Excelling at search engine optimization (SEO) is a key component of a successful strategy for most online businesses. However, for many founders and marketers without a strong online background, SEO can often come across as a black box.
As for all other marketing channels, my favoured approach is highly analytical. I prefer to start with a framework and work my way towards a list of actions based on the resulting insights. This, however, isn’t usually how SEO is approached, so if – like me – you prefer an analytical approach to strategy and execution, you are in the minority.
With millions of SEO tutorials and checklists, there are only a few areas covered by more online resources. Unfortunately, the majority are either ambiguous or give a list of so many factors that it becomes hard to filter the important from the irrelevant. The aim of this article is to offer an analytical framework for SEO that will help you look beyond the SEO buzzwords of the day and provide a way to set your priorities.
Keep in mind that search engines value the user’s experience over anything you may think or want!
When explaining SEO to my team members, I usually like to begin with a – for SEO – rather uncommon starting point: Numbers. SEO is notorious for secrecy and vague terms, so unlike the majority of other online marketing channels, it doesn’t come across as analytically grounded.
The SEO world surely has more shades of grey than most other channels, but for now, it helps to think about SEO in boxes. Regardless of your business model, you ultimately want to maximize the number of conversions from organic search. You can get to the number of conversions by looking at the four levers in this simple formula:
Conversions = Search volume * Visibility * Click-through rate * Conversion rate
The experienced online marketer will quickly realize that this formula is universal to all online channels and on a conceptual level, it even applies to offline marketing. For simplicity, I will describe it in the context of a single search query, but you can also think of it on an aggregate level.
As per the formula above, there are four levers to understand in SEO:
- Search volume – the number of searches for the given query you are targeting. There are several tools to find this number. The most common is to use the paid marketing tool of a search engine such as the Google AdWords Keyword Planner
- Visibility – how often search engines display your listing to users searching for your specific query
- Click-through rate – the percentage of displayed listings that a user has clicked on
- Conversion rate – the conversion rate on your website from a visit to conversion (order, sign-up, etc.)
I’ll cover each of them in detail including the key levers and things to keep in mind for each of them.
Before we dig into the detail, keep in mind that search engines value the user’s experience over anything you may think or want. If you’re ever in doubt about what will give you the better ranking, just ask yourself, “Which of these options will give the better user experience?”
WARNING: Don’t think you can outsmart the system. Google and other search engines have thousands of the smartest engineers on the globe working on algorithms to detect and eventually penalize websites that aren’t following their guidelines. The maximum penalty is a complete delisting of your website, so don’t take this too lightly, no matter what your SEO agency may say.
You want to start by picking the right search queries for your business. When picking your queries, you should consider three main factors:
- Search volume – How many people in total search for the query?
- Relevance to your goal – How relevant is this query to what you are trying to achieve with your website? Many people mistakenly hear the cliché “Content is king” and start producing content that isn’t relevant to the core of their product, so make sure you target queries that are in line with what you are trying to achieve
- Competition – How competitive is your target query? In some cases, going for a query with lower search volume may be a faster and more efficient way to ramp up traffic if there is less competition for a top position
If possible, you should start with a set of queries. 10-20 queries are usually a good place to start. As you will see later, targeting too few queries isn’t good either. Search engines will flag suspicious behaviour if you over-optimize for just a few terms.
Try to find phrases that aren’t too similar. In many cases, search engines treat synonymous queries as one (you may even see a similar number of searches for these queries in the keyword planner).
Once you’ve selected your target queries, you’ll need to ensure that the search engine knows that your pages are a good match for those queries.
Web-lingo: one website (e.g. bbc.com) can contain multiple web pages (e.g. a specific subfolder such as bbc.com/sport or sub-domains such as sport.bbc.com (which doesn’t exist)).
Getting indexed correctly
To a search engine crawler, every web page is a blank sheet of paper. A page can be about anything (in practice, it makes an educated guess, but I’ll ignore this for now). This means that search engines look at a few factors to figure out what your page is about:
- The content on your page
- The content on other pages on your site
- The links you use internally towards that page
- The links other websites point towards your site and the specific page
- What the anchor text of links pointing to your page and site says, and
- What the websites linking to you are about (more relevant pages linking to you help search engines categorize you)
A few tricks for getting the best visibility in the most efficient way:
- Search engines have an easier time categorizing your website if there is a common theme across all your pages
- If you have multiple topics, group content with related topics within the same subfolder
- Never copy your content from another website. Search engines don’t like copycats
- Ensure that you never have duplicate content on your site. While there are ways to tell search engines to ignore certain pages, it’s generally advisable to make sure that your content is unique, as search engines don’t want to spend energy on figuring out which page is the original
- Target one query per page. Focus the content on your page on one target query rather than multiple queries as it will make it easier for search engines to categorize your page accurately
- Have one page per target query. Don’t target the same query with multiple pages as this will dilute the SEO value you build up for that query
Getting to the top of the page
There is a saying among SEOs that the best place to hide a dead body is on page two of Google. In other words, you’ll need to get to page one to really get visibility and traffic to your site. When is the last time you clicked on to page two?
The ability to rank well depends on multiple factors, but the most important are:
- Your internal linking structure is important. You’ll need to make sure that each page is accessible through links on your site. Search engines won’t index an “orphaned” page with no links pointing to it. Similarly, when you have links from the main navigation, it indicates that those pages are more important than those that barely get any internal links. While it may be tempting to give everything high importance, keep in mind that this will also dilute the value of each link
- The quality of the websites providing inbound links to your website
- The number of inbound links. However, quantity can never make up for low quality!
- The behavioural metrics of your site – e.g. time on site, page views per visit, and bounce rate. These are great indicators of the quality of your content. Search engines would take low quality as a signal that they shouldn’t display your site to similar users in the future
- The click-through rate (CTR) of your listing. The more engaging your site is, the better. Search engines take interaction as a sign that the result was a good match to the search query. Listings with higher CTRs than the surrounding listings will generally rise towards the top (more on CTR in the next section)
Google has declared that they aim to rank websites without the use of links as an indicator of trust and authority, so it is only a matter of time before they will become irrelevant. The quality of the user experience is king!
Once you’ve done the hard work of getting your search listings in front of a large, relevant audience, it’s all about getting these people to click your ad (don’t mistake this for the paid ads at the top and bottom of the page).
Ironically, the vast majority of SEO efforts are poured into improving ranking. Optimizing the ads rarely gets the attention it deserves but once you are on the first page, the return on optimizing the ad is often higher than on any other SEO-related activity.
You can normally control what the search engines display on the search engine results page (SERP). This happens in your code via the title tag and meta description. These tags must be different from page to page to help search engines distinguish between pages. The syntax could be similar though, particularly for the title tag.
When I say that you normally control what search engines display on the SERP, it’s because they display what they consider the best ad in certain cases. They grab content from your site and display that instead of what you have asked them to show even if you are explicit about your intention. Remember, search engines are here for the user, not you.
Tips on increasing the CTR of your ads:
- Make sure your copy matches the intention of the user. Unlike other marketing channels, search marketing is about intention, so make sure to match it well!
- Use best-practice copywriting techniques (have a look at my reading list for useful resources)
- Learn from your other advertising – particularly your search engine marketing!
- Include Schema structured data in your content to get more attention. This can, for example, be in the form of reviews (see example below)
Finally, once the traffic is on your page, you should do your best to get the most out of it!
Unlike other channels, you know – or at least have an idea – about user’s intention when they arrive on your site. This means that you should prepare well so that your guests will feel at home. In other words, every clear intention comes with an expectation. You need to meet this expectation.
(Un-)Fortunately, there is a clear self-fulfilling prophecy around matching the users’ expectations. Web pages that don’t match the users’ expectations tend to have higher bounce rate and lower time on site. Both metrics are important ranking signals for search engines, so with low performance, you will quickly drop in the rankings, despite having fought hard to get up high.
While there are many tips and tricks online, you should never default to trying to game the algorithms. While it may give you a short-term lift, it will never pay off in the long-term.
Rather, use your understanding of search engines in the following order to maximize your impact:
- Pick the right query to target
- Write killer copy for the SERP ad
- Write awesome content tailored to the users’ expectations
- Get amazing inbound links from high-quality websites
Good luck winning the SEO game!
Image credits: Negative Space
Do you have any other areas you feel should be covered? Feel free to mention them in the comments below!