Ok, so here’s the deal with search engine optimization, i.e. how to get your site ranked higher on google. You want more traffic, so it’s tempting to pay an SEO expert to tell you how to get better rankings. Of course, said expert is going to be a bit biased– after all, he’s not impartial, he’s selling a service- the service of search engine optimization.
I’m here as a website-maker for over 20 years to tell you the no-BS truth that seo experts won’t tell you. It all boils down to one secret, that’s not really a secret: content is king.
Well, that’s not 100% true. The biggest factors in google’s ranking you are actually a bit out of your control. But more on that later.
WHAT IS SEO, ANYWAY?
SEO (short for Search Engine Optimization) is how much Google and other search engines like and trust your site. Sites with better SEO rank higher in search results, and so are more likely to be found.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
For some folks, it isn’t. Maybe the primary purpose of your website is to be informational for customers you already have. In that case, it doesn’t matter how much new traffic you get through google searches. But if you want to be found online, and a primary purpose of your website is lead generation, then SEO is crucial.
HOW IS SEO DETERMINED?
This is a question many folks spend their whole careers on. Basically, it is an algorithm (fancy big math equation) that compiles a bunch of different weighted elements. Some of these you have control over, and some you do not. The exact percentages and what is measured are closely held secrets that change over time and from one search engine to the next, but it is generally agreed upon that these are the elements of any good SEO plan:
- Trust/authority of your domain name (what is your reputation? Do other good sites link to you? How long has your site been around? How big is it? Does it seem spammy or legit? Do you copy other page’s content or have original things to say? This used to be summed up in your Google PageRank, but these days this is harder to find out.
- Link popularity of the Specific Page How many other sites on the internet are linking to this page? It is a huge indication of your popularity and trustworthiness
- Anchor text of external links to the page When other sites link to you, does their link text include the keywords that person was searching for?
- On-Page Keyword Usage This is what we have control over- are you using the search terms in your page, and how much? Are the search terms in your image alt tags and paragraph headings? Do your keyword-to-nonkeyword text ratios look good and non-spammy?
- Registration and hosting data Spammers often register their domain names for a short amount of time. Make sure your registration data is up to date and at least a year long contract.
- Traffic and Click Through Rate (CTR) Data When people do find you in search results, do they seem to like your content and stick around? Are you popular?
- Social Graph Metrics Do people share your links? Are you popular?
SEO experts can only help you with a small fraction of how your site is judged. Don’t get me wrong, 15% is still important, and it is the part you have control over, so it is worth using your search keywords throughout your site and providing proper alt tags for your images and all that. I don’t mean to diminish the important work many SEO consultants perform. HOWEVER, if you have a limited budget (and don’t we all?), there are more cost effective ways to rank higher you should be trying first. More on that in a sec.
IF YOU DO HIRE AN SEO EXPERT
Make sure you know what you are paying for. Are you just getting a report of recommendations, or will the SEO expert you are hiring actually make those changes they suggest? Unfortunately for every skilled SEO technician out there helping people, there is also an SEO swindler who takes advantage of website owner’s ignorance on the topic to charge thousands for, basically, a piece of paper that doesn’t help their rankings at all. If it’s a monthly fee, what do they do each month? You should be able to see keywords and meta descriptions added to each of your pages- ask them to show you their work! And as always, check out any SEO consultant on yelp or the BBB site first. If you want a recommendation for a Bay Area SEO expert I trust, let me know which region you are in (Oakland, San Leandro, San Francisco, Berkeley, etc) and I will be glad to point you in the right direction.
SO HOW DO I RANK HIGHER IF NOT THROUGH SEO MAGIC?
Listen, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the truth is, if you are making lots of unique, quality content, you don’t need to game the system. The whole system, after all, was made to filter out sites with lots of quality content on its own, and most of the time it doesn’t take much extra work on your part to help it out.
The number one think you can do to help your ranking in my opinion is make more quality, relevant content. This could come in many forms: blog posts, client case studies or testimonials, videos and images, essays, whitepapers, podcasts, or portfolio items.
Just make sure your content is:
- Unique: Google will test for plagiarism
- Relevant: It must be related to keywords people are looking for
- Specific to your field and location
- Visible to search engines
How do search engines work?
Search engine robots are little scripts that crawl the web from one link to another looking at sites and cataloging what they see. You want to make sure your site is easy for them to find and that all the content on your site you worked so hard on is visible to them.
Your site must be Indexable:
you must make sure your entire site is set to be indexable (aka viewable) by search engines. Most sites are by default, but it’s worth making sure! You can check here. Setting your site to be indexable basically gives the search bots permission to enter.
Use Image Alt Tags:
Search robots do not have eyeballs, they can only read the text of your site. So if you want to get credit for your images, they need to be readable by robots. That’s why the image alt tag was invented, to give robots a chance to understand what your images are of. This will help your search ranking and also your site accessibility, so blind folks who are having your site read to them by a screen reader aren’t missing out on anything.
So your image tag might look like this:
<img src=”OaklandSkyline.jpg” alt=”a photo of Oakland’s skyline”>
Add subtitles to your Videos:
Again, this is good for both accessibility and also your SEO. A video transcript means you get credit for every word you say in your video. YouTube can do this for you automatically, you can upload your script, or hire a freelancer to transcribe it for you. It’s worth it!
Make sure every page is linked:
The robots need your pages to be linked in order for them to count. They don’t have to be in the main menu of the site, text or image links are just fine. If you’re worried you have pages that aren’t linked to from anywhere, you can create a site map to connect them.
WHEN IT COMES TO CONTENT, MORE IS MORE
I know, your website is your baby and you want everything to be perfect. And making sure your content is original and useful is the key to encouraging other folks to link to it and share it. However, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Just write as much as you can, as often as you can. Don’t stress or agonize about getting the wording just right; most of the time robots will be the ones reading it.
This is why I don’t encourage most website owners to purchase SEO packages.
Google prefers bigger websites with more pages that are specifically about the terms being searched for. Who cares if you’re missing out on the 10% increase from having your keywords laid out perfectly (this is the work of an SEO consultant) if your other 90% (the content itself) is lacking.
So on a limited budget, I’d say hire a writer/videographer/other content maker before an SEO expert. Or make content yourself! Until you have a substantial number of articles, the bump you will get from SEO optimization will be limited.
Building trust with Google
This takes time. Consider writing guest posts or articles for local newspapers or other sites that have a good reputation that link back to your site in order to build your SEO trust score. Ask you friends and colleagues to include a link to your site on their own. Put your link on your social media profiles publicly and consider joining professional organizations that allow your directory listing to link to your site. Every little bit helps!
Last advice: go specific!
If you are a small business, don’t try to compete for the big keywords against the big dogs. Find your niche and own it. For example, If I’m an Oakland web designer (and I am), I am not going to try to win the keyword “web design” because I have so much competition there I am not likely to win. But, “web designer Rockridge” (a specific neighborhood of Oakland) might work. Or, I could go more specific with my services and say “Squarespace web designer Oakland” The more specific your search terms, the more likely you are to win as the little guy.
If you’re a massage therapist, include pages about your unique style – are you shiatsu or deep pressure? If you’re a psychotherapist, include pages about your modality – do you do EMDR or somatic work? And as always, locations are your friend- be specific!
Want more help with your SEO or have a particular puzzle you’d like help with? Or maybe you bought an SEO package and ended up with a big list of things to change on your site and no idea how to change them? I can help, let’s have a free 30 minute consult and I can point you in the right direction.