About a decade ago, I was the Freelance Writing Guide for About.com, a company that rigorously trains its employees in search engine optimization (SEO). In addition to receiving that formal training, I locked myself away in a café for a week and studied what was then a leading book on all things SEO, to help wrap my brain around the concepts I was learning.
Eventually I left the Freelance Writing Guide position and launched my own blog, Dancing with Pain®, which shot to the #1 spot on Google, for the keyword natural pain relief. Then, as I segued into public relations management, I continued to implement everything I had learned, as well as intuited, about SEO over the years – among other things, generating inbound links to my clients’ websites, from top media outlets –with the result that my clients’ websites shot to the #1 spot on Google, for the various keywords of choice.
Recently, however, SEO got so damn convoluted, with algorithms changing every six minutes, that I stopped trying to keep up and now advise clients to bring an SEO specialist on board. For those on a budget, however, I figured it would be helpful to pass on these hot DIY tips from Tommy Landry, an SEO expert from Austin, Texas. Like a proper geek, Tommy uses numerous technical terms when discussing SEO. To ensure that even the novice understands the concepts to which he is referring, you will find these terms linked to blog posts on topic – either those Tommy wrote himself or those he recommends from other SEO specialists.
Loolwa Khazzoom: What is the #1 most important thing that people need to know about SEO?
Tommy Landry: SEO is a long-haul strategy, and there are no effective shortcuts to success. Plan to dedicate time, energy, and resources to SEO, and the results will come. Anything that attempts to accelerate the process by “gaming” the system will backfire eventually, typically by way of a penalty from Google.
LK: What is the biggest mistake you find people making, when attempting to manage SEO on their own?
TL: Most people have, at best, an over-simplified idea of what SEO is and how it works. We talk to people all the time who say they know about SEO. In most cases, “knowing SEO” means generating content with on-page optimization (i.e. placing keywords in all the right places for Google to find and index them), then hoping the rankings follow. Without understanding more in-depth topics such as technical SEO, off-page SEO, advanced keyword filtering, and semantic markup, DIY SEOs will be hard-pressed to show actual results from their efforts.
LK: Is there ever a time that people can or perhaps even should ignore SEO?
TL: More than half of how Google decides to rank websites depends on who links from their website to yours. The more authoritative the website that links to your domain, the better your content will rank, by virtue of association with said authority.
This is why your clients’ and your websites quickly have improved in ranking for various keyword searches. By generating coverage among high authority domains such as The New York Times and Dr. Oz, you have secured some of the most coveted inbound links, passing along authority of those sites to the sites of your clients and yourself.
For websites that already have established link profiles and domain authority, publishing content should suffice for SEO benefit. Those websites quickly will rank and naturally will earn more links, as a result of the inherent visibility of their domains as a whole. There are also industries where the target audience either is not online (as in the case of products targeting oil rig workers who go offshore to work) or is not likely to do a search for options (as in the case of well-established industries, where there are only a couple of nationally-known options).
LK: What are your guidelines on balancing the art of writing with the functionality of SEO – in websites? in blog posts?
TL: Previously Google focused on “character matching” algorithms, scanning for web pages with exact words and characters typed into a search field. Today, however, Google focuses on search intent, scanning for web pages associated with the meanings of words typed into a search field. A well-built list of semantic SEO topics identifies keyword variations and synonyms - providing a range of verbiage that helps keep the content reading naturally and making it easier to optimize content. Semantic SEO is paramount to effective SEO performance in 2017.
It also pays to understand semantic markup, or to hire someone to take care of it for you. Semantic markup enables you to establish “entities” via the code, which Google and the other search engines can use to help better interpret the intent of your content. Semantic markup will help you rank better on low volume/low competition searches, many of which happen for the first time ever on a daily basis (up to 25% of daily searches have never happened before, according to Google).
LK: For small business owners without the budget to hire an SEO expert, what are your top three tips for selecting and incorporating keywords?
TL: Think about how someone might search online, for the kinds of products or services you offer. For example, consider a problem for which your product or service offers a solution, and build keywords around fixing that problem. Do your keyword research, to figure out how many searches each keyword gets on a monthly basis, but also factor in search competition (i.e. how difficult it will be to rank for a keyword, based on the strength of sites already ranking for it). High volume keywords are almost certain to have high competition, so lesser-volume but more attainable options will be preferable. Among other considerations, think in terms of topics (similar keywords to use in tandem, such as “Auto Shipping,” “Car Shipping,” “Auto Transport,” “Vehicle Shipping,” etc.). These topics will be peppered into your body copy, and also used in the most important on-page elements that will tell Google what you are targeting, such as page title, meta description, etc.
LK: Would you recommend any online tools for selecting keywords?
TL: I always advocate starting out with the Google Keyword Planner, for anyone who has access to it. That’s a great way to generate an initial keyword list, based on a crawl of your website. It also will be insightful for seeing what Google “thinks” your site is about (which may surprise you). Next, review the results and choose what you most want to pursue. If possible, review what your competitors are pursuing as well, and consider adding those keywords to your list. Get access to a premium keyword tool, to layer in the SEO competition/keyword difficulty metrics (SEMrush, Moz, ahrefs, and Market Samurai are tops in my book). If you don’t pay to use any of these premium/paid tools, keep in mind that any well-qualified SEO expert will have access to one or more of them.
LK: For solopreneurs managing every aspect of their business, having to think about and implement SEO on every website page and blog post can feel overwhelming. Is there such a thing as fast and easy SEO implementation, or are there no shortcuts?
TL: For on-page SEO (the body copy and other elements on each web page that you control), knowing where to place keywords is a big deal. The art of keyword placement can be learned very quickly when working with a WordPress-based website, through installing Yoast SEO for WordPress. This plugin adds a dialogue at the bottom of the page and post editing views - evaluating your on-page optimization in real time, as you build the page.
Presuming you have a great target keyword already picked out, you can add it in the Yoast section at the bottom, and Yoast will tell you whether or not you have used it correctly in the various meta tags, ALT-Texts for images (which is a great place to include keywords that many overlook), and body copy. That said, for everything else under the SEO umbrella, the savvy solopreneur will understand that nothing is immediate, and patience is absolutely required.
LK: How many keywords do you recommend using per page, and why?
TL: Given that keywords are more important as guideposts today, we recommend identifying topics that include multiple keywords. Once you have rounded those up, put together long tail keywords - terms with 3+ words, incorporating short keywords. In the case of your Dancing with Pain® blog, for example, you included the keyword “pain” in “natural pain relief.” Had you selected “pain” alone, you would have been competing with the leading pharmaceutical corporations and the United States government, among other top contenders. Even with your inbound links from prestigious media, it would have been quite a challenge to secure the #1 spot on Google for the keyword “pain.”
Longer tail versions, like “natural pain relief,” have lower search volumes and much lower competition for page 1 ranking, creating the greatest chance of securing the highest placements. In other words, it is better to come in at the #1 spot on the first page of a Google search for “natural pain relief” than it is to come in somewhere on the fifth or twelfth page of a Google search for “pain.”
Bottom line: Use long tail versions as your target keywords. The rest of the iterations on the keyword can be used within the content, to help indicate to Google what the overall topic should be for that page or post.
LK: Back in the day, if you hyperlinked a keyword on one page to the same hyperlinked keyword on another page – in particular, if that keyword was in the first paragraph – you would get additional SEO juice. Now that practice gets you dinged. Why the switch? And if someone is genuinely writing on that topic, how does s/he emphasize the natural keywords, without it backfiring?
TL: About a decade ago, the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) began to be overrun by poor-quality websites that were using highly-questionable tactics to leapfrog other websites. Some were ranking because of over-optimized content, which Google eliminated with their Google Panda penalty. Others were cheating with their link-building – by automating link acquisition with software tools that placed a ton of links on random websites, as well as by keyword-stuffing the anchor texts pointing back to their sites. (Anchor texts are the words that are highlighted in blue and underlined, linking to other pages.) So Google rolled out the Google Penguin penalty, to hand-slap webmasters who were overly-aggressive with their off-page link-building. As a result, today you can’t over-optimize the text in the hyperlink itself (anchor text), without opening yourself up to a penalty by Google.
This development is actually great. Keyword tracking is obsolete now that we have semantic search. The better metric to keep tabs on is domain authority, which measures the search “weight” of your website, relative to all sites on the web. Domain authority, in turn, is driven by a range of link-related factors. These reasons are why link-building should be left to a highly-knowledgeable SEO expert, rather than be executed on the basis of guesswork. Guesswork literally can backfire, resulting in a website being de-indexed altogether.
LK: Since domain authority is now the primary consideration for SEO, would you say that generating top media coverage, and therefore, inbound links from leading authorities, is more important than ever?
TL: Yes and no. Generating top media coverage will absolutely help you rank and improve your domain authority (DA). Better yet, however, if you can get a third party to include a link to your site within a contextual piece, i.e. non-promotional in nature, you will get even more DA weight with Google.
Don’t get me wrong; the press coverage is still a fantastic DA builder. If you can have a major media publication write about your business, your owner, or anything special you have accomplished, make it happen. But Google absolutely loves “earned” links rather than proactively-pursued placements. Such links often come through content from third-party writers on a topic you have covered, with a link to your blog or website as a reference supporting key point(s) in the content. The higher the DA on the site linking to your domain, the more your own site will rise organically in searches.
LK: Yoast SEO plug-in will ding someone for using “a,” “the,” “in,” etc – for example, preferring the keyword “massage therapist San Francisco” to the keyword “a massage therapist in San Francisco.” But the former is so awkward to use in a sentence. How does one get around this SEO stumbling block?
TL: This matter primarily comes down to keyword selection, but also to the tradeoff between perfect SEO targeting and a healthy user experience. Synonyms are important regardless. As we have discussed, algorithms today are driven by semantics that can better assess search intent, when keyword variations are included – eliminating the previous need to repeat a keyword a dozen times.
Use both the primary target keyword, as well as any synonyms on the page, knowing full-well that Google will figure it out. Use the naturally-phrased version in the body copy, and optimize the meta tags and image ALT-Texts for the Yoast recommendation, with slugs removed. Yoast is not perfect, but it remains the best option I have seen among SEO plugins. Realistically, it would be impossible to build a plugin that fully accommodates semantic on-page optimization, in its constantly-changing state.
LK: Why should someone hire an SEO expert? What simply cannot be achieved without the professional level of support?
TL: Technical SEO could possibly be handled in-house, but it is important to conduct deep research into the various pieces of it, before presuming one understands it fully. By bringing in someone with years or decades of experience working on websites, the path to success is quicker and significantly easier for the client.
Off-page is also much more work than any other part of SEO. It could be a full-time job doing the work to build high-quality links that will move the needle. But off-page is more than half the battle to move up the SERPs, so it should not be overlooked. Without it, the rest of SEO is just busy work that will make marginal differences. An expert can help build off-page links properly, while avoiding the risk of a Google penalty.
Finally, keyword research is no longer a simple task, where it is enough to identify what keywords have search volume. SEO competition is a mandatory filter for removing keywords for which you never will be able to rank.
Semantic SEO understanding is also important, to avoid the myopic trap of thinking you can track 10 keywords and understand where your traffic originates. A properly-optimized website won’t live or die on 10-20 keywords, which will typically account for less than 10% of traffic these days. With intent-based matching algorithms, topics matter more than keywords do. Get an expert to identify these topics and put modern Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), a.k.a. success metrics, in place.
LK: Is there anything else you’d like to say about SEO practices for business?
TL: SEO underwent a significant evolution in the 2007 – 2013 timeframe, and the SEO “of lore” is no more. Today we need to focus on responsible link-building, semantic topics/markup, and a range of new concepts. There’s a reason we have a whole cottage industry of SEO experts, and the savvy solopreneur will seek to get help with search engine optimization rather than sinking too much time into DIY efforts. Once a strategy is set, and the client understands it, the client can start to take on more in-house, moving forward.