This site covers advanced SEO concepts – before we get into them I want to make sure I cover the most basic elements.
My hopes is you’ll use this guide to educate new employees, contractors and friends who need guidance.
This guide took me a tremendous amount of time to create – PLEASE share it.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- What is SEO?
- What do you need SEO?
- How do search engines work?
- What “ranks” a website?
- How has SEO changed?
- Where is SEO going?
- Our evergreen approach to SEO
What exactly is “SEO”?
“SEO” stands for Search Engine Optimization – SEO is the process of getting your website to rank higher in search engines.
For example, let’s say you own a website that sells watches. When someone searches “shop women’s watches” in Google, you want your website to show up.
If it does, you will literally be printing money.
It’s also important to understand that SEO is not the only way to show up on top of search engines. Google, Yahoo and Bing all offer a paid option call “Pay Per Click” ads, where you pay the search engines to show up for certain searches. Every time someone clicks on your ad, you pay the search engine.
Ads show up on top of organic results, but are tagged with “Ad” next to the result.
While this book is about SEO, it’s important you understand the distinction and benefits of both options. I always tell clients Pay Per Click ads are a great marketing tactic and should be executed if they have the budget to do so.
|SEO – Organic Search||Pay Per Click – Advertising|
|Benefits||The traffic is 100% free (unless you’re paying an agency).
Organic traffic converts better than paid traffic, as users prefer to visit organic results overpaid.
|Quick results, show up on top of search engines day 1.
Self serve platform that you can manage yourself. However, it’s very difficult and still requires expert knowledge.
|Downside||Very difficult to do properly. SEO is constantly changing and has gotten very competitive over the years.
SEO takes a significant amount of time to kick in. It can take months (or years) to start seeing explosive results.
|Expensive. Some clicks can cost hundreds of dollars, depending on your vertical.
It doesn’t scale as well as SEO, as when you’re paying for traffic you need to see an ROI. It becomes a difficult process to get profitable on your spend.
Either way, having a presence in search engines means growth – more clients, sales, brand reach and engagement.
Why do you need SEO?
Traditional marketing / advertising is outbound, meaning you have to disrupt people’s attention in order to communicate your message (i.e. TV ads, radio, print and even social media).
Search engine traffic is the only time people are actively searching for exactly what it is you sell. When it comes to growing your business online, there’s nothing more powerful than organic traffic from search engines.
- Leads generated from SEO close at an average of 15% which is 12% higher than the conversion rate for outbound leads.
- In a recent survey by Hubspot only 9% of businesses using inbound marketing with SEO failed to see an ROI. If it works for 91% or businesses, it is very likely to work for you too.
- Blogging is a leading source of leads and traffic for businesses when they are properly optimized for search. SEO will make sure you blog posts get found and drive traffic.
On a more personal note, our agency has blossomed into $XXX,XXX MRR in just 18 months time. 100% of our leads and clients have come from organic channels (Google Search and YouTube).
There’s a million things to do as a business owner – having a steady, automated stream of highly qualified leads frees up a ton of time and resources for me.
Imagine how much you could grow if you had a FREE flow of customers to your business?
I included this section here because as you read this book you’re going to understand how complicated SEO has become.
At some point you will undoubtedly ask “is this even worth it?”.
My answer is yes. Overwhelmingly yes.
How do search engines even work?
Just for the record, I will be replacing the word search engines with Google. Google owns over 70% of search engine market share and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
I mean, let’s be serious – the only reason you’ve used Bing or Yahoo is because it’s set as the default search engine to the browser you’re using.
In my estimation, Google Search has 2 simple goals:
- Keep Google users happy. That means serving the best possible search results, as quickly and accurately as possible.
- Sell advertising. Google is a $50B company – they make 90% of that revenue from selling advertising. As long as people are using Google Search, they’re revenue is protected (hence why #1 is so important).
Bottom line, they need to keep users coming back – they do so by keeping their algorithm serving the best results.
In order to show up higher in search results, we need to understand how Google ranks websites.
At the fundamental level Google has a 3 step process:
Google “crawls” billions of pages, both new and updated, on the web, using automated programs called bots or spiders.
These bots follow links on the pages and then index them into Google’s database, which runs into trillions of pages and is more than 100,000,000 gigabytes in size.
Search algorithms then sift through the data on the index and rank the pages almost instantaneously based on over 200 signals, according to Google.
These algorithms are Google’s secret sauce, and they determine which pages will be displayed for a particular query (i.e. “ranking”).
At the time of this writing, Google’s infrastructure handles 63,075 searches every second, and this volume will increase by the time you finish reading this sentence.
While you don’t need to be an expert in algorithms, it’s critical to understand how Google works. When diagnosing issues with a website, often times it comes back to issues with crawling and indexing.
Specifically, what factors “rank” a website?
Contrary to popular perception, Google doesn’t have one single monolithic algorithm working behind the scenes, indexing pages and delivering results.
Google’s algorithms are now smart enough to:
- Correct your spelling mistakes
- Understand if you want to know more about Mustang the breed of horse vs Mustang the car brand
- Show you a list of coffee shops near you if you type “coffee shops”
- Display information about Barcelona the soccer club if you typed “Barcelona” after “Barcelona vs Arsenal”
So, how do these algorithms work?
No one except a select few inside Google has answers to that billion dollar question.
But we can make educated guesses about the relative impact of over 200 signals to rank pages.
To name a few:
- Number of “links” pointing to your website. Google “crawls” websites through “links” – they count these links like votes in a popularity contest. A “link” is when another website talks about yours and “links” to you as attribution. There’s dozens of factors that go into links, but generally speaking, if your website attracts a lot of links from high quality sites, you will rank higher.
- Keywords in important places on important pages. It’s important to have your keywords in titles, URLs, subheadings and body text. While you don’t want to over do it, these keywords help Google associate your pages with searcher’s queries.
- Content quality and depth. Google looks heavily at the quality of your content when deciding if you’re worthy of being ranked. You want to make sure you’re covering topics to the best of your ability and staying away from “thin” content that does not provide any value to searchers.
- Website speed and page load times. All things being equal, a page that loads faster will be ranked higher than pages that take more time to load.
- Mobile optimization. In 2017 Google announced that the number of searchers on mobile phones surpassed that of desktop. They’ve also stated repeatedly that sites that fail to optimize for mobile will receive decreased rankings.
These signals basically ensure that the users gets the most useful answer to her search query with the least amount of friction. Google’s stated mission has been to provide value to users, and this also lies at the core of great SEO.
How has SEO changed over the years?
I started learning about SEO in 2012. Back then, it was really easy to rank.
- Identify your main keywords
- Put those keywords in the page titles, URLs and all over the body text
- Build a lot of links to your pages (quality optional)
Man….I miss those days. You could literally rank a website in a matter of days – it was amazing.
Now? Not so much.
It takes months of hard, consistent work to get results. There are simply no shortcuts in SEO anymore – you can’t just jam a random site on top of search results. Google’s algorithm is incredibly intelligent in understanding all aspects of what a quality search result looks like.
Google is constantly looking for ways to improve the quality of their search results. They do so by continuously tweaking search algorithms to provide a better experience for Google users.
While the algorithm is constantly updated, there has been some major updates over the years which has forced people to drastically change their SEO game.
Here’s a quick rundown of the major algorithm updates:
- Panda (Feb 2011): Impacted sites with low quality, duplicate and keyword stuffed content. Also assigned a quality score to pages. Multiple versions of Panda has been rolled out since.
- Penguin (Apr 2012): Penalized sites with bad linking practices like spammy links or links with over optimized anchor text.
- Hummingbird (Aug 2013): Sites with low quality content and poor keyword spread were by this update.
- Pigeon (Jul 2014) and Possum (Sep 2016): Affected sites with poor onpage and offpage SEO, and has a massive impact on location related search.
- Mobilegeddon (Apr 2015): This update punished sites not optimized for mobile.
- RankBrain (Oct 2015): This update added AI capabilities to the algorithm, and impacted sites with poor UX and lack of relevant, query specific content.
- Fred (Mar 2017): This update eliminated sites with content created only to drive ad revenue.
Where is SEO going?
If you’re brand new to SEO, I can imagine your head is probably spinning at this point. I’m not going to lie to you, SEO is hard – and no bullshit, it’s getting harder.
Working with so many clients we get access to concrete data on what’s working and what isn’t. Aside from the “traditional” SEO ranking factors, we’re seeing a lot of new factors come into play:
Machine learning is a part Google’s algorithms.
It’s not as scary as it sounds – basically it means the algorithms are learning on the fly what a quality result should like like and constantly adjusting the algorithm accordingly.
- Searcher satisfaction. When a user clicks on a result in Google, how do they behave? Did they leave right away and go back to Google to find another result? Did they then refine their search query in Google to find something else? This data is invaluable to Google’s understanding of what searchers are really looking for. All this means for you is you have to be extra cognizant of the quality of your pages, making sure they satisfy searcher intent to the fullest.
- Query level algorithms. This is mostly speculation on my part, but I believe there are mini algorithms triggered at a query level. Google is “learning” what a good result looks like based on the search query. For example, “payday loans” is an industry riddled with web spam. I believe the algorithm understands how to sift through the crap and understand at the core level what the top sites are – I then believe your site is measured against this. What this means for you is you need to truly understand your industry and who is killing it. That information alone will tell you a lot about what you need to do for your site.
Approaching SEO from a more holistic organic standpoint.
In some spaces, SEO is just too competitive for small websites. If you just launched a website that sells jeans, it’s nearly impossible to outrank The Gap for “jeans” related keywords. It’s an iconic brand, online and offline, that has a proven track record with consumers. While you can still build a profitable organic presence in Google, you’ll need to get creative. While you’re following traditional SEO practices on your site, look into building organic channels off your site.
- Sites like Yelp are a gold mine for local businesses – having a page with a ton of positive reviews will drive a lot of customers to your business.
- Platforms like Avvo and Clutch also provide opportunities for organic exposure. These sites rank really, really well for high intent searches – getting ranked on top of those platforms is just as powerful as ranking your website there.
- Video views on YouTube just as important if not MORE important than someone reading a blog post.
The point is, don’t limit your thinking to only “ranking” for your main keywords. In some cases, you may never get there – don’t be afraid to shift your focus to other organic opportunities for exposure.
Google loves “brands”.
Google has stated publicly they believe “brands” are good for SEO, as people trust them and want to see them served in search results. For example, if you’re shopping for TVs and you see a result from Best Buy and Cheap-O-TVs, which are you most likely to click? Brands carry a certain level of trust with consumers that make them good for the search algorithm.
For us peasants, this is a difficult thing to overcome, as you just can’t compete with the likes of a Best Buy. However, we’ve seen some of our clients rank very quickly without being a “brand” by traditional standards.
Google doesn’t determine a “brand” like you and I do – the algorithm looks at quality signals dictating the authority or “brand” power of a website. Traditional aspects like links and content are still major factors, but we’ve seen clients with no links and no content rank #1 for incredibly competitive keywords (case study later in the book).
The reason is they have a ton of “branded search”. In other words, every month tens of thousands of people are searching directly for their product and website.
There is no higher quality signal than branded search. Unlike other ranking factors, branded search is impossible to emulate (no, search bots DON’T work). It’s a clear sign to Google that when people are looking for a certain product, they want to see yours. This is a powerful association that your product is so popular people don’t want to see any other search results.
Building branded search is no different than building a traditional brand, with a few caveats:
- Offline advertising (i.e. radio, TV, etc). When people hear an ad they like, they take action by heading to Google to search for you.
- Influencer advertising (Instagram, YouTube). This is the method our client’s employ and it’s powerful. Instagram does not have the ability to link to a website from individual posts. When Instagram users repeatedly see people they follow talking about a product, they head to Google to research it more. Some influencers can reach millions of people within seconds, this is by far the best way to increase branded search. However, it’s expensive – we’ll be discussing influencer marketing in detail later in this book.
- PR. Getting consistent coverage in media outlets, both online and offline. If you don’t have access or resources to work with an expert, start at the bottom and do it yourself. Apply to write at big sites, hustle to get on podcasts and start your own blog filled with great content.
- Having a great product / service. It sounds cliche, but nothing is more powerful than word of mouth. When people hear about how great you are, they head to Google to discover more. Focusing on the quality of your product / service can be your greatest marketing asset.
Content is saturated (and automated) – quality will make or break your campaign.
You’ve been hearing it for years that “content is king” and Google loves “quality content”…so has every other marketer on the planet. Because of this, content is being crapped out at an alarming rate and over the course of the next few years, most of it will be written by automation bots.
With so much crap content on the web, Google doesn’t want to waste space indexing it. To beat this back, the algorithm has become incredibly adept in understanding what “quality” really looks like. While we don’t have official word from Google (we never do), a lot of industry experts are in agreement that Google builds an overall quality score for your website. While there are other factors, having too much thin, outdated and low quality content / pages can build a negative perception of quality about your site. When this happens, Google loses trust in your website:
- Your website gets crawled less and less
- Your website loses indexed pages, a consistent downward decay
- Your website eventually loses rankings
In this book, we’re going to talk about exactly how to create, clean up and maintain the highest quality content (on a budget).
Links are still important, but quality truly matters.
Again, I know you know that links have to be high quality, but we have data that proves it. We’re lucky to have helped websites acquire over 10,000 links over the last 2 years – we also have access to the organic traffic data of them. In other words, we’re able able to understand the true impact of links on organic traffic.
What we found (in a nutshell):
- Links do have a positive impact on organic traffic. 75% of the time, we found the pages we built links to increased in organic traffic (over a 6 month period).
- The quality of the website matters. When analyzing sites we want to build links on, we look at much more than just Domain Authority (DA). We look at:
- Social following
- The quality of the articles they publish (i.e. 1000+ words, well written, including images and media, etc)
- Topical relevance of the website
- What type of websites they are currently linking out to (are they random?)
- The quality of the link matters. I can easily identify a paid link by just looking at the article – they all look the same. No images, 500 words or less and a random link to a site. If I can tell this, so can Google. Our data shows that even if it’s a high authority website, the link had no impact.
- What you link to matters. We used to hammer ecommerce product pages with links. Google is very smart at not only sniffing out low quality and paid links, but also irrelevant links.
- When building your links, you have to match link type to content type. For example, let’s say you’re selling shoelaces. Who / what would link to a product page? Very few organically.
- Product reviews. You want to be careful with these too, as Google knows most product reviews are paid.
- “Best of product” listicles. For example, “best Christmas gifts for men” would naturally include a link to your product (if you’re included).
- Quora, Forms, Reddit and blog comments. Think about it, this is about as pure as you can get for a product link – on the ground level where people are actively discussing what you sell.
We found that product pages did not react overly well to direct links, only the types listed above.
Content (i.e. in depth articles) react much more positively to links. We believe it’s because getting a link to an in depth piece of content is much more natural than a product / service page. The blog posts that we build links to ranked very well and drove a ton of traffic for clients.
Links are supposed to be used for “citation” purposes, like footnotes in your high school essays. Content serves as a much better citation than a sales page.
Google doesn’t penalize, it just ignores and loses trust. As mentioned, we used to build a lot of guest post links to ecommerce product pages. In hindsight, these pages could have been penalized. I mean, out of nowhere, a page with no links starts getting contextually mentioned in a bunch of blog posts? Not likely.
Instead of penalizing the page (we have NEVER gotten a website penalized), the links just take no effect and get ignored. I think Google learned their lesson from penalizing websites. I mean, most websites outsource their SEO to an agency – it’s just not cool ripping down someone’s online presence for actions they did not take.
Link building is a lot of work (and expensive) – you don’t want to waste resources on tactics that won’t impact your traffic. We’ll be talking about this in great depth in the link acquisition section.
We’ll talk about how to target the right pages on your site with the right type of links and how you can secure them.
Despite alllll this, core concepts don’t (and won’t) change
I get asked by family and friends all the time for help with their website and SEO. I tell them focus on 3 things:
Build a well organized, fast website that follows all of Google’s guidelines. If it’s a small business / site, build it on WordPress and it will handle almost all of it for you.
Populate that website with the content your audience wants, needs and is searching for. Make it a point of pride to not publish any pages that aren’t helpful to your customers. Quality is very, very important.
You need to figure out a way to get other websites to talk about you. At first, you will need to do this manually. Get active in forums, Reddit, Quora, Facebook Groups – find your voice and provide value. Find the best blogs in your industry and ask them if you can write a post for them. If you can do this, people will discover your site and assuming you have quality content, they will begin to talk about you organically.
We do advanced SEO for Fortune 500 websites and our methods are built on these principles. In fact, they’re a core part of my sales pitch.
Our evergreen approach to SEO
While every website needs its own strategy for optimization, we follow the same templated process regardless of industry. Whether you’re trying to get more clients for your law firm or customers to your ecommerce store selling candy, the cornerstones of good SEO remain true.
We break it down into what we call the “5 phases”:
Phase 1: Learning / Discovery Period
It’s critical to understand as much as possible about the website, past SEO efforts and industry as possible. This knowledge helps us determine the best strategy and way ahead for the campaign.
This is even more important when working with clients, as you need to gather knowledge and insights while still meeting client demands to complete work. Our process helps you manage expectations while delivering high quality work, on time.
In this section, we will discuss the processes we use to onboard new projects quickly and effectively through a questions and custom built reports.
Phase 2: Improve Existing Assets
The fastest turn around in organic traffic comes from small tweaks to existing pages. We do this through a number of audits and data crosswalks to identify key pages that can be improved to deliver a fast turn around in traffic.
In this section, we will discuss the tools we’ve built to crosswalk data and make decisions about which pages hold the most value. We will also discuss how we do keyword research (for existing pages), “on page” SEO corrections, schema markups and more.
Phase 3: Building New Assets
By analyzing competitors and industry leaders, we can understand the keyword “gaps” on your website. These gaps are the ones that are driving traffic to your competition but not to yours, because you don’t have the pages on your website to rank for that traffic.
In this section, we will discuss how we do keyword gap analysis, keyword intent mapping and how we build out new pages on a website, both content (i.e. blog posts, resource guides, etc) or landing pages (i.e. sales based content). We will also discuss the process of how to manage large scale content campaigns across dozens (hundreds) of websites.
Phase 4: Promoting Assets
As you know, it’s not enough to just do “on page” corrections and create quality content. To get explosive traffic gains, you need to promote your website by acquiring links and mentions on relevant industry websites.
In this section, we will not only discuss how our agency secures high quality links at scale, but also the content promotion tactics we recommend to increase the reach of your brand.
Phase 5: Re-Evaluating Assets
After a year long campaign, we go through an evaluation process to benchmark progress of the campaign. Even if you aren’t working with clients, it’s an important step to take to track the progress of your website over a certain period of time.
In this section, we will discuss the reports and data we use to measure the effect of an SEO campaign.