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.

SEO Best Practices: Press Releases

One of the main tenets of search engine optimization is link encouragement. While many refer to this as “link building,” I feel the best practices for gaining links to your business website is to provide content that encourages people to share it. In this regard, press releases are an especially good tool for SEO.

The best practices for SEO don’t just encourage more links to your site, they offer valuable information to potential customers and those running relevant websites.  Press releases provide your business the opportunity to bring important news about your company and products to a large audience and give many news hungry websites something noteworthy to publish.

There’s a long list of potential topics a business can benefit from publishing press releases for: the release of a new product, substantial updates to current products, an important new hire, geographic expansion, upcoming events, charitable activities, new programs, initiatives and anything else your company does that’s new or noteworthy.

For more ideas on potential press release topics and a surplus of examples that you can use as format templates, just check out any of the many press release distribution websites, such as Business Wire or PRWeb.com. The cost of posting your press release to sites like these can be well worth the level of attention they receive from them, but there are also a number of free press release distribution websites like PR.com and 24-7 Press Release.  It’s also worth taking some time to research industry specific sites that you can submit your press release to as well. These can be especially valuable as they help your news reach the most relevant audience and encourage links from more relevant sites, which are especially good for SEO.

Press releases draw attention to your business, alert a wide audience to company news and are a great tool for link encouragement. As an SEO best practice, they’re relatively easy to produce and distribute, at little cost.

SEO Best Practices: Networking

One of the primary tenets of good online marketing is ensuring that your small business carves out a visible space in the larger community. This applies both to the online community as it relates to your industry and the geographic community that you’re a part of, the latter in particular if the goods and services you offer are primarily targeted at local consumers. In terms of search engine optimization, building positive relationships is important as it’s likely to lead to more links to your website.

By establishing positive relationships with bloggers, publications and other businesses and organizations active within your industry and community, you can help expand the reach and awareness of your own business. The value of networking to business is nothing new and certainly not exclusive to the benefits it provides to search engine optimization, but there are new techniques and venues to explore for developing beneficial relationships for your business.

In person networking is still one of the best means of creating new contacts. Local networking events and conferences provide valuable opportunities for meeting people in your community and industry who can help with an exchange of ideas, projects and links. You can learn about services and products being provided that can help your businesses, while also raising the profile of your ability to help other businesses and individuals with your own goods and services.

Moving more into the online sphere, there are multiple useful strategies that can be deployed for online networking. Social media is in some ways an ideal tool for this. LinkedIn was developed for precisely this purpose. It offers an easy means to stay connected to those contacts you meet at the live networking events, as well as an easy to use solution for seeking out new relationships with individuals doing work of relevance to your industry. There are many industry specific groups you can join on LinkedIn to stay informed of and contribute to conversations occurring of importance to your profession.

Though in many ways less direct, Twitter is another tool many are coming to find useful for networking. You can follow prominent industry leaders, journalists or bloggers with an emphasis in your area, as well as other local businesses and organizations to stay afloat of any events, updates and notable comments or articles they’re likely to highlight. By contributing thoughtful and useful information via your Twitter messages, you can gain more attention for yourself and your business and cull a following of your own. Much of the value of Twitter lies in interaction: showing that you’re listening and interested in what others are saying and also willing to provide valuable information as well.

While it involves a little more time and work, developing a presence on industry blogs, listservs, forums and message boards provides another venue for increasing your online profile and getting the attention of those in your field that could serve as productive networking contacts. Following the most pertinent online resources and adding insightful comments where appropriate will demonstrate your value to the community and ensure that people are more likely to think of you and your business when a need arises for the services you offer.

One of the themes that appears commonly in discussions of what makes for good SEO is finding opportunities to add value. Use the knowledge you’ve developed in your industry to provide helpful information to others and it will go far towards raising your profile in your industry and helping you develop and maintain the kinds of relationships that are crucial for long-term success. All of this will help lead to a growing awareness of your business and a greater likelihood of others to link to your website and increase your page ranking.

Consumer Behavior and Search Engine Use

“86 percent of consumers say search engines are very important in the buying process.”

Inc.

The way people think about shopping has changed in recent years. More and more consumers turn to the internet first before making a purchasing decision. In the same study referenced in the Inc. article above, almost half of the respondents also turned to social media in the shopping process and another 24% visited company websites. Technology is changing consumer behavior and small businesses should take note and shift their marketing techniques accordingly.

This is likely not a surprise to most people. If you think about the most recent purchases you’ve made, perhaps with the exception of gas and groceries, it’s likely you’ve turned to Google at some point in the process. When it’s so easy to look up user reviews, perform price comparisons and make direct purchases for many items online, why wouldn’t savvy consumers turn to the internet for their shopping?

The best way to make sure that your small business doesn’t miss out on the 92% of people in the United States using search engines is to embrace online marketing. Use search engine optimization, pay per click services and more to increase your internet presence and make your business easy to find for potential customers.

Learning Search Engine Optimization

Over the past couple of months I’ve been hard at work researching as much as I can about Search Engine Optimization.  There’s a wealth of resources available to help a person learn this skill, many of which are free.

Based on my experience, the best places to start are with Google’s Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide and the Beginner’s Guide to SEO from SEOmoz.  The guide from SEOmoz in particular is very in depth and gives a lot of tips and tools, as well as references to resources for further research into the particulars.

Some of the initial tips I’ve learned are:

  • One of the most important tools for search engine optimization is an understanding of keyword quality.  Google’s Keyword Tool is extremely valuable for understanding what types of terms people are searching for in your industry and how competitive those terms are, so you can determine the best keywords to target and design your website accordingly.  SEOmoz also provides a Keyword Difficulty tool to help you identify the phrases likely to be too competitive to be worth trying to target for a smaller business.
  • Use your title and description meta tags well. Making sure the primary keywords you want to target are represented in your webpage’s title tags is one of the first steps to strengthening a page for SEO.  The meta description tag, while not playing a direct role in how likely your page is to rank high in search results, can play an important role in how likely users are to visit your page once they see it listed.
  • Avoid displaying important information within images, flash animation, java or videos. Often the flashier visual touches on a website are overlooked entirely by the search engine crawlers.
  • Make your website easy to navigate–this is important for human users and search engine crawlers. Make sure that none of your pages are hard to find and the most important ones are linked to from many, if not all, of your other pages.
  • For a small business, avoid targeting general search terms as you’re likely to be outranked by larger businesses with more resources and brand recognition.  Using geographic targeting or a focus on specific product offerings in your keyword choices can lead to better results.
  • Make sure that the copy on your website includes the most important keywords you want to target–but not to the point that the writing becomes awkward or stilted. The usability and consumer appeal of your website must not be lost in your efforts to get it noticed by search engines. In fact, having a well designed website with useful content that people like is one of the most important ways to encourage others to link to you, which is one of the main factors search engines look at in determining page rank.
  • Learn html, at least at a basic level. You can’t make the necessary changes to a webpage if you don’t know the basic structure of the language with which webpages are built.  I was completely intimidated by the idea of learning html until I started and found it’s really not all that difficult. This website’s been the main one I’ve turned to, but this one and this one were also recommended to me as good resources for beginners.

There’s much more to it than what I’ve included here, but these seem like some of the most important lessons for someone starting out.  There are lots of blogs and websites with regular pieces about tips and tools for good SEO, SEOmoz and Search Engine Land seem like two of the most established with regular updates.  Google also has their own blog with some information.

It seems that most SEO consultants regard each other as more of a community than competitors, which leads to many of those with experience offering up their expertise to anyone willing to seek it out.  This means there are ample resources for increasing your knowledge and expanding your skill set in this industry.