How to Do SEO: Search Engine Optimization Techniques
As you are now aware, search engine optimization comes in many forms, all with the goal of optimizing content to appeal to a specific part of the Google algorithm.
In fact, all of the techniques used in SEO are aimed at addressing one or more of Google’s ranking factors (Google has over 200 of them).
We won’t go over all of them here, but it is important to know the most common and impactful signals, so you know where to focus your efforts and which tactics to avoid. It is also worth noting that improving a single SEO factor on its own won’t guarantee great search engine rankings.
These factors are used by Google to paint a full picture of your web property – it is how the combination of ranking factors is perceived by the search engine that dictates your ability to appear at the top for your target keywords.
Common Search Ranking Factors
Search ranking factors can be broken down (much like the types of SEO) into a specific set of categories.
There are both on-page and off-page factors – some of which we glossed over in the previous section – and of course, penalties and violations which will have a negative impact on your searchability.
Some common on-page factors include:
- Content Quality – Is your content valuable to someone? Does it provide a new or novel insight in a complete thought? Is it easy to digest, hyper-focused, and super relevant?
- Title Tag – A good title tag uses the main keyword first, followed by a secondary keyword, and then the brand name (if there is room). Meta title tags are essential because they help search engines understand what the content is about, and they are the first impression most people will have.
- URL – According to Moz, the optimal URL format is “http://www.example.com/category-keyword/subcategory-keyword/primary-keyword.html”
- Image Alt Text – According to Google, “Alt text improves accessibility for people who can’t see images on web pages, including users who use screen readers or have low-bandwidth connections. Google uses alt text along with computer vision algorithms and the contents of the page to understand the subject matter of the image. Also, alt text in images is useful as anchor text if you decide to use an image as a link.”
Content pages are the core of most websites and are almost always the reason a visitor lands on the website from search. So, what are the components of a fully optimized web page?
A web page that has been fully optimized should:
- Be focused around a single topic
- Contain the main keyword in the title tag, URL, and inside image alt text
- Make mention of the main topic and related phrases throughout the text
- Provide a distinctive perspective about the given topic (the content should be novel, not regurgitated from other sources)
- Include a link back to the category page, the subcategory page (if one exists), and back to the homepage (this can be the logo at the top of the site – it doesn’t have to be in the text of the content).
As noted, off-page SEO is all about the actions taken away from your website that have an impact on how your website might perform in search. The factors that fall into this category are things that vouch for the quality of your content and the trustworthiness of your brand.
Those factors include:
- Backlinks – Inbound links from high-quality web properties is one of the top-ranking factors. If you have a webpage with a lot of inbound links, it has a higher chance of ranking at the top of the SERP than a page that doesn’t.
- Brand signals – Linked and unlinked brand mentions, and active social media profiles tell Google that your company is in fact, a real thing.
- Online Reviews – The reputation of your site on review aggregators like Yelp and YP is something that Google takes into consideration when ranking your content. “Being bad to your customers is bad for business,” so make every effort to maintain a good public relationship with your customers if being found in search is a concern.
When all is said and done, the highest ranked websites will be the ones that have high levels of authority, relevance, and trust.
Penalties and Violations
The last thing to consider with regard to ranking factors is the potential negative impacts of violations and penalties.
Many businesses have made mistakes with SEO that have landed them in the Google doghouse so to speak.
Typically, you will incur a penalty if you do anything to try to game the system (these are also known as black hat tactics – which we’ll get to in a little bit), if you associate your site with sites that Google deems irrelevant or low-quality, or if your site doesn’t have a good user experience.
Getting hit with a penalty or violation can result being banned from the search engines entirely, so tread carefully when deciding which tactics to test.
Here are some examples of what not to do:
- Link out to spammy sites
- Install too many pop-ups or disruptive ads
- Keyword stuffing (using the same keyword in an unnatural way throughout your text)
- Cloaking affiliate links
- Gaining backlinks in an unnatural way
Creating Content That Ranks in Organic Search
As you can probably tell by now, just because you write something great, doesn’t mean you’ll find yourself at the top of the search results.
However, there are several steps that can be taken to improve your chances of hitting it big with organic search, and most of them need to happen before you even put one finger to a keyboard.
The following are a list of techniques that you can use to increase your chances of having your blog articles rank near the top of the search results.
Pillar Posts and Topic Clusters
If you really want qualified candidates to find your website from organic search, before you do anything, you need to determine which subjects you are an expert on and which subjects relate most closely to your core business offer, and create a plan to own these topics.
To do this, you need to create content that broadly addresses each of your core topics, and then create other pieces of content that dig deep into every sub-topic contained under the umbrella of each of your core topics.
This is known as the Pillar Post and Topic Cluster Strategy. You need to be seen as an authority on a subject if you want your content to rank well, which is why executing your content in this manner is so effective.
Keyword research is an important function of any good SEO strategy, and even though it is talked about a lot, many publishers do not spend enough time researching keyword opportunities before they start writing.
To do this, consider these 4 elements:
- Search Volume
- Search Intent
As a basic overview, search volume helps you determine how much traffic you can anticipate if you begin to rank for a certain term.
The level of competition helps you understand how difficult that term or phrase will be to rank for – if you are just starting out, you will have a much more challenging time rising to the top for highly competitive keywords.
And, search intent is based on the ultimate goal of the searcher.
For instance, someone looking up “plumbing tips” vs someone searching for “plumber near me” is going to have very different expectations about they will find on the landing page.
Lastly, high-value keywords are ones that are most closely related to your core revenue-driving offerings.
Keyword research should be performed when crafting your initial content strategy, and then again for each individual article. The goal is to write content in a way that naturally and clearly addresses many of the keywords and phrases related to the topic of the content, while focusing on one core search term, which is what your content is about.
Now that you’ve completed your keyword research and have a better idea of what questions people are asking and which desirable terms you have the highest chances of ranking for, you can create a keyword-optimized outline for your content.
This is called topic modeling. Topic modeling is actually a phrase used to describe the way an AI (in this case, the search engine algorithm) analyzes a group of words and identifies relationships between them. Uncovering the contextual relationships between a group of words is how the search engine knows what a piece of content is about.
Your topic model should be a blueprint for a piece of content that has one focus topic identified (your main keyword or phrase) in the title, and has headlines and sub-heads that incorporate related topics – preferably the ones that have the highest search volume – mapped out into supporting sections.
You may also want to make note of additional keywords that address secondarily related topics so that you remember to include these throughout the text as well.
This step in the content creation process is extremely important for ranking well because empowers the writer to think like a search engine, while still writing for a human.
Internal Linking and Site Structure
Another thing to consider when building out a piece of content with the goal of ranking in search is what pages you should link to from within the content, which pages should link back to the new piece of content once published.
According to Yoast, “Taxonomies, like categories and tags, but also internal links, your navigation and breadcrumbs are the tools to structure your site.”
Having a logical and balanced site structure is the core of good SEO.
Internal links help web crawlers navigate your website, as well as signal to these crawlers which pages on your site are the most important. Content that doesn’t have a lot of internal links is harder for crawlers to discover and therefore is deemed as less significant than other pages.
The beauty of the topic cluster strategy is that your Pillar page can link out to each individual sub-topic page, and vice versa.
Your subtopic pages might link to each other as well, which creates an easy-to-navigate web from one topically related post to another.
And, if your site is structured properly, you’ll be less likely to compete with yourself for a high ranking in the search engines because your website will be architected in a way that denotes which pages are the most important.
Once your post is published, remember to add links to your new post from all of your other related content using relevant anchor text.
Over time, your content web will grow and strengthen, thus boosting your authority on that category, improving your chances of ranking for your desired keywords, and moving your article up the search results.
Optimizing for Rich Results
In June 2019, “zero-click” searches occurred more often than searches with organic clicks.
This fact is surprising, considering the amount of effort being put toward moving content up to the top of the results page.
However, zero-click searches are not the end of SEO as we know it.
Ultimately, the reason for this rise is as a result of the new(ish) SERP elements known as rich results.
According to Google, rich results can include carousels, images, or other non-textual elements. Optimizing your content to be featured in the rich results is the new name of the game, and one way to do this is to code your content using structured data.
While not all structured data leads to inclusion in the rich results, applying schema markup to your content can improve your chances.
Not super technical? That’s okay.
You can use this tool from Merkle to help generate schema markup for your content, and you can test your page after adding the structured data to make sure your page is eligible by using this rich results test here.
Auditing and Updating Old Content
If you’ve taken all the actions to help your content rank, and if after a considerable amount of time – six months at a minimum, but probably after a year – you are not seeing the results you want, it might be time to audit your content and decide whether you need to update it, consolidate it, or delete it.
Auditing and updating older posts should be a routine process that happens every couple of months to ensure the relevance of your site.
Especially when it comes to time-sensitive materials that aren’t evergreen in nature (like that post all about industry trends you published three years ago), it pays to regularly update your posts so that search engines can see you are actively “tending” your content and making sure that things are fresh and up-to-date.
In the event that you discover certain posts aren’t generating a lot of search impressions, you can start by looking at the keywords it is ranking for (if there are any).
Maybe you have another article that ranks better for the same words and consolidating the two articles into one post might eliminate this instance of keyword cannibalism.
Or maybe the post is ranking for unintended keywords that aren’t super relevant to your business or aren’t searched a lot. You may choose to restructure the article to focus more specifically on the intended subject.
Or maybe it’s not the keywords but the article itself – check the page speed load time and make sure all of your images are optimized and see if these updates help boost the rankings for the page.
If the post is generating a lot of impressions, but not a lot of clicks, your headline or meta description might be to blame. Getting people to click on your article is a whole other ballgame, but these problems can be fixed if identified by doing a little digging in your Google search console and analytics.
Understanding Your Goals: A Note of Advice
This should go without saying, but content that doesn’t have a place within your buyer’s journey isn’t going to deliver on financial goals. Period.
Even if you do find that you’ve snagged yourself one of the coveted top placements for a high-volume keyword, the traffic will be practically worthless if the searcher’s intentions aren’t aligned with what you offer.
Make sure you spend some time mapping your personas and customer’s journey, and identify areas within this process where you can nurture them with content. Being strategic about what you produce and at which stage of the journey it should be consumed is the first step to creating a successful content marketing machine.
Then you can apply the aforementioned tactics to help that content catch fire.
Crafting and publishing great content is only the first step in the process. Now you need Google to see it is valuable.
External link building is popular technique used in SEO to increase page rankings.
While building internal links is a powerful on-page SEO tactic, external link building refers to the activities you can do to generate links back to your website from other, external places.
It is such a widely used tactic that there are dozens of strategies that can be deployed to increase your chances of securing those oh so valuable inbound links. There are literally thousands of in-depth articles on link building best practices because links from reputable sources are one of – if not the – strongest indicators of authority and trust.
While we won’t go into too much detail here, it is critical to understand the basics of link building and some ways to generate links if you want to invest in content creation for the purposes of SEO.
But, before we jump into the specifics, we need to address the shady past of SEO.
White Hat, Gray Hat, and Black Hat SEO
Unfortunately, the phrase “link building” has a dark history (as do many SEO tactics that will now get your site banned if you get caught implementing them), which is why we need to discuss the difference between white hat, gray hat, and black hat SEO.
Typically, white hat SEO tactics are those that 100% follow the rules laid out by Google. Gray hat tactics are those where the rules are unclear (like certain techniques for building links, for instance), and black hat tactics are those that fall outside of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Most SEO practitioners will fall into one of these three camps, with gray hat most likely containing the largest number of specialists, because, opportunities to improve rankings quickly present themselves where the rules are not well defined, and SERPs are a highly competitive landscape.
When you play by the rules, it is much harder to achieve big wins quickly, but you won’t be risking your entire web presence just for a shot at coming out on the top of the search results. It is recommended to avoid black hat tactics because while they may work more quickly, the results are usually temporary and potentially damaging to your site’s reputation.
However, certain forms of link building are considered gray hat because Google does not allow for the “unnatural” generating of links – but most content producers don’t like the idea of waiting for their content to gain inbound links and will often implement some sort of link generation strategy (which will cover in a minute).
Of course, there are black hat link building techniques which by nature, are not designed to serve the user, but rather are implemented as a way to boost page rankings by gaming the system.
Some examples of black hat tactics for link building that should be avoided if you want to stay on Google’s good side would be:
- Spamming blog comments with links to a third-party website
- Creating and utilizing “link farms”
- Inserting hidden links into a website you do not own by abusing a security flaw
- Buying links
It is worth noting that while black hat SEO is a clearly a riskier strategy, it is not illegal.
What you need to be weary of is anyone who is selling black hat SEO services and not disclosing their strategies to their clients – or worse, someone who takes money from clients with no knowledge of proper SEO strategies at all.
The true dark side of the industry is not necessarily about white hat versus black hat techniques, but rather, untrustworthy people who have made bad decisions which give the entire industry a bad reputation.
Popular, Effective Link Building Practices
Now that we’ve covered the differences between white hat and black hat strategies, we can discuss some of the more popular and effective link building techniques that you can use to help raise awareness for your content.
- Guest posting on other, high-domain authority and industry relevant websites
- Finding unlinked brand mentions and asking the webmaster to link back to you
- Identifying images from your website (like original research graphs or infographics that you created) on other people’s sites without proper credit and asking for them to link back to you.
- Finding broken links on high ranking content where you have a piece of content that would fit and asking the webmaster to update the link to point to your content or resource instead
All of the mentioned tactics require you to create high-quality content that is worth linking back to, and some form of outreach in order to get the attention of the webmaster.
Always remember that people are busy, and inboxes are crowded. If you want people to respond to your requests, you need to lead with value and explain why it’s in their best interest to take time out of their lives to grant you a backlink.
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