A Defiant Guide to Search Engine Optimization — SEO Without the Gimmicks

For years, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) “gurus” have made thousands of dollars “teaching” businesses how to manipulate their web sites to appear prominently in search engines. But the rise of Google has simplified organic search to basic principles that anyone who is willing to roll up their sleeves can follow. Yes, there may be some changes on the horizon with Google’s own “Caffiene” search engine redo, the surprising success of Microsoft’s Bing, and the increase in real-time search results via Twitter and/or Facebook. But for those who live off their web site revenue, Google is still the dominant player, and that’s what this article addresses.

SEO matters because organic search results matter. If your web site doesn’t do well with organic search, you may be compelled to overspend on other forms of web advertising. Sometimes called “inbound marketing,” organic results matter because search delivers fresh visitors to your site – meaning new folks to click on demos, purchase products, and click on ads.

An under-discussed industry shocker: many prominent bloggers with ultra high page ranks (a Google page rank of 6 on a home page these days is pretty high) don’t actually get that much useful (monetizable) traffic. Because their numbers are often skewed by repeat visitors and home page linkage from other bloggers, seemingly popular bloggers who extol the virtues of SEO don’t get the kind of strong search results and passive revenue streams that are possible with an effective organic search strategy.

In this no-frills article, I will allot myself 100 percentile points, which I will allocate to the different aspects of a web page that are essential for prominent search results within Google. You will be surprised how simply this all breaks down. Of course, reducing this analysis to one web page doesn’t mean we should stop at one page – the best sites have a series of related content-rich pages that educate readers on their industry. And remember, for organic search, “how to” and informational posts have much greater impact than opinion-laden rants.

80 percent – Inbound links from well-regarded web sites in your industry. People make a big fuss over getting a link from “Google authority” sites like CNN, but what matters most is receiving inbound links from other sites in your own “industry neighborhood” – sites that are also well-regarded by Google. Google judges you – and figures out what kind of traffic to send your way – by who in your industry “confers status” on you based on their recognition of your content.

Google Page Rank is overrated as a means to understand this, but as a general rule, getting links from sites with a page rank of “3″ (out of 10) or higher is ideal – though remember that you want links from high traffic web pages if at all possible, and sometimes high traffic and high Google page rank are not connected. Being buried deep in a lost directory on a big page rank site doesn’t matter that much. (You can download a Google page rank toolbar for Explorer, Firefox and Chrome that allows you to see the page rank of the sites you visit).

The best links you can possibly receive are “contextual” links related to content on particular pages. So, for this SEO article page, I’d much rather have a link from a high traffic web site in the SEO industry that leads to my site. Ideally, the link will say something like “keys to SEO and Google visibility” and point directly to this page. This is far preferable to a “Free From Corporate America” link that just points to my home page. “Deep linking” of contextual links to relevant pages in your own site navigation (as opposed to a bunch of links to your home page) is the true “secret sauce” of SEO relevance. (“SEO relevance” means you appear on the first page of Google listings for many commonly-used phrases in your field, often appearing in the top three). Note that asking for such links in exchange a link in return is not a winning strategy – reciprocal links are not well regarded by Google, especially in excess, as it gives the appearance of trying to “juke the system” and implies that your content is not worthy of being linked without sweet talking in exchange for a link back.

The fact that I’ve awarded this first item 80 percent of the total shows you how important unsolicited contextual inbound links are, compared to all the “sexy” factors that SEO gurus emphasize, from meta tags to meta descriptions. Perhaps this is because creating reference-worthy informational and/or “how to” content relevant to your industry (the content that attracts such deep linking) is extremely hard work that an SEO firm can rarely do for you, as they don’t know your business.

Needless to say, you need to choose the right industry in order for this approach to work. FreeFromCorporateAmerica.com, for example, is not as keyword-rich as my main business site on the SAP side, JonERP.com. I have had serious Google success with JonERP.com because of the many keyword-specific resource and content pages I have developed there. Lots of industry lingo never hurts, and it will help you capture more “long tail” search results of keyword combinations once you have Google’s attention with deep inbound linking. Note that by giving inbound linking 80 percent of our total here, it goes without saying that you are placing quality, text-rich content on these pages – without that, you would not be receiving inbound links.

10 percent – An appropriate browser title that contains a keyword-rich phrase that matches well with the content featured on the page. This item is self-explanatory, but a well-titled page with the most important keywords used in context on the page does have a significant impact on search results, especially if you have contextual inbound links pointing to the same page on your site that features the same phrases as used in your title and article content. Some content management systems (CMS) do not offer complete control of your browser page title, but most do. My older WordPress CMS, for example, allows this page to feature my article title in the browser title after the name of the site itself.

2.5 percent – URLs that contain the relevant keywords from your content. Some SEO types overrate the URL keyword aspects of a site. URL keywords matter but they aren’t the crucial thing. Some sites simply don’t allow keyword-based URLs due to their structure – though most of the major content management systems do offer this now. However, this particular site is on a previous version of WordPress that doesn’t use such URLs. An example of a keyword-rich URL is my new jonreed.net blogger.com blog. Here’s the URL of a rant I did about invasive text messaging: http://www.jonreed.net/jongoesoff/2009/06/revisiting-keeper-verizon-encouraging.html
Now, the problem with this particular URL is that while it pulls keywords from the article title, since I didn’t title my article in a way that has relevant keywords in it, it would never have much search impact as a URL. This Wikipedia entry on Search Engine Optimization http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Search_engine_optimization is a far better example, where the key “Search Engine Optimization” phrase appears in the title. If you have control over your URLs, it does make sense to pay attention to which keywords end up in the URLs based on your article titles and content. The keywords in the URL must match article title and article “context” in order to be effective.

2.5 percent – Appropriate use of “H” tags in an article, particularly the use of H1 and H2. Yes, Google still takes H1 and H2 tags into account, it’s all part of how the relevancy of a page’s content is established. Useful H1 and H2 tags help Google to verify what your page’s contents are about and to direct people there. As with URLs, not all content management systems provide control over H1 and H2 tags, but for those that do, it’s good to make sure you are using headings and subheading appropriately. My JonERP.com site does very well in search engines without total control over these tags, but if you have the control, it’s good to use it. Here’s an overview of how to use H tags on web sites: http://www.hobo-web.co.uk/tips/97.htm. In terms of SEO, I wouldn’t worry much beyond H1 and H2.

2.5 percent – Ensuring that most of your content is not buried too deeply in subdirectories or in a proprietary framework that Google can’t understand. Most modern CMS systems (Joomla, WordPress, Drupal), especially their most recent versions, don’t offend Google with their proprietary structure and don’t penalize you much, if at all, compared to a basic single directory format. However, there are clunky older site managers that do hurt you in SEO. My oldest writing site, jonreed.net, is currently trapped in an almost archaic content system that definitely hurts search results. Here’s a piece from that site on a friend of mine who is a hoola hoop performer: http://jonreed.net/sys-tmpl/hoopmastersass/ Notice that the directories aren’t too extensive in this URL, but the “sys-tmpl” part in the URL represents the content framework that Google chokes on, leading to less search visibility. In contrast, here’s a nice simple directory path from my resumesfromhell.com site, which has a basic directory structure: http://resumesfromhell.com/about-the-book.html. The “about the book” page is right in the root directory, which is a Google-friendly approach.

2.5 percent – Site meta descriptions. Meta descriptions are sentences on the HTML headers of each page that describe the page’s contents. Google won’t always list these in the page results; for example, the Google result in question may require them to excerpt a different part of the page’s contents, but you can submit a meta description that will help to draw your readers into your page and will show up in many instances. For example, if you type “JonERP” into Google, you’ll see this sentence: “SAP consultant and author Jon Reed provides career and market trends advice and commentary on the SAP industry in free mp3 podcasts and also answers …” That’s the original meta description my site designer Kimo Lee of Azurelink did for JonERP.com. We could probably come up with an even better one, but the point is that it is an intentional phrase. If you don’t create one, Google will pull the most relevant page text for you, and it might not have the same “click through” appeal.

That’s it! If it’s not on this list, it really doesn’t matter to modern organic search. No fancy tricks, no meta tags jammed up with keywords, no black hat gimmicks, no thousands of dollars in SEO. Just hard work developing a site packed with useful, content rich resources, preferably including proprietary data, charts and surveys. Videos or podcasts should be accompanied with text-rich content.

One factor that I did not mention is having keywords in the domain itself. It’s true that keywords in a domain can have an impact. For example, do a keyword search for “sap podcasts” in Google (just the words “sap” and “podcasts,” not a full phrase search); the first site on the results is sappodcasts.com – even though they haven’t ever uploaded a podcast to the site since it was launched in 2007. But you’ll notice that my site, JonERP.com, has listing number two, and I can live with that. The difference, of course, is that sappodcasts.com is only a factor in that one search. It doesn’t come up prominently on searches for any other SAP or podcast-related terms. So having an important keyword in your domain name can be helpful, but it’s not so important that you should be buying up domains for all kinds of possible search terms and directing them all to your site. That borders on a “black hat” technique – why bother when the alternatives on my straightforward list are so effective?

I will concede that in some cases, additional tactics will help your search results. The sum of all those neato tricks and metataggery might get you an additional percentage point or two, but sometimes the tricks backfire, and you end up on Google’s dreaded “naughty” list. Keeping a strong content focus (and figuring out the best ways of making those in your industry aware of your content via email subscriptions, RSS, Twitter, LinkedIn Groups, Facebook et al), is the way to go.

By the way, you may be wondering why I didn’t link to some of the sites I mentioned in this article, such as JonERP.com. In some cases, I didn’t link because I wanted you to see the actual URLs in long form in the article body. But I didn’t link to JonERP.com because this site, Free From Corporate America, is not about SAP,  and linking from sites outside the “industry neighborhood” of your particular web site can actually cause more confusion than help to Google as it attempts to direct the right kind of traffic your way and assess which “neighborhood” your site belongs to. JonERP.com has hundreds of relevant links and doesn’t need one from this site.

And yes, there are plenty of complexities to SEO that are worth fussing over as you get more sophisticated (such as the proper use of “no follow” tags, and not linking to sites that are poorly regarded by Google), but you can pick up bits and pieces of that as you move into the long haul. Other considerations to pay attention to down the road: making sure your best content is not solely in PDF format; developing proper landing pages for important keywords where you have deep content and want to conduct promotional campaigns. Making sure that some of your best stuff is not behind a firewall is a given. And yes, there may be a time and a place for some quality SEO discussions around site structure. SEO is not a sham, but it can be a hype balloon. Hopefully this article punctured it.

So that’s it. You can stop stressing over complicated SEO articles, and maybe you don’t need to pay someone gobs of money for SEO going forward. Here’s a radical idea: how about taking the funds you were going to pay an SEO person, and hire a hugely talented journalist, recently laid off from a dying newspaper, to create some excellent content for your industry, found only on your site? A choice between paying for incredible content and paying an incredible SEO person to optimize horrible content seems like a trick question, but you’d be shocked how many people opt for the latter. And why pay an SEO person who doesn’t know your industry a bunch of money when a talented writer could do it ten times better?

As a final aside, it may have appeared that I am down on blogging. That is not totally the case. What I am down on is overestimating the power of blogging for featuring long-term reference and how-to content. A much better approach is to build a content library and then blog alongside it. SEO gurus often idealize blogs because you have to start somewhere, and setting up a blog is often a much faster deal for a non-techie than building the architecture of a reference-oriented site.

If a blog gets you started generating meaningful content, by all means go for it, but don’t get lost in the blogger hype. Remember that people are more likely to “deep link” reference material than opinions. Opinions are usually cheap and too often transitory. Individual blog posts often take on a dated quality. For example, I have an “SAP hot skills” resource section on my JonERP.com site. If I had written about the same topic as a series of blog entries, it would not have the same perceived level of authority as definitive reference pages.

And no, aesthetics don’t matter much, if at all. In some cases, they can work against you when fancy graphic displays that search engines can’t spider are prioritized over text-based content. So you can take a portion of that designer budget, and invest that in your aspiring journalist also. Before you know it, you’ll be an SEO expert as well, but instead of tricking people with endless keyword maneuvering, you’ll be constructing useful content that impacts people’s lives – and you’ll have the links to show for it.

Appendix: for those who are interested in more on my views on the latest search developments that are getting folks a tad worked up, here’s an excerpt from a recent blog post I commented on: “It will be interesting to see how this unfolds. Given that Google owns YouTube, I am surprised that video results haven’t trumped up more searches than I’ve seen to date. Bing has gotten more buzz than I expected, but those I know who live off their Google results are not concerned about Bing at this point.

Google Caffiene is another story. Technically, Google Caffiene is not supposed to be any different in terms of its search results, only more robust in its capabilities, but those I know who have tested it have seen some variations and it’s raised some concerns. I personally never worry about Facebook and maybe that’s my bad, I have a bias there that prevents me from appreciating what they do well. The one thing about SEO is that in recent years it’s been more about the caliber of the content than gimmicks anyhow, and I don’t really expect that to change – which doesn’t mean that tracking these developments isn’t important.”

Want to buy Free From Corporate America or see reviews of the final published version from readers like yourself? The printed book is now available on Amazon.com with product reviews.

You can also get a discounted version of the final book in eBook (PDF) format, or you can pick up a copy on the Kindle. The published version of the book is significantly enhanced from the web version available on this site.

2 thoughts on “A Defiant Guide to Search Engine Optimization — SEO Without the Gimmicks

  1. JR, thanks for sharing so much sensible advice. When I teach my students and clients about SEO, I find myself emphasizing one basic fact over and over: ultimately, it’s about your content. Content is what the spiders index, and content is what motivates people to link.

    I also sometimes find myself having to clarify what meta tags are and aren’t. A few people still nurture the misconception that they’re a quasi-secret way to trick search engines. I think this view is a relic of the pre-Google ’90s — back then, you *could* fool certain search engines with spammy meta keyword sets. One popular strategy was listing movie star names (especially female ones, with important additional keywords like “nude”).

  2. Paul,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment and yes, it is pretty amazing to realize how simple the solution to prominent search rankings is: creating content that impacts people enough to link. Simple eh?

    My only regret about this piece is that I may have diminished blogging a little bit. I find that people just get a bit too enamored with blogging as a way to generate huge traffic (and passive income). I see blogging as much more powerful when it comes to building influence and reputation – which works well if you want to get more clients and bill at better rates perhaps, or get access to new opportunities in your field.

    So I should do another follow-on piece at some point on what blogging can accomplish…but I’m always surprised how many so-called SEO experts claim that blogs can be the key to SEO, when it’s clear that well organized content in book format on static pages is far more powerful. One example of that would be wikipedia and how dominant it has become in search results.

    - Jon

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