Natalie Adler Skarzynski
SEO from Scratch: How to Get Started with SEO
9 minute read
A couple of years ago, I was at my local Kroger doing the weekly shopping. I happened to be wearing a t-shirt from a digital marketing conference that read, “Ask me about my SEO.” As I walked through the aisles, a man approached me, read my shirt, and asked, “Do you really know how to do SEO?”
Now, as friendly as midwesterners tend to be, I am rarely stopped by fellow shoppers asking me questions. I was a bit stunned, but replied that I did, in fact, know how to do SEO. The man seemed truly awed that a person would know how to unravel such mysteries. We chatted for a few moments and went our separate ways, but the experience stuck with me.
Over the course of my career, I have met people from all walks of life who do not understand how search engines do what they do – and many of them don’t really need to. What I have noticed is that leaders within small and medium businesses, particularly those with limited marketing resources, seem the most intimidated by the prospect of “doing SEO.” These three little letters seem to evoke quite a bit of apprehension.
What’s important to remember is that search engine optimization is like every other business objective: you must be intentional about what you want to achieve, and prioritize your resources accordingly.
I have worked with many SMBs; some with small marketing teams, some with no marketing teams at all. With each position or project, I have often started from scratch – or nearly so – taking a small site with little to no search rankings and transforming it into a bedrock component of the overall marketing strategy. Were I in a similar situation yet again, here’s how I would go about getting SEO up and running...
4 Steps to Launching Your SEO
1. Understand SEO’s place in your marketing strategy
Why are you interested in improving your SEO? It may seem like a silly question, but it is fundamental to your strategy.
I’ve found that many companies are determined to rank for specific keywords without fully understanding the goal of that ranking. No doubt, there is a certain amount of pride that comes along with ranking on Page 1, but don’t let vanity be your only motivator.
It’s helpful to start from the end goal and work backwards. Using a B2B example, perhaps Marketing and Sales have agreed that Marketing should pass over 15 leads every month. Within the Marketing team, it is decided that 10 of those leads each month should come from the website. With a lead gen goal in mind, you now have two levers to pull: traffic and conversion rate. Ranking for relevant keywords brings in qualified traffic; offering engaging content and compelling offers converts.
From here, determine your ideal conversion rate, and the monthly site traffic needed to generate leads at that rate. Now you have a much clearer idea of why you need to improve rankings and traffic, and by how much.
2. Research your keywords
How NOT TO do keyword research: jot down every keyword that could possibly be relevant to your business, and then try to rank for them all.
How TO do keyword research: clearly define the business problems you solve for your customers, and then think through how a potential customer might try to find a solution to that problem.
Nobody has endless resources, but those with smaller marketing teams will only succeed if they focus on what’s going to move the needle. That’s why it’s critical to start with your buyers’ needs, and work backwards to themes and topics. From there, you’ll have a core set of keyword themes to develop content from. This is an important strategic discussion because it fundamentally addresses what you want your business to be known for. As such, these decisions should not be made in a vacuum.
The concept of using themes and topics vs. keywords is an important one. Using technologies like latent semantic indexing, Google now has a greater understanding of which keywords are related to each other. It’s no longer imperative to create content that uses exactly matching keywords; in fact, it seems unnatural to use the exact same keyword over and over again.
Another pitfall I see is smaller companies attempting to rank high for “head” terms (broad keywords that are one or two words). If you’re a small firm trying to rank on Page 1 for “accounting” or “marketing automation” because they’re related to what you sell, it’s not likely you’ll be able to achieve that ranking. Specificity is your friend, and it takes the form of the “long-tail” keyword (longer queries with more specific intent). So while the head term “accounting” may be out of reach, “best accounting software for small businesses” might be more realistic.
At the end of the day, ranking for more specific queries is more valuable. People who are googling “accounting” might get a Wikipedia article about accounting in general, or a Dictionary.com definition. It’s impossible to know what percentage of those searchers are intending to find a solution like yours. Their intent is mismatched with your content. However, a more specific search might have fewer searchers, but a higher proportion of them are more likely to be qualified traffic for you.
One last caveat for keyword research: beware of “brand ego.” This is a delicate balance for marketers, who must understand the differences between how companies think of themselves and how the rest of the world tries to find products and solutions like theirs. A classic example from someone I met at a conference: she was the digital marketing manager for a retreat center for people struggling with their weight. While they certainly didn’t want to be branded as a “fat camp,” that is the term that people use – it doesn’t make sense to ignore all that potential search traffic because they didn’t like the most common expression for what they offer. How did she get around it? With copy asserting they were “more than just a fat camp.”
Bottom line: refer to your company, your offering, and your key topics in plain language, as your customers do, and your rankings and traffic will be better for it.
3. Get your analytics in order
At the very least, make sure Google Analytics (GA) is up and running on your website. It’s free, and it will give you a ton of insight into your traffic sources, user behavior on the site, content engagement, and more.
What GA won’t give you is any meaningful data on your keyword rankings, due to changes in their approach to privacy and security. Some useful information can be gleaned from Google Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools), but I prefer to use something more robust. Small teams should consider Moz or BrightEdge for keyword tracking. You can input specific keywords for which you want to rank, see your current position, track your progress, and see how competitors are performing.
Understanding your keyword rankings is important, but so is understanding what value you’ve derived from that effort. GA does not track personally identifiable information, so don’t rely on them for lead tracking. A CRM and marketing automation tool will be necessary to truly understand how well your site converts the traffic, and what happens to those leads after they’ve been captured.
4. Line up your content creators
Strategy, research, and analytical power mean nothing unless you can produce quality content. Dedicated content creation resources are a must-have. Depending on your needs and goals, this could be a freelance copywriter or someone on your staff who can dedicate a portion of their time to writing (and who is skilled at it). Either way, you need at least one good copywriter who can dedicate sufficient bandwidth to researching, writing, refining, and publishing high-quality blog posts, webpages, and gated content as needed for lead generation.
Stifle any impulse to outsource content creation, on the cheap, to anyone with a less than fluid grasp of your audience’s native language. If you’re planning to create content in US English, it’s preferable to work with a native speaker. Readers can tell the difference, and it’s a matter of credibility as well as quality.
Likewise, be extremely wary of anyone guaranteeing you a certain rank position. There are a lot of scammers out there who will employ sketchy tactics to try to cheat the system.
Only one thing can ensure rankings improvement: quality. And that takes good old-fashioned elbow grease.
Search engine results pages (SERPs) are crowded; the only way to stand out is to differentiate your content in some way. Maybe it’s the most comprehensive. Maybe it’s the most creative or well-written. Maybe it delves into a new aspect of the topic ignored by the top ranking pages.
Rand Fishkin of Moz has written at length about “10X content,” or content that is 10 times better than anything else on Page 1, as the best way to rank. It’s a lofty goal for most content creators, but a valuable concept. Just as competitive intel matters with your product, it matters with your content. And keep in mind that your SERP competitors may be different than your real-world competitors. A crucial part of content development for SEO is understanding what currently ranks on Page 1, and seeking to improve on it.
As time-consuming or arduous as it may seem to write exceptional, comprehensive, high-quality content for all your keywords, there are two truths that can operate in your favor:
The Pareto principle, or the 80/20 rule: Most meaningful rankings come from a small subset of content. My own research has shown this to be true of keywords ranking on Pages 1-3 of Google search: 18.5% of pages accounted for all the ranking keywords. It’s an even starker contrast for Page 1 rankings, where only 9% of pages accounted for all the keywords. How does this help you? Being focused, diligent, and aligned with your overall marketing strategy can help you prioritize better, so a larger portion of the 80-90% of content that won’t drive results doesn’t get written in the first place.
The Flywheel concept: It will get easier as you go. Over time, I’ve seen that less content is needed to maintain a well-performing site than is needed to get its rankings moving at the start. Many ascribe to the belief that 100 blogs or 100 pages is the magical threshold after which “Google starts paying attention to you.” I can’t claim that to be true; I’ve never seen rankings spike after hitting the 100-blog mark. In my experience, ranking improvement has more to do with focusing on high-value keywords and developing well-written, high-quality, comprehensive content than it does with the volume of posts.
My advice with regards to how many blogs, landing pages, or other content pieces to author is to look to your goals and look to your team’s capacity. Can your content creator(s) only manage one blog every other week? That’s okay, start there! Better to have two well-written pieces of content each month than a dozen slapped-together, low-value ones.
In part two of this post, I’ll delve into where to focus your efforts for the greatest impact. More to come!