Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, has become an indispensable tool for anyone with a website. It's what makes your website appear at the top of the search page; above your competitors. Good SEO is why some businesses succeed; and poor SEO is why other businesses fail.
It's value simply can't be understated.
So how do we go about navigating this complex world of strategy and tactics?
Well, for starters, the primary search engine to optimize for is Google. In 2016, Google handled nearly 80% of all internet search queries, making them the clear market leader.
Google also makes a point of constantly updating and improving its search algorithm to deliver a better user experience. Staying ahead of these updates can be challenging, and is reason enough to hire a professional, but the basic principles have remained the same.
So what are the keys to doing it right?
It starts with taking a good, hard look at what's already working and understanding what is trending among your target audience.
1. Competitor Analysis
Your competitors websites can offer remarkable insights into what your customers are already searching for. Once you establish what that is, you can optimize your website to cater to those same search queries.
But it's not as easy as simply pulling-up their website.
You can also try entering generic keywords into Google search and see what recommendations Google makes to complete your inquiry. The Google algorithm will suggest the most popular search phrases related to the keyword you typed.
Write them down.
These are the most popular phrases people are using when they search for information about you, your competitors, and the products you sell.
Then take it one step further and click on the first thing that Google suggested; and when you reach the search results page (commonly referred to as an SERP) scroll down to the very bottom and take note of the 'Related Searches.'
Write them down too.
These are similar queries people used when searching for the same information. They'll likely aide you in accounting for variations in language.
They can also give you hints as to what terms are being used by both the amateurs and professionals who are looking for this information.
Google makes a point of prioritizing websites that can be useful to both types of users.
Now we've got something to work with.
Competition Analysis is a critical prerequisite for our next two steps and it's imperative that we establish what the most relevant keywords and search phrases are before going any further; but now that we have them, it's time to take action.
2. Rich, organized content; optimized around the correct keywords
OK, so we know what the most popular keywords and search phrases are for our product... now what? Where are the important places on my website for these keywords and phrases to appear? And how do I make them look organic?
In 2013, Google announced that they had made a major update to their algorithm that they called Hummingbird. The main idea behind the Hummingbird update was for the Google search algorithm to take whole phrases and sentences into account, rather than just individual keywords.
The theory behind the update was to prioritize websites with valuable content and useful information over sites that were just looking for attention by including a string of popular keywords somewhere on the landing page.
Instead Google engineers suggested that webmasters, bloggers, and other content creators begin phrasing headers in the form of questions; and that the same headers precede useful and relevant information.
"Where do I find.....?" "How do I.......?" "What are the best.....?"
If there's a header on your page that matches a common question related to your product, your website has a much better chance of finding it's way to the top of the organic search results of a SERP than a website that uses blunt or non-conversational language, doesn't make use of header tags, and doesn't actually help the user.
A good strategy is to have some kind of informational or FAQ page on your website that you can use as a space to store information designed to attract search queries.
Make sure you take the time to incorporate the most popular keywords and phrases that you uncovered in step #1 of this blog post; and be as generous as possible when writing the answers.
Google loves content that adds value.
You can take this one step further and incorporate keyword-rich headers onto your landing page that link to the relevant parts of your website.
It's also a good idea for the text of the link (commonly referred to as 'anchor text') to match the main header of the page it links to.
You'll want to use those same keywords when naming the images on your page as well.
Having unique and appropriate headers for each page is a good idea too.
Each of these small measures gives Google a slightly better indication that users will find your page relevant to what they're searching for; which is Google's #1 priority; and this same principle makes for an excellent segue into our next strategy...
3. Optimize for Hyperlocal
What does hyperlocal mean? Hyperlocal refers to matters concerning a small community or geographical area; and it accounts for a dramatic portion of Google searches.
According to retailers, up to 82% of consumers do research online before buying a product; including products that are eventually bought in brick-and-mortar stores.
In 2015, Google announced that search queries ending with "near me" or "nearby" had increased two-fold since the previous year, and that over 80% of those searches originated from a mobile device.
So what do we do with this information?
Google need a way to know that your business is relevant to a local searcher. This means including your geographic location in several key places. Here are three of the most important:
Your URL. For instance, use www.BobsShoesSanDiego.com instead of just www.BobsShoes.com. In fact, if "Bob" were a client of mine I'd advise him to buy both domains and point each of them towards his website.
Including the name of your location in URL tells Google that your site is much more likely to be relevant to a searcher who might be looking for a nearby business.
Keywords. Remember the same keywords we optimized for in the previous step? Your geographic location should be one of them.
Maybe think about incorporating your location into some headers; (example: "What areas do we serve?" or "How long have we been serving the ______ area?" or "Where are you located?"
Your Page Title. Page titles are visible when saving a website to your 'favorites,' or sharing a website on social media. It's what you see in your browser tab when you're looking at a website and it's the clickable first line of a search result on a SERP so including the name of your location in your page title is critical for attracting local searches.
This brings us to our next SEO strategy:
4. Optimize for Mobile.
In 2016 the majority of Google searches were made on mobile devices. Google won't say what the exact percentage is, just that mobile searches accounted for the majority; and there's every reason to think that the mobile trend will continue.
This led Google to announce that they will begin giving better rankings to pages that have been optimized for mobile devices.
They even developed a new online publishing format called AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages.) Think of it as HTML for mobile devices and mobile web browsing; and using it will give you a distinct advantage over websites that don't.
For users of WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) website creation tools like Wix.com, switching to AMP might be just as easy as clicking "Yes" where it says: "Use AMP?" But for the rest of us, it's best to just contact your webmaster and ask the question in plain English: "Are we optimized for mobile?"
There's another tool for giving you insight into your website's mobile performance and it's the topic of our next strategy....
5. Make Use of Google Search Console (formerly known as Google Webmaster Tools)
Google Search Console is a free tool that Google provides to help website creators optimize their site's visibility and search ranking.
Google Search Console also contains a tool for checking your website's mobile performance.
It even helps you highlight key points of information from your site's content so that Google can make those items appear on the SERP beneath your page entry or on the right side of the screen.
Trust me, it's a good thing.
You can also see how you measure up in other ways that Google uses to determine your page ranking; such as loading time, crawl errors, broken links, server connectivity, and DNS records.
If you're not familiar with Google Search Console, I highly recommend taking a look at it.
Again, it's FREE; and immensely powerful.
But before you can start using this amazingly powerful tool, you'll need to prove to Google that you actually own your website.
Google provides a variety of options for going about this, but they all involve getting into the source code of your website so if coding isn't your thing, this step might also be best left to a professional.
OK, so we've talked a lot about what you should be doing to help boost your SEO score, but what about the things you shouldn't be doing?
What are the things that might count against you in the eyes of a search engine algorithm?
These are important questions to be asking and they bring us to our last SEO strategy...
6. Play Fair.
Google is constantly changing it's algorithm to prioritize good, value-adding, content-rich websites over sites that don't ultimately help the user.
Every time someone comes up with a new way of tricking the search algorithm, Google figures out a way to guard against it.
They know which websites will end up being the most relevant to people who enter certain search queries because they know how much time previous searchers with the same questions spent on the same pages.
If people hit the 'Back' button right after arriving on your page, Google becomes less likely to show your page to the next searcher with the same question.
On the other hand, if searchers find the information they were looking for on your page (and spend a few minutes reading your content) Google will reward you with a higher search ranking.
At the end of the day, honesty remains the best policy.
So what are they major pitfalls that content creators should be avoid when authoring websites, blog posts, and other forms of online media?
What does playing fair look like?
For starters, your website needs original content. Images and text that gets copied and pasted from other pages isn't going to do you any favors when Google assigns your page rank.
The same is true for automatically generated content, such as RSS feeds. You'll also want to avoid long strings of keywords that aren't used in a natural way, such as in sentences.
Linking schemes are another big 'no-no.'
This used to be one of the best ways to boost your search ranking, but that all changed in 2012 when media pundit and LGBT activist Dan Savage exploited this tactic with remarkable success during the presidential election that took place that year.
I'm guessing most of you remember exactly what I'm talking about.
But for those of you who don't, here's the gist of the story:
Dan Savage, an openly-gay man, took issue with then presidential candidate Rick Santorum's views on homosexuality and gay rights.
So Dan Savage created a webpage that associated Mr. Santorum's last name with one of the most vulgar and graphic homosexual acts he could think of.
Savage then encouraged anyone who felt the way he did about Mr. Santorum's beliefs to link to this page.
The results of this little endeavor became headline news.
For months, anyone who entered the name Rick Santorum into the Google search box quickly came to regret it.
The page that Dan Savage had created stayed firmly in the #1 position and consistently outranked Rick Santorum's own campaign page (which ironically ranked at #2) and 'Santorum' continue to spread throughout cyberspace.
Google eventually adjusted their algorithm to prevent these types of schemes and no longer places any significant amount of faith in backlinks.
In fact, they often penalize pages that host too many backlinks.
Hopefully you've found some of these suggestions helpful.
SEO isn't rocket science but it can be overwhelming if you're not a computer person; so if that's the case, take my advise and hire a professional.