The New Rules of SEO: What You Need to Know About Getting to the Top

So you want Google searchers to find your website on the first page of their search results. It’s simple right? Hire a Search Engine Optimization expert to perform some black magic and there you have it; your website is higher on the list, your traffic is up, a job well done! If only it were that easy. SEO has changed, and continues to evolve. Google is getting smarter – trying to “game the system” is no longer cutting it because Google punishes websites that are “over-optimized”. So what now? It’s the question every website owner wants answered: How does Google rank their search results and how can I get higher on the list? The answer is both simple and complex.

Let’s start with the simple answer: Google is modeled on the human mind. If Google thinks people will like your website, then Google will like your website. If you consistently create a lot of great content that people will share, ensure your website loads quickly and is enjoyable to use, and talk about your subject matter using words your audience is expecting, people will like your website, and so will Google. Give it time and and your website’s popularity will grow.

Perhaps it’s a bit more complex: Google is still just a computer, and it uses dozens of interrelated factors or ‘signals’ to determine how to rank a webpage. A great resource for reviewing all of the ranking factors in detail is produced by an SEO monitoring software company called SEOMoz. Google itself also has a handy SEO guide. All of these factors can seem overwhelming and take a while to go through and understand. Thankfully, there are people out there like Peter Sickles who have a pretty good handle on it. It was a pleasure to attend Peter’s presentation at the Atlantic Internet Marketing conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia earlier this year. I’d love to share with you a summary of what I learned. I’ll cover Visibility, Reputation, Trust, Content, and User Experience.

Major Factors Affecting Search Rankings

Visibility

  • The easy way: In order for Google to read through your website, it has to know that it exists and it has to know the location of each page on your site. In many cases Google can figure this out on its own. All that’s really required is a single link to your homepage from a website Google already knows about. Google will follow that link to your homepage and then follow the links in your menu system to discover all your other pages.
  • Sitemaps: The more direct approach is to submit your URL. You can use Google Webmaster Tools to submit an “XML Sitemap” file, which details the location of each of your website’s pages. If your website has a separate URL for mobile visitors (such as m.sitename.com), submit a separate XML Sitemap for that version as well.

Reputation and Trust

  • High number of links: Google wants to provide the best possible websites to searchers, and often this means those websites with the best reputation. Google determines reputation by looking at links to your website as if they were referrals. Both the number of links and the quality of those links make a big difference.
  • High quality links: So your high quality content and your networking efforts have created lots of links to your website. Not all links are created equally. High quality links come from websites that are themselves highly ranked. High quality links use words that are relevant to what the searcher is searching for, and they are found on pages discussing topics similar to your own. There are a lot of things you can do to help build up quality links around the Internet – check out the mother of all link-building articles for some ideas.
  • Good usage statistics: When someone finds your website in a Google search, it matters whether that person clicks onto your webpage or not (“clickthrough rate”), and whether or not that person retreats back to the search results after visiting your webpage (“bounce rate”). High clickthrough rates and low bounce rates send a message to Google that yes, searchers consider your website valuable.
  • Strong social media presence: Word on the web is that Google has started incorporating information about your organization’s social media activity into their system. The number of followers on your Twitter account, the number of shares, likes, and mentions of your organization’s name or content, and the reputation of those who are talking about you, can all provide an indication of your own reputation in the social media realm.
  • No black-hat tactics: The Internet can be a very sketchy place, and Google tries to avoid recommending poor quality or manipulative websites to searchers. Your website better not have used sneaky SEO tricks in the past. Such “black-hat” tactics include things like publishing keyword-stuffed content that is visible to search engines but invisible to people. These kinds of tricks will haunt you because eventually Google lowers your “Trust Rank”. On the other hand, if your domain name has been around for a while and has been a good Internet citizen, your search ranking benefits.
  • Include your street address: Google also likes to see a real street address in the footer of your webpages. This indicates you are a legitimate organization with nothing to hide.

Content and User Experience

  • Well selected keywords: If your goal is to get to the top of the search results page, it begs the question: “the search results page for what search terms?”. Think about problems your product or service can help solve. Brainstorm to think about how your target market might search for a product or solution like yours. Think up entire phrases in addition to single words. Often you’ll have greater success ranking highly for niche phrases. Think about how you can target different keywords on different pages. Google doesn’t rank websites as a whole, they rank specific webpages within websites. Your homepage is one webpage, and each of your blog posts is another webpage. Google provides a really helpful tool for suggesting keywords and phrases. You can also learn a lot about what people are searching for in your product category from Google Trends. If you’ve been using Google Analytics to track your current website, there’s insight there about what search terms people have used already to find your website. Last but not least, there’s competitor analysis services like SpyFu that help you find the keywords your competitors are targeting. With this knowledge, you can decide to compete directly for the same keywords, or you can differentiate by targeting something else.
  • Well used keywords: When Google tries to get a sense for what a page is all about, there are a number things it looks at. In your page’s HTML code, you’ll want to include your keywords in the “meta title” and “meta description”, which is the title and description of the page as seen in the search results. Don’t worry about “meta tags” since Google ignores them anyway. You’ll also want to include keywords in the “Heading 1” or  “H1” tag, which is the title of the page as seen on the page itself. You’ll want your page’s URL to match your page title too. Beyond that, try to include your keywords in the first paragraph on the page, and then throughout your page text in a natural way. Be careful though; if you start to purposely inject your keywords into your paragraph text too often, Google might think you are “over-optimizing” and your page may get penalized. Use a tool like Yoast to measure keyword density and try to keep it below 5%. A good practice is to use “latent keywords”, which are synonyms of your “direct keywords”. This reflects a more natural writing style that isn’t trying too hard to optimize for search engines.
  • Easy to read: Make sure you write at an appropriate level for your audience. For general audiences, keep sentences short, use bullet points, and use headings (“H2” and “H3” tags in the HTML) to chunk your content into sections on the page.
  • Tagged images: There’s also images to consider. Ensure you’ve added “alt tags” to your images, which are what Google reads to get an idea of what the image depicts. In addition to the “alt tag”, the name of the image file itself and any caption next to the image on the page are other spots to consider including keywords. This is critical if you want searchers to find your page through Google’s image search.
  • Easy navigation: Google likes hierarchical navigation structures that help guide users from general content to more specific content. If your website has a lot of pages, it’s important to categorize them into sections. If your content get’s quite deep, it’s helpful to include a “breadcrumb” link trail on your pages that helps users navigate back up the hierarchy.
  • Fast page loading: This is a big one that is often overlooked. Your readers really don’t like waiting more than 3 seconds for a page to load. To achieve this loading time, the code that creates your website needs to be as efficient as possible, so you’ll want a web developer who knows how to do this. Image files also need to be compressed, and the amount of images on any given page needs to be reasonable.

Here’s the takeaway message:

Your SEO strategy can be simple or complex, depending on your overall marketing strategy and your budget. Either way, do your best to optimize for user experience rather that trying too hard to optimize for search engines. In order to please Google, you need to first please people.

SEO Resources:

  1. Google’s Own SEO Guide
  2. SEOMoz Ranking Factors
  3. Ranking Factors Infographic
  4. Peter Sickles Twitter Page
  5. Link Building Strategies from Point Blank SEO
  6. Google’s Keyword Research Tool
  7. Google Trends
  8. SpyFu Competitor Analysis Service
  9. KissMetrics Infographic on Page Loading Times

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