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Updated: Feb 6, 2020
Search Engine Optimization is treated as a dark art by some marketers. Many people think its practitioners are quacks, mere snake oil salesmen. Indeed, I have seen some shoddy work out there on the internet. Sometimes you see the work that an SEO specialist has done for a company and you truly wonder how that person sleeps at night, knowing that they’ve polluted the web with the profligate litter of shady backlinks.
However, we should always remind ourselves that Google has to figure out some way to decide which links to put on top of the SERPs (Search engine results pages). So, let’s assume there’s some logic to that process and figure out if we can drum up some useful information for you in this somewhat new year of 2020. We’re going to be covering basics. These tips are unlikely to ever go out of date, because they serve the basic informational needs of users, and they supply clear structure that can be easily read by search engines.
Good SEO should be invisible. If you’re reading a piece of copy on your site and it sounds unnatural, most likely a search engine will find it unnatural too. Over-optimization harms your search rankings and makes you appear less credible to visitors of your site. Write for users first. If people visiting your site have a good experience and can find the information they’re looking for, chances are good that you will have pleased the Search Engine Gods as well.
By the way, it is really important that you keep current on this stuff. I’ve met plenty of small business owners who believe that they know a lot about SEO, but everything they learned was from a few years ago. Google constantly updates its algorithm to combat blackhat and grayhat manipulation, but every once in a while they make tectonic changes that alter the entire search landscape. Don’t get caught unaware. Keep current.
And to get it out of the way, of course we should acknowledge that there are other search engines, but we’ll be primarily referring to Google in this article. 99.99% of the efforts you make to rank in Google will transfer to other search engines as well.
This is one area where many site owners get into trouble. They think that they need to stuff every page with every relevant keyword for their business. However, search engines are crawled by bots that don’t know a whole lot about how to distinguish your site from other sites. They use a limited number of factors to determine your relevancy. Choosing the right keywords is one of the most important ways to let Google know what any given page on your site is about. Additionally, over-optimizing your page for keywords can appear spammy and give site users a bad experience.
If your site is well organized (as in the navigation is logical and easy to understand), you shouldn’t need to use more than one or two keywords per page — each page will serve its own purpose. Don’t repeat keywords across your site, or you run the risk of cannibalizing your own search results.
Use Google’s Keyword Planner to choose keywords you want to compete for. If you don’t yet have an Adwords account (Google’s search advertising platform), you’ll need to set one up.
If you want to dive deeper into getting SEO traffic, you can take a look at what your competitors are ranking for. This will give you some good ideas of content that you can create and how to optimize your page if you want to steal their traffic.
Using a tool called ahrefs https://www.ahrefs.com, you can spy on what keywords are driving traffic to their site. This tool is somewhat expensive, but you can take advantage of a free 14-day trial that will be sufficient to get you started.
For example: If you run a cool noodle bar in New York, you might want to spy on the traffic that Momofuku gets. Looking at the keywords that Momofuku ranks for, we can see the following:
I’m not sharing all of the dimensions of the report here, such as how much traffic each of those keywords sends to momofuku.com but you can get a good feel for what you would need to do in order to garner some of their traffic. You can see that a lot of Momofuku’s top keywords are branded specifically to David Chang’s family of restaurants, but you’ll also see that words like bar, booker, reservation and noodle are also sending substantial traffic to their site. If you want to compete with them for those terms, you’ll have to create content utilizing those keywords and then drive traffic to your site.
Watch this video to learn more about this technique:
Titles matter. In fact they’re the most important component of technical SEO. They let your users know what a page is about. The Googlebot that crawls your site considers the title of your pages and measures them first among other SEO factors when determining where to rank a given page.
After making sure that I’ve chosen an accurate title for this article, I might want to consider how many other articles that have a title that includes the same terms. Let’s look how many articles pop up for the search terms “10 SEO Tips”. I would do that by using the Google advanced search operator allintitle: “10 SEO Tips”, whereupon I would discover that this is a title phrase that has a lot of competition:
We’re not offering 10 tips in this article (stay tuned for more!), we’re offering 6, and as you can see, the playing field is considerably more even on that specific search.
I’d like to point out something important, which is that most people will simply search for “SEO Tips”, which would be considerably harder to rank for, but should be part of your title anyway, so that users and search engines know what your page is about.
Try searching the specific title you’re thinking of as well as its most simple variant. This will give you an idea about how your title fares against exactly or similarly titled content, as well as a wide angle view of the competition.
When choosing a title, ultimately you’ll want to find the right mix of what provides the best user experience for visitors to your site and what will differentiate you from competing sites. In the case of a restaurant, it wouldn’t make sense to name your menu page something other than Menu. Where you should leverage this method the most is when you’re coming up with titles for content pages, such as blog posts.
If you’re going to publish an article for which there is a high-degree of competition for title variants and keywords, don’t rely upon search as the only place to drive traffic. Use social media, reach out to influencers, consider promoting your content through paid distribution. Search will not deliver the results you want without a lot of effort when it comes to high competition keywords and titles.
On-page optimization is something that should be discussed with your web developer before your site is ever built. That person should either know enough about basic SEO to set up your pages correctly or have a consultant to collaborate with. On-page optimization should be done with every page on your site, from the first pages your developer creates, to any new pages your or anyone else adds. Here’s the basics:
An H1 tag is for the heading HTML element on your page. You can think of it as the headline. Depending upon the styling of your page, it will usually be the largest text element on the page. Any text that defines a new section or topic on a page may be emphasized with a heading tag, such as an H2 or H3. H1’s should usually only be used once. The H1 is one of the first things search engines see after the title of your page. Read more about H1 and other heading tags here http://www.hobo-web.co.uk/headers/
Your keywords belong in the title of your page, in the H1 and in the body of the text a couple of times where they fit naturally, preferably within the first 200 words of copy on your site. They must also be in the URL or domain when possible.
Make sure that your website works on mobile and desktop browsers. This is known as responsive web design. Basically, all of the same information is available to the Googlebot whether a person is viewing on mobile or desktop, and CSS determines how the content is displayed. Like much of SEO, this is a matter of providing a good user experience. If your site serves users well, it will probably do better SEO-wise. With the prevalence of mobile traffic, this should be a no brainer.
Meta descriptions and meta keywords will not help you rank, but meta descriptions are often used as the text describing your page. Make sure it is informative and makes natural use of your keywords. The more people click on your search results, the more page authority each page will have.
Structured data is one of those things that seems like a trick, but it’s actually just another element of SEO. It can definitely be abused, but those who do so will be punished by the search engines. Structured data allows you to present machine-readable information to the search engines, which will enable them to display more content from your site on the SERPs. This may include store hours, blog post author name, recipe instructions, or answers to common search queries.
Google calls these bits of data ‘rich snippets’… Some sites are winning more real estate on the SERPs and standing out visually on search results pages by using them in the html markup on their site. Google’s algorithm is capable of fetching the information from some sites without additional markup, but in order to take full advantage of the potential for enhanced SERP presence, you should manually add them. Find out more about how to use rich snippets and structured data by visiting this site. http://schema.org/
Backlinks are the number one ranking factor for search engine optimization. They’re also one of the most misunderstood. Many bottom-tier SEO companies promise short term results, and they accomplish this because they have a network of sites which they own, operate or share with other SEOs, and they write low-quality articles on these sites and then link back to your domain.
Doing this is a sure way to get negative attention from Google and the other search engines. Essentially, this amounts to buying backlinks. In general, there are very few types of popularity that you can buy in digital marketing. You can advertise, but that’s vastly different. Any time you’re paying for placement on a site, you should be sure that site uses the rel=”nofollow” attribute ( http://searchengineland.com/infographic-nofollow-tag-172157 ).
So how do you get quality backlinks?
If you’re creating a product or service that people trust, customers will write reviews about you on merchant sites, review sites, or on their own sites. If you’re doing something noteworthy, you’ll get attention from the press. If they don’t know about you, reach out to them. If you’re taking steps to get your name out there, other sites will invite you to write about your domain expertise for their publication, and you’ll have the opportunity to link back to your site in your bio. If you’re writing valuable content on your own site, people will link to it on their site and will share it on social media.
All of this comes down to content. It’s very tough to rank in a vacuum. Backlinks emerge when you take steps to market your business, grow your personal brand, or take other steps to reach out to your audience or customers.
The rule here is that high-quality products deserve high-quality content and high-quality content generates high-quality links.
If you’re a restaurant, try to get an alternative weekly or popular, relevant food blog to write about your site. If you’re a unique bookstore, try to get a site that focuses on unique things for tourists to do to write a review of your site, or try to become the preferred local bookseller of the authors and publishers you care about most. If you’re a vintage cocktail bar, try to get a drink featured on a popular recipe site.
This is all about outreach. Where else can you appear naturally? Once you start taking these steps, other people will start to find you and this type of content will start generating itself.
It does happen that great businesses languish at the bottom of the SERPs, undiscovered by the customers who would love it. But it rarely happens when great businesses take the necessary steps to be discovered.
Be proactive about your SEO strategy and your traffic will grow. Grow your traffic with the relevant audiences and your business will grow.
Michael Jones is a Senior Editor for Funding Circle, specializing in small business loans. He holds a degree in International Business and Economics from Boston University's Questrom School of Business. Prior to Funding Circle, Michael was the Head of Content for Bond Street, a venture-backed FinTech company specializing in small business loans. He has written extensively about small business loans, entrepreneurship, and marketing.