Out of 479: The Only 10 SEO Factors You Need

THE QUICK SUMMARY

Preview of contents—or if you don’t have time to read.

When most people hear SEO (Search Engine Optimization), it’s like ‘brain surgery’—they just check out, cross their fingers, and trust the experts. That’s by design:

Problem 1 is that opacity is baked-in. Opaque ideas sell more SEO consulting hours.

Problem 2 is being intentionally overwhelming. There are 479 ranking factors in Google alone, and experts can be quick to tell you all of them are important. Who can keep up with all of that?

There are only about 10 things that far outweigh everything else, and they’re not hard to grasp. If you want optimal search engine treatment, address these 10, and you can generally ignore the rest.

Here then is each list item, broken down to its essentials:

HTTPS

Make sure your website has an SSL certificate and it’s current. The simplest way to do that is to type https://(your domain) into a browser and see if it pops a padlock icon on the browser’s address bar, a padlock with warnings, or a straight-up error message. Make sure you’re not looking at a search bar on your browser, or a Google or other search result, but the actual address bar as if you’re NOT going through search, but going to the site directly. If it’s a padlock, you’re good. That’s it. How important is having HTTPS vs. HTTP? As far as SEO signals go, it’s the new mobile—meaning, if you don’t have it, your site has exponentially less opportunity to score.

MOBILE EXPERIENCE

We’re not talking about having an ‘app’ here. If your website isn’t mobile responsive and doesn’t generate a good mobile experience for users (even if it is), that significantly impairs your SEO footprint. It’s simple to check, using Google’s mobile-friendly test. It’s normal, in addition to getting a “yes, you’re awesome” if your site looks a little weird in the test tool or to get a few “loading errors”. Don’t fret about them, as they often have to do with how scripts are handled or deferred by your web developer and won’t have any real-world relevance except maybe improving website speed.

Do the human test. A quick and dirty way to see what the mobile experience is, for yourself, in real-time, is to just grab the right edge of your browser window and drag the window narrower, to approximately the width of a tablet, and then of a phone. That’ll tell you a lot, instantly. And of course, check it periodically on actual mobile devices (your admin’s phone, your spouse’s tablet).

And whoever in your company is saying “I think most of our users work from a desktop,” tease them—mercilessly. Send them requests like ‘please upload some Instagram photos for us, on your desktop’. Send them business e-books and ask them to read and summarize entirely using a desktop computer. Send them old headlines from February announcing a pandemic and how people are working remotely, now. Call them and ask why they didn’t answer using their desktop. Don’t let up.

WEBSITE SPEED

It matters, but the biggest two mistakes accounting for website speed are a) putting all the burden on your developer instead of your hosting, and b) measuring an uncached version of the site. If you’re on cheap hosting, you’re going to get poorer speed. If you’re using WordPress, consider ignoring the hype about speed from your provider, be it Godaddy, Rackspace, or whoever, and opting for a better CLASS of hosting, like dedicated or managed WordPress hosting. Your developer can only do so much on the back end to improve speed without limiting features. If you’re sitting on $10/month hosting, you’ve shortchanged the whole process.

Beware of speed testing tools, even Google’s own. They’re notoriously inaccurate, usually measure uncached versions of the site (which are not what visitors actually get when it loads), and trigger dozens of warnings that actually have zero effect on SEO. If your site loads fast for the average user on the average device, using a broadband connection, you’re fine—fast meaning 3 seconds or less in most cases, or maybe a bit more for a very elaborate home page. Test in the real world—again: your laptop, partner’s tablet, coworker’s phone, etc. Be sure to test both mobile and desktop speed. And remember, the first load is always slower. Subsequent loads happen faster automatically, because your browser stores information about the site after you load it once. If you WANT a quick speed testing tool, I recommend this one by reputable security firm SECURI which is a real-world test, not fraught with nonsense.

ONGOING CONTENT

The simplest way to build a cumulative SEO footprint is to generate content, lots of it, consistently, substantively, over time. In other words, whatever you call the website’s blog feature (insights, news, updates, blog, or if you have multiple blog features: success stories, sample work, company news, etc, hit it often (meaning 5-12 times per month) and substantively (meaning no 200-word pieces or short summaries of stuff you read in business or industry news). Put out content worth reading. Talk about your field, your industry, what your company is trying to do. Solve problems for visitors, invite them to change their thinking, set a bar for how the world should be. Something. And sell. Punctuate that stuff with CTAs (calls to action) that feed your Sales Team’s priorities. Don’t masquerade as a “neutral” article source.

We’ve learned a lot since the content marketing explosion. One thing we’ve learned is that writing content that tries to turn your business into a news outlet, talks about ‘products’ generically without acknowledging YOUR product, or replaces your service offering with DIY (do it yourself) advice, is probably a solid dead end. People don’t want to be trapped in your newsroom to get their information, any more than they want to be trapped in a proprietary company social network (The GE Social World) to connect with other people. You’re not going to replace MSNBC or even Logistics Quarterly. Visitors know you’re selling a service or product, you ARE selling one, and there’s no point in pretending otherwise. Besides, you want your marketing content to serve your sales and revenue goals. Don’t try to be “unbiased” or hide your bias. Everyone’s antennae are up and well-attuned to the difference, with a few exceptions of intentionally chosen echo chambers in the American ideological landscape.

Do yourself a favor, if you want it to work faster. It does take time, significant time, so be prepared for the long haul. Putting out 4-5 brief articles a month for six months isn’t going to create an avalanche. But you can accelerate the process overall, by writing about a) what people are searching for and b) what your salespeople are getting as pain points, questions, and points of confusion. Give the people what they want, in other words, not what we think they SHOULD want. That means doing two things: a) finding what questions people are asking in search engines (here, an SEO person can help a bit). The last Executive Briefing made this point: target what people are actually searching for. b) continually engaging your salespeople to extract from them priorities, messages, and insights that inform what you write.

LINKS

There are two kinds – internal and external. Internal refers to links on your pages to your other pages on the same site. External links are links or mentions (mentions count as links) on other websites that refer back to yours.

Internal Links: You’re creating all this ongoing content, but you’re not linking new content back to old. That’s a missed opportunity. If you’re writing a post about how motorized wheelchairs work, and you previously wrote one on the advantages of motorized wheelchairs, for goodness’ sake, link the one to the other. If that post mentions a particular wheelchair you sell in your store, by golly link from that mention to the page where it’s available for purchase. In short, look for opportunities to ‘crosslink’ and seize them. There are various linking strategies, but most people are doing the basics so seldom that just any random strategy of linking some of your posts and pages to some of your other posts and pages, would be beneficial. Don’t worry about details like “how many should I use”. If you’ve got 15 links on a 500-word post, it’s going to look like crap, and you’ll know that. If you’ve only got two reasonable links you could use, then don’t force the issue by inventing a need for more. Be natural, and do what’s obvious. You’ll outdo 90% of your competition that way.

External Links: This is most appropriate to your blog posts (including case studies, news items, your articles, portfolio material, etc), and not your static web pages. If your piece could gain nuance, clarity, or be expanded by material that exists in another article elsewhere (not on your website), linking to it makes sense. That way your reader can gain that context without returning to a Google search. And THAT means your article rates more valuable than one that sends the visitor right back to Google again, which Google picks up on immediately. So DO link to reputable, high-value additional resources (e.g. a Wikipedia article, MSN Finance piece, etc) at places in your posts where you ascertain your reader could want additional insight or clarity which your post does not provide. For instance, you’re talking about a company, Nutrivision, why not link to their Crunchbase profile (Crunchbase is a reputable site), so someone who has never heard of Nutrivision can quickly gain additional insight. Limit this to a maximum of about 3 links per post, or else it starts watering down your own post’s authority.

PUBLICITY

Any time a reputable site will mention your brand and/or link back to your site, it’s a good thing. It’s time-consuming and expensive to get good mentions and backlinks but, cumulatively, they can have a disproportionately high SEO impact. Any one link won’t, but a business with a pile of good links and mentions leading back to it will not only garner more traffic, it’ll garner more searches, and it’ll do better IN those searches. Going after this COULD be the work of an SEO person, but usually it’s better left to a PUBLICITY expert, or just someone on your team comfortable with reaching out to press venues and important blogs and having a savvy, mature conversation about being featured. If your company produces a cloud-based billing platform, and you Google search “top cloud-based billing platforms” and find a half dozen venues talking about competitors, and you’re not among them, try to change that.

Word of advice: don’t pay, generally speaking, and don’t accept link exchanges. I can’t put it more simply. Buying a link is almost never worth it. And link exchanges are a recipe for getting very little value, that value being short-term, and possibly even having your site ranked lower when the manufacturing directory site suddenly sells on a site auction platform and becomes a porn aggregator. Don’t pay OFFICIALLY anyway. If you put a box of cigars on the desk of someone who includes your service or product in a feature article, or five boxes, in New York we call that a ‘tip’. There are rules about disclosing compensated press, but there’s gray area. I leave it to you to work out what you’re willing to do, always of course, consulting your legal counsel.

META TAGS

This is what nearly everybody THINKS that SEO is, and imbues with near-mystical qualities. It’s important, but it’s really just a part of the whole footprint, and it’s really something a layperson can do well with some training. In short, you want to properly tag every image you display on your site (in pages or posts), every link (links like those discussed above, but also the normal navigation links in your menu, footer, and buttons), and every page or article also has a pair of tags called the title tag (the title a Google searcher sees as distinct from the title a visitor sees looking at the page) and the description (the description a Google searcher sees as distinct from any brief excerpt displayed when a visitor looks at your Blog page or other posts page).

Best practice is to provide to anyone posting content to your site a) training on how to tag things properly and well, b) a checklist to ensure they’re consistent about executing that training, and c) a scoring tool so they can see how they’re doing. This is something MadPipe does all the time, for every client, for the specific reason that it’s highly impractical to engage an SEO specialist every time you want to put up a case study or blog post. And really, this knowledge is not very technical. It’s about what kinds of phrases to put where, before you hit publish. Since that’s about 50min of training, and maybe an hour of setup to install the tools, I’m not going into it here. But the point is, if you’re just hitting ‘publish’ without tagging images, links, and the content itself, you can do better than that, and quite easily. It’s a lot of potential improvement, for a small amount of learning and consistency.

CTAs

Only a percentage of people read all the way through your articles (which is NOT, by the way, a good reason to make them shorter. That’s a different topic for another time but, stay the course. When in doubt, go for substance over brevity if you care about Search.). Just a few paragraphs into one of your articles, however, many readers have made up their minds to look at your business information, sales pitch, product description, or services explanation. So it makes sense to include a CTA ‘mid-post’ so to speak, that gives them the opportunity to say “Enough. You have me. And I’m not interested in DIY. So what’s the next thing I should be looking at? What are you offering? Etc”. You can do that with a text box that has a link to a page or else with an image with information on it that links to a page. Either one improves not only navigation but your SEO footprint (more images and links = more opportunities for tags that help search indexing), and prompts deeper engagement.

Images, in particular, can add context and nuance to pages and posts, both visually for the reader, but also for search engines to better contextualize your content and understand how to serve it up effectively and who should see it. Images can also BE links (which enjoyably lets you double up on tags). When posting an interview, recently, we had the interviewee’s photo act as a link to a case study about the same company, along with some accompanying text that said to click through for more information on the problem solved. But images can also be excellent CTAs in the middle of your posts and articles.

This flies in the face of obsolete ‘content marketing’ theory that says “be neutral, hide that you’re selling something, and just give information—don’t intrude”. Oh Hell no. BE intrusive. You can do it deftly and elegantly, without being annoying. And many readers will appreciate you for it.

SEMANTIC WRITING

This is a second area where a little training, of whoever posts content to your site, can go a long way. Essentially, leaving out the nuance and going for simple: structure your writing logically, and break it up with properly tagged headlines. Each headline has a semantic level (headline 1 is for article titles, headline 2 is for headlines in the article, and headline 3 is for sub-headlines in the article). Open up nearly any document tool (Microsoft Word, Google Docs, etc) and you’ll find this is a normal feature. You can highlight any text and tag it as a headline of some level. It’s not just for website stuff. Semantic writing goes a bit deeper than that and could be a separate topic, but if you’re at least doing this part, it’ll help. It’s less about adhering to a rigid set or rules than about cluing-in search engines to read your content like a person would, understanding the ‘semantic’ structure (e.g. which ideas are subsets of which ideas), so they can index the content properly and serve it effectively as the most appropriate answers to a searcher’s question or search query. Search engines are trying to filter for the most useful and highest quality content. Semantic structure makes your content more human/readable, which also means, just by bothering with it, a search engine is more likely to serve it to a human being than just some search bot.

SEARCH ADS

It’s common, when setting a marketing budget, to wrestle with the question—organic content or search ads? Ideally, it’s not either/or—it’s both. From a goals standpoint: if it has to be fast, it’s ads—put more of your money there; if it needs to be sustainable, because the moment you stop funding your ads they will drop to zero results—put more into organic content. It takes longer, but it holds its value better and is particularly cumulative, even if (that too) you can’t really just let fall off a cliff. If you have a low budget, relative to what it TAKES in your industry, what the normal spend is, resist the temptation to do a ‘smidgen’ of each. Pick one, and go all-in on that. If you’ve got enough budget to do both reasonably well, it’s better. Ads show up on more top-of-page, first-page searches. Organic content goes deeper. The adage (no one clicks anything on page 2 is bullshit). That’s a generic statistic that isn’t being candid about the fact that 90% of searches are trivial (Ariana Grande new song, Who is Bill Johnson, baseball scores Minnesota Twins, Indian food near me, etc).

There’s no such thing as “first page of Google” either—there’s only first page for a specific search by a specific identifiable searcher. Your content, same as your ads, will only be on the first page for some results in some searches by some searchers at some times. It’s a continually moving reality. But ESPECIALLY when an organic result and an ad show up on the SAME page, they support each other and tend to result in much higher clickthroughs to the business. That’s because the perceived authority is higher when there’s an ad and other content near it, regardless of whether the searcher clicks the ad or the organic content.

Also, ads and content do a better job of supporting the whole sales funnel. An enormous number of searches aren’t just top of funnel (finding the business initially) but are follow-up research for gleaning whether or not to have a dialogue or continue on to the decision-making phase. That is especially true of businesses with longer sales cycles. Most of the ‘stats’ out there, hyped by marketing professionals, don’t take into account the fundamental difference between a Shopify store and an enterprise services firm. Think like a sales prospect at each stage of the sales funnel, and let that shape marketing decisions. It must.

BONUS ROUND—EMAIL

OK, so that was ten things. But if you made it this far, you deserve a bonus. This will be the only “DON’T” in this MadPipe Executive Briefing. Don’t jack up your domain (.com) authority by buying email lists, bulk-sending to strangers without an opt-in, or sending bulk emails without a proper opt-in/opt-out process. Perhaps surprisingly, your email marketing and sales email strategy matter to your SEO. All the SEO efforts in the world can be busted by getting your domain blacklisted for spammy email marketing behavior. Protect your domain. Sure, you can use a secondary domain (e.g. a .net), a subdomain, or a whole different domain (something else dot com) to protect your sender reputation. And I won’t judge you. But the basic rules are there for a reason, aside from shooting yourself in the foot.

Sales emails and email marketing can be incredibly effective if you dump the ’our latest newsletter’ approach (which might mean “I put no thought into this whatsoever”) and get creative with the kinds of emails you send. Email is still an incredibly effective marketing channel overall (again, differently so for different industries and business models), with often a higher overall ‘open rate’ than social media, for all the hype. But it only works well if your communications in email honor the kind of relationship you want with recipients. If you’re doing both SEO and Email, make sure they’re coordinated rather than living in silos that don’t understand what the other is doing.

WHAT ABOUT THE “DON’Ts” AND THE DO OF HIRING SEO?

Sure, there’s other SEO. I’m not denying it. And MadPipe certainly gets involved in the deeper, deep, deepity-deep ocean of it with clients, often transparently, the way a data scientist appearing on MSNBC tells you the conclusion, not the immense detail on how the numerical sausage is made. Some of it, like the above items, isn’t deeply technical. For instance, with some clients, we’re using FAQs in a particular way to appear in more searches more effectively. This isn’t intended to be everything WE need to know or be a substitute for looking at business goals, listening to needs, and going after audience in creative ways.

And sure, there are a lot of DON’Ts also, and just having an SEO person do periodic reviews and counsel you on any red flags isn’t a bad idea. So maybe that’s the actual item 11: have an SEO guy on your team, on retainer, watching the process and weighing in as and where needed. That’s built into nearly every ongoing MadPipe engagement.

But there’s a miasma of magic often surrounding professional SEO that I’d like to dispel. With nearly 500 SEO ranking factors, the first myth is that everything is of equal importance. As business leaders, who are mainly not specialists who do SEO all day, we MUST cull down the list by what’s practical and by priority. The above ten items are the shortlist. Let me know if you find this helpful; I’ll be delighted.

Daniel DiGriz

Daniel DiGriz is a corporate storyteller and Digital Ecologist® at MadPipe, which provides creative direction, marketing leadership in marketing, and campaign direction for firms that want a stronger connection with their audience. A Digital Ecologist® applies strategic principles from both natural and digital ecologies to help organizations thrive across multiple ecosystems. Daniel hosts podcasts, speaks at conferences, and his ideas have appeared in Inc, SmartBlog, MediaPost, Forbes, and Success Magazine.
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