traffic you’re driving. You just want to figure out which keywords can drive paying customers. Just $500 can generate a wealth of research.
START BUILDING LINKS
Once you know which keywords to target, you’re ready to start building links. Do not fixate on anchor text (the expression that is hyperlinked). This approach is actually quite spammy. Focus instead, on directing links to highly relevant pieces of content.
You find relevant links from the websites that are already ranking for your main keywords. The first relevant link should be from a website that ranks in the top 100 for the term you’re after. The second should be from a website that ranks in the top 1,000.
Whatever you do, don’t be spammy. Make sure that the links are natural. Look for a mutually beneficial value proposition, beyond the link itself.
- Reach out to bloggers in your area of focus and tell them that you have a resource worth featuring.
- If you notice a broken link to a resource, let the website owner know. Offer up a link from your site to substitute the broken one.
- If you’ve launched a new company, ask bloggers to write about your products and services.
Google has their eyes peeled for shady link-building tactics. Don’t force the connection. Be a helpful resource, and present the link as a secondary goal.
CREATE A FACEBOOK FAN PAGE
I (Neil) have access to more than 100 different websites from my Google Analytics account. What the top-ranking websites have in common is that Facebook is one of the top referral sources.
A strong Facebook presence can help generate viral exposure for your content. These social signals indicate to search engines that you’re running a popular and trusted website.
BUILD UP YOUR TWITTER PROFILE
Twitter traffic is also a signal for a high-ranking websites. Build your Twitter presence as a source for building exposure around your website. You’ll see a bump in traffic too.
FOCUS ON PR
Hire a reputable, ROI-focused firm, work with a consultant, or deploy your own internal team. Links from high-authority, reputable sites and media channels have more weight than a mom & pop blog. If you’re limited on cash, you can hire a performance-based agency like PR Serve.
Your PR agency should focus on the following:
- Launches: Whenever you launch a new feature or service, make sure that the PR agency gets you coverage.
- News: If you have big news like a fundraising event, you’re likely to get coverage.
- Guest posts: If you’re a good writer, offer to write content for a guest blog. Be prepared for most of these blogs to turn you down. Keep going until someone gives you the green light.
- Interviews: If you’re awesome, this should be easy. Come up with some interesting data points and stories around what you’ve done, and you’ll likely build interest.
When link building, the priority is getting your brand out there. The links will happen naturally.
MAKE SURE THAT YOUR CONTENT IS EXCEPTIONAL
There’s lots of great content out there. Mediocre work has no place in this ecosystem. If you’re not putting effort behind your content creation, nobody’s going to pay attention to you (they’re going to get what they need elsewhere).
Focus on answering the questions that your audience base is already asking.
A good place to start is Quora, a question and answer engine about any topic. Answer a Quora question on your blog and then link to your post as a response on the discussion thread.
Make sure that you actively promote your blog posts. Start small, and work your way up. By answering questions online, you’ll find an instant audience for your content. The growth will follow, and eventually, the traffic to your blog will surpass your main site.
Stand apart from the competition by creating exceptionally unique content. There are a lot of blogs out there. Invest your energy in writing guides (like this one!) instead. This approach will help you stand out above the crowd.
PRIORITIZE CONVERSION OPTIMIZATION
We’ve said it before in this guide, and now the same message is back to haunt you.
Getting people to your website is only half the marketing equation. Make sure that you focus on conversion optimization as well.
Web traffic is becoming more expensive than ever before, and the price to get a visitor to your website will continue to rise as time passes. By optimizing your website for conversions, you’ll develop a steady revenue stream.
Before you start your conversion optimization process, make sure to survey your website visitors. This information will help you understand why visitors to your website may not be buying.
This data will help you prioritize the changes that need to be made to your website, and you can start to A/B test variations.
KNOW THE BASICS
Google Plus and on page optimization are things you need to do no matter what. They’re the bare bones.
Here’s what you d when you’re just starting out.
UNIVERSAL SEARCH VS. NICHE VERTICALS
The first is the local search market.
If you’re running a brick-and-mortar or location-based business, you should optimize your strategy for local traffic. And if you’re targeting audiences on the go? Reach mobile audiences.
This is an advanced topic that falls outside the scope of this beginner’s guide. It is, however, a topic that will be extremely important to a subsection of our readers. If you’re looking to implement a vertical-based SEO strategy, Chapter 9 of the Advanced Guide to SEO will walk you through how.
Niche markets may be less competitive than universal markets. Definitely check to see if your business is a good fit with any of the channels that the Advanced Guide to SEO mentions.
The strategies we’ve walked you through are for universal search. But there are other markets that you can target.
USE LONG-TAIL KEYWORDS
Let’s look at CrazyEgg as an example.
If you’re interested in using the software, you may take some time to read reviews.
In 2012, CrazyEgg was able to generate more than $20K in sales from websites that rank on page one for the terms “CrazyEgg review.”
On the flip side, long-tail keywords can hurt you if your brand is performing poorly.
I (Neil) knew of an auto financing company that had to close down because of poor reviews that ranked on the first pages of search results.
How can you grow your business through long-tail SEO? Follow these three steps:
What words are potential customers likely to be searching for? Look at Google Suggest data. Just start typing in your company name into the Google search box.
Google will only show you a limited set of results, but there is a tool called Suggesterthat will show you an expanded list.
Once you have this full list handy, it’s time to create your strategy.
CREATE YOUR STRATEGY
Create landing pages on your website that are focused around each of the long-tail keywords. If you don’t have the development resources to do this quickly, useUnbounce. You can also use WordPress.
If you want people to come to the pages around long-tail keywords, here’s what you do:
- Give away a product or service to bloggers. If they like it, they’re likely to write a review of your company’s products or service. Ask bloggers to incorporate no-follow links so that search engines don’t think you’re trying to manipulate the system.
- Run promotional offers. You can run coupon codes through affiliate channels, for instance.
- Create positive buzz. Donate some of your proceeds to a social good organization to create positive buzz around your brand.
In addition to creating landing pages that rank in SEO, you can run PPC campaigns around the long-tail keywords that people are already searching for.
FOCUS ON DRIVING CONVERSIONS
There it is again. We’ve reinforced this message over and over. Web traffic is half the battle. You need to make sure that your website is built to sell with the right calls-to-action, social proof, and easy-to-follow explainers about your product or service. Explainer videos and case studies could also help.
SEO is more than just a traffic driver. It’s a powerful way for generating sales for your company.
- SEO and user experience should always be aligned. Resist the temptation to engage in anything that could seem remotely shady. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
- Prioritize Bing in addition to Google. The SEO community talks about Google a lot, but Bing still holds significant market share.
- Focus on the technical components of SEO in addition to the strategic components. Think of SEO as a strategy for communicating information to search engines. You’re marketing to search engines to tell them that you’re delivering the highest quality resources for a certain keyword. Search engines like that.
- Content marketing can do wonders for your company’s SEO. Create infographics, blog posts, and guides that will wow your customers and prospects.
- Driving traffic is only part of the SEO equation. Make sure that you focus on conversion optimization as well.
- Use budgets to regulate your spend. Don’t use budgets as a measurement of efficiency. If your paid channel advertising efforts are truly efficient, you won’t need a budget.