I was speaking at a conference the other day, and someone asked me an interesting question…
If you were to start optimizing a site for search engines from ground up, what would you do?
Answering that question would have been a bit easier years ago because to dominate the rankings all you had to do was to build rich anchor text links.
Sadly, SEO isn’t that easy anymore… what used to work in the past doesn’t anymore.
That’s simply because the state of SEO is ultimately in the hands of Google that’s perpetually tweaking and improving its algorithm for optimal user experience.
This means plenty of potential for those who stay on top of things and continually rethink their game plan.
And to me, success largely comes from planning ahead and always having a strategy in place for getting to where I need to go.
That’s why I brainstormed some key aspects of SEO that I feel are most important.
They’re elements you’ll definitely want to incorporate into your overall strategy to help you keep pace.
With that being said, here are my tips on how to create a killer SEO plan.
1. Assess how search-friendly your site is
Before you make any changes to your site, you need to know where you stand. You need to know if your content is visible to search engines so that they can index and list your site.
Now, if you have everything in HTML text format, then you are probably good. However, images, Java applets, Flash files and other types of non-text content are practically invisible to search engine spiders. Although they claim they can crawl some of it, even the most advanced crawling technologies cannot see this content accurately.
When all your content is HTML, search engines will see it. But if you want to use the other formats for your content, there are ways in which you can make it visible to search engines. For example:
- You can assign alt attributes to images in gif, jpg or png. This gives search engines something to crawl when it comes to the visual content, which helps in ranking the relevancy of the page.
- You can also use CSS styles on images as a replacement for text.
- You can simply repeat any content on a page that’s in Flash or Java plug-ins.
- You can provide the transcript for any audio or video files. This is another great way of allowing search engines to crawl content, helping you rank.
Even if you think you’ve got all your content in HTML and don’t think you have any significant problems with content that’s indexable, you should still double-check. Here’s how you do that.
Tools like Google cache or the MozBar can help you see what elements are visible to the search engines.
Here’s a snapshot of Quick Sprout on Google cache. This is the text version:
You can see all the text, which is a good thing. That means all the search engines are crawling this site and ranking it based on the content.
Here’s a site that’s all flash:
Even though there was very little content on this page to begin with, even that isn’t showing up. That’s not good because search engines cannot index any of the content, including the links.
If you want to go a step further and evaluate what terms and phrases search engines can see on a website, you can try SEOMoz’s tool Term Extractor.
It shows words according to their frequency on the site. Here’s my blogs’ most frequently used words:
So, how do you use this information? Good question. Well, these terms should reflect the words and terms you are targeting. If not, then you’ll want to make changes to the text on the page. Don’t forget to change the title and header tags too.
2. Evaluating your competitors
After you do a general evaluation of your content on your blog, another meaningful way to see where you stand SEO-wise is to find out how you measure up to your competitors.
Use Raven Tools SEO Competitor Analyst checklist to help you identify and track both broad and niche competitors, check on-site competitive rank with keywords and see how you measure up to off-site factors.
So, why is keeping tabs on your competitors important? Well, for one thing, it’s kind of like getting a free SEO insight. Your competitors, especially if they are big brands, will probably have spent tens of thousands of dollars to achieve their rankings. You can then see what works and what doesn’t work without having spend all the money.
3. Generate profiles of your target audience
The next step you have to take to improve your SEO is to figure out who your target audience is. Do you know its age, sex and pain points? Do you know where these people live?
To learn how to develop a persona based on the data of your target audience, go over to usability.gov and read the persona descriptions. They’ll even tell you how to do task analysis and scenarios to develop the personas.
What you are trying to do is focus your SEO strategy on your audience’s pain points. What is it that your audience really needs? Are you meeting its needs? Understanding this information will help you develop a plan for your content that zeros in on these pain points.
You may wonder why I’m jumping into your target audience before I reach the keyword research part. Well, there are two reasons:
- Content strategy – The content you publish on your website/blog needs to be focused on your target audience and its needs. In fact, when you start developing content based on your audience’s problems, that automatically makes it linkbait. For instance, on this site, I provide information on web analytics, blogging, running a business and SEO. When I learn that entrepreneurs don’t have the time to figure out how to use social media, I write an article for them to help clear the clutter like I did with 57 social media resources for entrepreneurs. A good content strategy depends on knowing exactly what your audience wants…and giving it to them.
- Keyword research – Just as you want to write content that’s targeted to your audience, you want to add keywords that are centered on your audience’s pain points (without stuffing, of course). Knowing exactly who my audience is, I can eliminate all the keywords that appeal to the general population and bring my narrowed-down group of readers the content that will help them solve their problems using keywords that resonate with them.
4. Creating an effective keyword plan
Would you rather get 1,000,000 visitors from Google each month or 1,000? Your gut is probably telling you to go with 1,000,000, but the reality is you don’t have enough information to make an educated decision.
The keyword game isn’t just about traffic. It is also about quality. You have to look at conversion rates to make an educated decision.
This means you have to look at larger goals and breakthrough keyword volume.
In my ten years in the business, I’ve made creating high-converting keyword research plans a priority. So, let me share my 3-step plan with you:
Step #1: Keyword research for SEO
When you research for keywords on your own site, it’s a lot easier to do because you know the content inside out. It’s almost instinctual.
But if you are working on a new site, then it is best that you do a lot of keyword research. This means starting with a list of keywords. If you don’t have a list, then work through as much content as you can.
As you do that, think about this…
- Think about any word or category you don’t understand – Drop these words into Google and see what kind of results come up.
- Do these results match what you are trying to accomplish – Or do they compete with your goal? As you will see when we get into the conversion part of keyword research, keywords that don’t convert waste time and visitors.
When you find non-converting keywords, search through and remove any other keywords that are similar. As you do this, your list of categories will probably change as you start to understand your site’s content. By the way, it’s always easier to start with too many than too few categories because you can always reduce them later.
Check the estimated search volumes and make sure they match what you expect.
For instance, do more people search for “SEO consultant” or “SEO services”? “Florist” or “flowers”? “Washer” or “washing machines”?
While you may lean towards the more technically correct “SEO services”, you might find that more people are actually searching for “SEO consultants.” So, you’ll want to work more instances of “SEO consultant” into your copy.
You are now ready to use these 5 questions to maximize your keyword research. The following exercise is recommended by Jenny Halasz and is a very helpful way to uncover keywords for clients efficiently and effectively.
- How would you describe your site? – After you’ve spent some time evaluating your site and creating your own keyword bucket based upon what you read, you ask yourself to describe the site. You’ll notice that you’ll will probably tell yourself a lot of what you read on your own site. But just because you may understand your content and technical jargon, it doesn’t mean others will. This will help you figure out what to focus on and what needs to change.
- Why would someone choose you over a competitor? – What makes your product unique? These are keyword conversion type of questions. Answering them properly will ultimately dictate if you come up in searches versus your competitor.
- What products are like yours but not competitors’? – An e-reader maker might say that smart phones are similar products since people can read on their phones, but not competitors, since people will use smart phones for entirely different things.
- Do you have a flagship product? – Is it your most profitable product? What are the reasons for promoting one product over another? The answer to these questions will help you focus. This will help you first focus all your energy on ranking that product instead of the others.
- What are your most important keywords? – This question will help you back away from a mistaken belief that you have to rank for thousands of keywords. There are only ten really important keywords. Then there are the others.
Once you have a base of keywords, you have to use them to discover untapped opportunities. See, keyword research isn’t important just for building your current business. It it will also help you identify possible opportunities or neglected markets.
This doesn’t have to be time-consuming. You only need to pay attention to the data that might help you build your current business and find new markets.
Step #2: Keyword research for semantic understanding
As you develop your core keywords for SEO, next you want to shift into the area of semantic search keywords. There are a lot of advantages for having a keyword database like this:
- Higher CTR – When you are using highly-targeted keywords, your CTR will improve. If all your conversion funnel elements are in place and optimized for semantic searches, your CTR will skyrocket.
- Reduce bid amount – Naturally, if you are creating keywords that are more in-tune with what searchers want, you will reduce the cost of your pay-per-click campaigns: fewer, but higher-quality, clicks will result in less money spent.
- Raise quality score – This situation then leads to semantically higher relevance for your keywords, for which the search engines will happily reward you since you are contributing value to the web.
So, let’s look at some of the ways to find semantic keywords. They are not as easy to determine as SEO keywords. I’ll show you the tools I use when analyzing a site and looking to build a semantic keyword database.
- Optimizing semantic keywords around trends – One of my favorite strategies when it comes to staying in the public eye, and at the top of search rankings, is to develop keywords around trending topics. Fortunately, there are some great tools to use like Google Trends
- Studying social bookmarking tags – Analyzing how tags are used in social bookmarking platforms is another good way to generate semantic keywords.
To take things a step further, you can also use the advanced search. The quickest way to find semantic keywords is to search on Google and look at the advanced search results:
Now click “related searches,
All of your terms will appear:
From the results above, you can determine that people are typically looking for brands when shopping. Knowing that is gold.
Google Instant will also give you further suggestions for semantic ideas that don’t show up in the “related search” results:
Now, let me show you what semantic search is all about. Search for “laptop repair”,
and you’ll see all of the similar keyword phrases. But when you look at Google Instant, you’ll get this:
Now you have options related to location.
Obviously, you don’t scoop all of these terms up and dump them in your database. Keyword research involves careful sorting through and understanding of each phrase. Some will be obvious ones to use while others not so much. And then, you should use Google Insights to narrow down your keyword list by category:
Semantic keyword research is as much about finding actual keywords you can use in your SEO campaigns as it is about building a complete profile of your target customer. And the better you can understand your target customer, the better your campaign results will be!
Step #3: Creating keywords for conversion
At this point, you should have dozens of files that you exported from dozens of keyword tools. Flipping back and forth between those files isn’t efficient, so you need to create a master table in a database that you can eventually export into Excel.
This is a trick I learned from Tom Schmitz, and you don’t need to know how to work a database to do it. You do need Microsoft Access. Here’s what you do:
- Put all of your keywords into one master file.
- Sort all your keywords into number of words and then number of searches.
- Identify all relevant keywords under three words.
- Identify all keywords that are embedded in larger phrases.
- Set traffic limits that are relevant to the site that you are trying to optimize. I’d recommend that a site that gets a ton of traffic have a higher traffic limit than a site with less traffic.
- Keep anything that is leftover, but only if it is relevant.
At the end, copy all the keywords you marked into one table. These are your keyword candidates.
The above steps are pretty typical for SEO keyword research that is done on a practical, efficient and effective level.
You are now ready to look at the conversion side of your keyword research. The basic rule is this: you need to assign keywords to a target page. If there is no target page, then you have a useless keyword.
Go through your keywords and assign target pages. This post by Rand will tell you how to target more than one phrase to a page.
Once you have assigned keywords, now you can think about tracking these keywords. Here’s what you need to look at:
- Organic visitors – How many visitors do search engines bring from natural search for each particular keyword?
- Exact match search – What is the volume of exact matches when people are searching and landing on your target page? The higher this number, the closer you are to targeting your consumer correctly.
- Phrase match – You are looking at the volume of phrase matches for this one too. And the conclusion is the same: the higher the volume, the closer you are to targeting your consumer correctly.
- Keyword diversity – How many different keywords are bringing in traffic? If you have a narrow variety of keywords, then you need to figure out how to expand that number. Are the keywords with low search volume relevant? Do you need to re-evaluate their effectiveness?
5. Put mobile first
So, mobile is kind of a big deal these days. Here’s proof:
This is a graph from Moz.
It’s a little hard to read, but at the bottom, it explains that blue represents desktop search from 09 – 11/2016 and the orange represents mobile search from the same period.
As you can plainly see, mobile search is much more dominant.
Furthermore, Moz points out that, “20 industry niches out of 24 see mobile as their first source of traffic.”
Now, I’m not suggesting that you should abandon desktop completely. Of course, there’s going to be a sizable number of your visitors still coming through desktop.
But I truly believe that 2017 is the tipping point where SEOs should have a mobile-first mindset.
What exactly does mobile-first SEO entail?
- Using responsive web design (RWD) if you haven’t done so already
- Getting rid of interstitials (these will actually be penalized in 2017)
- Simplifying your web design
- Minimizing redirects
This article from Search Engine Land offers more helpful tips.
6. Go warp speed
Having a website that’s just fast isn’t fast enough anymore.
It needs to be warp speed, lightning quick—you get the idea.
While it was definitely important to have a fast site in 2016, I can’t stress enough how important it will be in 2017.
Research suggests that “40% of online shoppers will abandon a website that takes more than three seconds to load.”
This is especially true with the emergence of mobile where users expect a fast and fluid experience.
If your site is behind the curb, it’s going to hurt your number of visitors, leads, and inevitably conversions.
Google even launched the Accelerated Mobile Pages or (AMP) project, which “is a stripped-down version of the mobile web which runs on a reinvented version of the language used to create web pages: HTML.”
Long story short, this is a tool that helps websites speed up their load time dramatically.
I recommend checking out the AMP project and learning more about it.
7. Address voice search
If you’ve ever seen the movie Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix, where his character falls in love with his AI virtual assistant Samantha, you’ll know just how big voice search has become.
In fact, “Google says that 20% of mobile queries are voice searches.”
Just look at how the popularity of voice commands has grown over the last year:
And this is a growing trend that’s only going to continue to grow. I know that I find myself using voice search more and more these days.
It’s just more practical and efficient than typed-in search. And if you’re driving, it’s simply a matter of safety.
That’s why I think voice search is most definitely something you’ll want to work into your SEO plan for 2017.
But how do you go about it?
Well, for one thing, you may need to rethink the way you approach keywords.
Here’s what I mean:
If someone was searching for a pet store in Albuquerque on their desktop, they might type in “pet store albuquerque.”
But if they were doing it through mobile voice search, they would probably say something like “Where is a pet store in Albuquerque?”
The point here is that focusing on longtail phrases involving questions is a logical strategy.
This graph provides a breakdown of the growth in question phrases year over year:
“Who,” “when,” “where,” and “how” are ideal question words to begin with.
I also suggest writing content using a conversational tone. It should flow naturally almost like you’re having a dialogue with your audience.
A plus is that this approach should help you come across as being more personable and will bring a sense of warmth to your content.
This is important for making those all-important connections and building equity for your brand.
8. Think scannable content
Scannable or “snackable” content kills two birds with one stone.
First, it improves the user experience because readers can quickly move through a large volume of content and find the little nuggets of information they’re looking for.
In turn, you can improve engagement levels, increase shares, maximize your CTR, and so on.
Not to mention it’s easy on the eyes with plenty of white space breaking up a wall of text.
Second, it’s very helpful from an SEO standpoint.
By including plenty of sub-headers, bullet points, bold text, etc., you help search engine bots decipher your content and figure out what it’s all about.
This should ultimately have a positive impact on where your content ranks in SERPs.
I have written about the topic of scannable content in a few different places, but I really recommend checking out this post on Quick Sprout.
It will fill you in on the details.
When most people talk about search engine optimization, they make it sound like you just need to do a little keyword research, get some links coming to your site, and boom! – you have traffic.
But having a great search engine optimization strategy goes beyond the basics. It actually starts from the very beginning.
While there is a lot of advice out there, most of it misses some, if not all, of the steps I’m going to share with you.
9. Build a Facebook fan page
Within my Google Analytics account, I have access to over 100 different websites. Can you guess what each of those sites have in common? Facebook is always one of the top ten most popular traffic sources.
If you aren’t on Facebook, you’re missing out…no matter what industry you are in. For a few thousand dollars, you can build a huge Facebook audience to drive traffic back to your website. Plus, page likes should help boost your rankings as social signals are used within search engine algorithms.
10. Build a Twitter profile
Just like Facebook, Twitter also happens to be one of the top ten most popular traffic sources for all of the sites to which I have Google Analytics access. Naturally, you should build up your Twitter profile to boost your social signals and drive traffic back to your website.
A simple way to get more Twitter followers is through Twitter’s ad network, which isn’t too expensive.
Once you are up and running, make sure you also follow these steps to get the highest possible number of retweets. And if you don’t have money to spend on Twitter advertising, you can also build a powerful account for free if you leverage these tactics.
11. Write awesome content
Blogging is very powerful. For the last five years, it has been the number one revenue generating marketing channel for all of my businesses. It’s the main reason why I blog so often.
You should start a blog because it can do wonders for your business. Don’t expect miracles in a short period of time, but within a year, your blog should be kicking butt if you are writing great content.
If you aren’t sure on how to get your blog started, just replicate my process for writing blog posts and promoting them. It’s really important that you follow through on the promoting part because without it, your content won’t do much for you. With it, you’ll start noticing that your blog will get more search engine traffic than your main site.
If I were in your shoes and had to start a blog from scratch, I would only focus a portion of my time on writing blog posts because everyone can create great content these days. Where there is a huge gap in the market is in the lack of detailed guides. Spend the majority of your writing time creating content like The Advanced Guide to SEO. Once you have accomplished that, spend money on a professional design to make it look really good. You will stand out because most companies won’t go that far. That’s what’s going to separate you from the competition.
12. Focus on conversion optimization
Conversion optimization only started to become popular in the last few years. No one used to care about it five years ago, but now everyone is doing it.
“Why?” you may ask. Traffic is becoming more expensive than ever before, and the price to get a visitor to your website will continue to rise in the future. By optimizing your site for conversions, you’ll be able to continually spend the money you need to in the future.
Before you start your conversion efforts, always start off by surveying your visitors. This will tell you why they aren’t buying or what parts of your website they find confusing. With the help of solutions like Qualaroo, you won’t have to worry about coming up with survey questions as they have a lot of templates tailored around conversion optimization.
You can then use that data to determine what changes need to be made to your website. When running A/B tests, make sure you run them till they are statistically significant.
If you find that you are running tests that are causing your conversions to move drastically up or down, it usually means that your visitors are sensitive to those specific web elements… which is a good thing.
For example, if you ran an A/B test on the text of your call-to-actions and the variations didn’t drastically go up or down, it means that people aren’t too sensitive to your call-to-action text. This means that you should consider moving on and testing other elements of your web page, e.g., your headline copy.
You should be focusing on getting big conversion wins, and the best way to do this is to make drastic changes to your web pages.
If you want a few A/B testing ideas, check out this blog post.
13. Build links
Once you’ve figured out what keywords to go after, you need to start building links. You don’t need these links to be rich in anchor text, but you do need them to be highly relevant.
So how do you find highly relevant links? You search for them. If you are trying to rank for a keyword such as “dog food”, the most relevant link would be from a web page that already ranks in the top 100 search results for the term “dog food”. The second most relevant link would be from webpages that rank within the top 1,000 results for the term “dog food”.
Sure, many of those sites are going to be competitors, but a large portion won’t be. By leveraging these email templates, you’ll be ready to email manually the top 1,000 sites that rank for the term you are trying to rank for.
When building links, you should ideally point them to internal pages that are highly related to that keyword. So, for your dog food site, you would want those links to point to a web page on your site that only shows all of the different types of dog food versus your homepage with hundreds of random dog products.
By following this strategy for all of the terms you want to rank for, you’ll naturally boost your organic traffic over time.
14. Hire a PR agency
Links from authority sites like TechCrunch or New York Times will always hold more weight than links from your mom’s blog. So, how do you get links from these authority sites?
You hire a PR agency. Don’t worry, if you don’t have much cash, you can always leverage a performance-based PR agency like PR Serve. You only pay them if they deliver results.
Here’s what I would have your PR agency focus on:
- Launches – anytime you launch a new feature or service, have your PR agency focus on getting you coverage. This is the easiest way to get press… assuming your features or services are awesome.
- News – if you have big news like a fundraising event, it’s easy to get coverage. It may not always be from TechCrunch, but there are enough authority sites that love covering news-worthy events.
- Guest posts – if you are a good writer, you can always have them pitch you for a guest post. Most blogs will turn you down, but it is worth a shot.
- Interviews – if you’re a rockstar, it will be easy to get you interviews. If you don’t have a stellar resume, then come up with some interesting data points that you want to share… a journalist will want to interview you on the data, assuming it’s interesting.
All four of the above tactics will not only help you build links, but they will also get your brand out there. People will read about your business, and it will help you make more sales.
15. Put more attention on local search
Google Possum is an algorithm update that occurred in early September 2016 that specifically impacted local search.
In particular, it affected how websites ranked in the 3-pack and Local Finder.
Although Google never actually admitted to making any changes, countless experts in the SEO community noticed big changes to local search results.
An article from Search Engine Land illustrates just how big of a wave this update created.
Here’s a screenshot that highlights how positioning changed in local search results:
And here’s a graph that illustrates this data:
When you break it all down, “64% of keywords saw some type of change.” That’s pretty dramatic.
This tells me that the Possum update was a significant one and something that marketers will want to be aware of.
It’s especially important if you’re a brick-and-mortar business with a demographic that’s strictly located in a single city or region. If this is the case, Possum demands your immediate attention.
The first thing I recommend you do is check out this other article from Search Engine Land. It’s one of the most comprehensive and will fill you in on most of the details.
I also recommend you put more attention on local search in 2017 by doing the following:
- diversify the local keywords you’re trying to rank for. For instance, instead of targeting “pet store albuquerque,” also aim for phrases such as “pet store albuquerque NM” and “albuquerque pet store”
- update your Google My Business listing if you haven’t done so in a while
- be aware that Google is using IP addresses when generating results
16. How to Calculate the ROI of Your SEO Campaign
Last up I want to discuss measuring your results.
When I was running an SEO agency, I realized that companies had one big issue with SEO.
They couldn’t figure out if they were losing or making money from their SEO campaigns.
For this reason, most companies spend their marketing dollars on paid search because it allows them to track their return on investment (ROI) easily.
But just like with paid search, you can actually calculate the return on your SEO efforts.
It’s not that tricky either. To show you how to do it, I’ve created an infographic that will walk you through the calculations you need to perform.
Creating a new search engine optimization strategy can be very lucrative in the long run.
You just have to be patient and not try to rank for your prized keyword right off the bat.
If you follow the tips I talked about above, you’ll place yourself on the path to SEO success.
What steps do you take before launching a new SEO strategy?
I know the process can be time-consuming, but if you don’t start off with a proper plan, you’ll just end up flushing your money down the toilet.
And as always, a successful SEO campaign requires perpetual maintenance, so be sure to keep up with trends as they unfold.