15 Secrets of Search Optimization for Your Digital Marketing – 2014

You get a myriad of suggestions from other business owners, traditional wisdom from traditional marketers, calls from “SEO companies”. and here we are as the digital marketing strategy coach, saying our piece to you as well. When everyone is offering a trick, a secret, or a miracle cure, how do you know if any of it is right? The trick is this: there’s no trick. Listen when you hear that.

There may be a lot of *misconceptions* about search engine optimization, but there ARE NO SECRETS in SEO. The title might have been necessary, to get attention but, in fact, the last thing you want to have going for you, when it comes to search engines, is some kind of secret sauce. Some things are so secret, they aren’t even real. They’re secret for a reason – they’re ineffective.

Search engines like Google may not publish their complex algorithms, and they guard them as competitive treasures, but they do tell us what they want and what to expect, in their own documentation. That’s because all of us – you included – are their partners in making search engines better. In exchange, we get traffic for ourselves.

The rule of thumb for search optimization is actually transparency, not secrecy – give Google what Google says it wants, and Google will give you what you want. In short, use methods that everyone in the industry understands and condones precisely because they’re effective.

In terms of authority, there are some resources in the SEO industry that are fairly well peer reviewed, even if informally, like SearchEngineWatch – the New York Times of SEO. There are differences of opinion, but usually not on the big stuff. The main industry resources are authoritative because, instead of advocating or claiming special kung fu, they’re acting as if (and we’re openly saying it) effective strategy is widely known within our industry and is not part of anyone’s particular brand. The “ultimate secrets book” or “special optimizer package” of insider expertise is hokum.

We’ve compiled these NON-SECRETS of Search Engine Optimization from SearchEngineWatch and Google itself to help direct your marketing efforts in a way that puts you on a superior footing to anyone saying “Psssst! Hey buddy, over here!” When we engage a client as their digital marketing coach or content director, what we’re bringing is breadth of understanding, creativity, and the ability to weave it together – NOT secret sauce.

1. KEYWORDS ARE LESS THAN 5% OF THE STRATEGY: Since September 2013, Google started making “secure search” the standard to thwart “SEO Experts” who tried to continue focusing on keyword strategies instead of content marketing strategy. How? In the past, Google’s analytics (statistics data) was rich with intelligence on which keywords people used to locate your site. Now, in tracking data, the phrase “not provided” is the standard information returned. You’ll keep getting calls from SEO companies trying to tell you that you’re missing out on outdated optimization techniques, but how would they know – is it about key words? And stay tuned for how Google is punishing those companies. We know at least one SEO tool designer that doesn’t even provide a way to implement keywords anymore – he asks, “why would you bother?”. The non-secret? Content marketing is king. Google hasn’t been reading your keywords in years, and it doesn’t want you focused on keywords. It doesn’t mean a sprinkle of search terms isn’t important, but with the new Google Hummingbird Algorithm for 2014, too much of that is harmful – it’s what your pages and post are actually talking “about” in natural, synonymous language that will matter more.

2. COPY IS QUEEN: Behind every good content marketing strategy is good copy. In the past, machine driven copy was the rule of thumb for search results. You focused on the number of times search terms appeared on a page, because you were courting search engines and treating visitors as microbial “traffic”. Hummingbird is just another round of the myriad Google updates per year that are driving the nail in the coffin of such obsolete methods. Human based copy – compelling copy – getting the visitor to read on and click through to more copy are key. Sound challenging? It is – which is why you need hard core, tangible, specific differentiators, and a home page content structure that leads, inspires, and compels the visitor through a process that results in buying behavior. It doesn’t matter that you’re a service provider, and not selling a product. “Buying behavior” is getting that curiosity click, phone call, e-mail, social follow, or lead information that connects the visitor to you as a resource. For 2014, put your money on strategy and stellar copy, with an emphasis on effective differentiators, and a sales-based structure to your content that doesn’t sound ‘salesy’.

3. LEAD, INFLUENCE AND INSPIRE: If you’re spending most of your time thinking about how to “get found” as just another service provider in your field, you’re inadvertently turning your business into a commodity, and joining an unwinnable and passive race to irrelevance. You must now *lead* your industry, influence your prospective client base (before they become your clients), and *inspire* those who search, find, and follow, with what matters in your field, how it relates to the world in an empowering way, and what you’re doing differently to make things better. It goes even beyond crafting the initial differentiators, and involves creating content – ongoing content – that sets the bar for your line of work. Your blog and social media are more central than ever. “Thought leadership” is a hot word right now, because it matters. It’s not enough for a Patagonia to make good parkas – they need to stand for something. But it’s not the kind of leadership that’s invested in control or even planting the flag of our brand everywhere we can – it’s digging down deep into what is human and matters to us all, and evoking that by invoking our own companies as change agents in the world. It doesn’t have to be a social issue, per se, it can be about empowering people, freeing them, connecting them, or uniting them to something they want but can’t see a path to. Ultimately, work that doesn’t inspire with meaning, doesn’t win a following. While we’re big fans of high level and incisive thought leadership, you can start out finding your voice with an out-loud inventory of what’s important to you, and grow that into a stance for your industry. If you think “this doesn’t apply to me” because “I’m just a…”, then you’ve got a racket – a misconception around your business identity – and that’s making you a commodity, not a leader. Even a professional with an office of one can lead in this way.

4. CREATE CONTENT, NOT LISTS: You’ve probably heard the classic (as in obsolete) advice to list every town or city you serve on your business web site, and expect better rankings for those places. It doesn’t work like that anymore. In fact, it’s actually one way of getting that page treated as ‘duplicate content’ – content that exists elsewhere on the web and adds nothing new. After all, lists of cities are already out there and don’t provide any actual value. You can do a few short lists, but for whole page lists Google is a lot smarter than that. A better strategy is doing all original town/city profiles for your blog, based on what *you* know about them that other people don’t – a bit of your own experience, some hidden gems, and some pithy observations relevant to what your prospects are interested in. That’s not only legitimate, but will likely get indexed by search engines and help raise the profile of your site, your Google Plus profile, and other web properties. Then, if you want to link all those town/city profiles to your list items, that’s great. There are other strategies for local position, as well. Overall, if you want to seem relevant to search engines for specific locales, *be* relevant to those locales by contributing original content of value about them.

5. LINK NETWORKS ARE POISON: If you’ve been on the web very long, you get offers to join link networks, and they come in two forms: 1. informal groups that offer to create ‘backlinks’ to your site in exchange for you providing links to other members’ sites, and 2. companies that offer to sell you backlinks (links to your web site from elsewhere on the web). Google is all about taking down these networks and has nailed a lot of high profile ones this year, and punished their members’ web sites in the search results by marking them as search engine spam. It’s quite good at getting the “undetectable” ones, too. And it is downright draconian on repeat offenders. You want real backlinks? They do matter, but the good ones are from high quality web sites, in two important ways: 1. organic exchanges of real and valuable *content*, which you can do *yourself*, and 2. endorsements from the crowd. Crowd “authority” comes from stepping outside the box to lead, influence, and inspire, such that you are rewarded with lots of organic backlinks in online social circles. Another failed strategy – posting a lot of comments to forums on the web with links back to your site – doesn’t help anymore either, and it can hurt. That’s so 1999. Still think you can buy helpful links and fool Google? Google even has a link disavowal tool, precisely to let you dump bad backlinks you might have paid black hat SEO types to create in the first place. Real backlinks come from relationships.

6. ADD EVENT MARKETING TO YOUR MARKETING PLAN: Event Marketing can range from you conducting a live seminar locally to teach something valuable to specific demographics that you normally target as prospective clients, to being a guest speaker at a local meetup group. Owning a business is no longer about whose name is on the corporate documents – that matters less than ever – it’s about whose face, name, and voice are going out into the world to represent the company’s key thoughts, ideas, and value. Steve Jobs didn’t own Apple – in fact, he’s only around now in terms of his lasting leadership and digital footprint, but Apple is still doing a brisk business. His ownership was in the act of expressing his company’s vision. In that sense, multiple people can express ownership, even and especially within a small business. There are lots of low ‘price of entry’ (in terms of overhead) events that can help your marketing and don’t even require a keen sense of vision or lots of experience with self-expression. You can do online webinars, contests and giveaways, trade show participation, partner events, and events with local networking groups. Regardless of the event, integrating it with the rest of your marketing efforts and marketing channels is key. Cross-channel marketing (also called multi-channel marketing) is a critical strategic approach that means that your event is supported by and extended into your social media, your content marketing in general, and your PR. Small businesses often question whether they can conduct a successful event. Anyone can, if they have expertise in some field and get some effective strategy coaching.

7. PATIENCE IS A STRATEGY: If you’re new, your site is new, or it sat there for years so it might as well be new, your competitors are starting with the edge for three reasons: 1. Ironically, search engines tend to reward *established* web sites with already existing high traffic. It’s right out of the Bible: “To whoever has much, more will be given. Whoever has brought nothing to the table, even what he has gets taken away.” It’s all about the guy who keeps growing the content he starts with versus the guy whose content remains static, who adds nothing over time. Your best approach for catching up is *NOT* trying to duplicate the other guy’s web site or figure out what he did to get there. That’s a recipe for never gaining on him. Your strategy should be one of continual content generation with the long view in mind. 2. The mythical sandbox. Just because no one admits it exists, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Search engines can’t afford to let spam sites create content about kitty cats, only to switch it to Viagra ads after building up traffic. So your web site gets watched skeptically by search engines for a while. Meanwhile it just isn’t going to climb at the same rate as a site that’s proven a pattern of content generation over time. How much time? It varies, and there’s no way to know. Focus on the process. 3. Older sites can be grandfathered in. Despite some high profile cases, where major players were using black hat techniques, the release of all those new Google rules isn’t really designed to wreak havoc on the web community by taking down the equivalent of a Ford Motors or Coca Cola in whatever industry you conduct business. Those proven sites reached their peak under the old rules, and they’re going to stay there until something proves better over *time*. Again, continual content generation is key. Grandfathering might not be “official” but it comes in the form of algorithmic ‘exceptions’ for well aged high traffic sites and the aforementioned “more traffic for him who has more traffic” rule. You’re not powerless – you *can* get an edge too, but you’ll need to *both* apply effective strategy *and* be patient about it, and ideally you’re backed by expertise in the new SEO (content marketing) *informed by* the old SEO (keyword strategies), because you’re never *not* in a period of transition on the web. If you’re a startup thinking you’ll hit the front page for all your “keywords” in a few months, you’re describing a web that hasn’t existed in a while. That’s why startups typically conduct a lengthy period of pre-launch marketing and are padded with some capital to cover them while they do it. Without that, the strategy is still content marketing and cross-channel marketing – it’s just a need to do more in less time, even if some things you can’t hurry. Regardless of where your business is at, some aspects of its reach will be effective only if you can play the long game and not flinch from the art of patience.

8. SEO IS DEAD, BUT YOU STILL NEED IT: It may seem like a contradiction, but actually what this means is that effective strategy takes into account the current *direction* of Web 2.0 which is content marketing without losing track of some basic *tactics* like improving your links. Just an example of this: when you write a blog post, highlight a key phrase that *naturally* contains some search words you want to be *authoritative* for, and link it to a corresponding *other* post (preferred) in your blog or page on your site (also good). That’s an old fashioned technique based on the long-standing reality that web sites do have links, do need links, and that search engines follow links when they scan your site that. But used without awareness of what is happening *now* (Google’s huge focus on natural language, and useful content) such links can be ineffective and even harmful if you overdo it or are too repetitive. Now what’s important is a natural mix of branded links, service/product links, and ‘keyword’ links. Links, in short, should be both part of an implied path for visitor engagement and a means of establishing your authority (by referring to the other high quality content you provide – including in the text of the link itself). SEO *is* dead, in the sense of outmoded keyword, list, and link tactics, but words and links still *do* matter, and search engine expertise is a prerequisite to getting it right. While you’re at it, put in a healthy dose of just plain marketing savvy and diabolical creativity. When you’re working with something half-dead, half-alive, you need to be or have a Doctor Frankenstein to make the parts into something that serves your interests and doesn’t come back to bite you.

9. STOP FOCUSING ON TECHNICAL SOLUTIONS TO STRATEGIC PROBLEMS: This is a lot of stuff, and it might seem “technical”. The temptation can be to outsource it to your web designer, IT guy, server guru, technical geek, or even a purely SEO expert who has a pocket full of ‘tricks’. Bad move. The earmarks of someone who knows what to do are a long-term pattern of dedication to content marketing – someone who has gotten it all along and can make sense of an extraordinary array of different factors and make creative use of them. Rocky had a coach. The big boy CEOs have coaches. Even the president has a cabinet. We don’t get anywhere by leaving things to the technocrats except *more* disconnected from what we’re trying to do. If you get that content marketing is THE only marketing left, to paraphrase Seth Godin *and* Google (or to say it another way, all useful marketing is now content marketing), it’s not technical brilliance you need but help navigating the options, including the technical ones, with the central goal of marketing your brand, company, or yourself as a professional in the form of content. The cabinet doesn’t get selected from the mechanics – it gets chosen from those who can think, create, and strategize. We do bring technical expertise to our coaching sessions, but the digital in digital marketing just refers to the venue, not the wisdom. As long as you mentally allocate your marketing to the realm of technical tasks, it will be strategically mediocre.

10. EXTEND YOUR REACH WITH CROSS-CHANNEL MARKETING: Everyone knows that getting an organic search result on the first page of Google is a great achievement, but they’re also learning it takes commitment and patience. Meanwhile, they might opt for a well funded and well-optimized Google Adwords ad (a non-organic first page presence). But it’s not a substitute. Not only do organic results get more clicks, especially as people get jaded about paid ads, but get this: if you have *both*, your paid ad is likely to get more clicks *because* you also have a first page result. In other words, multi-channel marketing isn’t just easier and more sensible in general – it raises your credibility, which translates into more clicks – so combine content marketing and advertising for the best results. In the same way, videos are now often outranking other types of content, and are often a quicker ticket to first page results, done properly, especially if the concept behind the video is visual. And if that video also appears in your page, your page is likely to get not only higher search position in organic search results, but is much more likely to convert visitors than the same page with no video. In short, combining page copy (written content) with video and paid ads into an effective cross-channel marketing trio is vastly more effective than any of those things on their own. You want reach? Market across multiple channels at once.

11. MENTALLY INVENTORY YOUR SEVERAL WEB SITES: You have just one, you say? I don’t believe it. If you’re on any of these: Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Yelp, Google Plus, Pinterest, LinkedIn, you’ve got that many more web sites in addition to your home page. Your web properties all need attention to avoid the social and search penalty for “no one is home” – which comes in the form of irrelevance to match the neglect. Even the term “web properties” implies that our web site is the thing we own and control – our little slice of the web. But web sites are actually parts of a larger network, which is what the internet is. Nothing makes this more clear than a site’s dependence on *other* sources of visitors – like Google or even the networking group where we give out a business card with our domain name. And while we might own our domain, we don’t control it – the registrar does – just ask all the file sharing domains that get shut down routinely. We’ve given up some control to have more connections. When we only focus on inbound marketing, waiting for the people to ‘find’ the one home page we’re sitting on (it’s like waiting for the phone to ring when you’re looking for a job or hoping for a date), we’re missing out on the relationships that occur by going where people *already are*. They’re not hanging out on our web site all day. If they’re on the net much at all, then statistically, they’re in Youtube, Facebook, Twitter… And we know that not just because the numbers tell us so, but because it’s how people are – we’re drawn to each other. It’s just more interesting and fun to be in a place where other people are, even if it starts with Google. This is why there’s such a huge industry now in multi-player online games, versus the kind with a movie-like script where you play out ‘chess moves’ against the computer. We coach clients to treat even their home page as social and get multiple sites and pages climbing in Google, for a mix of fast and slow results that doesn’t wait for the home page to do everything. The good news is that most of these venues are free, and they’re ideal platforms for your content marketing. In fact, content and engagement is their purpose.

12. IMPLEMENT A CONTENT CREATION CALENDAR: Google’s freshness update was new in 2011, but now it’s really running in high gear. You wrote a blog post last month? So what? No, really, it’s a good accomplishment, but there’s an active ‘what have you done for me lately?’ that rules search results. So if you’re not on a content marketing schedule, you’re likely not doing it, in the sense that it will matter. It’s a simple rule: content generation that isn’t regular isn’t relevant. People ask us how often they should be posting. They’ve even heard that you can post too often. Well, too often in one venue, sure. But no one we know is posting too often, overall. In terms of your blog, which is probably your best starting point, we have to make up numbers, simply because when people are asking, they’re saying every day is more than they can handle and they want to generate lesser volume. But at the same time, if you focus on the minimum, you get minimal results, so there’s no such thing as a “minimum number to be effective”. Such an equation doesn’t exist. We make general recommendations to get people started, and more precise ones as we weave together their digital marketing plan with implementation. But let’s say that if we’re just talking about the blog, then 2-3 times/week would be quite nice. And adage for personal blogs is “only post when you have something to say”. Businesses can’t afford to seldom have anything to say. You’re either a thought leader, or you can’t expect leads to follow. So the brainstorming, in most cases, is not so much about the schedule, as on what the company might have to talk about. You get out what you put in, and it’s a mix of involvement, investment, and intellect. Put those three things in, and the calendar will shape itself naturally – but you do need one.

13. ALWAYS BE TAKING PICTURES: Just when you’re learning to be committed to your blog, and your marketing strategy coach is getting you amped up on video (as it should be), you’re now having to deal with Pinterest and other image sharing sites like Instagram. You bet. In fact, search optimization in part depends on images. There was a time when all you had to worry about was putting in some “alt” text for your web site images, and you could automate or leave that to an SEO guy. Images didn’t matter much, overall, and could even be a search engine distraction in the early days. Now there’s Google Carousel (the image slider that appears at the top of some search results) and a corresponding weight and significance to the image sharing features of Google+. Everyone’s a photographer, now. We can opine on the reasons – images being worth a thousand words – the good or bad adjustment to attention spans for various kinds of media – the continual push for web pith (often confused with brevity – you can be brief and still boring) – it doesn’t really matter. Both humans and search engines want your images. Don’t waste time. See something funny in your line of work? Something odd, interesting, or inspiring? Grab it with your iPhone camera. You’re going to want it. It might need some optimization (search optimization), and there are important issues related to size, resolution, and file name and type that do matter. But most of that is simple. The main thing is getting the photos in the first place. Keep the camera icon on your phone’s first app page. Complaining that you’re not getting enough social shares, traffic and links back to your web site? Then take pictures. [FYI: we’d suggest *NOT* downloading browser based image tools, even when recommended by the experts, because at least one of them is known to send invasive tracking/reporting bots to your web site].

14. GET OVER BEING WRONG: At least one (possibly several) ideas you’ve had about the social web, web sites, search engine optimization, or marketing has been wrong, and you know it. If you don’t know it, you sense it. And you’ve got to get over it in order to get on top of things. All those companies that said in 1992, “We shall never use e-mail. We believe in face to face conversation only, and we’ll never change” were wrong. And they know it – the ones that are still around. In 2000, when companies said “Social media might be fine for kids and geeks, but grownups and other business people aren’t interested in that” were wrong. Fastest growing segment on Facebook? Over 55 (pre-PC). On Twitter, 55-64 year olds are the fastest growing demographic. I happen to be connected to several hundred people between the two and most are over 40, non-technical, and represent every type of industry’s prospects. We’ve written about these and other objections to the marketing on the social web. You’ll not only need to get past whatever it is that’s holding you back, because it’s hard to accept that the world has truly changed – you’ll need to get used to getting past it, because it’s going to happen again.

15. EMBRACE YOUR OWN INVOLVEMENT: If you’re used to treating your digital marketing as “geek work” and offloading it like your company’s stepchild to a nanny – your admin, your website/IT person, or an outsourced company, you’re going to get banal results. You are the thought leader in your company, and your involvement is central. You can and should bring on an outsourced CMO or a content marketing strategy coach, and of course having a marketing admin to implement some things under that guidance can free up time. But you can’t turn your back and just let it go. You probably shouldn’t be making the decisions on whether or not to use Twitter or make Youtube videos, but you are going to need to contribute at a high level based on company goals. Good content is insightful, inspiring, and even opinionated (which is a characteristic of leadership). If nothing else, you set the tone for the company and are keeper of it’s editorial attitude. It isn’t about making sure you look good, buts about ensuring the key things your company stands for contribute actively to its marketing. Even solopreneurs can be essentially ‘checked out’ of their marketing in harmful ways. Curation is all the rage, now – that’s stitching together well chosen content from the web for targeted e-mail campaigns. But if you do that for your web pages, you’re likely to take a penalty. In short, you can’t let all the thinking (and content generation) be done by someone else. You’re the mental engine for your work. The marketing that wins is the content infused with the energy of whoever cares the most – and who cares more about your company than you?

When you hear something that’s incongruous with the collective wisdom of the search optimization industry, or focused on a narrowly construed SEO as some technical vestige of the previous decade, composed more of esoteric knowledge and clever tricks than transparent strategy, put that mentally in the same folder as “we never really walked on the moon”. Effective search optimization is ordinary, understandable, and a matter of consensus. But it’s not just about the authenticity of SEO experts. Do a personal audit of your own authenticity about your digital marketing, too. If you’re looking at the guys who claim they can ‘game’ the system, what’s really at the root of that in you? Isn’t it that in some way you’ve been inauthentic about technical things being beyond you, or involvement being too burdensome, or hunger enticing you toward a fast food quick fix for your business growth? We all need to get real, and stay that way.

Where to start: Your content marketing plan should bring together multiple channels of paid media (your ads), owned media (your social, listing, and web site pages), and earned media (reviews and social shares). It should take into account the evolution of search optimization into content marketing, and specifically the new rules for search. It should make content itself central, not just having a ‘presence’ (or a listing) on content venues. And the content of the content should be an area of strategy (it’s not just finding things to write, it’s thinking about what matters to your audience). Contact MadPipe for help crafting a digital marketing plan that includes a company profile and content audit, and an array of targeted channels in which you create campaigns with actionable next steps.

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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