- August 13, 2020
As a business owner, you may have only even heard the term “SEO” (it stands for search engine optimization) for the first time recently. Hey, no judgment; that’s why there are marketing folks like us. But now that you’re actively pursuing a better search rankings position so you can get more leads and get more revenue coming in through your website, you recognize that search engine optimization is a key, and you want to know how to get started.
Well, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is there’s no “get ranked first quick” scheme for overnight success in search engines – at least not anymore. It takes time and dedication to consistently putting out new, helpful content. This is the long game.
The good news is, it can be done. It’s not magic, or voodoo. The information you need to learn to improve your rankings is out there, and if you learn it and use it, you should absolutely find success. What we will attempt to do here is distill that information down to the key points you must know so that you can begin your journey to new search engine heights.
Here Is the Game Plan for Improving Your SEO
- Produce content that is accurate, comprehensive and clear.
- Use the language of your customers in this content and put important keywords in important places.
- Use schema to structure content on a page.
- Organize your content and structure pages around content hubs.
- Display your credentials for writing content on a specific topic.
- Be transparent, from company contact details to content citation sources.
- Provide a good on-site user experience.
Your Goal: To be at the top of Google’s results for queries related to your products and services.
It’s estimated that roughly half of organic traffic goes to the first result on a query, and as much as 95% goes to results on the first page. In other words, the higher you rank, the better. Specifically, the higher you rank in Google the better, because the company’s share of the search engine market is upwards of 90%.
Google’s Goal: To provide the best answers to users’ search queries.
The majority of Google’s revenue comes from selling ad space on its search results pages. The better answers those search results provide, the more people use it, and the more companies will spend to advertise on it.
SEO Is the Process of Aligning These Goals
You need to make your pages and site as a whole so good that they provide the best solutions and experience for searchers in the eyes of Google.
To do this, you need to understand how Google understands search queries, how it finds relevant pages to answer them, and how it ranks those relevant pages.
How Does Google Produce Helpful Search Results?
This process happens in 5 stages:
Stage #1: Google understands search intent
Once upon a time, not so long ago in fact, Google couldn’t understand the connection between a phrase such as “best time to cut lawn” and “best time to mow lawn.” The search engine would’ve rewarded pages differently based on those optimized for either one phrase or the other.
Today, the algorithm is much more advanced and getting smarter all the time. Google can now differentiate between synonyms, see through spelling mistakes, and meet searcher’s desires for categories of results, such as local info or fresh content.
And Google’s October 2019 BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) algorithm is a huge leap forward in what’s called natural language processing, or computers’ ability to make sense of human speech using context, recognizing names and parts of speech, and more.
What can you do?
Nothing. This stage happens on Google’s side of things and is unrelated to your specific website content.
Key takeaway: At Stage #1, Google understands what a user is searching for.
Stage #2: Google seeks relevant pages that will answer the query
In Google’s own words, a website having the same keywords as a query is “the most basic signal” a page is relevant. This is part of what’s known as on-page SEO (as opposed to off-page), and it includes the optimization of factors such as title tags, URLs, and internal links.
Interaction data, or “user experience signals,” also play a role in measuring the relevance of a page to a search query, although exactly how much of one is unclear.
Bounce rate (the percentage of 1 page visits), click-through rate from a search results page, and pogosticking (where a user visits several pages from a search results page – the theory being that it suggests previous pages have not provided a satisfactory experience) are interaction metrics rumoured to play a role in rankings. In addition, some have noted a correlation between factors such as time on site and page rankings.
But the truth is probably more nuanced than that. For instance, a quick 1-page visit isn’t necessarily a sign of a bad experience. A song lyric page can simultaneously have a bounce rate of over 95% and be hyper-relevant to the query, providing exactly what the searcher needs.
If interaction data does play a role, the exact factors at play are likely to vary by query type, query history, niche, device, and much more.
What can you do?
What you can do at Stage 2 is exactly what we do for our clients here at HBB:
- Create content clusters of money pages and supporting pages
Keeping your content focused and organized makes it easy for Google’s bots to understand your content and deem it relevant to the right queries. When we’re building out a website, we create a visual sitemap with something like Gloomaps that diagrams how the site will be broken down between “money pages” and their supporting pages.
As the name implies, money pages are intended to sell your product or service. Supporting pages are where you get into the nitty-gritty details of those products or services, attempt to capture traffic that’s relevant to the topic, and then direct those viewers to your money page.
So if you’re selling landscaping services, you might have “French Drain Installment Services” as a money page, with a supporting page entitled “What to Do About Water Pooling in Your Backyard.”
Web searchers with the problem of water pooling in their backyards find your supporting page, because it’s relevant to their search terms, and if they’re impressed with the quality of that page, they’ll be enticed to explore the services you offer and become a lead for your business.
- Nail the fundamentals
You also need to make sure you’re nailing the basics of on-page SEO. On-page SEO refers to the practice of making pages on your site friendly for both visitors and search engines (as opposed to off-page SEO which refers to signals that help your SEO, but which come from other sites – examples include backlinks and mentions).
Good on-page SEO means using both the language of your customers and keywords in the right places. For more on this, check out SEO training company Backlinko’s handy guide to creating SEO-friendly URLs, titles, descriptions, images, and more.
- Use structured data
Structured data is a fancy term for code in a format search engines understand. At the most basic level it’s a way to show what type of page your page is: a news piece, a blog post, a product page, etc.
But it can go much deeper. All kind of information on your site can be marked up in structured data, including your business details (name, address, contact information), services, products, reviews, leadership profiles, how-to guides, and FAQs. The list is almost limitless.
Effectively, almost every page on your site will contain a type of content that can be marked up using structured data.
Using structured data also allows you to display what are called “rich snippets” in search results.
If you’ve ever searched for a recipe, for example, you’ve seen these results–they have pictures, ingredients, cooking times, and other cool stuff right in the result. They are very attention-grabbing, which can lead to more clicks and higher rankings.
Key takeaway: At Stage #2, Google finds pages that provide a relevant answer.
Stage #3: Google determines page quality
By this point, Google knows what a user is looking for, and it’s found relevant pages to display. But because a page can be relevant but still low quality, the search engine now prioritizes and ranks high-quality pages.
Google’s term for “what every high-quality page needs” is “E-A-T”, short for Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness. If that sounds vague, it’s because it is; E-A-T may apply to an entire site, a single page, the author of a piece of content, or all three. We also don’t know exactly what signals Google uses to determine if a site is E-A-T-able or not. All we have from Google are clues sprinkled in the Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines, the manual for Search Quality Raters, the 10,000+ people who help Google rate the quality of pages by conducting real searches.
But we also have dictionaries and can base our SEO strategies based on the E, A, and T definitions themselves:
- Expertise: This tells us your content must be accurate and comprehensive. Moreover, it needs to be professionally presented and clearly communicated in an effective way.
- Authoritativeness: What makes you an authority on the subject? To determine this, raters look at links, mentions, social media presence, the number of brand searches, the Wikipedia page, and other independent sources that indicate your reputation, especially among other experts.
One thing the evaluator guidelines do specifically state is that supplementary content–content related to the main topic of the page (for example, supporting articles about alternative treatments and how the procedure works under a main page about teeth whitening)–that offers a helpful experience is a sign of high quality. Likewise, a lack of supplementary content on a large website may signify low quality.
What can you do?
- Produce content that is accurate, comprehensive, and clear
Incorrect, incomplete, incoherent content is not helpful. Being helpful is always the name of the game.
- Create content hubs and topical relevance
A searcher will likely have follow-up questions or be interested in related topics; that’s where content hubs come in. Some use the phrase “content hub” to mean basically a content management system, but for our purposes here it means interlinked pages or collections of related content that tie into a central ‘hub’ page, like spokes on a wheel. This format helps create topical relevance or topical authority for your website, organize it into an easily digested, helpful resource, and is a structure that can be seen as exhibiting high quality.
- Display your expertise
Case studies, testimonials, awards, blog posts, how-to videos, and glowing client feedback are just a few great methods of broadcasting your experience and know-how online. Conducting keyword research to understand what your audience is searching for can help you identify ‘long-tail’ keywords that involve very specific pain points, which present a wonderful opportunity for you to demonstrate your knowledge of the nitty gritty of a particular topic.
- Market on social media
Remember how we said evaluators check your social media presence for authoritativeness? Having your content followed, liked, and shared by influencers on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or other platforms can increase your page quality rating. Plus, more publicity is always a good thing.
Social media marketing is a huge topic in its own right. Hubspot has a short read with the basics and links to other sources called Social Media Marketing: The Ultimate Guide that makes a good starting point.
- Market traditionally
Offline marketing can and should be a complement to your digital marketing strategy. Say you appeared on a local TV station as a local expert, and before you left you mentioned your website and encouraged viewers to follow you on Facebook. Any traditional means of displaying E-A-T in the real world can lead to online mentions, links, shares, page visits, and new customers.
- Manage your online reputation
There are lots of tools out there (such as SEMrush’s) for monitoring your online mentions, or you can simply search for your brand name to see what people are saying about your business. Make it a priority to respond promptly to reviews, thanking customers for positive ones and apologizing and following up with negative ones. Keep encouraging customers to leave reviews in your communications with them, whether in newsletters, on receipts, or in person.
- Open up
Be open with your audience about how you use their data, who you and the major players in your organization are, how your company came to be, and other details. An about page is the perfect place for much of this, but depending on your industry, more pages may be necessary.
Key takeaway: At Stage #3, Google decides which pages are reliable and display high E-A-T signals and ranks pages accordingly.
Stage #4: Google grades the UX
At some point in 2021, the Google Page Experience Update will go live. This change to the algorithm will remove any doubt that Google penalizes sites that give users a poor experience. A site’s UX will be measured using what Google calls Core Web Vitals:
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP): This measures loading performance (how long it takes the largest content piece to appear in the viewing window). LCP should happen within about the first 2 seconds of the page starting to load.
- First Input Delay (FID): This gauges the time between a user first interacting with a page and the browser responding. A solid FID score is less than 100 milliseconds.
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): A page that jumps around while it’s still loading elements such as images or ads has high CLS. For a good user experience, sites should strive to have a CLS score of less than 0.1; elements should move very little while loading.
- Mobile-friendly: Is your site optimized for those accessing it via smartphones? It better be, because that share of the market has surpassed desktop traffic. And you’ll be penalized by Google to top it off. You can always check how things look by doing a simple test yourself, and “view on mobile” is a standard feature of website builders today.
- Safe browsing: Any malware or suspicious activity Google detects on your site is a big no-no.
- HTTPS: The page is served over HTTPS. Check if your site’s connection is secure. If the page isn’t served over HTTPS, learn how to secure your site with HTTPS.
- Intrusive interstitials: Google considers popups that a) take up roughly 15% or more of the viewing window; b) open if a user touches the page; c) are hard for the user to get rid of; or d) are otherwise ‘spammy’ to detract from the user experience and can hurt your page rankings if you use them.
What can you do?
Ensure pages load quickly and function on all devices and browsers. Best practices for speeding up page load times include limiting redirects, compressing files, optimizing images, and removing unused or incompatible code.
Also, take advantage of Google tools. Google makes a tool available to generate a Core Web Vitals report that can tell you which of your site elements are good and which need improvement. For safe browsing, use the Safe Browsing API or Google Transparency Report.
Key takeaway: At Stage #4, Google favors pages that provide a good user experience.
Stage #5: Personalization & location
Since 2009, Google has personalized search results for everyone who uses their search engine, not just those with Google accounts. We know that it’s possible for two people to search the exact same phrase and receive different results. That’s because Google factors in the user’s location, prior 180 days of searches, and whether a user is signed into Google in the results it displays.
It is possible to turn the personalization down, but not off, by removing the web history aspect in Google search settings. But the engine can still use the geographic location and IP address to vary results. In fact, at least one study has found that even when controlling for changes in location, time, being logged into Google, and Google running algorithm tests, searches on controversial topics can trigger varied results.
Regardless, this is all academic for our purposes because there’s nothing (although not quite nothing) you can do here on your end to affect how your website ranks for different users.
What can you do?
Almost nothing. However, as personalization includes browsing history, the more traffic you get to your site, the more likely you are to factor into individuals’ personalization.
Key takeaway: At Stage #5, Google enhances search results for individual users.
How to Rank 1st in Google? No Magic Required, Just Hard Work
So there you have it. Like we said, no magic needed, just commitment. If your site doesn’t hit the top 10 within a few weeks, don’t get discouraged; it takes the vast majority of websites over a year to get there for any one search term. The best things you can do are keep at it, and keep HandBuiltBrands’ email handy (that’ll be email@example.com).