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SEO Fundamentals

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Getting the Gist of SEO

by Andre Kibbe

If you’re starting a new website, one of your first priorities is to drive traffic to it. Traffic means audience, and content without an audience is like the proverbial tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it.

It’s gratifying to have an audience, but there’s more to building a following than self-validation—and that’s where many bloggers go astray. Their first impulse is to build a following through Facebook, Twitter, or the social network of the week.

Or worse, they feel compelled to attract visitors by blogging daily, or several times a day. If your traffic is based on your audience’s expectation that they’re going to see a new post every time they visit, you’re eventually going to have trouble keeping your head above water, unless you’re an unusually prolific writer. Most bloggers who take this approach burn out within months.

Why Search Engines Give Better Traffic

Visits to your website from social networks and regular readers are examples of social traffic. You get rewarded with social traffic as long as you stay on the hamster wheel of posting on your blog, Facebook, or Twitter, only to see that traffic disappear when you stop posting.

“A more sustainable approach to building an audience is to channel your energy into building search traffic.”

A more sustainable approach to building an audience is to channel your energy into building search traffic. Instead of increasing your friend count on Facebook, spend your time getting your posts to rank well in Google and other search engines.

Getting content to prominent placement in search engines, a practice known as search engine optimization (SEO), takes more effort up front, but continues to provide traffic day after day—long after you’ve stopped posting.

A site that ranks on the first page of Google for a specific search gets anywhere from 3% to 42% off all the clicks on that page. Let’s assume your site has the #1 result in Google for the search, “creme brulee recipe”. A specific search query, like “creme brulee recipe,” is called a keyword, and some keywords are searched more frequently than others—sometime much more frequently. Another keyword to consider might be “how to make a creme brulee.” Other keywords in different niches would be “best restaurants in Paris” or “alternative treatments for arthritis.”

The keyword “creme brulee recipe” happens to get around 18,000 searches a month. If your recipe page were the top listing in Google, it would receive 42% of all the search results people click on in Google: 7,560 visits a month.

Even if you were able to build a cooking blog popular enough to get 250 visits a day (7,500 visits a month) every time you posted a new recipe, the traffic would quickly taper off. Each new post pushes earlier posts further down into the archives, so that a recipe that gets 250 page views a day soon gets only gets a fraction of that—perhaps 20 views—due to low visibility. But if you manage to maintain your #1 position in Google, the search engine will consistently send you around 250 visitors to that one post every day.

Keyword Research Is Key

The keyword “how to make a creme brulee” has the exact same meaning as “creme brulee recipe,” but they differ in one critical aspect: almost no one searches the former keyword, while virtually everyone searches for the latter. In contrast to the 18,100 monthly searches for “creme brulee recipe,” searches only type “how to make a creme brulee” into Google 58 times a month—only two searches per day. This means you need to pick your battles strategically.

Dominating the search engines for a certain keyword only matters if the keyword is worth having. It might seem intuitively obvious that the “recipe” keyword would be searched more, but many keywords’ relative popularity can’t be intuited. You need data.

Speaking of data, how do we know that the creme brulee keywords differ in search volume by two orders of magnitude? Enter the world of keyword research.

Keyword research is the art of finding and comparing all of the keywords in a particular niche to find the most valuable ones, and then to figure out which ones to target first in your SEO efforts. There’s a lot of fancy software out there for doing keyword research, but most of it goes out of date quickly as Google changes the rules for how these apps access keyword data. The best place to start with Google’s official solution: the Google AdWords Keyword Tool.

Without getting into the hairy details of how to use it, the Keyword Tool provides two of the three data points we need to assess whether a keyword is valuable enough to use for an SEO campaign. A good keyword has:

  • High search volume
  • High commercial value
  • Low competition

All of these parameters are relative. For some topics, 1,500 searches a month could be high for one of its keywords. More people want to learn how to cook than how to clean an aquarium.

Commercial value is typically measured by what Google’s advertisers are willing to bid for a keyword. Google makes its money by serving up ads that are congruent with your search, and charging advertisers every time someone clicks on an ad. What Google charges is called the cost-per-click, or CPC. Cookbook publishes are willing to pay roughly a $1 CPC to advertise through Google on searches for “creme brulee recipe,” but only $0.64 for “how to make a creme brulee.”

“There’s an assumption among advertisers—probably accurate—that certain keywords have a higher commercial intent than others.”

There’s an assumption among advertisers—probably accurate—that certain keywords have a higher commercial intent than others. Some people are searching for free information, while others are searching for goods and services. A keyword like “Forex trading tips” would be considered less commercial than “Forex trading course,” since the latter search implies an actually product.

Competition is a good thing when it comes to broad niches. More competition means you have to work harder to get a piece of the action, but that’s because the action is lucrative or highly rewarding in other terms. Online affiliate marketers like to enter markets like insurance, weight loss, and finance because the commissions are high, and the search volumes are astronomical. But it wouldn’t make since to go after the most obvious keywords in those markets. No matter how sharp your SEO skills, it would probably take years to get a top ranking for a keyword like “weight loss.”

On the other hand, with certain keyword research techniques described in Getting to Know SEO, you can find “long tail” keywords with a respectable amount of search traffic and commercial value that, as a group, allow you to build cumulative traffic. It’s often much easier to get top rankings for 10 low competition keywords than to get a page one ranking for a single high competition keyword with 10 times the traffic.

A “long tail” is a more verbose and more specific version of a more popular keyword. One long tail of “how to lose 10 pounds” would be “how to lose 10 pounds in 30 days.” Despite the generally lower search volumes, long tails have two advantages: they’re almost always less competitive, and because they’re more specific, visitors are more likely to take action on what you have to offer. Someone who’s search for a way to lose weight in a specific time frame will be more responsive to an offer matching the search intent, such as a “Lose 10 Pounds in 30 Days” ebook sold on a weight loss blog.

Links Are The Lingua Franca of SEO

In the Dark Ages of the Web, the early Nineties, people searched for stuff through Yahoo. Yahoo wasn’t just a another search engine. In fact, it wasn’t even a search engine at all; it was a directory. Yahoo had a staff of web surfers who would find and catalogue websites on every topic they could.

Google, on the other hand, scanned (or crawled, or spidered) the web by following links to other web pages with an ingenious algorithm called PageRank. If you typed in “tortoise shell,” Google would find pages that received links from other web pages that used that keyword or its long tail (or possibly a synonym) in the text of the link.

Microsoft doesn’t rank #1 in Google for the keyword “Microsoft” just because it “deserves” to; it does so because of the millions of web pages that link to the company’s home page using “Microsoft” (or “”) in the link text. This link text is known as anchor text. For SEO purposes, you need:

  • Links (preferably) from an external website
  • Links from pages with decent PageRank
  • Keyword relevance, or at least topical relevance
  • More links

Links for other pages within your own site (internal links) provide a perfunctory SEO boost, but links from other websites (external links, or backlinks) are what really matter. The whole point of the PageRank algorithm is for the rest of the Internet to “vote” on the best match for a keyword through links.

All other factors being equal, you always want more links. But for better or worse, some links provide a bigger SEO boost than others. If you have a personal finance blog post on how to compare different banks, it’s better to get a link from a site like Get Rich Slowly than a brand new personal finance blog. This is in part because the page linking from Get Rich Slowly is likely to have higher authority than a new blog, and partly because GRS has a ton of pages on personal finance in general and banks in particular.

There are many signals Google uses to measure the “authority” of a website, but the most prominent metric is PageRank—in this context, a numerical score ranging from 0 to 10. It’s generally better to get a link from a PageRank 5 web page than a PageRank 3 page.

If you’re trying the check the competitiveness of a certain keywords, the PageRank of pages listed on the first page of Google will offer the best indication. The PageRank of a page shouldn’t be confused with it’s position in Google. For instance, the #5 search result on page one might have a PageRank of 2, which is relatively low. The specifics of competition assessment are detailed in Getting to Know SEO, but generally speaking, the lower the PageRank of the top search results, the lower the competition.

If, for example, a search for “protein shakes” revealed that the top four search results all had PageRanks of 4 or higher, you wouldn’t want to waste your time trying to rank for that keyword. If you have a product or service that needs traffic for a keyword that’s too competitive, you’re better off bidding for it in Google Adwords—i.e. paying for search traffic, in which case you need to know if what you have to offer is priced shrewdly enough to cover your advertising costs.

Getting to Know SEO

In my new book, Getting to Know SEO, I drill down into the basics of keyword research and how to incorporate your high-leverage keywords into your content. Whether you have a blog or an ecommerce site, you need to have a keyword strategy that accounts for what’s visible on the page, and what’s baked into your site’s HTML.

I describe, for example, how editing the title tag of a web page to incorporate the target keyword can make a huge difference in the page’s SEO. You’ll also find out how to compare the commercial value of dozens of keywords with a spreadsheet and a formula that projects the potential AdSense earnings each keyword would bring in with a #1 ranking.

The competition chapter shows two popular methodologies for finding low competition keywords. In principle, you can eventually rank for even the most competitive keywords, but in practice, the opportunity cost is too great. The same amount of time and link building could be used to get great rankings for dozens of less competitive keywords that can bring in equal or greater traffic than a couple of seductively high traffic, high competition keywords.

You’ll also learn the difference between good links and bad links. More importantly, you’ll learn how to get links systematically. The systematic nature of link building is crucial, since you’re almost certainly going to need a lot of links. Popular advice like, “try to get links from .edu or high-PR sites,” are all well and good, but just getting one of those advised links takes too long to be practical. You need to build links at a moderately brisk pace—brisk enough to see results in a reasonable time from, but moderate enough to keep Google from “sandboxing” your site.

One thing you won’t get from Getting to Know SEO is a dump of questionable SEO theory and tips. Genuine SEO isn’t an overnight phenomenon. It’s simple, but not easy. On the other hand, if you’re willing to do the work of writing and editing your content to be keyword compliant, then do some labor-intensive link building, you can get the most sustainable, most qualified traffic available: search traffic.

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  • Jon Walker | Feb 24, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    Good Article. SEO is changing all the time. Important to keep up with these changes to stay competitive.

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