What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?
Search engine optimization (SEO) is a host of techniques, approaches and strategies to prepare your website to be found by major search engines. It is often compared to alchemy. Everyone knows what SEO experts do, but very few know how they do it. In fact, many SEO gurus fiercely disagree on the how part. Many tactics are available, but SEO is not a cheap endeavor, so one has to be careful when allocating valuable advertising dollars to it.
- First, you have to be clear on what you are trying to accomplish on the business side—focus, focus, focus!
- Second, you have to reign in your zeal and prepare yourself for a grueling multi-month commitment that will require time, discipline, and money—be ready to spend time in the trenches.
- Finally, you have to decide which tools and techniques will produce the best return on investment (ROI). If you spread your resources too thin, you will fail.
If you’re looking to get yourself on the first page of Google’s search results immediately, this SEO guide isn’t for you. Don’t believe people who claim they can get you on the first page overnight in an ethical way. Even if you manage to cheat the system for a short time, Google’s wrath will land upon you swiftly and never go away. If you are serious about SEO, prepare yourself for the long haul and do it right—your patience and diligence will pay off. There is truly nothing complex about SEO. It rests on three principles:
- Valuable, relevant, unique, timely content will rank well on search engines.
- The content must be machine-readable in order to be found.
- SEO work takes time to produce results.
Let’s start with valuable content. Before you even mention the term “SEO,” ask yourself, what do I have to offer the world, why is it unique, and why would anybody want it? Do you have a digital strategy covering all your digital communications channels? Remember that you are competing with millions of other websites. Theoretically, you could spend lots of time on SEO and get to that coveted first page just to learn that customers don’t find your content, products, or services appealing.
Conversely, don’t give up too fast. Many business owners that have great products and services never get through to their audiences because they don’t bother with SEO. The axiom “If you build it, they will come” stands eternally false on Google. The onus is on you, and if you don’t make a compelling case to Google, it will ignore you unless you are the only one in the universe offering that superhot product (e.g., you have a monopoly).
So, produce content that stands out (see our How To Content Guide). Make sure you provide value. Sometimes it is a sacrifice. You may choose to share valuable information that your competitors may use against you. You may choose to take unique perspectives that may incite a debate or even draw criticism. Be yourself, be unique, and be interesting—you need to give in order to get. Provide more than a sales pitch. Do a cost-benefit analysis that includes the value of brand recognition. Remember that it takes time to see results, usually one to two months, sometimes longer. Your ultimate goal is to find your competitive niche and establish yourself as an authority in your area of expertise so you can influence buying patterns. People will remember you and come to you when the need arises.
With respect to content, make sure everything you write is well structured, clean, and free of factual and grammatical errors. Write using plain language. There are multiple resources on this. It is generally recommended that website content be written at the grade six reading level. Sometimes it may not be possible for all industries, but do your best. Another helpful metric is the Flesch-Kincaid readability index. It’s recommended to keep it above 60 (you can use this free tool). Be friendly, approachable, and lighthearted. Use humor, but be careful not to offend and cross boundaries.
Always keep your audience in mind. Make sure the most important information is at the top of the page so it can be easily located. Web users don’t read; they skim. Use headings and bulleted lists. Make information digestible, and avoid jargon, clichés, and colloquialisms as much as possible. Make sure that your navigation structure is task oriented and user friendly. Your user experience must always take people through the happy path.
Help Google Find You
You have valuable content, and now you’re ready to move on to the next step—showing search engines and humans how to find it. In this SEO guide, we focus on Google, since it has the biggest search market share, but this is equally applicable to other search engines. It’s probably safe to say that if you rank well on Google, you will rank well on other search engines. There are numerous SEO techniques, but we prefer to focus on a few that have been tested and proven in action:
- Organically maximize the number of inbound links from websites with high domain and page authority.
- Make your pages machine-readable by applying consistent on-page optimization for your key pages.
Building Inbound Links
This technique causes lots of confusion and debate in SEO circles but for no valid reason. It’s very straightforward and is based on the following assumption—counting quality links pointing back to your website is the most effective way for Google to determine the value of your website. Backlinks are very much like Facebook “Likes”—a vote of social confidence. Google’s logic here is utterly simple—if reputable and relevant websites link to you, your content must be valuable.
One important caveat here is that the link building must be organic. If you have a very rapid increase in backlinks over a short period of time, Google may perceive this as spam, even if your efforts are legitimate. Spread your efforts over a few months. There is nothing wrong with doing link exchanges with your industry peers. Just make sure you avoid link farms and spammy techniques.
- Spammy comments. Don’t post a comment on someone’s website just to add your link. Comment with a link only if what you have to say is relevant to the conversation and the link can be truly helpful to the audience.
- Avoid link farms. These are sites purely created for link building purposes. Adding your website to relevant web directories and local listings is fine, but make sure you only work with reputable websites. Our benchmark is DA 50.
Earned and Unearned Links
Earned links are the cream of the crop in the SEO world and will generate more SEO juice (ranking power) than any other medium. An earned link is simply a link created by a third party without your involvement or persuasion. Google has complex algorithms to figure out which links are earned. In our experience, high-quality earned links are challenging to get, but that’s the gold standard.
The next best thing to earned links is high-quality unearned links, which are placed on web directories, articles, blog posts, and other shared media resources. It’s absolutely essential that the primary purpose of the backlinks you add to your posts is to provide supplementary content that helps readers delve deeper into your content and access various thematically related components.
Link quality is very important in the process. Link quality is influenced by two factors:
- Reputation of the link host (domain)—the website where your link resides.
- Link text (anchor) relevance.
Google has its own proprietary method for determining the reputation of a domain. It uses a 1 to 10 scale to determine a website’s rank. We rely on the domain authority (DA) metric developed by Moz as it is more granular. It marks all websites on a 100-point, logarithmic scale (the higher you climb, the harder it gets). We use the Mozbar Chrome plugin to determine DA for our sites. The metric’s value can change over time, so make sure you check it right when you need it.
With respect to SEO, we prefer not to place links on any website that has a domain authority below 50. We believe this is where cost and benefit intersect. This certainly poses some challenges and makes our SEO work more expensive; however, it gives our clients peace of mind and ensures their links bring in high-quality SEO juice (ranking power).
In the SEO world, quality always trumps quantity. You will have to make your own determination on what you consider a reputable website, as this surely will affect your SEO costs, but we recommend that you not use anything with a DA below your own, and we recommend anything you use be at least above 25 (especially if you pay for it). Be very selective of where you post your links. If the host website has been penalized by Google for questionable SEO tactics, this may affect you.
Another important consideration is the anchor composition. An anchor is a text link that links back to your web page. It is extremely important that the link text is in sync with the keyword and meta data on your landing page. That’s how Google determines link relevance. For example, a link named “all about hamsters” pointing to a web page about “disco music” will surely not rank well in organic search results.
How do you get high-quality inbound links from reputable websites?
Content is truly king and even more so with the recent Google Hummingbird algorithm revolution. Google’s ingenuity became even more evident in the simplicity of the approach—provide valuable, engaging, timely content and you will rank well. Just a few years ago, Google could not afford the luxury of humanizing content analysis due to the lack of computing power, but with the advance of technology and the decrease in hardware prices, Google can now afford to analyze content deeper and build logical, intelligent connections between various web elements. Gone are the days of keyword stuffing.
Content marketing is simply an ongoing effort to promote and syndicate your content via various publishing channels. Of course, the content-value and industry-relevance principles apply here more than ever. One way to promote your content is by publishing articles, blog posts, and news releases on relevant websites. Some are free, and some are paid. We have had great experience with PR Web, MyPRGenie, Social Media Today, and Ezine Articles, all of which have stellar DAs. If you manage to make it on these sites, the SEO-juice quality is truly supreme.
|Website||Domain Authority (May 2014)|
Another way to do this is via social media. This is more of a challenge because you will have to build a sizable following on multiple social media channels; however, it has huge marketing benefits well beyond just SEO. It is not clear how much SEO juice you will receive from social media though. Google has been shifting its emphasis to Google Plus, and now even that is in flux. We left social media out of this SEO guide because we believe it stands on its own and should not be used primarily as an SEO tool.
Free and paid directories
Placing your listings on web directories should be used to help local clients find your business on the web, not to advance your SEO agenda. These directories are usually organized geographically, by sector and by theme. Make sure you list your business correctly.
We prefer to work with relevant directories that have a DA above 50. With most quality directories, you may have to wait for months. There is a simple reason for this: competition. Everyone else wants to be there for free. Some directories provide the option to pay for an expedited review process. When we say the word “pay,” we don’t mean paying for placement; we mean paying for a quick review, which is usually two to three business days. Your listing still might be rejected after you pay. Avoid directories that guarantee your placement for a fee. We also highly recommend you focus on the directories specializing in your industry first, as Google will assign these links a higher value.
Paid directories range anywhere from $25 to $300 per year. Most offer an annual and a permanent option, with the permanent option being significantly more expensive. Some offer placing several deep links in addition to your main domain.
Here is the list of directories offering free and expedited (paid) listings, along with their respective DA scores:
|Directory||Domain Authority (May 2014)|
SEO is not a science but rather a commitment to certain principles. It’s not the complexity of these principles that makes consistent SEO challenging but rather relentless discipline and a commitment to applying them. For one of our projects—a real estate website—just by properly optimizing key pages, we were able to see a 40% increase across key metrics month-to-month and a 14% increase in year-to-year visits, page views, and time on page. Our regional geometrics also improved by 24%. You should follow these principles relentlessly:
- Try to focus on one relevant keyword (phrase) per page. It must be unique on your website—don’t reuse the same keyword in several places.
- The keyword you choose for the page must be found in the following areas:
- Page title and meta title (some systems generate the meta title automatically based on the page title). Ensure your page title is always Heading 1.
- Content (at least three times, with the first paragraph being the most important).
- Meta description. The meta description should be well written and capture your audience’s attention—it will show up as a search-result snippet and help to convert casual browsers into visitors.
- Image file name (it’s recommended you use at least one image).
- Image alternative description. Just remember that the primary purpose of the ALT attribute is to describe the image to make it more accessible.
- Use internal links and links to relevant sources, but avoid too many. We consider three of each optimal per 500 words.
- Your copy should contain at least 300 words.
- The title should be limited to 70 characters.
- The meta description should be limited to 156 characters.
- The copy should be written in plain language—the Flesch Reading Ease score should be above 60 if possible.
- Use static URL.
There are many more SEO techniques available, but we highlighted the ones we believe provide the best return on investment. Ultimately, you will have to decide for yourself what SEO work is manageable for you in the long run. Don’t turn SEO into your primary activity. Remember that your primary goal is to focus on what you do best—your business. Good business is the foundation of good SEO. Finally, we would be happy to take a look at your website and provide free SEO review and high level recommendations.