Search engine optimization (SEO) is an essential aspect of digital and inbound marketing. If you have a business and a website, you’ve probably taken at least some measures to help your site rank higher in the search engines. In fact, you are almost certainly using SEO tactics even if you don’t realize it. For example, when you write a blog post on a topic that you know your audience is interested in you are following some of Google’s most important guidelines. A large part of ranking your website comes down to finding the right topics, titles, headings, and keywords for your audience. At the same time, you probably aren’t doing as much as you could to optimize your content.
It’s also likely that you find SEO confusing. Even if you’re familiar with some of the principles, you may not understand how or why they work. There’s also the fact that the rules and algorithms are always changing.
If this is all a bit overwhelming for you, don’t worry. You’re far from alone. With the rules changing every few months and new technologies and trends emerging all the time, you really need to be an expert to stay on top of it all. Fortunately, we’re specialists in inbound marketing and it’s our job to stay current with the latest happenings in this dynamic field. In this article, we’ll provide you with a comprehensive look at SEO: what it is, why it’s so important, and how you can make the most of it.
What is Search Engine Optimization?
In simple terms, search engine optimization is the process of getting your website noticed by Google and, to a lesser extent, other search engines. The goal of SEO is to get your site ranked on the first page of the listings so people searching can easily find you. When people search on Google, they type in certain words and phrases such as “how do I housebreak my dog?” “Where’s the nearest pizza place?” or “Best dentist in Seattle.” Identifying the most profitable keywords for your business is one of your biggest challenges.
Google ranks sites based on a complex algorithm that it does not publicly release. However, by studying which sites are ranked highest and testing various methods, it’s possible to identify the major criteria Google uses for ranking. Furthermore, Google does provide general guidelines for improving your ranking.
- Quality Content. While the concept of “quality” is not precise, it basically means content that provides solid value to customers (i.e. people using search engines). While your goal as a business is to make a profit, Google’s main concern is that its users get the information they’re seeking. That’s why you should always write for your audience first and foremost and not for search engine algorithms.
- Keywords. In all of your content, you need to be aware of using the keywords that your audience is searching for. Some keywords are more competitive than others and you have to consider this when you attempt to rank for them. Keyword research is a large part of SEO and you can start by using free keyword tools such as the Google Keyword Planner.
- Links. There are inbound, outbound, and internal links. Inbound links, also known as backlinks, are a somewhat controversial topic in SEO because Google is quite strict about penalizing sites that attempt to game the system with low-quality links. However, it’s still valuable to get links from authoritative sites. Outbound links are ones you put in your content that point to other sites. Internal linking is within your own site when you link from one page or post to another. All of these, when properly done, can make your site more authoritative.
- Security. Google is increasingly using security as a ranking factor. You need a security certificate on your website or you could be penalized. Security certificates are tools that encrypt data sent between users and websites to protect privacy. You can recognize a site that’s protected by the HTTPS (HyperText Transfer Protocol Secure) protocol.
- User experience (UX). Users should be able to easily navigate your site and find what they’re looking for. This includes factors such as menus, page-loading speed, and layout.
- Metadata. This refers to tags and meta descriptions, signals that help search engines identify what your content is about. Title tags and descriptions allow Google to produce snippets, the short descriptions people see when they do a search. This can help you get more clicks to your site.
- Mobile-friendliness. According to Statista, more than half of all global internet traffic now comes from mobile devices. In the future, mobile will most likely become even more dominant. That’s why Google has a Mobile-Friendly Test to make sure your site is optimized for mobile.
- These are just some of the leading factors Google currently considers when ranking websites. SEO is actually a complex art that demands attention to a wide variety of details.
Why is SEO Important?
As long as people use search engines to find websites and information they’re seeking, SEO will continue to be a crucial consideration for businesses. The following are some of the leading reasons why you need to create a strong SEO strategy for your business.
The Most Effective Way to Drive Traffic
Even in the age of social media, Google still drives an immense amount of traffic. According to one study, in fact, Google drives 300% more traffic to websites than social media. SEO is also 85% more effective than PPC advertising for driving traffic.
Helps You Build Trust
People who find your site after doing a search are always seeking information of some kind. In an age when people are getting suspicious and tired of advertising, SEO is a way to showcase natural authoritative content that helps you build trust with your audience. Google is increasingly rewarding sites that provide quality content, such as long-form blog posts. This type of content is especially good for getting leads.
Works Well With Other Types of Marketing
While it’s useful to point out the benefits of optimizing your website for search engines, the best approach is to use a variety of strategies in harmony. SEO is not a standalone strategy. You won’t see results unless you implement a diverse strategy. Social media and paid advertising, for example, have their place. In fact, they can both enhance your SEO campaigns. For example, someone who has already seen your organic content may be more receptive to an ad. When you use multiple marketing tactics, they complement one another.
SEO is Part of the Mobile Revolution
Mobile phones and tablets have overtaken desktops and laptops. Mobile search is faster and more efficient than on computers. People often use mobile search while on the road and searching for local businesses. Businesses that want to be found by today’s customers need to optimize their sites for mobile search.
Does Your SEO Need Improvement?
Most websites could use some improvement with SEO as it’s an ongoing process with new challenges and competition constantly arising. Some sites, however, need more work than others in this area.
The simplest way to test your site’s SEO is to make a list of your most important keywords and enter them into Google and see what happens. If your website doesn’t appear on the first page, you could use some help. If you can’t find your site in the first 10 pages, you really have your work cut out for you. If this is the case, however, don’t despair. Once you start making adjustments, you can make steady progress fairly fast.
Google itself has some free tools such as Search Console. If your website isn’t connected to Google Search Console you should enter it as soon as possible. It reveals some valuable information such as traffic, where your traffic is coming from, links to your site, how you’re ranking with keywords, and more. If you use WordPress, a plugin such as Yoast can help you see how you’re doing with SEO for individual posts. The benefit of this approach is that you can make improvements on the spot.
Keep in mind that SEO solutions are not a quick fix. Anyone who promises an overnight solution is probably selling something you should avoid (such as low-quality backlinks). A truly effective strategy requires consistent effort, testing, and tweaking.
Common SEO Mistakes
There are many SEO mistakes that do you more harm than good when it comes to ranking your website. Unfortunately, missteps in this area can cause you serious problems. Google could be penalizing your site without you even realizing it. Here are some of the more common mistakes that hold back many businesses.
Lack of a Strong Content Strategy
Google rewards quality content above all else. While this may seem a little vague, Google has made it clear that it’s looking for information that’s original and valuable to readers. One of the worst content marketing mistakes you can make is to not publish content regularly. The less content on your website, the less there is for the search engines to index. So the very first rule of SEO is to make sure you’re publishing consistently.
Overlooking Longtail Keywords
Longtail keywords are highly targeted and less competitive keywords. While primary keywords are usually obvious, longtails can take research to uncover. You can use tools such as the Google Keyword Planner or other SEO tools to do keyword research. Longtails may include location-based keywords, names of competitors, and narrow niche keywords. For example, “intermittent fasting” is a fad right now and a very competitive keyword phrase. “Intermittent fasting pros and cons” is broader.
When you do keyword research, you want to discover as many keywords as possible and test them in your content (as well as advertising). If you only focus on primary keywords it will be very difficult to compete. Popular keywords are both extremely competitive and broad. Suppose, for example, that you’re marketing natural dog food. Ranking for the word “dogs” would be both difficult (because of the term’s popularity) and too broad to be helpful. People may be looking for pet shops, dog training, dog videos, or general information about the animal. “Dog food” is a bit more specific but still fairly general. “Natural dog food” is more specific. You might also include longtail keywords such as “natural dog food for puppies,” or “best natural dog food for older dogs.”
Even if certain longtails aren’t heavily searched, it’s still worthwhile to rank for them as long as you know some of your customers are searching for them. The best strategy is to find a balance between popular keywords and ones that are more niche-specific.
Not Making the Most of Anchor Text
Anchor text refers to words that are hyperlinked in your content. There are two common mistakes that people make with anchor text. The first is failing to include keywords in anchor text. If you hyperlink expressions such as “Click Here” or “Contact us for more information,” you’re making this mistake. This is a waste of anchor text as these are not keywords.
The other mistake is at the opposite extreme: using too many keywords. You shouldn’t be using anchor text for the same keywords more than once in a single piece of content. This is over-optimizing your anchor text. You want to find the right balance. Always use anchor text with keywords but do so sparingly.
Buying Backlinks or Low-Quality SEO Services
Some businesses are so anxious to rank their sites that they resort to questionable SEO practices such as buying bulk backlinks on sites such as Fiverr. Ever since Google introduced the Penguin and Panda updates (informal names given to search engine algorithms), it’s been harder to rank using such SEO shortcuts. In some cases, you’ll get a brief spike in your rankings from these “blackhat” tactics but in the long run, you’ll most likely get penalized.
Another backlink strategy that Panda rendered obsolete is publishing content on article directories (e.g. Ezinearticles) and other sites known as content farms. Google is very much opposed to publishing content primarily for the sake of getting links. If Google sees that you’ve suddenly acquired a large number of backlinks it’s likely to set off a red flag. Your link-building strategy should be natural and focused on reputable and authoritative sites.
Overlooking UX and On-page SEO Factors
Google wants to make sure websites are delivering a positive and helpful experience to visitors. That’s why UX (User Experience) is important for SEO. If your pages load too slowly, or your navigation is confusing you need to address these issues. You should be concerned about UX even apart from SEO as it affects your visitor experience and conversions as well. People are more likely to remain longer on a site with an appealing layout and navigation than one that’s cluttered and confusing. Meta titles and descriptions, which we already mentioned, are crucial to on-page SEO. Here are a few other factors that are also relevant.
- Optimized URLs. Your URLs should be keyword-rich and match the names of your posts and pages. If you use WordPress, you can set this under Settings and Permalinks structure. Set it for “post name.” You don’t want to use the default structure which contains random characters. Your URL should look more like www.mysite.com/my-latest-post rather than www.mysite.com/post1378.
- Use H1, H2, and H3 tags. These are headings and subheadings that should contain important keywords. H1 is your title and only needs to be used once. H2 and H3 are for subheadings. You seldom need to use tags beyond these (H4, H5, etc.).
- Internal links. Linking to your previous posts helps to keep visitors on your site longer. It also helps with SEO, showing Google that your site has some depth.
- Optimize images. While Google can’t yet crawl images themselves, it can see alt-text that names images.
Tactics to Improve Your SEO
With so many factors to consider, what steps should you take to improve your ranking? Fortunately, you can do this without being an expert. It does, however, take a certain amount of time and commitment.
Align Your Content Marketing and SEO Strategies
If you have a content marketing strategy such as posting to your blog, making videos, or posting helpful content to your social media pages you’re already fulfilling one of the fundamental requirements of optimizing your site for the search engines. In all likelihood, however, you can finetune and enhance your content to make it more search engine-friendly.
- Optimize titles. The titles of your blog posts, articles, videos, and other content are important for both SEO and attracting targeted visitors. Make sure you include your primary keywords in the title. Keep titles under 70 characters so they don’t get cut off in the search engine results.
- Use related keywords We already mentioned the importance of longtail keywords. It’s also important to diversify your keywords to give the search engines more terms to index. For example, if you’re writing about movies you might also include the words “films” and “cinema” (more popular in the UK). Aside from helping you rank for more keywords, it also helps Google understand the context of your keywords. For example, the word “apple” on its own could refer to a fruit or a large tech company. If your piece also has terms such as “apple pie” and “baked apples,” Google can tell you’re talking about fruit. If you mention “iTunes” or “iPhones,” however, it’s clear you’re referring to a business.
- Optimize Content for the Google Answer Box. Also known as the featured snippet, this is a section at the top of the listings, just under the paid ads and above regular organic listings. It’s extremely powerful and one of the first things people searching on smartphones will see. To make your content snippet-friendly, try to answer at least one pressing question your customers have. Feature this under an H2 tag in either question or statement form, followed by a concise list. For example, “How Can I Lose Weight for the Holidays?” or “Simple Steps to Get More Leads.”
- Link to authoritative websites. Some businesses are afraid to use external links because they want to keep visitors on their site. While it makes sense not to link to competitors, it is beneficial to link to respected sources. If you’re including quotes, statistics, or ideas from experts, you have an obligation to link to the source. It’s also good for SEO as it demonstrates that you’re using reputable sources to back your claims.
- Optimize your visual content. Visual content such as photos, illustrations, infographics, slideshows, and videos are getting more popular all the time. Make sure you use Alt tags for your images so Google can index them. When possible, use original or at least high-quality images rather than stock photos. Images that are too large, however, can slow down your site which isn’t good for SEO. For larger images, use a tool such as Photoshop to reduce the size. There are also quite a few free online tools to resize images.
Use Social Media to Enhance SEO
The relationship between social media and SEO is rather complex. Google has stated that social signals are not a ranking factor. In other words, getting followers, likes, and shares on social sites don’t directly help you rank better. However, there are still several ways that social media impacts your search engine ranking.
- A source of links. As long as you include a link to your website in your social media posts, you can gain links when followers share your content. To increase engagement, feature photos and other visual content in your posts. According to Jeff Bullas, engagement for Facebook posts with photos was found to be 37% higher than text posts.
- Social media content can rank on Google. YouTube videos are one of the best examples of this. Social media profiles also frequently achieve high rankings.
- Social media has its own search engines. From one perspective, social media sites are search engines. SearchEngine Journal includes YouTube and Facebook in its list of the 7 Most Popular Search Engines. When you look at it this way, ranking on these sites is just as important as ranking on Google. YouTube, the second-largest search engine after Google, has its own ranking algorithm.
Always Track Your Results
Analytics tells you what’s working and what isn’t in your SEO strategy. While you can find out how you’re doing in a broad sense by Googling keywords you need more sophisticated tools to dig deeper. You should at least connect your website (or sites) to Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools. These will provide you with valuable information on how your visitors find your pages. Google Analytics will send you up-to-date reports on important data. One of the best ways to use GA is to set up experiments such as A/B tests to determine which features or pages convert best. Whatever tools or services you use, analytics are essential for an effective SEO strategy.
Speed It Up!
Google has been using site speed as a ranking factor since 2010. According to Kissmetrics, if a site takes more than 3 seconds to load, 40% of visitors will abandon it. These are two big reasons to make sure your pages load quickly. Many factors can slow down a site, such as too many plugins (for WordPress), large images, using a web hosting plan that’s insufficient for your needs. Here are a few simple ways to speed up your site.
- Reduce clutter. This is a sound design principle as well. Videos, ads, popups, and large images all take time to load.
- Compress files. Compressing files into Gzip format can speed up your site by reducing the size of pages by up to 70%. If you use WordPress, a plugin such as W3 Total Cache can do this for you. For static sites, you can manually enable Gzip in your .htaccess file.
- Minimize HTTP requests. HTTP requests are how your browsers understand that they’re being asked to view pages. When there are lots of these requests, it slows down page loading speed. There are several ways to reduce HTTP requests such as using external style sheets to combine files.
- Upgrade your hosting. If your web host doesn’t have the capacity to support your needs you may want to choose another host. You may also want to upgrade your plan. For example, it may be time to go from shared hosting to cloud hosting or a VPN (Virtual Private Network). Check to see what kind of plans your web host offers.
SEO is an Ongoing Process
Search engine optimization is not a “set it and forget it” project. You need to constantly test your results, watch the competition, and keep up with Google’s latest policies and algorithms. Your SEO strategy should be aligned with the rest of your marketing. Any optimized content will perform better if you send traffic to it via multiple channels such as social media posts and emails. As SEO is a rapidly evolving field, you have to constantly review your methods and results and make changes as necessary.
Now that you’ve absorbed all of this information, it’s time to make use of it and optimize your site. Or do you feel like you might need a little help? If so, RedShift is a marketing agency like no other. We’ve looked at the competition and decided to do things our own way. Our approach is customer-driven, data-centric, transparent, and involves identifying what makes your business unique. To find out how we can help you come up with a winning SEO strategy to help you grow, contact us.