When it comes to getting your brand and content in front of the right people, you’ve got a bunch of different options. You can pay to promote it via digital ads. You can share it on social media. You can build an email list and send regular newsletters.
And you should be doing all of the above!
But as you build your list and promote your posts, don’t neglect one of the most powerful discovery tools in existence: Google.
SEO is 100% free, and you don’t need an owned audience to do it. By focusing on SEO, or search engine optimization, you’ll boost your rankings for important search terms and help consumers find your website.
And if you can score that elusive top-ranking spot on a Google search results page, you’re beyond golden. The average clickthrough rate is a mindblowing 30% for the top-ranked page in a typical search on desktop, while the 10th-ranked term averages a still-impressive 5% CTR.
Today, we’ll cover SEO best practices are proven to help growing brands improve SEO and get in front of the right people.
The secret to SEO is there is no secret
If you do a quick Google search, you’ll find thousands of articles boasting SEO hacks.
Well, we’ll let you in on a little secret: There’s no such thing as an SEO hack. These so-called hacks are fine advice at best and sketchy “black hat” SEO techniques at worst. As much as we’d like to be able to wave a magic wand and get on page one of Google, that’s just not possible.
Fifteen years ago, things were different. It was pretty easy to game the system—and competition was far less fierce.
But Google has come a long way since then. Now it’s all about creating good, keyword-rich content that your audience wants to read. And that’s a good thing for businesses and consumers alike.
In this article, we’ll look at some SEO best practices you should follow if you want to help more of the right people find your content on Google.
Of course, there are professionals whose entire careers are dedicated to search engine optimization. Since you’re not one of them, let’s stick to the basics. Today, we’ll cover three important SEO topics.
- Getting started with SEO: What should you do if you’ve never even thought about SEO before today? Where does a brand new small business begin?
- Optimizing your content for search: How do you optimize each and every original article you publish to improve your rankings on Google?
- How licensed content impacts SEO: What role does licensed content play in an SEO strategy?
Important note: This article is focused on SEO for your blog content rather than your online store. If you’re looking for ways to optimize your e-commerce store for search, we recommend Shopify’s guide to ecommerce SEO.
Free SEO tools
Let’s say you’re setting up a brand new website. What kind of infrastructure do you need to make sure it’s optimized for search? We recommend setting up Google’s suite of free online marketing tools, as well as an SEO plugin for your blog.
Blog SEO Plugin
An SEO plugin will help you optimize each piece of content for search. If your blog is hosted on WordPress, you can’t do better than the Yoast SEO plugin. If you use another platform to host your blog, ask them what they recommend for onsite search engine optimization.
Google Search Console
Search Console has a million and one powerful features, but don’t get too bogged down in it as a beginner. Start simple by using it to submit your sitemap to Google and identify any errors on your website that might prevent search engines from indexing your pages (i.e., making them searchable).
With Google Analytics, you can see how people are finding and engaging with your website in incredible detail. This is another tool that offers a ton of functionality, but it’s surprisingly easy to use for SEO research. To get started, check out this straightforward guide to Google Analytics for SEO, written by the always-brilliant Neil Patel.
Google Keyword Planner
Google Keyword Planner was built for paid search engine marketing, but it’s an amazing tool for SEO and content planning because it can help you identify the keywords that your target audience is searching for. Then, you can use these keywords to inform your content strategy and make sure you’re publishing stories that people want to read.
Once you’re all technologied up, you have everything you need to build your first keyword list.
As you might guess, keywords are words or phrases that people search for online. They can range from shorttail keywords (e.g., surfing) to longtail keywords (e.g., best surf spots in Southern California). These are the words you’ll be optimizing your posts for.
A few tips for smart keyword research:
- Identify a variety of relevant keywords. Your keyword list should be made up of a healthy mix of branded keywords (like your company and product names), product keywords (like ‘best surfboard for beginners’ and ‘wetsuit cleaner’), and broader audience-focused keywords. Most likely, the majority of your content will be mapped to audience-focused keywords. That’s because your content should be more about your audience than your brand or products.
- Find your sweet spot. Make sure you look at each keyword’s search volume (how many times it’s Googled per month) and competitiveness (how hard it is to rank for). Words with high volume and low competitiveness are your sweet spot for organic search. But that doesn’t mean you should give up on more competitive keywords, nor should you ignore niche search terms if they’re relevant to your audience. It’s all about balance.
- Look at keywords your competitors rank for. Most paid SEO tools will show you your competitors’ search rankings—and therefore, give you the chance to swoop in and steal their keywords out from under them. (And if you don’t have room in your budget for a premium SEO tool, you can always sign up for a free trial and cram all your research into the trial period. Whatever works!)
Here’s an example of some basic keyword planning in action. Let’s say you have an online store selling surf gear, and you’re launching new products geared toward beginners. What are they searching for online, and how can you use those keywords in your content to attract them to your website?
When you type the term ‘surfing for beginners’ into Google Keyword Planner, here’s what you’ll find.
As you can see, ‘surfing for beginners’ surfaces similar terms that are searched more frequently, like ‘surf school’ and ‘how to surf.’ So, hypothetical surf shop owner, you now know that these are keywords you may want to focus on.
SEO experts like Rand Fishkin of Moz recommend taking Google’s search volume estimates with a grain of salt — but even still, Keyword Planner is a great starting point as you plan your content and keywords strategies.
To see real-world examples of brilliant keyword strategies in action, check out How the Best Direct-to-Consumer Brands Win the SEO Battle. This excellent article from Yaguara shows how DTC companies like MeUndies and Crowd Cow are capitalizing on SEO-rich content.
When you have your SEO toolkit and your list of target keywords complete, you can start creating and optimizing your content. Let’s dive in.
Checklist: Optimize your content for search
For the most part, every original article you publish should be optimized for terms on your keyword list.
If you’re writing an article and you can’t map it to a keyword, ask yourself why you’re writing it. If your answer is that it’s a relevant topic that your audience cares about — that’s great! Validate your assumption with keyword research, and then add the topic to your content strategy. But if you’re struggling to explain how the topic maps to your strategy at all, then it’s probably time to go back to the drawing board.
Once you’ve decided what keywords you’re optimizing for, make sure you follow these SEO best practices for each original article.
- Post should be at least 600 words long
- Include keywords in title (H1)
- Include keywords in headings (H2)
- Include keywords in first and last paragraphs
Note: You should also use your keywords throughout the post, but never in a spammy way. Your content should always be written for the humans who read it, not the bots that crawl it.
- Page title should be under 60 characters
- Meta description should be under 160 characters
- Include keywords in meta description
Note: Meta descriptions are the snippets of text that appear on the Google search engine results page. For more information, read this article from Moz.
- Image titles are descriptive
- Alt tags are descriptive and include keywords if relevant
- Images have relevant captions
- Add limited internal links to other pages on your website (3-5 max)
- Add external links to other relevant websites
Following these best practices is the minimum for ranking well on Google. Just because you check all these boxes doesn’t necessarily mean your webpage will shoot to the #1 spot overnight. SEO, much like content as a whole, is about the long game. Your ranking depends on a lot of different factors, including how established your website is. More on this next.
Finally, let’s bust the myth that licensed content hurts SEO—it doesn’t!
Quick refresher on terminology: Licensed content is content created by a trusted, professional publisher that’s available for you to use on your own blog or website.
Licensed content is a great way to fill out your content calendar and bring the right people to your website by telling stories people care about. And the best part? You don’t have to write any of it yourself.
Unfortunately, there’s a prevailing myth that licensed content hurts SEO. Not so!
This concern comes from an old practice in the early days of Google, when some unscrupulous webmasters would “scrape” content (i.e., plagiarize articles) from other sites without approval and place it on their own site to climb in the search rankings. Of course, Google caught on, and they’ve since changed their algorithm to penalize this behavior and ensure the original publisher receives all the article’s “SEO juice” (gross term, we know, but that’s actually what it’s called).
Canonical tags are bits of code that tell search engines two things:
- Who the original publisher of the content is
- That you’re not trying to claim this content as your own to gain an advantage in search rankings
It’s these canonical tags that keep search engines from penalizing you for using content that may have been previously published elsewhere. So, no—licensed content won’t hurt your SEO. In fact, it can even help.
The blog post itself won’t rank in search, so you’ll need to distribute it via other channels. That being said, licensed content will help your SEO in other ways.
- Site traffic: Increased website traffic improves SEO. By using ads, social media, and emails to drive traffic, Google will reward your domain with better rankings.
- Publication frequency: Regularly publishing content is one of the most powerful actions you can take to influence SEO. A week or month’s worth of licensed content can be published in a few minutes, making it possible for even one-person marketing teams to publish consistently.
- Social sharing: People share great stories, and Google rewards your site when people share your content. The more shares and backlinks you have to your website, the higher you’ll rank.
And really, that’s what it all boils down to. Get to know your audience. Tell great stories. And promote them strategically.
That’s how you build your brand, grow your community, and set the stage for growth.
Feature image provided by Patrick Tomasso