In the previous post What is Digital Marketing, we described how digital marketing differs from traditional marketing and listed all the digital channels. We also discussed the importance of a unique selling proposition (USP) and of defining target personas (DTP). In this post, we are going to dive into what search engine optimization (SEO) is and how business owners and entrepreneurs can leverage it to gain business advantage.
What is SEO, or Search Engine Optimization?
Search engine optimization or SEO raises the perceived value of online content relative to a keyword or key-phrase in the eyes of search engines. Every search starts with a user entering a set of words or a voice prompt with a smart phone. Search engines must decide on the most relevant content available online relative to this search. Their algorithms are constantly adapting to achieve optimal user experience.
Traffic that is referred to your site via search engines is called organic traffic. Everyone loves organic traffic because it does not cost any advertising dollars. But organic traffic is not free. As a matter of fact, organic traffic takes a lot of effort, time and resources. You receive organic traffic by creating unique, relevant and high-quality content on and off your website and then optimizing this content for search engines.
You can think of search engine optimization as modifying content to affect a desirable search engine result. Hence, you must have content first. The more content you have, the more likely you are to receive organic traffic. It should not be just any content. The content must be relevant to what your target audience wants to learn or consume. A keyword driven content strategy therefore becomes of paramount importance if you are seeking organic search. And who isn’t?
Creating a Keyword Driven Content Strategy
I tell my SCORE clients that keywords are the DNA of their content if they want their content to be found online by their target audience using search engines. First you need to identify what keywords or key phrases your target audience uses to be able to come up with a valid strategy; therefore DTPs are important. There are tools in the market that can help identify what these keywords should be. Build a comprehensive list and create a content strategy that ensures that the most important and least competitive keywords are used properly in your content.
It’s not easy to find highly used keywords that are not competitive. This is why the U in the USP is of paramount importance. If you are offering something unique, you should be able to identify lower competition keywords. Their volume of use may not be very high. It is more important to have your content listed on the first page of Google five or ten times a day, than being buried on the 7th page of Google every minute of the day. This is where a long tail keyword strategy can play a big role.
What is a long tail keyword?
Keywords are made up of one or multiple words. When you search using 3 or more words, this is considered a long tail keyword. The longer the keyword, the more unique and focused the result will appear. But the less likely that someone will use that string of words in their search. So shorter keywords are usually the popular keywords, while longer keywords are the long tail keywords.
They are called long tail because the aggregate number of organic visits that they generate is due to the their significantly larger number compared to popular keywords.
I’ll give you an example. Let’s say an entrepreneur in the USA is looking for help with their business online. He or she may use “small business” as a keyword to search for resources online. The first site that shows up in Google is SBA, the Small Business Administration, which is a billion-dollar government organization.
If, however, you search for small business mentoring, then the SCORE.org website will show up first; this is the SCORE national website.
Refining the search even more by using another long tail keyword like “Small Business Mentoring Sarasota”, then the Manasota.SCORE.org website shows up first on Google; this is the local chapter website.
The more the user refines the search, the better the match will be. Hence, business owners should identify all the specific and relevant keywords that should direct people to their business, and correctly embed them in their content. When I say correctly, this requires some knowledge of how search engines work, requiring implementing SEO techniques. They are not hard to learn, but they are essential to be found online.
What is On-Page Optimization?
On-page optimization is when you modify your on-page content to optimize it for search engines. This involves applying industry best practices like using the keyword in the title, in headers, in the URL, in the image alt tag, in title and description meta tags. By meta tags, I mean the internal metadata tags to each page. There are SEO tools that can facilitate this process.
Your writing should be simplified. For instance, you should use the active voice. Keep short sentences, preferably under 20 words long. Keep short paragraphs. Use headers and sub-headers frequently. Link to relevant pages and use the keyword in the anchor text.
The better optimized your content is on your site, the more likely that it will rank higher with Google searches.
Ideally, every piece of content that you include in your sitemap should be on-page search engine optimized around a focus keyword.
There are many online classes on how to do on-page optimization. You can search for them on YouTube and Google. Again, they are not hard to implement, but they require some knowledge in how search engines work and understanding the terminology used in the industry.
In addition to on-page optimization, you need to pay attention to off-page optimization.
On-Page Optimization - See the full video at Digital Marketing and SEO for Non-Techies.
What is Off-Page Optimization?
Off-page optimization is much harder to implement than on-page optimization, but it is critical to implement. Off-page optimization is what will take your website from mediocrity to high authority.
In the early days of the internet, search engines only looked for your content. If your content was relevant, you stood a good chance to rank. Then came Google and turned the industry upside down! Their argument was, I am not as much interested in what you are telling me about yourself, but rather, very interested in what others are telling me about you. So basically, quit touting your horn and prove to me that you are relevant in the eyes of your industry, the experts, the influencers and the pundits.
What Google started doing is tracking backlinks to websites. These are citations from other sites to yours. Similar to scientific journals, the more your work is cited, the higher your authority becomes. Google followed this strategy in conjunction with evaluating your content to decide who commands high authority and who doesn’t. The ones with higher authority and relevance, deserved to be placed organically before others.
After Google arrived, it is no longer enough to have good on-page content, which you have full control over. You need to have other sites cite your content. Unfortunately, you have little control over this.
Therefore, off-page optimization is difficult, yet it is essential to a successful organic search strategy.
Off-Page Optimization - See the full video at Digital Marketing and SEO for Non-Techies.
How do you get backlinks to your site?
This is the one million-dollar question. The companies that figure out how to do this become the relevant companies in their industries. The companies that don’t will languish in obscurity.
First and foremost, you must be relevant. Do you have an interesting story, product, or perspective? There is a lot of white noise online. You must be unique, have a unique selling proposition (USP), be interesting, relevant and engaging to get beyond the white noise.
You can do that by becoming a thought leader or an expert in your field. Not everyone, nor should everyone be able to do that. Thought leaders are critical thinkers that have spent an enormous amount of time reading, learning, analyzing and comprehending an industry or a subject. If you can become this thought-leader, you will have an enormous advantage over everyone else.
Publish articles, whitepapers, eBooks. Create workshops, seminars or webinars. You must get your work in front of people to see and appreciate.
Once you have done that, take a proactive role in pursuing link building. This is where you contact other though-leaders in your industry: experts, influencers, pundits, periodical editors and publishers; local papers and magazines; radio and TV stations; business and educational organizations; and government agencies. Try to get your work known to them. Tactfully ask them to link to it. If it is relevant and adds value, the reasonable ones will comply.
Are there easier ways to get backlinks?
There are many easy ways to generate backlinks. But because they are easy, most companies pursue them and therefore dilute their value. For instance, if you join your local chamber of commerce, that will secure a clean backlink from their relatively good authority website to yours.
SCORE.org is an excellent authority website, having your local SCORE chapter publish a writeup about your company with a backlink to your site, will land you a solid win.
You can also be creative with your tactics and pursue links from publishers who request quotes or content from experts in their field. Sign up to HARO, helpareporter.com, and answer the calls of the many digital publishers seeking input. If you persist, you will land free backlinks from high authority websites.
Subscribe to Moz Local, they will disseminate your information and website URL on dozens of high authority and local directories like Yelp, Yellowpages.com, Whitepages.com, and 411.com.
Of course, you can always buy backlinks. Although everyone does it, Google frowns on this practice. Useful backlinks can cost you anywhere from a few hundred dollars to over a thousand dollars from a high authority website. Here the people you pay to generate backlinks for you will create valuable content on your behalf and promote it on high authority domains.
You must be careful, however. There are certain links that you don’t want. Links from spammy sites and backlink farms will degrade your website’s value in the eyes of Google. Always question the person or service that tells you that they will create hundreds of links for you overnight. You want your links to come only from respectful sites and directories.
Low-cost purchased links are also often no-follow backlinks. They are a backlink, but they contain an internal no-follow tag that acts as a disclaimer telling search engines not to associate any SEO authority value along with them. If you publish press releases for instance, backlinks from press releases are typically no-follow backlinks. They will refer traffic to your site but will not elevate its authority.
If at some point low-quality backlinks find their way to your site, you will need to disavow them on Google Webmaster tools.
What is Black-Hat Optimization?
The techniques that companies should follow are recognized as white-hat techniques. They are encouraged by search engine companies. They help search engines reach more accurate results.
Black-hat optimization however attempts to trick the search engine into deciding that a content is either relevant or of high authority. These techniques, if they work, will only work for the short term. Google and others are becoming very smart at detecting black-hat tactics and are penalizing their associated sites.
Examples of black-hat tactics include creating illicit backlinks from backlink farms or spammy sites, keyword stuffing, hidden text, tiny text, duplicate content, cloaking, and bait and switch, etc.
Avoid them at any cost.
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