Strategic guide on search engine optimization

In this post we look at search engine optimization (SEO). This includes setting up and operating the channels but with a primary focus on h...

In this post we look at search engine optimization (SEO). This includes setting up and operating the channels but with a primary focus on how to integrate them appropriately into your strategy. The key areas covered in this post are:
  • A history of SEO
  • Researching your SEO strategy
  • Technical SEO
  •  Site structure
  • Content
  • Mobile
  • Location
  • Penalties
  • Organizational structure and SEO


By the end of this post you should understand SEO in terms of structure and technical concerns, content, mobile and location techniques. You should understand how to research your SEO strategy and how best to structure your team. You should also have an understanding of SEO penalties.

Strategic guide on Search engine optimization
Image Credit: Pixabay

Guide on Search engine optimization: Key terms

Some of the key terms used in this post are:
SEO: optimizing your site for the search engine’s natural results.
Natural / organic links: links that are not paid for.
Algorithm: the search engine’s code used to decide how sites are ranked.
On-page: SEO factors on your website.
Off-page: SEO factors away from your site such as backlinks.
Metadata: code that tells robots about your site.
Robots: the crawlers that work their way across the internet checking content.
Keyword density: the number of repeat keywords on a page.
Tags: pieces of code attached to parts of the page to give signs to robots.
Hierarchy: the structure of your pages on your site.
Site map: a simple display of the entirety of your site.
Alt text: text associated with images to tell robots what the image is about.
Crawl: what robots / crawlers do to index sites.
Index: each search engine has an index of websites that the robots update.
Backlink: a link pointing back to your site from elsewhere.
Anchor text: the text that is visible when clicking on a link.

SEO is a digital marketing strategist discipline that divides marketers. It is also arguably the discipline where a little knowledge really is truly dangerous, whilst a lot of knowledge is essential if you want to be able to deliver your digital strategy. This is because as soon as you have a website you are using the SEO channel whether you like it or not. If your knowledge is minimal then you might try to rank number one on a specific key term and this could cost a significant amount of money and time to achieve. However, developing a broader strategy that improves performance across a number of keywords would be far more efficient and would also reduce the risk of a penalty. Even if you have appointed a great SEO or broader digital agency you still need to ensure that you understand the fundamentals of good SEO as agencies cannot achieve success without guidance and direction from their client (despite what some may tell you).

One reason why so many digital marketers and business leaders are reluctant to embrace the detail of SEO is because they have the misconception that it is a very technical and complex discipline. Technical SEO considerations are very important, but they are just one area of SEO. If you are looking for technical detail it would be worthwhile either using online resources such as moz.com and searchengineland.com or searching for a book on technical SEO for developers. Truly strategic SEO is in fact very closely aligned to more traditional marketing techniques. If your background is in marketing then you probably already have the skills needed to implement a great SEO strategy.

It is worth noting that throughout this section only one search engine is discussed, Google. In most markets Google dominates by some margin but of course this is not the case in all. If Google is not your average customer’s search engine of choice then please do consider further research than this section allows. That said, many of the principles of good SEO are actually about good content, design, user experience and other marketing principles, so good SEO is likely to work for most if not all search engines.

The final note is that when optimizing your site it is important that you do not try to learn Google’s techniques and find ways to work around them to get to position one. This is a sure-fire way to cause yourself problems in either the short or medium term. SEO should always focus on optimizing for the user, not the search engine. Ultimately this is the aim of every good search engine as well to improve the internet experience for users. If you have the same goal then you will find that your SEO strategy will be aligned to the philosophy and therefore algorithms of the search engines and you will be able to win now and in the future.

A history of SEO

SEO has changed significantly and in order to get a real understanding of how to build an effective SEO strategy it is beneficial to start with an understanding of the history of search algorithms. The analysis below is focused on Google but others have largely followed suit.

Pre-2003

Search engine algorithms at this time were simplistic, at least by today’s standards. Rankings were dictated almost entirely by on-page factors such as page titles (code-based descriptions of the page), metadata (code-based descriptors of the website) and body copy, with keyword density playing a major role – the more keywords on a page, the better. Search engines were also very easy to manipulate; techniques such as creating hidden, keyword-stuffed content were very effective. The graphs highlights the distribution of influence of each of the core factors at this time, along with the level of manipulability.

search engine optimization strategy

2004–11

Google’s Florida update that occurred at the very end of 2003 was the first wide-reaching algorithm update. Loopholes allowing websites to spam through on-site technical work and content were sewn up, and link-based factors took centre-stage for the first time. Rankings became dictated to a large degree by link volume and particularly by the anchor text (the clickable text in a hyperlink) of links pointing back to sites. Technical optimization and content took a back seat, with relevancy assessments being made chiefly via linking anchor text. A high volume of links containing the anchor text ‘used cars’ would have been sufficient to deliver prominent rankings for the term, even if the quality of such links was questionable and on-site technical SEO considerations were poor. Although steps were taken by Google to improve quality considerations towards the end of this period, the algorithm remained open to manipulation.

google search engine optimization

2011 onwards

Prior to 2011, cataclysmic algorithm updates capable of turning the SEO industry on its head almost overnight were a relatively rare occurrence. Typically, a major update might be anticipated every one or two years. In this respect, 2011 represents somewhat of a watershed moment for SEO. The Panda update (named after Google engineer Navneet Panda), which rolled out for the first time in February of that year, became one of the most significant and disruptive algorithm updates in Google’s history. Unlike the most significant updates in the preceding years, which primarily targeted intentional breaches of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, Panda’s impact was considerably broader. Specifically concerning website and content quality (as opposed to links), Panda not only impacted sites guilty of significant on-page ‘spam’ but also those deemed to offer a user experience low in quality or not substantially unique.

Affiliates and vertical search specialists (ie retail and travel price-comparison sites) were amongst the most affected by Panda’s initial wave. The algorithm continues to evolve and remains an integral part of Google’s approach to natural search, with revised iterations rolling out approximately once per month. It is widely accepted that how much (or otherwise) users interact and engage with websites they reach via Google’s search results now plays a material role in how they rank. In short, Panda has assisted Google in taking its ranking mechanic from a robotic, mathematical algorithm to something much more aligned with the requirements of its human users. Going forward, it is unlikely that businesses will fare well in natural search without a robust mix of useful and engaging content (and not just of the written form), a great user experience and a compelling core proposition.

Of course, Panda is not the only ‘P’ word to have disrupted the SEO world in recent years. Persisting with both the ‘P’ and black-and-white animals theme, the Penguin algorithm was launched in April 2012. Penguin was more akin to Google updates of old, targeting link spam (paid links, mainly), however this time with much greater accuracy and impact than its many predecessors. Like Panda, the Penguin algorithm is reoccurring and ever changing, albeit on a much less frequent basis.

Crucially, the algorithm has had a profound effect in protecting its results from manipulation via unnaturally sourced links, decreasing its reliance on more manual spam fighting techniques. Long-term, sustainable success is now highly unlikely wherever an approach heavy on paid or incentivized links with little to no value add is employed. Such an approach is far more likely to result in a Penguin penalty – a punishment that is notoriously hard to recover from.

It should be noted that links remain an important part of Google’s algorithm; for the time being at least they remain a necessary ingredient for success. However, the ones that will work hardest for you are those that are unsolicited the result of good business and marketing practice. So, whilst Panda and Penguin are entirely different propositions concerned with opposite ends of the algorithmic spectrum, their effects on SEO strategy as a whole are essentially identical. Sustainable success after their implementation can only really be achieved through a mixture of great content, experience and proposition. Indeed the SEO secret sauce has very much increased in ingredients. Technical, content and authority are all still important but as are link profile quality, user engagement and mobile capability.

search engine optimization company

So, as we have seen above, SEO in its rawest form can be sub-divided into a number of key areas. We start here with a guide to researching your SEO strategy and then cover some of the most important considerations for a good SEO strategy: technical SEO, site structure, content, mobile and location.

Researching your SEO strategy

One of the biggest mistakes that marketers make when creating an SEO strategy is to start with the following question: ‘What keywords should we be focusing on?

This is not a bad question. In fact it is a very good question, but it should never be the first question asked. The starting point for good SEO, as we have discussed more generally, should be creating the goals and objectives for the SEO channel (for example, will SEO be your primary channel?). Once you have covered those basics the next crucial step is a thorough understanding of your customers.

Persona development

The best way to do this is to create audience personas. Consider the audience types you have and try to create no more than five distinct personas. This approach will help you considerably when you move to the next step of keyword research. Personas and segmentation are discussed earlier but it is worth taking a quick look here at how personas apply to SEO. As we have already discussed, personas are a useful way of understanding the personality and potential behaviours of your customers. This becomes useful in SEO (and paid search) in predicting what the user may search for. As we move into the next phase of keyword research (below) this is extremely useful to understand.

If, for example, our persona is a woman in her early thirties with a young family who lives in central New York, we can start to understand some of her daily needs. We can be fairly certain that she is time poor and will want things now, so she may use words such as ‘now’ and ‘fast’. She is likely to want something in New York as it is often harder to travel any significant distance in cities than in rural areas, so she may do a lot of searching for ‘in New York’ and other local terms. She will probably search for children’s products and may also search for helpful tips on parenthood such as ‘how much milk should I give my baby’ or ‘best things to do with kids at the weekend in New York’. She is still young herself though, and so it is likely she will search for babysitters, restaurants and perhaps bars and clubs. She may well buy her groceries online as it is easier than dragging the children around the local store. All of this insight that we can gain from the persona can steer our initial keyword research and we can then use the below process and evolve the campaign over time.

Keyword research

Having created personas the next job is to start to build your focus keyword list. This might seem daunting, especially as some companies have target keyword lists that run in the thousands. However, if you break down the process into the following steps the process is relatively painless:

  • Step 1: create logical segments.
  • Step 2: mine your data.
  • Step 3: mine secondary data sources.
  • Step 4: sense check.

Note that within this section we will use the term ‘keyword’ as a catch-all for search terms. While some searches are just one keyword, increasingly people use natural language and therefore longer phrases.

Step 1: create logical segments

Most businesses sell a multitude of products or services, some of which might well be quite diverse. So a good starting point is to split your products/services into logical segments. The good news is that if your site hierarchy is logical you have probably already done this. Then consider each segment in detail. Which are the most valuable to you? How do customer types vary? Which should you prioritize?

Step 2: mine your data

An obvious step is to mine the data you already have. However, even in the digital world we sometimes go backwards and, sadly, in October 2011 Google implemented changes that mean it is now extremely difficult to work out the keywords or phrases that site visitors used to find a particular site. What used to be simple (check analytics) is now very difficult. This is due to Google removing the keywords returned within Google Analytics and instead simply labelling all SEO traffic as ‘keyword not provided’. This has been a frustration for many digital marketers as knowledge is a crucial part of building any strategy.

However, this SEO cloud may have a silver lining, as ripping keywords directly from analytics could be self-fulfilling prophecy, ie your strategy would be too focused on what you currently rank for rather than what you could rank for. That said, it is worth looking at the data you do have. A good starting point is considering the most visited landing pages as a proxy for user intent. In addition, you may have some data from other search engines, or even historic analytics data, which can help add to the keyword set.

But do not just rely on data that is stored in hardware brainstorming is a great way to quickly start a keyword list. To do this, review each persona and write down the keywords you think they might use. Spend no more than five minutes for each and focus on the simple/more obvious terms. Once completed, remove any duplicates and you will likely have a fairly short list. This is a good thing these are most likely your ‘halo’ terms, or in other words the terms that are most commonly used and therefore have the potential to drive a lot of traffic. At this stage though you don’t need to worry whether you have nailed all your halo terms, so long as you have a few the others will come out of the woodwork during the following phases.

Step 3: mine secondary data sources

By this stage you should have established some keywords. The next step is to expand that keyword set. Thankfully there are many third-party tools that can help do this. Rather than offer up a list, simply Google ‘keyword research tool’ or similar for the latest and greatest. Naturally, one of the best is provided by Google itself (as of course it has more data than most), the Google Adwords Keyword Planner. To access this, you will need an Adwords (Google’s paid-search advertising platform) account, but you don’t need to actually advertise to use the tool.

Using the tool is fairly self-explanatory, it acts somewhat like a thesaurus offering similar and related terms and, importantly, gives you an idea of the search volume. You will very quickly find that your keyword list has grown substantially. However, the quality of the data you get out is completely dependent on what you put in, so don’t be tempted to skip the previous steps. There are of course other tools, both SEMRush and KeywordTool.io are well-respected alternatives.

Step 4: sense check

So now you have a big list. The temptation at this stage is to begin, but a sense check is needed. A very common mistake is to focus too heavily on the search volume: while it is important (as you don’t want to pin your business hopes on a term that gets only 10 searches a month) it is only one factor. It is also important to consider the following:

  1. What commercial value might this keyword have? For example ‘pound/euro exchange rate’ has large search volume, but if a bank were to rank number one for the term how many current accounts would get opened on the back of it? Not many. The bank might sell some currency but this term is probably not the most commercially critical.
  2. What right do I have to compete for this keyword? There are very few examples of David beating Goliath in the more mature online industries. For example, the keyword ‘casino’ drives well over 50 per cent of natural search traffic in the online casino market and therefore trying to gain traffic in this industry is difficult without competing for this specific keyword, which is of course very competitive. If you built your site yesterday and have a small marketing budget you are best to point that resource elsewhere. Find a battle you can win and focus your attention there, at least initially.
  3. Ask others. Sense check your list with others in the business. Remember: this is the foundation of your SEO strategy so it is worth spending some quality time getting it right.

Technical SEO

Whilst we will not delve deep into technical SEO, in order to understand it fully you at least need to know what the main technical elements are. This section provides a high-level overview of the main technical considerations; however, it is important to know where your strengths are and to appoint an agency to assist you if you do not have deep knowledge or resource in this area.

The tags that matter

The two most significant ‘tags’ that warrant attention are title tags and meta description. Neither are as scary or inaccessible as they might sound.

Title tags

The title tag is a brief description of the page content and is contained within the HTML. It is visible in search results and used by search engines to interpret site pages. Title tags should be unique, ideally less than 75 characters and have important keywords close to the front. In addition, it is generally good usability practice to include your brand at the front. As the title tag is highly visible to potential site visitors it is of course crucial to make sure it is as compelling as possible.

search engine optimization services

Meta description

The meta description is a longer description of the page content and is also displayed within the search engine results if Google feels it is relevant. No more than 160 characters are recommended and make sure they are unique, relevant (and therefore hopefully include some of your focus keywords) and, most importantly, readable. While the meta description does not appear to influence rankings directly, a well-written one can improve click-through rate, which in turn might help drive a ranking improvement.

Site structure

As we are in danger of getting too technical we will not spend too long on this section, but hopefully we can provide enough ammunition to ask some questions of your chosen SEO expert:

  • Hierarchy: your navigation flow should be logical. By this we mean that each level of your structure should sit logically below the previous level. For example, a page on your website that promotes ballpoint pens should sit underneath a page on pens, which should in turn sit under a page on stationery so that there is a logical path for a user to follow to effectively filter their way down to their destination. In other words, make sure your hierarchy uses some common sense.
  • URL structure: search engines use ‘robots’ to interpret sites. If your URL looks something like this – www.mysite.com/categorypage. asp?prodId=1274234 then you are not helping the robot to work out what your site offers. The ideal is: www.mysite.com/Stationery/Paper/A3_Paper/Economy_A3_paper.html.
  • Site maps: create two – one for users and one for search engines. The search-engine-friendly one should be an XML site map file, which can also be submitted through Google’s Webmaster Tools.
  • Provide alt text for images. In the HTML you can assign ‘alt attributes’ to help search engines interpret visual content.
  • Avoid overusing Flash as it cannot always be read and therefore hinders the discovery process.
  • Avoid duplicate content. Note that this means not reusing copy on other pages of your site, as well as ‘borrowing’ others’ content. Google will penalize a site that uses a lot of duplicate content, so it is best avoided. If you cannot avoid duplicate content, do some research on ‘301 redirects’ and the ‘rel=‘canonical’ attribute’.
  • Webmaster Tools: make sure someone in your organization knows how to navigate Webmaster Tools (a Google-provided platform). Webmaster Tools help in a number of areas and are quite powerful. It is therefore also quite dangerous in the wrong hands, so proceed with caution. A summary of the main functionality available within Webmaster Tools is as follows:
–– Shows crawl errors: this is useful as a site with a lot of errors is unlikely to rank highly.
–– Allows submission of an XML site map.
–– Allows for modification of the robots.txt files (which can be used to remove URLs already crawled by Googlebot).
–– Identify issues with title and description meta tags.
–– Provide a high-level view of the top searches used to reach your site.
–– Remove unwanted site links that Google may use in results.
–– Receive notification of quality guideline violations
–– Request a site reconsideration following a penalty.

The danger mentioned above arises from the fact that these functions could enable someone to cause serious SEO issues to your site such as deleting your robots.txt file, uploading an incorrect site map or simply not being aware of serious SEO issues with the site.

Content

SEO is now much more reliant on a good content strategy. Google uses ‘robots’ to try to interpret your site. It therefore stands to reason that informative content helps. While you and I can look at a picture of a bag of nails and know what it is, Google struggles (search engines are making progress on image recognition but we cannot rely on it just yet). The content that sits on your site that describes your services/products and so on is commonly referred to as functional content. It will never win any awards but it really is a crucial requirement.

A technically sound site with great functional content will go a long way, but to get real traction the site needs a degree of popularity. To help make it you will need a very different type of content: engaging content. This is content that gets attention from your target audience wherever they may be online. It can be fun (but doesn’t have to be), it must be relevant and it must be on brand. Engaging content done well will get published elsewhere and some will cite or link to your site. Each citation/ link acts as a signpost to Google that you are producing something of value that others like and, as such, you might warrant a higher position in the search engines for related terms.

SEO rules for content

As we discussed earlier, the secret to SEO is not to optimize for the search engines but for your audience and this applies to content as much as any other area. If you have done your research right, you should find that you are naturally using very relevant keywords and the content you create should fly. Second, it is important to keep producing. Whilst online content will not disappear unless you delete it, Google does like to see fresh content, so ensuring an ongoing production of content is important. Finally, but perhaps most critically, you should make sure your site has a home for content. The great engaging content you produce should live on your site so that Google knows the origin and so that other sites have a reason to link back to you. This may seem obvious but, with the growth of social media, many companies have concentrated on producing content for YouTube and Twitter at the expense of the content on their own site and this can harm SEO performance.

Mobile

It is increasingly important to ensure that your site renders well on all devices. Today that really means desktop/laptop, tablet and mobile phone. The ideal approach is to create a site that is ‘responsive’, ie it adapts to the device being used. Although there is a lot of mystery around SEO in general there is 100 per cent clarity on this: Google actively pushes mobile-friendly sites up the rankings when a mobile device is being used. Mobilegeddon in 2015 was a major update to Google’s approach to mobile rankings and it is recommended that you read more on this and the other Google updates listed above in order to have an understanding of how Google approaches these things, to gain an insight into its philosophies and to develop a view of what may happen in the future.

Location

Google loves being relevant. If I’m in Madrid and search for ‘art museum’ I am probably not that interested in reading about the National Portrait Museum in London. So Google includes ‘local’ results where it can. Our job as digital marketers is to make sure we make it as easy as possible to let Google know where we are. A post could be written on local SEO but the basics are:
  • Create a specific location page on your site and ensure that your location(s) (name, address, number) are all in-text so that the robots can read them.
  • Create a Google page for your business.
  • Get Google reviews. The tipping point for displaying reviews is around five entries, after which you should see the review stars next to your location. To achieve this, though, you may need to educate your customer base on how to leave reviews.

Reviews are an important part of today’s internet and this is unlikely to change. Whilst there have been some issues with the authenticity of reviews such as the news in 2015 that many reviews on Amazon had been produced by individuals who were paid to write them (through no fault of Amazon) they remain an important influencing factor for shopping online. 

Encouraging users to visit your Google page and other review centres to leave you a review, if they are satisfied, is good practice. You will almost certainly receive negative reviews as well and it is important not to try to manipulate the result. Ultimately you need to ensure that your service is deserving of positive reviews before you begin, rather than trying to hide the negatives after they start to arrive.

Penalties

Very few marketers have not heard about Google penalties. However, very few actually understand what they really are.

There are two types of Google penalty: 1) algorithmic; 2) manual. But rather than explain the intricacies of each it is perhaps better to briefly cover how to avoid a penalty in the first place. While not exhaustive, the list below will go a long way to keeping you on the right side of Google:
  • Check your backlink profile. You will need some SEO expertise to do this, but in short you need to look for the quantity of low-quality/ spammy links you have. If the ratio is high then remedial action may be needed (see below).
  • Take remedial action, if needed. If you have a high proportion of links that are clearly low quality then you are advised to remove them. Of course this is not easy as it involves trying to contact webmasters who are unlikely to be that responsive. However, this is the preferred route. A last resort is to use Google’s ‘Disavow’ process. Available through Webmaster Tools the disavow tool allows you to inform Google that you no longer want association with the site links uploaded. However, this is a very powerful and therefore dangerous tool and it would be remiss of me to try to advise on how to use it in one paragraph. In short, get expert help if you think you may need remedial action.
  • Do not buy links. The significant majority of your links should be earned. Of course business is business and there may be a place for some high-quality paid placements but they should be the exception rather than the rule. There is a history of a high volume of poor-quality links being bought, when it was volume that counted. This is no longer the case and so paying someone to attain thousands of links for you will be quickly visible to Google, will add almost no value to your SEO and will give you a very high risk of a penalty. 
  • Check for duplicate content. If you reuse your own content or, worst case, reuse others’ content, you may trigger a penalty.
  • Ensure that your site is largely original content (not a mash-up of auto-generated content or adverts).
  • Ensure that you do not have too many pages with thin or no content (ie few words that add little value).
  • When you actively seek out links (ie coverage for the great compelling content you have crafted) make sure you are seeking them from related/relevant sites.
  • Avoid unnatural anchor text (anchor text is visible text in a link, for example: cheapest sun tan lotion) – although if you are not buying links this really should not be a problem as most naturally created links will be your brand name.
  • If you accept user-generated content, for example reviews, ensure that you are not vulnerable to exploitation by using the nofollow attribute. This ensures that Google will not use your link for SEO purposes and therefore will not punish you.

Organizational structure and SEO

One of the surprisingly important areas of SEO and one that is often overlooked or not implemented, due to its complexity, is organizational structure. To ensure that your SEO strategy can be fully implemented it needs buy-in and ownership from the top down. If your board of directors have the level of understanding that this section offers then you will likely be in a good place – the reason being that to do everything discussed requires multiple departments working very closely together.

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