Do You "Get" SEO?

SEO Alert!  The first excellent book on SEO was just published.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Secrets is by Danny Dover, who worked as a Lead SEO at SEOmoz.  It describes advanced SEO techniques for auditing and optimizing a website.

While you're waiting for Danny Dover's book on SEO to arrive from Amazon, here's an article that describes what SEO is all about.

Years ago, a friend told me something about computer programming.

A computer program can only do three things, she told me.  You are either inputting data, making a computation, or outputting the data.  So whenever she got confused, she would ask herself, Am I working on the part of the program that inputs data, that processes data, or that outputs data?

Simple?  Sure.  Yet when I was starting out in programming, these words were of real help.

The same is true with SEO.  You need a map.  Because I want everyone to understand SEO, here’s the SEO map.  Here’s what SEO is all about.

Seek Professional Help from Someone Technical
1.    First, let’s check some technical things, because there are known problems.  For existing sites, we should check a list of techie things, and if we turn up a problem, it looks like we have a project.  Our list is technical, with “301 redirects” and “canonicalization issues.”  Although these things are not self explanatory, anyone who cares can learn about them.

  • Action Item:  When hiring a "webmaster," ask if they read Google's Webmaster Central blog.  It's a prime source of technical issues you'll want to have covered.

2.    Keyword (Search phrase) research
Inexpensive Keyword Research Tools Pay for Themselves

Here’s something that is not technical.  This is easy to understand.  We’ll start by thinking up a list of search phrases that might be typed by someone who is a potential customer.  We’ll get fancy, of course.  We’ll expand our list of search phrases, find out how often people search for each one, and how competitive it is to be positioned on the first page of Google for any given search phrase, near or at the top.  Since we have web analytics, we’ll see how the conversion rate is for these phrases, and we can get similar conversion measurements from a PPC account, such as AdWords.  Ultimately, we’ll prioritize our long list of search phrases, focusing on ones that people actually search for, ones that we have a chance of ranking for, and ones that will bring in conversions.

So far, we have our feet on the ground.  If we are doing SEO, we can ask ourselves, Are we working on some obscure technical problem, or are we working on our list of search phrases?

We must not be random!  At the very least, we much recognize where we are, what part of the project we are working on.  One trick is to realize that SEO has four parts.  The four parts are unique, and once you get it, it’s easy to recognize which part you are working on.

3.    Web pages.  What we’re going to do is match search phrases and web pages.  Surely, you’re not so na├»ve as to just make web pages, without thinking of which search phrase a given page is focused on?  Google is a search phrase machine!  You supply the search phrase, it produces a the results page, and there’s one thing I’ve noticed.  If you search for vanilla ice cream, the web pages Google will list in the results all talk about vanilla ice cream.  Since we’ve prioritized our search phrases, we are in a perfect position to make web pages, each page focused on a particular search phrase.  If our search phrase research indicates it's a priority to appear in the search results for vanilla ice cream, we make a vanilla ice cream page.

4.    Here’s the big one - links.  Google knows about tens of thousands of pages that talk about vanilla ice cream, so which one should be placed first in the search results?  The answer is:  Google can determine a list of “super important” ice cream websites.  Some will be websites by ice cream experts.  Well, baby, if one of these “super important” websites actually links to a page on your website, that page – and your website in general – suddenly becomes much more important in Google’s eyes.  The result is that this page, and your website in general, starts to appear higher and higher in Google’s search results.  That means more visitors, and more customers.

5.  Go for Quality.  Recently Google has been criticized by several respected SEOs.  They say that recently the Google search results have dropped in quality.  They complain that they follow Google's Webmaster guidelines, yet junk websites supported by junk links are appearing high on the first page of Google's search results.

Anyone who looks at Google's search results, and the link profiles of the sites that rank high, is bound to notice this problem.  It's tempting to imitate the spammers, since their techniques sometimes work so well.

Here's the problem.  People who work at Google, on the Search Quality Team, are well aware of this situation.  The SEOs' complaints are embarrassing for Google.  Moreover, Google depends on people liking the search results, because when people search Google they sometimes click on the AdWords ads, and these are the main source of Google's revenue.

So watch out.  There is evidence that Google is already making changes to week out the scamers.  Sites with lots of links from dubious sources are starting to fall out of the search results.

For example, ViperChill recently published an analysis of affiliate SEO, describing how some sites are managing to rank at the top of Google.  He notes:
Would you believe there’s a top ranking site in a niche with over 300,000 searches per month which only has 4 pages and spams forums for links? 
ViperChill's article is a great, so I recently went back and duplicated his analysis to see if those spammy sites still rank.  Some don't.  One site that was near the top of the search results for a competitive, high volume keyword is today no longer in the top 100 sites returned by Google.


And check this fascinating discussion - where senior Google search quality team members weigh in - regarding a group of sites that Google recently pushed from page one to page six of the search results.  Here's the thread:  Google has penalized my entire network of 30 + websites with a "-50 penalty." Please help me.

Expect a lot more interesting news, as a few of the spammers go down in flames, and don't be surprised if there is collateral damage.  Meanwhile, the safe bet, if you want to protect your revenue stream from overnight disaster, is to produce high quality content of all types, and get links from trusted, authoritative, powerful, relevant domains.

An SEO Dodging Bullets for a Client

Now you have a map of SEO.  Whenever you read a little tip about SEO or some article, you can just ask, Is this tidbit talking about:

1.    Some techie thing, a problem that should be fixed by a webmaster?

2.    Putting together a list of search phrases, evaluating and prioritizing them?

3.    How to make sure that a given page focuses on an important search phrase?

4.    Links from high quality websites, which we are always in the process of getting?

It’s true that all four are ongoing items.  Realistically, however, you can go through the techie checklist once and fix any problems you find.  After that, you can just monitor your site for problems.  One good way to do that is to check Google Webmaster Central frequently.  A good way to learn about these techie issues is to read Google's Webmaster Central Blog.

The same goes for search phrases.  It’s an ongoing project, but if you put some time in you can develop a great list of thousands of keywords that are used by potential customers, and you can research that list, categorize it, and come up with your priorities.  After that you’ll want to keep working on your search phrase project, but after a point the bulk of the work will be done.

The same is true of web pages.  Since you’ll want to have a web page dedicated to each important search phrase, you’ll get a plan and get on track.  Perhaps you’ll complete four new pages a month.

This leaves links, and this is the one project that is truly ongoing.  You’ll soon identify ten, twenty, fifty websites and blogs where you want to get links.  Start by listing any industry websites you already know about.  Look for websites that provide news about your market space, and blogs written by people who are experts.

While you're at it, it would be swell to get links from the New York Times, Sunset Magazine, or the local ABC television website too.  Links from such powerful websites will help your entire site rank better for lots of search phrases, and they are not impossible to get.  The biggest barrier may be thinking you can't.  Think of what your company is known for, think of your expertise.  It's possible to be interviewed by local sources and build on that.  It's possible to become a media darling, or perhaps the go to person when the press needs a quote on a particular topic.

Blogs and websites that cover your market space may be an easier for you to target.  So do some research.  The best way to do this is to search for your important search phrases on Google.  Look at the first fifty results – the first five pages.  Some will be your competitors, but others will be places where you can get links.  When you search Google for vanilla ice cream, you can view the search results like a typical searcher.  Or, you can view the results like an SEO, which means you realize that Google is presenting you with a special list of websites - the ones that Google believes are the most powerful, authoritative and trusted websites about vanilla ice cream.  If you could get any website to link to your new vanilla ice cream page, it would be difficult to find a better list of candidates than these.

Now it’s a matter of familiarizing yourself with these websites, participating in their forums, and ultimately getting them to link to you.  You may write content for their site, such as a guest blog post that links to your website, or you may produce something amazing on your website, something so good that when other websites find out they will link to you.

This is of extraordinary importance to your company revenue.  Links from quality websites and blogs that cover your market space will be noticed by Google, and as a result you’ll move up in the rankings, resulting in more people seeing you, clicking and visiting your website, and ultimately resulting in more customers.

It’s also a little counter intuitive.

You naturally want to create content for your customers and potential customers.  Now, you can see why you’ll want to create content for a second group – the respected websites and blogs that cover your market space.  This is really important.  Go all out!  Make something remarkable.  Let everyone know.  They’ll link to you.

From the perspective of doing SEO, you now know the four basics.  You want to (1) Find and fix technical problems; (2) Create a great, prioritized list of search phrases; (3) Make web pages that correspond to your priority search phrases; and, (4) Create content on your website that will attract links from your list of the fifty websites you’d most like to get links from.

SEO seems difficult to learn, mainly because SEO learning tends to come in bits and pieces.  You read a blog article on a micro topic, and later hear a talk about something else.  Matt Cutts, from Google, has a series of YouTube videos on a wide variety of topics.  It’s easy to feel like you’re swimming in a sea of suggestions, each one important.  To make sense of it all, you need a hook to hang your hat on, so you know what main topic is being addressed.

When you see the big picture it’s easier to learn.
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