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How Important Is SEO? Will It Really Make or Break Your Online Presence?

We like to call Lauren Pawell of Bixa Media our magical unicorn of the world wide web. If we ever have a question about Search Engine Optimization, or development or the changes in the Facebook algorithm, we call Lauren. In keeping with last week’s well received post about 10 Tips On Writing for SEO, we thought we’d have Lauren give us some more in-depth advice on SEO, the common misconceptions, and some keys to success. This will be the first in a series of posts from our magical unicorn. Check out her services at bixamedia.com to see how she can help your business make it’s web presence known. Take it away, Lauren:

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SEO, known as search optimization, is a term that I imagine many of you have heard at least once or twice. Some of you may even be familiar with the practice. However, I find that many aren’t or often carry misconceptions like:

  • “Isn’t that when you pay Google and you are shown on Page 1 in the natural listings?”
  • “Don’t I just have to buy a bunch of links and that’s how I can get my site to the top of Google?”
  • “You can actually do things to help you get to the top of Google for relevant words and phrases?”

Or even better is the response: “Huh?”….followed by a very blank stare. If this is you, don’t worry, you are not alone. Plus I’m going to break it down simply; so no need to pull out your dictionary or call your 5-year old tech-savvy nephew to get through the rest of this post, just sit back, put down Instagram, take a sip of coffee and keep reading.

 

A Little SEO History Lesson…

As its root, SEO is the practice of determining which elements of Google’s algorithm (the magical formula that Google uses to order pages in their search results) have the most impact on your website’s ranking and trying to continually improve your page position. Historically, the “secret to cracking” Google’s algorithm was largely about the number of links. If you remember Google’s origins, (bear with me, this is relevant, I promise), Larry Page & Sergey Brin were inspired by the concept of inferring a reference’s papers importance by it’s citations. That is to say, in their opinion, a reference paper that cited publications of authority had more importance and relevancy than those who referenced lesser writings. In that way, their initial workup of Google search used the links within and pointing to a web page to determine its importance. Consequently, the number of links a web page had and the authority of those links played a vital role in determining that page’s rankings. And thus, SEO’s main task at the time was link building.

As Google refined their algorithm, the number of links decreased in importance and it became more about the quality of links. Further honing occurred and keywords become the new SEO-trick-du-jour. It was all about the correct key phrase, how many times it was placed on your web page and where it was used. With the evolution of the Google algorithm has come more complexity in the ranking formula, like freshness of content and the number of social shares.

Today, when you try to crack the Google algorithm code and thereby put too many eggs in one basket to help you rise to the ranks quickly, you can see a great short-term effect but it’ll kill you when Google penalizes your site with an algorithm change. Too many links with zero relevancy? Keyword stuffing?  Spammy guest blogging? Nothing sucks more than feeling the ever-awesome impact of being #1 on Google for a few months, above all your competitors, and then bam! The hands of God, cough cough, excuse me, Google, come down and bump you 5 pages back. Ouch. Mediocracy blows.

 

The Key To SEO Success 

The key to success with SEO is aligning your goal with Google’s goal. And what is that you may ask? Delivering the best and most relevant content for the specific search query to users. Ahhhh. User-focused. Client-focused. Customer-focused. What Yoda-like wisdom. Wait a second, shouldn’t you already be customer-focused? Shouldn’t the content you post on your website already be geared towards your customers? Oh no, what’s that I hear? You’ve been catering your content to what you thought Google’s spiders wanted? And that, my fellow Hoodzpah readers, is where the weakness of short-sighted SEO lies. When aligning your site with the SEO trend of the moment, customer-focus is often forgotten and thereby Google’s overarching goal also takes a backseat. The result? You take a hit (and sometimes a big one) when they make an algorithm change.

They key to successful, long-term SEO is focusing on what your customers want to see on your site and what they want to read about you off your site. Interesting and frequent content. Content relevant to your services or products. Great Yelp and Google reviews. Awesome social media accounts. Guest blog posts on other sites of authority. Press features about your company. Are you starting to get the picture? Things that your customers (and potential customers) love, Google loves too. And the more you focus on them and the big picture, the less likely you are to get penalized in the next Google algorithm. Yeah, it may take a bit longer for you to rise in the rankings, but once you’re there it will be hard to knock you off, especially if your competitors have been engaging in spammy or of-the-moment SEO practices. Now there’s some sweet, sweet victory, don’t you think?

 

How You Can Bask (Or Shine On) In Your Own SEO Glory

Of course, there are some SEO basics that you need to have covered first, including:

  • Clean, easy-to-read, light code
  • Alt tags on images with relevant descriptions
  • Compelling and relevant meta titles and descriptions for every page
  • No follow links on duplicate content
  • Relevant internal & external links
  • Keywording without going overboard

After that, the most important actions to take are:

 

1. Hone-in on your branding and messaging. 

What makes you stand out from your competitors? What is your unique voice? Who who is your audience?  This, in my opinion, is the hardest step in the entire SEO process. Defining who your company is, what makes you different, and developing your brand (both in terms of visuals and voice), is a real challenge. It takes imagination, it takes research and it takes a bit of guts to do something different from all your competitors.

This can be especially daunting if you are a B2B company or your product is a bit boring, albeit useful. Mailchimp is a great example of a company with a mundane product that found a unique voice and a way to delight at each point of contact with their customers. Sometimes, you might be too close to your product or service to be able to tack this step on your own. Engaging a creative agency (Hoodzpah link to lead collection form for branding discovery) that can help you find your unique story is a worthwhile investment, as this step is vital to creating a successful presence in your industry, both online and offline.

 

2. Invest in a content marketing program.

Once you’ve laid the groundwork and set the guidelines for your branding and voice, you are then ready to start a content marketing program. This first means that you need to find where your target audience spends time regularly online, besides your website. Is it Facebook? Twitter? Reddit? Craiglist? Pinterest? YouTube? A niche forum? Or some combination of all of these? Identifying content channels that your potential customers already use tells you:

  1. where you will need to publish content,
  2. what type of content you need to create, and
  3. how frequently you need to publish.

After understanding the 3 factors above, you can decide who is responsible in-house for content creation and what guidelines they need to adhere to, in terms of voice, subject matter and imagery. Alternatively, you have a nice little package to send to an agency, should you decide to outsource your content creation. Now doesn’t that sound nice?

 

3. Actively engage in online PR.

Think of online PR to be your site’s high-relevancy, high-quality link building program. By actively and regularly reaching out to other relevant websites that might want to link back to you in some way, shape or form, you build a network of “natural” links to your site. Links from sites that already mention content similar to yours, especially those of authority, are high-value and won’t be penalized, as they cannot be misconstrued as spammy.

There are many different ways to build links including:

  • Guest blogging
  • Participating in an online interview
  • Getting Internet press for a product or service
  • Partnering with another brand for some sort of giveaway that they also announce to their audience

Get creative. The world is your oyster and opportunities for link outreach are endless. You just have to make an active and regular effort. Even if your requests are only successful 1 out of every 5 times, that’s still one more link than you would have had otherwise. And every once in a while when you strike gold with a link request, when that link generates big and ongoing traffic for your site, you’ll realize it was worth all the effort.

 

4. Network online. 

If you comment on others’ blogs, engage in conversations on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ with others in your industry, create and contribute to groups of interest on LinkedIn, when it comes time to publish new content, you have a wealth of contacts who are often more than happy to share your latest piece, provided it is compelling. Good content is rare and most people curate others’ content on their social networks, rather than investing the time and resources required to create their own original content.

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Lauren Pawell, founder of Bixa Media in Newport Beach, CA.

The key to this strategy is building genuine relationships during your online networking. A sales pitch or requests from someone online you don’t know is as terrible as an outbreak of the flu. You can’t wait to get away from the offender and you certainly don’t feel like spreading that sh** around to your friends and family!  However, when you feel like someone is a trusted colleague, some who gives you tips, listens to your problems, and sends you interesting stories, you certainly don’t mind sharing a link of theirs once in a while, especially when you feel it’s valuable for your network. So make sure that when you do network online, give more than you take. Karma also applies to the online world, people.

 

So back to my original question: will SEO really break or make your online presence? The answer is still yes. Big-picture, customer-focused SEO will rock your company’s online world, in only the best of ways…leads from all over the web. Short-sighted, spammy SEO can only do you a world of hurt and the short term gain is certainly not worth the cost or effort, which you’ll soon realize, if you haven’t already, after experiencing a huge loss in page position.  The solution? Make your customers a priority, hone-in on your branding and messaging, and invest in a content marketing program that lets them hear you loud and clear, above all the other online chatter. Promote the content a bit among your network, but if it’s good, your customers, potential customers and industry thought leaders will do all the legwork for you, by sharing it all over their worldwide web.

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