As SEOs, we're the only type of online marketers who pay little to no attention to the people who actually visit our websites. PPC'ers watch visitors' responses to ads via click through rates, social media managers converse with users directly, writers write for readers, and designers design for visitors. But SEOs give advice based on Google.
Google, like the rest of online marketers, is primarily concerned with the opinions of visitors to Google.com. Its goals is to deliver the most satisfying webpages as results to searchers (and possibly charge for those results through ever-more-subtle paid ads). Thus, we SEOs eventually have our effect on actual visitors, as our techniques to attract search engines allow our sites to rank well and get visits from actual humans.
Why don't we just make changes for visitors so that Google will want to rank us well?
In the dawn of SEO, Google was stupid
When Google was first created, it couldn't see nearly as much as it can now, and focusing on user experience alone could leave your site virtually unreadable to Google. I only started in this industry in 2010, and even then, SEOs had to focus on specific keyword usage, tagging, link building, and anchor text—all things that are virtually meaningless to visitors. But over the past few years, Google's near-daily algorithm updates have made its crawler interpret webpages more and more like a human would.
Still, we continue to panic about every change Google makes. What are their next steps? Are they going to do something that will crush your site?
Here's a hint: If we're optimizing our sites for visitors, there's little to no chance that a Google algorithm update will penalize us. That means that we're on Google's side: We're trying to make our site better for visitors, which makes Google look good when visitors click through to our sites. Help them help us.
The good news is, if you're a white hat SEO who keeps up on search engine trends, Google has probably led you into doing some good online marketing without even realizing it. To explain this a little more clearly, here's a comparison of some of the top white-hat SEO strategies from 2010, when I started, and how you should handle them in 2013:
On-page keyword usage → content strategy
2010: The best way to rank #1 for a keyword was to use it in the <title>, the <h1>, maybe an <h2>, and a few times in the text (but no keyword stuffing! Google had figured that out, at least.)
2013: Google understands synonyms now, so you can use a keyword once and show that it's highly relevant with other similar terms. Experts recommend using keyword groups (an idea that I had been hinting at for ages but didn't think of concretely until I read Cyrus's awesome post): Use a number of keywords that all mean approximately the same thing, so you can be relevant for all of them.
How to be even better with content strategy
Don't focus so much on keywords with the most local searches a month, on average (Google Keyword Planner is so vague). Instead, use phrases that your current and potential customers use.
There are hundreds of easy, reliable, cheap online survey tools, so take your pick. Reach out to your email list and ask them to complete a survey that asks:
- How they describe your products/services
- What emotions they attribute to your products/services
- Why they want/need your products/services
- The ideal brand personality that would sell your products/services
Allow survey takers to write in the responses free-form, so they won't be restricted to the words you think they'll use.
Once you have the right keywords, work them into the copy in a way that speaks to them. This will take a great content strategy, something that I can't describe to you briefly here. But these blog posts will get you on the right path:
On-page structure/tagging → design
2010: You had to mark up the important parts of a webpage with HTML tags: <h#>, <strong>, and <em>.
2013: Google can see where text will show up on a page, and how prominent it will be to visitors. You can't just tag text to make it relevant to search engines, it has to be integrated into the design.
Design isn't just a "nice to have." It's a necessary part of the online marketing world now, and it absolutely pays off. If you didn't come to MozCon 2012, Jenny Lam's presentation discusses how people are much more likely to trust attractive things. Google knows that design builds trust: Remember how Panda slapped websites covered in ads? As Google begins to understand how people interpret design better and better, having a good design will become a necessary part of both online marketing and SEO.
How to be even better with good design
PAY FOR GOOD DESIGN.
Many of you reading this blog are technical, possibly able to build a very solid HTML website. That does not make you a good web designer.
Go out there and find a good web designer. Your input will be to remind the designer you hired that good web design does include a lot of text, both for search engines and for visitors.
Link building → online public relations
2010: Google was already getting pretty good at devaluing links from crappy sites, but a good link network could still work, and it certainly hadn't started penalizing you yet!
2013: Many sites have gone down because of Penguin alone, and others are still reeling from it. We can't buy links anymore, yet almost all bloggers understand the value of a link and want to be paid for it.
At Distilled, we now do what we like to call "online PR," where we focus on building relationships with bloggers and sites. The important thing is to focus on building a partnership where they rely on us as much as we rely on them. With a one-sided relationship, site owners are bound to take your link down or forget about you eventually, but when they look to you as a source of knowledge, and valuable to their readers, they'll keep reaching out to you.
And that's very much like—gasp—real PR!
How to get better with online PR
Don't look for a link with DA [blank]. Look for a site that is genuinely a good match for what you or your client has to offer. Pitch the link or mention to the other site the way you would explain it if you weren't you and just thought it was a good match. Be flexible, so you can build a long-term relationship and keep sharing things through that channel in the future.
Here are a few great resources to point you in the right direction for great outreach:
Anchor text manipulation → branding
2010: The strongest way to rank for a keyword was to get a link with that keyword in the anchor text. Ecommerce sites across the nation paid for links with their target keyword in it and slipped those links in unrelated articles.
2013: It occurred to Google that if you have a million links to your site for "slinkies" but no links to your site about your brand name, no one knew who you were. There's just too much information out there, and too many scams. People feel more comfortable with brands, and are more likely to click on links to recognizable brands.
At the same time, Google realized that link profiles full of unbranded links were probably paid for, and that contributed to penalties.
Now, it's better to focus on brand awareness than the specific anchor text to your page. The more people are talking about your brand, the more likely they'll be to search for you specifically, and then you won't even have to worry about competing for #1 position in SERPs, you'll just be there!
How to get better with more brand awareness and loyalty
I think we've always known the value of branding. After all, why do so many Americans pay $2.50 for $0.05 worth of water, carbonation, sugar, and a bit of caffeine?
It's just been easier to match your content with search terms than to get people to actually search for you. Building brand awareness and loyalty involves building relationships with people you don't know yet, which is absolutely terrifying. It means you can try your hardest but fail, and have no idea why.
But, let's look at this a different way. Competing in the world of online marketing without a brand means that you're relying 100% on Google to continue to send you visitors. This is a very one-sided relationship. If Google changes things, or if your competitors get slightly better and edge you out of the first page of results, your business will collapse completely, and Google won't even notice. No company should rely so heavily on another, especially not one that barely knows you exist. Building a brand is planning for the future, and protecting you against the whims of Google.
Instead, make your company into something you're excited about, so it can excite your customers too. Put as much money into building your brand as you do other online marketing activities; it'll pay off. Joanna Lord gave one of the best "how to" speeches on building brand loyalty at SearchLove this year: slideshare or video.
So, all this means SEO is dead, right?
For one thing, as smart as Google will get, it will always have its quirks, so technical SEO is here to stay.
For another, a big part of SEO is identifying and understanding your competitors for certain search terms, since that can be very different from your competitors in real life.
But, SEO alone can't make your business. Even if, for some reason, it does right now, it won't in the future. SEO is one aspect of good online marketing, but you have to be a great marketer overall to make it in the long run