Every marketer knows that an SEO strategy to attract visitors to their website should be a key element of their marketing plan. Yet the detailed knowledge and expertise to make it actually work in practice is a scarce resource.
The first thing we say is that picking keywords that describe your product or service isn’t always a guarantee of ranking for those keywords. This is followed closely by “getting a high ranking for a given keyword isn’t a guarantee of traffic”. Or even it was, it wouldn’t necessarily be the right kind of traffic.
What does this all mean? Essentially that SEO is a multidimensional area which requires an always evolving approach.
Our own definition of SEO might go something like this:
“The goal of SEO is to attract high quality website visitors whose intent is to research or buy products or services like those you offer.”
So, if SEO is a means of “getting your website to rank high enough in Google for potential customers to find it”, it follows that if you’re not getting enough visitors (and not enough website leads or sales), your SEO strategy needs revamping.
If you’re planning to kick off New Year 2019 by turning over a new SEO leaf, what should you be focusing on? We’ve pulled together our list of key factors to be on top of to ensure your SEO works.
1. Recognise that SEO is constantly changing
The key to SEO lies in knowing what Google’s algorithms regard as important. And since it’s a constantly changing landscape, it’s not always easy.
According to Google, there are more than 200 factors or “ranking signals” which come into play when ranking a page. Several times a year Google updates one or more of its algorithms, usually without an explicit statement and sometimes in complete silence.
In simple terms, the result is that certain factors increase in importance, others become less important and sometimes well-known techniques of old can suddenly fall out of favour and be penalised. For example:
- In 2014 it was HTTPS (starting as a minor factor, gradually ramping up to high importance in 2018)
- In 2015 it was mobile usability (again in a minor way, ramping up to mobile-first indexing in 2018)
- In 2016 the Google AI system RankBrain, became part of its wider ranking algorithms
- In 2017 user engagement took the front seat with time on site, pages per session and bounce rate all in the top four ranking factors
- In 2018 page speed and mobile have both been a major ranking factors, along with the final push for HTTPS (Chrome now even flags non-secure pages that contain input text boxes)
- In 2019, voice search is likely to feature highly.
2. Factor searcher intent into your keyword selections
Keyword research that aims to recognise the ‘intent’ of your target buyers is key to shaping relevant content for your site. The right keywords are not always those that accurately describe your product or service, nor are they the ones with the highest search volumes.
Use a tool like Google Keywords Planner to identify the keywords that have a high click-through rate for your audience, and shape the content of your site around those keywords
It’s not just about identifying keywords and including them in the text and meta tags of your site, it’s about using those keywords as a starting point for content creation.
If you use the same keyword, in the same way, too many times, on one page (just like we all used to in order to rank well), this is seen as “keyword stuffing” and penalised accordingly. It is therefore important to use alternative phrasing, tenses and synonyms, and describe the subject rather than repeat-labelling of it.
3. Secure your website
If you have haven’t done it yet, make your website secure by sourcing a server-side SSL certificate and forcing all your URLs to be served over https. Depending on the number of pages on your website, it could be a big job, so better to start on this sooner rather than later.
We went through this process with all our clients at the beginning of the year when Google indicated it would be increasingly looking at https and potentially warning visitors of its browser about websites that are not yet fully secured.
4. Get your robots.txt file and XML sitemap in place
To help Google’s bots, or ‘crawlers’ quickly and easily understand the structure and hierarchy of your website, your XML sitemap acts as a signpost to every URL you want to be indexed. Not only does this ensure that Google finds all your URLs, it also provides information on the importance of each page type on a scale of 0 to 1.
The robots.txt file should reside in your top-level directory (your site’s root folder), because it’s the first thing that the crawlers look for when they arrive on a website. It tells the crawlers how to crawl your website pages, informing them which pages and resources you do and do not want indexing.
5. Keep your URLs short, sweet and relevant
A URL comprised of numbers or gobbledegook is as meaningless to humans as it is to Google. Similarly, when considering how the URL appears to the human eye, consider also that URLs that are either very long or which don’t reflect the page content will not be ranked well by Google.
Long URLs are also likely to be cumbersome for visitors to embed in other pages, which means your backlink building capabilities will also be negatively impacted.
Another factor often overlooked is repeated words in URLs, particularly for pages deeper in the site’s structure. For example, if a parent page or section of a site is about ‘keywords’ and a subpage is specifically about ‘keyword optimisation’, there is no need to include ‘keyword’ at the subpage level.
This is because doing so would mean ‘keyword’ being repeated (i.e. /keywords/keyword-optimisation/) – the page slug should actually just be /optimisation/ so that the URL would be displayed as /keywords/optimisation/.
6. Build your backlinks
Good quality backlinks continue to be the “gold dust” of SEO, yet a lot of people sidestep link building when planning their SEO, as doing it right can be very time-intensive.
As with all things Google – and in particular with backlinks – it is quality, not quantity, that is key.
There’s been a lot of debate about “guest blogging” as a means to building links. But it’s an area which Google appears to view somewhat negatively, and is therefore best steered clear of.
Instead, consider link building as an organic practice. Try contacting suppliers, customers, and other relevant contacts, and arrange with them to place a link to your website from their website.
7. Make your content shareable
Following on from (6), remember that ‘content is still king’. Quality material gets shared. So don’t waste time producing standard, unremarkable, run of the mill blogs. Provide people with genuinely useful, informative, helpful, engaging content with a purpose, and preferably keep it unique!
If you have the bandwidth or budget, content-driven link building via your own blog is a good way of attracting links from relevant sites.
Original research, presented in the form of a survey, educational article, infographic or other informative format will be something that media outlets would pick up and link to, providing you with the sort of high-quality backlinks that Google loves.
Don’t produce content solely for media consumption though. Your own video, blogs, infographics or e-books, if original, informative and useful will be shared by your readers and viewers, bringing it to the attention of potential customers.
8. Add video content to your website
Video is the most magnetic type of content. It’s the fast-growing form of content, and studies show that web pages containing videos produce a much higher “dwell” time than pages without video.
Interestingly ‘dwell’ time is now considered by Google to be the most important user engagement indicator.
Add to this that YouTube (which is owned by Google) is the second largest search engine and so intelligently produced video shorts or explainers will show up in searches.
Website visitors are prepared to watch informative and educational videos, even if they are promotional. That’s entertainment.
9. Use analytics to improve usability and content
Assuming you’re using Google Analytics on your website (you are, aren’t you??) try and avoid getting too wrapped up in vanity metrics such as session numbers.
Instead focus on metrics that really matter such as bounce rate, session duration and acquisition sources.
Try and build a picture of what your visitors are actually doing while they’re on your site, to gain an understanding of which content engages them and which pages they’re skipping straight past. Set up goals to track visit journeys from your home page or other entry pages to the conversion page.
Another metric to monitor is ‘Exits’ which tells you where your visitors are leaving your website, perhaps before converting. The action is to fix the content in order to reduce exits and generate an onward journey or conversion.
If you want to get really serious about your SEO, link Google Search Console to your Google Analytics account so that you can see more detailed data such as keywords which bring the most traffic your way. Google Search Console also allows you to submit your sitemaps to make it easier for Google’s bots to crawl your site.
10. Make your website fully responsive
Mobile friendliness is now a necessity, not an option. That’s because Google draws its results from mobile optimised pages first, and that means genuinely responsive sites rather than those which simply have a mobile alternative. This is what’s referred to as ‘mobile first indexing’.
In practical terms, your site needs to resize automatically to fit the device being used, the font and other visuals have to be readable on a small screen and tap and swipe access and navigation should be instinctive and visitor-friendly.
11. Supercharge your page load speed
Survey after survey finds that visitors are becoming increasingly impatient with web pages which are slow to load. This is particularly the case where mobile searches are concerned. Each study tends to come up with a different figure, but Google data states that 53% of visitors to a mobile site leave the page if it takes longer than 3 seconds to load.
Since Google rankings, and the effectiveness of Google itself, hinge upon a positive visitor experience, the speed with which a site loads has now become incredibly important. It has even been proven that one measurement has a direct effect on ranking – time to first byte (or TTFB for short). Anything which places an overhead on the page load speed should be identified and mitigated.
- Enable compression of all files
- Optimise images by serving them in the maximum displayed size, compressing them to most efficient resolution and ensure they’re in the optimum format (usually PNG or JPEG)
- Optimise video resolution and duration
- Enable browser caching by setting the relevant headers
- Switching off unused functions that are a part of the content management system or plugins
- Combine files wherever possible to reduce browser requests
- Use the best quality hosting solution that you can afford
12. Ensure your content is quality, relevant and on point
Every year promises to be the year in which content ceases to be king, but it never really happens. That’s because high quality, authoritative, useful content not only delivers what visitors are looking for, it massively boosts SEO.
Google measures the amount of time a visitor spends on each page and this metric forms a part of the ranking the page is given. Bounce rate is also measured, so if a high percentage of people land on your site and promptly exit without clicking anywhere else, this will see your ranking suffer.
Few things are more likely to make visitors dwell, rather than hitting the back button, than content which is answering their question, meeting their needs and delivering what is clearly an expert opinion.
13. Optimise for voice search
Voice Search is still a relatively new phenomenon, and so its impact on SEO has yet to come fully into focus. What is clear is that the way people speak their search queries is bound to be different to the way in which they type the same searches. Research by the website Backlinko examined 10,000 voice searches on Google Home and, amongst the results, found the following:
- Security – 70.4% of Google Home result pages feature a URL with HTTPS
- Brevity – Google has a preference for short, sharp answers. The average result to a Google Home voice search was just 29 words long.
- Social Engagement – The average result for a Google Home voice search had 1,199 Facebook shares and 44 Tweets
- Simplicity – The average search result is written to a level of complexity which is 9th Grade in the US – the age of 14 or 15.
- Long Form – The average Google voice search answer was a page containing 2,312 words.
It is widely agreed amongst search experts that ‘featured snippets’ are a good indication of voice search results. You will most likely have noticed over the past few years that for certain searches, an outlined box with a specific answer to that search appears above everything else on page one. Until recently this was rather limited to large, trusted resource sites such as Wikipedia.
However, Google has recently broadened these ‘featured snippet’ results to include results from any site it deems to provide the best answer to that query, as well as showing these results for a greater variety of searches.
It makes perfect sense that these ‘best answers’ are the most likely results given for voice searches, so achieving ‘featured snippet’ status for any of your major keywords is something all website owners should be aiming for.
14. Age and Authority
A 2016 study by Ahrefs.com looked at 2 million web pages and found that nearly 60% of those pages with a top 10 Google ranking were at least three years old. That’s good news if you’ve had your site for that length of time, as long as you take the other steps needed to optimise its performance. The same study looked at 2 million pages less than a year old and found that only 5.7% of them were ranking in the top 10 for Google for at least one keyword within the first year.
The takeaway from this for newer sites, given that it’s impossible to go back in time and make your site older than it is, is that SEO has to be handled with a laser-like focus and that the authority of the site has to be ramped up and constantly maintained to outweigh the disadvantage of relative newness.