Forget everything you think you know about SEO. Seriously. Most of what you know about this buzzy tri-letter acronym is probably out-of-date, irrelevant, what some WordPress plugin demands, or just plain wrong.
We asked you to share your questions about best practices for optimizing your websites, ranking in Google, and correctly applying SEO in your blogs, then we sat down with Niall (our resident SEO expert) to get answers. As it turns out, we’ll be unravelling some very common SEO myths, so read this one carefully!
Common SEO Myths Revealed
I was surprised by how wrong I was about several things I ‘knew’ to be true about SEO. I expect you will find similar surprises as we go along… but one thing’s for sure, by the end of this article you will definitely have a road map you can actually trust to help navigate the confusing, conflicting world of Search Engine Optimization (and, of course, a checklist – so don’t forget to download your bonus at the end!) Let’s get started…
Nic: Hey Niall thanks for joining us – we have a lot of questions here about what we should and shouldn’t be doing on our websites and blogs to rank in Google. Help us out, where do we start to make sense of everything we read about SEO?
Niall: Well first of all, the biggest takeaway is this: You need to stop trying to trick Google. Google is smarter than you and will not be fooled by keyword-heavy text, titles and tags.
The most important thing to remember is to write like a person, for people, not for Google.
Nic: Ok, so what you’re saying is that creating a great experience for our users is part of our SEO strategy?
Niall: Absolutely. You want to provide value to the reader. You want to write for the user first and foremost, always.
Nic: So if we create content organically – that is just as good for our SEO as if were to carefully devise titles and copy full of keywords?
Niall: Yes, 100%. Google has gotten very sensitive to content that seems manipulated or contrived and has actually started to penalize sites for being ‘over optimized’.
Nic. Wow ok – so why don’t you walk us through the basics. Where do we start to make sense of all the conflicting stuff we read. I mean, I have Yoast on my blog telling me I need Focus Keywords and giving me little red lights if I don’t follow the long list of tasks to ‘properly optimize’ my posts. What’s up with that?
Niall: Basically, you can break SEO down into three categories:
Three Pillars of SEO
- On-site optimization
- Technical SEO
- Off-site optimization.
We will focus on the first and last for now (technical you can just ignore at this stage, as it’s very technical).
1. On-Site Optimization
So first, on-site optimization, is all about making the most out of your online real estate. Your website. Start by complying with the semantics and structures set by Web Standards. By following these universal rules you make your site readable by browsers and robots, thus making it accessible to the vast majority of users. The second critical piece of on-site optimization of course, is content. The content you’re writing and publishing on your site can have both positive and negative effects on your overall SEO optimization.
2. Off-Site Optimization
Off-site optimization is essentially all about link-building. Getting high-quality links back to your site. A high quality link is a relevant but natural text link from a highly ranked site relevant to your niche. For example, if you’re a dog walker in Brooklyn, getting an article published on a local news website, with the text ‘Brooklyn dog walker’ linked to your website somwhere in there, is very powerful. Links like this are worth 1000 random links from highly ranked but non-related sites.
Nic: Huh, ok so acquiring high quality links TO your site, is just as important as what you’re writing and optimizing ON your site?
Niall: I would say it is more important. No matter how great your content is, if you’re not driving any traffic to it, if no one is reading it, it’s not worth much.
Nic: Right, so let’s dig into some of this a bit more. Talk us through On-site Optimization first. We have several questions here from members who are struggling with this, here’s one from Mary:
“I would like some clarification on: h1 tags, alt attributes, how to name my images in posts using focus keywords and then what do I use for secondary keywords to work together. I am using OnPage.org to evaluate my site and there are some errors… just wanting to understand how they work together and what is most effective.”
Niall: Most of those plugins for WordPress you can totally ignore. They are pretty much irrelevant.
Nic: Really!? Even Yoast? I thought it was such a reputable tool?
Niall: Really. If you find it helpful go ahead and use it, but it is might be distracting you from what is actually important.
Here’s what you really need to pay attention to, these are the Web Standards that really matter:
- Alt tags for images
- H1 page titles
- Meta Descriptions
Nic: Really, that’s it? Ok so let’s start with Alt tags – we’ve had a few questions about this, here’s one from Blue:
“How should I be naming the photos I upload to my blog? Does it matter?”
Niall: So naming images should follow the same rule as Alt tags. Alt tags are not opportunities to try to trick Google or use keywords. Alt tags are for making sites more accessible to users with assistive technologies and non-standard browsers. These tags also make images more searchable. The purpose is to actually describe what is in the image, so if you’re a dog training company in Chicago and you’re using an image of a dog playing with a bone, your alt tag should be “dog playing with bone” not “Dog Training Chicago”.
Nic: That makes sense. Ok let’s dive into #2 – can you explain what an h1 is?
Niall: H1 (heading 1) is the primary title for your page. You should have only one. It tells google (and your user) what the page is about. You can use h2’s as subtitles and h3’s as sub-sub titles – it’s a hierarchy of key information. The ‘h1’ refers to the actual bit of code that is used to distinguish the header. In your ‘visual editor’ in WordPress you can select “Heading 1” (and there are probably styles that change the way it looks – the text gets larger or more bold) – if you switch over to the ‘text editor’ in WordPress, you can see the code and the h1 will appear like this < h1 > Heading < /h1> (same with h2, h3 etc.)
Headings in VISUAL EDITOR
H2 IN TEXT EDITOR
[Note from Nic: I only use h2’s in these blog posts because in the theme for this website, the ‘page title’ is an h1 built straight in. How can you tell if yours does the same? Highlight your page title on your published post or draft, right-click (or control click on mac) and choose ‘inspect element’ – you’ll be able to see if there’s an h1 tag surrounding your title. When you’re done just hit the little ‘X’ in the top right-hand corner of the ‘inspect element’ box.]
Nic: So using h1 and h2 headings and sub headings is not just a design element (for bigger & bolder headlines) it actually helps rank the information on the page?
Nic: Ok, got it. So now walk us through #3, meta description.
Niall: So the ‘Meta Description’ actually is not an SEO ranking factor. This description is what shows up under your URL in google search. So this is your chance to create a call to action for your clients – a reason to pick YOU instead of the guy listed above you in the search results page.
You need to use your meta description to give your clients a reason to pick you instead of your competition.
Nic: Huh, I never thought about it that way.
Niall: This is where a plugin like Yoast is handy, because it gives you easy access to the meta description and reminds you to fill it in. Again though, this is not a place to try to trick google or stash keywords, it’s a place to speak like a human to the human who is trying to find information about you and what you do.
The Truth About Keywords
Nic: Ok, so let’s talk about keywords, shall we? I noticed you haven’t included them in the list of things that really matter for on-site optimization, how can that be? Here’s a few questions we’ve received about keywords:
Lenora: “I understand that I need to include more verbiage with keywords. What is the best resource for common search text and how do I keep my site clean from lots of repetition and long paragraphs?”
Amy: “My issue is with having the same keyword in blogs over and over. How do I avoid this issue when photographing the same place or subject multiple times?”
Niall: I will say it again:
You want to write for the user, and the terms they use to search for you will occur naturally in your content.
Keyword density is 100% irrelevant. Don’t stuff keywords in just for the sake of it. This ruins your user experience and doesn’t add anything to the optimization of your site – in fact quite the opposite – if Google thinks you’re spammy or ‘too optimized’ your page rank will suffer. As for “Focus Keywords” – your h1 (page title) is the natural opportunity to weave this in. But only include keywords when it’s semantically appropriate. When it flows with your copy – when it will make sense to the reader. Oh and speaking of keywords in titles, DO NOT publish 50 articles with the same keywords in your title (see spammy comment above). Go for specific titles that actually describe the who, what and where of the article.
Nic: So that clears up a lot about keywords, and it makes sense that we should be focused now on more organic and natural copy, but there are other prompts that come up in plugins like Yoast and OnPage… A big one we see is “article length”. I find this confusing because I have always operated under the assumption that less text is better (the longer it is, the less likely people are to read it). What is your expert take on article length as it relates to SEO?
Niall: Content length will vary depending on how much information you wish to convey to illustrate your ideas or tell your story. You do not need to go on and one in one post – you could break it down into several small posts. People are cognitive misers – they want to scan. They want to take in the value quickly and move on – give it to them quickly.
(UPDATE: Since originally speaking with Niall, on-page optimization standards have changed to favor longer-form content. While shorter is usually better for the user, our SEO experts recommend doing a smaller number of very in-depth posts – like 2,000 words! – that really dive into a specific subject to get Google’s attention. So don’t forget my rule of 5, 5, 5: Make it easy for your reader to spend 5 seconds, 5 minutes or 5 hours engaging with you and your world. Keeping them for 5 seconds means you need lots of headers and bullet points, break up all that text and make it easy to skim. This is probably the most essential tip, because if your audience is greeted with a wall of words, they’ll bounce.) — Jane)
Nic: Right – so what about content in general, do you have any recommendations for content ideas that are SEO friendly?
The Three Goals of SEO-friendly Content
Niall: Well there are three goals here with content:
- Write content that is interesting (or entertaining), engaging and relevant.
- When you’re creating a content strategy, consider what you can write about or create that will make it very linkable (ie think about which influencers can you include who are likely to link to or feature it)
- Write content for potential customers in all stages of your sales funnel.
Nic: So, we can all understand #1 and #2 makes total sense (we should set ourselves up for collaboration and social sharing) which I’m assuming that ties back to what you were saying about off-site optimization and link-building. But talk a bit more about #3 –writing for customers in the sales funnel.
Niall: Ok so let’s say you’re a pet photographer… you don’t just want to publish articles about shoots you’ve done (although that’s one great content idea) you want to target people who haven’t hired you yet, are thinking about hiring a pet photographer, want to know what pet photography costs etc. – and remember as a pet photographer, usually your customers are hyper-local so be sure to include local content or your city name or neighborhoods as often as possible, but in diverse and logical ways.
Nic: So we want to be creating evergreen articles that sit on our blog like:
“How-to pick a pet photographer”
“How-to prepare for a pet photography session ”
“How much should a good pet photographer cost in ‘YOUR CITY’ ”
“What should I expect to pay for products after my pet photography shoot”
“I can’t afford a pro pet photographer here’s 10 DIY tips”
“best places for pet photography session in ‘YOUR CITY’ (by season)”
… Will help improve our ranking?
Niall: Yes exactly. How-to content is very searchable, as are local and seasonal guides. This content is great because it will help you appear in search results of potential clients who are actually searching for information about pet photography, which obviously means they are the most qualifies kind of lead. Plus, the content won’t alienate clients already on your site. Don’t forget you can also create a comprehensive FAQ page (or create blog posts about FAQ’s). Use the questions people ask you before they book (or just after) as inspiration for posts – this is what they will be searching for in google!
If you’re running out of ideas, you can also you ‘google suggest’… Just go into google, start typing “pet photographer” or “pet photography YOUR CITY” and as you type, see what Google suggests are commonly searched terms.
Nic: Oh great tip! Speaking of hyper-local, one of the questions we received was about showing up in search for multiple cities:
Blue: “How to get a brand new website to rank for a city, also how best to rank for other locations (thinking blog posts for this situation? For example, if I’m based in Boston, but I do an amazing photo session in Woodstock, NH, I’d like to show up for Woodstock).”
Niall: Again, you want to focus on writing for your audience, so if you do a great photo session in Woodstock – use it in the title of the blog – but do so in a way that’s interesting– so not “pet photography Woodstock” but instead, “Sunset Session with Charlie in Woodstock’s Pinewood Park” – then you can naturally drop in keywords about ‘pet photography in Woodstock’ throughout the post but also make it interesting or intriguing.
Nic: Ok, so tell us more about the Off-site Optimization
Niall: Essentially, what you want to do is to acquire as many high-quality in-bound links (links from other websites pointing to yours) as possible and you always want to be increasing traffic to your site. This is the subject of a whole other blog, but basically you can achieve this by:
- Link Sharing: partner with other writers, bloggers or businesses (person A links to person B, person B links to person C and person C links to person A) – links are more valuable when they are not obviously recipricol.
- Regularly sharing content with your Linkerati (a list or group of influencers who are likely to link-to or share)
- Reach out to relevant, highly-ranked sites within your niche to write guest posts
- Ask for links on resource pages or within blogs of relevant, highly-ranked sites within your niche
- Sign up for all the ‘low-hanging fruit’ sites: free ‘pet friendly’ or ‘local business’ directories, yelp etc.
(UPDATE: Getting interviewed by online media can also be a great way to build authority AND quality links at the same time. Check out The Art of Getting Interviewed for more info.– Jane)
Nic: Wow thanks Niall. This has been fantastic info. There is a lot of information here and a lot of tasks and skills to manage – does it make sense to hire someone to help us with our SEO, if so, how can we find someone we can trust? Kirstie asks…
“Is it worth the cost of using SEO experts for a new business to improve rankings etc?”
Niall. No, usually not. Most of those guys are cowboys. If you’re going to pay an expert, you want someone to teach you how to improve your results yourself, which largely revolves around getting the right links in the right places. I would really recommend giving it a go on your own so you can learn. Create great content, then reach out to share it and get other people to link to it. When you get more comfortable you can these use tools to increase your effectiveness:
- buzzsumo (to help find influencers in your niche)
- ahrefs or majestic (find out where competitors are getting links)
(UPDATE: After you’ve given it a go, consider doing an SEO audit to see how far you’ve come and any technical SEO factors that might be holding you back. While the SEO services are often not worth it for a small business, the audit can be gold as a roadmap to help you get a lot farther. BUT, make sure you get someone trustworthy. As Niall says, there are a lot of cowboys… Please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re considering a SEO audit and we’ll help you consider my team and a few other options.–Jane)
Nic: Gotcha. So I guess we’ll give it a go ourselves for a while and see how we do with creating great content and getting those inbound links! Thanks for sharing so much with us Niall!
Niall: My pleasure.
More from Niall
Niall is a digital magician. With over a decade of web wizardry behind him, Niall has hacks, tips, tricks, and special expertise in just about every corner of SEO, PPC, Social Media and all-things-automation.
An Irish bloke living in Malta, Niall works remotely (through his marketing agency Digital Destiny Marketing) with clients all over the world, helping them turn ‘clicks into clients’. We are lucky to have him as our resident SEO + Social Media expert, so you’ll be hearing lots more from him in the future!