search engine optimization illustration

In our recent webinar, 5 New Principles of SEO, we detailed the pillars that help a search engine optimization (SEO) program succeed in 2020, along with common pitfalls to avoid. Here’s a quick recap on what these pillars include:

  1. Earn rankings: You need to be visible in search results. 
  2. Encourage the click: Visibility is good, but clicks are better. 
  3. Engage the user: On-site actions are best of all. 
  4. Technical performance: Stay ahead of the competition by routinely monitoring and innovating your website.   
  5. Embrace alternative listings: The digital landscape is changing; so, too, are search results. 

Most folks with a basic understanding of SEO tend to dwell on the first of these five pillars. That’s somewhat understandable. It’s easier to fathom what success looks like there over the other four; finding your website in a simple Google search feels hugely rewarding. 

In light of this, let’s break down how one goes about earning rankings. (And be on the lookout for additional blog entries in this series, where we’ll cover what not to do in SEO, along with what you need to know about the other four pillars of a successful SEO program.)

What Do You Mean by Earning Rankings?

When you conduct a search with an engine like Google, there are typically two types of listings they’ll serve you: paid and organic. Competing websites work to make their listings rank as highly as possible in both of these listing types, because higher rankings usually equate to more clicks.  

With paid rankings, competing websites enter into an auction, each equipped with monetary bids, keywords and ad copy. The search engine will then rank a few of these competing auctioneers, based on how much they bid on a given keyword and also by assessing the relevance and quality of their ad copy and webpages. When a user clicks on one of those paid results, the click-winner pays the search engine. Hence, the term pay-per-click (PPC) is the name assigned to this marketing strategy. 

Conversely, organic listings are not directly influenced by advertising dollars. They are reserved for the “cream of the crop” among websites. Google looks at hundreds of details algorithmically to determine which websites have the best relevance to a user’s keyword and also the best website experience. 

Now that you understand that distinction, how do you go about creating the best website, and thus earning the top internet rankings?

Be the Best Company

Easier said than done, right? 

I don’t bring this up to be patronizing. You obviously know how important excellent customer service is. You’re also working diligently to be the type of company that does newsworthy things. As annoying as it can be to hear (and read, I suppose in this instance), being the best company you can be is the surest way to secure your rankings at the top of search engine results. 

It’s important to remember that Google’s primary concern is fostering trust with their web searchers. They can’t do this by rewarding crummy businesses or shotty websites with rankings that should be given to brands that users more readily trust. They’re a business like any other, and they need to keep their base of users happy in order to stay competitive. 

That being said, never forget the role that best practices are intended to serve in your SEO strategy. Anything that encourages you to do something that may position your brand poorly should be avoided. Sadly, the SEO industry is still flooded with gimmicky tactics which do exactly that (we’ll cover them in greater detail in our next blog). Never implement a tactic that doesn’t first and foremost serve your brand. Not only would that be terrible marketing, but it can also hinder user trust. And once your trust comes into question, your rankings will be at risk.

Write Naturally

Copywriters of the world, rejoice! The days of ruining the flow and tone of your page by jamming a bunch of keywords into it are officially behind you. 
This past November, Google announced they implemented a major algorithm update called BERT: (Bidirectional Encoder Representations). This algorithm tries to understand the context of words in search queries and in the pages it crawls. Perhaps ironically named, it is pushing for web creators to write less technically and in a more user-friendly manner. 
Copywriters have been pushing for such a breakthrough for ages. It had been a common source of conflict between them and traditional SEO marketers, many of whom are used to variables like word count or keyword density to quantifiably tell them when their page is optimized. Our current challenge is much more subjective in nature. And consequently, it’s time to give your copywriters and editors a bit more authority in signing off on a page for publication. 
Some questions to help determine when a webpage is optimized for natural language include:

  • Would I want to read this?
  • Is it thorough enough to answer questions I may have?
    • Think of the questions customers will likely have about your page. If you don’t believe those answers could be ascertained from your copy, expand it.  
  • How does it stand out from similar pages on the web? 
    • This is especially important for brands entering the market for the first time. You can’t just regurgitate what everyone has already said. Be original; be a thought leader. 
  • Is it easy to read, or is it bogged down with technical jargon? 
    • This can be a challenge for B2B companies, but it’s what makes B2B marketing so exciting! Our goal is to take complicated concepts and make them simple. For instance, spec sheets are important to offer, but please don’t treat your entire website as if it’s one.  
  • Is it free of typos, grammatical errors, etc.?
    • Obviously, sloppy web presentation can harm your trustworthiness. Further, it can also harm the linguistic context that BERT is trying to decipher about your page. Grammar isn’t just something your teachers bored you with in school; they’re instructions for readers on how to interpret the words on a page. 

Pro tip: not sure if your page reads naturally? Try reading your draft out loud. If you’re finding yourself perpetually tongue-tied, you may need to give your copy another pass.

Write Often

Think of your web collateral like a garden: Have you ever heard of a farmer who made a living by planting one single seed? Every page you publish on your website is an opportunity to rank in organic search and grow your garden (i.e., audience). Most pages you publish may only yield a few berries, but over time as your presence grows, you’ll start reaping a meaningful harvest (to stick with the farm analogy, if you will). SEO is therefore a game of incremental gains for most websites. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. 

Perhaps you’ve heard that blogging and SEO go hand in hand. They definitely can, and this is exactly the reason why. Blogs allow you to grow your audience flexibly (unlike your homepage, which should be updated with a lot more strategic considerations). This is also a place to showcase your expertise and thought leadership to the world for that added level of trustworthiness that Google demands of us. 

Writing often will also encourage search engines to check back on your website regularly. There’s a common myth in SEO that every page you publish takes months to reach a search engine’s “index” (i.e., their massive database of webpages they’ve assembled to quickly retrieve results for a user’s keyword). This is true for some websites, but not for others. For instance, news websites often get their pages indexed within minutes of publication. The reason for this is that they have demonstrated to Google that they are a key source of timely information and routinely publish meaningful content. They’ve effectively incentivized Google to constantly check on their websites for updates. Conversely, if your website has been dormant for six months, there’s not much of a reason for Google to expect an update. The pages you publish then may indeed take some time before Google notices.

Do Keywords Still Matter?

Most definitely! But probably not how you think they do anymore

Think of your content like a sailboat. Your keywords should merely act as a gust of wind to give your boat a little push along its journey. If you give it too much wind, you’re going to tip the boat over. You want that dinghy to go in the right direction; capsizing it would be detrimental to your business goals.

There are still some places you can (and should) include a little keyword wind, including the following:

  • URLs (including sub-pages of your site)
  • Title tags
  • Meta descriptions
  • Header tags
  • Page copy (carefully!)
  • Image file names and alt text

Aside from these traditional tactics, keywords can also serve as informational and forecasting tools. Keyword research can be leveraged similarly to how Nielsen’s ratings data is leveraged for TV programmers. It can gauge what topics, products, services, etc. have the biggest audiences in search engines and what types of questions your marketplace is frequently asking. It can then be used to guide (but not instruct) your copywriters about what topics they should be writing.

What Next?

Let’s assume you’ve gone through the task of building trust in your marketplace by being the best business you can be. You’ve also made sure you’re writing in a naturalistic manner and doing it often with great thought-leading collateral. You’re checking in with Google regularly and getting excited to see your website ranking routinely. 

But now you’re wondering why the phone isn’t ringing off the hook and your inbox isn’t jammed with new sales or inquiries. 

Earning rankings is an important first step in your SEO journey — but it’s only one of many before you can move the needle for your business objectives. 
In our next blog entry of the series, we’ll delve into thinking beyond impressions and how to start driving meaningful web interactions. We’ll also cover what not to do in order to avoid hurting your rankings in organic search. 

Stay tuned!