John Rampton & Jayson DeMers

Table of Contents

Section 1: A Framework for Thinking about SEO

Chapter 1: The Changing SEO Landscape
Chapter 2: The Three Pillars of SEO
Chapter 3: Google’s Major Algorithm Updates

Section 2: Strategic Thinking and Tactics for SEO

Chapter 4: Modern Keyword Research

Chapter 5: Design and On Page Optimization: The Building Blocks

Chapter 6: Getting to Know Your Audience

Chapter 7: Link Building Shifts to Link Earning

Chapter 8: Content and Inbound Marketing

Chapter 9: Social Media Marketing

Section 3: Getting More Value Out of Your SEO Campaigns

Chapter 10: Building Your Brand

Chapter 11: What to Do When Things Go Wrong

Chapter 12: Conversions & Metrics

Chapter 13: Tools & Resources for Further Education


The Beginner’s Guide to SEO

Section 1: A Framework for Thinking About SEO

Chapter 1: The Changing SEO Landscape

Is search engine optimization (SEO) dead?

If you’re just beginning to investigate the field of SEO, you’ve probably been inundated with conflicting messages. One on hand, you’re likely hearing how important it is to have a website and an online presence that helps you connect with new customers and rank well in search engine results. Conversely you’ve also heard that SEO isn’t effective, is outdated, or is “black hat trickery” which is the realm of spammers. How can you reconcile these opposing viewpoints?

Let us put your concerns to rest: SEO isn’t dead. However, it is evolving rapidly and changing daily.

At one time in the not so distant past, SEO referred primarily to a series of tactical approaches you could use to get your site into one of the top spots on search engines like Google and Bing. SEO gurus offered advice on how to build links, how to structure your website, how to select domain names, and a host of other topics designed to push you to the top of the search engines for specific searches. Competing successfully largely boiled down to mastering and implementing this body of knowledge.

Today, the reality of standing out in the digital seas is more complex. Tactics still have a place in today’s world. But a high ranking site is largely a function of a well thought out strategy that integrates multiple aspects, from great content and quality links to an active social media presence and a deep understanding of your audience. For a more in-depth exploration of this topic, read this Forbes interview with Sam McRoberts, CEO of VUDU Marketing “Is SEO Dead?”

What SEO Really Means

Integration is an important concept. SEO now brings together a host of different disciplines: search optimization tactics, social media marketing, local marketing, mobile marketing, copywriting, conversion optimization, and content development. In other words, in order to rank well and compete in the digital world, entrepreneurs and businesses have to embrace a wider range of online marketing disciplines than ever before. It’s not enough to think that one type of expertise will get you all the way. Instead, you have to become a student of digital marketing, establish a strong foundation, and then continue your education in more advanced and diverse areas that complement your core knowledge.

SEO today relies on authority positioning, having a strong brand, and creating real value for people interested in your niche. It’s a highly ethical discipline, where hard work and investment are rewarded. Shortcuts get you into trouble, or even knocked out of the game. We’re no longer relying on dubious tactics or simply manipulating individual factors on a page. This is good news for businesses and SEO practitioners.

The Role of Organic Search

It’s helpful to bring a perspective on how search engines operate to the table when discussing SEO. Think about it this way: there are now over one billion websites that exist on any number of topics. As a result, the internet requires tools that connect content with users. That’s where search engines come in, by providing an intermediary access point between searchers and all the content on the internet. Ultimately, a search engine’s goal is to provide users with a positive customer experience. In this case, a good experience would refer to high quality helpful content that links as closely as possible with what the user was looking for when she initiated the search.

One of the ways the search engines interpret the topic of content is via keywords. However, it’s important to note that the one-to-one relationship between specific keywords and rankings has diminished significantly. While it used to be that you could simply optimize a piece of content for one or two primary keywords and achieve high rankings, this is generally no longer the case.

Search engines have become increasingly sophisticated, their algorithms more complex. They no longer look exclusively to individual keywords, but rather to the intent behind those keywords. One way they do this is to focus on additional, related words and phrases that show a piece of content comprehensively covers the topic. These words and phrases are sometimes referred to as proof and relevant terms, and it’s now a virtual necessity to use them to achieve high rankings.

Apart from keywords, there are a huge number of factors that drive search engine algorithms. These range from the way a website is structured, to how many links point to it, and what the content actually says. But algorithms are proprietary and confidential, so a lot of time is spent in the SEO world gathering information, conducting experiments, and piecing together clues to inform our evolving understanding of what works and what doesn’t work when you’re trying to rank a site.

The net impact for site owners is simple: you have to create a website with your business goals and customers in mind. You also have to remember that search engines are a consideration in the way you do business digitally. An understanding of SEO best practices puts you in the best possible position to rank your site. Whether you do your SEO yourself or partner with an SEO firm or consultant, you’re ultimately responsible for the decisions that impact your business and your website.

Channels and Your Website

Organic search, or natural traffic from search engines, is one potential source of visitors to your website. There are numerous other potential drivers of traffic to a website. A quick overview of the types of the website traffic should include:

Organic traffic, as a result of search engine results from places like Google and Bing

Referral traffic, based on links from other websites sending through visitors that click

Social media marketing traffic, from participation and links on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn

Paid traffic, which results from advertising like banner ads and Pay-Per-Click advertising on search engines through programs like Google Adwords

Direct traffic, where customers type in your site’s URL directly into their browser

While SEO typically used to mean organic traffic, it’s now much more commonly used to refer to the universe of potential visitors from all these different channels. Optimizing for search engine traffic is important. But diversified traffic bases help make you immune to the fluctuations of search engines over time, and help you discover what traffic sources will send you your most profitable and engaged customers.

The Role of Competition in SEO

Another aspect to explore is the role of competition in SEO. It’s often misunderstood. What’s true at its most basic level is that there are only ten spots on Google’s first page for any given keyword term. One of the latest studies has shown that a site in the first position on Google receives 31.24% of the clicks, the second position 14.04, the third position 9.85, and so on. In other words, the more highly you rank, the more traffic and potential customers you’re likely to get. However, it’s not entirely that straightforward.

As we’ll look at in Chapter 4, today’s keyword strategies are infinitely more complex than they were ten years ago. It provides hope for websites that are just starting out and competing in a niche with well-established competitors. However, competition does play a role in the SEO process and it’s helpful to keep that in mind when choosing your keywords, designing your SEO strategy, and sizing up other players in your niche.

What’s Driving All the Changes?

One common question that many people that are new to SEO ask is why are there so many changes in the field of SEO? Or stated differently, why do search engines want to make it so hard for marketers and businesses? This is the wrong mindset, although it’s a natural conclusion to draw. Remember the role of search engines in the online ecosystem: to create as positive an experience as possible for their users by connecting them with relevant information. The goal isn’t about creating roadblocks for sites. Instead, it’s about raising the bar as high as they can to find the best of the best content.

SEO is a field that has a somewhat shady history. Many pros in the field have exploited any and all available tactics to rank poor quality sites with a commercial goal in mind. As a result, search engines have pushed back hard against spammers and demanded quality sites and ethical practices. While it’s admittedly more work to build a great site, optimize the user experience, focus on quality content, and build great relationships with other sites and readers to attract links, it’s worth it. Not only will this benefit your site, but it will benefit your business and your brand in the long-term.

Understanding that SEO is a field that’s evolving rapidly can help you stay on top of the changes. We’ll now take a closer look at a general framework for helping you think about SEO in today’s context.

Chapter 2: The Three Pillars of SEO

Think about SEO as a holistic discipline: there’s no single tactic or strategy that’ll work to get you top, sustainable rankings. Instead, achieving good search engine rankings requires being aware of and strategically leveraging three key areas – links, content, and social media marketing. Each of these areas work together synergistically to create a successful SEO strategy. Let’s take a closer look at each one, and what you need to know.

Content Strategy

Content marketing is sometimes referred to as “the new SEO”. In the wake of Google’s Panda and Penguin algorithm updates (which are discussed in more detail in Chapter 3), many once-popular tactics no longer work. These algorithm updates have forced online marketing strategists to rethink their SEO campaigns from tactically-focused to strategically-focused, with a heavy emphasis on quality content production and publication.

But content strategy goes beyond simply publishing great content. It also encompasses the existing content on your website, and ensuring that it’s optimized from a technical SEO perspective, while also ensuring future published content abides by these technical best practices as well. For an excellent guide to technical on-site SEO elements, see this on-site SEO guide.

Once you’ve covered the technical elements, it’s time to focus on your content strategy. Before you can begin strategically writing and publishing your content, you need to understand your target market as well as what words and phrases (keywords and concepts, discussed further in Chapter 4: Modern Keyword Research) that they’re searching for in the search engines.

The best use of keyword data is to look for places that fill holes in a website’s overall content. Are users within your target market looking for a certain phrase or answer for which there isn’t an applicable article or blog post? Create a blog post, e-book, article, or white paper about it. Start by performing keyword research, then using that research to build your content strategy. Here are some helpful resources for exactly how to do that:

The Definitive Guide to Using Google’s Keyword Planner Tool for Keyword Research

Why Your Keyword Strategy Is Incomplete Without User Intent

How to Build a Kickass Content Strategy

7 Ways to Find What Your Target Audience Wants and Create Epic Content

Besides understanding what real users are actually looking for, great content also shapes the user experience and the way they see and feel about a company. A regularly updated company blog with well-written, insightful blog posts will garner a reputation for publishing great content, which will attract more inbound links, social media buzz, positive branding, traffic, leads, and sales. Compare that to a company blog that simply communicates mundane company news or events without offering insight or value to its readers.

Thinking in the mindset of the customer should always be the framework from which content is created and published. An organic vitamin company can safely assume that their customers are going to be interested in content that discusses overall health and wellness. So, an interview blog post with a start-up company that offers organic produce delivery will be more engaging than a marketing-driven post on what types of vitamins are for sale. Content should always provide a benefit or value to the reader. For more information on content strategy, see Chapter 8: Content and Inbound Marketing.

Inbound Links

Link building is a set of SEO tactics that results in the creation of hyperlinks from other websites to your own, for the purpose of introducing external readers to your company’s content. The quantity and quality of inbound links is a major factor in the organic search ranking algorithms.

The mindset of SEO has shifted around inbound links, from one of building to one of earning. Instead of focusing on excessive link building, the best sites and brands are working on developing their voice and brand in the market. This, combined with creating the best content, is an ethical and effective approach to raising your profile and search rankings with more links. For a detailed discussion of how to approach links in the current SEO context, see Chapter 7: Link Building Shifts to Link Earning.

Social Media

Many SEO traditionalists have taken a while to understand the true benefits of social media as it relates to an organic search marketing strategy, but social media does far more than simply ensuring your company is keeping up with the competition. While social media may not directly influence search rankings, it gives companies an additional platform to interact with customers, build their brand, and create a community, all while also driving traffic to their website. For more on the benefits of social media and exactly what it is, see “What is Social Media Marketing, and How Can it Help My Business?”

Social media strategy is different for each company, depending on its target market and what they are interested in. Because of this, not all available social media channels can be a benefit to every company. It’s important to find where your target audience is hanging out online, and to concentrate efforts on those social networks. For help with this, see “How to Determine which Social Media Network Fits Your Business.”

Optimizing and engaging within social networks has not always been a goal of SEO, but should be this year. While SEO campaigns are mainly performed to attract new customers and raise awareness of a business within organic search results, social media focuses on maintaining customers and strengthening relationships with them through strategic engagement.

To wrap up our thoughts on what SEO looks: the best approach for considering SEO is as an integrated framework that uses high quality, regular content to establish authority; social media to gain traction for promotion; and focusing on earning links to build long-term equity with search engines. We’ll now move on and explore some of the recent updates from Google that are impacting SEO and how we think about search.

Chapter 3: Google’s Major Algorithm Updates

Search engine algorithms are based on a simple premise: searchers want an answer to their queries. For any search, there are hundreds or thousands of sites that offer a potential link or insight related to the query. As a result, search engines need to accomplish three goals:

Disqualify all the sites that aren’t relevant.

Return a list of sites that are relevant.

Rank and prioritize those sites in order of importance, to identify which sites are the most relevant.

Because no single factor is sufficient to provide these insights, Google and other search engines use complex algorithms that blend dozens of factors. The exact formula isn’t known, but a range of topics are considered. These include:

Link authority: number of incoming links, quality of the sites, anchor text used

On page factors: such as title tags, responsive mobile design, page loading speed

Brand metrics: search volume for the brand, brand mentions, citations of brand name in connection with specific keywords

Content: quality and depth of content, frequency of new content updates, reads and shares on social media

Just when you think you’ve grasped the specific details of Google’s algorithm, it’s important to note that changes occur all the time. By understanding the historical trends in what’s changed and staying on top of how things are evolving, website owners stand the best chance of developing and implementing strategies that lead to great long-term rankings. For a more in-depth look at Search Engine ranking factors, see Moz’s annual Search Ranking Factors survey.

Google’s Recent Key Updates

Navigating Google’s current landscape requires not only a general understanding of search engine algorithms and how they operate, but specifics of recent updates. In the last few years, Google has implemented a number of changes that have hit site owners particularly hard. These have focused on four key areas: content and usability, the quality of links, consistency among local search results, and the importance of mobile and how we search. Here’s a closer look at each of these updates and what you need to know to be up to speed.


Google Panda was first introduced in February 2011, and has had several smaller updates rolled out since that. Panda started the ball rolling on the content discussion, focusing on eliminating low-quality or thin sites in favor of those with in-depth, regularly updated content. Panda also tackled sites with too much advertising and poor navigation, when commercial gains were clearly prioritized over user experience. Since Panda, content marketing has increased in popularity with a focus on blogging, on-site content, building off-site content assets through practices like guest blogging, and social media participation.

In July 2012, Google provided a series of questions to help webmasters evaluate whether their sites were in line with the search engine’s quality guidelines. Reviewing these questions provides the best sense of the types of issues Panda addresses, and the types of violations that are likely to get sites into trouble. The questions included:

Would you trust the information presented in this article?

Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?

Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?

Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?

Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?

Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?

Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?

Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?

How much quality control is done on content?

Does the article describe both sides of a story?

Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?

Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?

Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?

For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?

Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?

Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?

Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?

Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?

Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?

Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?

Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?

Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?

Would users complain when they see pages from this site?


Google Penguin was the search engine’s response to so-called “black hat” SEO tactics for link building, which was first released in April 2012. Numerous updates have been rolled out since then. Manipulative link building techniques that focused on creating links through “link schemes” were targeted. These included buying links, building thin sites simply for the purpose of linking back to a main site, trading links, comment spam links, and similar tactics.

The era of Google Penguin has required site owners to take a much harsher view on link building. Each site, perhaps for the first time in the history of SEO, is expected to know and own its site link profile. The volume, quality, source, and content of links ultimately fall to the site’s owner. If dubious practices are detected, site owners may be required to audit their entire link profile and work to have poor quality links removed. Today, when building links, it’s smart to ask questions such as:

Is this a high quality site?

Is it relevant to my topic or niche?

What does that site’s link profile look like?

Will they use diverse anchor text to point to my site?


Hummingbird reinforced everything that had been done through Google Panda and Penguin, but added two specific dimensions. Announced in late 2013, Hummingbird introduced the importance of mobile devices to search. For the first time, mobile responsive designs clearly have taken on increased importance. Many have argued that it’s also critical to have a mobile content strategy: that is, to assume that readers will be accessing your content from a variety of devices including smartphones and tablets and creating your content with a mobile-first mindset. (For more information on mobile-first content strategies, see 10 Steps to Creating a Mobile-Optimized Content Marketing Strategy).

The second, and perhaps more exciting, component of Hummingbird was the introduction of contextual search. Until Hummingbird, search engines typically interpreted queries using what it identified as the most important keywords from a search. But with Hummingbird’s introduction, Google has begun to look at the relationship between terms to interpret context.

Many considered Hummingbird a natural evolution both of Google’s development and of the proliferation of mobile devices. After being in business for 15 years, Google’s developed an incredibly rich and sophisticated Knowledge Graph (or major database of all the information that it’s collected). As more and more users search on mobile devices, searches are evolving from short keyword driven inquiries to being structured the way we naturally speak and ask questions. Hummingbird is helping to ensure that Google is poised to understand and meet that demand.


In mid-2014, Google set its sights on local search results with its Pigeon update. In an attempt to improve and enhance local SERPs, the Pigeon update impacted a significant number of local businesses who found they had fallen out of the top local search results (known as the “local pack”).

In the past, Google’s local search results and general search results showed some variation. For instance, Google’s general search results could vary significantly from Google Maps results. This update was intended to make these results more cohesive by using their core algorithm to rank local sites – for instance, by applying key features like Knowledge Graph, synonyms and spelling corrections to local results.

Finally, Pigeon gave a much-needed boost to local business directories like Yelp, Urbanspoon and Trip Advisor. As users increasingly turn to search to find local businesses and products, Pigeon will help to ensure local users find exactly what they need via search.

Mobile-friendly update (aka Mobilegeddon)

It was no surprise when Google introduced their mobile-friendly update in April 2015. There had been rumblings about just such an update for some time; in fact, Google had even made a formal announcement about the update a month prior.

Because of this, many business owners were poised and ready with fully mobile-optimized sites. This meant the impact of the so-called “Mobilegeddon” was far less dramatic than many predicted.

This doesn’t mean sites didn’t take a hit, however. According to research from Adobe Digital Index, sites that weren’t optimized for mobile showed up to a 10% drop in organic traffic. Other fallout from the update was reported by various agencies:

Searchmetrics reported a 0.21 position loss in rankings for non-mobile sites (desktop visibility wasn’t impacted)

Content marketing company BrightEdge reported a 21% decrease in non-mobile friendly URLS on the first three pages of the SERPs

3Q Digital found that sites with slow speed and load times appeared to be hit as well, perhaps even harder than non-mobile-friendly sites

To ensure your site attracts its fair share of mobile search traffic, check to see that your site is fully mobile-optimized. Google recommends using their Mobile-Friendly Test and PageSpeed Insights tool to make sure your site is easily accessible on all devices.

Google Future Changes

Recent updates have set the tone for where we can expect future changes to go. There’s an increasing focus on content, links, and mobile presence. As an evolution, it’s expected that future updates will focus on refining these theories and increasing the accuracy of the updates. For example, some experts still believe that a future Penguin link related update will target guest blogging and a 2014 blog post from Matt Cutts seems to confirm that.

If you’re interested in learning more, there are several strategies that can help you stay tuned to the latest changes. Following Google’s Blog and the Webmaster Tools updates are both great places to start. Regularly read industry trend pieces on sites like Search Engine Journal to get inside analysis and perspective from SEO professionals. For more detailed reading on the future of Google’s algorithm evolution, check out SEO: How to Prepare for Google’s Algorithm Updates. Now we’re going to take a closer look at keyword research and how it’s evolved in light of Google’s more sophisticated search features.

Section 2: Strategic Thinking and Tactics for SEO

Chapter 4: Modern Keyword Research

Even five years ago, keyword research was relatively straightforward. Marketers started with a core concept in mind and developed a list of target keywords. You then optimized your site’s pages around those keywords. Each page would focus on a single keyword. As your skills grew, you might expand to focus a page on multiple keywords or a longer phrase (also called a long-tail keyword as explained below). Today, the introduction of Google Hummingbird is shifting our focus to more of a conceptual or topical approach to search optimization.

The Rising Importance of Concepts

Consider for a moment the movie Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. If you search for “the movie where two superheroes battle it out”, Google returns results related to the film. This isn’t because it’s serving up pages that contain the words “superheroes” and “battle.” Instead, it’s associating these two concepts and returning the most logical conclusion: that you’re asking about the popular film.

Many confuse this with long-tail keywords, which is a concept that’s more closely linked with the older paradigm of single keywords. Long-tail keywords are clusters of two, three, or more keywords that follow each other in sequence. Instead of searching for “sneakers,” you might search for “red men’s sneakers.” From the long-tail perspective, Google optimizes for pages that contain all three words. In theory you get a smaller percentage of traffic, but it’s more targeted and more likely to be a good fit for your site, products, and content.

This doesn’t eliminate the importance of keywords. First, many people will still search for “Batman v. Superman” and you need to focus some of your site’s technical optimization on your target keywords. But Google’s increasing sophistication with developing conceptual search has opened many doors for website owners to expand their reach and connect with new visitors. You may also hear this referred to as Latent Semantic Indexing or LSI keywords.

The Types of Keywords That Matter

Depending on how you structure your keyword research, you’re likely going to start with a specific core concept. For example, when you were locating this book as a resource you might have simply searched for “SEO.” As you build your seed list of terms, you’ll quickly expand out to include a number of synonymous and related words.

Your keyword list for SEO probably grew to include search engine optimization, content marketing, online marketing, and so forth. Any good keyword research tool can help you determine related terms, and this is helpful because you can pair it with your audience knowledge to determine what terms your customers and prospects are using.

There are other ways to modify the terms in question however.

Searcher intent: Consider how you might approach searches related to SEO depending on your intention. If you’re looking for how-to information “How to do SEO” versus hiring a firm “top SEO agency in Toronto” versus answering a specific question “What’s the latest Google SEO update?” Each of these yields different information. Even if you produce information on each of these topics by connecting your keywords to user intent, you’ll get much better conversion and ROI on your content.

Local or niche context: If you’re focusing on a specific geography, this is a helpful way to modify your keywords. Niche context can also be important; for example “steel industry recruiting” is much more relevant to your audience if you’re writing for steel detailers than just “recruiting.”

Related keywords and phrases: Searchmetrics has found that high-ranking content contains a high percentage of proof and relevant terms. These are words and phrases that are closely related to the topic you’re writing about. For instance, if you’re writing about iPhones, you’ll need to use the word “phone” and”Apple” (proof terms), and may use words like “app” or “Siri” (relevant terms). Here are some tips for finding proof and relevant terms for your content.

The Role of (Not Provided)

One of the biggest changes to the keyword world was a modification in Google’s policy on providing access to searcher keyword data. At one time, Google made all of its data available for free to anyone that wanted to conduct keyword research and a number of sophisticated tools connected to Google’s API to make it simpler to search the database.

However, Google decided to limit access to keyword terms for searchers that are logged into a Google account (including Gmail and Google Plus). This has impacted the amount and accuracy of data that’s available on the web for marketers to access. According to the site NotProvidedCount.com, 78% of Google’s data is now affected. They anticipate that based on current patterns, this number will reach 100% sometime in 2018.

What this means in practical terms for marketers is that accessing reports in your Google Analytics account will feature some holes in the organic search data, and that you’ll have to have a Google Adwords advertising account in order to use any of Google’s proprietary information. It also means that eventually, you’ll need to rely entirely on other keyword tools to inform your keyword research.

Tools for Keyword Research

There are a number of different tools on the market that can help make your keyword research easier. Some are free, and others offer more customized or advanced functionality for a monthly fee. Our recommendation is simple: find the tool that works for you and don’t overcommit to any one set of results. Consulting at least two tools on any important keyword research project will give you different perspectives. Here’s a partial list of some of the more popular tools on the market.

Suggestion-based tools, like Google Suggest and Übersuggest

Search engine tools, including Google AdWords Keyword Planner, Google Trends, and Bing Keyword Tool

Paid and proprietary tools, such as Keyword Spy, Wordstream, SEO Book keyword tools, SEMrush and Soovle

5 Common Keyword Mistakes

As already discussed, keyword strategies that worked in the past may be ineffective or even harmful now. Following are 5 common keyword mistakes you should avoid in 2016 and beyond.

Optimizing for one keyword at a time: The keyword strategy that worked in 2005 no longer works today. Optimizing your pages for a single keyword leads to missing important opportunities, including better targeting through long-tail terms and building on keyword concepts.

Keyword density: Once upon a time, SEO was built on the idea that there was a magic keyword formula that stated how frequently a keyword should be used. Keyword density is a surprisingly sticky concept, despite the fact that it has no merit in the context. Instead, make sure you use your key phrases in your content frequently enough so that they are present but skillfully enough so that it feels totally natural.

Stuffing: Keyword stuffing is the overuse of keywords in unnatural ways in your site’s metadata or content (e.g. think a title tag that reads “SEO Search Engine Optimization SEO SEO”. It’s bad practice, will turn off readers, and get you hit with a penalty or delisted from search engines altogether.

Keyword-rich domain names: In the past, Google showed a preference for sites that used their keywords in their domain name (e.g., www.bestmenswatches.com). However, several years ago, Google started de-prioritizing sites that were relying on keyword-rich domain names, and that didn’t having high-quality content to back it up. Today, it’s a better strategy to focus on branded domain names that can help build authority and brand recognition. Using your keywords in your domain can still be a viable strategy, however don’t expect it to necessarily improve your rankings.

Disregarding keywords: There’s also a subsection of the SEO world that believes keywords are passé and have no value. This perspective is wrong too. Keywords, like every other area of SEO, are evolving and marketers have to be smarter about research, application, and tracking metrics. But fundamentally keywords are still the core currency of search engines.

Solid keyword research is still a critical foundational component of any successful SEO strategy. If you want more information on how to conduct keyword research step-by-step, we recommend The Definitive Guide to Using Google’s Keyword Planner Tool for Keyword Research. With good SEO keyword data in place, it’s possible to move on to building a site that’s easy to rank. Next, we’ll explore what you need to keep in mind regarding design and on-page optimization for the SEO landscape.

Chapter 5: Design and On Page Optimization: The Building Blocks

A good SEO campaign is built on a strong technical foundation. This means that your basic website structure and on-page SEO elements are optimized. Your design, with a specific focus on your computer and mobile user experiences, also plays an important role. It’s easy to get lost in the world of social media marketing and content development and forget that unless the core components are in place, all the external or more advanced work that you do could be for naught.

The Difference between On-Page and Off-Page Optimization

Before moving forward, it’s helpful to define the difference between on-page and off-page optimization. On-page optimization is what happens from an SEO perspective on your website itself. This includes how your structure your website, how you label your URLs, managing your metadata, and the on-page content. Off-page optimization are the activities that you do on the rest of the internet to promote your site, such as link building and social media promotion. Invest the time at the beginning to structure your on-page content so that your off-page promotion has a maximum effect.

Which Elements of On-Page Optimization Matter

On-page optimization is less sexy that off-page factors, so it often gets short shrift in SEO conversations. A large percentage of on-page optimization is structural and technical, and it doesn’t feel like it yields immediate results. However, knowing which factors of on-page optimization really have an impact this year and can help you focus and get the best results possible with your content and web efforts.

Frequently updated content: Your website’s content and frequency with which you update it still plays a big role in how well your site ranks. One of the simplest ways to accomplish this is via a regularly updated blog. The ideal strategy would be to update daily, but create and commit a schedule you can stick to. For more information on how active content helps your SEO, see Why an Active Blog is Necessary for a Successful SEO Initiative.

Heading tags: The way that you utilize heading tags in your content also plays an important role in how that context is indexed. Each page should have an H1 tag that includes your keyword, as well as H2 tags. Keyword usage should be natural, but present.

Title tags: Title tags remain critical for two reasons. If they’re on message and include your core concepts, title tags help you get ranked for appropriate content. But writing for search engines isn’t enough: title tags are what appears in search results. Title tags must be enticing with a clear call to action to get searchers to click and read more.

Local marketing elements: If your business has a geographic component, your on-page elements are critical. These include local maps, contact details, and integration with data sources such as Foursquare.

Alt tags: The alt tags that you use on your images play an important role in your SEO and your accessibility strategy. Alt tags are used to help visually impaired users navigate websites. They also help determine what your images are for, and give your site a chance to rank in Google Image Search.

URL structure: Your URLs signal to both the search engines and your visitors what your content is about. Make sure your URLs use words rather than numbers (e.g., www.yoursite.com/keyword-research-tools rather than www.yoursite.com/45jx8sfd) so the topic of your page is immediately obvious.

Appropriate content length: Several recent independent ranking factors studies suggest that longer content has a better chance of ranking. When writing blog posts, aim for a word count of at least 1000-1200 words. Just keep in mind that word count isn’t a replacement for excellent content.

The Elements of a Good User Experience

The other component of a successful on-page strategy is your design and overall user experience strategy. How easy is it for users to find what they’re looking for on your site? At times, it can feel that SEO concerns, artistic vision, and user experience place conflicting demands on how you organize and design your site. When you add the increasing focus on brand and professional design, it’s clear that website owners are asking for significant returns on a single website design. There are a number of areas that you should focus on your design so that it supports your SEO goals, rather than detracts from them:

Clean and easy to navigate: An overall clean and easy to navigate site that makes it simple for users to complete their objectives is important for SEO. This is particularly true in the case of manual reviews, when a cluttered or unprofessional design can cause your site to lose rankings.

Minimal or unobtrusive advertising: Advertising is another factor that has a potentially negative impact on the visitor experience. There’s no problem with having advertising or monetization components on your site, but it should be value first and then advertising. This is true of your design, as well as your content. Your design needs to balance both of these elements.

Mobile responsive design: Since Google’s mobile-friendly update, optimizing our site(s) for mobile is no longer optional. How does your website look when it’s viewed on a tablet or a smartphone? Is it optimized for the wide range of mobile devices on the market, including Apple devices and a variety of Android devices? Your site’s mobile performance now has an impact on your site’s mobile rankings.

Scannable formatting: It’s long been known that web readers prefer short chunks of text that they can quickly scan (rather than reading in their entirety). A recent ranking factors study shows that content with lists – either numbered or bulleted – tends to hold the top spots in the SERPs.

Managing your site’s design from both a brand-building and SEO perspective can be challenging. But investments in these technical elements set your site up for future success. Once you’ve wrapped your head around these concepts, it’s time to take a closer look at your audience and strategies and tools for getting to know them. Strong audience knowledge will form the foundation for all the tools that we explore later in the book.

Chapter 6: Getting to Know Your Audience

One of the most important aspects of a strong marketing campaign – digital or otherwise – is getting to know your audience. At the end of the day, SEO and online marketing are about connecting with customers and prospects. Understanding who they are makes that easier for you to do so effectively on a number of levels. Strategic research and the right kind of analysis can create tools that make it easier for you to understand who you’re working with, informing everything from the language you use in your copywriting and social media updates to how you design your website and other digital products.

Developing Customer Avatars

One approach to developing a better picture of who your customers are involves creating customer avatars. Simply stated, a customer avatar is an embodiment of your typical customer. It’s an approach that can help you capture everything you need to know about a prospect or customer, such as:

Basic demographic information, like age, gender, income, marital status, geography, and more

More complex demographic factors that might impact buying, such as their living situation or what type of career they work in

Their buying style, such as Detailed Researcher or Impulse Buyer

The underlying emotional or mental problem that they’re trying to solve, in relation to your products or services

Benefits and brands that they value and that factor heavily into the buying process (i.e. who is the competition and how do they feel about it? What do they value when they’re evaluating your product space?)

The language that they use to describe the issues at hand

What types of proof and endorsements they trust, from celebrity spokespeople to in-depth consumer reviews

The publications, shows, and social media platforms where they spend time

And so on. At the end of the process, marketers end up with a picture that looks something like the following: “Anne is a stay at home mother of three living in the Pacific Northwest. Her biggest concern with purchasing laundry products are budget and health & safety. She also expects the product to be effective, but she considers that an obvious non-negotiable. She researches brands by reading mom blogs, environmental publications, and by talking to her friends. She’s not above an impulse buy, however, if she finds a great deal on a new product from a company she trusts or has heard about before.”

The term “customer avatar” is borrowed from a well-established history of customer segmentation and personas in market research. Typically, a market research firm gathers a large amount of data about your audience and searches for patterns. The patterns that emerge are grouped into similar customers, and each of those segments is given a name that relates to their status or behavior. These descriptive terms could range from “The Home Craft Beer Brewer” to “The Reluctant Millennial Entrepreneur.” Another approach assigns a name to each segment, so you end up with “Carol, The Home Craft Beer Brewer” and “Tyson, the Reluctant Millennial Entrepreneur.”

Customer avatars allow you to create a baseline persona of who you’re trying to appeal to. Depending on the complexities of your business or your audience, you may have several avatars that correspond to different customer segments. The process of building your avatars can give you a systematic way to glean insights about your customers, while the avatars themselves can provide a focal point for your marketing team’s efforts.

The Information You Need and Where to Find It

Embarking on the process of building a customer avatar can be challenging. There are a number of templates available that can guide you. There are three fundamental approaches to gathering more data about your customers or prospects. Most audience profiles are created using some combination of these difference sources, rather than a single point of data.

Existing customer information: You may already have a wide variety of information available on your customers and targets, from demographics and buying details to previous research and website analytics. Start your process by gathering as much information as you have on hand and sorting through it. This will give you a valuable starting point, and also help you identify knowledge gaps and lines for further inquiry.

Extended research: The Web provides a wide range of sources where you can learn more about your targets, from observing them on social media to reading the publications that they read. Observation and data gathering is an important step to fleshing out some of the less tangible details of how your audience structures conversations, discusses their most pressing issues, and the language and vocabulary that resonates.

Conversations with customers: If you have a question that is critical and you can’t find the answer, ask. Customer interviews, focus groups, surveys, and informal one to one chats with customers and prospects can yield critical insights that let you solve a key problem or have a major breakthrough in terms of how to serve your audience.

For more information on how to create effective profiles, see 7 Ways to See What Your Target Audience Wants and Create Epic Content.

Audience Profiles and the Three Pillars

Another way to think about audience profiles is through the lens of the Three Pillars of SEO. If you’re struggling to see the relevance of avatars to your business, let’s take a look at how they can inform your efforts in each of the key areas. You could also consider these conversely: if you’re struggling in any or each of these areas, an avatar could give you a different perspective and a starting point for content creation and engagement.

Content: Content is only effective if it speaks to the reader. Your customer profiles will help clarify who you’re writing for, what topics to focus on, the language, positioning, and calls to action that are effective, and where you should publish to make sure your materials are seen.

Social media marketing: Social media is a broad space, from the major networks to niche sites. Understanding your audience will help you choose the right networks to be active on, what tone to take, and how to create content that connects and fosters the right level of engagement.

Links: Audience profiles can help you create a simple learning loop that informs your link efforts. Understanding your audience will help you target your content and outreach efforts to the sites and publications that they’ll care about and are most likely to read and trust. A secondary effect of this is that you’re also going to choose authority publications that are truly and meaningfully linked to the topic you’re establishing yourself in. This has positive implications for both search engines and audience building.

Audience Profiles & Keyword Searches

There’s an important connection between really understanding your audience and finding the keywords that provide the right foundation for your marketing and SEO. Keyword searches are highly individual, reflecting a user’s vocabulary and intentions. Sometimes the relationship is as simple as understanding how two prospects talk about the same product, e.g. spaghetti and pasta. Both terms refer to the same thing, potentially, but if you don’t know which one your audience uses you’re missing out on a huge opportunity. This is about more than generating a huge list of keyword possibilities; it’s about having the data to filter and prioritize those possibilities in a way that meaningfully connects to your audience.

Understanding your audience can also help you filter buying intent. There are two primary types of keywords, informational keywords and intentional keywords. Informational keywords are simple and tie to a desire to learn more about a specific topic, e.g. “What is SEO?” Other keywords indicate that a searcher has a clear intention to buy, or to move along with a specific process. Consider for example, “Best SEO Agency in Boston.” This searcher is likely looking to speak to someone and learn more, probably with the intent to hire. A closer look at your customer’s buying journey will give you insights into each step of the process, and let you tie that back to your keyword searches in a meaningful way.

Customer Profile Breakdowns

One last note on customer profiles. You often hear about organizations that go through the process of creating audience profiles, only to see them sitting on a shelf gathering dust. Like any tool, audience profiles are only useful if they’re created well and put to use. Here’s a closer look at some of the reasons why avatars don’t make an impact on the business:

They lack a foundation in data:Customer profiles need to be based on real data. It doesn’t matter how creative and engaging your descriptions are if they don’t offer deep, actionable insights into the mindset and behaviors of your audience. Build strong profiles based on customer data, in-depth research, and interviews and surveys.

They’re not well-rounded:There are a number of different sources that you can gather customer data. If you base your profiles on limited sources, you may not get the insights that really bring your customers to life. Consider profile written by a sales person with anecdotal experience of customers. How much richer will that profile be if it integrates website analytics, market research report data, and focus group input?

They’re all data and no soul: You can also fall into the problem where your profiles are simply a list of data. “Male, 18-25, lives on the West Coast, income under $50,000 per year,” yet it fails to really capture the insights that your team needs to make a sale. If your profiles don’t push for a more meaningful analysis into context and motivation, that’s going to limit how useful they are.

They’re not valued: Finally, some companies simply don’t create a culture where avatars are shared and valued. This starts with education. Ensure that everyone on your team understands how customer profiles are created, how they’re used, and has access to the data. Treat them as a valuable starting point, and they’ll add depth and value to your market efforts.

A solid understanding of your customer base informs everything you do, from linking efforts to content marketing and social media. With this in mind, we’ll take a closer look at how linking practices take shape and what you need to know to create an effective link-focused SEO strategy.

Chapter 7: Link Building Shifts to Link Earning

Links have been a pillar of SEO since the discipline emerged. With the rise of social media and content marketing, it’s easy to imagine a world where links – which are perhaps the easiest factor to manipulate in SEO – are phased out.

But in a 2014 video, Google’s Matt Cutts put that thought to rest. Google tried an experiment where they offered search results that based on all the factors of the present search algorithm, except backlinks. The results were, according to Cutts, terrible. Links remain an important indicator of what content is relevant and important. Here’s what you need to know about current link building approaches.

“Link Building” Tactics

Link building has been significantly impacted by the rollout of Google Penguin. Previously, many SEOs focused on building as many links as possible from different domains. Less attention was paid to the quality of the links, the quality of the sites, diversity of anchor text, and the manner in which those links were created. In fact, entire schemes such as link wheels (creating a ring of sites with the sole purpose of creating networks of links) became common. When Google pushed back, there was significant fallout for many sites.

Techniques that had worked in the past, even though some were acknowledged as being somewhat shady, came under close scrutiny. A long list of approaches fell quickly onto the Link Building Tactics to Avoid list.

6 Link Building Tactics that are Dead

Buying links

Trading links

Link wheels

Using blog networks

Anything that smacked of spam, such as excessive or poor quality blog comments and article marketing

Links from low-quality or irrelevant sites

From Building Links to Earning Links

There’s been a paradigm shift that occurred as a result, moving from building links through the tactics above (or more ethical approaches) to thinking about earning links. In other words, could you earn links by:

Creating epic content that was so engaging people naturally linked to it in the course of their editorial and online work;

Promoting your content so that it gets in front of the right people, who are naturally motivated to share and link to your content;

Building relationships that give influencers in your space comfort in the fact that your work is high quality and valuable enough to share.

Earning links still requires a strategic approach, but it’s less about creating artificial structures that result in links or treating links like a numbers game. The focus, as with other areas of SEO, is on quality and value. Still, there’s an active place for building: instead of focusing on building links, focus on building your brand. If you’re creating high quality content that you’re placing in priority outlets, links will naturally follow as a byproduct of that work.

Finally, it’s important to note that mentions of your brand – even if they don’t link to your site – can also be beneficial for SEO. While “links” used to refer only to direct, explicitly-posted URLs, Google puts some weight on non-linked mentions as well (these are known as “implied links“).

How to Assess the Quality of a Link

Google’s Penguin update underscored the importance of the quality of your links. Nothing can damage your site’s credibility and rankings faster than sketchy links. As a result, it’s critical to assess the quality of a potential link if you’re working to cultivate those connections. Here’s a quick guide of questions to ask before actively pursuing a link to your site:

Is the site topically relevant to my content?

Is the design and organization clean and professional?

What’s the quality of the content that it publishes?

Is the site overrun with advertising?

Does the site have an active community, as evidenced by comments, social media engagement, and mentions?

What does their incoming link profile look like?

Is there a clear editorial hand at work developing and selecting content?

Would I be comfortable associating my brand with this site?

By shifting your focus away from tactics that build links and instead investing in earning them, you’re creating a foundation that help you attract links from the top authorities in your space. One of the best strategies for doing so is through content marketing; in the next chapter, we’ll take a closer look at what you need to know about content marketing and inbound strategies that work.

Chapter 8: Content and Inbound Marketing

Content and inbound marketing have risen to prominence in the last few years. Content was once considered necessary, but less important than building links and other tactics that attracted traffic. Today, high quality content is the cornerstone of your interactions with customers and how sites achieve top rankings.

Content marketing has become synonymous with inbound marketing, or the concept that quality content is the best way to attract custome

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