This is an update to a May 30, 2013 post.
Google released its latest algorithm update, the so-called “Penguin 2.0,” and as is usually the case with major announced updates to Google's algo, a bunch of people got their panties in a bunch. Officially, Google is calling this the “Penguin webspam algorithm.”
No matter. I wrote about this before, here, here, and here. SEO, as we know it, is DEAD. Seriously. The old ways of tricking the search engines (the only one left, for all practical purposes, is Google) have been rendered useless.
Back before Google (B.G.), we used to be able to stuff keywords in a webpage and get it ranked pretty highly quite easily. Then, when Google came along, we had to go out and build links to our “money sites.” Then, as Google got smarter, we had to disguise our link building by building links to links that linked back to our money sites.
Automated software like SEnuke became the rage. Push a button and your SEO was done! Praise the SEO Lord!
Now, all that is pretty much crap. Don't waste your time with it. But take all this with a grain of salt. Some of this stuff still works, but doing any sort of SEO carries risks, chief among them that what works today may not work tomorrow and may even work to the detriment of your site in the coming months.
It's not like everything you do SEO-wise will get your site killed…but doing this instead of that may cost you time, effort, and dollars. Best to spend those scarce resources on what works, right?
So–what works? And better yet, how do you actually do the work to get it done?
SEO Best Practices
There are 4 critical things that Google is looking for when it comes to ranking web pages and websites. They are:
- Quality content
- Traffic (yeah, I'll get to that)
- Backlinks (there's more to it than just numbers; in fact, more can be worse than less)
- Social signals
We'll tackle each of these in turn.
By now, you have no doubt heard the expression, “Content is king.” And it is. The more quality content your site has, the better. Hands down. No question about it. If another website outranks yours and it has inferior content, just chalk it up to the fact that Google hasn't caught up with its own proclamations yet. Yet, at the end of the day, Google really only cares about whether they are supplying the best content to their users.
Since “best” is a subjective term, it is hard to quantify it. But Google does it by looking at what other people and sites are saying about your content. In short, if other people link to your content, they are casting a vote in favor of your website. If droves and droves of “peer sites” are referring their visitors to your pages, you better believe that your content is being held in very high esteem.
The way to get others to vote for you is by writing quality content. And lots of it. Again–in this case, more is better. Frequency matters, too. All other things being equal, more frequent publication of new, quality content is better than less frequency. Get in the habit of writing a lot.
Yeah, Google looks at how much traffic you get and rewards you for it. It seems sort of backwards, right? I mean, you're doing SEO so that you can rank higher in the SERPs so that you get more traffic. More traffic means more potential buyers or customers. Simple.
But you can't get traffic if you can't get ranked and you can't get ranked high if you don't get a fair amount of traffic. So what do you do? You buy traffic 🙂
This, after all, is what Google wants; it's how they make the bulk of their money (if you buy AdWords). If you have a new site or just want a bump in rankings, go out and spend some dough on AdWords or Facebook ads. When you invest in paid ads, typically, once your ad buy is over, the traffic dries up. That's because people typically send traffic to landing or squeeze pages. You don't really want to do that. You want to spend a few bucks to get an initial influx of traffic that keeps coming back.
Why do they come back? Because your content is awesome, that's why.
So all you're really doing is paying for a burst of traffic. Once you get visitors, you have to entice them back with top-quality content. See why content is king?
Backlinks come from two places: Your own site and other people's sites. While internal backlinking has benefits, it's the backlinks that come from other sites that you really want to covet. In the “old days,” one could simply get thousands of Xrumer backlinks and call it a day, rank well, and get as much traffic as you wanted. Now, not so much. Google knows those links are crap.
What you really want is links back from websites that are better than yours. And when I say “better,” I mean those that rank higher. There are 3 qualities to look for in a potential backlink:
It used to be that PageRank was the de facto standard for “authority.” It still does give an indication of a website's authority, but it is wielding less and less power as time marches on. Suffice it to say that in the vast majority of cases, for any given keyword phrase, “authority sites” in your niche are those on the first page or two of Google. It's really that simple. Look for sites that rank well, have quality content, and have a practice where they link outside their site frequently.
One of the best ways to get a link back from an authority site is to approach the site owner with a proposal to write a post for them for free, in return for a link back to your site, of course! This is called “guest posting” and as the web evolves, more and more guest posting will be done. Of course, this “goose that laid the golden egg” is currently being abused quite badly and there will come a time when Google places a much keener eye on the practice.
Of course, the best websites won't allow abuse and will only accept quality guest posts (there's that “content is king” concept again!) sparingly.
Now, you may not be able to score a guest post opp with a true authority in your niche. If that's the case, you have two choices, and I suggest you do both:
- Opt to guest post for a lesser site. First, you never know when that guy's gonna pop and become an authority site in its own right. Second, what you're really trying to do with guest posting is two-fold: You want a backlink but more importantly, you want the direct traffic that such a post can provide. When somebody reads your guest post, they may in fact hop over to your site to see what else is there. That direct traffic is gold. Consider creating a landing page that rewards your new reader for her visit.
- Make a thoughtful comment on the authority site. Most websites nowadays have commenting enabled, so use it! Often, your comment will elicit a visit from the authority site owner himself and/or his readers. Again, this direct traffic is pure gold.
Remember, if you always aim for traffic, everything else you do will be gold. Seriously.
It's not enough just to get backlinks from authority sites. You must get relevant links. By this I mean that you need to get links back from sites within your industry or niche. Getting a backlink from CNN is always cool. But getting one from a true leader in your industry is even better!
Lastly, you want diversity. Google is always on the lookout for “suspicious activity.” If, all of a sudden, you go from having zero backlinks for “dog training” to having thousands, you will draw undue attention to yourself and your site. Don't do that.
Also, don't try to get backlinks exclusively for your chosen keywords. Vary things up a bit. Your anchor text (the text that displays the hyperlink) should range from “click here” to “read more” to your brand (e.g., “nabisco”) to some related keywords like “dog training,” “train your dog,” and “puppy education,” all the way to the URL of the page you want the backlink for – “http://dogtrainingu.com/how-to”
Of course, there are many ways to get links back from authority sites. Guest posting and commenting are just two ways. Another way is to just ask: Will you put a link on your site back to mine in return for my doing the same? This is called reciprocal linking. This practice fell out of vogue a few years ago but it's now back, and with a vengeance.
No commentary about backlinks would be complete without saying that quality trumps quantity. In fact, if you have a ridiculous amount of backlinks, especially when compared to your competition or peers, you may in fact draw Google's ire; they may penalize you for it worst case or disregard all your efforts in the best case.
This is all the rage! Social signals are Facebook likes and shares, twitter tweets and retweets, Google +1s, etc. Basically, any time you can share or “vote” on a social website, you are telling Google that you are endorsing the website at hand. For example, if you give my article on http://dogtesting.com/train-your-retriever a Google +1, then you're telling Google that what you read is great stuff. They throw that in their database and out pops a slightly higher search ranking. Get enough +1s and you'll begin tipping the SERP scales in your favor.
Of course, people are “gaming” the social signal landscape, too. Take a look at Fiverr. Five minutes spent there and you will discover that “gig sellers” are selling likes, shares, and +1s. Google knows this and has ways to discern what is going on. These, of course, are false signals and Google is getting better and better about detecting when social signals have been manipulated.
So what do you do? Two things: Make it very easy for your website visitors to share your content. Every time you publish a new post, let your email subscribers know about it; tell your Facebook fans and friends; announce your post on twitter and ask for re-tweets. It's all very simple.
The Future of SEO
What does the future hold for SEO? Well, I think we're in sort of a holding pattern. Content is king, but you may still find hundreds or even thousands of examples where crummy sites beat out quality sites; that will change.
Getting others to link back to you will always be a part of any good search engine optimization strategy. Of course, the importance of backlinks may ebb and flow as time goes on, but rest assured that quality backlinks will remain a staple of good SEO for a long, long time; I daresay forever.
It is becoming clearer and clearer that social signals are here to stay, too. As search becomes more and more personalized, social signals will become more important to obtain. Really–they are the only way to personalize search besides looking at your own personal data (search history, location, proximity, etc.). What your “friends” say or do will determine to a greater degree how your search results are derived and delivered.
Finally, if you simply have a kick-ass website with screaming content, fast loading times, near-real-time engagement (you respond to comments and other feedback quickly, sincerely, and thoughtfully), you will eventually get a ton of traffic.
That traffic will beget even more traffic, as more people recommend your site, give you backlinks, and share your content. All those will factor into ranking you higher in the SERPs, which will in turn get you even more traffic.
Now, the brass tax: How do you do all of this? Well, if you have more time than money, you do it yourself perhaps with a bit of outsourcing. Hire a ghost writer for a per-article fee. Solicit backlinks from authorities in your field. Reach out to them and ask how you could help them. In turn, a good number of them will help you by making mention of your website (in a variety of ways, not just in backlinks). Get a Hootsuite account and make sure that every post you make is getting publicized on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and YouTube, among others. Buy some advertising. Yeah, it's old-fashioned but it works.
If you have more money than time, go buy a service. There are good “SEOs” all over the place (and 100x that number in bad SEOs). Be selective. Spread your risk among several top-notch firms and/or individuals. Give a keyword phrase to vendor 1 and a different one to vendor 2. See how they perform. Make sure you're comparing apples to apples, though…
Of course, I offer a couple SEO services (use the contact form to inquire about my SEO services). I'd love to help you out. I use a tried-and-true (backed by testing) method for ranking your site well. It's costly, but effective. And it's recurring, too. SEO is not a one-shot deal. It's like any other marketing effort: You have to continue to invest.
UPDATE: I no longer offer SEO services to the general public. There are many reasons. But I do offer SEO training.
Don't ever believe an SEO pro if he tells you he can get you to the top of the SERPs and keep you there with a one-time investment. He's lying. Just like the dentist would be lying if she told you all you had to do to have pretty, white, cavity-free teeth is to brush once and never again.
You wouldn't believe that, would you?
So, now that your panties are all out of a bunch, go make some money. Get your sites ranked. Start seeing the traffic you need to get you the earnings you deserve for all your efforts.
Of course, nothing's really changed from 2 years back. In fact, it's actually easier to rank a web site now – because a lot of SEO's got out of the game, including me.
People looking for better rankings often need to be educated first. That takes a tremendous effort in terms of time and patience. I just don't have either any more.
However, if you want to learn about getting better rankings on Google, stay tuned.