Natalie Adler Skarzynski
SEO from Scratch: How to Get Started with SEO, Part 2
7 minute read
In the first post of this two-parter, I laid out a plan for how to get started with SEO when you have limited resources at your disposal.
Continuing that theme, today’s post is about where to focus your efforts and what to prioritize for the best return on your investment. ‘Nuff said, let’s dive on in!
5 Critical Priorities for Your SEO Efforts
1. Mobile responsiveness
The majority of website traffic is now mobile. Your site must be mobile-friendly. The best practice and the most scalable approach is to build your site with a responsive design, instead of having a different experience for mobile vs. desktop. The good news: it’s easier for smaller sites to undertake a responsive design overhaul than huge sites with hundreds of thousands of pages.
If your site is not currently mobile-responsive, work with your IT resources, web designers and developers, and agencies to make it so. Google’s mobile-first index is coming within the next few years, making mobile even more important to address as a top priority.
Over the past few years, sites across the internet have steadily been moving from HTTP to HTTPS (adding SSL certificates to improve security). There are a few important reasons to add an SSL certificate to your domain:
It has become standard practice for web security, and is especially important for sites where users may enter sensitive or private information (i.e. online banking)
It makes your site appear more trustworthy to users by displaying the word “Secure” in the address bar of some browsers
Google Chrome is expected to begin showing users a security warning when accessing HTTP sites starting in 2018, which could negatively impact your traffic
If you have not moved your site to HTTPS, the process is not usually time-consuming or cumbersome. Whoever manages your domain registration will be able to handle this, and you should consider making it a part of your annual domain renewal process.
3. Technical considerations
I like to think of these aspects of technical SEO as “good housekeeping.” They may not be the most creative tasks, but they keep the house in good order:
Make sure your site has an XML sitemap and that you’ve submitted it to Google Search Console. This document tells Google what pages are on your site so that it can index them more easily. To ensure you don’t have to continuously update the sitemap, consider creating a dynamic one.
Speed is a critical ranking factor, and users expect sites to load in two seconds or less. There are several different site speed testers online that can tell you how your site is doing. I recommend running your top-visited URLs through two or three of these testers and taking an average of the results to see where you could improve.
Building and maintaining a logical site architecture is important as well. A good litmus test is to see how many pages are more than three or four clicks away from your top navigation, which would indicate pages are buried too deeply. Also pay attention to your URLs – they should be easy for people to read and know what to expect on the page, so avoid any meaningless strings of letters or numbers.
Check your page response codes periodically by crawling your site with a free SEO spider program like Screaming Frog. You’ll be looking for any pages with a response code of 404, which means page not found. Fix those pages immediately by redirecting the URL to a live page. Most pages should return a 200 code (OK), but some may be 301 (permanent redirect) or 302 (temporary redirect), which is fine. My advice would be to separately crawl your 301s and 302s to make sure they are pointing to the appropriate page, and to correct for any excessive “hops” (i.e., a 301 points to another 301 to another 301).
Another good thing to check for in a crawl is missing meta information, such as page titles, descriptions, and Open Graph data (used by social platforms). All these elements control how your pages appear in search engines as well as shared links on social media. Leave them blank, and you rely on bots to attempt to create them for you – usually with less-than-desirable results.
While checking your meta titles and descriptions, watch for any duplicates and correct them. Each page should have unique information in these fields. Speaking of duplicates, avoid duplicate content on your pages. When search engine crawlers see the same content at two different URLs, they regard that as duplicate content, which is a big no-no. If you absolutely must have the same or highly similar content at multiple URLs, look into employing “rel=canonical” tags.
With your on-page house in order, it’s time to move on to content creation.
4. Content quality over quantity
As tempting as it may be to churn out dozens of short, vague articles hoping to score some keywords, you’ll be better served by creating more comprehensive content that addresses a specific concept or topic.
Which brings us to a quandary: time and time again, longer content beats shorter content in search results. Yet, data on humans’ increasingly short attention spans would indicate that nobody wants to read. The compromise? Write something comprehensive but make it easy to skim. Add subheadings, bullets, bolding, images, embedded video, pull-quotes… break up the page to make it easier to consume.
Before you even begin to write, your first step should be understanding what content is already ranking for similar keywords, so you can formulate a strategy to do it better. SEO is a zero-sum game: if you don’t rank, someone else will – and if you want to rank, you have to take the spot from someone else.
Once you have a strategy for creating a better content piece than what’s currently ranking, write it as naturally as possible. Write for your human audience, and don’t worry about hitting a certain number of keywords in the text. In fact, using the same exact keyword over and over seems unnatural and could get you dinged by the search engines for keyword stuffing. Remember that latent semantic indexing enables Google to understand how certain words relate to each other, so make use of synonyms and related terms.
As you edit the piece, there are a few strategic places to include your primary keywords:
The title: Write a compelling, click-worthy title that uses your primary keyword as close to the beginning as possible.
The first few lines: Include your main keyword as naturally as possible in the first paragraph or two.
The meta description: Although including keywords in your description no longer influences Google’s algorithm, they will appear bolded when someone searches a similar term, which could enhance your click-through rates.
Once your content is ready, publish it, share it, promote it, and track it to see how users engage and if it begins to rank. Be patient… it may take a few weeks to see any sort of rankings results.
All that lovely qualified traffic won’t mean a thing if you don’t capture it! Make sure every page has a call-to-action (CTA) of some kind. Preferably, your CTAs should guide users to give their information in exchange for something; or for e-commerce sites, to make a purchase.
For high-consideration purchases, think about what content types would be most helpful and influential given the prospect’s stage in the funnel. Over time, you’ll develop content that fits in each stage, allowing you to lead new site visitors through a journey that ends with your ultimate goal, be it a sale or a qualified lead.
A word about on-page vs. off-page
Everything I’ve talked about in this SEO from Scratch series has to do with on-page optimization, the elements on your site that you can control. There are off-page optimization strategies as well, which I define as anything not on your site and over which you have less control. A major example is link acquisition, which I purposely did not address in this series. Here’s why: if you’re truly starting from scratch (or close to it) it’s important to get your on-page situation sorted out before diving into more complex off-page tactics. If you maintain your focus on creating and promoting high-quality content and commit to keeping your technical “house” in order, some of those links will organically happen.
Well, there it is. My plan for starting an SEO program from scratch. If you have questions or want to learn more about anything I’ve talked about here, please feel free to reach out!