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.
So, in 2020, 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, and release guidelines for search quality – it’s 168 pages long and that’s just the stuff they tell you about.
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 featured highly
- In 2020, the biggest development has been surrounding visual search (Google Lens).
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.
For existing sites, the data in the Search Console Queries report is invaluable. By looking at the impressions your site gets for searches containing a given keyword, you can see exactly what most users are searching for in order to find sites like yours, whilst also seeing where you currently rank for that search term.
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. Getting a green padlock for all pages is important, so ‘mixed content’ needs to be fixed to only include content served from secure sources.
Depending on the number of pages on your website, securing your website could be a big job, so better to start on this sooner rather than later.
For all of these reasons, we have had all our clients on https for a couple of years now.
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.
Here’s a useful resource to help you with this.
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/.
Here’s a good article on URL best practices, rules and other info.
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.
The ultimate way to attract backlinks is to create high quality content yourself. Provide unique information, or the most thorough explanation on a subject. Keep it relevant, precise and well optimised and the backlinks should follow.
Low quality and low relevancy backlinks drive low quality visitors, so if a user follows the link to your site but isn’t really interested in the subject, they will leave causing a bounce and driving your engagement metrics down.
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. In fact, 82% of consumer traffic online will be video by 2021.
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.
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 fact, mobile first indexing is already at 70% of all web pages and it’s expected that by September 2020 this will be 100%.
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. Clickable elements also need to be spaced enough apart for hands of all sizes.
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. Schema Markup
Schema has all sorts of applications within a webpage and this is a great article covering much of it.
But the most important application in terms of organic SEO is the ‘local business’ or ‘organisation’ markup, which enables you to tell Google all about the business including what the business does, the address, opening hours, contact details, logo URL, the listing on Google Maps, associated social media accounts and much more.
It lets Google better match search queries to your website and even enables better and more comprehensive search result (SERPs) formatting.
13. Optimise for voice search
Voice Search is the fastest growing sector. 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 Quora Creative examined 10,000 voice searches on smartphones, smart devices and computers, found the following:
- 40% of the adults now use mobile voice search at least once daily.
- 20% of the adults use mobile voice search at least once monthly.
- 5% of teenagers are using voice search daily basis.
- Voice-based searches using a mobile phone are 3 times more likely to be location-specific.
- How fast your page loads has a major role to play in voice search SEO. The average result returned against a voice search query loads 52% faster than the average page.
- The more social shares a page has, the more chances for it to be selected for a voice search query.
- Like natural conversation, short and concise answers are prefered for voice search queries. An average voice search query result is 29 words long.
- Using structured data / schema have not shown to improve ranking for voice search queries.
- Results against voice search queries are selected from regular pages, which means creating pages specifically for a voice search query only does not help content rank for voice search.
- If your content is digestible for a high schooler, it is favoured by algorithms for voice search query.
- Long form content tends to be an ideal target for algorithms when selecting results for voice search queries and average content ranking for voice search results has more than 2,300 words.
- 1 out of 5 voice search queries use a combination of only 25 keywords. Using these words, wherever you can (wisely), will help your content rank higher for voice based results.
One important factor to consider for voice search is the rising importance of long-tailed keywords, as a result of voice searches being far longer (in word count) than traditional searches.
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.
It is important to note that registration of a domain tarts the clock ticking for the age of your site, so register your domain name as soon as you think of it – don’t wait until you actually get underway with building your site. As well as this, a far-future expiry date indicates a higher quality site.