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How do you get to the top of the search engines? An intro to SEO and Content Strategy

This article is primarily for people who need to learn the basics of search and the factors that effect where a site appears in search results. In it we try to cover the following areas in enough detail to give newcomers a pretty decent grounding in everything that matters:

Intro to search and how search engines work

Getting to the top of the search engines is a huge industry in its own right. It’s called SEO, which stands for “search engine optimisation”. For this article we'll focus on Google because it has a massive 90% market share. And luckily, the advice that works for Google will work on the others too.

Basic principles of search

Google is the best search engine because it serves the most relevant results to users. How Google does this is extremely complex, but the basics can be explained as follows. Google is constantly reading all of the pages being published to the internet and making a note of what each page is about. This is called 'indexing'. At the same time it's looking at all the links on all of those pages, making a note of which websites link to other websites. Each website is constantly being ranked for 'authority' or 'trustworthy-ness' based on how many sites link to it, and the 'authority' of those linking sites.

Then when a user performs a Google search, Google quickly search their index to see what pages might answer the user's search query, and it shows the users those matches, ordered according to how relevant the page is to the query, and how trustworthy they consider the site to be.

There are actually a ton of other factors like the age of your site, your site's track record for satisfying search users, hundreds of technical considerations. But they're best covered when you have a good grounding in the basics.

What is SEO?

Simply put, SEO is the practice of trying to influence how a site is ranked by Google.

In the past there were lots of quick and slightly dodgy techniques that could be used to 'con' search engines, but in the last decade or so Google has become so sophisticated in how it reads and ranks websites, all of the shortcuts and loopholes have been closed.

With this in mind, there are no immediate results with SEO. SEO is a long-term investment. If you're looking for more traffic tomorrow, look elsewhere, maybe at Pay Per Click or other forms of online advertising. 

Content and publishing

Modern SEO means good content

Based on what we've established about Google's ranking system. The best way to increase your Google rank is to have more search-relevant content on your site, and more links to your site. Both of these generally come down to one thing, which is the backbone of modern SEO - good content.

Good content = original articles, ebooks, PDFs, podcasts, videos, images etc that are useful, informative, valuable, inspiring or entertaining. 

Publish regularly

Google loves sites that add new content regularly, which makes sense - it's a strong signal that your site is alive and kicking. If a site hasn't been updated in two years Google can be forgiven for thinking it's out of date and pushing it down the ranking. If you can regularly add content to your site that your audience find interesting, entertaining or valuable, you're really giving your site a chance to succeed.

What and where?

Where on your site should you publish this killer content? It could be a blog or news section, resource centre, case studies, or something more creative. How/where/what you publish will depend on the subject-matter. For example, if you sell craft supplies, why not have a 'craft inspiration' blog, where each week you publish a fun idea for a craft project, with instructions and photos? The point is to connect with what your audience are interested in, what is motivating them, what they need help with. Once you figure that out you can begin to think of content ideas.

Rather than thinking of it in terms of "how do I get to the top of Google for the search term 'web design'?", we tend to advise people to forget about search engines when you're getting your head around all of this, and focus on building a website that is interesting to your audience. 

When you think of it this way it becomes really clear... Of course, the best way of being a relevant search result is to make your website home to content that your audience seeks. So ask yourself, what do my audience want? What questions do they want answered? What challenges do they face? Why do they need us? What do they want from us and what can we give them above and beyond what we already are?

Thinking ideas

You might want to do this as a group exercise. Bring together a mix of people from your organisation, strategic thinkers, detail oriented people, and be sure to include people who have regular contact with your customers, and run a brainstorming session, asking...

  • What are our customers really looking for? You might say 'a pair of swimming goggles', but ask yourselves 'why?'. Are they advanced swimmers who are looking for improved performance? Are they new to swimming, just trying to keep fit? The former might be interested in swimming technique and coaching videos, the latter might prefer motivational content to spur them on and help them stick with it.
  • For service based companies, why do your clients really need your services? For example, if you're a web design company your clients probably need a website, but ask 'why?'. What are their business reasons for wanting a website? Are they selling products online? Maybe you could create guides for better ecommerce performance. Are they bloggers? Create basic web training guides and instructions for maintaining a Wordpress blog and hosting setup.

But don't rush this phase. These are just examples. The more deeply you understand your customers, and the 'why', the more likely you are to land on an idea that will really connect with them. When you have an idea, ask yourself if it's going to save your audience time and/or money? Is it going to improve their lives/help them reach their goals? Is it going to help advance their business? If you can answer yes to one or more of these that's a good sign.

Making a content strategy

Sorry for stating the obvious, but the hardest thing about this is doing it. If you found this article looking for a shortcut, I'm sorry to disapoint. You've probably gathered by now, competing in the search engines takes effort and committment. 

When you have your 'idea', it should be easy to decide on the format, for example, a series of written guides to be published to a 'resources' section of your website. Then it will be a good idea to start planning out ideas for articles that the guides will be composed of. Your brainstorming sessions should have produced lots of valuable ideas for future material etc. Organise your ideas into possible article ideas. You should be able to come up with a healthy list of ideas. As part of your plan, think about publishing regularity - be ambitious but realistic, and think about who will do the writing, editing, producing any supporting visuals etc.

Delivering a content strategy

When you have this ready you can organise it into a publishing schedule. We use an excel spreadsheet with a row per article idea with columns for section, audience, status, author, draft due date, editing, artwork, approval, and publishing date. This is essentially what's called a content strategy. Having a document to organise everything will help on a practical level to track deadlines and keep things on track.

You can see our excel template here, which you're welcome to copy.

You might want to consider appointing someone internally to project manage this exercise... to set deadlines and make sure everything gets delivered on time according to the strategy. It's also a good idea to appoint someone to the role of quality control, to take ownership for assessing the quality of what's produced, and rejecting anything that falls short.

Remember, quality matters

Remember, for all this to work the content you produce needs to be good. Keep in mind the goal of providing value. This means committing serious resources to producing this content. Whatever you produce should reflect your brand values. And try to make it enjoyable to consume. Think about what you like to read or watch... it's probably well structured, to the point, informative, and ideally entertaining. That doesn't mean you have to become a comedian, but the best writing is conversational and fun. There's a tenancy to fall into dry corporate speak when writing for an organisation. Remember that your readers are people just like you. 

Tell people

If you're doing all of the above then well done. We know firsthand that it's not easy. The next thing to do is tell people about your great content and get them to your site. Hopefully they will share your content far and wide - a big part of this strategy is to make sure this happens. The more websites that link to your site, the more Google will be impressed and reward you. It's not just volume of links to your site, quality counts for a lot too. To encourage people to link to you there are a few things you can do...

  • Ask. Seems obvious but not many site owners actually do this. Who shares an audience with you but is not is direct competition? Industry publications? Blogs? Find them, email them, and ask.
  • Guest posting. Many directory websites and industry magazine sites often allow member to submit articles for publication on their platform, with a link back to your site.
  • Social media. Think about giving your followers a reason to share your content. Can you offer a reward or prize for someone who comments and shares? Better yet, just make something so good it needs to be shared.
  • Memberships. Industry magazine sites often have paid membership options that come with some sort of public listing with a link.
  • Press releases. Local and industry news organisations are always looking for newsworthy stories. What have you done/can you do that's newsworthy? Competitions, award wins, investments etc.

As with any of this, the better your content the more likely it will be picked up and shared by others. 

Technical considerations

What else can you do?

So far we've introduced SEO, the importance of content, how to produce a content strategy and getting your content shared. There are a lot more things you can do, some of which are fairly easily done, and really need to be in place before you dive into a long-term content strategy. 

HTTPS

HTTPS basically means your site is more secure (than the standard HTTP). If your site is still HTTP, speak to your web development company about getting it changed. It shouldn't cost much and will help your search ranking.

Keyword research and corresponding pages

A 'Keyword' is the word or phrase that a user types into Google. Keyword research is the process of identifying which keywords your users are using, which get the most searches, and which are the most competitive. 'Web design' is a keyword that has a huge volume of searches, and is extremely competitive. Getting to the top of Google for something as broard as 'web design' is therefore going to be very difficult. 'Ecommerce specialist Yorkshire' on the other hand will be much easier to rank for in the top 5 results. It will also have a much lower volume of searches, so the traffic it will generate will be less. That doesn't necessarily mean that it will be less valuable - searchers might be more likely to buy if they're using very specific keywords like that.

Try to find keywords that are less competitive to give yourself a realistic chance of ranking for them. When you have some target keywords, group them according to their meaning (for example 'bespoke web design' and 'bespoke designed websites' have essentially the same meaning), and create pages on your site for each meaning. Each page should contain at least 250 words of unique content. Use a tool like this to help with keyword research.

And when it comes to your content strategy, don't limit yourself to blog/resource article publishing. If your keyword research reveals opportunites for new 'landing pages' such as service based pages, factor them into your publishing schedule/content strategy.

Remove duplicate content

It won't help your search ranking if some of your pages use content that is used elsewhere. Avoid this if you can. If you can't, help Google understand which page should be considered the 'main' page for the subject in question. And of course, don't take content from other websites! This is a big no-no, and Google will punish you for it.

Landing page UX improvements

If visitors from Google tend to land on your site and then go back to Google and try a different result, Google will notice this and assume that your site didn't do a good of giving the user what they wanted, and might move you down the results. Think about your users intentions and motivations. How could you better provide for them? Speak to your web developers and copywriter about improving the pages your users land on to better serve them. 

Internal linking

This is an easy one. If you have a page on your site about 'bespoke ecommerce web design', when you mention ecommerce web design elsewhere on the site, link to that page. Don't go overboard, you don't want every bit of text on your site to be a link, but just do enough to help Google find important pages and content. You should be able to do this yourself using your CMS.

Headings

Header tags are part of your web pages and are an important page of how Google reads your site. Every page of your site should have one 'H1' tag, this is usually the main heading on the page. Don't use more that one H1 per page. You can use multiple H2s and H3s. For SEO it helps if your headings use relevant keywords but make sure they make sense to users.

Page titles, meta descriptions and image tags

These bits of info can usually be controlled in your CMS, and help search engines in some way. Page titles help to summarise the main purpose of a page. Use one keyword (not more) in your titles. Meta descriptions don't effect search ranking so don't stuff them with keywords, but they can show in the actual search result so write these with search users in mind.

Tell users what's on your page, and think about what they're searching for. Image alt tags help Google to 'read' images, as do image file names, so use descriptive filenames and alt tags (but don't do overboard, keep them consise).

Site and URL structure

You should be able to reach any page of your site within three clicks, even on a large site, so don't bury content within tiers of sub-categories. You might be able to control this using your CMS, but it's possible you'll need help from your web developers. Also, URLs heavily effect SEO so make sure they're readable, concise and use keywords, but as with all other advice here, don't over use keywords. If it feels unnatural to read, you're probably over using them.

Site speed

Google and users both love quick loading sites. See how yours performs here. Bear in mind that it's not always possible to get a perfect score, but there's usually room for improvement that a good web developer will be able to help you with.

Go and conquer Google

If you've digested all of this you should have a pretty good foundational understanding of search, content strategies, and SEO techniques. Remember this is a long-term investment. Don't try to do it all today, but if you can follow the advice contained here, there's no reason why you can't be competitive in even the most crowded market. Good luck!

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