In a recent discussion with David Wyatt of Design One Web, whom I’ve worked with for a couple years, we went into detail about some of the more important things someone learning SEO needs to know. These items were borne of my own trial and error as well as countless hours reading, researching, and testing.
With all the conflicting advice out there, it can be tough for someone new to the game to know where to begin. Here’s the gist of our discussion for others’ benefit.
David Wyatt: What types of tactics were you using when you got your start in SEO?
Brian Watkins: When I was first being trained in SEO at a marketing position I had years ago it was back when the backlink frenzy was big. Social bookmarking and creating sub-blogs and such all over the web were big tips my supervisor gave the team, and it did seem to work. At the time. Though a lot of that has changed it was also where I first learned about crafting titles and calculating keyword density. Even though exact keyword density isn’t as important these days, it was a good basis to start with.
David Wyatt: Yeah we’ve gotten away from exact keyword density in favor of Google’s LSI (latent semantic index – related words), which helps content sound more natural. And probably gives better flexibility when we write that we’re only bound to a topic, but not one specific set of words we need to repeat. But being comfortable with writing naturally and still referencing certain things as you go definitely makes it easier. We don’t have to write first, then go back and feel like we’re inserting words to make it work both ways.
How is that kind of stuff different than years ago in things you’ve done?
Brian Watkins: I was working at a tax resolution firm at the time doing internal marketing. At the time, none of their competitors really had blogs or were talking about the intricacies of solving IRS problems. Leadership’s thoughts were that we could establish goodwill by giving free advice and breaking down topics that were confusing and even scary for people. One of the big services offered was the IRS installment agreement where people could set up payment plans to get square on back taxes. I wrote about that quite a bit, and got a couple of those articles ranked number one for a time. The impact for phone calls to the sales team was noticeable right away.
David Wyatt: What was the takeaway from that?
Brian Watkins: It was an early example for me of the importance of putting your readers first. A lot of companies spend time creating content for what they want to rank for, sometimes for vanity or to edge out a competitor, and that’s all well and fine. But the real meat is in crafting the information your ideal customers are looking for. That tax firm could easily have put value in topics like “tax resolution” and “tax debt”, but actual solutions like installment agreements or even questions like “what do I do when the IRS is threatening wage garnishments?” capture the most interested readers. People looking for those things are motivated to take action. If you can answer some of their questions and establish some trust, they’re far more likely to call you than a competitor.
David Wyatt: Absolutely. And that’s a big part of what’s made us successful with sites we’ve built — that focus on the business and their customers. That goes into design, too. Businesses have to sell, but we also need to help solve problems and make it easy for visitors to find what they need quickly.
Brian Watkins: Actually it’s funny looking back. As much as college helped refine my writing in some ways, it created sort of a hurdle for me at first when I got into web marketing. For four years I wrote essays, talked literature, and I guess got used to being wordy. I got a lot of drafts sent back to me in that first job because paragraphs were too long-winded or too book-like. Took me awhile to get the hang of short, conversational copy. That was a big growth point that was frustrating at first.
And for a few years after that I found myself writing in kind of a pretentious tone. I thought I was being edgy and that it’d catch on, I guess make me sound like someone more worth listening to. I went on like that for quite awhile before I realized that people don’t gravitate toward that negativity, and that it just came off like baseless arrogance.
David Wyatt: Right. Sites do need personality, but we need to be careful that we make that fit the business’ culture. And that really seems to be Google’s focus in the last few years, too. Self-serving tactics just don’t work anymore, which encourages businesses to really engage with their customer base and be genuine. One algorithm update after another put a stop to things that got way too much focus before, like quickly thrown together content loaded with keywords, link trading and other schemes that don’t help the user.
Those factors aren’t just for SEO anymore, either. Like we’ve talked about before, extra site traffic doesn’t help the business if those visitors don’t have a good experience. They probably won’t click through to other pages, and they’re not likely to call.
Brian Watkins: And I’m so glad for that. For years I got frustrated doing searches where so many high-ranking results that were either cheap duplicates of 5 other sites or obviously just keyword-loaded landing pages that provided no real information or value. It sucks when you’re the one searching, but it’s also frustrating when you’re doing the SEO when you’ve put a lot of effort into your content. Whenever possible, I’d say try to answer a question people are asking. Design and presentation have to take focus. There are SEO tasks that we need to keep in mind when making a page, but a lot of those things are of small impact, so if they detract from presentation I usually avoid them. People first.
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