The Secret Sauce of SEO

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the process of improving a website to make it more relevant to searchers and search engines.  At its very core, SEO is about improving usability on a website.  Let’s take a look at some of the big ticket topics.

We’ll start out with a quick stop to note what SEO is not…

  • Fast – the work and results take time to complete and see in action
  • Guaranteed – remember, you’re not in control of the algorithm
  • Once & done – things change over time; algos evolve and so must your site
  • Free – time is money, as the saying goes - SEO takes time

The Big Picture Basics

Make sure you research and understand the basic factors that influence search engine optimization.  You may not be able to work out the kinks in every item, but you should be able to cover the big items on your own.  At the very least, your knowledge should be enough to understand what a consultant or agency is suggesting you do.

You should become familiar with technical, onpage SEO work.  These are the things like your <title>, <meta description> and <H1>s.  The best practices are available almost everywhere now, so take the time to understand these basic elements and which ones are worth investing time in.  Hint: <title>, <meta description>, <H1>, <ALT>, page load time, depth of content, etc.

Avoid the temptation of auto-follow tools and tricks to gain fans/followers overnight.  This goes to the heart of becoming an authority.  We’re looking at your account and trying to determine if your voice is in demand.  If it is, you’ve got some weight on a topic.  Using an auto follow tool will essentially leave you with a net zero sum (roughly the same number of followers to following, to use Twitter as an example). So, build social followers & fans organically, by providing value.  Wall posts/tweets with links are perceived as more credible and useful, bringing that value people seek.

Once you understand even the basics of SEO, focus on content, content, content.  Quality content.  Unique content.  At the risk of beating the dead horse on the now atomic level, don’t forget… unique, compelling content still matters.

Compelling Content

SEO, however, is only one part of the overall equation.  Creating content that users want, and an environment they enjoy being in, can go a long way.  It’s tough to create unique content, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have something unique to say about your topic.  Get creative on adding relevant content beyond just the basics.  Get feedback from your readers and post that for all to read.  The bottom line on this point is quality content is what the search engines seek.

Successful ecommerce retailers don’t rely on generic product photos.  They grab a camera, shoot all angles of the product, create videos, describe the packaging in detail, talk about warranty coverage and more.  They create compelling content that keeps shoppers engaged and makes the sale.

They take the time to invest in creating compelling content.  They know a shopper cannot touch, smell or feel the product, so they compensate by bringing more visuals and details forward as possible.  And this trend is only going to continue to evolve.  (Interesting take on the future of shopping in this USA Today article.)

The engines really respond to unique, useful content and your visitors respond to it as well.  Producing excellent content is always a wise investment of your time.  Don’t take shortcuts – limit syndicated content.

Niche & Voice

There are plenty of unexplored niches just waiting to be mastered by small, authoritative websites.  Finding a niche that you’re passionate about, and speaking to users in a voice that resonates with them, will go a long way to cementing your lead in your chosen space.  Start small.  Trying to rank #1 for recipes is a daunting task.  Ranking #1 for texas bbq recipes or pulled pork recipes would be easier.  It will still take work, but when you are ranking well, that will help your site start to rank better for those more generic phrases where the big traffic lives.

Keyword research can help you slice and dice your topic area to find the hidden gems.  These phrases will have you targeting the topic from new angles, ranking well, driving traffic and winning the minds of your readers as an authority.

Choose your voice wisely and don’t be afraid to express an informed opinion.  Then watch what users respond to and amplify along those lines.  Your voice defines who you are online, and it’s this “personality” which people relate to.  Most businesses would do well to stick to a professional approach, whereas bloggers can get away with an edgier approach in many cases.  Smart startups craft their voice early and manage to separate themselves in a small way from more mainstream competitors.  That separation often leads to them growing a big fan base.

Keyword Research

Don’t be guessing at which topics to target.  Keyword research will help you understand which phrases people search for most frequently.  That nugget of insight is critical to planning what content you should create.  Leverage this to increase your relevancy in the eyes of searchers.

Keyword research is like a loaf of bread; it can go stale faster than you think so take care to keep it fresh.  Changes happen, so refresh your data every month or so.  That monthly cadence actually developed because we used to have only one main tool from an engine to do research with, and their data updated monthly and only showed one month of data.  Thus we had to perform research monthly to build a bigger picture.  Today, however, Bing Webmaster Tools has keyword research built in which allows you to not only see true, organic query volumes (the other tool doesn’t, relying on paid search volumes), but our tool also lets you select a date range up to 6 months in the past.  Research last week or 5 months ago – the choice is now yours. 

This is a Business

Too many websites/blogs fail because their owners don’t realize they are operating a business.  Don’t worry about that feeling of being alone, like no one is reading because you don’t see comments.  Watch your analytics and see how traffic looks.  It’ll take some time, but you’ll see traffic increasing.  If you focus on finding your voice and adjusting it to see what resonates more with your readers, you could see a dramatic impact on your traffic numbers over time.

Set goals and plan your work just like any business does.  And for those with plans already, look at refining them and adding deeper detail.  Setting a goal of “Write compelling content” might sound great when brainstorming, but get into the details of how it’s going to happen.  That level of planning will help you uncover if your plan is going to actually work.  You’ll see if your path is feasible, how it stacks up to the competition and whether it sets you apart in a meaningful way.

And when something doesn’t work, remember; there are no failures, just learning opportunities.  Focusing on the failure and dwelling on it wastes time.  Time that you could use to examine the failure, learn from it and make successful changes around.

Why Social matters to Search

As social becomes integrated within search results, the signals those placements send to users - and, by extension, the signals of user’s interactions with those placements – will impact click results and, potentially, rankings.  The placements themselves don’t impact ranking.  Participating in social alone doesn’t impact ranking.  How users click on your results can impact rankings and when we show cues like your Facebook friends with results, click rates can be impacted.  It’s important to understand that good old fashioned relationship building via social can impact the success of your business.  That’s an old message, but we have new tools available today to activate on it.

Social signals are really just signals of topical authority.  Is your voice in demand on the topic?  Do others state you are an expert?  When those unrelated to your business take up the cause of sharing you to their social worlds, those signals are seen by us and used to help better understand your value to searchers overall.

Social is also ground zero for real-time information.  We want fresh content and we want it fast.  This is why Bing follows a Microsoft tradition of partnering: Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare.  No need to reinvent that wheel.

And while social’s prominence in the algorithm is new and rising, it pays to keep a broad mind on what it takes to rank.  The Bing algorithm has around 1,000 factors it mulls over at various points in the ranking decision process, so while social matters, don’t load all your eggs into any one basket.  Take a balanced approach with your marketing program and stay focused on the visitor.