What makes Search Engine Optimization (SEO) such a crazy topic is that there’s so much misinformed or plain old inaccurate information out there. Plus, with dozens of factors in Google’s search engine ranking algorithms (some say they number over 200), it’s more than a little complex.
On top of that, Google is constantly changing the game, trying to improve its search results pages (“SERPs” in the SEO biz) and keep ahead of the spammers and black hat SEOs out there aiming to make a quick buck by gaming the system. But that’s a topic for another day.
What we’d like to do is lay out the basics for understanding SEO. And we can do it with a simple analogy, on loan to us from one of the smartest SEOs in the Midwest (heck, maybe the country!), who – very luckily for us – happens to be a former boss and all around amazing person.
So here is the analogy: SEO is a three-legged stool. All three legs are necessary for achieving maximum visibility for your website in the search engine results pages. And without any one of those legs, investing only in the other 2 will have limited, or no, results…just like a stool with only 2 legs doesn’t make a very reliable spot to take a seat.
Leg #1: Technical SEO
Over the years, we’ve come to love Technical SEO. It’s a complex subject, and the requirements for technical success differ depending on the CMS (Content Management System such as WordPress or Magento) of your site, your industry vertical, and your goals, but we’ll boil it down to the essentials here.
Every day, search engines send out programs called “bots” or “spiders” that crawl billions of websites to find out what kind of content is on them and how they link to each other (among many other things).
As these bots discover websites and crawl their content, they add that content to their indexes. If they can’t crawl websites efficiently or have a hard time finding content due to back-end technical SEO issues, that content won’t ever be added to the index. And if content isn’t indexed, it’ll never show up on the search engine results pages when people are looking for information on that topic.
So when that bot hits your website, you want to make sure it can crawl all of the content on your site (or as much as possible). The thing is, the bot is only going to crawl a certain number of URLs on your website before it moves on to the next site on its daily list. So if it runs into a roadblock or too many URLs on your site, the bot will just move on without discovering all the great content on your site.
Then what happens to that awesome blog post you just wrote that’s going to change people’s hearts and minds, that new product or service that’s going to change the world?
It won’t get indexed, and most likely it won’t be found by members of your target audience who are looking for exactly that information.
Without first addressing technical SEO issues, any work you do with keywords or content or link building or local SEO will produce very little ROI. That’s why Technical SEO is the first leg of the stool.
(See our post The Magic of Technical SEO for more information, as well as an amazing case study.)
Leg #2: Keywords & Content
As a professional with deep experience in your industry, your organization’s mission, your target audiences, your message, and your goals, you have an extremely well informed approach to your message. And your message translates into the content on your website.
All of that is very true and helpful and will help you connect to your target audiences. And hopefully you have studied how your target audiences talk about your services, products, and related topics.
But do you have data to back any of that up?
If you’re lucky, you’ve had budget to do informed, strategic market research. If you haven’t been able to do the research, most likely you’re basing your messaging on anecdotal information. That’s useful, but how do you know it’s really accurate? And what do you know about how the people who aren’t already your customers / clients / donors / volunteers talk about your organization, important topics, products, or services?
And even if you’ve been lucky enough to do comprehensive market research with a statistically relevant sample size, we can guarantee that there’s a much, much larger data set: Google’s.
Google provides keyword data through a free tool for its advertisers called Keyword Planner. We don’t do paid search advertising (though we have partners who do), but we can use this same data to find out how your target audience is searching for (and thus talking about) the products, services, and relevant topics that matter to them.
This is the art of Keyword Research, Step Numero Uno for this leg of the SEO stool..
(For House of Cards fans: It’s not quite as crazy as Pollyhop, but that’s kind of the idea.)
Plus we can combine that information with data from your website’s Google Analytics and Search Console accounts in order to identify which keywords engage more with your content and convert best (i.e., take the action you want them to take on your website). Those keywords are golden!
We also use tools like Ubersuggest to find additional topics that people are searching for information on that will be useful for you to create content about. Most likely, you’re currently missing out on those opportunities.
Once you identify topics through Keyword Research, that guides everything else in terms of content. And that is the Part Deux of this leg of the stool: Content Optimization.
- We can see the keywords / topics that are more important than others (i.e., which are searched on most frequently); among other things, this tells us how your website’s information should be organized.
- We can find out which topics should be grouped together and which should not.
- We can see which keywords will be the most important ones to put into key on-page SEO elements such as Meta Titles, headings (H1s, H2s, etc.), image tags, etc.
- We can see which subtopics it’ll be important to address on each page. And we can figure out how much content you’ll need to write on each topic to compete on the search engine results pages for those keywords.
Leg #3: Links
The reason Google has become by far the predominant search engine today (recent studies show that more than 65% of all searches performed online are on Google) goes back to the early days of its success.
When they were developing Google, what founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin discovered was not a new way to crawl and index websites, but a new way to rank them so that the best webpages to provide relevant, high quality information on a given keyword query reliably end up on Page 1 of the results.
The key to their innovation: use the number and quality of inbound links to measure the reputation (or authority) of a given webpage.
They based their innovation on the citation model for academic research, i.e., the more a particular paper was cited by other papers, the more likely it was to contain good information. Plus, when a paper that is already linked to by other papers includes a citation to another paper, that last link is valued much more highly than a link from a paper that nobody links to.
And it worked. As Page and Brin incorporated that metric into their algorithm, they consistently saw good websites rank on Page 1. And that’s why Google’s users kept coming back time and time again; because it works. That’s why these days we don’t say “I searched for it” – we say “I Googled it”.
To this day, links remain the best measurable metric for determining the quality of content. Sure, we all know there are a lot of spammy, bad links out there in the wide world of the internet, and these days it’s not that hard to link to somebody else’s website. Sure, it’s easy to link to a website on social media, but Google doesn’t really pay attention to most social media links for that very same reason. There’s too much junk on social media.
Of course, spammers continue to try to game Google’s link-based ranking algorithms, but eventually Google has figured out their tactics and yanked the sites that try to game the system off the results pages.
So what does this mean for your website? It means links matter.
Especially if your website is in a competitive keyword space, after you sort out your technical issues and optimize your content, links will be what drives you to the top of the results pages.
There are many ways to identify websites that may want to link to you. The way we at Dolomite Marketing approach link building, it’s always a legit process. We take a look at the links you already have, find ways of expanding that base, and examine your competitors’ link profiles to identify new link building targets. Asking for links is not easy (it’s kind of like PR), but if your content provides value to the audience of the website you’re contacting, it’s usually an easy sell.
For businesses with a local geographic emphasis (SMBs, local organizations, etc.), Local SEO is a must. It’s not exactly the same as link building, but it’s related.
When Google senses a search with local intent (e.g., “milwaukee restaurant supplies”), an entirely separate algorithm takes over.
Sure, the algorithm looks at inbound links and content, but it also checks to see if your website is the best resource on the topic in the local market. There are a number of local search ranking factors, but some of the most important ones are schema markup on your website (a.k.a., “structured data”), a good location page, consistent Name, Address and Phone Number information across your external business listings, and plentiful, positive reviews.
For each client we work with at Dolomite Marketing, the issues and prioritization of the Three Legs of the SEO Stool is different. Each website is different, each keyword space is different, and each competitive link landscape is different. But we always check all three legs of the stool, because invariably, they all could use some optimization.
Header Photo Credit: Ben LeFort