John Rampton & Jayson DeMers
Table of Contents
Section 1: A Framework for Thinking about SEO
Chapter 1: The Changing SEO Landscape
Chapter 2: The Three Pillars of SEO
Chapter 3: Google’s Major Algorithm Updates
Section 2: Strategic Thinking and Tactics for SEO
Chapter 4: Modern Keyword Research
Chapter 5: Design and On Page Optimization: The Building Blocks
Chapter 6: Getting to Know Your Audience
Chapter 7: Link Building Shifts to Link Earning
Chapter 8: Content and Inbound Marketing
Chapter 9: Social Media Marketing
Section 3: Getting More Value Out of Your SEO Campaigns
Chapter 10: Building Your Brand
Chapter 11: What to Do When Things Go Wrong
Chapter 12: Conversions & Metrics
Chapter 13: Tools & Resources for Further Education
The Beginner’s Guide to SEO
Section 1: A Framework for Thinking About SEO
Chapter 1: The Changing SEO Landscape
Is search engine optimization (SEO) dead?
If you’re just beginning to investigate the field of SEO, you’ve probably been inundated with conflicting messages. One on hand, you’re likely hearing how important it is to have a website and an online presence that helps you connect with new customers and rank well in search engine results. Conversely you’ve also heard that SEO isn’t effective, is outdated, or is “black hat trickery” which is the realm of spammers. How can you reconcile these opposing viewpoints?
Let us put your concerns to rest: SEO isn’t dead. However, it is evolving rapidly and changing daily.
At one time in the not so distant past, SEO referred primarily to a series of tactical approaches you could use to get your site into one of the top spots on search engines like Google and Bing. SEO gurus offered advice on how to build links, how to structure your website, how to select domain names, and a host of other topics designed to push you to the top of the search engines for specific searches. Competing successfully largely boiled down to mastering and implementing this body of knowledge.
Today, the reality of standing out in the digital seas is more complex. Tactics still have a place in today’s world. But a high ranking site is largely a function of a well thought out strategy that integrates multiple aspects, from great content and quality links to an active social media presence and a deep understanding of your audience. For a more in-depth exploration of this topic, read this Forbes interview with Sam McRoberts, CEO of VUDU Marketing “Is SEO Dead?”
What SEO Really Means
Integration is an important concept. SEO now brings together a host of different disciplines: search optimization tactics, social media marketing, local marketing, mobile marketing, copywriting, conversion optimization, and content development. In other words, in order to rank well and compete in the digital world, entrepreneurs and businesses have to embrace a wider range of online marketing disciplines than ever before. It’s not enough to think that one type of expertise will get you all the way. Instead, you have to become a student of digital marketing, establish a strong foundation, and then continue your education in more advanced and diverse areas that complement your core knowledge.
SEO today relies on authority positioning, having a strong brand, and creating real value for people interested in your niche. It’s a highly ethical discipline, where hard work and investment are rewarded. Shortcuts get you into trouble, or even knocked out of the game. We’re no longer relying on dubious tactics or simply manipulating individual factors on a page. This is good news for businesses and SEO practitioners.
The Role of Organic Search
It’s helpful to bring a perspective on how search engines operate to the table when discussing SEO. Think about it this way: there are now over one billion websites that exist on any number of topics. As a result, the internet requires tools that connect content with users. That’s where search engines come in, by providing an intermediary access point between searchers and all the content on the internet. Ultimately, a search engine’s goal is to provide users with a positive customer experience. In this case, a good experience would refer to high quality helpful content that links as closely as possible with what the user was looking for when she initiated the search.
One of the ways the search engines interpret the topic of content is via keywords. However, it’s important to note that the one-to-one relationship between specific keywords and rankings has diminished significantly. While it used to be that you could simply optimize a piece of content for one or two primary keywords and achieve high rankings, this is generally no longer the case.
Search engines have become increasingly sophisticated, their algorithms more complex. They no longer look exclusively to individual keywords, but rather to the intent behind those keywords. One way they do this is to focus on additional, related words and phrases that show a piece of content comprehensively covers the topic. These words and phrases are sometimes referred to as proof and relevant terms, and it’s now a virtual necessity to use them to achieve high rankings.
Apart from keywords, there are a huge number of factors that drive search engine algorithms. These range from the way a website is structured, to how many links point to it, and what the content actually says. But algorithms are proprietary and confidential, so a lot of time is spent in the SEO world gathering information, conducting experiments, and piecing together clues to inform our evolving understanding of what works and what doesn’t work when you’re trying to rank a site.
The net impact for site owners is simple: you have to create a website with your business goals and customers in mind. You also have to remember that search engines are a consideration in the way you do business digitally. An understanding of SEO best practices puts you in the best possible position to rank your site. Whether you do your SEO yourself or partner with an SEO firm or consultant, you’re ultimately responsible for the decisions that impact your business and your website.
Channels and Your Website
Organic search, or natural traffic from search engines, is one potential source of visitors to your website. There are numerous other potential drivers of traffic to a website. A quick overview of the types of the website traffic should include:
- Organic traffic, as a result of search engine results from places like Google and Bing
- Referral traffic, based on links from other websites sending through visitors that click
- Social media marketing traffic, from participation and links on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn
- Paid traffic, which results from advertising like banner ads and Pay-Per-Click advertising on search engines through programs like Google Adwords
- Direct traffic, where customers type in your site’s URL directly into their browser
While SEO typically used to mean organic traffic, it’s now much more commonly used to refer to the universe of potential visitors from all these different channels. Optimizing for search engine traffic is important. But diversified traffic bases help make you immune to the fluctuations of search engines over time, and help you discover what traffic sources will send you your most profitable and engaged customers.
The Role of Competition in SEO
Another aspect to explore is the role of competition in SEO. It’s often misunderstood. What’s true at its most basic level is that there are only ten spots on Google’s first page for any given keyword term. One of the latest studies has shown that a site in the first position on Google receives 31.24% of the clicks, the second position 14.04, the third position 9.85, and so on. In other words, the more highly you rank, the more traffic and potential customers you’re likely to get. However, it’s not entirely that straightforward.
As we’ll look at in Chapter 4, today’s keyword strategies are infinitely more complex than they were ten years ago. It provides hope for websites that are just starting out and competing in a niche with well-established competitors. However, competition does play a role in the SEO process and it’s helpful to keep that in mind when choosing your keywords, designing your SEO strategy, and sizing up other players in your niche.
What’s Driving All the Changes?
One common question that many people that are new to SEO ask is why are there so many changes in the field of SEO? Or stated differently, why do search engines want to make it so hard for marketers and businesses? This is the wrong mindset, although it’s a natural conclusion to draw. Remember the role of search engines in the online ecosystem: to create as positive an experience as possible for their users by connecting them with relevant information. The goal isn’t about creating roadblocks for sites. Instead, it’s about raising the bar as high as they can to find the best of the best content.
SEO is a field that has a somewhat shady history. Many pros in the field have exploited any and all available tactics to rank poor quality sites with a commercial goal in mind. As a result, search engines have pushed back hard against spammers and demanded quality sites and ethical practices. While it’s admittedly more work to build a great site, optimize the user experience, focus on quality content, and build great relationships with other sites and readers to attract links, it’s worth it. Not only will this benefit your site, but it will benefit your business and your brand in the long-term.
Understanding that SEO is a field that’s evolving rapidly can help you stay on top of the changes. We’ll now take a closer look at a general framework for helping you think about SEO in today’s context.
Chapter 2: The Three Pillars of SEO
Think about SEO as a holistic discipline: there’s no single tactic or strategy that’ll work to get you top, sustainable rankings. Instead, achieving good search engine rankings requires being aware of and strategically leveraging three key areas – links, content, and social media marketing. Each of these areas work together synergistically to create a successful SEO strategy. Let’s take a closer look at each one, and what you need to know.
Content marketing is sometimes referred to as “the new SEO”. In the wake of Google’s Panda and Penguin algorithm updates (which are discussed in more detail in Chapter 3), many once-popular tactics no longer work. These algorithm updates have forced online marketing strategists to rethink their SEO campaigns from tactically-focused to strategically-focused, with a heavy emphasis on quality content production and publication.
But content strategy goes beyond simply publishing great content. It also encompasses the existing content on your website, and ensuring that it’s optimized from a technical SEO perspective, while also ensuring future published content abides by these technical best practices as well. For an excellent guide to technical on-site SEO elements, see this on-site SEO guide.
Once you’ve covered the technical elements, it’s time to focus on your content strategy. Before you can begin strategically writing and publishing your content, you need to understand your target market as well as what words and phrases (keywords and concepts, discussed further in Chapter 4: Modern Keyword Research) that they’re searching for in the search engines.
The best use of keyword data is to look for places that fill holes in a website’s overall content. Are users within your target market looking for a certain phrase or answer for which there isn’t an applicable article or blog post? Create a blog post, e-book, article, or white paper about it. Start by performing keyword research, then using that research to build your content strategy. Here are some helpful resources for exactly how to do that:
- The Definitive Guide to Using Google’s Keyword Planner Tool for Keyword Research
- Why Your Keyword Strategy Is Incomplete Without User Intent
- How to Build a Kickass Content Strategy
- 7 Ways to Find What Your Target Audience Wants and Create Epic Content
Besides understanding what real users are actually looking for, great content also shapes the user experience and the way they see and feel about a company. A regularly updated company blog with well-written, insightful blog posts will garner a reputation for publishing great content, which will attract more inbound links, social media buzz, positive branding, traffic, leads, and sales. Compare that to a company blog that simply communicates mundane company news or events without offering insight or value to its readers.
Thinking in the mindset of the customer should always be the framework from which content is created and published. An organic vitamin company can safely assume that their customers are going to be interested in content that discusses overall health and wellness. So, an interview blog post with a start-up company that offers organic produce delivery will be more engaging than a marketing-driven post on what types of vitamins are for sale. Content should always provide a benefit or value to the reader. For more information on content strategy, see Chapter 8: Content and Inbound Marketing.
Link building is a set of SEO tactics that results in the creation of hyperlinks from other websites to your own, for the purpose of introducing external readers to your company’s content. The quantity and quality of inbound links is a major factor in the organic search ranking algorithms.
The mindset of SEO has shifted around inbound links, from one of building to one of earning. Instead of focusing on excessive link building, the best sites and brands are working on developing their voice and brand in the market. This, combined with creating the best content, is an ethical and effective approach to raising your profile and search rankings with more links. For a detailed discussion of how to approach links in the current SEO context, see Chapter 7: Link Building Shifts to Link Earning.
Many SEO traditionalists have taken a while to understand the true benefits of social media as it relates to an organic search marketing strategy, but social media does far more than simply ensuring your company is keeping up with the competition. While social media may not directly influence search rankings, it gives companies an additional platform to interact with customers, build their brand, and create a community, all while also driving traffic to their website. For more on the benefits of social media and exactly what it is, see “What is Social Media Marketing, and How Can it Help My Business?”
Social media strategy is different for each company, depending on its target market and what they are interested in. Because of this, not all available social media channels can be a benefit to every company. It’s important to find where your target audience is hanging out online, and to concentrate efforts on those social networks. For help with this, see “How to Determine which Social Media Network Fits Your Business.”
Optimizing and engaging within social networks has not always been a goal of SEO, but should be this year. While SEO campaigns are mainly performed to attract new customers and raise awareness of a business within organic search results, social media focuses on maintaining customers and strengthening relationships with them through strategic engagement.
To wrap up our thoughts on what SEO looks: the best approach for considering SEO is as an integrated framework that uses high quality, regular content to establish authority; social media to gain traction for promotion; and focusing on earning links to build long-term equity with search engines. We’ll now move on and explore some of the recent updates from Google that are impacting SEO and how we think about search.
Chapter 3: Google’s Major Algorithm Updates
Search engine algorithms are based on a simple premise: searchers want an answer to their queries. For any search, there are hundreds or thousands of sites that offer a potential link or insight related to the query. As a result, search engines need to accomplish three goals:
- Disqualify all the sites that aren’t relevant.
- Return a list of sites that are relevant.
- Rank and prioritize those sites in order of importance, to identify which sites are the most relevant.
Because no single factor is sufficient to provide these insights, Google and other search engines use complex algorithms that blend dozens of factors. The exact formula isn’t known, but a range of topics are considered. These include:
- Link authority: number of incoming links, quality of the sites, anchor text used
- On page factors: such as title tags, responsive mobile design, page loading speed
- Brand metrics: search volume for the brand, brand mentions, citations of brand name in connection with specific keywords
- Content: quality and depth of content, frequency of new content updates, reads and shares on social media
Just when you think you’ve grasped the specific details of Google’s algorithm, it’s important to note that changes occur all the time. By understanding the historical trends in what’s changed and staying on top of how things are evolving, website owners stand the best chance of developing and implementing strategies that lead to great long-term rankings. For a more in-depth look at Search Engine ranking factors, see Moz’s annual Search Ranking Factors survey.
Google’s Recent Key Updates
Navigating Google’s current landscape requires not only a general understanding of search engine algorithms and how they operate, but specifics of recent updates. In the last few years, Google has implemented a number of changes that have hit site owners particularly hard. These have focused on four key areas: content and usability, the quality of links, consistency among local search results, and the importance of mobile and how we search. Here’s a closer look at each of these updates and what you need to know to be up to speed.
Google Panda was first introduced in February 2011, and has had several smaller updates rolled out since that. Panda started the ball rolling on the content discussion, focusing on eliminating low-quality or thin sites in favor of those with in-depth, regularly updated content. Panda also tackled sites with too much advertising and poor navigation, when commercial gains were clearly prioritized over user experience. Since Panda, content marketing has increased in popularity with a focus on blogging, on-site content, building off-site content assets through practices like guest blogging, and social media participation.
In July 2012, Google provided a series of questions to help webmasters evaluate whether their sites were in line with the search engine’s quality guidelines. Reviewing these questions provides the best sense of the types of issues Panda addresses, and the types of violations that are likely to get sites into trouble. The questions included:
- Would you trust the information presented in this article?
- Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
- Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
- Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
- Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
- Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
- Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
- Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
- How much quality control is done on content?
- Does the article describe both sides of a story?
- Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?
- Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?
- Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
- For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?
- Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?
- Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
- Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
- Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
- Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
- Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
- Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
- Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
- Would users complain when they see pages from this site?
Google Penguin was the search engine’s response to so-called “black hat” SEO tactics for link building, which was first released in April 2012. Numerous updates have been rolled out since then. Manipulative link building techniques that focused on creating links through “link schemes” were targeted. These included buying links, building thin sites simply for the purpose of linking back to a main site, trading links, comment spam links, and similar tactics.
The era of Google Penguin has required site owners to take a much harsher view on link building. Each site, perhaps for the first time in the history of SEO, is expected to know and own its site link profile. The volume, quality, source, and content of links ultimately fall to the site’s owner. If dubious practices are detected, site owners may be required to audit their entire link profile and work to have poor quality links removed. Today, when building links, it’s smart to ask questions such as:
- Is this a high quality site?
- Is it relevant to my topic or niche?
- What does that site’s link profile look like?
- Will they use diverse anchor text to point to my site?
Hummingbird reinforced everything that had been done through Google Panda and Penguin, but added two specific dimensions. Announced in late 2013, Hummingbird introduced the importance of mobile devices to search. For the first time, mobile responsive designs clearly have taken on increased importance. Many have argued that it’s also critical to have a mobile content strategy: that is, to assume that readers will be accessing your content from a variety of devices including smartphones and tablets and creating your content with a mobile-first mindset. (For more information on mobile-first content strategies, see 10 Steps to Creating a Mobile-Optimized Content Marketing Strategy).
The second, and perhaps more exciting, component of Hummingbird was the introduction of contextual search. Until Hummingbird, search engines typically interpreted queries using what it identified as the most important keywords from a search. But with Hummingbird’s introduction, Google has begun to look at the relationship between terms to interpret context.
Many considered Hummingbird a natural evolution both of Google’s development and of the proliferation of mobile devices. After being in business for 15 years, Google’s developed an incredibly rich and sophisticated Knowledge Graph (or major database of all the information that it’s collected). As more and more users search on mobile devices, searches are evolving from short keyword driven inquiries to being structured the way we naturally speak and ask questions. Hummingbird is helping to ensure that Google is poised to understand and meet that demand.
In mid-2014, Google set its sights on local search results with its Pigeon update. In an attempt to improve and enhance local SERPs, the Pigeon update impacted a significant number of local businesses who found they had fallen out of the top local search results (known as the “local pack”).
In the past, Google’s local search results and general search results showed some variation. For instance, Google’s general search results could vary significantly from Google Maps results. This update was intended to make these results more cohesive by using their core algorithm to rank local sites – for instance, by applying key features like Knowledge Graph, synonyms and spelling corrections to local results.
Finally, Pigeon gave a much-needed boost to local business directories like Yelp, Urbanspoon and Trip Advisor. As users increasingly turn to search to find local businesses and products, Pigeon will help to ensure local users find exactly what they need via search.
Mobile-friendly update (aka Mobilegeddon)
It was no surprise when Google introduced their mobile-friendly update in April 2015. There had been rumblings about just such an update for some time; in fact, Google had even made a formal announcement about the update a month prior.
Because of this, many business owners were poised and ready with fully mobile-optimized sites. This meant the impact of the so-called “Mobilegeddon” was far less dramatic than many predicted.
This doesn’t mean sites didn’t take a hit, however. According to research from Adobe Digital Index, sites that weren’t optimized for mobile showed up to a 10% drop in organic traffic. Other fallout from the update was reported by various agencies:
- Searchmetrics reported a 0.21 position loss in rankings for non-mobile sites (desktop visibility wasn’t impacted)
- Content marketing company BrightEdge reported a 21% decrease in non-mobile friendly URLS on the first three pages of the SERPs
- 3Q Digital found that sites with slow speed and load times appeared to be hit as well, perhaps even harder than non-mobile-friendly sites
To ensure your site attracts its fair share of mobile search traffic, check to see that your site is fully mobile-optimized. Google recommends using their Mobile-Friendly Test and PageSpeed Insights tool to make sure your site is easily accessible on all devices.
Google Future Changes
Recent updates have set the tone for where we can expect future changes to go. There’s an increasing focus on content, links, and mobile presence. As an evolution, it’s expected that future updates will focus on refining these theories and increasing the accuracy of the updates. For example, some experts still believe that a future Penguin link related update will target guest blogging and a 2014 blog post from Matt Cutts seems to confirm that.
If you’re interested in learning more, there are several strategies that can help you stay tuned to the latest changes. Following Google’s Blog and the Webmaster Tools updates are both great places to start. Regularly read industry trend pieces on sites like Search Engine Journal to get inside analysis and perspective from SEO professionals. For more detailed reading on the future of Google’s algorithm evolution, check out SEO: How to Prepare for Google’s Algorithm Updates. Now we’re going to take a closer look at keyword research and how it’s evolved in light of Google’s more sophisticated search features.
Section 2: Strategic Thinking and Tactics for SEO
Chapter 4: Modern Keyword Research
Even five years ago, keyword research was relatively straightforward. Marketers started with a core concept in mind and developed a list of target keywords. You then optimized your site’s pages around those keywords. Each page would focus on a single keyword. As your skills grew, you might expand to focus a page on multiple keywords or a longer phrase (also called a long-tail keyword as explained below). Today, the introduction of Google Hummingbird is shifting our focus to more of a conceptual or topical approach to search optimization.
The Rising Importance of Concepts
Consider for a moment the movie Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. If you search for “the movie where two superheroes battle it out”, Google returns results related to the film. This isn’t because it’s serving up pages that contain the words “superheroes” and “battle.” Instead, it’s associating these two concepts and returning the most logical conclusion: that you’re asking about the popular film.
Many confuse this with long-tail keywords, which is a concept that’s more closely linked with the older paradigm of single keywords. Long-tail keywords are clusters of two, three, or more keywords that follow each other in sequence. Instead of searching for “sneakers,” you might search for “red men’s sneakers.” From the long-tail perspective, Google optimizes for pages that contain all three words. In theory you get a smaller percentage of traffic, but it’s more targeted and more likely to be a good fit for your site, products, and content.
This doesn’t eliminate the importance of keywords. First, many people will still search for “Batman v. Superman” and you need to focus some of your site’s technical optimization on your target keywords. But Google’s increasing sophistication with developing conceptual search has opened many doors for website owners to expand their reach and connect with new visitors. You may also hear this referred to as Latent Semantic Indexing or LSI keywords.
The Types of Keywords That Matter
Depending on how you structure your keyword research, you’re likely going to start with a specific core concept. For example, when you were locating this book as a resource you might have simply searched for “SEO.” As you build your seed list of terms, you’ll quickly expand out to include a number of synonymous and related words.
Your keyword list for SEO probably grew to include search engine optimization, content marketing, online marketing, and so forth. Any good keyword research tool can help you determine related terms, and this is helpful because you can pair it with your audience knowledge to determine what terms your customers and prospects are using.
There are other ways to modify the terms in question however.
- Searcher intent: Consider how you might approach searches related to SEO depending on your intention. If you’re looking for how-to information “How to do SEO” versus hiring a firm “top SEO agency in Toronto” versus answering a specific question “What’s the latest Google SEO update?” Each of these yields different information. Even if you produce information on each of these topics by connecting your keywords to user intent, you’ll get much better conversion and ROI on your content.
- Local or niche context: If you’re focusing on a specific geography, this is a helpful way to modify your keywords. Niche context can also be important; for example “steel industry recruiting” is much more relevant to your audience if you’re writing for steel detailers than just “recruiting.”
- Related keywords and phrases: Searchmetrics has found that high-ranking content contains a high percentage of proof and relevant terms. These are words and phrases that are closely related to the topic you’re writing about. For instance, if you’re writing about iPhones, you’ll need to use the word “phone” and”Apple” (proof terms), and may use words like “app” or “Siri” (relevant terms). Here are some tips for finding proof and relevant terms for your content.
The Role of (Not Provided)
One of the biggest changes to the keyword world was a modification in Google’s policy on providing access to searcher keyword data. At one time, Google made all of its data available for free to anyone that wanted to conduct keyword research and a number of sophisticated tools connected to Google’s API to make it simpler to search the database.
However, Google decided to limit access to keyword terms for searchers that are logged into a Google account (including Gmail and Google Plus). This has impacted the amount and accuracy of data that’s available on the web for marketers to access. According to the site NotProvidedCount.com, 78% of Google’s data is now affected. They anticipate that based on current patterns, this number will reach 100% sometime in 2018.
What this means in practical terms for marketers is that accessing reports in your Google Analytics account will feature some holes in the organic search data, and that you’ll have to have a Google Adwords advertising account in order to use any of Google’s proprietary information. It also means that eventually, you’ll need to rely entirely on other keyword tools to inform your keyword research.
Tools for Keyword Research
There are a number of different tools on the market that can help make your keyword research easier. Some are free, and others offer more customized or advanced functionality for a monthly fee. Our recommendation is simple: find the tool that works for you and don’t overcommit to any one set of results. Consulting at least two tools on any important keyword research project will give you different perspectives. Here’s a partial list of some of the more popular tools on the market.
- Suggestion-based tools, like Google Suggest and Übersuggest
- Search engine tools, including Google AdWords Keyword Planner, Google Trends, and Bing Keyword Tool
- Paid and proprietary tools, such as Keyword Spy, Wordstream, SEO Book keyword tools, SEMrush and Soovle
5 Common Keyword Mistakes
As already discussed, keyword strategies that worked in the past may be ineffective or even harmful now. Following are 5 common keyword mistakes you should avoid in 2016 and beyond.
Optimizing for one keyword at a time: The keyword strategy that worked in 2005 no longer works today. Optimizing your pages for a single keyword leads to missing important opportunities, including better targeting through long-tail terms and building on keyword concepts.
Keyword density: Once upon a time, SEO was built on the idea that there was a magic keyword formula that stated how frequently a keyword should be used. Keyword density is a surprisingly sticky concept, despite the fact that it has no merit in the context. Instead, make sure you use your key phrases in your content frequently enough so that they are present but skillfully enough so that it feels totally natural.
Stuffing: Keyword stuffing is the overuse of keywords in unnatural ways in your site’s metadata or content (e.g. think a title tag that reads “SEO Search Engine Optimization SEO SEO”. It’s bad practice, will turn off readers, and get you hit with a penalty or delisted from search engines altogether.
Keyword-rich domain names: In the past, Google showed a preference for sites that used their keywords in their domain name (e.g., www.bestmenswatches.com). However, several years ago, Google started de-prioritizing sites that were relying on keyword-rich domain names, and that didn’t having high-quality content to back it up. Today, it’s a better strategy to focus on branded domain names that can help build authority and brand recognition. Using your keywords in your domain can still be a viable strategy, however don’t expect it to necessarily improve your rankings.
Disregarding keywords: There’s also a subsection of the SEO world that believes keywords are passé and have no value. This perspective is wrong too. Keywords, like every other area of SEO, are evolving and marketers have to be smarter about research, application, and tracking metrics. But fundamentally keywords are still the core currency of search engines.
Solid keyword research is still a critical foundational component of any successful SEO strategy. If you want more information on how to conduct keyword research step-by-step, we recommend The Definitive Guide to Using Google’s Keyword Planner Tool for Keyword Research. With good SEO keyword data in place, it’s possible to move on to building a site that’s easy to rank. Next, we’ll explore what you need to keep in mind regarding design and on-page optimization for the SEO landscape.
Chapter 5: Design and On Page Optimization: The Building Blocks
A good SEO campaign is built on a strong technical foundation. This means that your basic website structure and on-page SEO elements are optimized. Your design, with a specific focus on your computer and mobile user experiences, also plays an important role. It’s easy to get lost in the world of social media marketing and content development and forget that unless the core components are in place, all the external or more advanced work that you do could be for naught.
The Difference between On-Page and Off-Page Optimization
Before moving forward, it’s helpful to define the difference between on-page and off-page optimization. On-page optimization is what happens from an SEO perspective on your website itself. This includes how your structure your website, how you label your URLs, managing your metadata, and the on-page content. Off-page optimization are the activities that you do on the rest of the internet to promote your site, such as link building and social media promotion. Invest the time at the beginning to structure your on-page content so that your off-page promotion has a maximum effect.
Which Elements of On-Page Optimization Matter
On-page optimization is less sexy that off-page factors, so it often gets short shrift in SEO conversations. A large percentage of on-page optimization is structural and technical, and it doesn’t feel like it yields immediate results. However, knowing which factors of on-page optimization really have an impact this year and can help you focus and get the best results possible with your content and web efforts.
- Frequently updated content: Your website’s content and frequency with which you update it still plays a big role in how well your site ranks. One of the simplest ways to accomplish this is via a regularly updated blog. The ideal strategy would be to update daily, but create and commit a schedule you can stick to. For more information on how active content helps your SEO, see Why an Active Blog is Necessary for a Successful SEO Initiative.
- Heading tags: The way that you utilize heading tags in your content also plays an important role in how that context is indexed. Each page should have an H1 tag that includes your keyword, as well as H2 tags. Keyword usage should be natural, but present.
- Title tags: Title tags remain critical for two reasons. If they’re on message and include your core concepts, title tags help you get ranked for appropriate content. But writing for search engines isn’t enough: title tags are what appears in search results. Title tags must be enticing with a clear call to action to get searchers to click and read more.
- Local marketing elements: If your business has a geographic component, your on-page elements are critical. These include local maps, contact details, and integration with data sources such as Foursquare.
- Alt tags: The alt tags that you use on your images play an important role in your SEO and your accessibility strategy. Alt tags are used to help visually impaired users navigate websites. They also help determine what your images are for, and give your site a chance to rank in Google Image Search.
- URL structure: Your URLs signal to both the search engines and your visitors what your content is about. Make sure your URLs use words rather than numbers (e.g., www.yoursite.com/keyword-research-tools rather than www.yoursite.com/45jx8sfd) so the topic of your page is immediately obvious.
- Appropriate content length: Several recent independent ranking factors studies suggest that longer content has a better chance of ranking. When writing blog posts, aim for a word count of at least 1000-1200 words. Just keep in mind that word count isn’t a replacement for excellent content.
The Elements of a Good User Experience
The other component of a successful on-page strategy is your design and overall user experience strategy. How easy is it for users to find what they’re looking for on your site? At times, it can feel that SEO concerns, artistic vision, and user experience place conflicting demands on how you organize and design your site. When you add the increasing focus on brand and professional design, it’s clear that website owners are asking for significant returns on a single website design. There are a number of areas that you should focus on your design so that it supports your SEO goals, rather than detracts from them:
Clean and easy to navigate: An overall clean and easy to navigate site that makes it simple for users to complete their objectives is important for SEO. This is particularly true in the case of manual reviews, when a cluttered or unprofessional design can cause your site to lose rankings.
Minimal or unobtrusive advertising: Advertising is another factor that has a potentially negative impact on the visitor experience. There’s no problem with having advertising or monetization components on your site, but it should be value first and then advertising. This is true of your design, as well as your content. Your design needs to balance both of these elements.
Mobile responsive design: Since Google’s mobile-friendly update, optimizing our site(s) for mobile is no longer optional. How does your website look when it’s viewed on a tablet or a smartphone? Is it optimized for the wide range of mobile devices on the market, including Apple devices and a variety of Android devices? Your site’s mobile performance now has an impact on your site’s mobile rankings.
Scannable formatting: It’s long been known that web readers prefer short chunks of text that they can quickly scan (rather than reading in their entirety). A recent ranking factors study shows that content with lists – either numbered or bulleted – tends to hold the top spots in the SERPs.
Managing your site’s design from both a brand-building and SEO perspective can be challenging. But investments in these technical elements set your site up for future success. Once you’ve wrapped your head around these concepts, it’s time to take a closer look at your audience and strategies and tools for getting to know them. Strong audience knowledge will form the foundation for all the tools that we explore later in the book.
Chapter 6: Getting to Know Your Audience
One of the most important aspects of a strong marketing campaign – digital or otherwise – is getting to know your audience. At the end of the day, SEO and online marketing are about connecting with customers and prospects. Understanding who they are makes that easier for you to do so effectively on a number of levels. Strategic research and the right kind of analysis can create tools that make it easier for you to understand who you’re working with, informing everything from the language you use in your copywriting and social media updates to how you design your website and other digital products.
Developing Customer Avatars
One approach to developing a better picture of who your customers are involves creating customer avatars. Simply stated, a customer avatar is an embodiment of your typical customer. It’s an approach that can help you capture everything you need to know about a prospect or customer, such as:
- Basic demographic information, like age, gender, income, marital status, geography, and more
- More complex demographic factors that might impact buying, such as their living situation or what type of career they work in
- Their buying style, such as Detailed Researcher or Impulse Buyer
- The underlying emotional or mental problem that they’re trying to solve, in relation to your products or services
- Benefits and brands that they value and that factor heavily into the buying process (i.e. who is the competition and how do they feel about it? What do they value when they’re evaluating your product space?)
- The language that they use to describe the issues at hand
- What types of proof and endorsements they trust, from celebrity spokespeople to in-depth consumer reviews
- The publications, shows, and social media platforms where they spend time
And so on. At the end of the process, marketers end up with a picture that looks something like the following: “Anne is a stay at home mother of three living in the Pacific Northwest. Her biggest concern with purchasing laundry products are budget and health & safety. She also expects the product to be effective, but she considers that an obvious non-negotiable. She researches brands by reading mom blogs, environmental publications, and by talking to her friends. She’s not above an impulse buy, however, if she finds a great deal on a new product from a company she trusts or has heard about before.”
The term “customer avatar” is borrowed from a well-established history of customer segmentation and personas in market research. Typically, a market research firm gathers a large amount of data about your audience and searches for patterns. The patterns that emerge are grouped into similar customers, and each of those segments is given a name that relates to their status or behavior. These descriptive terms could range from “The Home Craft Beer Brewer” to “The Reluctant Millennial Entrepreneur.” Another approach assigns a name to each segment, so you end up with “Carol, The Home Craft Beer Brewer” and “Tyson, the Reluctant Millennial Entrepreneur.”
Customer avatars allow you to create a baseline persona of who you’re trying to appeal to. Depending on the complexities of your business or your audience, you may have several avatars that correspond to different customer segments. The process of building your avatars can give you a systematic way to glean insights about your customers, while the avatars themselves can provide a focal point for your marketing team’s efforts.
The Information You Need and Where to Find It
Embarking on the process of building a customer avatar can be challenging. There are a number of templates available that can guide you. There are three fundamental approaches to gathering more data about your customers or prospects. Most audience profiles are created using some combination of these difference sources, rather than a single point of data.
Existing customer information: You may already have a wide variety of information available on your customers and targets, from demographics and buying details to previous research and website analytics. Start your process by gathering as much information as you have on hand and sorting through it. This will give you a valuable starting point, and also help you identify knowledge gaps and lines for further inquiry.
Extended research: The Web provides a wide range of sources where you can learn more about your targets, from observing them on social media to reading the publications that they read. Observation and data gathering is an important step to fleshing out some of the less tangible details of how your audience structures conversations, discusses their most pressing issues, and the language and vocabulary that resonates.
Conversations with customers: If you have a question that is critical and you can’t find the answer, ask. Customer interviews, focus groups, surveys, and informal one to one chats with customers and prospects can yield critical insights that let you solve a key problem or have a major breakthrough in terms of how to serve your audience.
For more information on how to create effective profiles, see 7 Ways to See What Your Target Audience Wants and Create Epic Content.
Audience Profiles and the Three Pillars
Another way to think about audience profiles is through the lens of the Three Pillars of SEO. If you’re struggling to see the relevance of avatars to your business, let’s take a look at how they can inform your efforts in each of the key areas. You could also consider these conversely: if you’re struggling in any or each of these areas, an avatar could give you a different perspective and a starting point for content creation and engagement.
Content: Content is only effective if it speaks to the reader. Your customer profiles will help clarify who you’re writing for, what topics to focus on, the language, positioning, and calls to action that are effective, and where you should publish to make sure your materials are seen.
Social media marketing: Social media is a broad space, from the major networks to niche sites. Understanding your audience will help you choose the right networks to be active on, what tone to take, and how to create content that connects and fosters the right level of engagement.
Links: Audience profiles can help you create a simple learning loop that informs your link efforts. Understanding your audience will help you target your content and outreach efforts to the sites and publications that they’ll care about and are most likely to read and trust. A secondary effect of this is that you’re also going to choose authority publications that are truly and meaningfully linked to the topic you’re establishing yourself in. This has positive implications for both search engines and audience building.
Audience Profiles & Keyword Searches
There’s an important connection between really understanding your audience and finding the keywords that provide the right foundation for your marketing and SEO. Keyword searches are highly individual, reflecting a user’s vocabulary and intentions. Sometimes the relationship is as simple as understanding how two prospects talk about the same product, e.g. spaghetti and pasta. Both terms refer to the same thing, potentially, but if you don’t know which one your audience uses you’re missing out on a huge opportunity. This is about more than generating a huge list of keyword possibilities; it’s about having the data to filter and prioritize those possibilities in a way that meaningfully connects to your audience.
Understanding your audience can also help you filter buying intent. There are two primary types of keywords, informational keywords and intentional keywords. Informational keywords are simple and tie to a desire to learn more about a specific topic, e.g. “What is SEO?” Other keywords indicate that a searcher has a clear intention to buy, or to move along with a specific process. Consider for example, “Best SEO Agency in Boston.” This searcher is likely looking to speak to someone and learn more, probably with the intent to hire. A closer look at your customer’s buying journey will give you insights into each step of the process, and let you tie that back to your keyword searches in a meaningful way.
Customer Profile Breakdowns
One last note on customer profiles. You often hear about organizations that go through the process of creating audience profiles, only to see them sitting on a shelf gathering dust. Like any tool, audience profiles are only useful if they’re created well and put to use. Here’s a closer look at some of the reasons why avatars don’t make an impact on the business:
- They lack a foundation in data:Customer profiles need to be based on real data. It doesn’t matter how creative and engaging your descriptions are if they don’t offer deep, actionable insights into the mindset and behaviors of your audience. Build strong profiles based on customer data, in-depth research, and interviews and surveys.
- They’re not well-rounded:There are a number of different sources that you can gather customer data. If you base your profiles on limited sources, you may not get the insights that really bring your customers to life. Consider profile written by a sales person with anecdotal experience of customers. How much richer will that profile be if it integrates website analytics, market research report data, and focus group input?
- They’re all data and no soul: You can also fall into the problem where your profiles are simply a list of data. “Male, 18-25, lives on the West Coast, income under $50,000 per year,” yet it fails to really capture the insights that your team needs to make a sale. If your profiles don’t push for a more meaningful analysis into context and motivation, that’s going to limit how useful they are.
- They’re not valued: Finally, some companies simply don’t create a culture where avatars are shared and valued. This starts with education. Ensure that everyone on your team understands how customer profiles are created, how they’re used, and has access to the data. Treat them as a valuable starting point, and they’ll add depth and value to your market efforts.
A solid understanding of your customer base informs everything you do, from linking efforts to content marketing and social media. With this in mind, we’ll take a closer look at how linking practices take shape and what you need to know to create an effective link-focused SEO strategy.
Chapter 7: Link Building Shifts to Link Earning
Links have been a pillar of SEO since the discipline emerged. With the rise of social media and content marketing, it’s easy to imagine a world where links – which are perhaps the easiest factor to manipulate in SEO – are phased out.
But in a 2014 video, Google’s Matt Cutts put that thought to rest. Google tried an experiment where they offered search results that based on all the factors of the present search algorithm, except backlinks. The results were, according to Cutts, terrible. Links remain an important indicator of what content is relevant and important. Here’s what you need to know about current link building approaches.
“Link Building” Tactics
Link building has been significantly impacted by the rollout of Google Penguin. Previously, many SEOs focused on building as many links as possible from different domains. Less attention was paid to the quality of the links, the quality of the sites, diversity of anchor text, and the manner in which those links were created. In fact, entire schemes such as link wheels (creating a ring of sites with the sole purpose of creating networks of links) became common. When Google pushed back, there was significant fallout for many sites.
Techniques that had worked in the past, even though some were acknowledged as being somewhat shady, came under close scrutiny. A long list of approaches fell quickly onto the Link Building Tactics to Avoid list.
6 Link Building Tactics that are Dead
- Buying links
- Trading links
- Link wheels
- Using blog networks
- Anything that smacked of spam, such as excessive or poor quality blog comments and article marketing
- Links from low-quality or irrelevant sites
From Building Links to Earning Links
There’s been a paradigm shift that occurred as a result, moving from building links through the tactics above (or more ethical approaches) to thinking about earning links. In other words, could you earn links by:
- Creating epic content that was so engaging people naturally linked to it in the course of their editorial and online work;
- Promoting your content so that it gets in front of the right people, who are naturally motivated to share and link to your content;
- Building relationships that give influencers in your space comfort in the fact that your work is high quality and valuable enough to share.
Earning links still requires a strategic approach, but it’s less about creating artificial structures that result in links or treating links like a numbers game. The focus, as with other areas of SEO, is on quality and value. Still, there’s an active place for building: instead of focusing on building links, focus on building your brand. If you’re creating high quality content that you’re placing in priority outlets, links will naturally follow as a byproduct of that work.
Finally, it’s important to note that mentions of your brand – even if they don’t link to your site – can also be beneficial for SEO. While “links” used to refer only to direct, explicitly-posted URLs, Google puts some weight on non-linked mentions as well (these are known as “implied links“).
How to Assess the Quality of a Link
Google’s Penguin update underscored the importance of the quality of your links. Nothing can damage your site’s credibility and rankings faster than sketchy links. As a result, it’s critical to assess the quality of a potential link if you’re working to cultivate those connections. Here’s a quick guide of questions to ask before actively pursuing a link to your site:
- Is the site topically relevant to my content?
- Is the design and organization clean and professional?
- What’s the quality of the content that it publishes?
- Is the site overrun with advertising?
- Does the site have an active community, as evidenced by comments, social media engagement, and mentions?
- What does their incoming link profile look like?
- Is there a clear editorial hand at work developing and selecting content?
- Would I be comfortable associating my brand with this site?
By shifting your focus away from tactics that build links and instead investing in earning them, you’re creating a foundation that help you attract links from the top authorities in your space. One of the best strategies for doing so is through content marketing; in the next chapter, we’ll take a closer look at what you need to know about content marketing and inbound strategies that work.
Chapter 8: Content and Inbound Marketing
Content and inbound marketing have risen to prominence in the last few years. Content was once considered necessary, but less important than building links and other tactics that attracted traffic. Today, high quality content is the cornerstone of your interactions with customers and how sites achieve top rankings.
Content marketing has become synonymous with inbound marketing, or the concept that quality content is the best way to attract customers, links, and social interaction. In the inbound marketing sphere, marketers focus on creating strong website content, social media updates, email marketing campaigns and more. High-quality, authoritative content builds your brand and visibility, and carefully designed landing pages use persuasive copy and strong calls to action to move prospects through the buying funnel. Here’s a closer look at what businesses need to know about content marketing.
What Qualifies as Content?
Content refers to a broad range of creative tools that your business creates to educate, attract and delight customers. It includes but isn’t limited to:
- Web page content
- Blog posts
- Articles and guest posts
- Social media updates
- EBooks, white papers, and reports
- Brochures, tips sheets, and product FAQs
- Sales pages
- Videos and micro-videos
- Pictures, infographics, and animated GIFs
Choosing which types of content are right for your customers and right for achieving a specific business goal is at the heart of effective content marketing. Experimentation is one of the best ways to find your voice in the market, both on your site and in the broader digital landscape. Don’t be afraid to try different formats until you decode the approach that’s right for your specific situation.
The Difference between On-Site and Off-Site Content
The onsite content versus offsite content discussion raises a simple, but important question: what type of content is going to best position you for SEO success? If you’re writing great content, should you be posting that on your own site or posting it on other sites with a link back to your own homepage? The answer is, of course, both.
Fresh, quality content on your own site is the cornerstone of most successful content marketing strategies. It’s important to have flagship pieces on your own site that help you rank for your businesses top keywords and core concepts. Off-site content is one of the best ways to visbility for your content and brand. Doing both together will create the synergies that make you what Laura Roeder calls “business famous.”
In the last two to three years, one technique that’s picked up steam is guest blogging. The idea was simple: find a site that’s related to your niche and offer to contribute a post in exchange for a link back to your site. On the surface, it’s an effective and relatively harmless way to accomplish your goals. But like everything in SEO, it has the potential to be abused and that’s exactly what happened. An industry popped up around guest blogging that was shady and smacked of the article marketing abuses of past decades.
Panic ensued when Matt Cutts recently released a video exploring how guest blogging had been misused and going so far as to say that if you’re using guest blogging for SEO and link building, it’s time to stop. If you’re doing low quality guest blogging with poor quality content on low-end sites, this is an important wake-up call.
There is, however, an important caveat to this point. There are a number of reasons that site owners and entrepreneurs should continue with guest blogging – but it’s not to build links or for direct SEO benefit. Instead, it’s to focus on brand building. One of the biggest benefits of guest blogging is getting your material in front of new audiences. When readers see your material on a blog they like and trust, they’re likely to review your materials. This drives traffic, engagement, new followers, and potentially customers and links. But think of guest blogging as a primarily brand building effort, and use care in choosing the sites that you associate your brand with. For more insights into how to properly tackle guest blogging, see “Guest Blogging Dead? Not Even Close!”
Promoting the Content That You Create
One of the most important aspects of any content marketing strategy is developing your content promotion strategy. If no one sees the content that you’ve created, it’s of limited value. While it may ultimately be found through organic search, it’s possible to add rocket fuel to your content by doing some strategic promotion. This has two benefits: the byproducts of links and shares are likely to help your organic performance and at the same time, decrease your dependence on waiting for search engines to notice and promote your content. Here are some different approaches that are effective in getting your content noticed:
Social media promotion: Promote your content through your social channels. Make it easy for readers to share by including social share buttons and a call to action encouraging them to share the content if they enjoyed it.
Connect to the broader conversation: Use features of social media such as hashtags to connect your content to the wider conversation that’s happening about your topics. Websites such as hashtags.org can help you find the right hashtags to promote your content.
Include in your newsletter: Newsletter subscribers often pay attention to different things than the people in your social feeds. Periodically send out round-ups of great content (your own and other people’s that you’ve curated) for extra exposure to your content.
Targeted outreach to influencers: Another strategy that’s extremely helpful for getting attention on your content is following up with influencers in your space. If your content is truly relevant to their audience and high value, a share or personal email can make them aware of your work and prompt them to promote it to their audience. For a helpful framework on doing this strategically we recommend Neil Patel’s Quicksprout Advanced Guide to Contact Marketing.
Publishing to multiple channels: Contently has declared 2016 “the start of the omni-channel publishing era”. It’s no longer enough to only publish content on your own site and expect your audience to come to you. Publish long-form content on various channels (Facebook, LinkedIn Pulse, etc.) so users can enjoy some of your content without having to leave the platform they’re on.
An important tactic for promoting your content is social media marketing. We’ll look at strategies for effective social promotion and engagement in the next chapter.
Chapter 9: Social Media Marketing
Social media’s role in SEO has long been a source of controversy. Its power to mobilize and connect users is undeniable, with multiple networks growing to hundreds of millions of users. For small businesses, the potential to reach customers and prospects is unparalleled. But from an SEO perspective, does social media really impact search rankings? This was the cause of much speculation until a revelation from Matt Cutts: Social signals from Twitter and Facebook aren’t used by Google.
The reason was simple: if Google’s algorithm was built to rely on access to these networks, problems could arise if those networks denied access to Google’s attempts to index the pages. There was also a potential challenge of capturing identity information that was out of date and reporting it incorrectly. As a result, social media pages are treated largely the same as any other site, with a couple of possible exceptions that we’ll discuss below.
The Benefits of Social Media Marketing
While most of your social media activities may not be contributing directly to your site’s search engine rankings, there are numerous benefits for companies with active social media presences. Social media marketing has several significant benefits:
- Increases brand awareness: Strategic participation on the right platforms is a great way to join in your industry’s conversation, get your name in front of potential customers, and build relationships that impact your business.
- Gives your brand an organic, human feel: For many businesses, communication is formal and stiff. Social media requires a different approach, and can be a channel that your brand leverages to communicate in more relaxed and approachable way. It’s a great way to humanize your brand, especially through conversations that evolve in a more organic way.
- The ability to listen: Social media is great as a platform to share content and encourage your fans and followers to amplify it. But social media’s value can only be harnessed when you treat it as a two way conversation. Social listening allows you to monitor brand mentions and watch the most important discussions that are happening around your space.
- Facilitates word-of-mouth marketing: A campaign that drives sharing is one of the best ways to catalyze word-of-mouth marketing.
- Gives you a medium through which to communicate with your customers & potential customers: A major benefit of social interaction is that it gives you a low-cost, low barriers to entry method to communicate with customers and prospects. Whether you’re sharing great content or promoting a sale, your reach is vastly increased by your participation in social media.
- Increases customer loyalty: When customers are regularly exposed to your brand and your materials, it helps position you as a leader and expert in your field. The more deeply they interact with you and see your updates, the more you build the kind of loyalty that translates into relationship and sales.
- Builds consumer trust: Active social media accounts indicate a company that’s got a strong presence, is contactable, and is more likely to be more trustworthy than one without. This is particularly true for companies that are purely digital.
Choosing the Right Social Platform for Your Business
An important aspect of social media marketing is investing your time in the right networks. With a wide range of networks from mainstream networks like Facebook and Twitter to visual platforms like Pinterest and niche sites for specific industries, it’s impossible to have a good presence on every network. Nor is it advisable. The best social media marketing strategy will be different for each business. In fact, the choice of networks for your business should focus on a handful of factors:
- Audience: Invest the most in the networks where your customers spend their time.
- Format: Some formats are a natural fit for your business. If you have a highly visual communications style, Pinterest may be a great choice while blogging may be harder. Find which network leverages your strengths and allow you to tell your story with ease.
- Engagement: If you find a strong community on a particular platform, there may be a natural synergy between your brand and the people that congregate there. The connection may be an intuitive one or a complete surprise.
For more feedback on finding the right social network for your business, see How to Determine Which Social Network Fits Your Business.
Elements of a Strong Social Presence
It’s important to have a strong presence on social media, but what does that look like? There are two main elements of a strong social presence.
1. Social participation is more integrated with content marketing: One of the key aspects of a successful content marketing strategy is social integration. Socially integrated content stands a better chance of being read, shared, and found. Techniques for ensuring this include sharing your content via your social networks as it is published, making it simpler for your audience to share your content online with sharing buttons, and expanding your efforts to connect your content to the broader conversation through topical tagging and content discovery.
2. Social content diversity drives connections: Companies are being forced to move outside the written content bubble thanks to the increase in importance of networks like Instagram, YouTube, and live streaming sites like Periscope. Focusing on visual content is a great way for companies to stand out, attract links, and diversify their content assets.
Social media provides an important venue for connecting with customers and helping increase visibility to your content. We’ll now take a closer look at bringing together link-related efforts, content marketing, and social media for the purposes of building your brand.
Section 3: Getting More Value Out of Your SEO Campaigns
Chapter 10: Building Your Brand
Brand building is increasingly important in the SEO realm. At one time, it was the territory of more traditional marketing initiatives. It’s helpful in a sense to think of the difference between direct marketing and Madison Avenue marketing. With traditional direct marketing, you focus more on a value proposition that speaks to the customer and sells your product or service by creating an urgency to take action. With Madison Avenue marketing (think TV commercial and splashy ads in glossy magazines, for example), the focus is more on building general brand awareness. The idea is that if a consumer hears of a brand, they are more likely to purchase that product or service instead of the competition when they are in a store or need that type of product.
Today, SEO blends these two perspectives. The best SEO campaigns raise awareness of your brand, while giving customers a clear next step or call to action. Building links, creating stellar content, and engaging with your audience on social media are all part of building your brand. Without a unifying vision, however, they’re not enough. Brand building is more than just tactics. It’s a bigger strategy that starts with a clear understanding of who and what you want that brand to be.
Know, Like, and Trust: You and Your Business
There’s a saying that people do business with other people, not with businesses. This maxim is particularly true in the online world. Credibility online is harder to establish than in the real world. When you walk into a brick and mortar, you can easily see the facilities of the store, their inventory on the shelves, and the professionalism of the person behind the desk or counter. The judgments you’re making moment by moment, based on your experience of the brand, help you determine whether a vendor is a safe place to spend your money. But with a website, it’s harder to make that connection. Digital brand building is a deliberate effort to overcome this limitation.
Focusing on building your brand helps personalize your business for potential customers. It gives them a face to focus on, and a voice to associate with what your brand represents. When you’re thinking about developing a strategy to build your brand, I recommend that you start with three questions:
Know: How easily can your prospects articulate what your brand stands for? How well do they know you?
Like: How likeable are you? Do you have a voice that resonates with your audience and that plays in the marketplace?
Trust: Does your business present as trustworthy, reliable, and safe?
Many entrepreneurs and small businesses struggle with the question of how to balance building a personal brand and a business brand. For a more in-depth discussion of this issue, see The Definitive Guide to Building Your Personal Brand.
7 Elements of a Strong Brand
Strong brands across industries have several factors in common. It’s what helps us recognize strong brands and also provide marketers with a blueprint to take action on where to focus to build a strong brand. These qualities include:
- Uniqueness: Something about the brand’s presentation or positioning helps set it apart from the competition. Customers are able to articulate what makes the brand different and therefore valuable.
- Audience knowledge: Great brands are built on strong audience knowledge. They apply this by ensuring that their messaging, quality, and visual presence resonate in a powerful way with the audience that they’re working to reach.
- Passion: Passion sustains great brands. It’s what enables your team to stay focused through hard times, what your executives convey during speaking and writing engagements, and what fires customers up to become your biggest advocates.
- Competitiveness: The companies you remember are the ones that innovate and do something worth remembering. Strong brands understand what their core competitive advantage is, and articulate that and deliver on that promise every time.
- Consistency: Many experts argue that consistency is one of, if not the, most important factor of a brand presence. Across all channels, the best brands present a consistent and united front.
- Leadership: Strong brands have powerful vision behind them, setting the tone and aligning the efforts of the key players to accomplish the most important goals.
- Exposure: Awareness is also a critical part of building a strong brand. Having a strong and sustained presence that connects with customers over time reinforces all the other aspects of a brand.
Strategies for Building Your Brand
Aside from all the common sense elements of building a strong brand, we’d like to make three key recommendations for building your brand digitally this year.
- Produce branded content: Producing branded content is another strategy that will yield significant gains. The focus will be on quality, so a scattershot guest blogging campaign is no longer enough. Instead, readers will be looking for in-depth content that connects to your business’ core values and your most important messages. The more frequently you produce content and the more widely you publish, the better you’ll be positioned as a leader in your space.
- Focus on the channels that make sense for your brand: As already mentioned, you don’t need to be (and actually probably shouldn’t be) active on every social network. Decide which platforms are best aligned with your brand image, and spend your time and money being present and responsive where you’ll experience maximum payoff.
- Audit your consistency: As described above, one of the most important elements of a brand is consistency. This is true about your messaging, visual identity, and quality. It’s easy when you launch a brand building campaign to lose focus on this key element. Are your social profiles visually aligned with your website? Do the publications where you’re posting content have your latest bio? Consistency and attention to detail ensure that your readers have a constant and positive experience of your brand.
Building your brand is one of the major factors that will set you apart. But what happens when all of these steps aren’t enough, or a strategic error gets you into trouble? In the next section, we’ll cover what to do when something goes wrong with your SEO strategy.
Chapter 11: What to Do When Things Go Wrong
Despite your best efforts, you may find that you’ve received a search engine penalty. Penalties range in severity, from a drop in rankings for specific keywords to complete removal from search engine results. Either of these can be catastrophic for your business, if you’re relying on organic search traffic for leads, sales, and exposure. But it’s important to maintain a level head, take stock of what’s happening, and systematically go through the process to repair the damage.
Search Engine Penalty Basics
There are a lot of rumors about search engine penalties. They aren’t random. In fact, in most cases a site’s owner will confess that there’s something they’ve been worried would get them in trouble. Perhaps you engaged in some questionable link building processes in the past or you took other steps that fall into the “bad SEO” category. In other instances, you may not be fully aware of the source of the problem but need to work out the details before you can address the problem. The following process is a quick guideline that you can refer to if you’re facing a penalty.
1. Determine if you’re facing a Manual or Algorithmic Penalty
The first step to addressing a penalty is to determine which type you’re facing: a Manual or Algorithmic.
Manual penalties: Manual penalties are simple to identify. When they occur, site owners typically receive a message via Google Webmaster tools noting that the penalty occurred and offering insights into the source of the problem. Manual penalties vary in severity, ranging from action against a single page or piece of content on your site to the entire domain. Rankings may drop or your site may be removed from the search engine results. The only strategy for dealing with a manual penalty is to look into the source of the problem and submit a reconsideration request. We’ll discuss how to navigate that process in more detail below.
The second type is the algorithmic penalty. Algorithmic penalties occur organically as search engines update their algorithms. Individual changes or updates – for example Google Penguin or Google Hummingbird – impact the rankings for your site and cause them to drop. These may be harder to detect, as site owners aren’t notified. Instead, you may first notice a drop in your organic traffic numbers.
If you suspect a penalty is affecting your rankings, the first step you want to take is to consult your Google Search Console (formerly known as Google Webmaster Tools). Log in, go to “Search Traffic,” and then check the “Manual Actions” section.
If you don’t have any notification of a manual penalty, you need to assume that it’s a result of algorithmic changes. With the wide variety of updates that have occurred, it’s helpful to determine which change is driving the penalty. Is this a Google Panda problem, referring to an issue most likely with your content; a Google Penguin issue, that may indicated a problem with your link profile; or a mobile optimization concern linked to Google Hummingbird? The timing the penalty occurred (as in, if it was connected with a known algorithm update), combined with your own knowledge of the site and which pages were affected, can give you quick insights.
For an overview of algorithm updates and when they occurred, see Moz’s Google Algorithm Change History.
2. Target the solution to the problem
After you’ve figured out the source of the problem, you’re ready to apply the right solution.
For manual penalties, start by reviewing the notice that you received from Google. Study its contents and make a list of the areas that you need to address. If, for example, the issue relates to manipulative link building its time to complete a full audit of your link profile. Do you have links that you bought, that are from poor quality sites, or that are from sites that are irrelevant to your niche? If so, this can be addressed by removing as many links as possible. You can then move on to submitting a reconsideration request.
It’s harder to address algorithmic penalties, since your first need to determine the cause. Once you’ve tied it to a specific update, you’ll be able to better zero on the right solution. For example, if you’ve tied the problem to Panda you need to face that your site has usability issues. It’s time to audit your content quality, content volume, content originality, site speed, and overall structure and navigation. Penguin penalties require that you take a look at your link profile, conduct link audits, and where necessary remove links and submit disavows. By tackling
3. Implement a new strategy
Recovering from penalties are difficult: they take time, energy, and human and financial resources. You’re losing brand equity, revenue, and customers when your site’s not ranking well. The best way to avoid a penalty is to commit to an ethical, value-driven strategy moving forward. Focus on over delivering to your audience through your content strategy, gaining exposure via social media marketing and earning high quality links. This approach will never backfire!
Link Audits and Google Disavow
If you suspect that bad link building practices might be at the root of your problems with site penalties, it’s time to conduct a link audit. Link audits let you take a closer look at all your incoming links and assess their quality. For a full, in-depth tutorial on conducting a link audit, we recommend Neil Patel’s invaluable How to Perform an SEO Audit (Templates Included). Depending on the results of your audit, it’s to move the discussion to looking at how best to remove bad links from your site.
Google launched its Disavow tool in 2012. The focus is simple: if there are bad links pointing to your site that you can’t remove any other way, the Disavow tool can do that for you. You can submit a list of sites that are low quality for Google’s consideration. Disavow doesn’t remove links, but the tool signals to Google that you’d like for these links to be ignored when search engine results are considered. Remember: Google Disavow doesn’t solve every issue with bad links and it’s important to proceed cautiously when you’re using it.
Google’s Matt Cutts explained in a video that it’s best to use the tool both judiciously and strategically. Don’t just upload every bad link to your site to the Disavow tool and consider your job done. Cutts specifically states that Google wants site owners to make multiple attempts to get bad links removed before using Google Disavow.
To repeat: it’s critical that you make a good faith effort to get links removed before resorting to this step. Start with identifying the offending sites and reaching out to them via email to request the link be removed. Sending numerous email requests (sometimes even in the hundreds or thousands can be incredibly time consuming) but it’s well worth the effort. These steps will help you avoid future penalties and be an important component of any reconsideration request you submit. For more detail on which links to remove and how to handle the Disavow process, see How to Know Which Links to Disavow in Google.
How to Manage an Outreach Campaign
It’s important to structure your outreach campaign for link removal in a way that’s easy to track and also can be submitted with any removal requests as backup. Consider taking a systematic approach that you record in a spreadsheet or other document with the following information:
- Site name
- Link URL
- Keyword anchor text
- Page URL that the link goes to
- Contact information
- Details of the contacts
Attempt to connect with site owners at least three times before you discontinue your campaign. Send a personalized message, and add a copy of your email contact to your file so you can quickly follow up and reference the contact. If after the third try you haven’t heard back or they’ve refused, just add the site to your Disavow file. One note: you’ll occasionally get a dishonest site owner that will request money to remove your link. If that’s the case, never pay. Instead, just note it in your spreadsheet (including a copy of their email response) and move on.
How to Submit a Reconsideration Request
If Google hits you with a search engine penalty and you’ve taken the steps to correct the problem, it’s time to submit a Reconsideration Request. Reconsideration requests can be submitted via Google Webmaster Tools. There are three guidelines to keep in mind for a successful Reconsideration Request:
- Ensure you’ve done the work up front: One of the most important aspects to a successful reconsideration request is ensuring you’ve truly addressed the problems before you submit. If the problem is with links, have you removed all the offending links? If your issue is one of usability, have you restructured your site with the user experience in mind? Take the most rigorous perspective possible – because you know Google will.
- Submit backup: If you’re facing manual penalties or are submitting a reconsideration request to Google, note this information in your file. Include your spreadsheet outlining the work you’ve done to have links removed and what you’ve submitted to Disavow. Be as detailed and comprehensive as possible, remembering that this provides important evidence of your commitment
- Take responsibility and demonstrate your plan: Once you’ve identified the source of the problem, it’s important to take responsibility, demonstrate your commitment to change, and lay out a plan for moving forward. For example, if your issue was with content, you might note that you’ve created an editorial calendar and added a noted freelance writer to your staff. Google doesn’t impart manual penalties lightly, and taking responsibility and learning from the experience makes them more likely to forgive moving forward.
4 SEO Tactics that Will Result in Penalties Every Time
There’s a growing list of SEO tactics that are more likely than not to push you into Google’s bad graces. We’ve touched on these in several places, but here’s a checklist of the SEO approaches that should be avoided at all costs. If you’re currently engaging in any of these approaches, stop today and start the process of improving your site now before you get into trouble.
- Content spinning, scraping, or duplication: High quality content is a must-have for every SEO strategy. Poorly written content, content stolen from other places, and duplicate content are all signs of a bad site and one that’s going to get you slapped with a penalty.
- Buying links: Links are one of the most important aspects of a good search engine ranking. They’re also the biggest area of pitfalls. Don’t ever buy a link to your site. It violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and is a major target of search engine crackdowns. Instead of buying links, focus on earning them organically and building them naturally with great content.
- Links from poor quality sites: The days of building massive numbers of links from low quality sites, from blog networks, or from link wheels are over. If you have links from sites that aren’t in your niche or that were created explicitly for the purpose of building links (and nothing else!), it’s time to remove those.
- Overusing anchor text: Whether you’re guest posting, earning links, or taking another approach to link building, webmasters must pay attention to their link profile. If roughly more than 30% of the links pointing at your site use the same anchor text and it’s not your brand name, it’s a red flag. Instead, look for a balanced range of links that use more diverse anchor text.
Finally, we’d like to take a look at how to maximize the value of conversion testing and metrics to ensure you’re getting the best result possible for your SEO efforts.
Chapter 12: Conversions & Metrics
Metrics are an integral part of a solid SEO strategy. Not only can metrics help you determine what’s working and refine what’s not, but it’s the best way to manage your ROI and identify untapped opportunities. Knowing what to measure and what to do with the data when you get it makes the difference between seeing serious results and simply putting content into the ether.
Why Analytics Matter in SEO
There are numerous resources online that offer in-depth perspectives on which metrics matter in SEO. We’d like to take the approach of understanding strategically why you need to collect data and how to develop a data strategy that’s right for your site and business. It all begins with defining your business goals, and explicitly determining how that connects to your SEO campaign.
Campaigns can have a wide variety of reasons. For example, if you’re focused on developing your audience then metrics such as newsletter sign ups and engagement on social media matters significantly. If you’re building your brand, you might instead be looking at the power behind brands you’re associated with. When you’re focused on the bottom line, the metrics that truly matter are revenue, profits, conversions, and repeat customers. There are hundreds of metrics that can be measured in SEO – but not every metric has relevance in every situation.
If you’d like to learn more about specific metrics, we recommend Searchmetrics’ annual Ranking Factors Study.
Get Away From Vanity Metrics
Your analytics and data collection is only useful insofar as it improves your business. If you’re measuring factors which are interesting to know but don’t translate to action or profits, you have an opportunity to pare down your focus. The concept of vanity metrics has been discussed: they are metrics that show you something is happening but don’t give you insights you can take action on or relate to your bottom line. Vanity metrics can also mislead you, giving you false information that distracts you from what’s really important.
The truly important metrics for any business break down to:
- Revenue: customers, sales, lifetime value, profits
- Customers: leads, subscribers, repeat buying behaviors
- Conversions: points in your marketing funnel that are driving people to take action (or not, and where those can be improved)
Everything outside of these areas is useful only when it:
- Shows short-term results: For example, you might track growth on a specific social network in the short-term as a sign that a social media marketing campaign is getting traction. But long-term, you’re going to much more concerned with whether a specific network is driving traffic, whether that traffic is converting, and the overall level of engagement (comments, social shares, conversations) you’re having with that audience.
- It answers a specific question: You might have specific questions about an area such as your content marketing. Which pieces of content are the most popular with prospects? This insight can give you quick, actionable results that determines the direction of a campaign that you’re running. Therefore, this type of metric can have significant strategic value – when it’s analyzed with a “just in time” or lean mentality behind it.
For a more in-depth look at vanity metrics, check out KISSmetric’s piece: Metrics, Metrics on the Wall, Who’s the Vainest of them All?
Conversion Testing: Capturing the Value of Your Traffic
No discussion on measurement in online marketing would be complete without looking more closely at conversion testing. You work hard to get traffic to your site through a wide variety of tactics, from improving organic search results to running resource intensive guest posting campaigns. But what happens to your traffic when it arrives to your site? If it’s not converting – that is to say, if you’re visitors aren’t turning into customers and sticking around – your investment into an SEO strategy is largely for naught.
Conversion testing offers a structured way to understand what aspects of your marketing are working and which ones aren’t. The easiest way to understand conversion testing is to look at the concept of A/B testing. In an A/B test, two different versions of the same thing (so, for example, two headlines for a marketing email or two different colors of headers) are compared. The two versions are shown the segments of the audience, and which one converts better is measured.
In the case of two headlines, 5% of viewers who saw it might click on version A while 20% click on version B. The marketer is then able to use that information to share the higher converting headline with a wider segment of the audience and drive up conversions and profits as a result. Conversion testing can be used throughout the online marketing ecosystem, from your email marketing to your blogging. If it’s part of a systematic testing program, conversion testing can result in incremental improvements that have significant impact over the life of your campaign. To learn more about how to structure conversion testing, see Qualaroo’s The Beginner’s Guide to Conversion Optimization.
In our next and last chapter, we’ll offer you a closer look at some of our favorite tools and resources for all the areas of SEO that we’ve explored.
Chapter 13: Tools & Resources for Further Education
Tools from Google
Google offers a number of tools that should be in every SEOs toolkit.
- Google Analytics
- Google Search Console
- Google Keyword Planner Tool
- Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test
- Google PageSpeed Insights
Link Building Tools
- BuzzStream – link research and link building tool
- Ahrefs – backlink checker and analysis tool
- Majestic SEO – backlink checker and site exploration tool
- Open Site Explorer – discover new linking opportunities
- Link prospector – helps users build targeted backlinks
- Inspyder Backlink Monitor – backlink analysis tool
- Searchmetrics – helps track rankings and stalk your competition online
- GSA Search Engine Ranker – niche backlink building tool
- Link Emperor – tool used to build authority links
- ScrapeBox – pinging, commenting, link building tool
Content Marketing & Copywriting Tools and Resources
- Percolate – Content marketing platform.
- UberFlip – Content hub creation
- Revcontent – Content curation
- Outbrain – Content curation
- Curata – Content creation software
- Optimizely – A/B testing for more effective content
- Parse.ly – Predicts content performance with audience
- Convert – A/B testing for more effective content
- Copyblogger – Tools and resources for content marketers
- ProBlogger – Building a better blog
- SEOBook – Optimizing your blog
Social Media Marketing Tools & Resources
- Brand24 – social sentiment/brand, name mentions tracker
- Mention – social sentiment/brand, name mentions tracker
- SocialOomph – fully integrated platform, allows you to schedule content across networks, track mentions, engage with followers, etc.
- Tweetdeck – engage with Twitter followers in real-time, track mentions and engagement
- twazzup – Twitter monitoring
- Social Mention – sentiment tracking, analytics
- Hootsuite – content management, engagement tracking, scheduling platform
- Social Media Examiner – tips for using social media for business
- Social Media Marketing Magazine – industry publication for social media marketers
- RazorSocial – social media marketing blog
- Jon Loomer – advanced Facebook marketing blog
- SocialMouths – social media marketing blog
- Wordstream – PPC marketing tools and blog
- Bruce Clay PPC tutorial – outlines PPC basics and provides suggestions
- Google Keyword Planner – PPC keyword research tool
- Wordstream’s guide to choosing a PPC platform – great guide to help
- Local SEO guide – great guide on local SEO
- Optimizing for local search – everything you need to know to optimize your local listings
- Local search tips – here are tips to rank your business locally
- Local SEO tools – locals SEO tools are very different than regular SEO tools. This guide teaches you all the tools you need in your local SEO toolkit
Conclusion: Bringing It All Together
SEO defies a lot of the conventional wisdom. Things are changing fast, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Remember that the core of a strong SEO strategy relies on creating great content, engaging with an audience via social media, and earning high quality links along the way. The best way to get started is to put these tactics into action building your own site and brand. If you follow the path we’ve laid out here, you’ll be on your way to a high-ranked authority site with sustainable rankings that will keep you at the top of the search engines.