What I Do: Search Engine Optimization

SEO magnetAfter having conducted thorough data analysis, I was able to ascertain that search engine optimization is a crucial traffic driver, even more important than social traffic. SEO has also become a full-time job on a project at work, so I’ll forewarn you that this isn’t the type of skill anyone can just pick up, even by reading this incredible post laid out before you 😉 For the purposes of this post, I’ll be referring to Google since it is the current dominant search engine, but most of what I cover can be applied to other search engines.

What is Search Engine Optimization?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process by which a webmaster, site manager or content creator goes about improving search engine result page (SERP) ranking for a website. There are two primary methods for improving search engine optimization: on page optimization and off page optimization.

Why SEO Isn’t Fun

Google makes money by selling advertising. Advertisers will only continue to pay if they see value in the ads they run. Value is determined by clicks. Users will only click if the ads are relevant. So Google’s primary motivation as a business is to return the most relevant results possible.

Unfortunately, there are people out there who really abuse Google. They find loopholes and tricks that can quickly and relatively easily boost a terrible quality site to the top of the SERPs.

As a result, Google frequently updates their algorithm. This past year, many of us who work in SEO have been a bit bewildered at some of the changes Google has made. They sometimes smack sites down for no apparent reason and there’s not a very good feedback look for troubleshooting the issue.

I manage a site that in the SEO world would be called an authority site. It’s not designed to game search engines and trick people into clicking on AdSense ads, it’s an informational site with outbound links to one ecommerce site and the occasional Flickr attribution link. There’s 500+ words with pictures and videos added every single day, every day of the week. My writer understands on page SEO, but also knows how to write for readers. We have associated Twitter, Facebook and Google+ accounts.

Doing some keyword analysis (a topic for another What I Do post), I saw there were a few great, relevant keywords with pretty pathetic competition. So I told my writer to target those terms. She’s done an amazing job at creating content around those keywords. We started to turn up in the top 100 results. We were climbing into the 80s. Then Google did an update that penalized people who used private link networks (not me) and we were out of the top 100.

Understand my frustration?

What Google Wants

Obviously Google won’t share their search algorithm otherwise competitors would simply clone it. The only word webmasters get from inside the Googleplex is from their web spam team letting us know what not to do.

Sifting through everything Google has said about how to rank, I’ll oversimplify it down to two key goals:

  1. Create great content
  2. Optimize your content, but not too much

Based on experimentation and countless case studies from experts in the field, these two points translate into the following two tasks:

  1. Get links from other sites
  2. Optimize your content, but not too much

In Google’s eyes, if you create content, you’ll naturally get links from other sites. When I worked in the real estate industry and every realtor, mortgage broker, title rep and realtors Glamour Shot had a blog, getting links to your content was pretty easy.

In the diving industry and the other industry I’m spending a considerable amount of time in at the moment, it’s not so easy. Blogs are run by competitors and competitors aren’t too likely to link to each other. So “create great content” will only go so far, we need to figure out ways to get additional links to show that we’re the authority on they keywords we’re targeting.

On Page Optimization

One of the recent Google updates penalized sites for being too optimized. So for years we were told how to optimize our pages, then suddenly some got smacked down for doing it too well. Again, see how this is tons of fun?

When creating content, you want to use your keywords. But don’t stuff your keywords to the point where a reader can tell you your keywords when they’re done reading. Make it natural. Use permutations of your keyword. Get out a thesaurus and use some synonyms.

Beyond just using our keywords, we also need to structure our page in a way that makes sense to the search engines and tells them what’s important. Use your H1, H2 and H3 tags appropriately. Used bold and italics. Use your keywords in the file names for your images as well in image ALT text. Link to other related content on your site. Link out to other authorities on the subject you’re discussing.

The tricky part here based on the recent Google penalty is doing this enough, but not too much. For people like myself and my writer who really understand on page SEO, we optimize while we write, then editing is purely for content, not SEO. If we miss a use of bold, not a big deal. If we don’t add an H3 tag with the keywords, not the end of the world. Unfortunately, this method won’t work for people who don’t fully understand on page SEO and it may be a good idea to get some help if you’re unclear.

Off Page Optimization

The best way for a search engine to determine if your content is worthy of a high ranking is based on links to your content. Links are like votes. If someone links to your content, it’s like they’re saying “This is really good/relevant/interesting and I’m suggesting that others take a look at it”.

Unfortunately, if you think on page SEO is confusing or difficult, off page is even more so.

You either have to create something so unique and interesting that people naturally link to you or you have to proactively find ways to get links to your site. But even this isn’t always enough.

For the massive SCUBA site I manage, we have roughly 2,000 links to the site (also referred to as “backlinks”). For the other niche hobby site I manage, we have almost 3,000 backlinks. Yet the SCUBA site gets about 25 times the traffic the other niche hobby site gets. I’m helping a friend with a site that was launched about two months ago that has 350 backlinks, yet is already ranking in the top 10 for several moderately difficult keywords.

Fun times, huh?

This is an indicator that some backlinks are better than others. If your backlink comes from another authority site compared to a new site that doesn’t rank, the link from the authority site is worth more. If your backlink comes from an authority site that’s completely unrelated to your keywords, that link is worth less.

Add in another layer of complexity by understanding the anchor text of a link. In the next paragraph is a link to my guest post submission form. The words that form the link are “Guest posting”. That’s anchor text. If 100% of your anchor text from backlinks are your keywords, you’ll probably be seen as spam.

Finding backlink sources is one of my competitive advantages, so I won’t be giving away all of techniques on this one, you’ll need to do some brainstorming of your own on how to come up with these. Guest posting here would be one example of how to get an extra backlink to your site 😉

What’s the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

You may have seen (or been solicited) for SEM services. Search Engine Marketing is different, yet closely related to SEO. SEM is typically associated with paid methods of gaining traffic. SEM has huge benefits, but it can also be costly and if done incorrectly, will provide no long term value to your site unless you continue to pay.

Using tools like Google’s AdSense, Facebook Ads and StumbleUpon ads can be seen as SEM. If those tools get people to talk about you (and therefore generate backlinks), at some point you could conceivably stop opening your checkbook and instead rank organically in the SERPs. Be careful though before going out and buying traffic: traffic from StumbleUpon and Facebook may be cheap and easy, but it has far lower conversion rates than Google’s AdSense. StumbleUpon and Facebook are better for getting people to talk about you though, so it’s a fine balance.

My Strategy on New SCUBA Marketing

I just write 🙂 I keep SEO in mind while I’m writing, but it’s not a focus. I have no intention on ranking for “Search Engine Optimization” with this article. I’m just trying to provide information to my readers. I don’t even expect backlinks from a post like this. I already rank for the keywords I’m targeting, I have a steadily increasing readership/Twitter following/Facebook fans/email subscribers.

However, on my work site, I’m at a point where I’m doing this all day every day. Luckily summer hasn’t started in Oregon, so I find myself holed up trying to get the work site to rank. As with any scientific experiment though, it’s a lengthy process of examining the current status, coming up with a hypothesis of what may work, testing the hypothesis, waiting for the search engines to do their thing, re-examining and repeating the process.

But when a site with 100% unique, engaging, daily content and no over-optimization or shady link building practices gets penalized by Google, life gets a little stressful. Supposedly this eye twitch I’ve developed is due to stress and this is the only thing I can think of that’s really stressing me out lately 🙂

What You Should Do for Your SCUBA Site

Generate content. It can be short, long, a picture and a few words, a video and an introduction or really anything. Post it on your Facebook, Twitter and Google+ accounts. Experiment with Facebook and StumbleUpon ads (they’re easy and cheap). Network with other businesses in your community. Sponsor some events. Buy an ad on a relevant site. Target keywords that relate to your specific geographic area (local search is MUCH easier to rank for than broad search). If you need help with your content, get it until you get what on page SEO should look like. If you need help in a competitive niche, there are ways to get help with that too.

Coming next week: I’m making a screencast showing how to get started with a Pro SCUBA Site. I was helping a friend set one up for a charity event and realized I could make life easier by just recording the process. If you don’t have a Pro SCUBA Site, you should get one, it could be a good backlink to your main site 🙂

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