Today we are pleased to announce a guest blog from our friend and SEO specialist Sam Crocker discussing his top SEO tips for success in 2012.
Bio: Sam Crocker is SEO Associate Director for OMD UK, where he looks after a number of enterprise level UK and pan-European SEO accounts.
Start with the brilliant basics
One of our axioms when approaching SEO is that the basics will not change drastically. Whilst it is certainly true that there will always be opportunities to gain an advantage over the competition by taking a future-facing approach and by making the most of current and emerging technologies there is something wonderful about SEO (in my experience) that suggests nailing the basics is a pre-cursor to success. Getting these “brilliant basics” right can be as important in the long run as attracting the ever-important link, the celebrity endorsement, or the virality that so many brands and webmasters crave.
My personal view is that a thorough audit of onsite performance, information architecture (and user experience), and having the correct reporting and measurement in place is the key to successful campaigns. Ultimately it is about putting your site in a strong position to ensure that you maximise the returns of every link earned, ever “like”, tweet, or share.
Some areas that I would consider to fall under the brilliant basics include:
Onsite keyword targeting
Search friendly development (i.e. can the search engines find and index my content)
Accurate analytics installation
Set-up of Webmaster Tools for notifications and site management
If you can bring your site up to scratch to conform to the best practices on the above you will already be miles ahead of the competition in many niches. If you are relatively new to SEO the vast majority of these “brilliant basics” can be found in the SEOmoz Beginner’s Guide to SEO.
Business success is more important than vanity (keyword research)
Another essential consideration when launching a campaign (either for yourself or for a client) is that the most popular terms may not always be the most important terms when selecting the keywords that you will target on your website and in your linkbuilding efforts.
Personally, I much prefer working on ecommerce campaigns as tracking and assigning value to your efforts can be much more straightforward.
If you are inheriting a client with existing activity and statistics look carefully at which keywords have actually led to sales (or other conversions) rather than explicitly at the most searched generic keywords. If you have access to this data you are already one step ahead of the game and if you are starting with a new site you should consider using paid search campaigns to evaluate the right messaging and keyword targeting rather than just looking at sheer volume and opportunity in terms of potential search traffic.
Obviously it’s great to increase traffic and visibility for core generics (especially if you are able to track attribution through multiple visits or if your site runs off ad revenue for impressions), but in my experience it’s a lot easier to justify budget and celebrate successes by tying your SEO efforts to a certain value.
Prepare yourself to make a business argument by looking at value added, cost savings from other channels, and by getting your client/boss to agree to the objectives of their website before investing too much time and energy in blindly chasing high volume keywords – and be sure to bear in mind where your site is in the pecking order (age, strength, quality, link metrics, etc.) to manage expectations effectively.
Write for people (not for robots)
Although I think we’re all a bit sick of hearing the case that “content is king” it certainly remains important and it is also true that the search engines have come a very long way in their ability to parse and process information, deal with synonyms and interpret language. It’s also true that the search engines have gotten considerably better at identifying content that was created solely for the purpose of improving rankings in the search results (i.e. cloaked content, thin content, etc.).
The solution is to weigh up the cost of creating good unique content for each page and then determining how to best display that content in a way that will benefit the users and can still be indexed by the search engines.
If you are writing for humans there is probably not just cause for three different pages targeting the same term (or synonyms of the same term) unless required for improving quality score, etc. If this is the case you should ensure that you are comfortable with the value that each page adds to the user and utilise the relevant tags and attributes (“hreflang” for regional variations or changes in currency, “rel=canonical” for pages that are duplicates for the purpose of paid search, etc.).
For me this concept was best summed up by Avinash Kaushik in a recent presentation he gave at conference in London – “Don’t write cheques your website can’t cash”. If the content on your site was only created to manipulate an algorithm it’s unlikely to appeal to a user, which means they’re probably less likely to convert, which means you’ll have a hard time justifying your efforts on the above metrics. Driving traffic is just part of the game, but if it won’t make any sense to the user it probably won’t be worth it.
For me the key is to write good content (test that it works!) and the fact that it be search friendly should already be covered by nailing those “brilliant basics” and having the right process in place to ensure that they are covered off on all new content.
All niches are not created equal
One consideration that I do not think is very well considered by newer folks to the industry is that the tactics that work in one niche will inherently work in others. The fact of the matter is that the search engines use a number of different algorithms when processing and ranking content – and dial up and down the hundreds of factors in these algorithms accordingly.
Every time you look at a new niche (and to some extent even a new keyword within a niche) you should look very carefully at what others are doing and what you feel you need to do to compete.
The rules are very different in the more “competitive” niches (the three p’s for example) than they are in the emerging and wholesome niches and in my experience your best approach/hope to rank will be to play to your strengths. In some niches you may not have a lot of choice, but in other ultra-competitive niches I’ve found that the easiest way to get a brand new site competing in the space is to focus on your product and differentiation rather than trying to acquire more links than the competition.
Be sure to think very carefully about what has worked for you in one niche, what the competition are up to, and come up with a strategy to rank in each new niche you take on rather than making the assumption that it’s all about links and anchor text – because in some niches this simply isn’t true.
Variety is the spice of life (linkbuilding)
On a similar note, I think the increasing need to vary efforts on linkbuilding is becoming an increasingly important consideration in the current and near-future search landscape. A number of astute folks in the industry have long since recognised the importance of a diverse link profile and indeed a diverse use of anchor text in linkbuilding efforts, but I am very confident that this will become increasingly important in the next few months.
We’ve seen search engines come out and explicitly acknowledge their desire to fight “over optimisation” and within the same period seen Google quietly announce they are changing the way in which they evaluate anchor text.
In the next few months I think a lot of people in the industry (certainly within some niches) are going to be caught a bit by surprise by the degree to which this will be seriously addressed and now is as good a time as any to focus on mixing it up. Anyone in the industry can spot a “suspicious” link profile in a matter of seconds when looking at the spread of anchor text in a competitor profile so to assume that search engines have not been looking for a solution to this would be naïve in my opinion.
Know and nail your target market
We’ve already discussed the value of conversion data and consumer behaviour and usage data but one of the oft-overlooked considerations that I see time and again is the need to target local markets differently across the board: language, geo-targeting, and local linkbuilding.
As important as getting your messaging right is making sure that the right site is found by the intended audience. This can be addressed by a number of means, though importantly the following opportunities should be explored/considered:
Create content specifically for each market in which you operate
Use local content production/native speakers for localisation of content
Use hreflang if you have similar content for multiple markets
Don’t use rel=canonical if content is similar but has “important” differences (i.e. different currencies, etc).
Use local (to the target market) if possible
Ensure that any geo targeting reliant on subfolders or subdomains are set up properly in Webmaster Tools
Investigate the source of your links as well as competitor links ranking in local SERPs
Do you need more local links to rank?
Another important consideration in this whole process is to know how local markets respond to local results. For example, the fact that the .com website ranks for a given term doesn’t necessarily mean that you will get the same return in terms of CTR – even if it redirects to the local market site. A survey conducted by nominet suggests that 81% of UK searchers prefer click on a .uk result. Knowledge like this can be essential when determining how to target local audiences and whether to use country specific domains, subfolders or subdomains.
Make use of Microdata (Schema.org)
In my opinion one of the greatest opportunities that not enough webmasters have made use of is the rise of microdata and the search engines’ support of schema.org.
Although at present the number of schema that are presently supported in the search results is somewhat limited, annotated listings (such as reviews) and inventory information can have a large impact on CTR and really help a listing stand out from the competition.
In my opinion this is a clear priority for the search engines to make sure that they support and continue to roll out more support for this markup as it is deemed necessary and helpful to search users.
For the time being it seems that the adoption of microdata is most beneficial for publishers, local businesses, ecommerce sites, and travel sites with reviews. However, this will become increasingly valuable to users and webmasters and will provide an extra layer of information within the search results that can make a listing stand out – thus increasing click throughs and potentially sales.
Social shouldn’t be done “for the sake of it”
One of the potential pitfalls of integration in the digital space is the insistence that Social and SEO must work together, or indeed that social is required for successful SEO. There are a couple potential risks in this way of thinking; the first is that there still seems a general point of contention with the SEO community as to the value of social media activity at the moment in terms of its direct impact on SEO and rankings. The second risk is that joined-up social and SEO become a “box ticking exercise” in the way that both of these industries have often been treated as individual professions in the past.
I think that there are a number of skillsets that most professionals in the Social space (community managers) are well suited to carry out that may have a positive benefit to SEO in the more abstract sense – i.e. increased brand affinity and loyalty may lead to an increase in links, or discussion of a brand, which may in turn lead to better rankings. However, the core role of social media should not be to increase rankings and not all of the valuable efforts of social media professionals would be deemed “successful” if judged solely on these merits.
There are definitely areas in which community managers and social media professionals can improve SEO performance directly (i.e. blogger outreach) but the risk in rushing to join SEO and social media can potentially cheapen the activity of both skillsets and lead to poor performance measurement.
There are many soft skills required of community managers that many SEO professionals will not possess and there are many technical skills required of an SEO that most community managers will not possess. As such, even where there are clear impacts of social media on search engine results (as will increasingly be the case) I believe finding a good balance whilst allowing for specialists in both areas will have the largest overall impact on a site/community and reporting on the value of both activities must be carefully considered beyond direct sales and rankings.
Social and SEO (like PPC and SEO and indeed Social and PPC) have clear opportunities to complement one another but creating a Twitter profile or Facebook page “for the sake of it” will surely not lead to a good social presence and are unlikely to lead to improvements in the search results if not managed proactively and properly.
If you can target local, take advantage!
Another area that I often see undervalued is local search and optimisation of local presence. Many of the biggest brands find it difficult to support accurate and updated information about their local presence including opening hours and contact details. As such, many just plain give up on trying to rank for local queries.
This is becoming a big opportunity for some of the truly local businesses to claim back some business that they have lost to online retailers or the “big players” because most will have the flexibility to be a bit more nimble if they only need to manage local listings for one or two locations as opposed to several hundred. With that said, I am regularly astonished by the number of local businesses that do a great deal to benefit their local community but can’t be bothered to optimise their website or web presence with the most relevant information to their users: when are you open and how can I reach you.
This remains an area that has been largely dismissed by some of the largest retailers/chains due to the difficulty involved in handling logistics yet it still has not been capitalised on by local businesses. My advice to both local businesses and global chains alike (more so in light of changes to search results that give increasing favour to local results and treat more generic queries as having “local intent”) would be to get on the ball and look at opportunities for links from local sources, ensure that content on your website as well as third party local business sites is accurate and that you invest in the online community as well as your local community to capture this growing opportunity.
Never stop testing
The last one is a call to the industry (and a reminder for myself as well). As much as the brilliant basics are and will continue to form an essential part of achieving SEO success, setting yourself and your website apart from the rest requires you to be on top of the latest shifts in the algorithm, emerging technologies and keeping your site up to speed not only with the basics but also with the latest opportunities.
As evidenced by Bing so kindly asking me to write this post the search engines are beginning to take a much more proactive role in reaching out to webmasters to help them provide users with the best possible search experience. With increasing support for improved results (e.g. schema.org), increased opportunity for addressing issues that have long plagued international site owners (hreflang), and an increased desire to fight manipulative efforts (over optimisation and an over reliance on anchor text) whilst supporting well intentioned efforts to connect users with the most relevant information the future is bright – but you need to seize the opportunity.
I had a tweet that came through my stream the other day from @daffynitions that I think really sums it up: “Satisfaction: a surefire way to halt progress”.
Keep testing, keep looking for new opportunities and keep nailing those brilliant basics!
For more regular SEO tips you can follow @samuelcrocker on twitter.