There are many of you who have never heard of search engine optimization (SEO), and many of you who have that don’t have an accurate conception of what it entails or how it works. Accordingly, I’ve decided to create a 5-part series that introduces the strategy, and walks you through the best practices for building and managing a long-term campaign.
This is part one in the series, focused on helping you build an SEO strategy from scratch.
The SEO Overview
First, let’s examine SEO from a high-level perspective. SEO is a series of tactics used to help your site rank higher in Google (and other search engine) search results, thereby increasing your organic search visibility. This, in turn, will bring your site more traffic and sales. It’s a long-term strategy that requires consistent dedication to user experience and quality material. (This is a highly simplified definition, but it will serve our purposes).
SEO comprises many factors; there’s no one strategy or one pattern of action that can lead you to success. Instead, you’ll need to spend time planning and strategizing your campaign (the subject of this part of the series), and executing your strategy across four main areas (the future parts of this series):
1. On-site Optimization.
On-site optimization involves changing the technical structure and content of your website to make it accessible to search engines and optimized for your target keywords and phrases.
2. Ongoing Content Marketing.
This is an ongoing strategy to produce on-site content, which will help you rank for more keywords, build domain authority, and attract inbound links (which increase your domain and page authority even further).
3. Link Building and Off-site Optimization.
This is a strategy involving your off-site work, which includes manually building links that point back to your site, developing your reputation through off-site guest posts, and engaging in social media.
4. Measurement and Analysis.
Finally, you need to constantly measure your impact, evaluate your success, and adjust your strategy to get even better results.
There are two main things Google takes into consideration when ranking sites: a page’s authority and relevance. Its authority is a measure of how trustworthy the site is, which can be improved by acquiring more inbound links from external sources. Its relevance is determined by how appropriate the page is for a given user’s search query.
Most of your strategic development will be focused on the “relevance” side of things: figuring out who you’re targeting, how to target them, and how you’re going to achieve your goals (though authority will come into play as well).
Understanding Your Demographics
First, you need to understand your demographics. Who are the searchers you’re going to target? What kinds of things are they going to be searching for? On some level, this requires market research, so you understand the mentalities and behavioral patterns of the people you’re trying to reach. On another level, this requires an understanding of your buying cycle; are the people who find your website ready to buy immediately, or is your average visitor in the preliminary research phase? All this information will help you choose the right keywords for your campaign and start developing content topics that carry the most potential impact.
Learning From the Competition
Next, you’ll want to take a look at the competition. Make a list of your most significant online competitors. What are they currently doing in terms of SEO? What keywords are they currently ranking for? What are they optimizing for? How much are they investing in their on-site content marketing strategy? These questions will help you determine your competitive edge; you’ll want to outdo your competitors, either by doing what they do (but better), or by finding a tangential angle that differentiates your brand. SEMRush, Moz, and Market Samurai are three helpful tools for SEO competitor analysis.
Doing Keyword Research
Next, you’ll need to perform keyword research, which is a complex topic that deserves its own post. First, note that simply using keywords in your headlines and throughout your text copy isn’t a magical gateway to higher rankings for those specific keywords; in fact, thanks to Google’s Hummingbird, keywords no longer have a one-to-one relationship with user queries. Instead, Google looks for semantically related topics when it hunts for relevant results, while trying to understand user intent.
Still, keyword research can help you find those topics, provide a focal point for your campaign, and give you another metric to track for your success (keyword rankings). There are many tools to help you with keyword research, including Moz’s new Keyword Explorer tool, but ultimately you’ll look at three factors in your selection criteria:
- Relevance. How relevant are these keywords to your brand?
- Competition. How hard will it be to rank for these? The less competition, the better.
- Volume. How many people are searching for these keywords? The more, the better.
It’s hard to find keywords that satisfy all three criteria, but they’re out there.
Establishing a Budget and Setting Goals
Next, you’ll need to determine how much you’re willing to spend on a campaign. You can’t cheap out on SEO if you’re going to do it properly (whether you spend a ton of time, a ton of money, or a mix of both), and it takes a long time to start seeing results. Your level of competition and the urgency with which you need to see results should dictate how much you’re going to spend. Set goals for yourself, as specific as possible, such as developing X number of new on-site posts per week, or building X links per month, or increasing inbound traffic by X percent (though this is difficult to estimate at first). Depending on your business, you may focus on one area more than the others.