12 Things Every Non-Expert NEEDS to Know About SEO

important SEO basics

For those of us who spend hours each week reading about different facets of online marketing, there are many SEO facts and best practices that seem obvious to us that still aren’t understood by your average business owner. Dedicated, experienced SEO professionals have way more knowledge about the nitty gritty particulars of what makes for effective SEO than is covered here (and most know loads more than I do personally), but you don’t really need to know all that stuff anyways.

If SEO isn’t your personal specialty, but is something that matters to you and your business, these are the key things you absolutely need to know to avoid making decisions that could hurt your company.

1) SEO factors can be divided into two categories:

On-Page SEO Factors

This is the stuff you can control. You can optimize your website for SEO by making sure the site design is intuitive, the pages load quickly, and you strategically place keywords in the main parts of the page that are noticed by search engine crawlers:

  • Title tags
  • Headings
  • Image alt tags
  • On-page copy
  • Meta descriptions (doesn’t influence rankings, but good for encouraging clicks)
  • Page URLs

You can find a few more details on this part of the process in the SEO Basics presentation here.

Off-Page SEO Factors

This is the trickier part and where some businesses get in trouble. Search engines try to gauge how trustworthy a site is based on off-page factors like how many other sites link to it, how authoritative those sites are, the authority of authors who write on your site and share your site, and some various other complicated factors that help the search engines decide if people really like you.

2) SEO takes time.

SEO is a long process

Image via Corey Leopold

You’re not gonna see results tomorrow. Or next week. Or the next. It takes time for Google to pick up on changes, and even more time for SEO efforts to start to add up into something tangible. There may be some slight changes to your rankings in a short period of time (especially if you start off ranking very low and are pursuing SEO on your site for the first time), but good SEO is a long game and results take time.

3) SEO is a long-term process.

Related to #2, but still its own point, you can’t make a few tweaks to your site once and figure you’ve got SEO taken care of. It’s not a one and done deal. SEO is a continuous process that requires:

  • Fresh content
  • Regular tweaks to your site
  • Ongoing efforts to raise brand awareness and encourage legitimate links, and
  • A continual tracking of analytics to determine what’s working.

If you get yourself up to a nice high rank and figure you’re good and can stop, your competitors will take advantage of that false sense of security to unseat you.

4) Bad SEO can hurt you. 

Bad Seo

Google and their ilk hate spammers. The people out to game the system to get low-quality sites ranking higher than they should are precisely the enemies search engines are trying to take out with every new update to the algorithm. If you hire those people – even if you do so innocently, thinking they’re legitimate professionals who know what they’re doing – you risk hurting your business.

You cannot make rash decisions when it comes to your site’s SEO, you have to seek out white-hat SEO professionals who really know what they’re doing and won’t put you at risk.

5) SEO evolves.

As the search engines update their algorithms to foil the spammy SEO perpetrators addressed above, what works best for SEO changes. This is another reason it must be treated as a long-term process. What works best today might not be what works best in 6 months, so you have to stay on top of the changes and be prepared to adapt.

6) Search engines prefer sites that prioritize people over search engines.

It might sound counter-intuitive, but it’s true. If your site seems more designed to please the search engine deities rather than your actual visitors, it’ll be bad for your business (who’s gonna stay on a site that’s not useful, much less buy something off it) and bad for your rankings. Search engines consider things like how long visitors stay on a site and whether they ever bother to come back, so they can get a sense of whether or not the people stopping by actually like the site.

7) Keywords matter.

You have to be careful not to overdo it on the keywords – a keyword focus can’t outweigh the importance of making sense and writing content that’s easy to read – but keywords do matter in SEO.  Keyword research helps you understand what people in your industry and, more importantly interested in your industry, are talking about. That lets you know what kind of things to write about on your site, what kind of questions to answer, and what terms to use. You should pick different target keywords for each page on the site and include them in all of the parts of the page listed in the On-Page SEO Factors section in #1.

You want to choose keywords to emphasize based both on how popular they are and how competitive they are. If a small business decides it wants to dominate for a broad, popular keyword like “bathing suits,” it’s never gonna beat the likes of Target, Victoria’s Secret and the other huge brands sitting at the top of the search results for the term. But something more specific, like “vintage style plus size bathing suits” (what those in the biz call a “long-tail keyword”) will be a  more reasonable goal.

8) Content matters.

Content only ever seems to become more important to SEO as time passes and search engines evolve. Content provides value to site visitors, gives them a reason to stay on the site longer, answers their questions, and can help in the process of turning visitors into customers. Content is valuable to businesses beyond its role in SEO, but its importance to SEO can’t be discounted. Fresh content is one of the factors search engines take into consideration in site rankings. More importantly though, good content fuels the shares (read: links) and return visits to the site that signal authority and trust to the search engines.

9) Analytics matter.

Pay attention to what people do on your site. If you have pages that have high bounce rates (people that only stay on them for a second before leaving), they’re not doing you any good in terms of future sales or SEO. Weed out what’s not working and identify what is. Your SEO strategy should be regularly refined based on what your analytics tell you.

10) Traffic should not be your primary goal.

seo traffic

It’s not all about traffic

As previously mentioned, if you’re getting people to your site who don’t stay there, that tells search engines something about the value of your site and can hurt your rankings. Any increase in traffic is at best a temporary win if you aren’t giving people something they value once they get there.

Empty traffic doesn’t just end up hurting you from an SEO perspective though, if you get a billion visitors who never buy anything how much are they really worth? If the point of your website is to make money, you need visitors who will turn into customers. That needs to be your primary goal.

11) You are not Google’s* priority (not as a marketer or business owner anyways).

There’s no use complaining about it. If you get a penalty and/or fall from page 1 to page 142, you can feel like Google’s done you wrong and they owe it to you to fix it, but what reason do they have to care?

Their priority is to provide useful results to the people performing searches. If it looks like your site’s guilty of the manipulative tactics that result in lower-value search results, your business gets lumped in with the bad guys.

They’re a business with their own priorities and fixing your problems (even problems caused by your rank in the almighty Google search results) don’t rank high on the list.

*Insert any other search engine name in place of Google in this section and the idea’s the same. But let’s be honest, we’re mostly talking about Google.

12) Never trust an SEO company that guarantees a #1 spot. 

Remember when I mentioned back at the beginning that there are certain SEO truths that are super obvious to those of us in marketing? This ranks high on the list. The idea that there are still many businesses that buy into this line is baffling to those with some knowledge or background in SEO.

But it still happens, so it needs to be said. If an agency or individual ever pitches you based on this promise, RUN. They are not legitimate professionals who understand SEO and they’re likely to do your business more harm than good.

 

Now if you ever talk to an SEO firm that’s annoyed when you tell them you want to rank #1 by next month, you’ll understand why. There just aren’t shortcuts. As in most things worth doing, SEO takes some real time and commitment to do it well.

Sometimes Good Ideas Just Need a Little Boost: On WDS 2014

World Domination Summit

Image via Armosa Studio

At the professional conferences I’ve attended, there’s often a sense that everyone’s leaving with a few key ideas written down, tweeted, and held onto for inspiration coming home. At the World Domination Summit (WDS), I got the impression that every person was leaving there with a unique personal goal or idea top of mind.

The thing is, while attendance at WDS can offer some distinct professional benefits, it’s not a conference about work. It’s a conference about ideas. That means the takeaways for different people who attend are all over the map; whether that’s a more defined commitment to writing more often, an excitement to get started creating a course for digital nomads or the kick in the butt you’ve been needing to actually create that business plan and start your own business.

The result of attending WDS is that you really think about whatever it is in life that you want or need the most, and you leave with the inspiration required to start doing it.

Since this blog is about marketing and copywriting, it took me a little while to think of how best to tie in what I learned at WDS with the kind of topics I cover here. When it comes down to it, I realized one of the big lessons of my time in Portland could be applied as easily to content marketing or blogging as it can to a wide array of other tasks, professions, or goals: sometimes your ideas just need a little boost.

This guy hiked in a dress for charity. Image via Armosa Studios

Somewhere in the back of your head you probably know just what your life <ahem>, I mean marketing plan, needs, but you aren’t ready to put in the work or time or take the risk you’ve been considering. Ideas can have a lot of power, we just have to do something with them.

If you have an awesome idea…and then stop there, you won’t get much out of it. If you have an idea that sounds crazy like hiking in dresses for charity, building a tiny house (with no previous building experience), or walking everywhere you go for several years (all ideas turned into action by WDS attendees), sometimes you’ll get more out of it than you’d ever imagined. But only if you actually do it.

The Content Marketing Institute recently wrote about a new commitment their team is trying out: putting 10% of their time and resources toward brainstorming and tackling ideas that seem a little out there – either because they’re risky, untested, or just seem too big to accomplish. This isn’t a new idea, it was inspired by a policy at Google that was also employed by Jonathan Mildenhall in the marketing department at Coca Cola.

It might be tempting to say, “well sure, huge businesses like Coca Cola and Google can take creative risks, but we have a budget to stick to,” but that’s an easy excuse. The individuals at WDS get out there and take crazy risks on much smaller budgets than your average business marketing department has access to. You just have to be willing to give that good idea a boost, instead of getting mired in the all the excuses not to do it.

WDS gave many of its attendees that boost, but you can find your own. Think right now: “what’s the thing I’d really like to do next, but keep stopping myself from diving into?”

Now, just decide to do it. Good luck.

You’re Not Normal, So Stop Marketing To Yourself

Doesn’t it just drive you crazy when you’re trying to read a magazine and you keep having to flip to different pages to finish each article. No?

Image by Nina Mathews via flickr

That’s because you read a magazine the way most people do, flipping through to see which articles are interesting to you rather than starting from the beginning and reading straight through to the end the way weirdos like me do it. Magazine publishers design their issues based on normal reading habits. My habits aren’t normal.

I Wrote This Sub-Heading Just For You

Which brings us to another way in which I’m strange, I read blog posts the same way: I start at the beginning and read through to the end. As a writer who produces content for the web, I had to do my research to figure out that this isn’t normal.

It’s not just me. Especially tech-minded people see the world differently than the audiences they sell to, a lesson they had to be reminded of by Justin Jackson. Whatever your personal vision of “normal” is, probably isn’t. When you to need to reach people that aren’t just like you, you have to get outside of your own head.

If I want people to read what I write, I had to figure out how to appeal to the normal reader, rather than doing what comes naturally to me.

Do Your Research

It’s human nature to assume that the way we like to do things is the best and most obvious way to do them. It sure would make marketing easier if that was the way it worked. Instead, figuring out what people respond to is hard work and involves a lot of research, followed with trial and error.

If you start a blog to promote your business, you can’t just sit down and brainstorm a list of all the topics you think would be interesting to write about. If you’re lucky, there will be some overlap between what you want to write about and what your target audience wants to read, but you can’t count on it.

Instead, you need to go where your target audience is and learn what they’re responding to.

The Best Way to Learn About Your Audience.

If you can contact them directly, this is the gold standard!

Surveys, calls to clients, email requests for feedback – if you have enough of a relationship with members of your target audience to get information on what they want to read about without annoying them, then use it. Few things will serve your marketing as well as taking the time to listen to your current customers (or people just like them) about their problems, concerns, and needs.

What Next?

Failing that (or to supplement that), find the other blogs in your space and lurk. Don’t worry. It’s not creepy to lurk on a blog or website the way it is in real life. It’s a valid and fully expected way for you to gather information about what people like.

Research the blogs and publications that are getting the most visits in your industry, as well as the ones that get the most engagement (they’re not always the same):

  • This tip probably goes without saying, but Google some of the key terms related to what you do and see what comes up.
  • Check out what’s listed for your industry on Alltop.com
  • Use FollowerWonk’s search function to find some of the people with the most followers in your industry.

This will get you started. Once you’ve found a few of the top blogs in your industry, it’s easy to follow the trail to more influential sites.

You see, bloggers and websites that get to the top of the food chain pretty much always get there with the help of other bloggers and websites. That means the guys you find that are influential in your industry are probably following, linking to, and otherwise connected with other influential sites in your industry. Once you find your first two or three, they’ll lead you to the rest.

Pay Attention to Metrics

You don’t want to just read these guys. You want to pay careful attention to the things they write that get the most shares and comments. These are the topics your readers care about.

Obviously, you shouldn’t straight up copy the big guys, but use what you learn there as a launching board for collecting ideas for your own blog.

Quick note: this isn’t a step you do once and are done with. Once you’ve collected a list of relevant blogs in your space, make them part of your weekly (or even better, daily) research routine so you can stay up to date on what people are concerned about in your industry. This will not only help you regularly come up with topic ideas, it will also help you stay connected to your industry.

You can use feedly to collect all the blogs you want to follow into one stream. And of course,  follow them all on twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

If what you discover your audience likes seems totally counter-intuitive, all that means is that you’re not normal. If you’d done your marketing based on the way you think, you’d have failed. Now, you can craft your marketing efforts based on what matters:  your audience.

8 Tips for Good Content Marketing

In the 4th and final video in the Austin Copywriter video series on small business content marketing, I’ve included 8 especially important tips for doing content marketing well.

What’s the point in putting in the time and energy, unless you take the necessary steps to get results from content marketing?

Watch it now:

In case you missed any of the videos that came before, here’s the rundown:

Part 1: Why Use Content Marketing?

Part 2: What is Content Marketing?

Part 3: The Benefits of Content Marketing

If you’d rather read than watch, here’s the transcript:

Hi! I’m Kristen Hicks and this is our 4th and final video in the Small Business Introduction to Content Marketing series.

At this point in the series, you should have a pretty good idea what content marketing is and the kind of forms it takes. So, now you have a decision to make:

Are you ready to get started?

I’ve got 8 important tips to help you create content that gets results.

Tip #1: Choose your Goals

First, you need to decide what you want to get out of content marketing.  If building authority’s your primary goal, your technique should look a little different than if traffic is the top priority.

You’ll probably want to accomplish some combination of these, but having priorities will help refine your strategy to something sustainable.

Tip #2: Keep your audience top of mind.

Make giving your audience something you know they need or want your priority. You’ll win more points with generosity than self-promotion.

For this tip to work, you have to make an effort to understand your audience. Create a customer profile and think hard about how to put yourself in their headspace.

Tip #3: Identify a need.

Review all the questions you’ve heard from customers and potential customers. Talk to everyone else in the company who ever interfaces with customers. From there, build a list of common issues and concerns your audience has and get to work answering them.

Tip #4: Include a call to action.

The end goal of all this content is to gain new customers. To help shepherd them from the role of content consumer to customer, you need to employ calls to action.

These won’t always be directly about sales. They could encourage the reader to leave a comment, reply to an email, or read another piece of content. The point is to continue the relationship beyond that first piece of content they encounter.

Tip #5:Do keyword research.

You want to talk the way your readers talk. The terms it’s most natural for you to use as an industry expert won’t necessarily be the same ones your customers use. Do your research, so you can make sure to be understood (and found more easily in search engines to boot).

Tip #6: Show your expertise.

Show people what you know! For anyone on the fence, or comparing competitors, a piece of content that clearly demonstrates how well you know your stuff will help make their decision that much easier.

Tip #7: Pay Attention to Industry Trends

Knowing what others in the industry are talking about will both make it easier to come up with content topics, and help you become a part of the conversation. By joining the larger industry conversation, you’ll draw more attention to your business and position yourself as an expert.

Tip #8: Network

As in most things in life, who you know matters! The more people who know and trust you, the more people in the world who are likely to share your content and recommend your business. Work to make connections online and off. Community can be a fantastic tool for content promotion.

Thanks for viewing the Introduction to Content Marketing for Small Businesses series.  If you have any questions or topics you’d like to see covered further, be sure to let me know in the comments.

Content Marketing in 2014: Predictions and Plans

In the internet age, everything seems to move fast, and marketing is no exception. Even just the term “content marketing,” which has taken over to describe and shape a certain segment of the marketing world, only came into regular use in the past few years.

In a constantly shifting landscape, with new tools and trends often seeming to come out of nowhere, predictions are tricky business. Nonetheless, Content Marketing Institute found 50 content marketing professionals prepared to make their guesses for the coming year.

My own prediction made the cut, putting me in some pretty fantastic company, here it is:

I think the main trend will be towards more. I don’t mean that in terms of quantity, but rather more formats, posts that pack in more useful information, and an acceptance that content marketing requires more time and effort than some previously realized.

If you think I’ve got it all wrong, tell me what you think in the comments. What’s your prediction for the next year?

I can only offer conjectures for the general state of content marketing in 2014, but I have absolute power over the goals and plans for Austin Copywriter’s content marketing in 2014.

If I publish it where everyone can see it, there’s no going back. So, without further ado:

1) Commit to publishing on this blog with more regularity.

My modest, but realistic goal for this is at least one post a month. I recognize more would be ideal, but as one person balancing my own marketing with client work, understand the importance of making sustainable commitments.

I’ll be the first to tell clients: less content of better quality will always beat out a higher quantity of content that’s sloppy and lazy.

2) Experiment with new content formats and channels.

I’ve already delved a bit into the world of content development that falls outside of my writing comfort zone. Part 1 in my new content marketing for small businesses video series is already out, and the rest of the series will be released in early 2014.

You can also check out my new SlideShare presentation on the Basics of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) for Small Businesses.

I aim to do even more with video, SlideShare, and images throughout 2014.

3) Develop and execute a content promotion strategy.

By seeking out more guest posting opportunities and building up relationships on social media, I plan to draw more attention and new subscriptions to the blog.

Like many people, I’ve learned the hard way that just creating good content and putting it out there isn’t enough. You have to develop a larger strategy that includes plans for promotion to get attention in an already overcrowded space.

4) Make regular, genuine contact with readers and others in the content marketing community a higher priority.

Relationships are hugely important in just about every aspect of life. This has only become more obvious to me in my years as a freelancer.

My goal is to build up a larger professional network of contacts that includes: readers of this blog, other marketers in Austin and online, other freelancers in a variety of industries, and small business owners excited about building their businesses with content marketing.

5) Attend local networking events and conferences to build a network and community of professional contacts of various skills and specialties.

Related to #4, I’ve found there’s no real substitute for meeting with other professionals in person, and attending live educational events. I’ve gotten a lot out of these experiences in the past year, and expect 2014 to be no different on that front.

Some of these are continuations of the business plan and content strategy I put together in 2013, but still of tantamount importance to my goals for the business.

What about you? Do you have a plan and strategy for the next year yet? Are there any questions or obstacles getting in the way of putting one together? Let me know, I’ll do my best to help.