So much SEO & digital marketing advice is either simple/vague or specific/advanced. In this episode, Nate and Brett walk through their best entry to medium level SEO tips for anyone just starting out in SEO.
You’ll learn how to approach learning SEO; how to approach keywords and content; how to start getting links and off-page signals; and how to treat SEO like an investment, not a cost of running a website.
- How to learn about SEO
- Tips for technical SEO
- Tips for on-page SEO
- Tips for off-page SEO
Brett Snyder: Hello and welcome to Episode 29 of your Bamboo Chalupa Digital Marketing Podcast. My name is Brett Snyder. I am the President of Knucklepuck, and I’m joined by my co-host, Nate Shivar, the author of ShivarWeb.com.
Nate Shivar: Hello, hello.
Brett Snyder: Today we’re going to be talking about a topic that we actually get a lot of questions for, not only through the podcast but I know Nate does as well over on ShivarWeb, and that’s talking about tips for beginner SEOs or business owners looking to get their feet wet and get started in SEO. We focus on a lot of medium-to-high-level topics here, but an understanding of the fundamentals is extremely important for growing businesses. We want to make sure that we’re serving that audience as well, so today we’re going to talk about the top tips for people looking to get involved in actually doing SEO for a particular website, citing some tools, all of which will be recapped in the Show Notes, but the very first thing and the way we always try to kick this off is the purpose for this is we want you guys to educate yourselves.
Nate Shivar: Yeah, and there are plenty of beginners, guys. I think the most famous one is the Moz Beginner’s Guide to SEO. Google has a SEO Starter Guide, but I think to start the whole educational process is to learn what you’re looking at. It starts with really looking at Google and Bing, Yahoo! search results. Look and see when you search for a keyword, something that you’re searching for yourself, what results are displayed? What types of sites come back? What is Google trying to show? What is a title tag? What’s a meta description? What makes up each element of the search results that Google shows? What’s the difference between the organic and the paid listings, and how does that translate into the different things that people are looking for and what they do when they end up on the website that they click through to?
Brett Snyder: SEO is ultimately just a grand experiment in reverse engineering. You have to understand the elements of the search result, what you’re actually trying to optimize for, before you can implement any tactics to accomplish that. One of the really easy ways that beginner SEOs can educate themselves is to become familiar with the popular tools. Before you really get started, you have to understand the basics of these critical tools that I know Nate and I have mentioned on a number of episodes. I think we even did an entire episode on tools for SEOs, but there are really fundamental basic ones like your Google keyword planner, Open Site Explorer Ahrefs for checking backlinks, webmaster tools, and Google Analytics. The more that you practice using these from Day 1, the more you’re going to learn about your efforts and the better you’re going to get at applying the insights that these tools actually provide. In the long term this is really going to help you, but it’s very difficult to go back and try to establish these best practices once you’ve really got things rolling.
Nate Shivar: Yeah, what’s great about the SEO industry is that a lot of these tools, in fact most of them, are free. All of Google’s tools are free. You can log in, play around with them, learn what to look for, and even the premium tools, Ahrefs, some Open Site Explorer, and a lot of the other ones, they have free trials that you can log in, test them out, see if it makes sense to you, see if it’s something that you could use and that you’re interested in.
Brett Snyder: There’s always alternatives to tools that maybe don’t have the right workflow for you. I think one of the things you’re going to be faced with as you’re getting started in SEO is this paradox of choice. It comes to there’s so many tools you can choose from, how do you pick? That paradox of choice also applies to the amount of information that’s out there. The overwhelming majority of SEO knowledge is publicly available and honestly publicly sourced. There are agencies like Knucklepuck that will write about tactics and best practices to be able to reinforce our subject-matter expertise to potential clients, but there are also sites like ShivarWeb that exclusively publish resource content.
ShivarWeb is an optimal content-marketing case study for quality here because the success of that business is predicated on the strength of the content that Nate writes. He doesn’t blog to demonstrate the value of consulting services like Knucklepuck will. ShivarWeb.com makes money based on the number of people Nate is able to reach with his content, and he does that by ensuring he’s only publishing this extraordinary in-depth content that will help beginner and intermediate or advanced SEOs be able to expand on their knowledge of how to do this effectively.
Nate Shivar: Yeah, and it’s not just me and not just Knucklepuck. This same practice extends throughout the SEO industry where we’re all trying to educate each other. In many ways it’s a self-sustaining industry, and we rely on mutual education to succeed because, like Brett said, it’s this grand experiment in reverse engineering where all these agencies, all these publishers, are sharing information back and forth trying to figure out what works best for SEO. You can go out and find key influencers or key companies, places like Moz and Search Engine Land have very reputable SEOs who write on those platforms. They also share a lot on Twitter. You can subscribe to their blogs and apply the tips that they’re constantly churning out, and I mean there’s almost unlimited wealth that you have to be sure to focus on tactical, actionable tips that you can go and implement and stay away from the high-level, vague strategy stuff.
Brett Snyder: These people, these subject-matter experts, in our space love sharing this information. People are very approachable. You can start a conversation with someone on social media. It can lead to actually maybe seeing somebody at a meet-up. There’s a number of different ways that you can take advantage of these relationships.
Now if we go take a little bit of another pass, something else to be wary of when you’re starting out on an SEO campaign is to be realistic about your goals. We’re going to talk about pursuing things like long-tail keywords as opposed to your head terms in the early stages to be able to establish some of that initial trust authority and relevance, but we want to set attainable goals for ourselves and realistic KPIs. KPIs, for anybody who’s not familiar, are your key performance indicators. It’s basically how are you going to gauge a success or failure of this campaign or of this project. What is the goal of your website? Is it to drive leads, to drive sales and revenue, downloads, ad impressions? All of this information is free in tools like Google Analytics, but we have to understand what we’re looking at and what we’re trying to learn from this information before we’re able to apply it the way that will be most effective for us.
Nate Shivar: Right, and on the flip side I think it’s essential to not buy into the myths of bad KPIs. Don’t buy into the myth of virality, that by doing SEO all of a sudden you’ll get tons and tons of visibility just because you’re doing it, or …
Brett Snyder: … or that the goal is to go viral.
Nate Shivar: Exactly.
Brett Snyder: That’s not a realistic or attainable goal.
Nate Shivar: Yeah, and I think the same thing goes with rankings where … I mean, having good rankings usually correlates with having good organic traffic, but that’s in and of itself is not a KPI to aim for the same way that you would aim for organic traffic or sales or leads or downloads or whatnot.
Brett Snyder: Right, think about, like we use with the ShivarWeb example, think about what it is your business does to make money, and then how can the website facilitate that. Those are how you build your KPIs around things that are going to have bottom-line impact on your business.
The last thing to remember here, and this is a phrase that has stuck with me for a number of years, but SEO is an investment. SEO is not a cost. When you think about doing SEO, you’re looking for this long-term quality, the sustainable results, so when you look at this as an investment of your time and resources that will pay dividends now and in the future, it really should help you understand and be in the right mindset to be able to go out there and pursue SEO for your site.
Nate Shivar: I like it. Well, when you’re going out and pursuing SEO for your site, there’s three aspects that most SEOs break the discipline into: technical, on-page, and off-page. The first few technical tips are technical, and for me …
Brett Snyder: Imagine that.
Nate Shivar: Yeah, it’s the foundation. If you go back to educating yourself on how search engines work, they work by accessing, crawling, and then indexing your site. For search engines to be able to do that, you have to have a website that’s built with a platform that produces a HTML, something that search engines can easily access and read, and so that means not using a Flash platform — hopefully Flash will be dead very soon — not i-framing, not producing a website that’s purely video, not having a website that’s just purely images, using a platform that produces clean URLs with HTML that search engines can crawl, that’s not overrun with tons of parameters or random alphanumeric gibberish. There’s hundreds and hundreds of ways to build a website nowadays, and I think making sure that you have a platform that sticks to the fundamentals puts you a very long ways ahead in the game to start.
Brett Snyder: Especially for small business owners, I almost always recommend WordPress. Even for our beginner tips, I got a little bit more in the weeds, I think, than we had intended, but really if you find a platform like WordPress that thousands and thousands of sites are, they really meet that model for small businesses. They have their way of editing page content in kind of that WYSIWYG format, the what you see is what you get, so it’s very intuitive for people who don’t have a development or a technical background to be able to make changes to the site as we move forward.
A couple of the other things that you can do, and we alluded to this earlier. Make sure you install Google Analytics from Day 1. It is free and one of the most basic platforms. All of these basic platforms like WordPress or if you build your site on a Wix or a Square Space, they have how-to guides for installing Google Analytics. The thing to remember is that Google Analytics can only track information from when it is installed. If you install it six months after your business launches, it can’t go back and retroactively pull the information from six months ago. You want to install it from the very beginning so that you have a full and complete look at your existing traffic but also trends you can start to see year over year, the growth in certain landing pages you might be targeting, so make sure that you get Google Analytics installed immediately.
The flip side to that is Google Search Console, formerly Google Webmaster Tools, and Bing has a Webmaster Tools. These are free dashboards that the search engines will essentially give you information about all the criteria Nate was talking about at the beginning, about search engines crawling and indexing your site. They’ll let you know whether or not your images are being found or if there are issues with your site, or if you are at risk for a penalty or you have a large number of broken pages. Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools will give you this information.
Nate Shivar: Right, and then once you have that data from Webmaster Tools, Analytics, and you have a game plan of what you want to be able to change, the last thing I’ll say is that you want to have a platform that allows you to easily edit metadata and page content. A lot of times, for a lot of businesses, that goes back to a platform like WordPress that allows you to easily edit the titles of your page, the meta description of your page, and go in and edit your content without having to talk to a developer. To stick on the WordPress theme, WordPress has a lot of plug-ins like … I love Yoast SEO that is a plug-in that makes it super easy to make basic SEO changes right below where you enter in your content you can type out a custom title tag, custom meta description. You can even change the URL, and it will give you a very basic grade, a sense of direction, so that you can know if you’re on the right track. All that integrates super easy.
Brett Snyder: If you get those basic foundational things in place and you go on a site like WordPress, you’re going to be in a good spot as far as your technical foundation. Once that is set, this is one of the parts that most people are familiar with when it comes to SEO, and that’s dealing with the on-page factors. This is what you’d say on your site. This is the type of content that you write, the way you describe your products or services, the way that you link from one page to another, the way that you’re actually going out there and sharing news or writing ongoing content, doing ongoing content marketing to be able to push topics relevant to your audience. We talk about these on-page factors here. This is really what can we do to make sure that our website is reflective of exactly what it is that our product or services, that audience, are designed to target.
Nate Shivar:: Right, and on-page SEO almost starts with keyword research, which is figuring out how your audience searches and figuring out what they’re looking for so that you can craft pages that meet their needs and try to create better experiences than the pages that currently rank for the keywords that you’re trying to compete for.
Brett Snyder: Just remember that’s what Google and Yahoo! and Bing are looking for. They’re looking to return results that match with somebody’s search query. Using the content on your site is how you help them draw those connections and bridge the consumer and the business side through the search results.
Nate Shivar:: Just to point an example, if you have a fashion website and your collection is called Special Occasion Dresses, and you go in and do keyword research and you find out that, well, most people are looking for cocktail dresses. It’s kind of the same thing, but that distinction, by having a page specifically targeted towards cocktail dresses over the more generic special occasion dresses allows search engines to understand that, yes, this product, this page, is relevant for when people are looking for cocktail dresses. By updating your page to fit that theme and make it more targeted, more exact, that’s something that will increase rankings which will then increase traffic which will increase sales and new customers, all coming from organic search.
Brett Snyder: Right, and when we talk about this, the thing to remember is that we cannot make people search. As SEOs, we have to be present for the types of queries that our audience is already making. We’re not dictating the language they use when they type something into Google. With keyword research, we’re really trying to, again, that idea of reverse engineering. We’re trying to say, okay, what are people looking for because that’s going to tell me what type of content to write so that I can serve that particular need.
This doesn’t just mean repeating keywords over and over again. It doesn’t mean that you just say, “Hey, if you sell cocktail dresses, that you write your content that says, “The best cocktail dresses from the top cocktail dress store in the cocktail dress industry.” You don’t just continue to repeat the term over and over again. It sounds ridiculous when you say it out loud, and it sounds ridiculous when you read it on a website, so you want to make sure that you’re not just repeating keywords, but you’re using them tactically to be able to try to decipher what the searcher wants and building your content to meet those needs.
Nate Shivar:: That goes into the concept of long-tail queries, and a lot of times for a new business or for a business first starting their organic efforts, this is where you’re going win. Long-tail queries are variations of a more generic, broader term, so cocktail dresses is a longer tail search than dresses. If you want to take cocktail dresses and make it even more long-tail, it might be cocktail dresses for winter or black cocktail dresses for winter. Basically, the more specific you make your term, the more specific you make your page, the more more likely you are to be relevant for people looking for that term. A lot of times, if you are first starting your efforts, this is going to be where the low-hanging fruit is very early in the campaign.
Brett Snyder: It’s what allows you to build those relevancy factors to go after the larger terms. You’ve got to crawl before you can run kind of thing where you want to build up to that. We’re going for this long-term sustainable strategies, and making sure that you’re going after long-tail queries and building up, using those realistic goals, is going to be extremely important.
Nate Shivar:: When you’re planning on how to attack all these different keywords, one of the things you want to avoid is having lots of overlapping or duplicate content that cannibalizes or makes it to where you’re competing with yourself. I’ve always found it a really good tip to create a keyword map or an information architecture, which sounds big and complicated but really is just a spreadsheet of all the pages on your website, what that page is about, and what are some terms that that page is relevant for, to make sure that you have everything laid out so that you’re not competing with yourself, shooting yourself in the foot, so that you have a very clear website layout that not only you can understand but that search engines can understand.
Brett Snyder: What we say at Knucklepuck with this is you want to have a consistent and consolidated keyword focus, meaning that you want to consolidate all of your ranking signals for a particular theme around one page, and you want to reference that theme consistently throughout that page. If you start having a keyword map like Nate talked about lets you understand what keywords you’re targeting to each particular page. You’re not overlapping or cannibalizing your efforts.
It also dictates the way that you’re going to write your meta title tags and the content on that page. Your meta tags, and Nate said this is one of the things that you have to have in regards to your technical foundation, but when we talk about meta title tags, to the search engines, this is like the headline of the newspaper. It gives them the chance … You have one opportunity to tell them exactly what your site is about, what that primary focus is for that individual page. Title tag has long been the number one on-page element that we can impact. It’s the very first thing that I know Nate looks at, that I look at, whenever somebody asks you if they’re site has been optimized properly. These are the things that you want to get in place, and using the keyword map helps you maintain that consistent and consolidated keyword focus so that your title tags, the content on the page, the internal links are all referencing the appropriate keywords to each page so you don’t cannibalize your efforts.
Nate Shivar:: Yeah, and let’s actually talk the content itself. That is the importance of having relevant, fresh, crawlable content. When people first map out their website, I think a common misconception is that that is their entire website. Even though it seems obvious, I don’t think a lot of people realize that your website can expand, that you can add more content, you can add content that addresses coming questions, that addresses concerns. You can write content that you’re trying to get press to pick up. You can expand it in all sorts of ways. The key is always to write content that is descriptive, that’s detailed, that’s unique.
One of the best ways that I’ve found to do this is, once you have your products and service pages mapped out, to create some sort of resource section, a dedicated area of your website that you can easily expand and add new content. When you’re adding content to a resource section, it’s sort of akin to building a brick wall. Every time you add a brick, a new piece of content, it stays. Just because you may promote it on the day that you publish it, that piece of content will keep driving for years to come, and so the more bricks, the more content, you add, the more organic traffic ideally that you’ll be able to drive to your website.
Brett Snyder: One of the most common content resources … Nate calls it a resource center. A lot of people will call it a blog. Writing to a blog is one of the oldest marketing, not even SEO really, but oldest marketing strategies that people recommend. There’s a reason for it. It gives you an ongoing dialog or at least semi-dialog monologue with your audience. It gives you an opportunity to tell your audience and the search engines, as well, who you are, what you’re doing, how you’re continuing to serve that audience. By starting a blog early and writing to it once a week, you’re positioning yourself to give the search engines much more information about who you are, the type of audience you serve, the more information and context you give them, the more likely they’re going to be to rank you for queries related to that subject-matter expertise.
For new businesses in particular or people just starting on the website, blogging is going to be a major challenge, and it’s going to be at least six months before you really see any return on it. Again, SEO is an investment, not a cost. We’re looking to the long-term value of this, and if you make a habit out of blogging very early, it’s a great way to attract visitors, but you have to commit to it.
Nate Shivar:: Yeah, and there’s a couple things to make sure that you can set yourself up for success. Number one, I think, Brett said it, and that is sticking with it. It’s going to be six months, but that process of adding bricks eventually you’ll have a wall that is something that will draw traffic to your site, but it’s going to take awhile.
Second, don’t be self-promotional. I think a common pitfall for bloggers, especially blogging for business, is to use it to promote your business, but again, that’s not the goal of the content. The goal of the content is to bring in people who have questions, who are looking for things related to your products and services, and to give search engines those additional signals that if you are blogging about how to outfit for a cocktail evening, that you are likely to sell cocktail dresses, that type of thing.
There’s also plenty of ways to find what I call pre-qualified content ideas, i.e., instead of brainstorming or guessing at blogging topics, do research. I wrote a huge post on how to find content ideas, whether it’s looking through keywords or mining your social networks or just keeping an ear open for what customers are asking about. If you can produce content on what people are already looking for, that’s what content SEO is really all about.
Brett Snyder: If you’re looking for any additional tips about the content process in general, we actually did a three-episode series on Bamboo Chalupa bringing in ideas from the planning to the execution and then into the promotion aspect of it, which segues nicely into the last aspect of SEO, the promotional side of things or your traditional marketing and PR approach, and that has to do with those off-page factors.
Off-page signals are what separated Google from the herd in the late ’90s. Everybody else was looking at these on-page signals. They were looking for what you say about yourself. They were looking for what type of complimentary content are you producing, but then Google came along and said, “Well, the fact that somebody is writing that to their website doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best option for it. It just means they have the best writers. If we look at sources from other websites, people who are willing to link to this site, to endorse that site, then we know we have a true authority on our hands.” Google from the very beginning has incorporated these off-page signals in determining where websites rank in their search results, so part of any successful SEO campaign needs to at least have a general strategy in place for securing these off-page references.
Nate Shivar: The first and lowest-hanging fruit is to claim all your legitimate business listings, to make sure that you have links where users and search engines expect you to be. This is especially critical in local business but also true for online-only business. If Google expects you to have a local business page, have a local business page. Make sure it’s fully filled out with all the correct information and with a link to your website. If consumers expect you to have a Facebook page, have a Facebook page. Same way for Twitter, for Yelp, for if you’re in a very specialized industry with a big industry trade journal and that trade journal has listings of all the companies in your industry, you should be there, and you should have a link to your website on there. A lot of times this is very low-hanging fruit of just the owner or an employee sending email and making sure that you’re claiming what you should have claimed.
Brett Snyder: This is a way to saturate your brand online. These search engines will look for these signals. Nate made the point where be aware your users and your search engines expect to find you. Back in the day, I could say that I have a business but if I’m not in the phone book, nobody’s going to trust me that I have a legitimate business. We now have an online equivalent of that. There are things where search engines expect you to have your, as Nate said, your local business pages, primary social media accounts. Maybe it’s Better Business Bureau or other large local platforms. By being present in these places that search engines look to validate your authority as a business really helps hammer home on the algorithmic side. It gives them the signals that they need to look for.
The other things that you want to do when talking about off-pages, set up Google Alerts which are free. You can set up to say anytime your brand is mentioned on the Web. This lets you know if people are talking about you without linking. This lets you know if there are opportunities to start to get involved … You can look up your brand name. You can look up other searches. If you want to say, “Hey, I want sponsorship opportunities for a Little League team,” you can start talking about Little League and sponsorships that when those become available, you can potentially engage in that and get some links back to your website. You can set up Google alerts for anything that you want, and they will get an email or an email digest that lets you know all the references to those terms that Google has found over the course of that day or week.
The caveat here is you can get a lot of spam or a lot of unnecessary things if you don’t use the right alerts. If you set an alert for things like suitcases, you’re not going to learn a lot if you’re a small emerging suitcase retailer. You want to be able to find things, again, setting realistic goals but setting realistic alerts of things that you feel that you can contribute to that conversation.
Google Analytics Alerts is something where you can actually … It’s the other side of it. Google Alerts lets you know things that maybe you hadn’t realized right away. Google Analytics Alerts for referral sources will actually tell you if a new site is driving traffic to you. It lets you know that somebody maybe is talking about you or linking to you. You may be able to enhance that relationship.
You may be able to say, “Ooh, I didn’t realize that this niche in my audience is actually something that really responds well to my product. I should look about being a little bit more aggressive in marketing to that audience.” Setting up these automated tools that will give you insights about off-page opportunity. Let the ideas come to you rather than having to go out there and manufacture these processes and these tactics from scratch every single time.
Nate Shivar: When you go beyond brand alerts and local business listings and start to try to get more links to your website, I think the rule of thumb is to keep in mind that quality always trumps quantity and that if something sounds too good to be true, especially in the SEO industry, it usually is. Google is smarter than you, and if it was easy as paying someone to build you a bunch of links or buying a link-building package that would boost you to rank number one, then everyone would be doing it and everyone would be back to square one. I think the key is to think of link-building and getting these off-page signals as something that’s based on relationships. It’s not something magical. It’s not something super technical. It really comes back to traditional marketing. It’s about making introductions to people who share the same audience as you, not just making pitches to people, but looking at ways that you can give them something for their audience, whether it’s information or an interesting piece of content, something that would help another website, so that they will eventually link back to you or share an audience with you.
Brett Snyder: It’s about being genuine and authentic. Relationships cannot just be manufactured, but Google and Yahoo! and Bing and these search engines are trying to map your relationships by building genuine, authentic relationships with influences in your space, people who you share an audience with, people who you share a goal with in terms of being able to service a particular set of consumers. Creating those genuine and authentic relationships is really the foundation of any good marketing campaign, and it supports that ultimate goal that we talked about. I think I’ve mentioned it at least three times already on this episode, but that idea that SEO is an investment and not a cost. You are doing this for the sustainable, long-term results, and investing in sustainable, long-term relationships is a great way to pursue that.
Nate Shivar: All right, you can find the previous episodes, links to thinks that we’ve mentioned, and our contact information at BambooChalupa.com. If you don’t want to miss another episode, go subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or your favorite podcast app. Do leave us a comment and rating while you’re there. We learn a lot from your feedback, and your ratings helps others to discover the show. For Brett Snyder, I’m Nate Shivar. Thank you for listening.