A Guide to Winning at SEO

Back in 2004, I just graduated from Penn State with a degree in Advertising, and I had taken an internship with an Internet Marketing company called UnREAL Marketing. This was my first real immersion into SEO, analytics, and keyword search terms. Way back then, we used a keyword planning tool called Overture by Yahoo! and I don’t think I ever heard of Google Analytics at that point.

We had a car dealership client that wanted to rank on Google for their BMWs. As an intern, I was tasked with coming up with a bunch of keywords that someone would type into a search engine when looking for BMWs. This particular list would include various misspellings, model numbers, vehicle colors, and anything else you could possibly think of when searching for a BMW. It was a pretty extensive list. You see, back then, it was common practice to just list on an excel spreadsheet all the words you could possibly think of that was associated with your product. Then we would create banner ad campaigns around these keywords. Remember those banner ads and pop-ups that drove internet users crazy in the late 90s – early 2000s? Hi, that was me.

The Evolution of SEO

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) has definitely evolved since then, thankfully. Nowadays, you can’t just go all in and try to target in your ad campaign for whatever keyword you can think of. Well, technically you still can, but you would waste a lot of time, energy and money. Internet users have gotten smarter when it comes to ads in their search results. Gone are the days when people couldn’t tell the difference between a google ad and an organic search result. People searching on the internet have become more sophisticated and with that, so has the search engines.

SEO specialists, content creators and web designers have moved away from keyword stuffing their website and have focused on writing good, clean content for people to read. Remember back in the day when websites would often have paragraphs at the bottom of the page of just random keywords? In today’s world, that’s just bad practice and is one of the tactics in black hat SEO. With content now being the main focus for search engines to bring people to your site; web designers and SEO specialists are tasked with creating ways to describe their intent and products with clear, consise and natural sounding descriptions. Keywords are still important, but instead of stuffing content with as many keywords as possible, it has to make sense. The search engine bots and spiders can recognize when you’re just spamming a page with as many keywords as possible.

Keyword stuffing image
Neil Patel – How To Get Google to Index Your Site

Best Practices for SEO Success

How can you create a better performing site when it comes to SEO? Here are a few best practices that will help your website rise above the competition.

Google Analytics

If you don’t have Google Analytics tracking set up, then you are totally missing the boat. This is a powerful free tool by Google that tracks and measures anything you could possibly want to know about your website traffic. You can see what landing pages are most popular on your site, what devices your audience uses to access your site, the demographics of your audience, how they interact with your site, and what referral sources are sending you the most traffic. This is just a small portion of what you can measure.

Google Analytic Referral Traffic
In this screenshot, you can see the traffic coming in from different sources. I have created campaigns within Google Analytics that I can attribute sources specific to the Facebook ad campaigns that I am currently running. Better work on that bounce rate!

If you have a WordPress site, it’s easy to add your Google Analytics tracking code to all of your pages with a plugin. I used MonsterInsights, but I’m considering switching over to Google Analytics Dashboard for WordPress soon after I received some positive recommendations. If you aren’t using WordPress, no worries, Google offers recommendations on how to add your code to many different platforms.

Monster Insights Plugin Dashboard
Here is the MonsterInsights dashboard within WordPress. I just set up Google Analytics on the 9th. As you can see, I haven’t spent much time on SEO on my own personal site. Not yet, anyway.

Title Tags

Moz has a great page on the importance of title tags. But to sum it up, the title tag is the first impression of what your site or page is about. If your website is about roofing, it will make sense to put the word roofing or roofer in the title tag. Title tags are visible on the search engine result page, the tab on web browsers, and on social media platforms when a link from your site is shared. It is recommended to keep the character length between 50 – 60 characters or else the rest of your title will be cut off in the search engine result in the page. A best practice is to place the most important keywords at the front of the title and do not overstuff the title with keywords, making it sound unnatural.

What is a title tag

Headers and Sub-headers

Headers and sub-headers in your content are sort of like book titles and chapter titles. A header is similar to a book title by giving the reader an idea of what the content is about. A sub-header is like a chapter title by breaking up the content between thoughts or sections. Headers are read as h1 tags in HTML code, and sub-headers are h2..h3…h4 and so on. These tags give the search engines a good idea of what your content is about and can contribute to your SEO results. A good practice is to add important keywords in your headers to further confirm to Google that your page is about the keyword you want to rank for.

If you want to learn more about the importance of the H1 tag, this is a great article.

Meta Descriptions

A lot of weight used to be put on meta description in regards to SEO but back in 2009, Google announced that it was no longer weighing this description in the ranking factors. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put any effort into writing out a clear and concise meta description for your pages. Why? Because the meta description in what is seen to describe your site on the search engine page results. You don’t want a bunch of random jumble to show up. That would definitely be a bad practice. It is suggested to keep your description within 160 characters to avoid it being cut off.

What is a meta description

If you are using WordPress, a good plugin that I recommend to help with meta descriptions and SEO is WordPress SEO by Yoast. This tool helps you to customize your description and ensures that you meet the recommend character length.

Yoast meta description snippet editor

Inbound and Outbound Links

Inbound links are links on other websites that send traffic inbound to your site and vice versa for outbound links. If the inbound and outbound links are coming to and from reputable websites, this can help improve the SEO quality of your site. This tells Google that a) you are the expert in a subject that other sites are linking to and b) your site values quality content.

Inbound links are also referred to as backlinks, and they serve as a vote of confidence between two sites. Getting other reputable websites to backlink to your site can be very time consuming, but worth it when it comes to SEO juice. One way to do this is to offer a well-developed and insightful blog post that is related to the site you want to link to and links back to your own site. Of course, that’s if the site accepts guest blogs.

If you create well thought-out content on your own site, eventually the backlinks will come naturally. You should be warned, however, that if spammy and less reputable sites link to your site, it could negatively affect your SEO. Look for free backlink checker tools to see who is linking to your site. If you discover a site that you don’t want to be linked to, reach out to them and ask them to remove the link.

Canonical tags, No Index, and No Follow

Canonical tags can seem a bit complicated if you don’t understand what purpose they serve. Google frowns on duplicate content and in it may be necessary for your site. A canonical URL or canonical tag tells Google which URL is the main one you want the bots or spiders to index. Let’s say you have a website that sells training courses to be viewed online or through a DVD. Both the DVD and the online course may require a different page on your website for the ease of navigation. It would be hard to create different content for the same course on two different pages. By setting up a canonical tag at the head of the HTML code for the page you want indexed as the main one, you avoid dividing up your SEO juice by competing with yourself in search engine rankings.

Moz article on canonicalization

No index tags tells Google bots and spiders that they can crawl a page to understand what it’s about, but you are requesting them not to index the page for search results. I often do this when I create a landing page for a special offer applicable to only to certain customers. This is also useful to use on thank you, registration completion or privacy policy pages.

Code for noindex/nofollow

No follow tags tell Google that you have a link to your website that you don’t want to bots to follow for indexing. I had used this in the past when the company I worked for participated in sponsorship. I added a link to the event on my company’s webpage, but I created a no follow tag because the event website was so poorly designed that I didn’t want their bad SEO to weigh mine down.

Schema Markup

This SEO practice is relatively new and pretty powerful. Search engine bots and spiders are good at gathering data and making assumptions on what your content is about. But they’re not perfect. They can’t comprehend what your intent is. Schema Markup is a way to directly tell the crawlers exactly what your intent and purpose is to your page or website. In turn, this creates rich snippets for your website to display the most meaningful information right up front on the search engine results pages. Some examples of ways to use schema markup include event dates, recipe information, and review ratings but you aren’t limited to those options. This article provides great insight into the how and why to use schema markup on your website.

Examples of schema markup
Ontarget Interactive Schema Markup to drive traffic

Good Content

You can SEO the crap out of your website but what is the value of any of it, if you have poorly written content? It may bring in a ton of traffic but that doesn’t mean its meeting the end goal of creating more business for your company.

A good piece of advice but often hard to follow is to write for the customer, not for your company. You might think that your widget’s material composition is the coolest thing about this product, but if your visitors only really care about its warranty and you don’t mention it, then you’ve missed your mark. Your content has to answer the question that your target audience is looking to solve. Find what words your audience is using when searching for products like yours with free Google tools like Google Trends, Analytics or Webmaster Tools. These can tell you the keywords that people are searching for, and then you can mold your content around that.

Web sites aren’t set it and forget it. Fresh content also plays a factor in your search engine rankings. Update your pages over time and make sure they are still targeting the right keywords as trends change. Consider adding a blog to your website to ensure that you always have keyword-highlighting, fresh content for Google to index. Pay attention to marketing trends. Currently, there has been more focus on videos as marketing tools. Think about adding videos to your website, as it may draw in a different sect of new customers that you may not have been able to reach before.

Shooting in the Dark with SEO

Google and other search engines are always trying to adapt to their own audience by striving to present people with the best and most relevant content first. With this being the case, search engines are always changing up their algorithm on what ranking factors they find to matter most.

The magic combination of SEO rankings is a mystery and highly guarded by Google, which often makes digital markers and SEO professionals feel like they are shooting in the dark. What once was ranked as important by Google regarding SEO, a few years later may no longer bring in the traffic. This is why whenever I do a search on Google for SEO related information, I always make sure that I filter the search results to only show information within the past year. SEO is ever evolving and it’s important to stay aware if you want your site to maintain good rankings.

If you create a website that has genuinely good content that is relevant to what your audience is searching for, then you shouldn’t need to stress too much about SEO. As mentioned earlier, Google wants to provide their audience with the most helpful information first. Strive to make your page accessible, easy to navigate, fast to load, clear and concise, and you should be on your way to winning at SEO.