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Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Search Engine Optimization has been in practice since 1997, and all started when Netscape, American Online, and Internet Explorer were the power browsers (What’s a Google?!?). And the practice of SEO looks about as different as the search engine browser interfaces do.

Gone are the days of just submitting your site to a few directories and calling it good. Today, there are many tactics, and the rules are continually changing.

This resource page is designed to help you understand the current best practices and the different types of search engine optimization.

What is Search Engine Optimization?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the process of maximizing the number of visitors to a website by getting search engines to return your website pages to the top of organic search engine results pages (SERPs). There are on-page and off-page factors for meeting current search engine standards to rank for keywords related to your product or service.

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While we will cover this more in-depth below, here's an overview of some of the on-page and off-page elements of SEO:

  • Relevant and up-to-date content
  • Page structure and metadata 
  • Mobile-friendliness
  • Site security
  • Fast load times
  • Links from other high-quality web pages
  • Visitors staying on your site for longer periods
  • Visitors returning to your web pages over time

The list above is only a small sample of the millions of factors search engine algorithms take into account when determining what pages display in what order on the SERPs (Search Engine Results Page).

What SEO boils down to is proving to the search engines that internet users find your website relevant, valuable, and easy to use.

With that in mind, let's take a look at various aspects of SEO, starting with some basics of SEO in general.

Understanding Search Engines

While Google tends to be the first engine that comes to mind, it's not the only one. Bing and DuckDuckGo are two other search engines that users use regularly. Bing, like Google, uses algorithms to help users connect to content and is similar in its approach to offering personalized content. On the other hand, DuckDuckGo approaches search differently, emphasizing privacy and non-customized search options, which attracts many users—though Google still reigns supreme, with Bing trailing far behind in second place. 

Optimizing for search, in most cases, means optimizing based on Google's algorithms, in addition to webmaster guidelines and industry-recognized best practices developed with the search engine king in mind. Still, some SEOs—in particular, those optimizing for local search, which we'll discuss below—keep Bing in mind in their efforts.

Ranking On Search

Most folks who turn to SEO for their websites want to know one thing: When will my site be at the top of Google's results? Or put another way, How can I rank in first place for my primary keyword? The answers to these questions are far more complicated than many realize, and it's helpful to first talk a little about what it means to rank for something on a search engine. 

When we say ranking, we mean the position of a page on the SERPS, so of course, each website would love to rank in the first position on Google. However, consider the way you search for something on Google. Sure, sometimes you have a word or two that you use to find something—a restaurant, perhaps, or a pair of shoes. But most searches involve a string of words, which in SEO terms are called long-tail keywords

Ranking on Google no longer means dominating the first position of a short, specific keyword.

Ranking on Google now means finding a blend of keywords (both long and short) that your ideal customers are searching for and optimizing for them.

Keep in mind, too, that many businesses use Google Ads, which appear on the SERPs before organic results, so ranking on Google rarely means making it to the very top of the page (which is why you may want to include ads in your SEO strategy, which we'll talk about below!)

Finally, ranking on Google is hard. There are so many different factors that play into how Google determines what makes it to the SERPs. There are seemingly endless sites competing for the same keywords. Many businesses sink big bucks into both paid advertising and SEO efforts. Does this mean that small businesses can never compete for the top of the results page? No, but it does make it more difficult. However, we have seen time and again that the SERPs are often a level playing field, with a combination of big names and small businesses making it to the first page of any given query.

Algorithms and Google Updates

One of the factors that makes ranking for keywords so tricky is Google itself. Google has a complex set of algorithms, and they are constantly making updates. Minor updates happen weekly, if not daily, and major updates—the kind that can really shake up the SEO world—happen several times a year. 

An ongoing SEO strategy has to keep up with the latest in algorithm changes. This means both watching performance after an update as well as making changes as needed in response to the updates. Several major algorithm updates have happened in the past decade that have shaken things up tremendously, and ongoing core updates often impact specific industries or even SEO tactics.

On Page Vs Off Page SEO

page-seo-section-what-is-seo-2Now that we've covered some of the basics of Google's side of things, let's talk just a bit about what your job is starting with on-page and off-page SEO. The two prongs of SEO tactics happen, literally, on the page and off the page. Here's a little more about both.

On-page SEO is all about optimizing elements on your website. These tactics include (but are not limited to):

  • Title Tags: Also known as H1 header tags, H1s are used to set a page title for individual pages. These are keywords or topics that help identify the subject matter of the website page.
  • Content Structure: The architectural layout of the page. A well-designed page will let bots easily crawl the pages. 
  • Content Readability: Is your content relevant, informative, or does it solve a problem? Can a user easily skim the page and find what they are looking for? If not, the user is going to leave, or bounce, as Google likes to refer to it, which will ultimately lower the webpage’s authority.
  • Mobile Responsiveness: Google defaults to mobile-first indexing. That means Google is using the mobile version of your site to index. So, if you remove elements of your site for the mobile version, that content will not be accounted for during indexing.
  • Resolving Errors: Missing pages, broken images, broken links—there are all sorts of errors that diminish user experience and ultimately harm you in your SEO efforts. Be sure to audit for errors and resolve them regularly. 

In contrast, off-page SEO is the "behind the scenes" work you do to grow your site. These are factors that are not controlled directly on your website and take time and consistent effort to build. Some important off-page tactics are:

  • Link Building: The act of acquiring inbound links to your website from another reputable website. You can passively or actively get links to your website, but one crucial component is to make sure the links are coming from sites with high domain authority scores. 
  • Content Shareability: Do you have share icons on each (or most) of the pages on your site? Do you have a featured image? Make it as easy as possible for a user to share your content.
  • Content Marketing: This can be anything from social posting to influencer marketing to creating ebooks or sending emails—anything that gets your content out to the world. 

Domain Authority: This is a somewhat fraught term, as Google has said it doesn't rank based on domain authority, and SEO professionals still rely on the metric. One way to consider your domain authority is by understanding E-A-T, a Google term that stands for expertise, authority, and trustworthiness.

Black Hat VS. White Hat Tactics

While you don't hear about "black hat" SEO as much these days, many of the tactics that fall under this distinction are still in play. There's a reason why we worry when we hear someone has hired someone from Fiverr to "do SEO." It's because many of the cheap SEO services you find—and many of the approaches SEOs take when they promise someone first page results fast—are really black hat approaches that go against Google's guidelines. 

Put simply, black hat tactics help sites achieve fast results on the SERPs (sometimes) but ultimately harm the site. Common black hat practices that Google specifically watches for include sneaky redirects, keyword stuffing (which Google calls "irrelevant keywords"), link cloaking, thin content, and paid links.

Learn more about each of the prohibited techniques on Google's quality guidelines page.

White hat tactics, on the other hand, are just proper SEO practices. You can be assured that you are optimizing using white hat SEO tactics simply by understanding what sorts of things Google prohibits and not doing them. But it's a really good idea to get to know Google's quality guidelines before doing anything to your site—even, or maybe especially, if you're hiring someone else to work on your site.

Keyword Research

Keyword research is one of the most important parts of an SEO strategy. However, researching just the keywords you want to be found for—which are often high value, competitive keywords related to your industry—isn't a solid enough approach. Nowadays, you want to find and optimize for long-tail keywords, topics, and lower search volume niche keywords

Why not just optimize for your primary keywords, you ask? Well, consider your competitors. Your competitors aren't just local businesses offering the same product or service, they are also websites offering similar products, services, information, or alternatives. Local SEO is definitely important (more on that next), but being found on the internet offers up more complications than being found in town. That means that identifying what your potential customers are looking for beyond one specific product or service is the only way to attract their attention. And, of course, if local SEO doesn't pertain to your business, all of this is extra important. 

Hubspot offers a helpful step-by-step guide to doing keyword research, and there are lots of tools—both free and paid—that can help you along the way. Some tools to check out include:

  • SEMrush
  • Moz
  • Ahrefs
  • Keyword Planner (available on Google Ads)
  • Scout Suggest

These are just a few of hundreds of tools you can use. Many people find it useful to have a couple of favorites and use them to generate different keywords and variations. 

Keyword research isn't a one-time task; it's part of an ongoing strategy that incorporates optimizing, testing, creating new content, assessing and tracking rankings, and continually looking for new keywords and topics. Ultimately, your goal is to find the right keywords and topics: the ones that your ideal customers are searching for. Getting traffic isn't the be-all, end-all. Getting leads and customers is. Therefore, your process should have that end goal in mind.

Additional Resources:

 

Local SEO

If you have a business with a physical location somewhere, local SEO is a must. Local SEO is the process of gaining visibility in local search results, including "X near me," keywords related to your city or region, and other searches that are only relevant to your location. 

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SEO for local businesses often also means creating content around and optimizing for products, services, or knowledge related to your business, so that some of the traffic you get isn't really going to get you local customers. But, part of local SEO means playing by Google's rules for all websites. For instance, creating good, relevant content that isn't just trying to sell your product helps you to establish your site as an authority, which is part of what Google is looking for. 

In addition to that general content, there are some important geographic strategies as well.

Google My Business

Google My Business is a free feature that Google offers all businesses with a physical location. It is the knowledge panel you see when you search for a specific business, and, when on Google Maps, the information provided in Google My Business shows up when someone clicks on the business. 

Location Page On Your Website

In addition to having your address and phone number in the footer of your website, and in other easy to find places throughout your site, be sure to have a dedicated 'Location' page as well. This page is a great spot to add in some local keywords, directions, and an embedded map. It helps customers find you easily, and it helps Google understand where you are and what you do.

Citations

Even though online directories aren't super relevant anymore, it's still a good idea to ensure your company's information is listed on the big ones. First, though, a small warning. Remember when we talked about black hat SEO (above)? One common black hat tactic that Google now penalizes for is paid or spammy low-quality directories. So, be sure you're only submitting to real, relevant directories. Unfortunately, it is kind of a pain to do this work, and in many cases there are only two ways to submit to directories: one, manually submit your company information to each directory and wait for them to confirm the data; or two, use a paid service like Yext to automatically submit everything for you.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

Technical SEO

Technical SEO is a catch-all term for all the SEO stuff that's more, well, technical. Oftentimes developers help with some of these tactics, and new sites should consider technical SEO when setting up the site to kick things off on the right foot.

page-seo-section-technical-seoSome key elements of technical SEO include:

    • Site speed: An integral part of today's SEO and user experience, faster site speed helps web spiders crawl your site more efficiently and helps keep users on your site. Google cares enough about site performance that it has introduced Core Web Vitals
    • Site architecture: The structure of your site is another crucial element to both SEO and usability
    • Site audits: Conducting website audits and fixing technical errors is another component of technical SEO and one that you should be doing regularly
  • Structured data: Also called schema or rich results (with some differences that we won't go into here!), this approach adds code to your webpages to help search engines better understand what the page, website, and/or business is about

There's a lot to know and plenty to do when it comes to technical SEO, but the main takeaway is this:

Focusing on the technical aspects helps search engines crawl/understand your site more easily, and—most importantly—provides a better user experience for your visitors.

Both translate into more traffic, more leads, and better visibility.

Additional Resources:

Content

Content is arguably the most important part of SEO. After all, what is a website without content? (The answer is: not a website). Your site's content is your chance to attract the right audience, to guide them through the buyer's journey, and to showcase what it is that sets you apart from your competitors. Every website has a different focus, key audience, offering, skillset, and expertise, meaning every site has millions of different opportunities for keyword rankings and appearances on the SERPs. 

page-seo-section-contentBefore we take a look at some SEO strategies, here's an overview of the important SEO aspects that should be included in your web content:

  • Focused, well-structured, unique content
  • Good readability and a clear call to action
  • Written for a specific audience with specific search intent
  • Intentional use of keywords and topics (free from keyword stuffing)
  • Clear headings in proper format (ex. H2s for main ideas, H3s for sub sections)
  • Internal links that point to related content
  • Content related to your business 

Following these basics is a great way to ensure your content is SEO-friendly. From there you can take on advanced tactics and revisit your content frequently to refresh it, optimize it, or expand on it.

Now let's look at some other ways to improve your content game.

Pillar Pages

We are big believers in pillar content's ability to boost SEO efforts. At its core, pillar content covers a wide breadth of topics and uses clear linking structure to connect it all together. These clusters provide users the opportunity to learn more about the topic they're interested in and they signal to search engines that the content is related and well-covered. Check out this case study for an example of a successful pillar strategy.

Competitor Research

We covered a bit about competitor research above when we talked about keyword research, but competitor research can also be used to create or improve your content. Essentially, conducting competitor research to inform your content creation is to see who is currently ranking for similar content. Then, you can assess what it is they're doing well, and then do it better. In this sense your research is less about mimicry and more about improving your content. You don't ever want to copy someone else's work, obviously, but understanding who is on the SERPs and making guesses about why they're there can help you work towards getting your own content higher up for relevant searches.

Search Intent

Thinking about search intent is a great way to help focus your content and determine your precise audience. Google's Quality Rater Guidelines define intent as Go, Know, and Do; in SEO you generally see the intents broken down into navigational, informational, and transactional searches.

Duplicate Content

Duplicate content is a big no-no, but it can happen accidentally. It's good practice to both check for duplicate content and be sure you're not repeating information across your site. This is also a good reminder to not repost entire pieces of content (such as news articles or press releases) without a proper canonical tag, and to ensure that the new content you're creating is different from what's already on your site. Even without Google penalties for duplicate content, cannibalizing keywords can make it harder for your site to rank.

CTAs

What do you want visitors to do when you get them to your site? This should be clear on every page. Ask them to contact you, read more related information, download an ebook, get a free consultation—there are plenty of ways to ask for engagement. While not totally related to or necessary for SEO, there's not really any point in putting in the work to get people to your site if you're not going to ask them to stay awhile, or to become a prospect or customer.

Additional Resources:

SEO Tools

We can talk all day about on-page and off-page search engine optimization tactics, but if you don’t track your efforts and results, it could be all for nothing. Here are the big “3” must-have (free) tools for measuring your SEO standings.

Google Analytics

Google’s tool has a plethora of statistics that can make even the most seasoned digital analyst's head spin. Everything from where your traffic is coming from, to what the most popular pages are, to where the users are located, and even what devices they are using. It can be overwhelming to a novice. Here are a few of the stats that you should focus on in the beginning:

  • Your traffic sources. Are people coming for organic searches, referral sites, or social media links?
  • New visitors versus returning visitors.
  • Pages per session. Are users coming to one page on your site and then leaving? Or are they going to multiple pages on your site?
  • Bounce Rate. Are users landing on your site and then immediately leaving?

Google Search Console

page-seo-section-seo-toolsFormally known as Google Webmaster, Google Search Console is a lot different than its sister Google Analytics. Search console focuses on:

  • Search traffic: key terms used when your site appears in a SERP and what your average ranking is for that term.
  • Indexing: website pages indexed by Google, and what resources (if any) are being blocked by Google.
  • Crawl errors: anything from 404 errors to 503 errors codes. These are where you can resolve issues Google finds.
Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and Bing Webmaster are the top three free SEO tools that every marketer should know.

Bing Webmaster

Bing’s tool is very similar to Google’s Search Console in that you can see search traffic terms, indexing stats, and issues, as well and crawl stats and issues. While it may seem like a duplicate effort to track both of these tools, it is important to note that Bing is still very separate from Google, and it is essential to keep an eye out for changes in how they are rating your website pages.

Additional Resources:

SEO and Social Media

Social media authority is not limited to just the big ones like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and whatever else kids are using these days. It also includes review sites such as Yelp, Trip Advisor, and Google Reviews.

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Building social media authority takes several factors:

  • How many ENGAGED followers do you have? There is no point in having 1 million followers if they are fake accounts and users who aren’t interacting with you on social media. It is much more effective, and credible, to have 500 engaged users than 1 million fake accounts.
  • Being active on your company’s social media page. Are you posting once a day, once a week, or once a month? Are you responding to your users’ comments and are you commenting on other social media pages?
  • How often are people sharing or engaging with your posts? When you share a new product or an original blog post on social media, are your followers sharing it? Commenting on it?
  • What is your average rating? Your potential customers are reading your customers' comments and reviews about you on Yelp, Facebook, and Google Reviews. Five-star reviews are great, but what about the 1 and 2-star reviews? Are you responding to them publicly and trying to resolve the issue?
“Activate your fans, don’t just collect them like baseball cards.”
~Jay Baer, Convince & Convert

Social media is an excellent way of listening to what your customers and potential customers are saying about you, as well an outlet for engaging with them. That alone is worth being on those platforms, but the main point here is that Google also cares about this and it's a factor in how the search engine ranks your site.

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