One of the top questions I’m asked when working with any client is “How can I get to the top of Google?” or something along those lines. It’s a question I usually answer by saying “You need to produce lots of high quality, relevant content and your site needs to contain more content than competitors” but that’s my short go-to answer. In this post, I’ll give the longer answer…
It all starts with content
What website do you visit most often? Now ask yourself why you visit it. I’ll guess that it’s because of the content available on it. Content that changes regularly and that gets added to day by day, hour by hour or even minute by minute… probably content created by multiple people, possibly in multiple formats (i.e. articles, photos, videos). The most visited websites on the web all have one thing in common – they produce more content in a minute than any one individual could produce in a lifetime… that’s partly why they’re successful.
So what is content and what separates great content from mediocre content? If you’re given 100 articles on a variety of different topics, how would you rank them and compare them to one another? You’d need some sort of system or formula, right? You might look at things like:
- number of times the article has been shared on social media (this may suggest the article is share-worthy)
- number of comments left on the article (this may suggest the article is controversial)
- the author of the article (how many articles have they written? are they a respected author?)
- the place the article is published (if it’s published on the New York Times shouldn’t that make it more valuable than free-cash-gold.com?)
The criteria you could come up with for ranking this content is infinite. This is the exact same challenge search engines face. They’re tasked with ranking content as fairly as possible, so they work with hundreds if not thousands of variables when ranking articles and websites against one another for certain search terms.
The Magic Formula
Given that brief overview, the next question people tend to ask is “So what’s the formula?”. The honest answer you rarely hear from SEO people / companies: “I don’t know, nobody knows, and if / when people do figure it out, the formula has to change.”
This might sound weak, or sound like the person who gives that answer knows nothing about SEO, but it’s the honest answer. No person on the planet can guarantee you’ll get to number one for any specific search term in Google and stay there. If they do guarantee it, they’re gambling and lying. Why do I say this? Because an SEO company or an SEO expert doesn’t control Google search results or Google algorithms – Google can (and do) change ranking criteria regularly. They don’t make their formula public… it’s not open source. Therefore, if you guarantee you can get to the top of Google for a certain term (and stay there), what you’re effectively saying is “I know how the Google search engine operates currently… and I also know how it will operate in the future”.
It’s something people will say to make a sale but if you hear them say it, question them on it until they break. If they don’t break they either don’t know what they’re doing or else they’re being deceitful and only care about making the sale.
The Public Formula
As I’ve explained above, Google don’t make their algorithms public (and for very good reasons too – it would lead to massive manipulation of search results). However, they do make public webmaster guidelines and maintain a webmaster blog. They also upload tutorials, hangouts and explainer videos to their youtube channel. Google Partners also run exams and give out certs to people who’ve completed online courses on products such as Google Analytics and Adwords. They also issue ‘Partner’ status to companies / individuals who do a lot of business on Google (pay Google lots of money to serve ads).
All of this information is public. Combined, it gives you a good understanding of how Google works and how / why they rank sites the way they do. This is the information I work with when trying to optimise a website for Google. I’ll run through a few things which Google tell us to do:
- Make your site easily accessible with a clear navigation structure
- Use title and ALT attributes to describe images accurately
- Check for broken links and invalid HTML
- Use robots.txt file to prevent search engines from crawling pages of no value
- Make sure your site renders correctly in all browsers
- Optimise page load times (minify, compress and cache as much data as possible)
- Don’t stuff pages with irrelevant keywords
- Create a sitemap
All of that stuff is in black and white in their webmaster guidelines. Most of it is obvious to web developers but it acts as a nice checklist for clients who may want to do a little quality control of their own.
The most important rules of all?
- “Create a useful, information-rich site, and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content”.
- “Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.”
Abusing the guidelines
Some companies abuse the public guidelines and the things we know that help sites to rank well. This is why Google can’t make everything public – because if i know how Google works, I can just follow their formula to rank highly for any phrase i want. If i know the formula, i can automate things and hire people to produce sites and content that follow the formula… in this case, the person with the deepest pockets wins. Which is the way it shouldn’t be of course… the best content / most relevant content should win. And here-in lies the constant battleground between Google and spammers or black hat / gray hat SEO’s (people breaking or bending the rules). I’ll show you an example of what i mean…
If I search for “SEO Monaghan”, these guys are no.3 in Google search results. A quick look at their page tells me this is a page that falls in to gray hat territory. If i were Google looking at this page manually, i’d penalize it along with the site for violating several webmaster guidelines. Why? Several reasons.
If you look at the footer, they’ve created a bunch of links to pages that offer very little value to me as a human reader. The list of pages are:
- SEO services company for [irish county name here] x 32
- Website design services company for [irish county name here] x 32
- Website design services company for [large irish town name] x ~20
Over 80 links… in a footer… on *all* pages across the entire site… big red flag. If you visit each page, you’ll see the content is the exact same on all of them with only the placename being changed. So there’s a tonnes of duplicate content on the site. This is absolutely frowned upon by Google.
It’s ranking well now, and no doubt the owners will boast about it ranking so well… but in my view it’s only a matter of time before the hammer comes down on this site. It’s a good example of over-optimisation. They’ve bolded keywords they want to rank for, they’re constantly linking to their own pages using the same keyword anchor text… the keyword / phrase is in the url, page title, description, breadcrumb navigation etc…
They’re doing a lot of things right but what they’re failing to do is add value for humans. They’re ticking boxes on the SEO side of things in order to get up the rankings to gain traffic. You don’t want an SEO company doing that for your business. Sooner or later, your site will be penalised by Google. Remember one of Google’s basic quality guidelines principles – “Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines”. Would anyone objectively look at that page and come to the conclusion it’s primarily designed for users? I doubt it.
Doing things the right way
Everyone wants long term, sustainable, highly targeted, organic traffic. In order to give yourself the best chance of getting that traffic, you need to:
1. Know your audience
Most businesses know a lot about their customers. They’ll know who their best customers are and have good relationships with them. They’ll also have access to sales figures and know what products / services sell best at what times and when busy / quiet times can be expected. That’s all well and good but SEO requires a different type of knowledge about customers…
You need to figure out what search terms and phrases people are using to find the products and services you offer… you also need to know what content customers want to access the most. You could build a website with 100 pages for 100 different types of flowers and then realise that most people don’t want information on specific flowers, they want information on bouquets of flowers for events like birthdays, weddings, funerals and anniversaries… that’s what they’re searching for, that’s what they’re accessing more often and that’s the area that is driving sales…
Knowing your audience helps to avoid problems like this. Google’s keyword tool can help you figure out what people are searching for and how often they’re searching for it. If you have an existing site, Google Analytics can also tell you how people are arriving to your site and what sections are most popular.
2. Produce original, useful and/or entertaining content
All websites should contain information about the business, products / services on offer and how customers can benefit from buying said products / services. By ‘information’ I mean as much information as is necessary for customers to make informed decisions… that could be a dozen photos per product with a video and long detailed marketing blurb combined with technical descriptions. All too often, businesses will add a single, low quality photo to a product page, a couple of lines of text and perhaps a price. That’s supposed to cut it… it may cut it if you’ve got zero competition or your competition doesn’t have a website but for most businesses, that’s simply not enough content to please customers.
In addition to that core content, you ideally also need an active blog or latest news section on the site. This is where you need to get creative. If you own a flower shop, you could produce statistics on which flowers sell best on average over the year and design an infographic to help visualise the numbers. You could create ‘how-to’ guides for flower maintenance… ‘how to stop trees dying’… ‘how to plant evergreen trees’… You could take timelapse photos or video of flowers blooming and dying. You could take a variety of flowers, starve them of water for a month and document which of them holds up best / worst. You could detail where you get your flowers from and the delivery process to customers. You could create top 10 flower lists for certain events like weddings, funerals, mother’s day etc…
If all of that sounds like far too much work and you’ve better things to be doing, that’s fine. The reason your competition is out-ranking you is because they’re more than likely putting in more work than you on this front. Maybe they’re outsourcing it and paying for it, maybe they’re doing it in-house and have dedicated staff that double as content producers… it doesn’t matter… if you want to overtake them, you need to match their output and produce better quality content.
3. Build an audience on social media
If 1% of your audience engages with an article you post, how much traffic do you get out of it? The answer is zero if you don’t have an audience. If you do have an audience, the answer is ‘more than zero, potentially infinite’. Building an audience takes time… it’s hard work… if you don’t have a twitter profile or facebook page for your business and set one up tomorrow, you’re more than likely going to be disappointed with the results. There may be temporary excitement with a flurry of likes or follows but inevitably there’ll be a period where the accounts are dead or not growing at an acceptable rate. The thing you should do here is give up. Admit defeat. If at first it doesn’t work, just quit and cut your losses… said nobody, ever…
You’re not going to grow an audience by not engaging with anyone and not producing content that’s of value to them. If nobody knows about your website, the only way that will change is if you talk about it… or talk about your industry… or talk about your products… or talk about how to solve customer problems…
With social media, it’s also important to listen and respond to individuals… the easy bit is talking or preaching to a general audience, but the only way you can build a general audience is by earning their trust and respect, one by one…
4. Share your content in non-spammy ways
Nobody likes to see a Twitter profile or Facebook page that does nothing other than post links to a businesses latest news article. It’s not spam, but it’s showing that the business is more concerned about talking at customers rather than listening and interacting with them. By all means, share your content on social media… but try not to just view social media as a free press release service.
In addition to social media, you also need to be on the lookout for places / people that would benefit from seeing your content. Maybe it’s a subreddit… maybe it’s a forum… it could be a journalist or publisher who may be interested in what you’re talking about… the same ‘don’t spam’ rules apply. If all you’re doing is sharing links all over the place in the hope of getting traffic, that’s going to backfire on you. You’ll probably be banned / blacklisted / ignored sooner rather than later. Always tailor your message to whoever you’re sharing it with and ask yourself why they should care / bother listening to you.
5. Analyse performance of content
Sometimes great content just doesn’t get the publicity it deserves. We all know songs, sports people, journalists, apps that to us are hugely under-rated and under-appreciated. Eventually, maybe they’ll blow up and become popular or maybe they’ll never reach those heights. Regardless, when it comes to content, we need to at least attempt to figure out why certain content is more popular than others.
Whether it’s your own content or content from competition, you need to understand why it’s popular, why it’s got lots of comments and shares on social media, why it’s top of search results in Google for certain terms… maybe it’s because it was tweeted by a celebrity, maybe the content itself is thought-provoking or controversial, maybe it helps people to answer questions… maybe it’s well structured with clear headings, bullet points and images, maybe it’s a terrible piece of content with no structure and is just carried by the fact the site it’s published on has a huge following and is well respected.
There are lots of questions you should be asking when reflecting upon the performance of your content in relation to other content. Only by constantly asking questions, will you be able to come up with answers and possible ideas to improve your own content.