Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is seen as extraordinarily important by many online business owners. And one can see why: if your site ranks on the first page of Google for a popular keyword, you will enjoy a relative flood of traffic. Hopefully, that traffic leads to conversions and purchases, which provide a direct return on your investment in SEO.
But in my opinion, to focus solely on SEO is to risk dooming your business.
Why? Because search engine rankings are entirely out of your control. If you primarily rely upon search engine rankings to fuel your bottom line, any changes to your site's position in Google could spell disaster.
With that in mind, I advise any small business owner to spend very little time or money on their SEO efforts. There is a better way to attract traffic (and customers) to your site.
In this post I want to reveal just how fickle search engine rankings are and reveal my key marketing strategy that will provide a solid long-term foundation for your business.
Exposing the Fickle Nature of Search Engine Rankings
It might be reasonable to pour your resources into SEO if it could be demonstrated that Google plays fair. But when it comes to SEO, you're operating on their turf, by their rules.
The search engines can (and do) switch up their ranking algorithms as they please, which can result in your site climbing high or falling hard. Do you really want your business' profitability to be so adversely affected by something that is entirely out of your control?
Some of the best analysis I have read on the subject of Google's fickle nature can be found over at the excellent ViperChill blog (written by Glen Allsopp). We'll start with Glen's post on the "New" SEO, in which he revealed that a single brand (Yoast, developer of the popular WordPress SEO plugin) was ranking for all five of the first results on Google for the keyword "WordPress SEO".
Google is currently ranking Yoast in the top four results by my results page:
This is where Glen makes his first (entirely valid) point: if Google favors particular brands so much, what chance do we have of ranking? It has long been known that Google loves big brands, but surely the same brand sharing the top four results is a little much? It certainly doesn't help the searcher in terms of providing varied sources of information (which is generally what Google endeavors to do).
But that's just the tip of the iceberg. While I'm not going to cover every single example Glen uses in his post, there's another one that I want to mention. Go ahead and search Google for "how to make a website". At the time of writing, the top two results are two videos hosted on YouTube:
Those two videos are by the same person and were pushed to the top of the rankings with just a few weeks of intensive backlinking. Forget aged domains and quality backlinks, if you know what you're doing and have the resources, you can push your content to the top of Google (at least, in the short-term).
This is why I see intensive SEO as akin to chasing your tail. You might get to the top of the rankings, but that does not guarantee your long-term placement. It also doesn't guarantee that an inferior or spammy site won't knock you off the rankings by throwing a huge number of backlinks at their site.
While Google loves to say that great content and quality backlinks will get you to the top of Google, the evidence often demonstrates to the contrary.
Now I want to talk about a means of promoting your site that can serve as a solid foundation for the months and years to come. It has nothing to do with "traditional" SEO (that is, link building). While it may not give you the instant (and largely insecure) results that certain "black hat" tactics can, it offers far more in the long run.
There must be more to your interaction with others than a desperate need to drive traffic to your site.
It's a strategy I refer to as "incidental" SEO. The underlying theory is simple: if you write great content and establish genuine relationships with others in your niche, not only will you get direct referrals (via links from other sites and word of mouth), but in time you will rank in Google due to the perceived authority of your site.
This is not a strategy that provides overnight success. It will likely take months for you to reap the benefits, and years before you are truly well established. However, it is future proof.
You are essentially working towards the guidelines that Google would like you to adhere to. And although they may not have their algorithms perfected yet, you can be sure that some of the brightest minds in the world are working pretty damn hard to get them there.
So what kind of strategies are we talking about then? I advocate just three things (the less you have to worry about, the more likely you will succeed):
- social signals (i.e. build strong social media profiles)
- guest posting
I know, it sounds really simple — and to an extent it is. But the key is in the execution, and the key to the execution is to take off your "marketing" hat and put on your "human being" hat. You must be genuine. There must be more to your interaction with others than a desperate need to drive traffic to your site. Focus first on giving, and put any thought of receiving out of your head. That will come in time.
What does this mean in practical terms? Well, let me give you some examples:
- Don't treat social media like something that has to be done — enjoy the process (and make sure that you are delivering something that will actually benefit your audience).
- Only guest post on those blogs that you care about and only produce your very best content for them (it should be an honor to be published on their site).
- Only attempt to establish relationships with bloggers that you think you would actually get along with in real life. Think "friend" rather than "colleague".
I've actually got an upcoming article on email outreach here on FreelanceSwitch that I highly advise you read when it's published. It underlines the "natural" approach that I advocate.
You may be wondering why I call this strategy "incidental" SEO. It's simple: the culmination of your natural outreach efforts (via the three channels mentioned above) will result in good search engine rankings in the future. Although you are not consciously carrying out SEO, the result will be as if you were. The ranking benefits are incidental to what you are actually trying to achieve (i.e. valuable relationships with other human beings).
Ultimately, you get a triple whammy effect: direct referrals, word of mouth referrals and search engine referrals. This kind of diversification in traffic sources is a good thing.
Should You Forget About SEO?
People will always try to game Google. As far as I can see, that will never change. But as I said before, those people are chasing their tails. What works today may not work tomorrow. The devastating effects of Penguin and other updates are testament to that.
It is the real, human relationships you establish that will ultimately define your success.
I am not in this business to make a quick buck. I want to establish a solid online business that will last the test of time, and I recognize that chasing Google rankings is not the best way to go about building a sustainable business. There is never a real relationship between you and Google — they can drop you tomorrow as if you were nothing. It is the real, human relationships you establish that will ultimately define your success.
With that in mind, I do not advocate any kind of deliberate offsite optimization (i.e. link building). Your incidental SEO strategy will take care of that over time. But what I do advocate is a measure of onsite optimization, which involves presenting your content in such a way that its relevance is obvious to Google.
I am not talking about old school keyword stuffing techniques, or even considerations towards keyword density and so on. All I suggest is that you make Google's life easy in terms of determining the relevancy of your content.
With that in mind, I have outlined below the key few elements that you should focus on.
My SEO Plugin of Choice
If you're using WordPress then I recommend that you make your life much easier by installing the aforementioned SEO by Yoast plugin. This contains all of the settings (and then some) that you need to fiddle with in order to ensure that your onsite SEO is up to scratch.
For a detailed tutorial on how to make the most of this plugin, see the following two posts:
- A Complete Guide to WordPress SEO by Yoast [Part I]
- A Complete Guide to WordPress SEO by Yoast [Part II]
Now let's cover the main aspects of onsite SEO that you should worry about.
It doesn't take a genius to guess what title tags are:
The words within the title tag have a big play to part in Google's algorithm. Whatever you choose to include can be very influential, so make sure that the words are relevant to your site and page. This goes for your home page as well as every single page and post you publish on your site.
With the SEO by Yoast plugin, you can customize the title tag output via SEO > Titles & Metas in your WordPress sidebar.
The meta description is arguably the most undervalued onsite SEO factor. It is, as your might guess, the description underneath the title:
Most people leave this blank, which means that Google will grab what it deems to be a relevant snippet from the site and display it. This isn't much good. In reality, a persuasive meta description can boost your Google traffic without actually improving your rankings, as more people will click on your result (regardless of where it is on the page).
Technically speaking, this is less about SEO and more about persuasive marketing, but it's still about getting more search engine traffic to your site, so I highly advise that you create meta descriptions for most posts and pages on your site.
You can add a meta description for your home page and template pages via SEO > Titles & Metas. You can add a meta description per post or page within the individual page or post screen, via the SEO by Yoast box:
The keywords contained within your site's URL can also have an impact on your search engine rankings. As such, when possible they should be keyword-rich and evocative of whatever subject you are tackling on any given page.
Permalinks are simply the "permanent links" that WordPress uses to direct people around your site. You want pretty permalinks, rather than the ugly standard that WordPress defaults to.
You can change your permalinks structure via Settings > Permalinks:
I recommend that you choose the "Post name" format.
That's it! When it comes to onsite SEO essentials, you can get by quite happily with only the above settings in place.
If you are a recovering SEOaholic, my advice to you at this juncture is simple: start making real relationships.
I cannot stress how much this will benefit you in the long-term, not only with regards to the future prospects of your business, but also in terms of your enjoyment of what you do.
The world of SEO is a lonely one. You don't make friends by optimizing your site endlessly and building links. On the other hand, you do make friends by making friends. It's an obvious statement, but one that many internet marketers don't fully appreciate.
So take the time you have been using for your SEO tactics and apply it instead towards getting to know people in your niche. Reach out to fellow bloggers. Do not contact people in the vain hope of getting a link. Pushing yourself out of that mindset will probably be the most difficult thing to start out with.
People's desire to reciprocate is a well-established social fact. If you help people they will ultimately do good by you. It is in part how our society operates. So forget about backlinks, domain authority and PageRank. Focus instead on the human element of business building. You'll thank yourself down the line.