Demystifying Blog SEO: The Only 4 Principles You Need to Know
It’s no secret that new business owners need to wear a lot of hats. Your company may specialize in producing the world’s best organic superfood smoothies, but, your own role will include marketing, operations, finance, product development and much more. To make matters worse, each activity that we are asked to perform is represented by specialists who have a vested interest in keeping things complicated. After all, if we get frustrated and give up, they will be more than happy to help – for a fee. Nowhere is this truer than in the world of SEO (search engine optimization).
When I started Sixty and Me, I spent weeks thinking about how I was going to attract traffic to my website. As an online magazine for women over 60, I knew that finding the right audience would be essential to my success. So, I read books and took courses, spoke with other business owners and even hired an SEO “expert”. What I found was a lot of noise. But, as Sixty and Me developed, I started to realize that SEO is really not that complicated.
In fact, for the great majority of business owners, everything you need to know can be summarized in 4 principles. Following is the simple advice that I wish I had had when I got started. It would have saved me many restless nights and a lot of money. I hope that you find it useful as you set out as a freelancer, consultant or entrepreneur.
What is Search Engine Optimization?
When someone searches for something in Google, the search engine needs to decide what results to return. No-one really knows exactly how Google’s search engine makes this decision (even most of the people at Google), but, the overall idea is simple enough. Google cares about two things: relevance and trust. In other words, does the information on your site match someone’s request and how credible is it?
Wikipedia defines SEO as “The process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine’s un-paid search results.” But, as a business owner, I find it much easier to think about SEO as “The process of making sure that Google knows that my content is credible and meets my customer’s needs.” Let’s look at a few ways to do exactly this.
Principle 1: Write About What People Are Searching For
No amount of SEO tinkering will bring you traffic over the long-term if your content doesn’t solve people’s problems. If you want to generate more “organic” (free) traffic, write about what people are searching for.
But, how do you know what people are searching for? Fortunately, there are several tools to help you do exactly that. The one that I use most often is the Google Keyword Planner. This was originally designed for advertisers to optimize their campaigns, but, it’s great for generating content ideas too. You can watch Google’s own short tutorial to get started. Here’s an example of what your results will look like.
Another, more professional, tool that I use for finding keywords is Market Samurai. It’s more powerful, but costs money, unlike the Google Keyword Planner.
There is an art to picking the right keywords and the best way to learn is to do it yourself. Here are a few lessons that I learned (most of them the hard way) that may save you some time.
First, be realistic when selecting your keywords. In the screenshot above, “smoothie recipes” has an estimated “201,000” monthly searches. But, as a new blogger, you have no chance of getting into the top search results for this keyword phrase. The easiest way that I have found to get a gut-check on the competition, is simply to type the keyword phrase into Google to see who is in the top 5 positions. If you’re competing with Wikipedia, About.com and Goodhousekeeping.com, you’re probably being too optimistic. Please keep in mind that the “competition” level in the Google Adwords tool relates to how much it costs to bid for ads targeting these keywords, not the competition for getting organic traffic.
Next, be specific when deciding on your topics. It’s much better to be in the top 3 results for a specific phrase with 500 searches per month than on page 7 for a broader term with 10,000 searches a month. It sometimes helps to start with broad keyword terms and then look for ways to make them more specific. For example, “smoothie recipes” (201,000 monthly searches) becomes “organic smoothie recipes,” (320 monthly searches) which becomes “organic fruit smoothie recipes” (30 monthly searches). How specific you need to be will depend on the credibility of your blog compared to your competitors.
Once you have brainstormed a few topic ideas based on the keywords that people are searching for, it’s time to make sure that your potential customers, and Google, know what your article is about.
Principle 2: Make it Easy for People (and Google) to Know What You’re Talking About
As I mentioned earlier, there are two main things that Google cares about – relevance and trust. But, how does Google know whether something is relevant? The technical answer is complicated. Beyond keywords, they look at how long people stay on a particular page, which other pages are linking to you and a number of other factors. Fortunately, most of these factors are best influenced by writing compelling content, which keeps people reading longer. That said, it’s still worth spending some time to optimize your keywords.
People often talk about the compromise between optimizing your article for “people” vs “Google.” In my experience, this is somewhat of a false conflict. Why? Because your customers and Google want the same thing. They want to quickly know if your article is relevant for them.
I find that the old presentation advice of “Tell them what you are going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you have told them” works well for blog SEO too. For example:
- “Tell them what you’re going to tell them” – Include your keywords in your title
- “Tell them” – Include your keywords in the body of your article, preferably in the first paragraph
- “Tell them what you have told them” – Include a question at the end of your article with your keywords
A quick warning: try not to sound like a robot. Google is getting much better at understanding “meaning,” so it’s less essential than it used to be to use the same exact keyword phrase again and again. If your article doesn’t flow well or just sounds awkward, you’ve probably gone too far. In other words, pay attention to the keywords, but, write from year heart.
Once you have made your article readable for men and machines alike, it’s time to build your credibility.
Principle 3: Show Google that Your Article is Credible and Useful
Google clearly can’t manually review every new piece of content on the Internet to decide how useful it is. So, they rely on websites to vote for each other. The more votes (links) a site receives, the better. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Links from powerful sites count more, as do links from sites that related to the topic of your article. But, for the most part, the more high-quality links you can get to your articles, the better the chance that they will show up in the search results for your targeted keywords.
Before we go any further, I just want to say that this is the area of SEO that most bloggers get stuck on. Either they get too aggressive and start posting comment spam on other blogs. Or, they throw up their hands in frustration and say that getting backlinks is impossible. This is also an area that bloggers can get themselves into trouble if they hire the wrong SEO person.
As in the medical field, the first rule of SEO should be to “do no harm.” If someone offers to buy backlinks on your behalf or add you to a link network, run for the hills! Google is getting increasingly clever (and brutal) at dealing with what they consider to be SEO manipulation. It’s just not worth it.
This doesn’t mean that there is nothing that you can do to promote your valuable content. It just means that you will need to focus on good old fashioned value creation and relationship building. Here are a few of the basics that you should do to increase the chances that each of your blog posts will get SEO boosting backlinks.
Start with the low-hanging fruit. No matter how new your business is, you almost certainly have friends and business partners who can link to you. Don’t be afraid to ask. In my experience, this is by far the easiest way to get your blog off to a great start.
Reach out to people and companies that you mention. If you mention a specific product, company or person in a blog post, don’t forget to reach out to them on Twitter or via email. It’s usually most effective not to ask for anything specific. If they like what you say, they will happily promote your article. One of my personal favorite tools is Twitter, which I will cover in a separate article.
Make your content visual. Not everyone can create infographics (visual representations of data) but, you can make sure that your posts are visually appealing. Adding a fascinating image to your blog post makes it much likely to be shared and, while social links don’t “count” as votes, the more exposure your article gets, the more likely it is that another website will link to it. This Facebook post, featuring one of my Sixty and Me articles, was shared 58 times and liked 252 times.
Another best practice is to make building relationships a priority. It is almost impossible to get someone to link to one of your articles unless you have built a relationship with them first. Identify the top people in your market that you want to get to know and start interacting with them in an authentic way. Retweet their content. Post valuable comments on their articles. The more value you add to their lives the more you will receive in return.
Finally, build your personal credibility. With the launch of Google Authorship, your personal credibility is becoming as important as the credibility of your content. Google wants to know who you are and what you know. The bad news is that bloggers now have one more account that they need to think about (Google+). The good news is that, because many bloggers will ignore the opportunity to build their personal brand through Google, the ones who do will have an advantage. Getting started is easy. First, complete your Google+ profile. Then follow these instructions to link it to your content. Here’s what my articles look like in Google:
Principle 4: Focus on the 80/20 Rule of Technical SEO
Honestly speaking, I should have put this principle first as it is foundational to all of your other blog SEO activities. But, since words like “hosting” and “responsive design” tend to make people’s eyes glaze over, I left this important topic to last.
This is another area of SEO that you could spend a lifetime and thousands of dollars tweaking. Fortunately, you don’t need to spend a fortune to optimize your technical set up. All you need to do is make sure that your blog is fast, responsive, reliable and safe. Let’s take a look at each of these.
First, make your blog fast and reliable. Google wants to know that, when someone visits your site, they will have a good experience. This means that your site should load quickly and crash rarely. To accomplish both of these goals, I recommend using a company that focuses on WordPress optimization, like Bluehost. Another simple technique that you can use to keep your blog running quickly is to avoid adding too many WordPress plugins.
Next, use a responsive theme. This means that your website should look great, whether someone is browsing on their computer or their iPhone. Once again, the key thing to remember is that Google wants visitors to your site to have a great experience. Most modern WordPress themes will be responsive by design, but, if you are using an old theme, your site may not be optimized.
Finally, don’t forget about security. I had a situation a few months ago when one of my WordPress blogs was hacked. It was completely my fault. The site wasn’t really a priority for me, so, I forgot to keep all of the plugins up to date. I only noticed the problem when the site started to drop in Google and I was forced to investigate. The moral of the story? Keep your WordPress installation and plugins up to date!
Wrapping it All Up
I know this seems like a lot to digest – especially since I promised to “demystify” blog SEO in this article. The important thing to remember is that Google’s search algorithm is becoming much more like a person every year. So, keeping up to date on the latest SEO “tricks” will become less important over time. Just remember the following, and you will be ahead of 90% of bloggers out there.
- Write about what people are searching for
- Make it easy for people (and Google) to know what you’re talking about
- Show Google that your article is credible and useful
- Focus on the 80/20 rule of technical SEO
Do you agree or disagree with the 4 principles in this article? Do you have any other recommendations for essential steps that bloggers should take to make sure that their work gets the exposure that it deserves? Please join the discussion and “like” and share this article to keep the conversation going.