One of the most confusing subjects for many of our clients is Search Engine Optimization or SEO. To some, it is a black art that only a select few have the skills necessary to practice. To others, it is a complete waste of time, energy and money. Some people aren’t even aware of it at all, and can’t understand why that beautiful site they just built isn’t getting any traffic. This is compounded by the fact that there is so much misinformation out there, along with hundreds of so-called SEO experts who take advantage of their clients lack of knowledge to fleece them. I can certainly understand why many people throw their arms up in frustration at even the mere mention of SEO!
A lot has changed over the years, especially in the last year. Many of the techniques that used to be required to rank well in Google are no longer relevant. That has helped weed out a lot of the ‘bad guys’, as their techniques no longer work. In fact, Google has become so smart, that it is nearly impossible to ‘game the system’ like you once could. In this article I’ll try to dispel some of the myths and explain exactly what it is that Google is looking for these days.
Beware the impossible promise
I hate hearing that some SEO firm promised to get a clients’ site listed on page one in Google. Let me be perfectly clear here: No one can guarantee that they will get your site on page one of Google. The only way to do that is to pay a massive amount of money for the top ad spot, which usually isn’t even worth it. While it was technically possible to quickly get someone on page one organically years ago, it is no longer the case. Any SEO consultant who promises you that is either using black hat (illegal) techniques that will get you banned from Google, or they are just trying to get you to write them a big fat check. Ranking well in Google takes time and energy, there is no quick fix.
So is SEO still necessary? Yes, but SEO Firms are much more than just keyword guys these days. A good SEO firm not only helps you with the technical aspect of optimizing your site, but they can also provide paid advertising management (Facebook, Google), backlink creation, keyword analysis, competition analysis, and help creating the appropriate content for your brand, both on and off your site. Finding a good firm is like finding a good Doctor – get a referral. You wouldn’t just pick a doctor from a Google search, you’d ask around for people who have used them to find out how good they are. Same goes for SEO firms, the results will speak for themselves and their clients will speak highly of them.
So what does Google really want to see?
Google is all about relevancy – how relevant it thinks your site is to what the user is searching for. This used to be just about how many keywords you had vs your competitor, but that was a LONG time ago. While no one except Google knows the exact details of their algorithm, we do know that they use hundreds of factors to determine relevancy. Here are a few of the most important in no particular order.
Say you are searching for a pair of binoculars. Google will almost always return a page that has a large amount of quality content on it vs a page that has little content (i.e. a product page). Here’s Google’s search result for the term ‘Best Binoculars’:
You’ll notice that the top of the page is taken up by paid links – either AdWords or Google Shopping. Then you get the lucky site that was selected as the featured snippet which is selected by Google as the ‘best answer’ to the question posed by the user. No, unfortunately you can’t buy this, it is selected by Google.
So after all of that, you get down to the actual organic results. The key thing to notice here is not a product page in sight, these are all either review sites or category pages that have a LOT of content in them. The bottom line is that Google isn’t going to show your product here, no matter how many times you add ‘best binoculars’ to your copy.
So as a general rule, you should have at least one paragraph of keyword-rich, well-written copy on EVERY page of your site. Don’t stuff the keywords and make it unreadable, but work them in as best you can while still writing for an actual human. The more copy you add the better, as pages thin on copy will never do well in Google, even if it isn’t as big a factor as it used to be.
META title & META description
These two little gems have always been at the core of any SEO strategy. META Keywords were once part of it too until SEO firms abused them so badly that Google simply started ignoring them. See the example below:
The purple text at the top (blue if you haven’t visited it yet) is called the META Title. As a general rule, you want to keep this to about 60 characters. There’s no exact character limit, because characters can vary in width and Google’s display titles max out (currently) at 600 pixels. You’ll want to make this as clear as possible for users, and try to get as many keywords/phrases in there as you can. You’ll notice I also added my company name, as we get a lot of searches for our brand. This is especially important for companies who are in extremely competitive industries such as soap makers, bath and body companies, etc. Often your brand will be more important for search than keywords.
The block of text below the url is called the META Description. Meta descriptions can be any length, but search engines generally truncate them if they are longer than 160 characters. It is best to keep them between 150 and 160 characters. You will also want to use keywords here, but what is more important is writing a description that is relevant to the user. You want to describe your product/service/company in a way that entices the user to click on that link. That is much more important than getting that extra keyword in there!
Any good Shopping Cart software will allow you to edit both of these for every page on the site, as they also have to be unique which I will discuss next.
Your site absolutely HAS to be running in full-time https these days, both for Google and to prevent the ugly ‘insecure’ warning in Chrome and Firefox. See this article for a more detailed explanation. Yes, it slows your site down (which contradicts the previous point) but it is a necessary evil.
At this point, if your site isn’t mobile-friendly, you are in big trouble. Not only does Google heavily factor this into their algorithm, but over 50% of users are now browsing sites on their mobile device. When they come to your site and can’t navigate on their phone, you can bet they will never come back.
If you use Google Analytics (hint: you should be), you’ll see a metric called bounce rate. This is the percentage of users who come to your site and ‘bounce’, or leave within 10 seconds. Generally this means that they didn’t find what they were looking for, and use the back button to go back to the search results. Google sees high bounce rates as a negative, as it appears as though your site wasn’t relative to the search result. If you aren’t relevant, Google isn’t going to keep your site in that index for very long. So how do you prevent a high bounce rate?
- Make sure all of the content you are posting is relevant to your site. I.E. Don’t be posting cake recipes on your blog if you sell perfume. You’ll get a ton of people looking for a cake site, and when they find perfume, they will obviously leave.
- Make sure your site is loading quickly. Nothing makes someone leave faster than a site that never loads.
- Make sure your site is 100% optimized for mobile. Mobile users won’t stick around if they have to squint to see where to click on the menu.
This is one of those terms that is completely misunderstood, as people often refer to a ‘duplicate content penalty’ in Google. Duplicate content occurs when two web pages have content that is nearly identical. A good example (which happens often) is when a web site sells another company’s products. Typically the manufacturer provides their distributors with a standard image, product title and description, and everyone selling that product has exactly the same thing on their web site. Google sees all of these product pages, and picks which one they feel is the most relevant and only shows that one. 99% of the time this is the manufacturer’s product, as they are obviously the most relevant of the bunch. So it isn’t really a ‘penalty’, your page will just never rank well. The same thing can happen if you have different colors of the same product and list them as separate products. To Google, they all look exactly the same, so only one gets listed. The general rule of thumb to avoid this is to make sure that everything you add to your site is at least 25% different than anything similar to it. That includes the description/text, META title and META description.
You also need to make sure that there are not duplicate copies of your SITE being listed in Google. For example, www.yoursite.com is NOT the same as yoursite.com. You need to add a rewrite rule to your .htaccess file to make sure that all traffic goes to the correct version of your site. Your webmaster will be able to help you with this.
This one is kind of a no-brainer, but I still see people doing it wrong. The urls of your pages should be clean and optimized, with keywords in them. Example:
Bad Url: yoursite.com/product.php?productid=1223
Good Url: yoursite.com/organic-cranberry-sugar-scrub/
The first one has no keywords and a bunch of special characters. The second one has keywords and is ‘clean’ and easy to read. Most shopping carts will automatically create clean urls for you, and let you edit them as well.
These are heading tags that help break your content up and make it more readable for people. The title above is an h3 tag for example, and the main page title is an h1. Google wants to see exactly one h1 tag on a page, which is typically the page/category/product title. Keywords are of course important here as well. Use h2, h3, etc for sub-headings in your copy.
What about keywords in your domain name?
I get this question a lot:
“Should I buy keyword.com and forward it to my main site”?
No, you most definitely should not, as it provides ZERO value. Google not only doesn’t care about keywords in a domain name, they don’t value any domains that point to your site unless they have content on them. I also get this one:
“Should I buy keyword.com and use that instead of my brand name”?
Unless you own a domain with a major keyword (makeup.com, binoculars.com, etc) it is more important to establish your brand name in the url, not a keyword.
If you are thinking about creating a ‘micro site’ with some copy on it that then points to your main site, that is just creating 10x the work for you, and you’ll be competing with your own micro site for the same keywords.
Fresh Content via Blogging for SEO
Lets face it, no one likes stale anything. Google likes fresh content, as that is always difficult to do with an e-commerce site unless you are adding new products every week. This is where blogging comes in. I can hear the groans from some of you reading this, but it is a necessary evil for a number of reasons.
First, blogs give you the ability to add fresh copy to your site on a weekly basis. Yes weekly, not every 6 months people!
Second, blogs help build authority on the products you sell, both for you as the owner, and for your brand. The more information you post about how you make your products, what is new in your industry, or the success of your brand, the more loyalty you will gain from your customers. Blogs give your customers a reason to come back to the site often, and while they are there, why not sell them some new product?
Finally, Blogs provide valuable content that you can then use to post in social media to gain even more traffic.
So what should you be posting about? Your posts should be related to your industry/product 9 times out of 10. For example, posting a new recipe every week or your latest vacation photos if you sell jewelry is NOT relevant content. It should be about your products themselves, how you make your products, new trends in your industry, etc. Try to avoid making the posts all about selling, as that will turn your customers off quickly. It is always good to try and upsell a product or two within the blog post, but it shouldn’t be the main focus of the post.
Make sure your blog is either on your domain (yourdomain.com/blog) or as a subdomain (blog.yourdomain.com). Having a blog on wordpress.com or blogger.com is not going to do a thing for your main site as far as SEO goes.
The Social factor
Social media has changed just about everything in the last few years. If you aren’t active on social media regularly, you are never going to make it in e-commerce. How active you are plays into the whole ‘relevancy’ thing in Google. In short, if Google doesn’t see you on the major social media platforms, they think you are much less relevant than businesses who are. So what should you actually be doing?
You need to be 100% active on Facebook, there is no way around it. People often ask questions or leave comments on a business Facebook page, and if you don’t respond quickly, you look bad. You need to be posting at least once a week if not more, and it should be good content, not just ‘Happy Friday!’. A good example of ‘good’ content would be a link to your latest blog post. Try not to post links directly to products on your site that often, as Facebook can tell pages that are sales pages vs content pages, and will always show content pages more frequently on people’s walls. Remember, not everything you post will be seen by everyone who ‘likes’ your page. Facebook also has an excellent advertising platform, but that is a topic for another day.
Twitter is also a necessary evil, and that is a daily thing. Luckily here you CAN just say ‘Happy Friday’ as short posts are what Twitter is all about. They are increasing their character count soon though, so you’ll have to get a little more creative!
Both Pinterest and Instagram are extremely useful if you are selling bath and body products, fashion, jewelry, or anything that has a visual factor to it. You should be as active there as possible, as a simple photo of your product can reach thousands of people easily. What doesn’t work well on Pinterest or Instagram? Products like pool supplies, motors, office supplies, tools, etc. No one wants to see giant photos of that kind of stuff!
I saved the best for last, as this one is the most difficult by far. Backlinks are links TO your site from other sites, and the more quality backlinks you have, the more relevant you appear to Google. Here’s a specific example:
Site A sells red widgets, and so does site B. They both have similar content, keyword-rich copy, similar keywords and a good site structure. But site A has 500 quality backlinks, while site B only has 5. To Google, site A is much more important, because there are so many more relevant sites that link to them. So site A will always rank better than site B for that keyword.
While that is a very simplistic explanation, you get the point. Now before you go off and try to get your site listed everywhere, there is one more factor at play here. The links to your site must be from sites that are good quality, and relevant to your industry. Let me explain.
A good quality site is determined by a number of factors including the number of backlinks THEY have, the quality of their content, the age of the domain, etc. There are a number of ranking systems that different companies use to determine how ‘valuable’ a site is. ahrefs.com uses a domain rank and a url quality score, while moz.com uses a domain authority number. The higher the number, the better the site. Sites like Facebook, Youtube and google score 100, while your Grandmother’s quilting blog is probably more like a 5 or 10. You obviously want your incoming links to come from the ones with the higher numbers.
You also want to make sure that you avoid getting links from ‘spammy’ sites, or sites that are just pages full of links. Google HATES those and will penalize you if your site is listed on one of them. In general you want to avoid links from low-tier sites, no matter what kinds of sites they are. It’s like hanging out with the bad kids at school, eventually you get a reputation as being one of them no matter how good you are.
Now let’s say your Grandmother’s quilting blog was more like a 50, you’d think a link from that would be HUGE right? Unless you are selling quilts, not so much. You want links that are relevant to your keyword. The exception to this is links from REALLY high value sites. If you have a chance to get a link from somewhere like wikipedia.com or apple.com, take it!
So how do you go about getting links? Good question, it isn’t easy! One of the best ways to get a ton of links is via forums related to your industry. Do you make soap? Then get involved with some soap making forums and post advice, feedback, questions, etc. Make sure you add your web site to your forum signature, so that every time you post, you get another backlink. A few words of caution about doing this:
- Don’t spam the forum just to get links. You’ll end up getting kicked out and you’ll lose ALL of your links.
- Try to post valuable content, as this helps build you as an authority, which is also important
- Make sure the forum content is not password protected. Google can’t see past that, and your posting will be for naught.
Guest posting on blogs in your industry is also a great way to get your name out there.
Consider trading links with someone, it will help you both. Don’t create a page of links, but somehow work their link into your blog for example.
Backlinks are definitely difficult to get, and you have to constantly monitor them for broken links, defunct pages they are linking to, etc. They are essential to get your site ranking well though, so keep at it no matter how frustrating it is!
I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if you are. How can you find time to handle all of this stuff while still focusing on making and marketing your products? The short answer is, you can’t. There are just some cases where time is money, and what will take you hundreds of hours can be done by a professional in a fraction of that. Here are the things that you should be ‘farming out’ to a consultant:
- Keyword research – figuruing out exactly what keywords to optimize your copy for
- Backlink monitoring
- The ‘tech’ stuff – speed, https, mobile-friendly display, etc
Partnering with a good E-Commerce and SEO firm may cost more money than you had hoped to spend. Keep in mind that they will also pay for themselves relatively fast in increased traffic and sales, so it is a smart investment.
The content itself really needs to be written by you or someone intimately familiar with your business. You can always tell when a site was over-optimized by an SEO firm, as the content reads like it was written by a robot (and sometimes it is!). The ‘voice’ you give your brand needs to have your ‘feel’ to it to make it personal, that is just one more thing that gives your site its own personality. SEO firms can provide the guidance for the keywords, but how those are written into the copy is your job.
Blogging and Social Media posting can also be done by a third party, but ideally it should be someone on your staff. Again, it comes down to giving the correct ‘voice’ to your company.
We Can Help!
We offer a number of services which can take some of this off your plate. From Keyword Research and Backlink Monitoring to Monthly Analytics Reporting and 404 Monitoring, we can handle just about any aspect of SEO you need. Contact us today if you have any questions!