Have you asked or been asked by your boss or colleagues, “Why isn’t our site on the first page of Google?”
While the answer isn’t simple, understanding the evolution of search is a good starting point. You can also access suggestions on what you can do (and should avoid) to improve your rankings from True Digital Communications’ search engine optimization (SEO) expert Pam Long in our on-demand webinar, “Why Isn’t My Site on the First Page of Google?”
An Overview of SEO & a Lesson in Setting Expectations
SEO should be part of your marketing communications strategy but is at the mercy of the search engines and their ever-changing algorithms. There are best practices and common approaches, but no one-size-fits-all guaranteed formula to earn a #1 ranking. Therefore, it’s important to be able to set expectations about what it will take to get to the first page of Google and how to prioritize the steps you need to take.
What is SEO?
Simply put, SEO is the process of maximizing the number of visitors to a particular website by ensuring that the site appears high on the list of results returned by a search engine.
Our SEO Suggestions Focus on Google.
Why? Up to 80% of all searches conducted on desktop computers and 95% of all searches on mobile devices are done on Google. Also, in general, a site that performs well on Google will perform well on Bing and Yahoo which are currently ranked third and fifth, respectively, of sites with the largest search traffic.
Main Factors Google Considers When Determining Website Ranking
- On-site factors — the keywords and content on every page of your site as well as user experience, which includes site speed, responsive web design and mobile friendliness.
- Off-site factors — cues that come from other websites such as links back to your site and the long-term, naturally occurring relationships between online properties.
- Personalized factors like localized searches — sometimes whether you ask Google for them or not — based on geographic modifiers or a user’s location.
Earn Quick Wins with SEO: Start with On-Site Factors
On-site factors only account for approximately 20% of search ranking factors, but they’re elements you can control, often the simplest fixes and a great place to start with your SEO.
On-site SEO Factors to Focus on:
- Keywords in page copy.
Keywords in the page copy include those in headlines and sub-headings, as well as link text and language included on the back-end of a webpage that may not be visible to a site visitor.
In terms of search ranking, the most important location for keywords is the page’s title tag, which is part of the page code rather than the page’s main content. Title tags appear at the top of your browser or in a browser tab and are the clickable titles on search results pages.
In addition, you need to include keywords in file names, image names and image alt tags.
Pro Tip: If adding a photo to your webpage, make sure to update the file name from something generic or a random string of letters and numbers with a name Google can recognize. For a university building, for example, include the building and school name. It’s possible and beneficial to have images returned as part of search results, independent of your page’s content.
- Meta descriptions.
Like the back-end webpage information mentioned above, meta descriptions are part of the page code, not part of the content. They are only visible on a search engine results page, so think of meta descriptions as mini ads for every page of your site, capturing the essence of the page content and giving searchers a compelling reason to click.
Don’t use the same description on every page or skip this step, because while meta descriptions may not improve ranking, they have a big impact on clickthrough rates. If you don’t provide a meta description, Google will create one for you based on the first content it pulls from your page, which rarely ends well.
- Adding new content.
In addition to updating current webpages, Google wants to see that you are adding NEW content — i.e. additional site pages. Blogs or news pages are a great way to easily generate a steady stream of new content for your site.
- Improving your site’s mobile experience.
This involves a bit more technical expertise and investment, but having a positive mobile experience is important to Google, specifically Google mobile search results. Google has two different versions of search — one for desktop and one for mobile. Sites that don’t offer a good experience for mobile users won’t show up in mobile search results. If your site is slow to load or difficult to navigate, you will get penalized in search results.
Pro tip: If you’re developing a new website or evaluating a new content management system, mobile site options should be a significant factor.
5 Ways to Influence Your Search Rankings with Off-Site Factors
Off-site factors account for about 60% of ranking factors. Consider investing some time in the following:
- Build inbound links to your website.
Inbound links — links to your site from other sites — are the #1 off-site factor for search ranking in Google, which uses these links as a measure of how well respected and authoritative your site is. But it’s not just quantity, Google looks closely at the quality of the links. The websites linking to yours must have a logical reason to do so. It may be that you share similar audiences, cover similar topics or are in the same industry. Google wants to see relationships between sites with quality content that provides value.
Pro Tip: Link building takes time. One of the best ways to encourage links to your website, is to create content visitors want to share — whether that’s through a blog on your site or content that you contribute to third-party blogs or news sources that include links back to your website.
- Know what social channels can influence SEO.
Experiments have shown that websites with more social shares rank better, specifically Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Google+ mentions strongly correlated with search engine rankings. That doesn’t mean you should only use social media for SEO purposes, but it’s important to know which can serve double duty.
- Create and maintain a Google My Business page.
When location and proximity are part of the search criteria, it’s important to make sure your location, address and phone number is mentioned throughout the content on your website (on-site factor), but Google also relies on regional sites and directories to pinpoint a business location (off-site factors.)
The most important of these is your Google My Business page — an online profile that you own and control. The more complete your profile, the better it will perform.
- Beyond using relevant keywords and making sure your phone number, address and hours are up-to-date, add a logo as a visual cue to searchers along with high-quality photos.
- Choose a category option that best describes your school or business. This information can feed into search results.
- Encourage customers or students and families to leave reviews on your My Business page.
- Leveraging review sites and regional and industry-specific directories
Google, Facebook and Yelp are the most important review sites for search rankings, but there may be others that are more frequently used by your customers or audiences. Balance what makes sense for SEO with what makes sense for your customers.
Online directories and listings are another great tool to leverage. Rather than trying to compete with these directories, take advantage of their rankings by making sure your profile information is up-to-date on each.
Pro Tip: Use resources like Moz.com, which includes city-by-city recommendations, to help identify what directories are a priority for your area.
- Be consistent.
Many directories automatically pull content from other directories, and small inconsistencies can cause the directories to create multiple listings for one company which causes confusion and outdated information.
Pro Tip: If your organization is known by its full name and an acronym, be consistent in how you list your name. Be consistent with street designations (Street v. St.), zip code v. zip code plus four, whether you use dashes or dots in phone number formatting, etc. Create a brand standard for company or school listings that everyone adheres to.
How to Improve SEO When You Have a Small Team
While some companies have a whole team dedicated to the website and technical-related items, for many, they are a team of one or a few. So how do you do all this if you’re going it alone? One step at a time and starting with on-site optimization.
Regularly creating new content for a blog can seem daunting but tap into other subject matter experts within your organization to share the responsibility of content development.
Link building is a long-term effort so start looking for opportunities to contribute content to other sites and publications, build relationships with like-minded organizations and promote your content on relevant social channels to encourage inbound links.
Set aside time every six months or so to check your known directory listings. Have an intern? This would be a great activity for them or during a slow period.
Lastly, don’t panic. It can take Google two to three months to recognize and reflect search engine optimization efforts. Develop a strategy, set expectations and be prepared to report on your efforts more than outcomes for at least the first few months.