If your business is healthy, you can always find plenty of reasons to leave SEO on your to-do list in perpetuity. After all, SEO is technical, complicated, time-consuming and potentially dangerous. The SEO industry is full of self-proclaimed gurus whose lack of knowledge can be deadly. There’s the terrifying fact that even if you dabble in SEO in the most gentle and innocent way, you might actually end up in a worse state than you were to begin with.
To make matters worse, Google keeps changing the rules. There have been a bewildering number of major updates, which despite their cuddly names have had a horrific impact on website owners worldwide.
Fear aside, there’s also the issue of time. It’s probably tricky enough to find the time to read this article. Setting up, planning and executing an SEO campaign might well seem like an insurmountable obstacle.
So why should you care enough about SEO to do it anyway?
The main reason is that you probably already see between 30% and 60% of your website traffic come from the search engines. That might make you think that you don’t need to bother, because you’re already doing so well. But you’re almost certainly wrong.
If you have a look through the keyword data in your Google Webmaster Tools account, you’ll probably see that around 30–50% of the keywords used to find your website are brand names – the names of your products or companies. These are searches carried out by people who already know about you. But the people who don’t know who you are but are searching for what you sell aren’t finding you right now. This is your opportunity.
If a person goes looking for a company or product by name, Google will steer them towards what they’re looking for. Their intelligence does have limits, however, and even though they know your name they won’t be completely clear about what you sell. That’s where SEO would come in.
Still need more convincing? How about the fact that the seeming complexities of SEO mean that your competition are almost certainly neglecting it too. They have the same reservations as you about complexity, time and danger, and hopefully they aren’t reading this article and so are none the wiser of the well-kept secret: that 70% of SEO is easy.
I’m going to lead you through what you need to do to tap into that stream of people looking for what you sell right now.
What is real SEO?
Real SEO is all about helping Google understand the content of your website. It’s about steering, guiding and assisting Google. Not manipulating it.
It’s easy to assume that Google already understands the content and relevance of each and every page on your website, but the fact is that it needs a fair amount of hand-holding. Fortunately, helping Google along really isn’t very difficult at all.
Rest assured that real SEO has nothing to do with keyword stuffing, keyword density, hacks, tricks or cunning techniques. If you hear any of these terms from your SEO advisor, run away from them as quickly as you can.
Understanding your current situation – Google Analytics
Before you can do anything to improve your SEO status, you need to get an idea of how you’re already doing. Below is a very quick and easy way of doing so.
1. Open up your Google Analytics account.
2. Click on the date range selector on the top-right of the interface and change the year of the first date to last year. So 12 Dec 2014 will become 12 Dec 2013. Then click on Apply.
3. Click on the All Sessions rectangle towards the top-left, click once on Organic Traffic and click Apply.
4. Click the little black-and-white squares icon that has now appeared under the date selector on the top-right, and drag the slider all the way over to Higher Precision.
5. Change the interval buttons on the top-right of the graph to Week to make this easier to digest.
At this point your graph should look something like this:
It’s worth noting the approximate proportion of your visitors that currently come from organic sources.
6. Click the little downwards arrow to the right of the All Sessions rectangle and choose Remove, so that we’re only looking at the organic traffic on its own.
7. Click on Select a metric next to the Sessions button above the graph and select Pages / Session. You should then see something like this:
In the example above we can see that the quantity of traffic has been increasing since the middle of August, but the quality of the traffic (as measured by the number of pages per session) has fallen significantly.
How you choose to view this is down to your own graph, recent history and interpretation of events, but this should give you an indication of how things stand at the present time. Trends are often much more revealing than a snapshot of a brief moment in time.
Your Google Webmaster Tools data
If you’re not very familiar with your Google Webmaster Tools account, it’s really worth taking ten to fifteen minutes to see what’s on offer. I can’t recommend this enough. From the point of view of an SEO health check, I’d advise you to look into the HTML Improvements, Crawl Errors and Crawl Stats, and most importantly the Search Queries.
From what you see here and the trends shown in your Analytics data, you should now have a good idea of your current status. If you want to explore further, I recommend Screaming Frog as a good diagnostics tool, or Botify if your website is large or unusually complex.
Combining the data into something useful
Your Google Analytics session will have shown you how you’re doing from an SEO point of view in terms of the quantity and, to some extent, the quality of your visitors. But it’s only showing you what is already working. In other words: the people who are finding you on the search engines, and clicking on your links.
The Google Webmaster Tools search query data, on the other hand, will give you a better idea of what isn’t working. It will show you the keyword searches that are getting you listed in the results, but which aren’t necessarily getting clicked. And it doesn’t take much by the way of expertise to see why.
For example, if you see your targeted keyword, which you feel is extremely relevant, has generated over 2,000 impressions in the last month but produced only two clicks, you’ll probably find a very low average position. Bear in mind that an average position of fourteen will mean being around halfway down the second page of results. Think about how rarely you go beyond the first two or three listings, never mind to the second page of results, and you’ll understand why the click-through rate is so low.
So now you have an idea of what you’re being found for at the present time. But what about the other terms?
What would you like to be found for?
This is one of the more common SEO mistakes, on a number of different levels.
Many businesses assume that they don’t need to worry about keyword research. They think they know what terms people use to find what they sell, and they also assume that Google understands the content on their website. This is incorrect on all counts.
A better starting point is to brainstorm a small number of your most obvious keywords, then run them through Google’s Keyword Planner. Ignore the information in the Ad group ideas tab, and instead go straight to the Keyword ideas tab. Rather than wade through the very unfriendly interface, I recommend downloading the data as a spreadsheet, in which not only is more detail included, but you can also slice, dice, sort and report the data as required.
From there you can delete all the irrelevant columns, and start working your way through the list, deleting any irrelevant keywords as you go along.
It’s around this stage that you may hit a problem in terms of where to focus your efforts. The number of reported searches for a given keyword is of course important, but so is the level of competition. Ideally, you’d like keywords with plenty of searches but not too much competition.
I personally like to factor both together by adding a column that simply divides the number of searches squared by the level of competition:
(number of searches × number of searches) ÷ competition
There are plenty of alternatives to this basic formula, but I like it for ease of use and simplicity. Once I’ve added this column, I then sort the data by this value (largest to smallest) and I then only usually need ten to fifteen keywords at most to give me plenty of ideas to work with.
This is a slightly involved but effective methodology for keyword research, as what you’re left with is a list of keywords that both Google and you consider to be relevant to the content of your website. And relevance is an important concept in SEO.
Real SEO keyword research is about making sure that your customers, website and Google are all in agreement and alignment over the content of your website. Other sources of inspiration and ideas include having a look at what terms your competition are targeting, Google Trends and, of course, Google Suggest. If you’re not sure where to find these things, you can probably work out where to search for them!
If you want to dive further into understanding your current search engine status, search for some of the better keywords that you just discovered and see where you rank compared to your competition. Note that it’s vital to avoid Google serving up personalised results, so either use the privacy, incognito or anonymous mode of your browser for the searches, or use a browser that you don’t normally use. I hope this is Internet Explorer. If what you find isn’t great, don’t despair: everything in SEO is fixable (terms and conditions may apply).
Putting it all together
You should now have a good idea of where things stand with your current search engine traffic, and a solid list of keywords that you’re not getting visitors for but very much want.
All that’s left now is to work out how to use these keywords. But before we do, let’s take a quick step back.
If you have in any way kept up with what’s been happening in SEO over the last couple of years, you’ll have probably heard about Google updates with names like Panda, Hummingbird, Phantom, Pirate and more.
I won’t go into the technical details of what Google is doing, but it is important to understand why they’re trying to do it. At the most basic level, Google understands that there’s a very real problem with people who are trying manipulate its index. In response to this, Google is trying to clean up its results. They don’t want people getting fed up with bad results and considering other options – have you even tried Bing?
This is extremely important. Remember earlier when I said that 70% of SEO was easy? That rule still applies. So, for example, if you have a list of keywords that you know are relevant to what you sell, then all you need to do is create great content for them. Incredibly, that’s all there is to it (terms and conditions apply again, unfortunately – see below).
There is, however, one simple rule to be consistently followed without exception: that the content you create should not only be good quality and completely original, but it should also be written primarily for the human visitor and not the search engine spider.
In other words, if you create some fantastic content for a keyword like “choosing a small business HR service”, then the article should not only make perfect sense if read out loud (as opposed to the same phrase being repeated fifteen times), but also provide real value to the person reading it.
So the process is simple:
- Choose your keywords
- Create spectacular content
Wait. Is it really that simple?
Unfortunately there’s a lot more to the other 30% of SEO than just creating great content and waiting for the visitors. There are issues like helping Google understand the content on your pages and website, incoming links, page authority, domain authority, usage patterns, spam factors, canonical issues and much more.
But there’s the often overlooked fact about Google: it actually does a reasonable job of working out what’s on your website and (to some extent) understanding the gist of it. If you’ve never done any SEO on your website but still get some traffic from Google, this is why.
Even without dabbling in the other 30% of SEO, by creating the right content for the right visitors using the precise language and terminology that your potential customers are using, you’re significantly better off than your competition. And you can only gain from this.
When you’ve checked this off your to-do list and made it an ingrained part of your content creation process, then you’re ready to delve into the other 30% of SEO. The not-so-easy side.
Until then, work on understanding your current situation, exploring the opportunities, creating a list of good keywords, creating the right content for them, and starting 2015 with a little bit of smart, safe and real SEO.