In the past month, I’ve gone from not having any idea what keyword research is to being able to name four different keyword research tools off the top of my head and have a coherent discussion comparing their benefits and drawbacks. Because trying to keep it all in my head is really not the sort of thing I do, I wrote up a little guide detailing the organic SEO process as I currently understand it, after a full month of Intense Marketing Startup.
There are two types of SEO: on-page and off-page. On-page SEO happens on the website and thus in your direct control as the webmaster; off-page SEO must involve other people. They must always be done in that order, since you can’t get others to interact with content that doesn’t exist.
Fundamentally, on-page optimization involves creating popular content. To do that, you need to know what your audience wants to see. This is both an exercise in knowing what topics your audience is interested in and knowing what format they’d like to consume that content in. Since you’ve presumably niched down enough to know the former, and since the latter is more up to each person’s personal preference, you begin with the former and experiment with different types of the latter until you have something that works.
In order to start creating content that your audience will enjoy, start by figuring out in significant detail what they want. Your best way of finding out what they want is finding what they search for: the process of doing this is commonly called “keyword research”, since the phrases input to search engines like Google are called keywords.
To do keyword research, start with some stuff that you presently think your audience would search for, and search in a tool such as KW Finder. Scroll down their list of results, checking any boxes for results with high “search volume”: average number of monthly searches for that particular keyword. Then export those results, pick a few that seem particularly good, and search for those terms. Keep at this until your fingers bleed. You’ll thank me later.
After this, organize your newly-made master keyword list by topics. I find it easiest to do this by cutting and pasting Excel, visually formatting things into lists until I have a set of topics. Each topic becomes a page or, if there are a decent number of high-volume keywords in that set, a cluster of pages. The largest cluster of highest volume keywords that you most care about ranking for, you reserve for your homepage. These are the keywords that are central to your product: not only the ones your audience would search for any reason, but the ones your audience would search for with the express intent to buy your product. (Or watch your video or read your article or download your whitepaper or whatever it is you want them to do. In the industry we call this action a “conversion”.)
Once the keyword list is organized by topics, use that to create your website organization. More central pages, containing content whose keywords are more relevant to rank for, should go closer to the root directory than more tangential pages. This is because Google gives more search weight to pages closer to the root. While you’re at this, make sure all your URLs are intelligible, not long strings of letters and numbers. Rule of thumb: a human should be able to look at the URL and know what the page is about.
This brings us nicely into the other miscellaneous bits of head-tag trivia which matter significantly for SEO. Search engine “spiders” (probably called that because they “crawl” the “web”, ha ha ha) are still robots, so there is a decent amount of techie trivia you’ll need to understand and fix in order to make your site perform well for SEO.
Head over to ahrefs.com and do a quick site audit, noting down the 3XX pages (page redirects), 4XX pages (missing pages), meta description tag problems (too short or nonexistent; too long is not a problem since their definition of “too long” is incorrect), title tag problems (too long, too short, nonexistent), and h1 tag problems (too many, nonexistent). Some of these things will be seen by end-users (they’ll notice missing pages, or a title tag that’s too long, since the title tag is the actual clickable text of the search result when it comes up), some of them won’t (depending on the page style, end users can’t tell the difference between an h1 and an h2), but they all matter for SEO. Fix as many of them as possible.
A momentary note on creating content: Make sure your content includes words. This may seem obvious, and yet it’s fashionable at the moment to create text-minimalistic pages with tons of images and fancy graphics. This is an SEO nightmare. Google isn’t great at interpreting images yet, so without alt attributes, all those fancy graphics are useless for a search spider, and while they might wow a human audience, good luck finding one when you’re stuck in the deserted wasteland that is page 2 of Google.
Once you have good pages with relevant verbal content arranged in a sensible organization that’s easy for search spiders to crawl, you can move on to off-page SEO. This takes many forms, the most prevalent of which is standard link building.
Because an outbound link can take a user off a page, Google counts outbound links on pages as sort of “votes” for the pages they link to. Having a significant number of inbound links to your site from reputable, relevant sources is akin to having a significant number of votes from influential people in your field. And likewise, bribing for either votes or links is bad, but asking for them nicely can prove useful.
The art of asking nicely for links from reputable, relevant sources is called “link building”, and the standard method is to get on Ahrefs, search for a domain that’s related to yours – it could be a competitor, or an expert in your field – and click on “backlinks”. Make sure links are “dofollow”, as a “nofollow” link gives no “vote”; in English, unless your site exists in multiple languages; and one link per domain, to prevent duplicates. If there are still several thousand results and you need to narrow further, use criteria like filtering for a certain type of website (blogs, ecommerce sites, forums, etc), or filtering the results to include the first word of your most important keyword.
When you’ve exported these lists for a number of comptitors or domain experts, stick them all in a spreadsheet and start systematically going through them. To do that, click on the link, but before you read the content, try to find the author’s contact info. Since the end goal is to send them an email, if you don’t have their email (or contact form or whatever kind of personal contact), the whole exercise is moot. Once you have their email address, then you can read the article to see if you’re likely to get a link from them for your client. If so, draft up a nice email that gets straight to the point, containing these four things and nothing else save some nice-sounding phrasing:
- Exactly what you want them to add. I’m talking act as if you could directly push your changes live to their site right now, what would you change? Leave nothing at all up to them; spoonfeed it all right to them. Rule 1 of getting people to do what you want is making it as easy as possible.
- How adding this link will help them. If you’re also proposing copy additions, make sure you note that too. Don’t be long-winded about it, just imply that their readers will appreciate the additional info.
- The exact links, to both their page which you are referencing and the page you want them to link to. When you do this, don’t do links with anchor text: when receiving emails from people they don’t know, nobody wants to click a link they can’t see, since it could be malware or something. Instead, put the entire link, even if it’s long, in parentheses. Being able to see the link content will put people more at ease.
- A signature with your full name, job title, company, and email address. This is another way to put people at ease. By knowing who you are and who you work for, and having your contact information, they trust you more.
A common pitfall that you’ll need to avoid with SEO is running down rabbit holes. You will always have more data than you need, and if you try to incorporate all of it, or be anything less than optimally efficient with it, you will spend your entire damn life on one project. This is the reason that you should find the contact info before you read the article: if you spend all that time reading thousands of articles that may or may not actually get you links, you waste a ton of time. Thus is the peril working with the internet.
And as a final note: there are many, many things you can do with a website where it is crucial that you implement SEO processes as you do them. One of these is a site migration: one of my clients (Seal Software) is working on one now. Here, you must be even more discriminating with which data you use – since some pages are not going to exist on the new site so optimizing them will be useless – and even more careful to implement the precise processes you need, to transfer as much traffic from the old site to the new one as possible.