3 SEO Tactics Search Engines Are Begging You To Use

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I had the privilege of speaking recently at the Marketing United conference organized by our Nashville neighbors, Emma. It’s no small feat putting on an event of any kind, but the first one is always the hardest—and the scariest.

The Emma Army was in full force, and it showed. The event was one of the most tightly organized I’d ever attended, attracting an outstanding roster of speakers, and more than 550 marketers of all kinds.

For those of you who were not in attendance, or for those of you who attended a different session, here’s what you missed. At almost 3,000 words, it’s not exactly a recap. And, if you’ve every given a public talk, you’ll appreciate how much was left on the podium!

If you’re not in the mood for a long read, here’s my slide deck from the event.

Walking In Your Shoes

Attendees were about a 50-50 split between people working on the agency side and those on the client side, either as part of an in-house marketing team, or business owners themselves. Most attendees, while not new to SEO, had not optimized more than 10 websites.

I’ve worked on both the agency side and now, with Raven, I’m on the client side. Ten years ago, I was new to SEO, and now I’ve made a career out of it. So, I’ve walked in your shoes, and I empathize with how hard it can be to keep pace with constant change.

A Brief History of Search

I started my career in traditional marketing, primarily print, pitching to big brands, like General Motors, Stouffer’s, and LL Bean.

When I saw that the Internet was becoming an important communication channel, I knew that a transition to online marketing was part of my future. I just didn’t know how or when.

So how did you and I get here?

Let’s start at the beginning, because it gives context to our marketing activities today, and can help us look forward to the future of search.

I remember when the Internet first entered our home. It was the mid-90s, and every week we’d get an AOL CD-ROM in the mail. Rosie O’Donnell, whose talk show debuted in 1996, was obsessed with AOL and online chat rooms.

History of the Internet

Image source: Malone Media Group

It took forever to dial up on your modem, which shared your home phone line. Good luck if you were expecting an important phone call. The phone line could be busy for hours. Netscape was the primary browser and Google was barely on the horizon.

In those early years, I was frustrated with the Internet. I couldn’t find anything. I’m also a very visual person. It was like playing a game of Chutes & Ladders. I followed every link! I didn’t even know that the back button would take me, well, back to where I started in my search.

At one point, I was interested in mentoring teen girls. I had heard a radio interview with the founder of a new non-profit, but I couldn’t recall the name. When I typed “teen girls” into the search box, imagine my shock when the results came back! Search engines didn’t have adult filters back then.

My husband swears I told him that I didn’t see how the Internet could compete with traditional advertising. It was just such a mess.

Before Google Became a Verb

Google launched in 1998.

Our online lives didn’t change immediately, but over the next 15 years, Google would steamroll its way to search dominance.

search market share pie chart

Google virtually owns the search engine space; today AOL earns a minuscule 1.2% of online search. Quite a fall from grace. Source: comScore

Google introduced the concept of ‘links as votes.’ For a long time, they were the currency of the web. Some might argue that links were the sole currency of the web. Consequently, in the early days, it was easy to game the system and relatively easy to rank.

Tweaking page titles, keywords and meta tags and getting a few dozen links WAS the key to top search engine placement.

Remember, in 1998, there were less than 2.5 million websites online.

Today, that number stands at just under 1 Billion, and growing by the second.

Who’s Controlling Search and Why?

Search engines have evolved beyond simple formulas. They’ve developed complex ways for ranking pages. (And when I say “search engines,” I mean Google) They have a type of control panel with various dials allowing them to increase or decrease various ranking factors.

Let’s forget about ranking factors for a moment.

Why does Google care about how and why you search?

It’s simple really.

young business men holding cashGoogle wants your money.

They need you to keep coming back so they can serve up ads to pay for things like Google Glass, Siri, self-driving cars and to fend off antitrust investigations. You may not be aware of this, but Google files hundreds of patents that go beyond information retrieval and search technology. All of that costs money.

Stop Chasing the Algorithm

So when Google begs you to stop chasing the algorithm, they’re doing it to serve the user. They may make 500+ changes in a year for the sole purpose of improving relevancy in their search engine results pages (SERPs).

Which is why chasing their algorithm is like a cat chasing its tail.

Plus, search engines are all different depending on:

  • What keyword topic you’re searching for
  • Which data center you’re getting
  • What location you’re searching from
  • Whether you’re signed into your Google, Bing or Yahoo! accounts
  • What type of device you’re searching from
  • If the term represents a hot topic, triggering freshness algorithms

So, if someone tells you he can “reverse engineer” Google — run.

3 SEO Tactics for the Long Haul

When Google begs you to follow their SEO guidelines, they want us to keep using them.

With that it mind, here are three SEO tactics that will stand the test of time, because we are in this digital game for the long haul.

No. 1 – Build a machine-friendly website

What does that mean?

You want a website that’s easy for a search engine robot to crawl, is free from technical errors, loads fast, easily viewable on popular mobile devices.

Let’s take each of these separately.

Easy to crawl

Spider Crawling Over Laptop

This creepy picture draws your attention to the importance of letting search engine “spiders” read the content of your website.

Google doesn’t want any blockers that will prevent customers from reaching any site.

Why?

Because Google wants your money.

They make money from every click, not just pay-per-click (PPC) but also from their display network. With over two million Display Network sites, reaching over 90% of Internet users, Google wants to make the search experience a good one.

They are going to earn money, either by increasing search market share, or selling more advertising.

Google highly recommends that you allow Googlebot to crawl all of the code and digital resources needed to render a web page in a browser. Those resources include CSS, Javascript, images, and video delivered in a way a visitor would see it in a browser.

You can test your page using Google’s Fetch and Render Tool found in Google Webmaster Tools.

Easy to understand

Building a machine-friendly website means that you have to make it easy to understand.

In the rush to create content, businesses sometimes forget that they still need to optimize that content for both search engines and human visitors.

That means the code should be clean and free from technical errors. It also means free from spelling and grammatical errors. Remember, the quality of your content is being evaluated too.

You want to follow semantic rules with your headlines and subheads, take advantage of lists and word emphasis, like bold facing text where appropriate. You want to have enough text on the page and make sure that it matches what the user was looking for, and so on.

Content that’s just right

Sleeping Goldilocks BabyI call this the “Goldilocks Rule.” The content on your page should concise but not too short; long, but not too long. Consider writing copy just long enough for search engines to index it, and for visitors to get the answer or information they were looking for when they did their search.

250 to 1,000 words is enough copy to entice readers to take some action, whether it’s navigating deeper into your site, buying a product, or subscribing to an email list.

Mobile ready & fast

And as many news outlets and industry watchers predicted, Google started ranking non-mobile compatible pages slightly lower in mobile searches. If you haven’t done so already, you’ll want to make sure that your entire site is mobile friendly.

The most common SEO mistakes for mobile are also those made on desktop versions, e.g. blocking content, like CSS and Javascript, unplayable content, faulty redirects, and slow load times.

In addition, Google wants fast loading web pages — they’ve invested a lot in resources to move webmasters in this direction. They announced way back in 2010 that page speed was a ranking factor (less than 1 sec). The same holds true for mobile, although thresholds aren’t as high for mobile.

Raven recently added Google page speed scores for both desktop and mobile versions of your website when you run Site Auditor.

A bonus to fast loading sites is that they typically enjoy higher page conversions, resulting in more sales. It’s also likely your site will see decreased bounce rates, which can factor into improved Google rankings.

Can you guess why Google wants your site mobile ready?

Because Google wants your money.

Google needs eyeballs. And where are eyeballs increasingly looking?

Mobile-stats-vs-desktop-users-globalWe’re now past the mobile tipping point. Mobile search has passed searches made from desktops.

It’s no longer a case of asking whether mobile marketing is important; we know it is! It’s now a question of using the data to understand how consumers behave when using different types of mobile devices, and what their preferences are.

No. 2. – Get relevant links pointing at good content

Google wants to serve up trusted sites so that we, in turn, trust them. They are more likely to return an authoritative website in the search engine results page. The more relevant the page is to a user’s search, the more we believe Google will give us what we want. This circular thinking makes a certain kind of sense.

Effective link building is all about balance. There are links that create visibility and send traffic and links that help with SEO. These are not mutually exclusive. SEO is a combination of on- and off-page factors that influence how a web page ranks in the search results. The component within SEO that affects how a page will rank is link popularity.

Link popularity is still the dominant ranking factor. Links on a page are only seen as trust signals if the page itself has trust and authority.

Effective link building is also about making smart choices, based on finding good sources.

Knowing what your audience wants, and developing smart partnerships with sites that can drive traffic and build your brand, is what will set your website up for the long haul.

No. 3 – Target keywords based on what people actually search

The third thing Google is begging us to do is to target keywords based on what people search. When you target keywords based on user intent, you’ll likely attract more people who take some action.

Understanding the types of searches people conduct is important. Your choice of keywords should match different types of search. For example:

  • Navigational: direct searches for a particular thing, like a brand, a person or a location
  • Informational: question-based, looking for information
  • Commercial: may lead to a future purchase
  • Transactional: intend to buy something or subscribe or convert in some way

These correspond to different stages of the conversion funnel, and different buying intent.

Don’t leave people confused

When users click on a result and can’t find the actual content, you leave them confused, resulting in an unsatisfactory user experience.

“It’s not about creating content with the ‘right’ keywords. It’s about creating content that answers the questions implied by those keywords.” Source

When visitors find what they’re looking for, they’re less likely to hit the back button. Decreased bounce rates can factor into Google’s ranking, depending on where that visitor goes next.

Remember, Google is asking us to help them by helping the user. When we do, our website is rewarded with better search visibility and higher rankings.

Use visual cues in your content

 

eyeballs representing keywords as visual cue

If your target audience can’t find your content, there’s no way they can be interested in becoming a customer. Use keywords in natural ways to reinforce that your website is the right destination.

1. Title tag

Your title tag is the most important on-page factor. It’s the first thing users see when performing a search. A well-worded title tag can often entice a user to click on a higher ranking page. So, make sure your title is appealing to visitors, so they click through your listing in search results.

There is increasing evidence that click through rates in search results and bounce back rates do affect ranking. So it’s important that, if your web page ranks highly, people do click through and don’t hit the back button immediately. Bounce back and time on page stats also come into play when keeping a site ranked long term. If Google believes your bounce back ratios and time on page are getting worse, it’s a sign that the content on the site is getting stale, and they may drop the ranking for that page.

Prominence – place your most important keyword(s) first.

Proximity – Group keywords in a way that a person would search naturally and display the exact keyword you want the page to rank for.

Density – One or two variations of your target keyword helps. Don’t make it read like spam.

Appeal – Give visitors a reason to click.

2. Meta descriptions

Unique. Similar to having an appealing page title for visitors to click, consider your meta description to be your prime real estate. A well-written description can make the difference between someone clicking on your listing or not.

Compelling. Every major page on your website should have a unique meta description tag. It’s better to have no meta description that duplicate descriptions.

You have only a few seconds to capture someone’s attention, and only about 155 characters to do it, so make it count. Start with an action verb, focus on a benefit that includes a keyword/phrase and end with a call to action.

3. File names

Influence. While not a ranking factor, keywords placed here can influence click throughs.

Exponential influence. Also, by placing your keywords in your file or directory names, you increase the chances that other sites will use those names in their link(s) to you. This gets the keyword(s) into your incoming link’s anchor text, which can help influence ranking as well.

4. Header tags
  • Be sure they make sense to both the search engines and your human site visitors.
  • Don’t repeat keywords in abnormal ways just to increase keyword density.
  • Use a Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to modify the size of text found within the header tags to personalize them for your site.

Google changes only because people change

I’ve been told by developers many times over the years that they don’t keep up with SEO because it changes all the time. That isn’t totally the case. Google changes because human behavior changes.

We’ve all become a lot more sophisticated about search over the last 20 years.

So my advice is to optimize for user intent. Experiment and adapt. There are no tricks to high rankings. Your success depends on knowing your customer and creating the best user experience possible.

In many ways, we’ve come full circle as marketers. Substitute “brand” for “user” in the previous sentence. Getting a customer in the door is all about inviting people in, making them feel welcome, and giving them exactly what they want at the precise moment they want it.

Whether it’s a brick and mortar retail store, or its e-commerce counterpart, success belongs to businesses who understand the customer journey.

In the online world, this translates to turning a visitor into a customer and a customer into a brand evangelist. Just look at Nordstrom. This 114-year old brick and mortar retailer transferred its unstoppable customer service to e-commerce, making them the envy of the online world.

What can we expect for the long haul?

Unlike the 90s, today there are numerous online marketing tools to help marketers identify technical issues, link opportunities, and untapped keyword possibilities.

By 2020, just five years from now, we’ll be talking about optimizing for real-time search and wearable technology.

Google, no doubt, will be at the forefront.

Wanting our money!

  • Ian

    Nice post Nicolette!

    Agree with all of your 3 points / SEO tactics – and great additional point on how ‘we’ change with Google.

    Yes – Google changes because of our behaviour, and we change how we search and interact because of their changes. And this cyclical change will only continue to escalate with the rise of mobile search, real-time search.

    Having also been in this SEO business since the end of last century (!) I strongly believe that the only certainty in the SEO / Google business ‘is’ change. Constant change.

    Perpetual ‘beta-testing’ is another way I like to think of it.

    Thanks for your viewpoint Nicolette – and the additional memory lane trip I took when thinking about dial up modems and AOL CD-ROMs back in the 1990’s.

    Best,

    Ian

    By the way Nicolette, you’ve placed a broken ‘bricks and mortar’ link at the end of Nordstrom paragraph.

  • Nicolette Beard

    Hi Ian,

    I appreciate your feedback. I’ve read four online marketing articles recently that talked about the historical web. It must be the 20-year thing. I’m glad some of my readers remember the 90s! And thanks for the head’s up on the broken link. So glad to know you read all the way to the end;-)

  • Hi Ian,

    Glad you liked the post. It’s funny lately I’ve read several ‘walks down memory lane’ type posts. Maybe because we’ve reached the 20-year watermark for the commercial web. I like your idea of perpetual beta testing. That’s how I’ve always felt about SEO — it’s a continuous experiment. Thanks for the head’s up on the link. It’s fixed now.

  • No argument there Eduard! My intention was to be provocative with the “Google wants your money” refrain. It looks like it worked;-)

    • Nice link-bait and comment-bait tactic 🙂 But is not only refrain, is true.