It [search engine optimization] is inherently iterative. In short, it is a process, not a project.
Before beginning a search engine optimization (SEO) project, it is important to understand the process involved in an effective SEO campaign. To that end, we break the process down into the six steps shown below and describe the activities involved in each of these steps.
One word on search engine optimization in general first, though. SEO does not start and finish with these steps and the initial work that we do. In order to have ongoing success, it is important to monitor results and build meaningful content on a continual basis. I once read the perfect description of the SEO process:
- Reporting & Goal Setting
- Content Building
- Page Optimization
- Social & Link Building
- Follow Up Reporting & Analysis
Keyword phrase research involves identifying a group of keyword phrases that will be used in optimization. This step is critical and requires a considerable amount of time to find a good set of phrases that offer a balanced combination of two important factors: high usage by searchers and relatively low competition within the search engines.
Determining the most used phrase that contains your targeted keyword(s) is relatively easy. Online tools allow you to enter a particular keyword or words and will return all the ways in which that word(s) was used by searchers in the last month and in what volume. However, the most used phrase(s) is also likely the one with the greatest competition within the search results and may, therefore, not be where you would want to devote your optimization efforts. A more effective approach is to find a set of phrases (10 is a nice round number) that are heavily used by searchers but somewhat less competitive in terms of the total number of search results.
For example, assume you own a business that leases apartments in a particular metropolitan area, “Big City.” Your apartments are only located in one metro area, so you are not going to select general terms such as “apartments;” you are only interested in those searchers seeking an apartment in your city. The logical place to start is with the name of your city and the word “apartments.” You may find that the most used phrase is “big city apartments.” However, when you do sample searches in Google and Yahoo for that phrase you realize that the competition for that phrase is steep. If you go back to your findings from the keyword tool, you might find that a phrase such as “apartments in big city” is still heavily used by searchers but is far less competitive. Those phrases are the ones you will then target in the site optimization portion of the SEO work.
Once armed with the target keyword phrases, we do a thorough competitive analysis of the subject site against its 7 – 10 biggest competitors (using both offline and online competitors). We use a series of SEO metrics, including indexed content, Alexa rating, inbound links, domain age, and social media following among others. Through this process, we are able to gauge the client site's starting position against its competition and identify areas requiring priority in the subsequent work. For example, if we see that relative to the competition, the client's site has 50% less indexed content, then content building would be a priority in the goal setting that happens in the next phase.
Reporting & goal setting
After establishing your targeted keyword phrases and starting position relative to the site's competitive set, it is important to understand what the subject site's starting position is within the search engines. Doing so ensures that you know the specific areas that need work and provides a baseline against which to gauge the subsequent campaign's success.
Access to site traffic information is very important. These statistics show how searchers are finding and interacting with the subject site, e.g., which search engines, what keyword phrases are being used, bounce rates, most popular content, etc. Understanding the site's traffic level and the source of its referrals can also be a critical tool in making other online marketing decisions.
After developing a complete picture of the site's starting position, goals are set for the SEO plan. These goals are measurable (one big advantage of SEO over other advertising options) and tied to the specific business objectives of the site. In the ongoing progress of reporting and follow up, progress towards the plan's goals are analyzed and reported. Adjustments to the SEO plan can be made according to the findings of these progress reports.
Content is king in search engine optimization. The search engines love text; high volume, high-quality content related to your business will serve you in a couple of important ways.
First, a site loaded with high-quality content of interest to site users will give them a reason to stay and a reason to come back. After all, the reason they came to your site was to find information. Second, you will receive the added benefit of serving up exactly what the search engines want – content. Search engines will have more information to store about your business and products; that information will translate directly into the ranking they give your site for related keyword phrases. For more information on content development and specific ideas about ways to expand your site's content, read our, Content is Still King.
We often find in the Competitive Research phase that the client's site is falling behind its competitors in the amount of indexed content. In those cases, this phase of the process takes on additional importance.
Following the addition of new, high quality content, we tackle on-page optimization. See our piece on Page Optimization Basics for more information on this topic.
- Page Titles
- Make sure that your site's page titles say something other than just your company name or "welcome". Ideally, they need to lead off with your targeted phrase for that page and then follow with your company name.
- Prominence of Targeted Keyword Phrases
- It is not enough to have your keyword phrase(s) somewhere on the web page, the placement and prominence given to them also affects your search engine placement. For example, leading off the site's first paragraph with your keyword phrase gives it more weight than burying it half way down the page in the middle of a paragraph. Also, using larger font sizes and bolding the text can emphasize its importance and positively affect the page's ranking for that phrase.
- Site Map
- Developing a site map that includes a well-organized list of links to all the important pages of your site and includes a text link to the site map on your home page is the ideal way to make sure that all the site's pages are indexed by the search engines when they visit the subject site. Google's Search Console is ideal for this purpose.
- ALT and META data
- These are tags not seen by the site's users; they are embedded in the site's code. ALT tags refer to the text that describes an image — words that you see pop up as you mouse over some images. In optimizing your company's name, an ALT tag placed behind the image of your company's logo is ideal. Meta tags are lines of code included in the uppermost section of your site's code. They communicate the page's subject matter and relevancy to the search engines. Further, the short description of your site included in some search results is pulled from the meta description tag of the home page and should, therefore, be used to the site's advantage.
- Technical SEO
- There are a number of important technical issues that impact SEO efforts that need to be verified and corrected if needed. These include site speed, site security, and mobile responsiveness.
Social & link building
In marketing, you fish where the fish are. And, the fish are using social media in increasing numbers. The power of online sharing through social media provides tremendous opportunities for companies willing to commit the time to using it. During this phase of the process, we help clients establish a social media presence and consult with the client on how best to use those social media profiles to share site content and connect with customers and potential customers. Of particular importance to local businesses, we consult with our clients on how best to use Google My Business to increase visibility for local searches. We have specific Local SEO packages for local businesses; learn more about Local SEO here.
Building In-Bound Links
Each new, quality link to your site increases the likelihood of both the search engines' spiders running across your site as well as searchers looking for services or products like yours. Google views links to your site (as long as they are links from high quality sites) as votes for your site and rewards the site accordingly. You can check your link popularity with a variety of free online tools. In addition, Google's Search Console provides information regarding the inbound links to your site. A word of caution: free for all links sites and other low quality sites of that nature are of no use and, in fact, detract from your progress with penalties from the search engines. This became even more important with Google's release of the Penguin algorithm update. We consult with our clients on ways to build their online reach and influence with new, high-quality inbound links.
FOLLOW UP REPORTING AND ANALYSIS
The same reporting done in the initial phase of the campaign is done again at regular intervals, post-optimization. Rankings, site traffic levels, social signals and other key metrics can then be compared to pre-optimization levels, giving measurable results to the SEO campaign. The specific metrics used in an SEO plan will depend on the goals of that site.
It can take a while for the search engines to index a site and the rankings to change for that site. For some search engines, the lag time between the work and seeing results can be as long as six months. Clients need to be patient and have realistic expectations regarding the time frame involved with organic (the natural, non-paid results) search engine rankings. If the business need for increased search engine prominence is greater than can be met with optimization alone, I recommend adding a pay-per-click (PPC) campaign to the marketing mix to bridge the time. PPC campaigns such as Google's AdWords can be set up in a matter of days, allowing for immediate results.
We cannot guarantee any specific rankings for specific phrases. There is no way to guarantee a particular placement within the organic search results of any search engine. We optimizes a website so that it is as appealing as possible to the search engines, using only white hat tactics. Specifically, our recommendations would ensure that the site is easily spiderable, loaded with keyword-rich content, enjoys quality inbound links, provides a great user experience, and is analyzed and refined based on its performance against our stated goals. These are methods that have proven over time to be effective SEO tactics for our clients.
Be very cautious about any SEO company that promises specific rankings.
The SEO work we perform includes minor non-substantive changes to the site's existing content/text, emphasizing the targeted keyword phrases. We make recommendations on new content; the writing of any new substantive content is the responsibility of the client. We are happy to connect you with great copywriters if writing the new content is not easily done within your organization. We then take your words and make our non-substantive changes to it, in order to maximize its effectiveness. If you do not want us to make these minor changes to the site's text, please let us know.