BASIC SEO: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

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Have you been avoiding search engine optimization (SEO)?

 I know it seems super technical…

...and complicated.

(And time-consuming.) 

But I PROMISE that, just like putting money into a savings account each month, a small investment in SEO right now will pay dividends in the years to come. 

More free traffic to your website and in your funnels means more money in your business... and more money in your PR budget.

Sound like something you could get behind? 

Cool. Keep reading.

Why bother with SEO?

This July, a very well-known entrepreneur reached out to me and asked for some help on her SEO strategy. She was trying to use a tool to identify her competition on the search engine results... but the tool was giving her some wonky results.

Her issue? Not the tool—it was that Google didn't know what to rank her for. Google understood her brand and her brand mentions, but nothing else. Not even the topics of what her courses and books covered.

Thousands of people that should be consuming her free content and going through her email funnels are missing. She's probably leaving millions on the table.

(Her business is doing fine—she’s making millions. But she could be doing a lot better.)

You don't want to end up like her. You don't want to miss out on tons of free, organic traffic and hundreds of thousands of dollars because you didn't dedicate a small amount of time each month to work on SEO.

Google's top three ranking factors

The 80/20 rule (or Pareto Principle) states that there's a certain 20% of work that can net you 80% of the benefits. Identifying 80/20 patterns is crucial to managing your time to get the best results.

For SEO, we know there are over 200 ranking factors. But let's just focus on the top 3. (Not quite an 80/20 split...but close enough, no?) We know what these factors are because Google told us:

  1. Links: A hyperlink from someone else's website to your website. (Social media doesn't count; news sites do count.)

  2. Content: The completeness of your content.

  3. RankBrain: User satisfaction.

Links and Content tie for #1 most important factor. RankBrain is #3.  

This begs the question...how do you optimize for them?

Links and content

How do you get somebody else to link to you from their website? By creating content that serves their audience or the point they're trying to make.

Content marketing: the creation and distribution of free content for the express purpose of promoting a brand or telling a story. This blog post is content marketing. Podcasts, YouTube channels, or curated social media feeds are all forms of content marketing.

Content marketing, obviously, means creating great content. And great content attracts links---notice how I linked to Backlinko's study of SEO factors earlier?

You want every piece of content you create to be a linkable asset---content so valuable it not only blows away your audience but also makes them want to share it.

In other words, you want to create authoritative content.

This is easy if you're making a how-to guide, publishing the results of an internal study, or creating a valuable resource for your industry. But what if you interview experts on your podcast? What if you're more artistic---less practical utility and more food for thought?

First, you can still create linkable assets. Apply your unique angle to a topic people already care about.

If you podcast, you have an even easier time with this. You don't have to make an awesome blog post about which essential oils cure jet-lag---you can simply interview someone about the topic. If they have a website, they'll likely share and link to you.

[Do you run a podcast? Click here to read my guide on Podcast SEO.]

The main point is: learn to write the same story from different angles. Ask yourself: how can I talk about this in a way that is both interesting to my target audience and to the people who might not be in my small niche but who would still get value from this post?

This is essential to good marketing.

RankBrain

RankBrain is Google's machine learning algorithm that determines UX signals. In other words, RankBrain is how Google understands how satisfied someone is with your content when they search a particular keyword.

A UX signal is anything that impacts a someone's experience with your website. Load time, skimmability, popup intrusiveness, and how fast they decide your content can help them---these are all UX signals.

You want to optimize four things:

  1. Bounce rate

  2. Dwell time

  3. Click-through rate (CTR)

  4. LSI keywords

Bounce rate

As in, which percentage of people click the "back" button and return to the search results?

You can cut bounce rate for the right keywords by writing a compelling headline and introduction. If you use a lightbox to grab email subscribers, you should delay it until after someone gets the chance to read your headline and introduction.

But sometimes you're ranking for the wrong keywords. In those cases, you actually WANT a high bounce rate. Why? Because Google will learn that your blog post isn't a good fit.

For example, my mentor Brian Dean wrote a post called "How to Get High-Quality Backlinks," which ranked for the keyword "how to get high."

 ...definitely not what his post was about.

People would click on his post, immediately realize they weren't going to learn how to get high, and bounce back to Google. Google then learned his post wasn't relevant to the keyword "how to get high" and dropped him from the first page.  

And guess what? Those people weren't going to sign up for his email list or buy his courses anyway. He didn't want to rank for that keyword.

Dwell Time

Did you know Google cares about the amount of time someone spends on your page? Longer periods of time on your page signal to Google that your content has value.

So... how can you increase dwell time? 

  • Make the post skimmable

  • Create attention-grabbing headlines

  • Embed video (bonus if it's your own video)

  • Create interactive elements

  • Remove comprehension friction by using simple, easy-to-understand language

Increase CTR

A few years ago, Rank Fishkin, the former CEO of Moz, ran an experiment. And while he didn't conclude that CTR affects your long-term rankings on the search engine results pages (SERPs), he did find evidence for a short-term rankings boost.

But I think the more important factor here is this: there's no point in ranking on Google if nobody clicks through to your website.

In other words, it doesn't matter if you're ranking #1 for a keyword with 20,000 searches a month if nobody clicks on your page.

This begs the question...how can we get more people to click on your site?

Let's look at what you can actually control on the search page results:

  • Your title

  • Your description

  • Your URL

People typically look at each of these when they're searching, so we should look for ways to make each more appealing:  

  1. Add a number to your title. A Conductor study found that numbers get a 36% increase in CTR. Your headline doesn't have to be '17 ways to X.' It could be "Here's how we helped a client increase her organic reach by 347%" or "The simple tweak that helped me lose 20 pounds this month."

  2. Use clarifying brackets or parentheses in your title. Including phrases like [Infographic] or (Photos) or [Case Study] led for net positive results, according to a study by HubSpot and OutBrain.

  3. Use the current year in the title. Show people that your content is timely, updated, and fresh. A common trick is to combine this with the above tip and append something like "[2018 Update]" to the end of the title.

  4. Keep the URL slug short and include your target keyword. Your URL slug (yourwebsite.com/this-is-the-url-slug) should be easy to read, include your target keyword, and describe your page.

But more than any tip or trick is that your headline should be compelling. I recommend writing at least 30 variations of your headline before settling on a final version.

Include LSI keywords

LSI keywords, or "latent-semantic keywords," are simply similar phrases. Including these gives Google an idea of the context of your page.

For example, let's say you wrote a blog post about jaguars. Are you writing about the animal, the Jacksonville NFL team, or the British car company? Google learns this from the context of the other words on your page—"large animal," "football," or "vehicle" could all be LSI keywords.

The easiest way to find LSI keywords is to Google to keyword you want to rank for and scrolling to the bottom of the search results, where you'll see the "Searches Related to..." bit. Try to incorporate a few of these into your blog post.

What about keywords?

Not everything about SEO is keywords, although keywords seem to get all the attention. Keywords are still important, but topics are even more important—what is your site about?

Selecting a keyword

SEOs group keywords into three categories: head, medium-tail, and long-tail.

Head keywords have high search volumes. They generally aren't specific and therefore don't convert well. 

Long-Tail keywords are on the long tail—they get few search queries but typically convert very well. If head keywords are a Taylor Swift song, long-tail keywords are songs from your favorite indie band your friends have never heard of.

Medium-Tail keywords, what I call "Goldilocks keywords," are just right for SEO. When you optimize for a medium-tail you'll rank for tons of long-tails automatically. Medium-tail keywords need a bit of work to rank for, but they convert pretty well and the search volume makes it worth the effort.

I want you to optimize for medium-tail keywords. Forget the long-tail for now—we’re not building a city brick by brick; we're building house by house.

Keyword Research Tools

Of course, you want to know what you're getting into before you actually commit to a keyword. The best way to get prepared is to use a keyword research tool, which will give you the search volume of a particular keyword.

A good tool also tells you how competitive a keyword is; in other words, how many backlinks you'll need to attract in order to rank for that keyword.

Google Keyword Planner is the OG keyword planning tool... but it's meant for Google AdWords, not SEO. That said, for your purposes

Google Trends is a content creator's dream—it tells you what search topics are trending and predicts what will be trending. This is good if your brand is influenced by the seasons (travel, food, and home/lifestyle come to mind).

UberSuggest pulls data from the Google Keyword Planner. The interface is very easy to use and I think it's easier to use than Google Keyword Planner, honestly.

Answer The Public is a quirky research tool that shows the common questions people type into Google.

Ahrefs is a paid all-in-one SEO suite—it’s much more than a keyword research tool. That said, it's my favorite research tool because it tells you how competitive a keyword is and estimate the amounts of links you'll need to rank for it. But you definitely don't need this level of power in the beginning.

Where to place keywords

Contrary to what the popular Wordpress plugin Yoast tells you, you don't need a specific exact-match keyword density for your post to be in Google. But there are still some best practices for where to include your keywords.

 Here's a list of where you should (and shouldn't) place your target keyword:  

  • H1/title tag

  • URL slug

  • First 100 words

  • Last 100 words

  • At least once in a subheading (<h2>, <h3>, etc.)

  • Image alt text

  • Meta description

  • No hyperlinks contain the keyword

Most of these should seem obvious or feel familiar to you if you've attempted SEO before. I get a lot of questions about putting the keyword in the first 100 words, and it usually goes like this: "But Jake, what if I'm leading the blog post with a story?"

In that case, forget the keyword and tell your captivating story. Never ever forget that SEO is just to get someone to your page. SEO won't keep someone on your website. It won't encourage people to sign up for your email list. And it definitely won't grow your business if practiced in isolation.  

Always write for humans first. If telling a story is the best way to draw people into your post (and I believe it is) and your keyword just doesn't fit in those first 100 words, do not shoehorn it in.

Conclusion

SEO is big and can seem overwhelming. If you find yourself in the SEO rabbit hole, exit stage left. You can keep it simple.

It's as easy as this:

  1. Determine what to make content about

  2. Find a keyword that describes this topic

  3. Create really valuable content. Use the keyword checklist to help you optimize that content for a keyword.

  4. Tell other people about this content and ask for shares and links.

That's it! That's your super basic SEO strategy.

Got an SEO question? Ask below! Don’t forget to download Jake’s keyword optimization checklist here and get on my A List newsletter for more PR tips!

About the author

Jake Ballinger is an SEO and marketing consultant for coaches, course creators, and socially conscious entrepreneurs. He isn't based anywhere; instead, he's nomadic, trading an address and furniture for a passport and airfare around the globe. Find him online at jakeballinger.com or on Instagram @jake.ballinger.