In this month's Lift Off post, we're going to dig into SEO – what it is, how it benefits you (and your content), ways to improve your ranking, and how you should measure your success.
Founding a startup and a tree falling in the middle of a forest have a lot in common. Just as no one being around to hear the tree fall means it doesn't make a sound, having a website with poor search engine optimization - SEO - means your potential audience won't find your content. In this month's Lift Off post, we're going to dig into SEO – what it is, how it benefits you (and your content), ways to improve your ranking, and how you should measure your success.
If you talk to enough marketers, one of them will eventually regale you with this classic SEO joke.
"Where's the best place to hide a body?"
"Page 2 of Google's search results."
There are two truths about SEO. First, it matters. Search engine optimization deals with how you show up organically in Google, Yahoo, Bing, and DuckDuckGo. If your company sells yellow polka dot rain boots and someone goes to Google Search and types in 'yellow polka dot rain boots, your site should show up in the top rankings – just underneath the ads, of course. You've done your research, you understand your audience, and you're creating content for them at different parts of your funnel. Even if your content is impressive, not having the correct SEO on your site and content means your audience won't see it.
The second truth is that SEO is constantly changing. Search engines are continually tweaked to improve results and performance. These changes also keep marketers on their toes with new ways to improve the site and content SEO.
Searching for tips on SEO can send you down a rabbit hole of often conflicting advice. Thankfully we have Rob Farnham, our Lead Generation and Digital Growth Mentor at the Accelerator Centre.
According to Farnham, there are five big myths about SEO that you need to understand when thinking about your SEO strategy.
"I hear it all the time, people will say that they have great content, so they don't need SEO," said Farnham. All search engine algorithms are built on the interactions of different sites. "That's why it's called a web. It's all these tentacles reaching out and touching other sites," added Farnham. He described SEO as being like an iceberg. The 10% of SEO you see is your website's user experience – content, loading times, sitemap, and more. The other 90% of SEO is how your website and content interact with other websites on the internet.
Those interactions are wrapped into calculating the website's domain authority and page authority of your website's pages. These rankings are based on the number of external websites linking back to you and the total number of links. Every website that links back to your site can help to increase your domain and page authority. The higher domain and page authority you have, the higher your content can rank in search. But that's just half the equation. "If you just have links and you have terrible content, you might get traffic, but you'll have no conversion," said Farnham. "If you just have great content, but you have no authority pointing at you, you won't get traffic - the reality is you have to do both."
Many web services will offer paid backlinks, but Farnham warned that you get what you pay for. "We had one client purchase 1,200 backlinks on a service for $50. You can just imagine the quality of those links."
Farnham is constantly surprised at people using decades-old SEO tricks with modern search engines. One outdated tactic that Farnham still hears people try is keyword stuffing. Decades ago, marketers would stuff keywords in the same colour font as the footer colour so they would rank higher. "What most people don't realize is there's a whole bunch of things you can do now that used to work that will now get you penalized," Farnham said. The penalties can be severe, too – even to the point of having your website delisted from search engines.
There are multiple online tools available to help you find the right keywords for your SEO strategy. Using a tool like Ubersuggest will even show you the keywords your competitors are using. Even more important than the ranking, keywords, and content is the user experience of your website. But more important than the keywords are ranking for is what is the customer experience when they get to your website. "Nobody's going to just click and buy," said Farnham. "They're going to read some of your content, they're going to look around. The number one way to kill your SEO is to have misspelled words all over the place."
Back in grade school, we were all focused on the number of pages required for a paper. Double-spacing was our best friend – but what about minimum words for website pages and blog content? Farnham said that for competitive keywords, the latest data shows posts with higher word counts rank higher. "If you're trying to rank for 'Toronto payday loans', you better have a 2,200 word article." Generally, though, most blog posts can be 500 words and higher to get a good ranking.
Social media posting frequency and blog posting frequency are very different things. When it comes to building an audience, the more you post, the better your engagement will be. With SEO for blog content, having less content that is newer can help to improve your ranking. "There is a new algorithm filter that's called the freshness index. Search engines go back the last time something new was posted on a site – if it was three months ago, six months ago, nine months, that will bring you down the search engines a little bit."
Search is based on a simple algorithm, but there's a lot of brainpower behind the scenes. "There are more PhDs working at Google than any other company in the world," Farnham said. "Because of that, they're always tweaking it."
Early iterations of search pioneered at Google focused on simple links between sites to inform the ranking algorithm. As people began to understand this, they found ways to game the system – like purchasing links in the hundreds and even thousands from nefarious websites. Once Google and the other search engines became aware of these tactics, they made changes represented by a website's domain authority. "You get a couple links from TechCrunch and Oprah and Elon Musk – you don't need 50,000 links, you just need good links." These good links will be from reputable sources that are trusted. "The person with the best links wins," added Farnham.
Getting good links back to your website can be as simple as asking for them. Reaching out to companies that offer complementary services to your business – and offering one in return – can help both your businesses improve SEO. You can also contribute an article for a blog or publisher for their website that links back to you. Farnham recommended hiring a co-op or intern to help drive this. "Have a co-op reach out and offer to write a quality article that the blog can publish on their site in return for a backlink to your site. They put it on their site, there's a link coming back to you. Rinse and repeat."
Getting a backlink from a major newspaper, magazine, or blog doesn't always mean it will count as one of those prized good links for your SEO. Most major publishers have set their sites with the "nofollow" tag on their links which means those backlinks won't affect your domain authority or page authority. Press releases won't help with SEO either. "Press releases are great for getting people to read and come over and buy it right now," said Farnham, "But as a long term strategy, there is absolutely zero SEO benefit for press releases."
It's no secret – more website traffic helps improve your ranking. "You can't have a site with 50 visitors a month high in search because the engines add in the traffic you have as part of your ranking factor. So how do you increase traffic to your site?
• Build content for your social channels that drives traffic to your website.
• Use social channel analytics to find the right posting cadence to increase traffic.
• Run social and digital ad campaigns to drive traffic to your website.
"If you post something on Facebook and it goes viral, all these people will start coming on to your website. You will actually see your search engine rankings go up," Farnham added.
It sounds almost too simple, but having a fast-loading website will rank you higher. Search engines understand that, generally, people have zero patience on mobile devices. If a customer clicks a link and the page doesn't load fast enough, they will click the back button. Farnham noted that Google is planning to roll out a core update to their search algorithm to send web developers back to the drawing board. "I've probably looked at about 50 sites, some of mine even, and I haven't found a site that would pass the new system. It's basically not how long your site takes to completely load. It's how quickly your site loads to the point where it's visible to people."
Improving your SEO doesn't mean throwing away old content. Updating and republishing existing content is a great way to get more value from your content and improve your ranking. Something as simple as adding a paragraph or updating frequently asked questions can appear to Google as new content.
We work with founder teams to put marketing, customer experience, and SEO on the same priority level as the product. "It's stupid to wait for a year and a half to start doing your SEO," said Farnham. As you're building your product, you can be building your domain authority, searching ranking, and audience. "Publish an article every two weeks, get a few backlinks – and you can keep it generic – you'll have a powerful site by the time you launch."
Like the customer research that we talked about in our first post, SEO is an opportunity to better understand your market. Performing keyword research lets you test out ideas in the market to see if you get different answers than you thought you would.
Farnham wants every founder to know the importance of SEO and traffic. Waiting to work on your website SEO until your product launches has never worked for any of the clients that Farnham has mentored. "I think an interesting question to ask is – if you have a choice between a perfect product with no traffic and a ton of traffic with an okay product, which one would you go for? You can always fix the product if you've got the traffic."
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