Digital Skin Episode 2: How to Begin with SEO
Today we’re going to discuss SEO. How to succeed in SEO is the riddle you need to resolve if you’re website is to thrive. This is the big one, or one of the big ones, so draw up a chair, pour yourself a drink and listen carefully.
What is the problem that SEO solves?
In January 2021 there were 1,197,982,359 live web sites. Not all of them were operating in your niche, most of them are operating in ours, or it feels like they are! Joking aside, if you are running a web site, you’re in a competition for views.
In the last episode we touched on the different types of audience and what that meant for sales. To re-cap, we identified three categories. In SEO terms think of them as Browsers, Searchers and Buyers. There are more browsers than searchers and more searchers than buyers.
Put yourself in your customer’s shoes – you identify a need – whether it’s a holiday, a new car, a new set of cutlery, your first step is to browse and get a vague idea of what the options are. Let’s take your average Joe. He’s a family man, mortgage, settling into middle age. In the first phase he’ll browse he’ll fondly look at motorbikes for a while, dreaming of the open road, the wind in his hair and freedom ahead of him. Then the kids start wailing and with a start he realises that maybe this time, it’s not a motorbike. It’s a car.
Still in the browsing phase, he looks longingly at the BMW i8 Roadster, and the Audi R8, the years fall away, he closes his eyes and a smile flickers across his lips. An ear splitting scream from the kitchen breaks the spell and with a weary sigh he types the words “four door hatchback” into his search engine. He has become a Searcher. Now, searchers are a lot more useful to you than browsers. In the browse phase the best you can hope to achieve is awareness of your brand. And that’s where the design of your web site earns its keep. If you’re noticeable, you may still be in the game, you may be considered when browse turns to search.
Search is when things get serious. You need to be considered if you are to make a sale. Shortlists are drawn up, local garages are sourced. budgets are calculated. Your average Joe is about to become a buyer. He goes back to the Search Engine and types the phrase “Mazda dealer near me”
Joe is serious now, he has a pen and notepad and he’s furiously engaged in feature comparisons, petrol consumption, hybrid capability, warranty length. He types the phrase “Mazda, three year warranty, hybrid engine: into his search engine. He’s going to spend his money and if you’re still in the game at this point, he may even spend it with you. Joe has become a buyer. There best kind of traffic imaginable.
Now, you don’t aim to turn all of your browsers into buyers, the aim is to keep you in the game right up until the last phase. Notice the way the search terms changed? SEO is the art of being found. The problem it solves is invisibility.
Walk a Mile in a Search Engine’s Shoes
It’s easy to forget, but there are three players in the Search game, not two. You and your customers are a given. The third player is the search engine. Whether it’s Google, Bing or Duck Duck Go, makes not a scrap of difference. They are all in the same game, trying to please customers.
Take Google. The world’s most successful search engine. It’s core product is you. Your data, your search characteristics. It sells this data to advertisers. Not directly, but by delivering reliable search results. That’s how Google makes money. For this model to work, Google needs to remain at the top of the Search Engine pile. That means attracting more users and more repeat users. Your experience of the search results determines whether you will become a repeat searcher.
To be blunt, this is where the quality of your web site comes in. Google needs their users to be thrilled and delighted by the web sites it recommends. That means a good experience on the web site. The reaction they need is not “Why in the name of all that’s holy did this bloody search engine put this site in the top three results?”
That puts the spotlight on the website, and not just the content, the usability and the speed. The job of SEO is twofold. It’s to make it easy for a search engine to index your site and put it on the front page of their results for carefully nuanced searches. It’s to provide content that enables more search terms and provides useful material to the viewer. Which is why, if you do nothing else, providing good, relevant, unique content is more important than any other aspect of SEO.
Now I’m going to get technical for a while. Kill the music, sharpen your pencil and concentrate because this stuff is free.
Why Technical SEO?
Think of it like building a relationship. You don’t get past the first date if you’re argumentative, smelly, wear odd socks and haven’t shaved. If you’re a man that is. The equivalent for a web site building a relationship with a search engine is broken links, slow page loading, irrelevant content, insane menus and poor usability. Google hates broken links like a plague.
Technical SEO is all the horrid technical stuff that makes it easy for a search engine to index your content. If you want to know how to get started with SEO, technical SEO is a big part of the answer. From the layman’s perspective, your web site need to load quickly, feature internal and external links – none of them broken. It needs structure, multiple media types (video, images) and from the technical perspective integrity. It needs to be easy to crawl.
When we design a web site, we don’t want it to be indexed by a search engine. We generally put a directive in a file called robots.txt that tells search engines not to index the site. In the name of all that’s holy, don’t forget to change this setting when you’re about to go live!
The sitemap is a document that tells the search engine about the structure of your site. If you don’t have one, you need one. You will not get properly indexed without one. The best SEO plugins for WordPress generate one automatically.
If you change the name of a page, Search Engines will hate you forever unless you use a 301 redirect to direct your traffic from the old url to the new one. If you delete a page then that will generate a 404 “Page Not Found” error, another irritant for your users and a black mark in the Search engine database. For WordPress users, Rank Math (our favourite SEO plugin) helps you to manage your redirects.
Your web site will be viewed on mobile phones, tablets and desktops. It needs to render correctly for all devices. Thankfully most wordpress themes generate mobile friendly pages automatically. The same goes for Six, Squarespace and Shopify.
You absolutely need a secure web site, even if you are not dealing with transactions. Google favours websites with SSL Certificates. You don’t have to buy an expensive one, you can use free ones at a pinch, but this simple add on encrypts communications taking place via your web site – so Contact forms contain e mail addresses. You don’t want to be sending those across the internet in clear text. That’s how people get spammed.
There is of course a lot more to Technical SEO than I’ve outlined here. When we talk to clients, the first thing we do is run a technical audit on their website because if the site is not search engine friendly, then most of your excellent content will never see the light of the front page in Google!
On Page SEO
The key to success in SEO used to be all about keywords. Not so much these days. Two reasons, firstly search engines now are capable of full test analysis, so they don’t depend as much on keyword lists as they used to. Secondly keywords were abused horribly once people cottoned on to the fact that search engines depended on them. These days Google ignores the keyword tags altogether and the best SEO tools don’t insert it into the page. Think of it now as a guide.
A keyword is not a word, it’s a phrase
Keywords are not necessarily words. They can also be phrases. You generally have one keyword per page so if when you write your content you find another phrase cropping up more frequently, consider changing the name of the page! How does this relate to Buyers, Searchers & Browsers? Think of the search term and its evolution through the viewers cycle from Browsing to Buying. The main pages of your website have to be broad – and searchable. Think of the phrase that people are going to use when browsing.
Long Tail Keywords
A long tail keyword is much more specific. So gong back to the car purchase example, if a search for best mid price sports car brings me pages that have Titles and keywords like Sports Car, then the text will often also contain a phrase such as “This why Mazda have won awards for being the best mid price sports car on the market”. By including such phrases you are amplifying your chances of being viewed by browsers and searchers.
Off Page SEO
Social Media, Google My Business, all the ways that you can promote your content and drive visitors back to your website.
There are two types of links that you need to have on a website. If you don’t want to do this manually, check out my post on Essential Internal Linking Plugins.
Internal Links provide the glue that holds your site together. They help Google to understand your site structure and they help readers to understand that there is more detailed information on the site just a click away. Most people try to have at least a couple of internal links on their sites.
External Links point the reader to a resource outside the web site. This might sound as though it would take readers away from the site, but in fact the reverse is true. By citing authoritative sources, readers are reassured that what they are reading is well researched and relevant.
This is going to be the topic of a separate episode next month as it’s simply too big to fit neatly here.
Suffice to say that content needs to be relevant and original. Google can spot plagiarism faster than any college professor and just like in uni, you will get marked down consequently. A good strategy is to use blog posts to catch long tail keyword traffic and to provide another way in to the content of the site. They are not landing pages in the traditional sense of steering your customer to a purchase, instead they provide real value and if relevant encourage the viewer to consider you as a potential provider of goods or services. The way to tell if this is working for you or not, is found in Google analytics under retention or repeat visits. If somebody is considering you as a provider then they will revisit your web site. They will only consider you if your content is good and the web site provides a good experience.
Google likes authoritative websites and if you have plenty of links to your content that can be persuasive. One of the ways Google measures Authority is by counting the sites linking in to your own site. Of course as soon as this became known a brisk trade in backlinks appeared. Do not buy backlinks. Most of the people offering them are offering sites you really don’r want to be associated with. The search engines recognise a spammer when they see one. What is worth knowing though is that really good content will generate it’s own backlinks spontaneously. And sites like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter etc all count ass valid backlinks. We achieved the first top position in Google for one of our clients for a Facebook Page. It was a surprise but nobody was complaining! Other pages on their web site soon appeared in the front page of organic results.
Where to begin with SEO?
Patience. SEO is a long game. It generally takes at least six weeks to show results and you need a constant supply of fresh content to keep the search engines indexing your page. The rewards though are considerable if you’re selling a service or a high end product. When we design a website, we make sure that it is designed to be search engine friendly and we factor a content production schedule into the first twelve months of the lifespan. It’s the difference between Piccadilly Circus and Death Valley.
Content is still King
If you’re passionate about your product, SEO will come easily to you as you will be creating content for the love of it. The technical aspects may be a little more tricky, but really do make a difference. If you can’t cope with the technical aspects, outsource it or hire a consultant to design a structure that you are comfortable working within. Post regularly. Do social media, a few lively channels are better than lots of empty channels.
I hope this has been useful, so consider subscribing to the Podcast or simple revisiting this site from time to time. The next episode will cover Website Builders – WordPress, Wix, Squarespace and Shopify, their pros and cons and we’ll be looking at web designers – what to look for, why you might need one and what to watch out for. See you in two weeks!
Check out our SEO Case Study on Content Optimisation to see how this works in a real website.
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