Whether you have a personal blog or an ecommerce site, the million-dollar question remains the same: How do I get to the top of the Google search results?

I wish I could sell you foolproof instructions on how to accomplish that. I’d be able to afford some very nice Christmas presents for everyone on my list this year.

Unfortunately, I can’t make promises. Google and the other search engines don’t explicitly tell us how they determine search rankings (that would make it too easy for site owners to game the system). But we can observe what works and test small changes to measure results. Doing this has given us a list of “best practices,” which I’m sharing with you here today.

In a couple of previous blogs I looked at Content Marketing and Social Media Marketing for small business owners. Today I’m going to look at some basic SEO best practices, then discuss a few high-level strategies that can fine-tune your search engine optimization, making your website easier to find.

 

Start at the Beginning

If you’re an absolute SEO novice, I recommend the following resources for learning the basics:

Like a lot of things worth building, an SEO strategy takes time. Patience is key. SEO optimization can be a lengthy process and indexing will NOT be done overnight. Even if your site is perfect, you may have to wait up to three months (or more) before seeing your website within the SERP’s (that’s shorthand for “search engine result page”).

 

Write Down Your Goals

Getting to the first page of the search results may be the ultimate goal, but there are a lot of battles to be won and lost in the SEO war. Google has a sophisticated system with over 200 rankings factors. You’re going to need a plan.

Write down what you want to accomplish. For example, you may want to improve brand recognition. Or you want to segment your customers and target each segment with customized content.

 

Do Some Keyword Research

Part of the planning phase is deciding what terms you want to target with each page of your website. Typically, each page of your site will be optimized for one keyword, or one keyword phrase (aka “long-tail keywords”).

Use your brand name, your products, your city name.  Use anything and everything people might search to find you. You can use SEMrush or the free Google AdWords Keyword Planner to find popular keywords and phrases related to your businesses. Write these keywords and keyword phrases in a spreadsheet. This list will be your content map for the months ahead.

Focus on the top 10 keywords—the front page of Google. Most searchers never look at the second page. Instead, they modify their search terms until they find what they’re looking for on page one.

Pro-tip: Don’t make the mistake of analyzing a keyword’s potential traffic based on global search. Use local search instead. Why? If your customers are in the US, Internet users in countries like India (where English is a main language) will be a big part of global search volume and skew your keyword research as a result.

 

Perform an SEO Audit

If you’re working with an existing site (rather than starting from scratch), an SEO audit will help you find problems that can be fixed quickly and easily. Before you know what to fix, you need to know what’s wrong.

If you have a small site, you can do this manually by opening each page and viewing the page source (right-click and “view page source” if you’re using Chrome) to check for keyword use.

There are certain HTML tags you’ll want to look at closely:

  • Title Tag
  • Meta Description
  • Heading 1 (H1)
  • Heading 2 (H2)

These are the most common page elements where you’ll want to use keywords and keyword phrases. You’ll also want to pay attention to where you put <bold> and <underline> tags.

If you need to automate this process, you can crawl a large site quickly using Beam Us Up, Screaming Frog’s SEO Site Auditor, or Ahrefs. These tools will crawl your site in much the same way the search engines do it. You’ve probably heard of “bots” and “spiders” … Those are just cute names for Google’s automated crawling mechanism.

Sitemaps (usually an XML file such as “sitemap.xml”) do a great job of making sure your entire site gets crawled. They represent a clear interlinking structure that helps bots jump from page to page and organize information. Create an XML sitemap that auto-updates and upload it to Google Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools).

 

 Look at Your Competition

A critical review of your competitor websites lets you identify the page elements that Google and Bing reward. For example, a site that consistently ranks higher than you may have some content built around a keyword phrase that you overlooked. Modify your content to conform to what is already working for others—in the SEO game, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Tools such as Ahrefs let you research your competitors and their traffic. You an also analyze the domain authority and page authority of each competitor site you find. Look at page titles, keyword density, who they are, their backlink profile and more.

 

Social Media

Your social media marketing strategy is a huge component of your SEO marketing strategy. Distribute content in different formats to help the audience. Some people like videos; others respond to easily-shared graphics.

You’ll want to make sure you are producing infographics, blogs, webinars, etc. that your target audience wants. That way you’ll get the “shares” and “likes” that make the search engines sit up and take notice.

What are some tools that can help? Use posting schedulers to post regularly and at optimal times for engagement (Tuesday and Wednesday mid-morning are always good). Use SproutSocial or IFTTT to sync posts across multiple platforms. You can use BuzzSumo to find the most popular socially-shared content relevant to your industry. This will help you address the same pain points addressed by the most shared/most popular content.

 

Link-Building Your Way to the Top

If a lot of relevant external websites link to your site, Google will take notice. Many of these “inbound” links will happen naturally. For example, when your blog is shared on social media, it sends “social signals” that will give you more importance in the eyes of Google.

But you can also make your business website an authoritative destination by getting high-quality inbound links. These links will have to be sought out and earned via guest blogging and high-page rank “dofollow” comments you can leave on other websites.

Here’s an overlooked strategy for building high-value backlinks: Take a few minutes to fill out a business profile on sites like Manta.com, Yelp, Hotfrog.com and MerchantCircle.com.

You can also answer a few questions on Yahoo Answers, Answers.com, and Askville. Don’t spam, but link to your site. These may be “nofollow” links, but the search engines still see them as a good source of indirect traffic for your keywords.

Make sure you get backlinks (another word for “inbound links”) from websites with high Page Authority. Links from low-quality websites can have a negative effect on your rankings.

Use Similar Site Search to find websites that have high domain authority for the keywords you’re focused on. Try to develop a relationship with the site owner—linking is a two-way street, and you may be able to help one another in the ongoing battle for SERP love.

 

Optimize On-Page SEO

Implement site-wide best practices concerning internal linking, breadcrumbs, and schema/microdata. Use your brand or business name in all page title tags. Schema markup will help the search engines display content in an attractive and helpful way. Use Google Authorship Markup to let Google know what content is original.

When creating outbound links, avoid using exact match keywords in the anchor text. Ensure there is anchor diversity; if “keyword” is the anchor text for every link, for example, we don’t have good anchor diversity. Make sure the navigation is clear and intuitive.

Ensure the website and all online creatives are completely mobile-friendly, functional and attractive for every mobile device, tablet and Web browser. As of April 2015, Google is actively punishing non-mobile websites. Work with the dedicated content creation team and designers to ensure consistent “look and feel” of all branded collateral and all customer-facing collateral.

 

Page Load Time

Ensure fast load times (for all operating systems and browsers). It improves user satisfaction, lowers bounce rates, and Google rewards it. Here’s a litmus test you can use to figure out how bloated a site is. Go to the Pingdom Website Speed Test and enter the URL to see how long the page takes to load and how many HTTP requests are made. Google’s PageSpeed Insights Tool can also help with this.

 

Are You Using WordPress?

Using a self-hosted installation of WordPress has its advantages from an SEO perspective. The two most popular plugins to help optimize your WordPress site are the free All in One SEO Pack and the higher-rated but slightly less popular Yoast. Both of these plugins can be installed directly from within your WordPress admin dashboard. Give them a try—they can automate most of the important SEO work for you.

 

 

Thanks for reading. Let me know (via the comments below) what SEO strategies are working for your business.