Did you know according to Google, searches for “support local businesses” grew by 20,000% in 2020? That’s an astronomical number of people who are looking to shop locally.
If they try to find you online, what will they see? Do you show up for your category + “near me” (ex: “pharmacy near me”)?
If not, you are missing out on traffic to your website. And that translates to a loss of dollars.
What is SEO?
SEO is one of the many tactics you can focus on to have your business found online. Put simply, search engine optimization is the process of optimizing your site to drive high-quality traffic to your storefront.
SEO is what drives organic traffic. This is free traffic from the search engines. If someone clicks on your organic result, you don’t pay for that traffic.
When you go to Google and search for “gift shop near me”, you will see a variety of results.
- The first set of results is paid ads. On Google, these listings are marked with an “ad” icon.
- Below that for local terms, you will generally see a map with several local businesses mapped. This can be a mix of paid and free (organic) results.
- Below the map pack (or below the paid ads if the map pack is missing), you will find the organic listings. These listings are entirely free as the business did not pay Google to have their listing show up in this section.
Organic traffic may also be referred to as free traffic, search engine traffic, or non-paid traffic. This is the traffic you must attempt to take advantage of as you don’t have to pay for each click from Google to your website as you would if you run a paid ad.
Why Do You Need SEO?
The obvious answer is the traffic is free. However, search engine optimization still requires an investment. As the business owner, you would need to:
- Learn SEO to optimize your website on your own
- Hire someone in-house who understands SEO
- Contract with a digital marketing agency, such as Cloverstone Digital, to optimize the site for you
Each scenario has its own pros and cons. Obviously, as the business owner, you likely do not have time to devote to learn yet another task. And your time is much better spent running the business.
While finding someone to work on SEO in-house can be a big advantage, it can also be a very expensive salary to add to your payroll if you find someone with experience. It can be difficult to find a highly qualified employee to bring on full-time.
You could also hire someone in-house without any in-depth understanding of SEO, but then that person must be trained. Who will do that? It’s yet another expense. And an ongoing one at that because SEO is changing all of the time. Google quite enjoys making hundreds of changes to its algorithm every year.
Then there is the agency route. Bringing in outside expertise can be great as they can bring experience from a variety of clients and industries. After all, what works in one niche may not work in another. It is also an investment and it can be difficult to find a trustworthy agency.
One thing I can promise you – if an agency guarantees you the #1 spot on search engines for any combination of keywords or phrases, run. Absolutely no one can guarantee that. An agency can do everything by the book and may never achieve the #1 results across the board.
It’s important to realize SEO is a long-term game and results do not happen overnight. However, unlike paid tactics that stop working as soon as you stop paying, SEO can continue to pay dividends long after the content or optimization was completed.
What is Google’s Goal for Search?
Google (and other search engines) are focused on creating the best user experience for its visitors. One way they are able to do that is by serving up useful, high-quality results that answer the questions or meet the needs of the consumers.
Over the years, search engines have excelled at determining the meaning behind the search. If you do a search for a medical issue, the information you are most likely looking for is:
- What is it?
- How is it diagnosed?
- What are the symptoms?
- What is the treatment?
And the search engine does a great job of putting that front and center.
One other thing that is worth noting. What do all of the things the consumer is really searching for above have in common? Every one is a question.
Search engines exist to answer questions.
And the more you can be there with the answers, the better your site will perform within search.
Let’s break it down.
On-Page SEO refers to the optimization you have complete control over because it is happening on your business website.
This includes, in no particular order:
- Meta description
- URL structure
- Page content
- Site speed
- User intent
- Open Graph/Schema
- Internal linking
Titles, Meta Descriptions, & URL Structure
Let’s look at a search result to understand these three elements of SEO.
“Cloverstone Digital Group | Digital Marketing Consultancy | Grow Y…” is the title tag for the homepage of this website. This is an important ranking signal as it is one of the top things giving the search engines information about what this page is about.
The paragraph that starts “Ready to grow your business online?” is the meta description. This is a description of what the content on this particular page of the site is about.
It can also be used as a sales pitch to entice the searcher to click through to your website versus the competition.
The URL structure refers to the actual URL of the page.
Let’s imagine we have a website that has the following two URLs present:
As the consumer, which result are you most likely to click? Do you know what to expect if you click on the first?
Search engines and consumers appreciate a clear URL structure that provides another indication as to the purpose of the page.
Your title tag, meta description, and URL should all contain your most important keyword one time.
Page Content, Keywords, & User Intent
Your content is of course one of the most important elements of your website. This is what provides the experience for your user and allows Google to know the topic of your site.
One big mistake we see is when inexperienced content writers are creating copy for a page, they will tend to stuff the same keyword over and over.
First, keyword stuffing is frowned upon. And there is no reason to do it.
Second, you should look for related keywords to work into your copy and not the same keyword over and over again.
I recently worked with a client who wanted to rank for “cyber risk”. When you look at that particular keyword phrase, there are many ways your user may search for it:
- cyber threat
- security risk
- security threat
- cyber security
- digital attacks
- cyber attacks
If you begin to look at longer phrases as well, then you expand to longer-tail phrases such as:
- cyber threat assessment
- managing cyber threats
- cyber threat consulting
- what are cyber threats?
- how do I prevent cyber threats?
- types of cyber threats
- cyber threat aversion
You can see that from that one keyword, you can easily come up with a variety of related terms. The above is off the top of my head. As you are doing keyword research, multiple tools will be used to determine the appropriate phrasing. You would also want to look at the types of questions people are asking about your topic.
Your goal in writing content is to first be useful for the user who comes to your site. Secondly, your focus should be on making it friendly for search engines. If you only focus on one or the other, you will find it more difficult to find success.
The other thing that different phrasing helps with is making your writing more interesting. Think if you were reading a long-form piece of content or a white paper, and every other sentence contained the word “cyber threat”. The reading would be much less interesting.
Changing the way words are used on the page also helps to ensure you have the potential to show up regardless of how people refer to the subject. Someone in IT may search for it in a completely different way than someone in the executive suite. Depending on your goals, you may want to ensure you can be found for both audiences.
Remember, you want your user to walk away from your website with a better understanding of the topic. Did you share important knowledge in a relatable way? Does the user now have additional details that may not have been as clear in the past? Did you answer the question that made them initially search for the topic?
When you satisfy the user’s intent, you are also satisfying Google’s intent – to answer the searcher’s query.
One final aspect to keep in mind with user intent is if you need to focus on local SEO or local intent.
If you are a plumber in Austin, Texas, you may feel you have bragging rights if you also rank well in Los Angeles, but you won’t be getting much business from California.
For businesses that have certain service areas or have physical locations, it’s important to also optimize for local user intent. This could include users looking for things such as “plumber near me” or “best plumber Austin”.
Open Graph Tags & Schema Markup
This particular tactic is much more in-depth than we can attack in this one article.
The simplest way to explain it is it is a way to add tags to your content so search engines, social media, and other sites that take advantage of these tags can have a better understanding of what is on the page.
Open Graph is specific to Facebook, though the tags are picked up by other social media sites as well. You can use Open Graph and Schema together within your website.
But Schema is for search engines specifically and will be more useful. While there is much debate over the impact on rankings, listings with rich snippets derived from Schema do tend to have a higher CTR (click-through rate).
For instance, you can add markup to your products to show whether it is new or used, the price, a description, product attributes, review rating, the location of your main image, currency, etc.
By explicitly telling Google what it is, it allows the search engine to understand the exact attributes and for example, tell the difference between a description you provided and a review written by a customer.
Within social media, it allows the social site to pull the preview it shows in the news feed. Have you ever noticed when you share a link on social media, your results may vary for what shows up for that site? Your tags and markup can solve that so no matter who is sharing the link, the result everyone sees is consistent.
This is a more technical topic that deserves a guide of its own. We will go into more depth in a later article.
One of the practices we often see missing from client sites is any type of internal linking. This can impact your user experience on your site and make ranking more difficult, especially for new content.
Internal linking is the process of adding a link to other content on your site. For instance, if within this article, it made sense to refer to our SEO services, we could link to that service offering.
You should not link to other parts of your website only for the sake of doing so. By linking, the content on the linked page should provide the user with additional value or information.
One common way to add internal links, especially on blogs, is by adding a section at the bottom of your posts entitled “You may also be interested in:” and linking to other articles that may be related in some way to the topic.
The same idea can be applied to eCommerce websites by linking to other products the user may be interested in based on the product they are currently viewing.
This type of practice creates a web of content within your site where the user can always have somewhere else to go within your site, versus having to go back to the navigation to start over, or worse yet, head back to the search engine.
Expertise, Authoritativeness, & Trustworthiness (E-A-T)
This is a standard for content officially announced in 2018. Some websites that had been enjoying high traffic suddenly fell out of rankings altogether. With multiple updates since that time, sites have certainly seen some ups and downs.
The idea is to again ensure Google is delivering the best content to consumers. In order to do that, it needs to meet the quality standards of E-A-T.
Let’s think about a medical article. If you are investigating a medical condition, would you rather get information from an article written by a medical doctor or by a non-medical person who is trying to rank for a particular keyword with no actual expertise?
Would you rather visit a well-known website to find information or a site that seems sketchy and unknown? Do you want to get medical information from a site that lots of other sites also link to as a trusted source or a site that no one links to?
When you go to a website, do you want to see warnings for security issues? Do you want to question what would happen if you provided your personal information to the site?
Those websites that have put a consistent focus on quality with trustworthy content written by those who have authority and expertise in the space have continued to do well. If there was a question about any of those, the site may have suffered as a result.
Because of the nature of this particular pillar, it falls under on-page and off-page SEO.
This particular topic should be of no surprise to anyone. Your website must provide a great mobile user experience.
In fact, many sites are seeing more traffic from mobile devices than from desktops. When you are evaluating how your newest product appears in your catalog or the format of your latest article, check mobile-first.
In addition to the layout, there are other more technical aspects to mobile-friendliness, including speed.
Off-Page SEO really comes down to links.
Many years ago, it was dependent on the number of external links you had linking into your content. As you can imagine, this created many bad practices as sites tried to rack up links without other considerations.
Today, the process is a bit more sophisticated. When evaluating the impact of a link, these factors will be considered:
- Authority of the site linking to your site
- Is it a trusted site? How old is the domain?
- How the site links to you with the content of the linking pieces as well as the anchor text
- Does every link use the same anchor text making it look unnatural? Does it make sense for this article/content to link to your site?
- The diversity of the backlink profile
- Do you have 100 links all from one site or links from 100 sites?
It’s important not to buy links for the sake of increasing your numbers or otherwise create any type of scheme to increase your backlinks. While it may work in the short term, it will eventually catch up with you.
Most sites are much more interesting to browse with well-placed and relevant graphics or images. But many site owners skip the optimization techniques that should be performed around all site images.
Image size is an important factor for optimization as it greatly impacts page load times and speed.
Think about the last time you went to a site and you watched the images load what seemed like pixel by pixel. Most people don’t have the attention span for that and will simply click the back button.
While you want to have high-quality and resolution images on your site, do not have images that are larger than they need to be. If the majority of the traffic to your site is from mobile devices, keep that in mind when determining the size of your pictures.
Alt text is an element that serves several purposes.
The first is for accessibility. If one of your website visitors needs to use a screen reader to access your site, the screen reader cannot “read” the image. Therefore, this user will miss out on potentially important aspects of your site.
By adding alt text (alternative text), the screen reader can provide a description to the user of what the image is showing.
The second benefit is the impact on SEO, particularly with image search. While Google is getting better at recognizing what is in a picture, it isn’t perfect. The best thing you can do is to add a keyword-rich description of your image to describe what it is.
Through this one bit of alt text, you have provided an accessibility feature and potentially improved your rankings as it provides one more signal to Google about the content of your page.
Finally, it’s important to name your images by what is in the picture. If you use the random string of numbers and letters provided by the camera or your editing program, you are missing out on an optimization opportunity. Name your file by what it is.
Not only does it help from a search perspective, but it also makes image management much easier as well.
Will SEO Work For Me?
SEO should be part of your online marketing strategy. After all, it drives free traffic to your website and can pay off for quite some time into the future.
As long as you are following best practices, SEO should work for you. There are no guarantees though and you should run from anyone who is “guaranteeing” a particular ranking in search.
Depending on the competitive nature of your niche, it may take longer to rank or it may be very difficult to get to the #1 spot. But even then, you may be able to make it to the first page.
How Do I Start SEO?
You can certainly manage the SEO for your website on your own. But if you want to continue to put your focus on the parts of your business where you are the expert, you can work with an SEO partner to implement best practices for it.
One thing to realize is SEO is a long-term game. You won’t get overnight wins, but it should pay off for you in the future. I’ve seen results in as little as 30 days, but I’ve also seen it take six months or more to see progress.
It is important to continually invest in SEO, which is why many providers will create an arrangement of a monthly retainer for SEO services.
In addition to optimizing your site, we will also provide fresh content and learn what works best for your niche through continual testing.
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