The first thing to keep in mind when starting an SEO strategy is to forget all about SEO. That probably sounds like an odd thing to say, but the reason is simple. The days of very tactical, technical SEO campaigns geared towards identifying the shortcomings of Google’s algorithm and using them your advantage are long gone. If your objective is to sneak under the radar, employ some dodgy tactics and artificially inflate your rankings, then forget it. You may enjoy some short term wins, but it’s never going to be sustainable.
Google has one objective in mind, and that’s to provide the best content from the most trusted brands for any given search query – and it is bloody good at doing it. So you need to be thinking about all the different things that contribute to that; you need to be thinking about the business you’re representing, the audience you’re trying to engage with and the content that’s going to satisfy their search intent. You also need to be thinking about social media, and mobile UX, and a thousand other things, but first of all, you need to begin by adopting the mentality that this is all about building the best content and the most trusted brand.
Many marketers seem to think that simply having well constructed content that is of interest to their audience is enough. Well it might be if you’re operating in a niche with little competition, but in most markets, you’re going to have to be more ambitious or you’ll never cut through the noise.
In fact, content marketing is one of those endeavours where the higher you set your sights, the better. That way, even if you only ever get half way there, you’re going to guarantee you’re doing something a hell of a lot more interesting than 95% of other brands in your market.
So what do I mean when I say “be ambitious”? Well, it could be that you want to build a community around a certain topic. It might be that you intend to engage with key influencers, although in most consumer markets, that’s not really much of a competitive advantage anymore. It might be that you intend for the brand to become famous for a particular form of insight or data. It may be that you’re going to hold an annual event each year for your industry, or perhaps publish a book.
Whatever it is, this ambitious goal will give direction to your activity and ensure it’s all aligned, and will also help you to get the buy-in of other stakeholders – whether they’re internal or external – as they will be genuinely excited and intrigued by what you’re trying to achieve.
Finally, this big idea will ensure you are actually developing an asset over time. Something that accumulates value with each month rather than a disjointed series of very nice, but completely different, activities that add up to nothing.
So whatever your goal is, make sure it’s big. Being 3% better than the competition is not a strategy. You’ve got to aim to be 300% better or do something else that they’ve never even thought of.
Before we write a single line of code for a new website, we need to be really clear on where we’re trying to take this in the long term. We need a really clear sitemap, that might not all be created before the site goes live, but certainly provides a clear sense of direction for how the site will evolve over time.
There are two distinct elements to this, the first is from a user experience point of view – what do we want people to do on the website and how are we going to get them to do it? The second is from an SEO perspective. To some extent, these two things overlap, and with every year that’s gone by the degree to which they overlap has become greater and greater. There used to be all sorts of battles between SEO experts and UX experts, but thankfully those days are over thanks to the ever increasing overlap.
To give an example, let’s imagine we run a gym chain. The home page will naturally target certain keywords, and if we run a number of different locations then presumably we’re going to have a number of pages that each target those different local terms. Perhaps we might have a page for Chiswick that targets terms like “gym in chiswick” or “ladies gym in chiswick” or “budget gym in chiswick”. However, there are almost certainly going to be terms that it doesn’t cater to in any great detail. For example, maybe someone in Chiswick is searching for “yoga classes” and perhaps the gym does offer yoga classes but it might be 1% of what they do, thus cluttering up the user experience with details of the yoga classes doesn’t necessarily make sense. On the other hand, there’s no harm in getting that traffic, and maybe they do offer really good yoga classes and it’s something they want to be doing more of in the future, so we still want to be getting the attention of those people making that search query but we just don’t want it interfering with the primary user experience. In that case, we might create a separate landing page targeting yoga classes in Chiswick with really rich content about the instructor and the different types of yoga taught, along with any other information that’s going to add to the UX, but this is a separate page and not something that forms part of the primary user experience.
Now as you can imagine, doing this for some businesses can result in vast sitemaps. For example, some businesses have hundreds of different products and services or different locations, and with all the different variables and combinations of those things, you can end up with sitemaps with thousands of pages, so it’s not always practical to think that they’re all going to be created before the site goes live, but it is important that you have a sense of where you’re going to take this in the long term.
You may also want to consider searches that represent people earlier on in the sales funnel, so rather than just focusing on those who are ready to buy, we might want to also target people who are earlier on in their decision making process. For example, rather than someone searching for “gym chiswick”, it might be more a case of targeting people searching for educational material on nutrition or exercise generally. This is really important as we want to be capturing this data and building these relationships. Now with pages like this, we may decide that they belong more appropriately within a blog or resources section and we don’t necessarily need to create them before the site goes live, rather they’re going to form part of a broader content strategy. Again, it’s just so important – as with all of this – that we have a really clear sense of where we’re trying to take this architecture in the long term so that we don’t create any obstacles for ourselves.
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There was a time with SEO when we wouldn’t worry too much about the content of landing pages from a user’s point of view. As long as the page ticked certain technical boxes and provided all the right keywords then that was fine – but those days are long gone. Now one of the most important things we can do is put ourselves in the shoes of the user and consider the almost infinite array of expectations and intents they might have whenever they make a given search query.
So, for example, let’s imagine that we run an accountancy firm and we want to construct the perfect landing page targeting tax advisory services in London. What we have to do is put ourselves in the place of that audience and think about all those different things that might be going through their minds when they make that search query. So for example, are they hoping to find technical information? Are they trying to find case studies and testimonials from people or businesses just like them to see what sort of experience they had? Are they hoping to find local address information and a London telephone number? Are hoping to see links to relevant resources so that they can research the subject matter first before before making that enquiry?
We have to try and tick as many of these boxes as we possibly can, and by doing so not only are we going to achieve far better rankings, but we’re also going to provide a much better user experience that inevitably leads to a higher conversion rate, so this could not be more important.
The only other additional suggestion is to avoid any excessive duplication of content. Some duplication is inevitable because from a brand perspective, consistency is key. If you imagine that each of these pages could be the first encounter that your brand has with an individual, there are certain messages that you’re always going to want to communicate, which means that some duplication is fine, however if you find that this page has in excess of 20-30 % duplicate content, then you’ve got a problem. Also, if you have enough of those pages with that level of duplication, then at some point the entire website is going to get penalised.
It can really pay off to invest a significant amount of time researching the competition to see the different types of content that they’re providing within those key landing pages and ensure that you are ticking as many of those boxes in the richest, most unique way that you possibly can.
The days of obsessing over keyword density and trying to stuff keywords and phrases into every last sentence and header are thankfully long gone, however we do still need to help the search engines and ensure that they can actually understand what it is that we want each page to be targeting, so things like title tags and image alt tags are still really really important.
Starting with the with title tag – which is the first thing that Google will see when it arrives on that page – typically you’ll just have one or two key phrases at the start followed by the brand, and you’ll want to be containing it to about 70 characters or so. Then with the image alt tags, if you can include keywords, fantastic, however they don’t immediately appear to the user so we don’t have to worry too much about that. Again, it’s just another really great opportunity to build that relevance to the search engines.
The final thing is the URL structure. So long as we’re not making the URL too long, including some keywords is really sensible because as much as anything else, if people then link to that page using that URL, it’s a really natural way of including some keywords within that anchor text.
Those are where we can be quite pushy with the keywords. We we need to rein it in somewhat is with the content that’s actually visible to the user, so with headers and with the body copy I’m definitely not saying don’t include keywords. In fact more often than not some level of keyword inclusion is quite important to the user because it reassures the user that they’re on the right page and that this page is going to cater to that search query that they just made the brought them there. However, we must ensure we don’t step over that line and start to provide a spammy user experience. It’s very similar with the Meta Description. The Meta Description doesn’t directly affect rankings but it does of course hugely impact likely click through rates which arguably in turn affect rankings so it is very important from a search engine perspective and once again it’s really important that we are including keywords because that’s going to reassure the searcher that this page is relevant and the search engines will often bold that text so it really draws the users attention to that Meta Description so really worth doing but just so important that we’re always prioritising the key messages of the brand.
Now I’m not technical so this is going to be more about what to do as opposed to how to do it, but I just want to run through some of the essential elements of your SEO plan from a technical perspective.
The first is speed. Speed is absolutely everything – it’s been important for a long time from an SEO point of view, but it’s something that Google has repeatedly spoken about more than ever in the last few years (since mobile usage has just grown and grown), so if people can’t access your webpage quickly, Google is never going to prioritise it in the listings.
The second is having an SSL certification. Google said a couple of years ago that if a website doesn’t have an SSL certification, they wouldn’t know if they could trust it and rankings might suffer. Also, without an SSL certification, very often people will be entirely blocked out of websites, so it’s a disaster from a user experience and brand point of view.
The third thing is structured data. You may have heard of something called schema, which is a form of structured data that enables Google to make sense of what a piece of content is – for example, is it a recipe or a cinema time or a review – and can therefore give you the credit you deserve for your beautifully designed and richly packed landing pages. Whereas if you create all this great content but you don’t have the appropriate structured data in place, Google won’t necessarily be able to understand what each thing means. It will also have an impact on click through rate from the search engine results page (SERP), because a lot of that structured data can get pulled through to the SERPs, so for example, you might see cinema times or event information often pulled through directly.
Lastly, there is the general technical maintenance of a website. Sometimes we can be guilty of approaching SEO as a ‘set and forget’ scenario, but there needs to be a company policy for how you’re going to monitor this on an ongoing basis. For some websites, that might need to be daily, while for others that could be monthly or quarterly, but there needs to be some kind of policy in place that says that every x period you will use whatever diagnostics tools you have at your disposal to assess the health and performance of the site and create a list of new tasks required to fix any of the inevitable issues that arise with any site that is constantly growing and evolving.
In simple terms, there have always been two elements to SEO. Number one is ensuring that the search engines can understand the content on the website and the kind of keyword that you’re trying to target. Number two is that the search engines view your brand and your website domain, as being more authoritative and more trustworthy than that of the competition.
Looking at the second element of that, there’s the trust and the authority. The way in which that’s established has now become far more complex than it used to be, so for a long time it essentially just came down to the sheer quantity of links you could get pointing to your website and consequently people were engaging in all sorts of sketchy and unethical tactics in order to acquire those large numbers. Now the nature of SEO has changed significantly, but while it has become vastly more complex, link acquisition continues to be the number one factor in determining
website authority. So it’s absolutely not gone away, it’s just that the way in which it has to happen has evolved.
It’s evolved somewhat, so now it’s absolutely imperative that any link that you solicit is done so in a legitimate fashion. This just means that the way in which we have to go about it is very different; so legitimate press releases talking about real things with really interesting stats and thinking in more of a traditional journalistic fashion – that’s become a really powerful link acquisition mechanism. Likewise, engaging with influencers and using those relationships to acquire links from websites blogs within your target market again is really powerful.
So link acquisition hasn’t gone away, it’s still very important, it’s just that it has to be thought about far more strategically and in a far more brand orientated way, now. Another element that has started to play an increasing role in recent years is engagement on the website, which is quite difficult to define in a really clear way, because what constitutes good engagement in one market could be quite different in another. So for example, in some markets you don’t necessarily want people spending hours on your website – you just want them to come and perform a particular action, whereas in other markets the time on site, the page views and the bounce rates, are really important – so when you think about engagement stats, think about them within the context of your industry. It’s quite similar with social media. There’s been a debate over the role of social media for a long time in the SEO community, and while a lot of people would contest the direct causal link between social media and rankings, I think most people generally see the strong correlation between the two, particularly if you operate in a market where community is important, in which case if you’re not active and you don’t have a clear social media strategy, then that’s a huge hole in your overall SEO strategy.
The final thing is the broader brand signals, and for me this is the most important thing to take away from this. If you think about it from Google’s perspective, if their goal is to determine the most trust trustworthy, incredible brands, then if it were me, I don’t think there would be anything more important than the sheer number of people going to a website. Not by the search engines but just going directly, or going to the search engines and making brand related search queries. For example, if 10,000 people a day search for John Lewis TVs, then I think you can probably assume that John Lewis is a trusted source for televisions. It’s difficult in one sense to directly impact, and probably doesn’t sound like SEO, but SEO in isolation just isn’t really a thing anymore. It has to be part of a broader brand strategy. You have to be doing real things and adding real value to your audience, building an ever-larger presence amongst that audience, and if you do that to some extent, SEO will take care of itself.
As with any marketing campaign, establishing clarity on your KPIs is one of the most important things you can do within your SEO strategy. So let’s run through some of the most common KPIs that the SEO strategies will include and also introduce a couple of alternative perspectives.
Now, the most common KPI that people will look at is rankings – so, what are those top trophy phrases and how are we performing? In the past we would we would track potentially hundreds of different specific rankings, because we used to build authority around particular key phrases. That’s no longer the case. Now we build authority around the brand as a whole, which means that if the top five or ten priority key phrases are performing well then we can almost certainly assume that all the other key phrases are also performing well. So it’s a slightly different perspective, but I would therefore encourage you not to waste hours and hours tracking hundreds of different key phrases.
The second thing to look at is the organic traffic that comes through the search engines. Very often this will actually provide a clearer and more comprehensive perspective on your site’s search engine performance, particularly if you operate in a market that is significantly long tail, which means it’s not dominated by a small number of key of short key phrases but rather it’s full of quite unpredictable, quite varied, often lengthy phrases, and therefore following specific short tail ranking performances doesn’t necessarily give you that much insight. You need to look at the picture as a whole.
This, however, still has a significant shortcoming which is that when you look at that traffic you might see the graph appearing to go up but actually it might be that 99% of that traffic is arriving on pages that are never going to drive your headline objective, and this is particularly true when you have a large blog or a large resources section. So what I’d encourage you to do is to create a segment within analytics that isolates the traffic that’s going to the pages that are going to drive that headline objective. Now, if this is a service based business then they’re going to be the service pages. If it’s a product website then it’s going to be the product pages or perhaps certain category pages, but isolating that traffic is going to give you a far clearer indication in terms of the the SEO performance from a commercial point of view and what you’ll find is that it probably represents a tiny proportion of the overall traffic volume, but it’s that number – even if it’s just 2% of the overall traffic – that is going to really determine whether or not this thing is a success.
That’s not to say that the other traffic is worthless, it’s just that it’s driving a different kind of KPI so it might be that actually on those pages it’s more about email capture so you want a separate segment that captures what the traffic that’s going to the blog for example, and you’ll just measure that in a slightly different way and assign a far smaller monetary value to each conversion made within analytics.
So that’s how I would encourage you to look at this. Far too often people, particularly within the SEO community, are guilty of focusing on vanity metrics or metrics that don’t really determine commercial success, so yes look at rankings ,yes look at social or total organic traffic, but primarily you want to be focusing on that headline objective and how effectively your SEO strategy is delivering it.
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