In this age of Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird, ranking for your keywords in the search engine results pages (SERPs) requires both strategic SEO intelligence and a systematic approach. SEO is very much alive and well -- when done correctly -- and is integral to a winning organic search content strategy. With that in mind, we’ve distilled seven essential steps you need to take to rank for your keywords.
1. Keyword research
- Build a keyword portfolio, starting with a core keyword list (aka “seed list”). Organize your research in a spreadsheet (for instance, Excel or a Google Drive sheet) that includes keyword ideas from competitor sites as well as your own.
- Extract the keywords that drive the most impressions from your site’s Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) account and add them to your core list.
- If you have access to the BrightEdge Data Cube, perform a search of your website to discover those keywords you’re ranking for (including which pages), and add those to your list. Next, do the same for your competitors.
- Next, use Google’s Keyword Planner tool for more research to uncover additional keyword ideas.
- Finally, organize and prioritize your keywords into categories in your spreadsheet, such as “products,” “services” and “news.” This step will help you in creating your website structure, which we’ll discuss next.
For a detailed description of the keyword research steps outlined above, you can refer to my guide to keyword research at the BrightEdge blog.
2. Site structure
Your keyword research will help you build an optimized site structure (aka navigational framework) that helps the search engines understand what your site is about, and allows your users to navigate with ease. Organizing your site’s structure around targeted keyword categories, or themes, will help the search engines understand that your site is relevant to a user’s query. With your keyword research spreadsheet as a guide, your next steps are to:
- Clarify your website’s overarching themes, incorporating your more general keywords.
- Define your website’s main categories and subcategories with more specific keywords, again informed by your keyword research.
- Optimize individual pages with even more refined keywords, including “long-tail” keywords (discussed below) specific to that page. This is where you can “move the needle” by making small tweaks that result in drastic improvement in your pages’ SERP positioning (what we refer to as “striking distance”).
BrightEdge CEO Jim Yu provides an overview of these concepts in his article for the BrightEdge blog.
3. SEO content audit
While this is an optional step, conducting an SEO content audit is recommended, as it helps you assess what content on your site is performing well versus what is falling flat in terms of search rankings and ROI. Establishing this initial benchmark will help you inform your content strategy going forward. There are several tools you can employ for gathering the data you’ll need to conduct an SEO content audit, depending on your needs. For enterprise-level firms and larger websites, the BrightEdge SEO platform has both analytics and reporting tools that measure organic search and revenue performance for individual pages as well as site categories and subcategories.
- As with keyword research, you’ll want to export and organize the data you’ve culled from your content audit into a spreadsheet. Some of the key SEO metrics to analyze are pageviews, organic visits, bounce rates, conversions, and page speed.
- Focus on the performance of website pages that are central to your business, such as key landing and sales pages.
- Your blog requires measuring social metrics such as Facebook sharing, tweets and re-tweets, Google +1s and shares, as well as the quality and quantity of backlinks that search engines use to gauge the authority and credibility of your content (which in turn influences your blog’s search ranking).
For further reading on how to conduct an SEO content audit, see my post on the BrightEdge blog.
4. Content creation, optimization, and on-page SEO
At this stage, you’ll need to create content for new site pages and/or optimize existing ones with the relevant keywords gathered from your research. The guiding principles here include:
- Strive for a good word count that makes the content feel complete (no less than 250 words, depending on the topic and purpose of the page). Optimize with keywords that are relevant to the page topic, but avoid keyword “stuffing” or adding unnecessary text. Also, make sure that written content is immediately visible to viewers near the top of the page (don’t make ads the first thing they see).
- Guard against duplicate content, which can be a result of inadvertent mistakes such as replicating pages’ Meta information (discussed below).
- Create Meta data unique to each site page to inform search engines of the content’s topic via a page title and description. This is also the “clickable” information displayed in the SERPs, and factors heavily in search ranking performance.
- Rich media, such as images and video, also require written titles, descriptions and tags so search engines can understand their contents. Optimize on-page rich media so keywords match that in the corresponding text and Meta data.
- Structure the page content headers and subheads using an hierarchy of heading tags (H1, H2, H3) to help search engine bots better understand what the page is about, and to assist readers in scanning your page.
- Use internal links to connect individual site pages to each other, as applicable. Search engine robots read Web content by following links, so providing an internal, connected structure helps them – as well as your site visitors – navigate your website.
- Create and submit an XML Sitemap to search engines to further inform them of your site’s individual page content using the Web “robot” code of XML tags. For very large and/or new sites, as well as sites with large archives of remote content pages and/or use rich media, this helps “Googlebot” and other search engine robots to “crawl” and index your site in the SERPs more quickly and accurately.
5. Link earning
Simply put, link “earning” means creating content that others want to associate themselves with and/or express a vote of confidence in by linking out to it. These “inbound” links may be to your home page, an internal products or services page, or an exceptional blog post. Inbound links from others on the Web comprise your site’s backlink profile. Search engines factor in both the quantity and quality of your site’s backlink profile when weighing its relative importance, authority and credibility. This assessment, in turn, factors into your site’s organic search content rankings. As with SEO content audits, monthly or quarterly link audits are a recommended best practice to benchmark and monitor the health of your site’s backlink profile. (We refer to this simply as backlink management). You can learn more about how to conduct a qualitative and quantitative link audit using a basic four-step process with my article on the BrightEdge blog. I also share creative (and legitimate) link-building tactics to explore. If you are looking for something to implement in a day, these 10 backlink building ideas could be of great help. If you’re strapped for time and resources, Mark Mitchell outlines 10 simple link-building initiatives that you can accomplish within a day. He also shares best practices for conducting a backlink analysis, and disavowing “bad” links to avoid a Google “Penguin slap.”
6. Social media
As alluded to above when discussing the SEO audit of blog content (Step 3), social media engagement and sharing now play an increasingly significant role in your organic search visibility and content ranking. Given the incorporation of Google Plus social activity in Google’s SERPs, as well as Bing’s exclusive partnership with Twitter for its SERPs, “social SEO” has become a content marketing reality. The explosion of online data over the past few years is mostly due to social media, and there are no signs that this trend will be slowing down. Search engines now use content sharing as a “quality” signal. The synergy of search and social is evidenced by a Twitter case study of Tiny Prints, a specialty online boutique that depends on organic search for its Web traffic and revenue. By leveraging the Twitter platform, it realized a 47 percent increase in organic search rankings for long-tail keywords and tripled its Twitter follower engagement. For more on search and social synergy, check out Mark’s post on social signals and SEO, and Andy Betts’ article on how search and social data work in tandem to produce search ranking results.
7. Track performance
Benchmarking your organic search content performance is the first step towards a smart content strategy. The BrightEdge SEO platform has an array of analytics and reporting tools to help you do just that. Perhaps most cogent to keyword ranking is our content-centric page analysis and reporting technology, referenced earlier in Step 3 (content audit). As mentioned previously, our page reporting tool can measure and report on organic search and revenue performance not only at the individual page level, but for entire groups of pages within your site. Finally, remember this entire step-by-step process is not a one-and-done project. To gain the insights you need to keep ahead of the competition in the organic search content space, you’ll want to revisit each step in a cyclical manner to achieve superior SEO content performance!