If you’ve ever done a Google search for “What is SEO?”, “SEO Basics?”, or “How to do SEO?” and found that the results are either confusing, conflicting or downright too technical, then this article is for you.
Although we are going to cover some technical aspects of SEO, this is not the focus and I will explain everything in “plain English”.
I decided to write this article because after several years of working and studying SEO, I finally hit a “Eureka” moment when SEO went from somewhat COMPLICATED to downright SIMPLE. I thought I would share my findings with you.
Whether you consider yourself a newbie to Search Engine Optimization or a seasoned SEO veteran, I’m certain that you will learn a thing or two. This comprehensive read covers:
- What is SEO and why is it important?
- What is Google’s goal and how do they rank results?
- How to plan your content strategy (including SEO tools)
- SEO strategies and tactics
- How to analyze your performance
- SEO Hacks
- SEO Myths
As you might already know, SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. Wikipedia defines SEO as “the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a web search engine's unpaid results—often referred to as "natural", "organic", or "earned" results.”
What does this mean in layman’s terms?
Here’s a quick analogy: When you enter a keyword into a search engine like Google, you are basically running a contest to see what pages are the most popular. In this scenario, Google, Bing and Yahoo are the judges, and each individual page on the Internet are the contestants. The prize for winning this contest? Free (and hopefully relevant) traffic.
Therefore, SEO is the process of improving your pages so that they correspond to the judges’ criteria.
So why is this important? Let’s forget the optimization of your pages for a moment and focus on what’s most important: THE RESULTS.
If you aren’t driving any free traffic to your website, it means you are solely relying on paid advertising. Although this strategy can work in the beginning, it is not a viable long term solution.
Without doing a deep-dive into any sort of statistical analysis, let’s suppose that visitors from paid advertising and organic search convert at the same rate and therefore have the same value.
For this example, we will compare Google AdWords (the text ads you see during a search) with the organic results (free) below them.
If you’re ready to pay $1,000 to get 200 users (who would have searched for “dress shirts”), you’d be paying a $5 cost-per-click (CPC). What if instead, for the same search query, you could get users to your website for free?
Analyzing results is the easiest way to understand the value of Search Engine Optimization. Here is a simple example:
As you can see above, similar to paid advertising, when we can determine the cost-per-click for any given keyword, we can determine its value. (Later in this post, we’ll discuss tools for determining CPC as well as the number of users driven by any given keywords).
In this example, you’ll also notice a Before and After column. The “Before” page was not optimized for the target keyword "dress shirts" and thus did not get any traffic. Once SEO strategies and tactics were applied, the page started driving visitors and is showing a value of $500 /month.
While this is a very simplified example of how to value your SEO, the underlying theory is the same even in the most complex data analysis.
So back to the original question: why is SEO important? If we add together all the keywords that companies rank for and determine a value for their SEO, you’d quickly see why organic search is a key component to any company’s success.
Whether you have a small website that gets two hundred dollars of organic traffic per month or an industry leading business driving millions of dollars of organic traffic, proper SEO pays for itself and then some. That’s because it’s not a “one-time-thing” like advertising, which stops when the funds run out. SEO is the gift that keeps on giving.
So now that we know what SEO is and why it’s important, let’s understand how it works from Google’s point of view.
What is Google’s goal and how do they rank results?
Google updated their mission statement in 2013 to read: “Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Going back to our contest analogy, Google is trying to be to most precise, fair and organized judge for the world’s online content. No easy task.
Google is in a league of its own, and that's why we will mostly focus on Google in this article. As of February 2017, Google holds on to over 80% market share of all searches online. You can also be confident that most search engines will act in similar fashion, so if you’re doing well on Google, you will most likely perform well on other search engines too.
The main takeaway from this section will be understanding that Google success stems from offering the BEST and most RELEVANT content to a user search query. Let’s break down these two very important points to better understand them.
Relevant content is content (text, images, videos, etc) that the user finds informative, engaging, helpful or entertaining. With billions of pages online, how does Google sort and rank these possibilities into a Search Engine Results Page (SERP)?
Well, that’s Google's “secret sauce”, also called the “Google Algorithm”. This algorithm works as a score sheet that helps Google to judge your page, and rank it accordingly for any given keyword. Here it is in Google’s own words:
“For a typical query, there are thousands, if not millions, of webpages with helpful information. Algorithms are the computer processes and formulas that take your questions and turn them into answers. Today Google’s algorithms rely on more than 200 unique signals or “clues” that make it possible to guess what you might really be looking for. These signals include things like the terms on websites, the freshness of content, your region and PageRank.”
These signals or clues are what tells Google if your page is relevant or not to the search query (keywords). Right now, you might be telling yourself, “Wow this is cool, all I have to do is optimize my page for those 200 clues and my page will rank 1st on Google.”
Unfortunately, you’re wrong. (But there's good news coming, so keep reading).
The truth is, your content has to be more than relevant to stay on Page 1. It has to be the best!
What does it mean to be the best? How does Google determine this? How do you become the best?
From Google’s point of view, the best content is whatever most likely answers the users’ search query. Period. This part of the algorithm is actually very easy to understand.
We are going to look at two factors that Google uses to determine what the best content is: Click-Through-Rate (CTR) and Bounce Rate, which is often referred to as the “Pogo-stick effect” when it comes from a SERP.
Simply put, if your pages’ snippet (title + URL + meta description) Click-Through-Rate for a given keyword is higher than the average for your current position, you will move up in the results. The same is true for a low CTR.
Here is an example: one of your web pages is ranking 4th on Google but you’re getting more clicks than the 3rd position snippet. If this scenario stays to course, your position will improve for upcoming searches for that same keyword.
(Avg CTR %, Desktop & Mobile, US, February 2017. Source: Advanced Web Ranking)
Based off this this information, you can quickly see how important your Page Title, URL and Meta Description are for your position. In most cases, this is the only information a potential visitor will see when they perform a search.
Page Snippet example:
The second metric that Google combines with CTR to determine if your content is the best is your page’s Bounce Rate.
This is Google’s main defence against poor quality links that only focus on “technical SEO strategies” to get a high ranking.
When a visitor makes the decision to click on your page, but doesn’t find what they are looking for, they will go back to the SERP to find a “better” link. This back and forth action is referred to as “Pogo-Sticking” and negatively affects the rankings of unselected links.
If a visitor goes to a page, finds what they are looking for, and does NOT come back, Google considers this a satisfied search query that will positively affect the current ranking of that link.
Here’s a quick reminder to ensure you have the best content:
- Relevant snippet that entices users to click on your page. (Remember, don’t oversell or be misleading or users will bounce).
- Make sure you offer up the best content possible based upon your targeted keywords. (Put yourself in the user’s shoes: What is their intent? Does my page answer their question? Does it offer an enjoyable experience?)
It’s very important to not only have relevant content but also the best content.
Although there are still ways to “cheat” your way to the top (black hat SEO tactics), you won’t stay there for long. Unless you have the best content you, will slowly disappear from the top results.
Another important takeaway is that while Google’s Algorithm is extremely powerful, it is not perfect and that is why some of the best articles are not yet on Page 1. The reason? Google has not received enough signals or clues that this specific page better answers the search query.
Further in this article, we will look at how to send the proper signals to Google so that your pages have an opportunity to rank for their targeted keywords.
Building a content strategy is not a one-time thing, it’s an ongoing process that requires time and effort.
If you’re looking for a “Ronco Rotisserie” approach to SEO (set it and forget it!), then you probably won’t get the results you’re hoping for.
Here is how you break down a basic content strategy into 5 steps:
- Determine keyword opportunities for your business / industry
- Select target keywords
- Create or adjust existing content for select keywords (sending clues / signals to Google)
- Analyze performance and adjust
Determine keyword opportunities for your business / industry
Keyword opportunities are defined by high volumes (numbers of users searching for a given keyword) and a low difficulty score (the competition is low).
If your target keyword doesn’t have both these variables checked off, you will run into some challenges. An easy to rank keyword is worth nothing if nobody is searching for it. The same can be said for a high difficulty keyword - if you can’t rank for it, you won’t get any traffic from it.
So how can you determine keyword opportunities?
There are several tools available that you can use to determine search volumes as well as the difficulty score for any given keyword. Although the focus of this article is not to go over all the different tools out there, I will share my personal favourites to help you get started. Whether you choose a free or paid tool, you NEED a tool. Unless of course, you have some sort of psychic powers, in which case this article is probably not for you.
[Free tool] Google AdWords Keyword Planner
To use the Keyword Planner tool, you will need a Google AdWords account. In the example below, we are looking at the search volume and difficulty for dress shirts in the United States of America. Although this is showing data for Paid Keywords, they are usually very close to organic search.
Also, we selected a location (USA) because search volumes, ranks and difficulty scores change on a location basis. If your keywords are location based (like a restaurant), this is even more important to consider.
As you can see below, there is a very large search volume, but the competition is high (competition can be either low, medium or high). Unless you are a large online retailer of dress shirts, this keyword might be a little too ambitious or broad for now.
Broad keywords are general terms that have lots of search volume and usually high competitiveness. If you want to reduce the competition (and search volume) you can get more specific, like: short sleeve dress shirts.
[Paid tool] SEMrush (About $99/month)
Their SEO Keyword Magic feature allows you to search for broad keywords (1-3 words in length) and get recommendations on long tail keywords (3+ words in length) that you should target first.
Here is a quick example:
*KD represents Keyword Difficulty on scale of 0 (very easy) to 100 (extremely difficult).
In this example, you can see how the keyword “men’s dress shirts” is very difficult to rank for, but “custom dress shirts” is much easier.
The key here is to figure out which keywords align with your business and strategy. If you don’t make custom shirts, you probably won’t have much success ranking for that keyword.
Select Target Keywords
Before you start selecting your target keywords, you must do some research and create a list of relevant keywords!
This doesn’t mean throwing random keywords into a tool. You need to align with your business and customers.
Put yourself in your customers’ shoes. What are they looking for? How do they search for your business? What challenges do they have that you could resolve with a piece of content? What questions are they asking?
To perform proper keyword research, I’d suggest creating “personas” for your target audience and spend some time reflecting on what they are searching for. If you’re new to personas, HubSpot does a great job detailing what they are.
“A buyer persona is a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer based on market research and real data about your existing customers.”
Once you have a long list of keywords that relate to your business and personas, start selecting the ones that make the most sense to rank for. The length of your keyword list will vary depending on your business, but rule of thumb is the more, the better. 100+ keywords is very common.
How do you pick keywords to target?
Well, keep in mind that perfect keywords (also called unicorn keywords) do not exist. They are defined by extremely high volumes, low difficulty and are relevant to your business.
We want to pick keywords that are as close to this fairytale situation as possible. If your list was created properly, all keywords should be somewhat relevant to your business, so all you have to do is determine the best combination between volume and difficulty score. The graph below allows you to visualize the relationship:
If you are just getting started, you will want to focus on the easiest and most relevant keywords first, like your brand name.
After, when you start getting some momentum online and improve your domain authority, you can start going after slightly harder keywords with more volume. Always keep in mind that you must answer the search query better than what is currently ranking. Doing some competitive analysis is required.
You can experiment with easier and harder keywords, but try to stay focused on a small number of keywords if you are just starting out. Combining related keywords into topics can make the list seem less overwhelming.
It’s also important to note that Google is moving more and more towards topics and the overall intent of a search, and is becoming less sensitive to subtle variations in keyword structure. For example: best resorts for families’ vs best family resorts.
SEO strategies and tactics
As discussed earlier, ranking a page for a keyword is like running a contest where the search engine is the judge. So, understanding the judge’s criteria has everything to do with how you will perform.
To quote Google:
“Today Google’s algorithms rely on more than 200 unique signals or “clues” that make it possible to guess what you might really be looking for.”
Unless you want to become a Search Engineer at Google, you won’t need to learn how these 200 signals work. However, you DO need to understand the most important ones and how you can apply them to your pages.
If you’re still curious about taking a DEEP dive into these 200 factors, check out Brian Dean’s famous post, “Google’s 200 Ranking Factors”.
In this article, I will break down the SEO best practices into 2 categories: On-page and Off-Page SEO.
As the terms imply, on-page SEO has everything to do with what is ON YOUR PAGE and off-page SEO is the et of actions that can be done outside of the page you are trying to rank.
*Please note: these are simply the most important clues to help your rankings, and they are in no-particular order.
On-Page SEO (accounts for about 30-40% of your ranking score)
- Domain Names and URL Structure
- Title Tags and Meta Descriptions
- Heading Tags (H1 – H6)
- Images: Title and Alt Tags
- HTTPS (security certificate)
- Page Speed and Experience
- Mobile Optimization
- Length, Quality and Freshness of Content
- Duplicate Content
- Various Technical SEO
Off-Page SEO (accounts for about 60-70% of your ranking score)
Here is a quick overview of these tactics and how to use them properly so that you are sending the right signals to Google to help you improve your rankings. Although each point could have its’ own individual blog post, I’ll try to be concise and highlight only the main points.
Domain Names and URL Structure
Your URL sends signals to Google regarding what your pages are about. If your brand name aligns with your target keyword (ie: theshoecompany.com) that’s great, but don’t change your brand name or buy a new domain for this use alone.
When you buy or renew your domain name, renew it for 10 years (if you can). The longer you commit to your domain name, the more legitimate you look in the eyes of Google.
When deciding on your URL structure, the clearer it is to a human, the clearer it will be for a Google Crawler. Here a few examples of what to do and not to do:
The first URL is the best, because it is a clear and quick path to what we are looking for. The second URL requires too many clicks to get to the information we are looking for. The third is difficult to understand for humans, so it won’t be crawled correctly. The final link is similar to the first URL, but it has unnecessary “keyword stuffing”. Having too many of the exact same keywords in your URL is frowned upon by Google, so it’s best to avoid this tactic.
Title Tags and Meta Descriptions
This is probably one of the easiest and most impactful strategies for On-Page SEO.
Since your Title Tag and Meta Description are part of your rich snippet in a SERP, they are in direct relationship with your CTR and as we’ve seen above, essential for high rankings.
Here is how to write proper Title Tags and Meta Descriptions:
*2 quick notes:
1. Google doesn’t check for keywords in your meta description.
2. Whenever you are trying to place keywords, always place them as close to the top and to the left. Make them show up first!
For the Title on your Home Page, standard practice is:
Brand Name – What sets you apart (including your target keywords)
For the Title on your other pages, standard practice is:
What your page is about (including your target keywords) – Brand Name
As for your meta description, keep it creative, but truthful. Ask yourself the following questions: Would I click on this link? Does the description properly match what is on the page?
Heading Tags (H1 – H6)
Having distinct Titles and Subtitles on your web pages will give your users a better experience for navigating your content. Crawlers, on the other hand, use heading and sub-headings tags to navigate the importance of your Titles and Subtitles.
This is how a basic page would look like to a visitor and to a crawler (I’ve isolate titles and subtitles):
*The most important tag is the H1 tag, and the least important is H6. There should only be one H1 tag per page. Most pages won’t go beyond an H3 tag. Heading and subheading tags should be relevant to your target keywords and make sense if you were going to lay them out as above. They should be as short as possible.
Images: Title and Alt Tags
Unfortunately, Google Crawlers are not the best at figuring out what your images are. This is where Image Titles and Alt Tags come into play.
Different browsers and screen readers will use this information for different purposes, for example, when you hover over an image or if the image doesn’t load.
Here is the basic structure for deciding on Title and Alt Tags:
For the most part, you want your title to be very short and concise (2-3 words). The “alt” or alternative text can be slightly longer, and should describe what is on the picture in greater detail. If done correctly, you can add in some of your target keywords as long as they are relevant to the picture.
*Quick tip: Ask yourself if you did a Google image search for the alt tag, would you expect to see this image? The answer should be YES!
When you navigate online, you want to feel secure! This is even more true when you are sharing personal information. Google tends to agree with this line of thinking, and it ranks secure sites higher than non-secured websites.
Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure or HTTPS is an internet communication protocol that ensures the integrity and confidentiality between a users’ computer and the site they are visiting.
If you haven’t done this yet, Google shares some more information on how to secure your site with HTTPS.
Page Speed and Experience
Google ranks the best content first. This means slow pages with a bad user experience will not rank well.
From a speed perspective, you want to optimize your images (shrink their size) so your pages load as quickly as possible. Some website builders or platforms will do this automatically for you.
The same is true for any other content or code slowing down your page load. Google’s AMP project stems from this principle, as does the increase of mobile web traffic.
On the user experience side, this basically boils down to common sense. Is your page easy to navigate? Is the font big enough to read? Is there confusing information on the page? Rule of thumb is always ‘the simpler the better’.
Keep in mind that if your pages are slow or offer a bad experience, your bounce rate will be high and your odds of ranking will be low.
Is your website mobile-friendly? Is it offering your visitors a good experience? Hopefully the answer is YES. If you aren’t sure, run Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test to find out.
As of April 21st, 2015, Google Search started to expand its use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. In their own words:
“This change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in Google Search results. Users will find it easier to get relevant, high quality search results optimized for their devices.”
In simple terms, if your website isn’t optimized for mobile: do it now!
Length, Quality and Freshness of Content
The only thing better than quality content is LOTS of quality content. Want to make it even better? Make sure that it’s updated and fresh! So here are some quick tips:
- Instead of writing 10 small articles on the same subject, try writing one in-depth and easy to navigate article.
- When you get a page that is ranking high on Google, try to update it every now and then to keep the content fresh. For example, replacing old statistics with new ones.
- If you already have multiple articles on a same topic, combine them to create a “better” piece of content. Be sure as you adjust your content you don’t create any navigation situations that lead to broken links. 301 redirect (permanent) all the old links to your new article so you maintain all the precious “Google Juice” accumulate by the original links.
Duplicate content refers to identical or very similar blocks of content across different web pages. Google doesn’t like this, so you want to avoid this as much as possible.
In some cases, you might have duplicate content without even realizing it.
- Web Store items shown or linked to via multiple distinct URLs.
- www vs non-www or HTTP vs HTTPS versions of your website
(these are considered separate pages of your website, although they serve the same content)
- Very similar blog posts covering the exact same topic*
*Although this is not technically duplicate content, you want to avoid having several pages competing for the exact same keyword.
To fix these problems, you have two main choices. You can use 301 redirects or canonicalization. Generally speaking, if you have dynamically created or syndicated content you will want to look at using canonical URLs. Otherwise, use 301 redirects.
Going back to our original analogy, we only want 1 competitor (page) in each contest (keyword or topic). We don’t want to confuse our judges (Google, Bing, Yahoo).
Sitemaps allow you to tell search engines about the organization of your content (hierarchy and importance of each page). This is how a basic site map would look to a user and to a crawler:
If your website is very basic and well structured, you don’t necessarily need a sitemap, but it is always recommended. Google has multiple resources to help you learn about sitemaps.
There are also several tools online that will help you create a sitemap automatically.
Don’t forget that you need to submit your sitemap by adding it to your robots.txt file and submitting it to Google’s Search Console.
The purpose of this simple text file is to tell crawlers what sections of your site you DON’T want crawled.
By default, all your pages and content could get crawled. If there is any reason you’d want stop a specific bot from accessing a section of your site, you can add it there. To check to see if you have a robots.txt file on your website, simply add “/robots.txt” to the end of your domain name. For example:
If for some reason, you have a robots.txt file on your website, check to see how it looks. Here are the two basic configurations:
In both cases, the “user-agent” are bots and the * symbol represents “all”. The right disallow “/” means that every page on your website will be blocked. If you wanted to block a specific folder you’d want to use “/folder-name/” and if you wanted to block a single file you’d use “/file-name.html”.
Google has great resources to help you learn about robots.txt files.
Various Technical SEO
If you want to take your SEO a step further, the are several ways we haven't explored together to give even more specific clues to search engines on what your pages and content are about.
For example, Structure Data (typically using schema.org vocabulary) will make it easier for search engines to organize and display your content in creative ways. This can drastically improve CTR in a SERP. Here are a few examples that you’ve probably seen in the past (Local Pack and Knowledge Panel).
Moz offers a detailed description of SERP features and how to get them.
Although there are other technical SEO tactics that can be applied, if you’ve done everything above and are still not ranking for your target keyword, you need to focus on your off-page SEO strategies.
Domain Authority (developed by MOZ)
Your domain authority is scaled from 0 to 100 and predicts a root domain’s ranking potential in search engines. In layman's terms, this is a quick snapshot of how big of an influence your website is online.
By improving your DA (Domain Authority), it will be easier to rank on search engines. Here are some examples of large brands and their DA:
google.com = 100
facebook.com = 100
cnn.com = 96
olympic.org = 93
You can use a domain authority checker to get your current score. If you have a score above 60, that’s great. You’re a thought leader online! If not, that’s not a big deal and shouldn’t discourage you.
Over time, you can improve your DA by publishing quality content online and following the steps and tips found in this article. Trust me, you don’t become an online thought leader overnight. It can take years!
It’s no surprise that social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others) have taken on a much larger role in ranking search results. The bigger and more credible your brand is online, the higher the chances that search engines will notice the content you are publishing online. If you’re wondering what counts when it comes to social media, let’s make it simple: EVERYTHING COUNTS.
From the number of followers you have, to shares, likes, re-tweets and everything in between, the goal is to be considered an authority online. How can you do that? Post quality, engaging content and make sure to link to your website.
Throughout this article, a common factor is the importance of focusing on quality over quantity. Spamming your inner community won’t help boost your SEO, but publishing quality content that gets shared will.
A common mistake when building a website or writing an article is underestimating the importance of internal linking. When a bot crawls your website, they will navigate from page to page by following the different links on your pages.
So why is this important?
When following a link, the crawler is picking up important clues about your website structure and what your pages are about. This is why Anchor Text (clickable text that embeds a link) is so important.
Here is an example of what to do …and what not to do:
On the left, you will notice how the Anchor Text is using relevant target keywords to describe what the page is about. On the right, the click “here”, “learn more” and “read the article” links do not add any value to the link.
Another important structure component to linking is the number and quality of links that are going towards any given piece of content. A common best practice is using the “hub and spoke technique”. Here is an example of his this works:
You publish a long-format piece of content that is targeting your broader and higher volume keyword, (for example, SEO). You then have several other pages or pieces of content that link to it. A support article could be “10 Tools to Help your Keyword Research” that links to the more general “SEO” article.
As the number of links pointing to a given page increases, Google gets more and more clues about the importance of the page and what it is about.
When it comes to getting external links, this is one of the most important and difficult SEO tactics we will discuss.
This is the holy grail of SEO and the foundation of what Google was built upon. Getting an external link (also called a backlink) from an external domain is a big signal for Google on what your page is about. If you’re getting lots of them, you must be on to something.
I know, I know, I keep repeating myself, but it’s important to get quality links over quantity.
If you’re getting thousands of links from unreliable or spammy websites, they are not worth as much as 1 link from a very credible source. They could actually harm you!
If you believe your website is getting “attacked” by spammy links, you should disavow them using Google Search Console. By doing this, you are telling Google that you don’t want to count the links towards your ranking.
So how do you get the backlinks? Good question! Some of them come naturally when you post quality content.
For example, if you think this article is good, we’d love for you to link to it!
Other links will require you to actively reach out. Public relations, media connections, influencer relationships, friends, forums are all viable options for getting links. The only case of having "bad links" is if you have to pay for them. Quality SEO is done organically!
A few tips:
1. Be friendly, and offer a win-win situations to whoever you are approaching for a backlink. For example, if you have an article about SEO Best Practices and you find a website with an “SEO Best Practices” anchor text pointing to a 404 (error page), you could approach them and ask them if they want to switch the broken link with yours. Talk about a win-win situation!
2. If you are looking to get reviews for your new product, and you find websites that are reviewing your competitors, reach out and ask if they would demo your product so that you can be included in the reviews.
3. Make sure to get into all the directories. If you have a local business this is even more important. Directory links is one of the fastest ways to get credible links to your website.
In summary, there are hundreds of ways to get links, so get creative, it’s worth it!
Reviews are great for SEO, period. When they are good reviews, it’s even better.
Whether they are on hosted on Facebook, Google or elsewhere, they have multiple benefits.
Reviews usually have a link to your website, sending credibility signals to Google that you have an actual business.
So where do you want to be reviewed? It depends on your business. I’d suggest looking up all your competitors with the keyword “reviews” added, to see the top websites your target customers have been looking at.
You will find two types of reviews: editorial and customer reviews.
Editorial reviews are blogs and industry professionals that usually have to be approached. Make sure to only do this when you are ready to get reviewed, and don't jump the gun. They usually only review you once!
Customer review websites will allow your customers to rate you. This is great, because it not only helps your SEO, but also helps undecided customers to convert when they are searching for reviews of your product or service online before committing. You will also get an insight into your customers' experience.
So, you’ve started to apply SEO best practices to your content marketing strategy, and now you want to know what type of performance you’re getting. Let’s break down a few tools that can help you determine how well you are doing.
Google Analytics (GA)
Is most cases, Google Analytics should be your go-to tool for analyzing your web traffic. Whether you are new to website analysis or have been doing for years, Google Analytics is by far the best FREE tool for understanding your audience and how they are interacting with your website or online app.
Unfortunately, GA is not the best tool for tracking organic search results.
Back in October 2011, Google changed the way it harvests data from search results to protect users’ privacy. Since then, referral keywords will be hidden for any search conducted over SSL - Secure Socket Layer. For example, if you’re logged in to a Google product like Gmail.
As you can see by the example above, the large majority of organic results are not provided (98.20%), so the only insight that GA can provide is the behavior of your organic visitors.
If the bounce rates are low (say below 40%) then the pages you are serving are relevant to the keywords you are ranking for.
To really analyze SEO, you will need a different tool.
When questioning if your SEO is working, the proof is in the pudding. There is nothing better than doing a search to see where your page ranks. The only thing you must remember is that search is based on several factors beyond keywords, including location and device.
Sadly, this is not as easy as it used to be to test. In late November 2015, Google removed their native location filter from the main search bar. This means that you need a new way to reproduce localized search results. Here are two ways:
Adding the local keywords to your search will automatically localize the SERP. For example, 'Ice Cream' vs 'Ice Cream New York'.
The other alternative, and my personal recommendation is using the Google AdWords Ad Preview and Diagnosis Tool. This tool will allow you to recreate SERP’s from any device or location in the world!
Free bonus: You get to see if your ads are displaying without getting charged for impressions.
Google Search Console (Previously Google Webmaster Tools)
Google Search Console is the best FREE tool for understanding what keywords are driving organic traffic to your website.
If you don’t have an account and are serious about SEO, you will want to create an account now.
Here is what Google Search Console looks like:
For any given keyword, you will be able to see your:
- CTR (click-through-rate)
- Average Position
You will also be able to dig into the data by country, device, or search type (Web, images, video).
Two important notes: Search Console will only give you data on keywords that you currently rank for (in top 100 results) and their data is delayed by a couple of days.
If you are looking for information on keywords that you are not yet ranking for, or want more up-to-date data, you will need another tool.
As mentioned before, at PageCloud we use SEMrush. Their position tracking tool allows you to track your current position for any set of keywords. This is great because once you get on Google’s radar (start ranking) you can tweak your page to improve your rankings.
Without going into a deep dive into the features and benefits of a pro-tool, keep in mind that if SEO is a part-time concern or you have budget constraints, you can get away with using FREE tools. On the other hand, if you have dedicated resources or are looking to really expand your organic reach, you will need a professional SEO tool.
Now that you have picked out your tool set, how do you figure out if you’re performing?
It's going to depend on what metrics you are looking to improve. This can vary from business to business but here are some of the main things to measure and how to improve each one:
- Increasing number of organic keywords you rank for;
- Creating or editing content
- Improving CTR on SERP;
- Editing page Title, URL, meta description
- Adding structure data for SERP features (ie: schema.org)
- Increasing the number of organic visitors / clicks;
- Applying SEO best practices
- Reducing organic bounce rate;
- Improving on-page experience (ie: page speed, more distinct sections)
- Getting more links;
- Adding internal links (with proper anchor text)
- Applying external reach-out strategies and tactics (ie: social, email)
*Quick note: If you scrolled down to this point without reading the above, you might be missing out on the big picture. There is no such thing as a stand-alone SEO hack that gets you ranking on Page 1 for a high-volume keyword without having to put in some time and effort into your SEO strategy. That being said, let’s jump into some things you can add to your SEO strategy that work almost every time!
The is by far my favorite SEO hack, because it’s so simple and creates repeatable results.
Here is the simple version of how to do it:
- Find content ranking on Page 1 of Google, with a proven track record and lots of links pointing to it.
- Evaluate how you can improve the content* (more thorough content, more up-to-date, better design, etc).
- Create a better version of the same article (use the same topics and keywords but DO NOT COPY the content word for word, you must make it your own!).
- Use a pro tool like SEMrush to find all pages linking to the article,
- Sort pages by “importance” (this could be Page Score or Page Authority depending on the tool you use).
- Find author contact information for all the top pages (this is a manual process, so if there are 1,000’s of backlinks, you will want to focus on the most important ones).
- Reach out to all the authors and tell them about the great news. You have a better article for them to link to!
Here is a quick example of a template you can use for the email:
I was doing some research on [topic] today and I came across your page: [URL]
As I was reading your article (great job by the way), I noticed that you link to [Competitor Article Name].
I’m reaching out to you, because I recently created a similar piece that is a little bit [more updated / thorough / easier to navigate] and thought it might help your readers.
Might be worth a mention on your page.
Either way, keep up the good work!
There are multiple variations to the skyscraper technique that you can use. Your best bet is to run multiple tests and see what works for your business.
Change Your Target Keywords After Publishing
When creating content, you always want to remember your target keyword so that you can optimize for it. Unfortunately, the truth is you won’t always make the top page of Google with your target keyword.
So, what do you do? You have 3 options:
- Continue to get links and optimize the page and hope it ranks.
- Do nothing and call it quits.
- Change your target keyword.
Here’s a hack based upon option 3:
It’s a common that you will also rank in the top 3-4 pages for a different keyword than the one you optimized for.
Here is an example:
- You wrote an article called: “How to make the ultimate chocolate chip cookie” and are trying to rank for the keyword “how to make chocolate chip cookies”
Here is your current Google Snippet:
How to Make the Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie – YourBrand
The ultimate chocolate cookie recipe is a simple three-step process that will give you soft and chewy cookies to serve and enjoy in no time.
- After a few days, here are your rankings for 2 keywords:
how to make chocolate chip cookies – 43rd (Volume 15,000 searches / month)
easy chocolate chip cookies – 38th (Volume 5,000 searches / month)
- You make a few simple changes to your meta data, heading tags and slight copy changes in your article to better reflect “simple chocolate chip cookies”
Ex of new Google Snippet:
The World’s Easiest Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe – YourBrand
This simple three-step process will give you soft and chewy cookies to serve and enjoy in no time.
- A few days later, here are your new rankings for the keywords
how to make chocolate chip cookies – 53rd (Volume 15,000 searches / month)
easy chocolate chip cookies – 7th (Volume 5,000 searches / month)
This fictitious example is to illustrate that sometimes you just have to listen to what the Google Algorithm is saying.
If they are ranking you for a given keyword that you didn’t optimize for, well then optimize for it! You will get a major jump in rankings! This will allow you to see immediate results, and help you get ranked for other, higher volume keywords.
Improve your CTR, get people to click on you
*Warning, this hack is a little bit controversial, because it’s slightly outside the scope of Googles Best Practices Guidelines. Although it does work, you should try to do it in the most “organic” way possible, so that it’s not considered black-hat SEO. You don't want to be penalized!
As with any hack, the goal is to send STRONG signals to Google about a specific page so that it ranks it higher. For this hack, we’ve selected the Click-Through-Rate.
Without going into too much detail, all you need to do is improve the CTR of your page listing based on its current position. Say your link is ranked 65th, but is getting a CTR as high as a Page 1 listing - chances are it will jump.
If you could get 100 people to search for your given keyword, and then go page by page on Google until they see your listing and click on it, you would be getting great marks on CTR and drastically improve your chances at ranking higher. (Tip, make sure they don’t bounce). And no, if YOU click on it 100 times, it won’t count!
Enough said. Happy hacking!
As you can see, when you understand Google’s Algorithm, you can come up with your own “hacks” so you're sending strong signals about your website.
Without a doubt, there are other hacks, but we can’t give away all of our secrets!
Always remember the first rule of Growth Hacking mentioned here by Sujan Patel:
“In my opinion, the first rule of growth hacking should be… Don’t talk about growth hacking!
In most cases, SEO myths stem from changes within Search Engine Algorithms.
As they are constantly changing, people learn something and then a few months or years later the algorithm changes and the best practice they were once using is no longer relevant.
Some of the other myths come from so-called SEO experts who convince people of things that are simply not true to help their business or product.
Here is a short list of some common SEO myths:
Years ago, this was extremely relevant. You would put all the keywords you were trying to rank for using the meta keywords tag.
(ie: <meta name=“keywords” content=“seo, seo best practices” />)
Google soon ran into two problems:
- Keyword stuffing (companies would try and rank their pages for every possible keyword variation instead of focusing on topics and quality content, this sometimes even included their competitors brand name!)
- Because the page source is public, you could easily identify a company’s keyword strategy
So, with time, Google removed the keywords meta tag from their algorithm. Here is Matt Cutts from Google explaining why they don’t use the keywords meta tag in web ranking.
Improving Rankings is a slow process
A lot of the SEO best practices mentioned above take time: keyword research, creating quality content, outreach and link building strategies. One thing that is almost instantaneous is your rankings.
Let me explain:
You just finished a page and applied all the lessons learned in this article. Now you want to know where you rank. The good news is that once that page gets crawled, your position will be determined immediately.
If you have a large website, you might already be getting crawled several times each day. That means you might not have to do anything. If you have properly done your internal linking, the crawlers will follow the links and come to your new page to rank it.
On the other hand, if you want to ensure Google sees your page, you can ask Google to crawl your URL via the Google Search Console.
If you make major changes to a page and have it re-crawled, your rankings will change immediately!
Having lots of pages helps
A common SEO myth is the idea that “the more content / pages you have the better”. This is only true when the content is relevant and of high quality.
Creating a bunch of pages without a structured approach will do nothing for your SEO. You are better off to only have 10 pages on your website that are extremely well-optimized and ranking, than to have 1,000 pages that won’t show up on Google’s radar for any relevant keywords.
In most cases, combining related articles on a given topic will perform better than publishing them separately.
Guaranteeing 1st position
Beware of anyone promising you a first position on Google (especially for high volume/ high competition keywords).
There are simply too many variables to make this sort of guarantee. Keep in mind that rankings change daily, algorithms get updated regularly, and there are always newcomers trying to take your spot.
As with most things in life, when it’s too good to be true, it’s probably fake.
If you do find a magical SEO company, make sure to check out their refund policy if they don’t fulfil their guarantees. Also, make sure they are not using black-hat SEO tactics, as this can get your website penalized by Google. Trust me, you don’t want this to happen!
Magical SEO plugins
Although there are tools that can make SEO much easier, there is no such thing as a magical SEO plugin that can succeed in ranking your site automatically. You need to put in the work.
Just as there is no magical pill that will get you in shape without any diet or exercise, there is no "easy" way out of the effort required to grow your SEO.
By reading this entire article, you now have a complete understanding of what SEO is all about. If you enjoyed this article, we’d love a share.
Do you have any questions or topics you’d like us to cover in future articles?
Please let us know in the comments!