I was told this gag recently by a Google AdWords consultant. Funnily enough, he didn’t mention the other way of reaching the first page of Google – organically, that is, without buying ads.
I’m talking about SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) – the way you can tweak your pages to make them rank as high as possible in search engine results.
Where to begin?
You first need to get inside Google’s mind. To determine how highly to rank your page, Google’s algorithms examine hundreds of ‘signals’, from loading speed to security and the usability of your site on a mobile device.
That’s an awful lot to think about, so where to begin? Fortunately, we do at least have a clue. In 2016, Google’s Andrey Lipattsev named the top three ranking factors at the time.
Top three ranking factors (as of 2016)
Third on the list was RankBrain. It’s not really a signal as such, but a machine-learning system that Google employs to interpret search queries it hasn’t previously encountered.
The top two signals, which Lipattsev didn’t list in order of importance, were links and content.
You need internal links to other parts of your site and outbound links to other sites, as well as inbound links from authoritative pages elsewhere. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to getting links.
But while you’re busy asking individuals and organisations to link to you, you can at least get on with the task of optimising for SEO.
Optimising for SEO; Keywords
The key to ‘on-page SEO’ is choosing the right keywords. A keyword is really several words – a phrase someone enters when they want to find something. If a searched-for keyword matches your content, your site is more likely to rank highly for that keyword.
But a lot has changed since people engaged in ‘keyword stuffing’, using the same word hundreds of times on a page. Today that would be pointless, not only because Google penalises such tactics but also because it now recognises synonyms – words with similar meanings.
People have changed too. We’re now more inclined to question Google in the way we’d speak to a human being – even more so with the advent of voice technology. We ask full questions rather than individual, unrelated words.
Moz Keyword Explorer is one of several third-party alternatives to Google Keyword Planner and is free to use if you run up to 10 searches per month.
Look for keywords with high search volume and low competition, or difficulty. Keywords that a lot of people are searching for have high volume. But if the difficulty is high it means there’s little chance of your site capturing any of that traffic.
The solution is to use what’s called a ‘long tail keyword’ – typically a longer phrase. So rather than just ‘luggage’, you might try ‘lightweight hand luggage’ instead.
Using Moz Keyword Explorer, you can see that the monthly volume for ‘lightweight hand luggage’ is 11-50 and the competition is only 42 (out of 100). It might be achievable to attract some of that search traffic if you have relevant content.
However, you’ll see that there are some significant sites that rank for this keyword already, like Amazon. Rather than trying to compete using this keyword, you could think of an even more specific phrase.
I’ve got my keyword, now what?
Once you’ve decided on your keyword, you need to make sure you put it in all the right places on your page.
The keyword should appear in your page title tag, as near as possible to the start. It should be in the page’s main headline (called the H1 tag). And it should also be in the meta description, as that helps people decide whether or not to click through to your site.
The keyword needs to appear several times on a page – only not too many times, as that convinces Google to penalise you because you’re trying to game the system. You can use a plugin like Yoast to advise you on the exact density.
One way of reaching the very top rankings is if your page is an in-depth guide to a topic. That’s because there’s a correlation between the top spots and pages that are around 2,000 words long. Google clearly prioritises in-depth content.
SEO isn’t the end of it
But there are two other parts to the content puzzle and they’re just as important as SEO. Think of it this way: when a user finds your page, thanks to all of your SEO efforts, what are they expecting to find?
First, if the content of your page doesn’t match the user’s search intent – what they were thinking when they typed in that search phrase – they will go elsewhere. Google won’t be impressed and will most likely demote your page as a result.
And second, the way your content is written really matters. If there are spelling and grammar mistakes, or the tone of voice doesn’t match your brand, it will damage your business.
Well-written content, on the other hand, not only brings in visitors from a Google search but also converts browsers into buyers. And that is ultimately, the goal of any business.
This article is a guest post by Graham Southorn. Graham writes website copy and blogs for businesses. He is a former journalist and editor of South West Business Insider, BBC Focus and BBC Sky at Night magazines.