When I created this blog, I called it “Smooth Jazz and Digital Marketing” because those were two topics that I figured I’d write about regularly as a musician and a digital marketer. I’ve mostly written about my travels, and I haven’t been too regular about that.
However, I’d like to write about a topic in the digital marketing space I know pretty well: SEO. That stands for search engine optimization.
I’m sure you’re thinking: it’s another guy who thinks he’s the king of SEO, a guy who can talk extemporaneously about Panda and Penguin and Hummingbird and canonicals and, well, word vomit, anon. That’s honestly not me at all.
I’m the guy who believes anybody can get their site to page 1 of Google with a little bit of strategic, focused effort — and I want to explain how to do it without paying an agency a dime. There are many ways to do it. This is my way, and it’s 100 percent “white hat,” which means that it won’t get you in trouble with Google. Promise.
What do you want to rank for?
First and foremost, you need to pick out a term, a phrase or keyword that you’d like to rank highly for. Maybe it’s “bocce ball” or “polka band;” it doesn’t really matter. The process is the same for any term. And for every term, phrase or keyword, there is a market for it. That means there is a search volume and what I’d call a level of difficulty for ranking highly. Take the terms “college football” and “Neyland Stadium,” home of the University of Tennessee Volunteers.
The search volume for the former (“college football”) is about 1 million searches per month. The search volume for the latter (“Neyland Stadium”) is 14,800 searches for month. (You can find out search volumes for any word or term by using Google’s keyword planner tool.)
So, it’s obvious, right? You have to pick the term “college football!”
Wrong. It’s not nearly that simple.
When deciding what to focus your SEO efforts on, you want to pick a phrase that’s the best match of what your (content or business) *IS* and what your (customers or readers) are searching for — and then stick with it for awhile. Even if the phrase isn’t searched on as much as another, you might be way better off being the big fish in a small pond instead of a minnow in the Pacific Ocean.
On-site SEO: Get your house in order
The next thing you want to do is build your website in such a way that Google knows that this phrase is what you should rank for. This is what’s called “on-site SEO.” Let’s say you’re building a site all about the history of Neyland Stadium.
Your website builder should focus on five elements:
1. Your <TITLE> tag. This tag is kind of like a one-line summary about your site. If the focus of your site is Neyland Stadium, and the search phrase you’re focused on is “Neyland Stadium,” then your <TITLE> tag should be something that includes that phrase at the front of it. For example:
<TITLE>Neyland Stadium: A site about Rocky Top and the Tennessee Volunteers</TITLE>
2. Get your META tags in order. There isn’t a consensus about the value of META descriptions and other META tags. Just get in there and fill ’em out. It won’t kill you. Be descriptive in an authentic manner, working in the search phrase of your choice, but don’t stuff it with variations of that keyword or phrase. In fact, develop a philosophy of understanding how SEO works but never trying to game the system. This is in its essence a process of smart content development and management, and it will work naturally if your content is worth a darn.
3. H1 is No. 1. The most important piece of HTML on your site is the <H1> tag. Your headline for any site page or blog post should always, always, always be in an <H1> tag. Not a <DIV> and not a <P> and not a “whatever you construct in CSS.” The <H1> tag tells Google what’s most important on your page, and in this case, we’re focused on the term, “Neyland Stadium.”
<H1>Neyland Stadium: College football venues that rock!</H1>
You can also use <H2>-<H6> tags to your benefit. That could be a topic for another blog post.
4. Text rules. Your site, your page, whatever it is you’re trying to optimize for should have text on it. In 2017, we develop websites for two audiences: People and Google. Google don’t do video or images or anything quite the way it handles plain-ol’ text. So, when you go about designing your website, it’s great to want it to look beautiful and modern, but without a couple paragraphs of text, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle in terms of SEO.
Write copy that is easy to comprehend and that is grammatically correct with proper spelling. Believe it or not, Google is quite the judgmental little %#&* when it comes to this stuff because it indexes with credibility in mind — and content that is properly written with proper spelling is thought to be more credible.
Don’t stuff keywords. Keep it natural, and tell your audience what the page or site is about. Keep it simple. Focus on bringing value to the reader.
5. Image file names. The way you name your image files is vital. Google is the largest search engine in the world, and I believe that YouTube is No. 2. However, Google’s image search tool is right up there, and the key tactic to maximizing your images for SEO is in how you name the file.
Most designers name their files something cryptic, something that helps them know what the file is about. For example, maybe a file of Neyland Stadium might be called ney_stad2017nBama_2b.jpg. That image might be a picture of Neyland Stadium at night from 2017 and their game against Alabama. The ‘2b’ part of the file name might simply be a versioning suffix of some sort.
What I’m suggesting is that you name your files so that Google can know what the heck it is. In this case, I would suggest it be called Neyland-Stadium-Alabama-game-2017.jpg. Note that I’m using dashes instead of underscores, which are no-nos in SEO. Ultimately, what I’m doing here is squeezing out the clarity in every last element on my page. I want there to be no question that my website or blog post is about the search phrase at hand, “Neyland Stadium” in this case.
And use the alt attribute, too! More on that some other time.
Social signals: Be social
This next part I can keep pretty short. If you have a website or a web page or a blog post that you’d like to get to Page 1 on Google, you need social media support. You have to amplify that sucker on every platform available and do it in a way that draws people who are willing to engage with you. I’ll devote another blog post to how to do this effectively later. Most folks know how to do this pretty well, and in SEO-speak, it’s called “sending social signals.”
Aside from executing proper on-site SEO, inbound marketing or “link building” is the other “most important” part of the search engine optimization process. This is a process of getting other folks, other websites, etc., to link back to your site using the search phrase of your choice and focus. It should be known, however, that in the Google world, there is a pecking order of website worth.
For example, your Uncle Joe’s website is probably kick-ass awesome, but he’s not likely to have the domain or page authority (concepts I’ll write about some other time) or search traffic that the University of Tennessee has. Sure, get him to link to your site using the phrase, “Neyland Stadium,” but you can’t accomplish that and think you’re even close to done.
Here’s what a link back to your website might look like:
<p><b>Check out my nephew’s awesome site about <a href=”http://www.iloveneylandstadium.com”>Neyland Stadium</a>!</b></p>
In the world of Google, sites with a .org, .gov or .edu prefix are the gold standard. They’re considered to be the most credible, meaning that entrepreneurs and business owners would want to focus on getting a link back to their site from the local government, the Chamber of Commerce or a local school nearby. Those are the links that will move you on up the charts relative to Google ranking.
You’ll want to be very specific about how the link should be added to their site, all the while knowing that you can’t force the other party to do it exactly like you want. In this case, you really, really want them to put the anchor tags around the phrase “Neyland Stadium.” What this does is tell Google that the site linking to you thinks your website is a credible site about the topic included inside the anchor tag.
Another terrific tactic to get some “Google juice” back to your site, as the SEO wunderkinds call it, is to get links to your site from news stories. If a newspaper or TV station mentions your website, ask them to link to you. Heck, if your website about Neyland Stadium is really that informative and entertaining, go find old news stories about the stadium and then reach out to the stations and their editors and ask them for a link.
You’ll probably be told, “No,” most of the time if you even hear from anybody. However, it’s important to make the ask if you’re really serious about SEO for your website, page or blog post.
And then, as if to dip directly into an SEO denouement, this effort to “link build” or do inbound marketing will be a process you undergo forever more. It never ends. Each day, go out and search for your phrase on various browsers, track where you rank and watch the progress. Document what moves the needle for your site.
I should note: This blog post is merely a basic summary of some steps that anybody can do to achieve a Page 1 result for their SEO term of choice. It works, and it costs you effort way more than it does dollars — but there’s a lot more that could be written about each part of this. If this post interests folks enough, I’d be happy to write more about this in detail in the future.
Have an awesome weekend!