Chances are that before you ever spend your money, you Google a few questions about a problem or product. Have you ever wondered how it is that Google (and other search engines) rank web pages after you click the magnifying glass icon?
Search engine optimization (SEO) is one of the most discussed digital marketing terms in the 21st Century. The subject matter is relevant for bloggers, small business, big business, local storefronts, virtual services, e-commerce, and everything in between.
Most likely, your web presence already possesses a certain amount of SEO value (especially if you’ve invested in a WordPress or web builder site). The key to a strong SEO strategy is to understand how your audience uses Google and other search engines to find you.
Analytics tools today allow you to track web visitor behavior with surprising detail. While many of these analytics tools are best left to digital marketing professionals, we will explain some of the basics to help you gain an appreciation for your own website’s search engine performance.
Why Should I Care About SEO?
“According to a recent research study by Forrester, 71 percent of consumers begin their journeys by using a search engine to discover new products and services (initiation), and 74 percent reported using a search engine for consideration and purchasing (research, comparison, transaction).” – Search Engine Land
“81% of people search online for a product or service. 74% have purchased online via any device and 67% use mobile shopping apps.” – Smart Insights
The quotes above are just a few of the thousands of expert opinions highlighting how essential SEO is to your brand. Thanks to the global pandemic, consumer research and buyer behavior has become even more search engine dependent.
“As consumers seek information about how businesses are handling COVID-19 restrictions, evaluate their buying options, adapt to remote work, and try their very best to stay informed and entertained, search is now more important than ever.” – Search Engine Watch
Just because your business succeeded with little to no SEO efforts in the past doesn’t mean that it can continue to do so. Today, brands that add SEO to their marketing budgets are growing their market share locally, regionally, and nationally.
What is SEO?
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of helping your website rank higher in Google searches. The epitome of strong SEO is consistently landing near the top of the first page on a Google search.
While Google is not the only search engine, it is the leading search engine. Performing well in Google search results typically overflows onto other search engines, such as Bing and Yahoo. Many SEO thought leaders claim that Google search performance is all that really matters.
That said, just because your site doesn’t land on the first page of a search engine result doesn’t mean that your SEO is worthless. But the more you invest in SEO, the better your chances of rising higher in search results.
SEO Full Form – Is It Different from SEO?
If you’re performing Google searches on SEO, you may come across the term “SEO full form.” What does SEO full form mean?
The full form of a term means spelling out an acronym or abbreviation. “SEO” is the abbreviation for the full form term “search engine optimization.” In other words, SEO and SEO full form are the same thing and carry an identical meaning.
Local SEO – Is It Different from “Regular” SEO?
While many SEO best practices apply to both local and non-local SEO, these terms are not identical. Local SEO is a specific SEO strategy for businesses that only operate in a specific neighborhood, city, region, or state.
Non-local SEO usually involves serving audiences virtually or remotely. For example, a digital marketing agency (like Sum Total Marketing) frequently crosses state or country borders when serving clients. A non-local SEO strategy will look different than a local SEO strategy.
What is Included in SEO?
Search engine optimization consists of several critical activities. Doing it well means paying attention to many details at once, and depending upon your audience, it can be extremely complicated. That’s why most brands outsource their SEO to an agency specializing in search engine performance.
The following is included in most SEO strategies:
Secure, reliable website
Domain authority (DA)
Internal and external backlinks
For obvious reasons, your business needs a reliable web presence before it can nurture any SEO value.
By “reliable” web presence, we mean that you need a website with a up-to-date SSL certificate, foundational content (home page, about us page, contact page, etc.), and a reasonable loading speed.
Your SSL certificate is a digital “driver’s license” that validates your website for Google and other search engines. Websites without an SSL certificate may not be safe.
Your basic web pages should provide a quality overview of who you are, what you do, and how customers can get in contact with you. For maximum SEO performance, you will need to invest in additional content, such as a blog.
Online directories – Foursquare, Google My Business, Yelp, etc. – provide necessary backlinks, as well as ways to help customers find you online. While non-local businesses still benefit from establishing their presence on online directories, these directories are most critical for local businesses.
The more authoritative content that your website offers for your industry, the greater your SEO value. When developing your content, it’s important to understand keywords that your target audience uses to find solutions to problems that your business solves.
Domain Authority (DA)
Well-established websites with plenty of authoritative content receive higher domain authority (DA) scores. Google uses domain authority scores to determine where websites should fall within search engine results.
While relevant content can rank well with a low DA, it is difficult to retain a high Google ranking with a low DA score. Using content creators with strong credentials, backlinking to other authoritative sources, and receiving backlinks from other relevant websites all contribute to your DA.
Internal and External Backlinks
Speaking of backlinks, the more relevant backlinks your website has, the better your website performs on search engines.
But what makes a backlink relevant? This question has a complicated answer, but we will try to keep it simple. At the risk of oversimplifying, there are two key factors that make a backlink relevant:
The backlinking website relates to the subject matter on your website; and,
The anchor text (the text that hyperlinks to your web page) relates specifically to your web page.
In the image above from a Moz blog, the hyperlinked (or anchor text) is “Here are 119 Examples of 10x Content.” If you follow the backlink, you arrive at a relevant web page from Sparktoro.com. This is a great example of a quality backlink.
Backlinks can be external (such as the example above) or internal, and both are important. As you create web content on your own website, using appropriate anchor text to internally link to other pages on your website will strengthen your web presence and SEO value.
External backlinks are difficult to acquire, and some organizations spend thousands of dollars on link building and backlink outreach. These efforts are tedious (and expensive) and may not be in your best interest unless you have a sizable SEO budget. Usually, the best external backlink strategy is to create great content – content that other industry leaders will want to reference to increase their own DA.
Keyword research is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you cannot reliably build a sustainable SEO strategy without it.
But on the other hand, keyword research can end up diluting your SEO efforts if you only consult keyword planners. The quality of your keyword tools (Google Keyword Planner, Moz, SEMRush, etc.) can benefit your keyword research greatly. However, the leading keyword research tools cost money (more on this in a bit).
What’s also important to understand about keyword research is that all existing information on keywords is historical data – it already happened. This historical data can help you forecast trends, but it won’t guarantee future keyword performance. The reality is that Google engineers and bots are constantly updating their algorithms to better connect search engine users with the best content.
In other words, the best keywords for your SEO efforts will come from your knowledge of the words that your target audience uses to wrap around their problems and what words they use to research solutions. SEO efforts that “chase” historical keyword data have a more difficult time retaining top positions in a Google search and frequently fall away in the next Google update.
In contrast, web pages that understand how their target audience thinks make the best use of focus, secondary, and LSI keywords. More importantly, their content is so informative that it makes web visitors feel empowered in their buying decisions.
Google doesn’t just examine your written content. Google bots do their best to index your web pages. To do so, they also consult web page meta data.
Meta data are HTML tags associated with web page headings, subheadings, images, etc. This portion of your SEO strategy is somewhat technical, but ignoring the meta data on your site will make Google indexing less efficient.
What is the Difference Between SEO and SEM?
SEO is organic web performance on search engines based on the quality of your website content. In contrast, search engine marketing (SEM) is paid advertising on search engine results pages.
For example, Google Ads is one of the most popular ways to invest in SEM and operates like any PPC platform. SEM ads typically show up at the top of a search engine results page (SERP).
A carefully-curated SEM strategy can supplement your SEO efforts and improve website traffic.
How Long Does SEO Take?
Google rankings do not happen overnight. If you are targeting a very narrow niche and do everything correctly, you will see results within a few weeks. However, few should expect to see top-of-first-page results within weeks of beginning their SEO.
Where is Your Audience?
If your audience is primarily restricted to a geographic area, then you’ll need to invest in local SEO. But if you serve clients around the country or world, your SEO efforts will need to look different.
Understanding where your audience is from will affect how you frame your content, including language and topics.
What Industry Content Already Exists?
If you are looking to be ranked nationally for a term that thousands of others are also trying to rank for, then you will be sorely disappointed with short term results.
It takes months and a great deal of time and effort to rank well for competitive keywords. If you are willing to start with long tail and chunky middle keywords (see chart below) you can build up a base of authority that will allow you to develop long term success for more competitive keywords.
That said, your SEO competition shouldn’t keep you from investing in quality content and other SEO best practices. The competition only dictates how long it could take before you reach peak SEO ROI.
What is Your Bandwidth for Completing SEO Tasks?
Many basic SEO best practices are doable for business owners with a few extra hours a week. If your budget is low, but you are determined to invest a little extra time, you can still perform well on search engines for niche audiences. But it does mean that SEO ROI could take longer than is ideal.
The best SEO strategy involves hiring experts to manage your website’s search engine performance. Depending on your budget and the competition, you could expedite your SEO value in a few weeks to several months.
Either way, consistency is the critical component to your SEO success. Producing quality content that your customers will love is the surest way to increase your website performance on Google and other search engines.
How Do You Plan to Promote Your Content?
When creating your SEO strategy, it’s important to remember that search engines are not the only way to increase web traffic. In fact, if you know how to promote your content, it can improve your ranking on Google and other search engines.
For example, promoting web pages on social media networks and groups can drive traffic. Additionally, the better your web page content, the greater your chances of user-generated content (social media users sharing your content with their followers).
By promoting your web content, you can continue to drive traffic, improve your DA, and rise in Google rankings.
Black Hat SEO vs. White Hat SEO vs. Gray Hat SEO
There are several approaches to SEO – black hat, white hat, and gray hat. As a general rule, white hat (long-term) is more sustainable than black hat (short-term), and gray hat falls somewhere in between the two.
What is Black Hat SEO?
Black hat SEO refers to questionable methods of getting your website to rank high in search engine results. These methods often employ artificial backlinks and “playing the system.”
Black hat SEO can shoot you to the top of SERPs for a few days or weeks. However, as soon as Google detects black hat techniques, it will penalize the website and make it more difficult for that website to return to the first page in search results.
We at SumTotal Marketing strongly advise against using black hat SEO.
What is White Hat SEO?
White hat SEO refers to all wholesome efforts that you employ to help your website to rank higher organically. Most white hat techniques involve robust content marketing, quality keyword research, and an intimate knowledge of one’s target audience.
What is Gray Hat SEO?
As the name implies, gray hat SEO involves a mixture of black hat and white hat techniques. While not as scandalous as black hat SEO, gray hat SEO still risks penalization from Google and other search engines.
Those agencies that skillfully employ gray hat techniques can often get your website to the top of SERPs within days. After a few days/weeks, your website might dip in rankings, but unless you get formally penalized, you can easily return to top results and sustain your SEO performance over the long term.
Most SEO experts recommend employing gray hat techniques at your own risk.
Follow vs. Nofollow Backlinks
It is possible for your website to receive both “follow” and “no-follow” backlinks. While “follow” links are preferred, “no-follow” links do have their place.
What are Follow/Nofollow Backlinks?
Follow backlinks are those backlinks from one relevant webpage to another. No-follow backlinks come primarily from online directory or social media backlinks. Follow backlinks are far more valuable to your DA than are no-follow backlinks.
For example, if a Facebook user shares a blog from your website using the blog’s URL, Google identifies that backlink as a no-follow backlink.
Are Nofollow Backlinks Valuable?
While no-follow backlinks do not contribute to your DA, they can still be a reliable metric for gauging web traffic performance. That’s why you shouldn’t ignore them. Any backlink is a gateway for new users to find your website.
What is Keyword Stuffing?
Keyword stuffing is an industry term that refers to over-filling a single web page with a target keyword.
Is Keyword Stuffing Bad?
In most cases, keyword stuffing produces terrible results. Web visitors typically notice keyword stuffing and find it distasteful. It is also an outdated black hat technique that tries to artificially force a web page to rise in search results.
Focus Keywords, Secondary Keywords, LSI Keywords – What are They?
Content marketers frequently refer to focus keywords, secondary keywords, and LSI keywords. Making use of all three can prevent your web pages from getting penalized for keyword stuffing. More importantly, using all three will make your content flow and demonstrate greater authenticity.
A focus keyword is the main keyword or phrase that you wish to rank for. Secondary keywords relate to the focus keyword for which you also want to rank but are not priority.
LSI keywords are not necessarily keywords for which you want to rank, but they are auxiliary terms and phrases that reinforce your focus and secondary keywords. For example, if you want to create a blog with the focus keyword “search engine optimization best practices,” your LSI keywords might include the following:
Image alt text
Each of these keyword categories help Google understand what your web page is about. A great web page or blog uses each of these keywords liberally and naturally to produce content that web visitors will want to consume.
Once again, your knowledge of your target audience and the quality of your web content are the key ingredients to any successful SEO strategy. Artificially employing these keywords might work in the short-term but cannot sustain your SEO performance over time.
Should I Invest in SEO Software?
If you employ an SEO expert to manage your web performance, SEO software is a must-have. However, if you’re outsourcing your SEO to an agency, that business should already have reliable SEO tools to monitor performance.
Among the leading SEO software companies are:
What are the Pros and Cons of DIY SEO?
As a general rule, SEO is best left to the experts. That said, there are some benefits to getting started on SEO yourself.
Working knowledge of search engines
Deeper knowledge of your industry
Deeper understanding of how your customers use search engines to find you
Establish strong, foundational web pages to draw web traffic
Technical SEO tasks are complex and often require a basic knowledge of HTML
Content creation takes time
SEO analytics can be difficult to interpret
Great, long-term SEO requires consistency
For the reasons outlined above, we at Sum Total Marketing support business owners that want to gain SEO basics on their own. But at some point, you can’t run a business (or a department) and manage SEO on your own. Most strictly DIY SEO efforts are mediocre, at best.
Recap: SEO Guide for 2021
Without a reliable website, it will be difficult for your brand to compete in the 21st Century. And without an SEO strategy, it will be impossible for your web presence to make a difference.
The reality is that your competitors are pouring time and resources into their search engine optimization. If you fail to take SEO seriously, you risk losing market share and customer loyalty. However, taking your SEO seriously today can help you overtake your competitors in a relatively short amount of time. Plus, you will gain a deeper understanding of your customers, further improving your ability to help them feel empowered in their purchasing decisions.