New to the world of search engine optimization (SEO)? Columnist John Lincoln explains some things you might not know about this online marketing discipline.
SEO is a complicated discipline. There are many components to it, and best practices change from time to time. Add to that the fact that Google updates its algorithm frequently, causing ranking shifts that are known to make digital marketers lose sleep.
Additionally, Google often releases new technologies that offer alternative ways to rank. That makes the lives of SEOs even more complicated, as they have to overcome a learning curve to properly serve their clients.
One day, it might be easier to become a doctor than an SEO — kidding! (But not really… )
Even now, though, there’s a lot of misinformation (and missing information) about what it takes to rank a page in organic search results. Here are nine things most people don’t understand about SEO.
1. Bigger really is better, in most cases, for big terms
In some niches, Google favors larger sites.
If you’re launching an e-commerce site that sells men’s jeans, it’s not likely that you’re going to rank at the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs) for the search phrase, “men’s jeans.”
Why? Google “men’s jeans” right now and see who’s at the top.
Disregard the sponsored ads, and you’ll notice names like Macy’s, Nordstrom, American Eagle, Levi, and Kohl’s. Do you really think you have the SEO power to knock any of those brands out of their position?
Spoiler: You don’t.
Google will generally favor brands that are household names over new startups when it comes to ranking. That’s because the search giant wants to provide the best possible experience for its users.
So does that mean all hope is lost if you’re running a new company that wants to sell men’s jeans online? Not at all.
First of all, you can optimize for your own brand name. That way, once you’ve got some reputation in your space, people can still find your site by searching for your name.
Also, you can run paid ads. They can put you at the top of the SERPs, but keep in mind that advertising can be costly. As of this writing, the suggested bid for “men’s jeans” is $2.09 per click, according to Keyword Planner, so your margins had better be spectacular.
You should also look for alternative keywords that you can use to promote your brand. You might come across some golden opportunities that even your biggest competitors haven’t noticed.
For example, you might be offering a specific style/color combination of men’s jeans. Optimize your site for a search term that includes that style and color.
2. Websites are broken up into segments
The reality is that you’re not trying to rank a site. You’re trying to rank pages within a site.
Unless you have a site that’s a just a single landing page, then ranking a page and a site aren’t the same thing. It’s more likely that you have various segments on your website, including a home page, a contact form, a blog, a categories page, a price table, a FAQ and possibly other parts. For example, if you take a look at Levi’s website, they have a structure that breaks the site up into sections for Men, Women, Kids and so on.
Some of those segments are more valuable than others. For example, you’re probably not interested in ranking your contact form. However, you certainly want to rank the content on your blog. Focus on ranking pages that will reel in potential customers from the SERPs. Then, use your favorite method to capture their contact information and add them to your email list.
3. You might just need to rank for a few terms
You might think that to be successful in SEO, you have to rank for dozens of search terms in the top three positions. That’s not necessarily the case.
If you’re in a micro-niche or your target market is very narrow, it’s likely that you can get away with just ranking for one or two terms. For example, if you’re selling “disc profiles,” you are going to make most of your revenue from a few core terms.
The main point here is that for some sites, ranking for lots of terms makes sense. For others, you can make great money just targeting a few core terms.
4. Content marketing is very competitive
You’ve probably heard “content is king.” Unfortunately, so has everybody else in your niche.
That’s why you need to be at the top of your game when it comes to inbound marketing. Invest the right amount of time and money into keyword research, hire the best writers, update your blog consistently, and pull out all the stops to create attention-grabbing headlines with amazing content.
I recommend using BuzzSumo and Moz Content. Both allow you to analyze a site’s content, uncover their strategies, track the new content they create and search the most popular content. Both create some pretty nice reports, too.
Take a look at your competition — then make a better page for your site.
5. Early adoption pays off
As we’ve seen, Google is known to release new technologies from time to time. Some of those technologies can help you rank in the SERPs.
That’s why you should be an early adopter.
For starters, take a look at accelerated mobile pages (AMP). That’s an open-source project backed by Google that enables webpages to load lightning-fast on a mobile platform. AMP pages can appear at the very top of mobile search results in carousel format. You can see a visual of this in the video below:
Speaking of mobile, make sure that your site is fully mobile-friendly. Google uses mobile-friendliness as a ranking factor for mobile search results, so if you expect your site to rank there, it had better behave well for a mobile audience.
Finally, be an early adopter when it comes to using HTTPS on your website instead of HTTP. Even though Google announced back in 2014 that it was giving secure sites a ranking boost, a lot of sites have still stubbornly refused to make the switch. If you want to potentially have an edge on your competition, use HTTPS.
When it comes to SEO, you need to be the first to market with new technology. These are just a few examples. It takes a little time to plan, develop and execute, so it is always a good idea to start when the news of new tech breaks.
6. SEO can be used to target different global markets
Did you know that you can rank your site in different countries? If your product or service is something that can be appreciated by people outside the United States, you should optimize your site for an international audience.
One way to do that is by offering a country-specific domain — for example, if you’re targeting people in France, you can use the country-code top-level domain (ccTLD) of .fr. You can also host separate content for each different country on a directory or a subdomain.
When targeting other markets, don’t forget to translate your content into the appropriate foreign languages. After all, you can’t expect your content marketing efforts to be successful if people in foreign countries can’t read your articles in their native language.
You should also register your business in foreign countries, list your business in web directories specific to those countries, and even have your site hosted in those regions.
Here is a client we recently pushed into 27 different countries and languages. Check out this growth in Italy alone.
7. There are lots of ways to be visible in Google results
You might be under the impression that the only way to rank in Google is by building backlinks and using on-site SEO so that a page ends up as high in the SERPs as possible. However, there are other ways to gain visibility and visitors from the SERPs.
For example, if you can get into Google’s Knowledge Graph, your brand can potentially earn a prominent spot at the top of the SERP, to the right of organic listings. It’s quite an effort to get a Knowledge Graph entry, but once you do, you could give your brand a big boost.
You can also stand out from the crowd by using structured data markup to display rich snippets, which are visual enhancements to a SERP listing. Structured data markup is added to your website code to provide Google with more information about the content on your site.
If you Google “best pancake recipe” right now, you’ll see results that include aggregate ratings in the form of stars. You’ll also see calorie counts. Those are rich snippets, and they make the listing in the SERPs stand out.
By the way, you’ll also see that there’s a direct answer at the very top of many search engine results pages. That’s another way that you can achieve search visibility: by establishing your site as an authority in your space and producing content that Google determines to be a quick answer to a user’s query.
If you have a brick-and-mortar business, you can also rank within the local 3-pack. If you Google the name of your city plus the word “plumber,” you’ll see a map below the paid ads at the top. Just below that map, you’ll see three listings in your area. (To get started with local SEO, check out Marcus Miller’s “The big picture guide to local SEO: ranking in 2016 & beyond.”)
As discussed above, publishers can rank by appearing at the top of the mobile SERPs when they implement accelerated mobile pages (AMP).
Here is a list of common result types that appear in Google’s blended search results pages:
- Organic listings
- Knowledge Graph cards
- The local 3-pack
- Instant answers (also known as “featured snippets”)
- AMP carousel
- Google Images
- Google Videos
- Google News
SEMrush and many of the other SEO ranking tools actually report on these varying result types now, which is great.
The main point is, there’s more than one way to win.
8. There are many different specialties in SEO
Search engine optimization is a broad online marketing channel that includes a handful of niche disciplines. There are SEO practitioners who specialize in technical SEO, link building, content marketing, local SEO, international SEO and more.
And guess what? Each requires a different skill set.
Bottom line: You need to determine first how you want to rank a site and then select the appropriate campaign strategy.
9. There are other search engines besides Google
Sure, Google is the undisputed leader in web searches. That doesn’t mean that other search engines don’t exist and that people in your target market don’t use them.
The most obvious competitor to Google is Bing. That’s Microsoft’s search engine, and as of this writing, its share of search traffic is growing faster than Google’s.
And don’t forget about YouTube. Believe it or not, YouTube is the second-largest search engine in the world behind Google.
Of course, there’s also Amazon. You might think of Amazon as more of an e-commerce giant than a search engine. However, it’s the starting point for 44 percent of consumers searching for products.
When you’re optimizing your content assets, make sure that you take into account the broad spectrum of search engines that exist online. Where you choose to focus your optimization efforts will depend on your goals online.
There is a lot to know
What you don’t know can hurt you when it comes to SEO. Going forward, it’s important that you also keep up with the latest changes in SEO best practices — otherwise, your future optimization efforts might fall flat.