Strategically and tactically, that means you must optimize your content for discovery via search engines. Because if you don’t – or you do it wrong – you not only risk leaving money and opportunity on the table, you could potentially be penalized.
And I don’t know which is worse. (Hell hath no fury like a Google scorned.)
So what’s the best way to optimize content for search … and searchers?
Because the session was so information-packed, we’ve turned it into a two-part series:
- Part 1: Setting the Stage for Inbound Success. Specifically, a look at what both searchers and spiders want. Without this understanding, it’s much much harder to optimize your content.
- Part 2: Optimizing Content to Improve Your Search Rankings. This looks at the how-to details of making sure the content you create shows up in the search engines. (Hint: it’s way more than creating an editorial calendar.)
So let’s get to it.
Setting the Stage for Inbound Success
To create content that people (your target audience) and machines (the search engines) can easily discover, it’s essential to be crystal clear about the playing field, the game, and the rules.
According to Arnie, there are four things you need to grok before diving into content creation:
1. Organic Search Cannot Be Ignored
If you’re in the camp that believes paid search campaigns trump organic search … you’re right.
For companies with big budgets, paid search can bring in sizeable revenue. Even so, it’s important to pencil out the cost/get benefits before you join the keyword-bidding frenzy because pay-per-click campaigns get expensive fast, and they require expertise and dedicated oversight to manage successfully.
But cost isn’t the only reason to optimize your content for organic search (aka SEO).
Consider these data on how we use search:
- 93% of the time before we make any type of purchase – from apparel to appliances to automobiles – we use a search engine to do our research.
- 86% of the time we use non-branded queries. (Says Arnie, “If somebody is telling you, ‘The big brand owns our spot,’ or ‘People are only searching for this brand name,’ it’s just not true. We search on men’s waterproof hiking boots significantly more than XYZ Brand hiking boots.”)
- Between 80% – 90% of the time we click on organic search results, not paid.
Organic Search Results
Takeaway: Optimizing for organic search can have a HUGE impact on your brand’s visibility and reach, and at significantly less cost than pay-per-click endeavors.
And here’s another point: Done well, SEO can serve as a great pre-qualifier for your leads. (A little foreshadowing for Part 2.)
2. The Tao of Google: (aka Ignorance is not Bliss)
To be clear, Google is not the only fish in the sea, particularly internationally. But because it’s a big (really really big) fish in a tiny “search” pond (think shark in a kiddie pool), there is no escaping the attention it demands, the power it wields, and the deference it deserves.
The good news is that Google is less “great white” than “nurse” shark; it has a mean bite but it’s mostly benign, even benevolent, as long as you don’t cross it.
In recent years, Google has implemented a handful of “serious disruptors” that have made it much harder to game the system: Panda (targeting web spam and usability), Penguin (targeting unnatural inbound links), and Hummingbird (a new approach to search queries). According to Arnie, “These changes have been Google essentially saying it’s time this whole thing was all about quality content.”
(An Aside: Google makes between 500-600 algorithmic changes each year. These past few have simply shaken out the carpet more vigorously.)
Sounds like a series of improvements businesses would readily applaud. In reality, many sites were bitten, including global brands with big and dedicated SEO teams that should’ve known better … and probably did.
Whether breaking the rules is intentional or accidental, straying too far afield from Google Principles is not a good plan in the long run. When you’re caught, you’ll be penalized. And the penalty can range from a drop in rankings of a single page to de-indexing of your entire site.
Any way you slice it, when your online traffic drops like a stone, your revenue will follow.
There are two main types of penalties:
- Manual penalty. This is where an actual human at Google scrutinizes your site in response to a red flag (e.g., spam complaints).
- Algorithmic penalty. This is where your site (one page or many) gets snared by an algorithm.
So how do I know what type of penalty I’ve been hit with?
For manual penalties, use Google Webmaster Tools and check the “Manual Actions” section under “Search Traffic.”
Algorithmic penalties are trickier because you need to determine which algorithm got tripped; thus, you must study your analytics data and match the drop in organic traffic with known Google algorithm updates. For a complete list of algorithm updates, see Moz’s Google Algorithm Change History.
How do I know what the problem is?
In some cases, you may never know. But here’s Arnie’s shortlist of common items that can land you in the penalty box:
- Thin content. Example: A realtor in Arizona creates a page about homes for sale in Phoenix, then creates another page about homes for sale in Mesa, and a third page about homes for sale in Chandler, with the only content change across those pages being the name of the city.
- Duplicate content. This is a major source of woe that can affect your trust, authority, ranking, link juice … you name it. So don’t do it.
- Over-optimized anchor text. Anchor text is the set of words that link to another site – it tells Google where to go and, more importantly, what content it will find at the new location. Over-optimization is an unnatural amount of anchor text pointing to a particular webpage, including exact-match anchor text. So what once was an SEO best practice is now viewed by Google as manipulation.
- Mobile un-friendly. If your website is not optimized for mobile and people are searching your site using tablets and smartphones, Google will move you down the search rankings.
3. Searchers Are Demanding … and Specific
Understanding what your prospects and customers are searching for can go a long way to informing your content strategy. A recent About.com study found that people exhibit three distinct behavior patterns when using search:
- Inspire Me (28% of all searches). Marketers should develop content that inspires creativity and offers endless choices, including multiple formats.
- Educate Me (26% of all searches). Marketers should create messaging that is informative and provides a way for users to learn more about topics from multiple perspectives, aligning content that provides in-depth information and resources.
- Answer Me (46% of all searches). These searchers want exactly what they ask for, delivered in a way that allows them to get it as directly as possible. Marketers should feature product and service benefits front-and-center, and in a way that’s quick and easy to find.
“Buyers need information that helps them make an informed decision, and businesses that provide the content those people are searching for are going to win … as long as it’s optimized correctly,” says Arnie.
Which brings us to …
4. A Few Easy Steps Can Uncover What Visitors Are Looking For
Understanding what your prospects and customers are searching for is a goldmine for content marketing strategies and SEO. By creating content that directly and uniquely addresses the search queries of your audience, you greatly improve your opportunities for expanded visibility, traffic, trust, and sales.
Arnie offers four easy ways to shed light on what your visitors want.
Implement Site Search. It’s a powerful tool. Not only does this little “search” box allow your visitors to conveniently and quickly search your site, it gives you full visibility to the keywords (terms, sentences, fragmented thoughts) visitors are searching your site for. When you see patterns emerging, optimize your pages and content to match the need. It’s pretty slick.
But can’t I just use Google Analytics to see what keywords people used to find my site?
In October 2013, Google implemented Secure Search, which intercepts search data and strips out the keywords before delivering the data to your Google Analytics account. A few months ago it did the same for paid search, effectively and resolutely closing the door on the words people used to find you online.
With Bing and Yahoo going in the same direction, the halcyon days of visitor transparency are coming quickly to an end.
Which is why Site Search is so valuable. To be clear, it also cannot provide you with keywords people used to find your site. But it can provide the full wealth of words people search for while they’re on your site. And that’s huge.
Ask Your Staff. Get your staff in a room – sales, marketing, front desk, customer support, accounting, delivery folks, etc. – and find out ask what customers ask them all the time. It’s a great way to broaden your understanding of what customers want to know about and, by extension, what types of content you need to optimize for.
“You want to be the resource that’s helping answer the questions that are relevant and pertinent to your business and your industry” – Arnie Kuenn
Ask Your Customers. Seriously, ask them. Could be part of your customer-onboarding process. Could be a survey, maybe with a token incentive. But according to Arnie, if you ask them, they’ll most likely tell you. Here are some conversation starters:
- What made you trust us?
- What information do you wish we’d provided upon first contact?
- What information do you wish we’d explained upon completion of services?
- What information were you looking to find when you began searching for a company like ours?
- What do you wish we’d do better?
- Did you read any online reviews about us?
Be Your Own Experiment. You’re not only a business person; you’re a consumer and, as important, a searcher. So do what your target audience does … use search. It can become a valuable brainstorming tool by helping you think about what people might search for to find your business or to do business with you. (Use the search field on the Google page. If you use the one in the toolbar, it will be biased toward searches you’ve already made.)
Here are some examples:
- A vacation company offering Grand Canyon tours could use Google’s Keyword Suggest to uncover common search terms. Take a look at the image below. How many blog posts are right there, waiting to be written?
- Scroll to the bottom of any search results page and look at “Related Searches” to get even more ideas and find more avenues to investigate.
- Use Q&A sites like Quora or Yahoo Answers, as well as other research tools such as UberSuggest.org to get great ideas for changing up your current content and creating new titles.
By following these steps, you can come up with dozens if not hundreds of ideas.
So now what?
In Part 2 we’ll get to the nuts and bolts of how to optimize your content for inbound campaigns.
"Bourgeois' Maman sculpture at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao" sourced from Wikipedia.