The Basic Guide To SEO and Organic Search Visitors
Basic Guide To SEO
Are you using the same SEO tactics and strategies as you did last year or the year before? If so, it may be time to re-evaluate your strategy. We’ve some seen fairly significant shifts over the past year when it comes to search engine ranking factors, and success with SEO doesn’t happen without the ability to quickly adapt to changes in the industry.
This guide will provide everything you need to know about fundamental SEO in 2016. We’ll cover:
- Keyword research: Is it still necessary in 2016?
- On-page SEO: How do we incorporate keywords into our content?
- Site-wide SEO: What structural elements are necessary to achieve organic search visibility?
- Mobile SEO: Which elements are necessary to rank in mobile search?
- Link building: How do inbound links affect SEO, and how do you acquire them?
- Content marketing: How do content marketing and SEO intersect?
In my Definitive Guide to SEO in 2014, I made the following statement: “Although much has changed over the past year when it comes to SEO, the principles of keyword research have remained relatively stable.” To some extent, this is still true today.
The fundamentals of performing keyword research have not changed. We still want to find words and phrases that our prospects are using to seek out our business and products. There are a variety of ways we can do this effectively:
- Using keyword research tools like Google’s Keyword Planner, Jaaxy – The Worlds Most Advanced Keyword Tool, Ubersuggest, SEMrush and Searchmetrics’ Keyword Analysis tool to find popular keywords and phrases that aren’t hyper-competitive.
- Analyzing your website analytics to find out which keywords are already generating traffic and sales. You can use this data to find new, related keywords, or to build additional content based on these terms.
- Looking at your competitors’ top-ranking pages to determine which keywords they’re targeting
- Focusing on long-tail keywords as natural language search becomes more popular and pervasive.
While these strategies can all be very effective at finding relevant keywords, we have definitely seen a shift away from the one-to-one relationship between using these keywords and achieving high rankings.
When performing keyword research, focus on finding relevant topics and themes to structure your content around. Instead of going through the process in order to choose one or two words or phrases to write about, use your findings to learn more about your audience and their needs and interests.
- The Rise of the Long-tail Keyword for SEO
- How to Identify Long-tail Keywords for Your SEO Campaign
- 5 Tools for Finding High-Value Long-tail Keywords
- Why Your Keyword Strategy is Incomplete Without User Intent
On-Page Basic Guide To SEO
So, if this one-to-one relationship between specific keywords, user queries and search rankings is gone (or at least significantly diminished), how does on-page SEO work in 2016? Without keywords, which on-page strategies and tactics are still relevant?
Searchmetrics’ 2015 Ranking Factors report provides us with important insights into how we should be structuring our content in order to rank. Following are some key findings from the report, along with how you can incorporate them into your own content.
Word Count: We have known for some time that Google shows a preference for longer, more comprehensive content. According to the report, the average word count for top-ranking content is in the range of 1,140-1,285 words. This is up from 902 words in 2014. When creating content, focus on providing comprehensive coverage of your topic, rather than writing shorter content that only brushes the surface of your topic.
Proof and relevant terms: These are terms that support and ‘prove’ relevance to the main topic of your content. Using them indicates to Google and to your readers that you’re comprehensively covering the topic. Proof terms are words and phrases that essentially must be used for a particular topic; for instance, ‘search’ will almost always be used when writing about ‘SEO’. Relevant terms, on the other hand, are words that are often used alongside a primary keyword in order to provide holistic coverage of the topic. When discussing ‘SEO’, relevant words might be ‘Google’, ‘Panda’ or ‘rankings’. Years ago, SEO professionals used the term “LSI Keywords” (Latent Semantic Indexing) to refer to these types of keywords, but I haven’t seen that term used widely in a couple years.
Keywords within content: Keywords should still be incorporated into your content; especially in the title, header and subheaders, introduction paragraph, and conclusion paragraph. Overall, according to the Searchmetrics report, top-ranking pages saw an increase in the total number of keywords used in the body of the text; however, this did not apply to the very highest-ranking pages. Continue to use your desired keywords throughout your content.
Internal links: The number of internal links on high-ranking pages has increased since 2014. According to the report authors, the number of links you include in your content isn’t as important as optimizing your overall link structure: “What counts is not the total number of internal links, but rather the optimization of the internal structure and page information so that the user (and also the search engine) is optimally guided through the provider’s content and to ensure that the user stays on the page and is satisfied.”
Use of header and meta-tags: 99% of top 10 pages had a meta-description, and 80% used an H1 tag. While the meta-description won’t necessarily help your content rank higher, it does act as a sort of ‘ad copy’ in the search engine results (SERPs). As much as possible, ensure your H1 tags and descriptions are unique and accurately describe the main topic of your page.
Ensuring each piece of content is properly optimized is key; however, without the proper site-wide elements in place, your on-page SEO won’t do much good. This section will cover important site-wide elements you should have in place in order to rank well in organic search results.
A mobile-friendly site: Since Google’s mobile-friendly update earlier this year (commonly referred to as Mobile addon), mobile-friendliness has become a significant ranking factor. If you haven’t already, ensure your site uses a responsive design, or that you have a dedicated mobile site or app in place.
Quick loading times: Your site needs to load quickly on all devices; however, with the significant increase in mobile usage, it’s particularly critical your site loads quickly on mobile devices. Searchmetrics found that the top-ranking pages loaded in an average of 1.16 seconds for desktop results and 1.10 seconds for mobile. Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool can help you figure out how quickly your site is loading (just keep in mind this tool works on a page-by-page basis, not on a site-wide basis). Pingdom provides another reliable tool.
Proper content structure: Structuring your content in a logical way is great both for rankings and for user experience. There are a number of ways you can provide an optimal structure for your content:
- Use interactive elements such as menus and buttons
- Use unordered lists (bullets) to break up content into manageable chunks
- As already mentioned, use internal links to guide users and search engines through relevant content on your site. Using external links is may also be beneficial, since it may align your site within what Google considers to be a good or relevant neighborhood of similar-themed sites.
We’ve already touched briefly on the importance of optimizing your site for mobile. It’s no longer enough to optimize for desktop and ignore mobile users. In fact, Google recently announced that more searches happen on mobile devices than on desktop devices. So if you ignore mobile optimization, you potentially alienate over half your site’s visitors.
Apart from having a mobile-friendly, responsive site design, what other factors are important for ranking in mobile search? This next section will provide some key insights from Searchmetrics’ 2015 Mobile Ranking Factors report.
File size and site speed: Not surprisingly, these are both important factors for ranking in mobile search. Mobile pages need to load quicker and should be smaller in size than their desktop counterparts.
Mobile-friendly format and structure: Because mobile users are often accessing the web while ‘on the go’, your content should be structured in a way that makes it easy to read and understand. Using bulleted lists can help with this, as can using slightly larger font sizes (top-ranking mobile pages used an average font size of 15.63 above the fold and 11.44 in central areas).
Keywords in content: As with desktop content, continue to incorporate your keywords into your content. Proof and relevant terms are also important for your mobile content, although their usage is slightly lower than in their desktop counterparts. This is likely due to the fact that desktop content is typically longer than mobile content.
Word count: Generally speaking, mobile content should be shorter than desktop content.The average word count for top-ranking mobile pages in 2015 was 868, compared with just 687 the year before. However, these numbers are far lower than the average word count for top-ranking desktop pages.
Ads: If you’re using ads within your mobile-optimized content, keep in mind that high-ranking mobile pages tend to have significantly fewer ads than their desktop counterparts. Ads can slow down loading times even more significantly on mobile devices, so keep your ads to a minimum.
The old school concept of link building – reaching out to other webmasters to exchange links, manually submitting your site to web directories, posting links to your site in articles on Web 2.0 sites that have no editorial review process, and leaving a spammy comment and forum links – is long gone.
Most savvy business owners know that these link building tactics are not only ineffective but that they can cause ranking penalties to their site. However, the emergence of evidence that non-linked mentions and citations (so-called “implied links”) are considered in the ranking algorithm has changed the perspective across the industry on link building; it has become apparent that building brand results in the kind of links that bring the most value from an SEO perspective. Rather than building links, business owners and marketers should be working towards earning links through publishing high-quality content.
In their ranking factors report, Searchmetrics articulates this shift nicely: “For many years, links formed the absolute basis for search engine rankings, for SEO’s, and for the analysis of ranking factors. This was also the reason for the highly tactical manipulations in this sector over a long period. These times have largely passed. We are also convinced that links will continue to lose relevance in the age of semantic contexts and machine learning with a user focus. For search engines, it is a question of ranking the best and most relevant content. In the capability to determine this, they are continually improving – especially Google, as the data in this study shows.”
While the significance of links as a ranking factor is changing, they remain a significant ranking factor. In a recent analysis performed by Moz and BuzzSumo, they were able to identify the content types that are most likely to accumulate a high number of links. These are:
- Research-backed content
- Opinion forming journalism
- Long form content over 1,000 words
- List posts (‘listsicles’)
- ‘Why’ posts
My full analysis of their findings can be found here.
So, what tactics remain viable for link building aside from publishing great content and then hoping it attracts links?
Guest blogging remains an effective strategy, not only for building inbound links but for reaching a new, targeted audience.
Promoting your content on social media is also an extremely effective strategy, but not for the reason, you might think. You may have heard the buzz about the term ‘social signals’. This is the idea that likes, shares and retweets on social media count as links, and therefore pass on ‘link juice’ to your site and content. However, Google has explicitly stated that they do not count likes and shares on Facebook or Twitter as links.
So, does that mean getting traction on social media is useless in terms of SEO? Not at all. As I detailed in How social signals really affect your search rankings, there is most definitely an indirect relationship between social likes and shares and high rankings. Excellent content that gets liked and shared gets in front of a larger audience. As more people see and appreciate that content, it begins to accumulate more links. And content that gets more links still tends to rank higher in the search.
There are many other tactics for link building, such as broken link building, submission-based link building, and even set up a scholarship then conducting outreach to various colleges to promote your scholarship (with a link back to your site). PointBlankSEO has a nice guide that includes plenty of other tactics. Neil Patel’s advice on link building is also worth the read.
See how great content attracts links? Those last two links are proof-in-the-pudding examples!
I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the importance of content marketing for SEO. More than ever before, content is at the very heart of the practice of achieving high rankings in search. Neil Patel called content marketing “The New SEO” as far back as 2012.
Tactics that used to be effective at achieving rankings – such as writing short content with a very high keyword density – no longer work. The key to high rankings in 2016 is publishing long-form, comprehensive content that meets the needs of users. Above all, it must provide value. For a checklist of whether your content is high-quality, see The 12 Essential Elements of High-Quality Content.
This type of content will often naturally rank well in search results because it attracts shares and links. Additionally, content that does a thorough job of covering a particular topic will naturally incorporate many of the elements that we know are important for rankings; they will naturally use proof and relevant terms, they will tend to be longer, and they will incorporate helpful internal and external links.
With a proper distribution strategy for your content, your content is far more likely to gain traction; through social shares, links and through increased search rankings. Creating useful, thorough, well-optimized content is key, but so is having a plan in place for getting that content in front of a wider audience.
I hope you’ve found this SEO guide helpful, and that you can use these strategies to boost your own rankings. But perhaps even more importantly, I hope you can use these findings to inform your content creation process; providing the best possible user experience, while naturally gaining increased traction and rankings for your content.