If you are like me, starting your own website, without investing in digital advertisement, your only best bet in driving traffic will be from organic search engines like Google.
At the time of writing this article, according to Internet Live Stats, just Google alone, there are about 40,000 searches performed per second, or 3.5 billion searches per day, or 1.2 trillion searches per year, and there is no ending in sight nor any slow down. To add fuel to the fire, mobile devices are giving people ever more access to Internet, making it the largest source of search.
It will be important to understand why people search, how search engines like Google crawl and rank pages on its results, and finally cover the science of what it takes to implement successful search engine optimization (SEO) for your website.
Why do we search
We all have done searches. Not just once, but many times over every day or even every hour. Some of us are addicted. Terms like “google it” has become synonymous. Yet, when looking at this phenomenon from content creator’s perspective, the answer isn’t that obvious.
Simply put. We search to get answers to our questions whether it be about movie stars, dictionary words, DIY tips, or vacation destinations, and Google has done an incredible job of delivering answers to billions of questions that people search, using millions of web pages that people like you and I have created on the Internet.
In fact, in the early days of Internet search, it has made many businesses successful by simply ranking their pages high on the search results. And it has been nerve-racking for these businesses whenever Google introduces changes to their search algorithm which essentially impacts their ranking, something they have been heavily investing to continue to stay on top of the search results. Google’s recent roll out of mobile friendly ranking algorithm for mobile searches is still shaking the search industry.
Black Hat SEO
You may have heard about this famous search algorithm called PageRank, from a research paper that the founders of Google, Page and Larry, published and its prototype essentially became Google. To put it simply, it bases web page’s quality based on the number of other authoritative websites linking to it. This score, which shows the popularity of the page which in short dictates that the content has high degree of possibility of meeting searcher’s needs.
As Google picked up its popularity and majority of search traffic, there has been numerous attempts to “black hat” SEO practices. Basically, one can pay these link farms to host their pages on hundreds if not thousands of websites, thereby telling Google that the linked page is popular and important.
This trickery did not last too long since Google’s best interest is to meet and exceed people’s search expectations by serving the best search results that lead to high quality content that answers people’s search questions. Google has released numerous major updates to its search engine, such as Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird, and has optimizing its search algorithm to not only detect but penalize websites that use such techniques and possibly removing them from Google search results. For those that were planning to stick around longer was not worth taking the risk.
White Hat SEO – Doing SEO the Right Way
So, how would you go about getting your page ranking high on the search results?
Google created extensive SEO Starter Guide to inform content creators its expectation of what best content should be. In short, Google wants you as the content creator to create authentic, highly useful and valuable content that answers people’s questions. That way, people will find the content useful, continue to come back to Google to do more searches, and for you, this means not only will Google drive more traffic to your website, but high quality content will likely increase conversion because your content is solving their problems: a true win-win situation for both Google and your business.
Wait! But it is not that simple. There is also science aspect to SEO.
Customers / Audience
To begin our scientific journey, just like any business, we need to identify the types of customers you are serving. After all, business would not exist if there is no customers to serve. Let’s start by answering the following simple questions:
- Who are they?
- What’s keeping them awake at night?
- What can you do to help them sleep better?
- Will your products and services really answer their questions?
Imagine that you own a vacuum parts supply store. Your customers are mom and dads who just broke their vacuum by accidentally vacuuming, say a sock, realizing their mistake, worried much about the repair bill or possibly having to purchase the vacuum again, they are losing their sleep.
What can you as a local vacuum parts supply store do for them? You can begin writing a few DIY articles for fixing different vacuums and earnestly addressing how to perform some of the simpler repairs. This will surely start to earn trust from potential customers since they now owe you one as they were able to follow your detailed instruction and fixed the vacuum with a few inexpensive parts, and saved a ton of money.
Now imagine that communities of such vacuum owners will start to form around your articles. More and more people will find your article helpful, linking your DIY articles to their websites, sharing them with their friends. This very organic act will make Google to rank your articles higher as your page becomes more authentic destination for repairing vacuums. Now that you have a lot more traffic coming from Internet, you don’t even have time for small repairs which you thought you would lose business over. Instead, you can only handle bigger and more profitable repairs and ship out lots of DIY kits and parts. Thanks to economy of scale, your local business is now growing and shipping nationwide and becoming the destination for all things for repairing vacuums.
At this point, you would be so excited to start writing articles. Wait! Content definitely is super important, but we can make that content more valuable by optimizing it for search engines.
This is where keywords come into play. When we write articles, the article probably has many related keywords sprinkled throughout that search engines will index, and through their awesome search algorithm, score your content and serve it up on their search results.
But as I mentioned, there is science behind SEO. There are simple SEO techniques that we can use to let search engines know what they are indexing will match nicely with what customers searching for.
SEO experts divide keywords into three sections: head, body, and tail. Head keywords are usually keywords that identifies the topic, say vacuum. This is usually used on your homepage. Body keywords describe little more about your intent, say bagless vacuum, and usually used on category pages. Finally the Tail keywords describe customers intent more thoroughly, say fix bagless vacuum and best used on product or service detail pages.
Also, usually, there is a lot of competition with head and body keywords as you will have to compete with already established websites, and search engines not knowing customer’s intent, would serve up something close to what their algorithm is able to guess, which is more popular content. So until we become the authority or the destination for head keywords, our focus should be on tail keywords, or long-tail keywords. In fact, long-tail keywords make up more than 95% of searches.
If you’ve been around long enough and has poured sizable dollars to establish a brand, it is important to group branded keywords separately from non-branded keywords and apply different tactics as they tell different stories.
Branded keywords typically describe your company, products, and services. You would typically pour much marketing dollars to raise awareness of these brands so that when your brand is put up against your competitor, hopefully, customers will choose your product or service over your competitors. Some examples include Apple’s iPhone, Microsoft’s Windows, and Toyota’s Prius.
For branded keywords, you want to make sure that your best landing page for that specific term gets the #1 position in any search engine results. If you are not, then this is a good indicator that your business work to do to establish the brand in consumer’s mind and need to invest in raising awareness.
This is also the easiest to own since your company name, product and service names are what has been defining your business for decades. Here is a few things you can do to make sure you own your brand space:
- Your business is well established in your industry
- Come up with 10 keywords that composed of your company, products, and services. These are head/body/tail keywords that your customers will likely to enter into search to find your company, products, and services
- See if your web page is #1 position in the search results and that it is pointing to the best landing page that best match the keywords that people are searching the solution for
- If not, you have work to do to optimize your landing page with those branded keywords
- Monitor the keywords. It may take 3-10 days for Google to crawl and index to take affect
- Expand your branded keyword list, continue to optimize and monitor until you reach a saturation point where your branded keyword list starts to overlap with non-branded keywords
For your established business, branded keywords space should be the first in the priority list to optimize since this is where biggest bang-for-the-buck will be. Through this exercise, you will also discover your competitors (those that are ranking higher), from which you can learn what they are doing and how they are doing better, and then conquer them over.
You may be starting a business trying hard to establish a brand, or you may be a well established business where branded keywords optimization has reached its saturation point and in need of new opportunities, or you may have recently launched a new product or a service that has not yet been established in the industry.
Non-branded keywords are where all of the competitions are and abundance of opportunity lies. Whether it be auto insurance or home loan, these generic search keywords are what people often search to look for answers. Many businesses fight over these keywords to get ranked high in the search results due to its enormous potential of generating traffic. For example, a word insurance can be equal to$50 per click. Imagine your website organically get listed on the top? This could potentially equate to millions of dollars in free advertisement.
So how do we go about researching these ever more important keywords that our content supposed to provide compelling answers for?
Okay. Let’s get right to keyword research. IMO, the best keyword research tool available on Internet is Google Adwords Keyword Planner. You would need to signup for Adwords which doesn’t cost any.
Google Adwords, in case you didn’t know, is a paid advertising that let you place your text ads along with other search results, often used by businesses that cannot get their websites to rank higher organically but still want the opportunity to show up often on the first or second page of the search results by paying for the placement. This is a topic in itself and we won’t cover it here. But the great thing is that Google provides this great nifty keyword tool that lets you peek into what people search on Google, and better yet, even groups of different related keywords as well as their search volume, all without purchasing any advertisement.
You can “Get ideas” by either entering a keyword, or even your web page, and it will automatically pull best possible related keywords for you. Here is the key thing to remember as you pick your keywords:
- Come up with 3-5 long-tail keywords that your customers will likely type into search engine to find your article
- Select keywords that your article, product, or service can be of best solution for
- Make sure that keywords align with your company’s mission and brand.
- Select about 5 best keywords that has monthly search volume of at least 100 or more
You may immediately get tempted to select high volume keywords. It makes sense. High volume means there are more people searching those terms. But as I covered above, usually high volume keywords mean they are head/body keywords with bit of ambiguity and you probably would lose out on the competition since more established websites will get ranked above your page.
Content (Article, Product, or Service Page)
Great! You have invested good time researching possible best non-branded keywords using Google’s Keyword Planner tool. Now we dive into creating the best content that can best answer those keywords.
Some asks, is SEO first, or content first? I would say content is still the king. It existed before SEO and that is what is enabling Google. But what good is a king without his trusted advisors? SEO is that trusted advisor and without it, the king wouldn’t really know whether he/she is doing a good job or heading into right direction.
The art of the content creation is creating that piece of art that not only answer people’s questions, but so engaging that it makes people to say “wow”, and become your loyal followers, share out your content on their social network. Soon your website becomes the destination for similar questions that people may encounter.
But that is not all. We need to take necessary SEO optimization techniques in order for search engines to then match up your content to keywords that people are actually typing into search engines. A diamond buried in the deep abyss is only as good as a piece of coal, until it is discovered by people.
Even though Google offers the great SEO Starter Guide, here is my own attempt to cover the most basic and must haves for any well SEO optimized web content:
Title. Title in many ways is one of the most important optimization you can do. This is very similar to email subject line which people skim to see if it grabs their attention to click to find out more or simply ignore. When search results are displayed, title is the first bold thing that people see and immediately try to match up the results to their questions and spend as little as a few millisecond to determine if it is worth clicking or not.
It is also the first promise you are making to people and you should earn up to it. If you don’t, you won’t have repeat customers and plus your conversion will suffer. In the long run, it will end up hurting your business.
Title is also one best place to put one of the researched search keywords. But don’t push it too much to the point that your title simply doesn’t make sense or does not align to your company’s brand.
Title is implemented using <TITLE> or the first <H1> tag. If you are using WordPress or other popular blog platforms, these should be done by default but it won’t hurt to make sure that this implemented correctly. Also, keep it under 50-60 characters in order for it to be shown on Google’s search results.
Meta Tag Description. If you couldn’t optimize title as much with the keywords because you wanted to have unique call-to-action which distinguishes your content from your competitors, no worries! You still have the whole meta tag description you can use to dive little deeper into what it is that you offer and sprinkle it with researched keywords. Why? This is what gets shown as the description for the search results. People will skim over the title, then immediately see the description. Google also makes matched keywords bold. More highlights you have on the description, it will help people to skim over the description better.
SEO Friendly URL. This is what people sees on their Browser’s address bar when they are viewing your page. This is also what people would use to link to your page. People often look this over because, these days, any blog platforms by default uses title to make up the URL (or link). You can say that these blog platforms have some basic SEO optimization built in, which is a great thing. But if you have older CMS or blog platform, and your content pages have IDs instead of human readable text, I hope you can get this addressed sooner than later because this is also another highly valuable piece of content that Google actually shows on the search results and even bolds those keywords that match the user entered search keywords.
Image File Name and Its Alt Tag. We are all familiar with a saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” This is still very true for your content. A compelling images will add so much more rich experience to your content, a highly recommended practice for any content. But what does this mean for search engines? Not good. They do not yet crawl images and do OCR (Optical Character Recognition). It is still too costly for them. Instead, they crawl for its descriptive text that describes what it is and use them to not only enhance its search keyword relevance, but also use them to serve up image searches, another search channel and opportunity to get relevant traffic to your website. Therefore, make sure that you use descriptive text as your image filename and add descriptions to the alt tag.
Inbound Links (Backlinks) and Outbound Links with Its Link Text. Remember the PageRank? It scores and rewards your page’s ranking on search results based on how many authoritative websites link to your content. As I covered previously, black-hat SEO has thoroughly exploited this algorithm by building link farms for those willing to pay to get hundreds of its website linking to your page. And Google has been fighting back hard with improved search algorithms, almost close to eliminating this bad practice, or at least, penalizing hard for those that get caught, making this not worth the risk for those planning to stick around longer.
There really isn’t a magic formula to building inbound links. In the end, your content needs to be compelling and useful, found on search results, and naturally, those that found your article useful will link the page back to you in the hopes of bringing more relevant information back to their visitors, just as how you would be linking out to more information for various topics and reference sources as I have done in this article.
In speaking of outbound links, heavy use will raise red flags for search engines, but using it sparsely throughout the article, linking to highly relevant content, thereby making your content even more useful for your readers will allow search engines to not only help find better content but also relate your content to those that you linked. It becomes a win-win situation for the entire SEO ecosystem.
Social Media. Though, if you are willing, there are a few legitimate and important ways to build inbound links. As Facebook user number reaching close to 1.5 billion, it is not an over exaggeration to say that we are indeed living in a socially connected world. As we are ever more connected, great content tend to get shared amongst people through their social networks. Google currently promotes Google+’ed articles through personalization (meaning if you are logged into Google, it will use your Google+ data to show more relevant results for you), and although Google has been denying about paying special attention to social streams, the deal that Google recently struck with Twitter, shows that Google can no longer ignore the significance of social media.
So, make sure that your page is optimized to be sharable for social media sites by embedding Open Graph meta tags to set default image for Facebook, as well as Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn. If your website is on a popular blog platform such as WordPress, there are many popular SEO tools like this one that easily enable such sharable features.
Influencer Network. You can also invest your time and possibly money to forge networks by reaching out to already popular influencers and offer to cross blog, or contribute your article. This is the best way to build backlinks. Not only search engines already know the influencer website’s domain authority score, but it linking to your website makes your website as relevant. This is a true win-win situation: influencer blog will get a great high quality content for his/her site, but you will also get to leverage his/her domain authority and backlinks to raise your own website’s domain authority.
But like any business relationship, this is not that easy. These influencers are already famous, and there are many spammers out there trying to do the same thing that you are doing. You will need to invest good amount of time building your network often by attending conferences, following influencers that share similar interests, and get to know them in person. Give them at least one or two or even three favors to get their word out, and it is a matter of time that they will start to notice and return at least one favor back. Since you are not that popular, what is there to lose other than little bit of time? Time to identify your influencers, even if they are not that popular yet, as long as they have the pace of building high quality content, become friends and help each other out.
Mobile Friendly. It is now official: mobile devices has taken over desktop. If your website is not yet mobile friendly, or not yet using responsive web design, which allows content to be rearranged to fit any device screen width, whether it be mobile, tablet, or ultra-wide desktop monitor, you are now behind the game. Google has rolled out its mobile friendly algorithm for mobile search results and it is impacting SEO industry by a large margin. If you are using popular blog or CMS platforms that rely on templates, this change may be easier to implement. Google created their own mobile guide that webmasters can follow to get this important process started.
Local Optimization. Last but not least, if your business is a brick-and-mortar having a retail storefront, such as restaurants, hair salons, or service shops, it is utmost important to optimize your local listings as mobile searches are now exceeding desktop searches and its GPS turned on most of the time, as well as, search engines able to detect location based on IP address, search engines are able to tie certain locale related keywords into local business websites (e.g. restaurant) to make search results ever more personalized and contextually relevant for its users.
First and best way to start local SEO optimization is by establishing your Google+ My Business profile. Not only is it free, but since Google+ is owned by Google, it is the first destination for Google search engine to look for any local related information and display it as part of the search results. Other great free ways to get your business optimized locally is by getting listed on Yelp, Foursquare, LinkedIn, Bing, and Yahoo. Make sure that these listings have your NAP (name, address, phone number) as well as website link accurately. When some sites like Google+ offer a way to enter description, this is your chance to sprinkle it with a few important head keywords, just as how you optimized your homepage.
One caution while registering for free listing is, do not fall into a trap of purchasing monthly subscription services like Yext or Yahoo Localworks (powered by Yext) that let you update your local listing automatically to over 50+ local listing aggregate sites by paying a monthly fee. The bad thing about this is that these services are pretty expensive for any small business, and when the subscription expires, all of the changes revert back to pre-subscription state, often hurting your local SEO effort.
Track, Measure, and Optimize
You worked really hard to get those relevant long-tail keywords and meticulously optimized your content to not only create high quality, but targeting specific keywords for your audience. But how do you know if your content is gaining traction? We will get this started by first setting up a few free but key tools in place.
Google Search Console offers a great insight into how Google crawls your website, what kinds of errors it is encountering, thereby allowing you to detect problems early so that your content gets crawled without any issues. It also offers a way to see a list of websites that are linking to your website.
One of the biggest benefits of the tool is that you can view 90 days of searched keywords that your visitors used to find your website. This is great and the only way for you to discover such search keywords. This is due to Google rolling out secure search in 2013, which took SEO industry by storm since Google search results no longer provided websites with its HTTP referral data that carried search keywords used to find the website. Instead, this data has to be now fetched from Google Search Console using API in order for SEO industry to get searched keywords data. Thankfully, Google Search Console is easily integrated into Google Analytics.
Google Analytics. If you have been around long enough, you would remember the days of Webtrends where website log files had to be manually processed overnight by web analytic reporting tools like Webtrends. Not only was the tool expensive, it often required dedicated server to process the enormous log files and took long time to even get a glimpse of your visitors and website metrics. Ever since Google acquired Urchin in 2005, and started to offer its powerful web analytics tool under Google Analytics for free, we all got addicted to its powerful data analysis capability. It has become even more powerful over the year, still free, providing ever more ways to segment the data, allowing you to craft user flows, conversion paths, and even monitor the website in real-time. It has become de facto tool for any websites that needs web analysis to improve their website experience.
Particularly, by integrating Google Search Console to Google Analytics, you have direct access to all of the search keywords up to 90 days that people are searching to find your content, and allowing you to further discover branded and non-branded keywords, as well as, long-tail keywords that are critical for your SEO optimization. Using segmentation, you can dive deeper into particular keyword and see its impact on mobile devices, screen resolutions, geography, and even its e-commerce as well as conversion values.
Search Engine Ranking. One thing that almighty powerful and free Google tools won’t provide is how your website or your content is ranking against particular keyword. You could simply do a manual search by putting your browser into incognito/private mode and enter the keywords you are tracking and scroll through the search results to find about where your content is ranking. This might mean you would have to keep clicking “Next” button for a long time until you would see. This is way too much time consuming and not recommended.
You can leverage a few free tools like SERP’s Keyword Rank Checker, or even better and faster tool from SEO Centro. But these free tools are usually offered as a freemium, meaning, if you want more power, you will need to pay to get ‘em. These tools will allow you to track many keywords for particular pages that you have optimized for and see how their ranks are doing over time to then see how you are doing. If the ranking is not improving, obviously either the optimization didn’t work, or the content will need to target different but better sets of keywords.
Page Authority Rank, Domain Authority Rank. As you begin to gain more footprint within search engine space, you will begin to notice that your domain authority as well as certain page authority begin to climb up. One great freemium tool you can use is MozRank which is available as FireFox and Chrome Add-on. It tells you the page rank and domain rank, which is really handy since you don’t have type individual websites.
Microsoft’s Free SEO Toolkit. MozRank add-on is great and pretty powerful showing issues with certain pages. But wouldn’t it be great to actually run such validation against all of your website so that you can gauge how big the problem is, how to then prioritize your issues, all for free? Thankfully, unlike other SEO tools that are usually upwards of hundreds of dollars per month, Microsoft offers this powerful free SEO validation tool that will check your entire site and show exactly what the issue are and how to correct it according to SEO best practices. Though, it will require a little bit of technical knowledge to set it up and run properly. They conveniently offer a how-to video on the page.
Wow! You did it!
That is awesome! You were able to not only create that compelling, super useful, yet entertaining content, all based on SEO optimization best practices covered above and started to track and measure your success using Google Analytics and with some of free page ranking tools. How exciting to see traffic trickle into your website!
Now, do it all over again with more unique content, product, or service. Remember, you must focus on usefulness and solving customer’s problems rather than bragging about your company. When you offer to help with sincerity, people will see through the content and start to genuinely appreciate your help, rely on your advice, and become your loyal follower and then your loyal customer.
It all starts with one amazing, optimized content at a time!