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How do I earn and sustain top rankings in Google and Bing? This question, or some form of it, is probably the most common question I hear from brands and business owners. Unfortunately it cannot be answered as easily as it was asked. Depending on the business, the reply is usually quite complex and it requires a good deal of analysis to provide any kind of actionable insight. Creating and implementing a successful SEO strategy today requires a significant amount of collaborative effort on virtually every front of the business. In this post I’ll discuss 5 of the most common questions about SEO strategy that I hear almost weekly and I’ll provide insight on how an online business can improve its rankings.

1. Do I really have to write unique content? Why?

Remember that kid in school who always copied your work? It was an aggravating feeling knowing you studied hard, put in all that work, and yet this kid was seemingly skating by without having to do anything. I imagine this is what duplicate content on the web is like for search engines like Google and Bing. On one hand they are trying to understand and effectively crawl all forms of content – be it text, image, or video- rewarding websites with awesome content and useful user experiences with better rankings. And on the other hand, they constantly have to clean out duplicate content filters (figuratively speaking) featuring websites and brands with varying levels of authority and mediocre-to-poor user experiences. If you were Google, what websites would you want to rank long-term? And if Google were your teacher back in school, wouldn’t you expect them to invest in improvements in their “cheating” technology?

This is basically what Google is doing with algorithm updates. Better results for search users equals return visitors to Google. Likewise, you should want to present the best content possible for your users to buy from you. You will not accomplish this with duplicate content, especially if it constitutes the majority of the content on your site. In short, relying on content produced and published by other websites is not a good way to increase organic rankings and traffic. In fact, you can probably expect the opposite.

2. What exactly do I have to optimize on my site? Are some things more important than others?

Yes, some things are more important. If you are looking for a list of elements to optimize for any given keyword on any given page, head over to Moz’s on-page grader. This will literally guide your efforts based on a list of prioritized and industry-recognized ranking factors. Thinking a little more critically about the reasons for optimizing content and improving your ability to get more content crawled, indexed, and served in organic search results should lead you upstream to where you are initially organizing your content strategy and developing content. In particular, this content strategy should encompass the goal of creating useful content that resonates with your target market and the keywords they use to search for services or products like yours online. This is the most important place to start optimizing.

You also need to think about how you can make your content more clear to the search engines. By clear, I mean improve their ability to understand the context of your content and why it should rank highly for targeted search queries. On-page markup (semantic markup) such as schema.org establishes this by structuring your data in a way that search engine crawlers can understand the meaning of the content. As an example, Google doesn’t understand content within a video. Their crawlers may only see there is some sort of video embed code within the source code of a particular page. Adding schema video markup to the video element on that page structures the data in a way that’s clear to the crawler. Google can now better understand what this video is about and how it adds value to the additional content on the page. If implemented correctly on your end and processed correctly on Google’s end, you could earn video displays in organic search results, known as a rich snippet display.

video-rich-snippet

Getting started with schema markup can be challenging and it requires technical know-how. Other forms of markup can yield rich snippet displays like the one above and they are far easier to implement. Google+ authorship, for example, is reasonably easy to incorporate on any blogging platform and you should be able to see quickly whether or not rich snippets (author thumbnails) from this markup are improving click-throughs from organic search results. Here is a guide to get started with G+ authorship.

thumb-rich-snippet

The bottom line is that rich snippets can improve click-throughs from search results, and some believe properly implementing mark-up is necessary to improving rankings in general. I highly recommend it. Test all your semantic markup implementations with Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool.

3. How do I track my SEO progress and results?

Your commitment to creating a successful SEO program should include an investment in quality SEO monitoring tools. Tools I use everyday include moz.com, majesticSEO.com and SEOclarity.com (enterprise monitoring). But you’ll also need to utilize Google and Bing Webmaster Tools to understand how to leverage information coming straight from the source. Obviously a robust analytics program is a must as well. Google Analytics is getting more sophisticated by the week and it’s still free, for now.

Analyzing your SEO progress depends on your set-up. I recommend associating your keywords to your content – pair keywords to URLs.  Then start tracking the movement of your content (your URLs) in search rankings. This is different than just tracking keyword rankings. You want to understand why certain content is ranking so well. By focusing on your content and not just keywords you’ll get a better sense for what it takes to replicate this effect. What are the on-page and off-page factors helping certain content rank so well? Use your analytics platform to track the movement of your content and the on-page engagement. If you are using GA, here is a custom report to help you focus specifically on Google organic traffic.

Many websites fall into something like the 80/20 rule. 80 percent of their organic traffic is gained from 20 percent of their content and the rest of the content is either not ranking ideally or not ranking at all. Perform a content gap and opportunity analysis as part of your technical SEO audit. Think of gaps in terms of ranking gaps. You have content ranking, but those rankings need improvement. What is your strategy to improve these rankings? Think of opportunities in terms of you are not ranking for keywords and you have the opportunity to create this content. What is your strategy for this?

4. What is the best way to build links to my site and get Google to rank me higher?

Manual link building is a bit of a slippery slope. On one hand, there is are endless opportunities to analyze links and develop new relationships. In my opinion, it’s a natural part of doing business on the web. On the other hand, Google has become more aggressive to the notion of manual link building when the intent is to manipulate search rankings. For SEO’s, this is the primary reason to build links.

My advice is to use your PR and social resources to continue to identify and develop mutually beneficial partnerships in your industry. There are a lot of creative ways to go about this. Offering guest content to other websites is a popular technique. Being featured in a partner’s email list is another. You will develop links (and new traffic) this way over time and ideally they’ll appear natural to Google. Compliment this effort with ongoing competitor link analysis, link reclamation efforts and by creating awesome content that people will share and link to naturally. Just understand your link strategy needs to be flexible. There have been a lot of tactics recently taking a hit from search engine algorithm updates and you certainly don’t want to get penalized. It’s a good idea to keep a running list of tactics and compare them to Google’s quality guidelines. Here is a great resource that provides link building ideas to get you rolling. I don’t endorse all of them, but they can help you brainstorm tactics. You certainly want to avoid tactics that may hurt your overall marketing efforts.

5. How quickly will I be able to dominate my competition and rank in the top position for all my keywords?

First of all, unless you’re Amazon this is probably the wrong expectation. Ten years ago, heck even 5 years ago, there was such things as noncompetitive SEO markets. This is really no longer the case. Over the years I’ve had the privilege of working in dozens of different online markets and each one is more competitive than the last. Part of this is because Google has greatly increased the visibility of websites and brands that were previously hushed by big brands and SEO’s pushing their own agendas and manipulating results. Also, social media has opened up additional avenues for people to search online and be influenced in more creative ways. SMBs in particular have been able to gain ground on larger businesses in social spaces where word-of-mouth is extremely influential, and highly effective grass-root campaigns can be created by anyone with any budget to divert attention. Even this effort is saturated today as big brands realize these social opportunities. The result is hyper-competitive markets with increased interests in developing highly complex social media strategies and content marketing extravaganzas that further cut into that share of the market.

Bottom line: search engines are pulling signals from across the web to determine how authoritative and deserving any particular web page or brand is for any given search query. It’s not just about links – although they are still critically important and the leading indicator of quality. The whole process is rapidly increasing in complexity. This makes it very difficult for marketers and business owners to stay on top and “dominate” any particular market. There are exceptions to this, but generally speaking most businesses are going to want to establish elaborate, cross-functional inbound marketing strategies that work closely together and are focused on key success metrics. Gradual improvements in organic rankings will be the fruit of this labor.

So, rather than thinking in terms of dominating rankings, think in terms of dominating your quality output – to improve content quality and product/service quality. This forces you to focus attention squarely on your target audience to understand what they want to consume. Then you have to produce it and present it better than your competition. Your target audience will reward you by sharing your site more socially and linking back to your site more naturally. The search engines in turn will reward you with higher rankings in the long term.

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Nathan Joynt

About Nathan Joynt

Nathan Joynt specializes in eCommerce SEO and content marketing. He is the in-house SEO Manager with Volusion.com and Mozu.com, two leading SaaS eCommerce providers. He has nearly 10 years of B2C and B2B marketing experience in hyper-competitive markets. Follow him on Twitter @nathanjoynt.

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