My SEO Journey, Parts 1-3

By John Eberhard

seo journey 01

SEO refers to Search Engine Optimization, which is the activity of getting a web page or site to rank as highly as possible in search engines for a given keyword or group of keywords. The goal of SEO is increased traffic to a website from search engines.

I first got into doing SEO when I worked as Marketing Director for David Morse and Associates, an independent claims company, back in 2006. I did a bunch of research, and learned that SEO was divided into two areas: on-page optimization (basically things you do to the site itself), and off-page optimization (which is essentially building up links to your site coming from other sites).

I did on-page optimization to David Morse’s site, and we hired a company from Florida to do link building for us, basically to write some articles and submit them to article directories, and write some press releases and submit them to press release sites. Our number of links to the David Morse site improved, and our rankings for our keywords did well also. Over the next year working there I figured out how we could submit to article directories ourselves, and we did that aggressively.

Around that time I started Real Web Marketing Inc., and in 2008 I went full time with the new company. I took on some SEO clients, began doing on-page optimization for them, and also started doing link building, with basically this formula:

  1. Write an article on the topic of the client’s company, then submit that to 50-100 article directories per month.
  2. Write a press release about the client’s activities, then submit that to several online PR sites, both free and paid.
  3. Create several blogs for the client and post both the article and release on all the blogs. We also created a number of “client news” blogs and posted all of our client articles and releases on those.

We also developed some proprietary tricks to increase the number of links even more.

Our success with this was huge. We would typically add 500-1,000 or more new links for each client per month. And in the years since then, we have doubled, tripled, and even quadrupled the traffic to some of our client web sites through the use of this program. And increased site traffic was in my opinion the ultimate test of whether our SEO efforts were working. So it was all good.

But then it wasn’t.

The War Begins

seo journey 02

Beginning about 9-10 years ago, Google began a concerted campaign to prevent SEO consultants from doing ANY link building.

They had a spokesman, who made statements and released videos and went to conferences. He began talking down link building, and repeating the Google line over and over, which is basically:

“You should not do any proactive link building. If you do it will indicate an unnatural link pattern, and we will discover that and penalize you for it. You should just create good quality content and put that up on your web site, and people will find it and link to it.”

This mantra was repeated over and over again, and many SEO consultants basically toed this line and repeated Google’s line. Link building eventually sort of fell into disrepute.

I didn’t toe this line. I continued doing link building using the program outlined above. Why? Because it was working. Because I tracked statistics for all my SEO clients and I could see that the program was still working. Client web sites were going up in the search engine rankings for their targeted keywords, and client web traffic was increasing.

Then over the next few years, Google continued waging this war against link building. They specifically penalized some (but not all) article directories. The number of article directories worldwide, which had peaked at about 1,500 several years ago, dwindled down to hardly any today. They specifically targeted the action of blog networks, which we had done on a small scale. Google’s spokesman stated that he did not expect press releases to be beneficial (although I’ve never seen any evidence that this is actually true). One of Google’s algorithm updates measured the types of links a site has, and penalized the sites if they had too much of one type of link.

Articles by SEO consultants worldwide began to preach a litany of what you CAN’T do in SEO and link building. Even today, if you research various articles on link building, they are nearly all just full of advice on things that you can’t do. You will essentially search in vain for advice on link building that you CAN do. One SEO expert I know even told me he thought it was dangerous to do ANY link building any more. Except for one thing. Currently a number of articles advise you to approach blog owners and ask to write a guest post on their blog, including a link back to your website.

So the message from Google and SEO consultants was essentially: “Stop, do not do any link building.” And yet, if you search for data on what actually does improve your search rankings, inbound links is always at or near the top of the list. So you need links, but you can’t do anything yourself to cause links to happen, except – you guessed it – just create quality content. And by the way, over the years, the mantra changed slightly from creating quality content to creating “great content,” to creating “remarkable content,” or “amazing content.”

Despite all this, I kept on doing link building for my clients. First of all, I don’t like having some big company dictating to me what I can and can’t do. I’m not like some SEO consultants who responded to Google’s command to jump by asking “How high?” I don’t like having to totally revamp my major service offering once or twice a year because some big company came out with a pronouncement. I don’t think any company should have that much power, and frankly I think they have been heavy handed about it.

seo journey 04

And the program I was following was still working. Keyword rankings were still improving and web traffic was still increasing.

But eventually I could see trouble on the horizon. There was blood in the water.

Eventually what I could see over the last year, from carefully tracking statistics of keyword rankings and web traffic, was that the improvement was slowing down. Keyword rankings were fairly static. The increase in web traffic from year to year slowed down to single digits.

I stubbornly hung on. But eventually it became obvious that I had to change my program. And I knew it was going to be a big job.

My R&D Project

And so in the fall of 2015 I began the most intensive research project that I have ever done, to find out the best avenues for conducting SEO into 2016 and beyond. The reason I did this was because my priority as an SEO consultant, and really with everything I do in Internet marketing, has always been to deliver the best possible results to clients.

The Findings

What I found out was that on-page optimization has not really changed all that much, though I will detail below the highest priorities.

But off-page optimization, and specifically link building, has changed drastically over the last 5 years. As mentioned above, Google has conducted a step by step campaign to eliminate all the actions that SEO consultants have been doing in terms of link building.

But links pointing to your site from other sites are still one of the most important factors in determining how well your site will rank for any given keyword. So it’s still important to have links. So how do you get them?

I have had to search far and wide for any credible data on what link building can still be done today.

But I finally cracked it. So what’s the answer? Patience grasshopper. First we’ll cover on-page optimization.

On-Page Optimization in 2016

seo journey 05

On-page optimization, or SEO that you do specifically to your web site has not changed that much over the last few years. However, based on my research, here are the top priorities:

  1. Conduct keyword research to find keywords with as high searches as possible, but with lower numbers of sites competing for those keywords.
  2. Write titles and descriptions utilizing the best keywords you have selected.
  3. Attach alt tags to your graphic and picture content utilizing your targeted keywords. These are tags that one can attach to picture files, and are just another valid way to put keywords onto a page.
  4. Use keywords in your H1, H2, and H3 tags, which are used to indicate headlines and sub-headlines.
  5. Ensure your site is mobile friendly, with responsive being the format that Google prefers. This will positively impact your ranking and negatively impact it if the site is not. You can test your site here.
  6. Your page loading speed should be low, under 4 seconds. If not this will negatively impact ranking. You can test that here.
  7. Ensure there is no duplicate content within the site, i.e. multiple pages with the same text.
  8. Put the primary keyword for a given page somewhere within the first 100 words of the main page text.
  9. Popup windows negatively impact rankings.
  10. Create a sitemap and submit it inside the Google Webmaster Tools interface.
  11. Having a “terms of service” and “privacy” page are considered a positive for rankings.
  12. Include your targeted keywords in the URL of the page, which in most cases means include the keyword in the name of the page.
  13. Longer text content is a positive and is shown in studies to cause pages to rank better. By longer we mean 1,500-2,000 words. This is a new one in that it used to be that SEO people recommended a minimum of 300 words per page. But research now shows that pages with 1,500-2,000 words do rank more highly. That?s not to say you are going to write 1,500 or more words for every page. But if you can write longer copy for several pages on your site, they will have a better chance of ranking more highly.
  14. Some experts are now saying that if you link FROM your web pages, to other high authority sites, that search engines interpret that to mean your site is more legit or authoritative. They say you should include 2-4 links per 1,000 words.

Off-Page Optimization

Google pioneered the method of using the number of links to a website as the primary criteria for determining the ranking of that website. The idea being that if a site had lots of links to it from other sites, that meant it was important.

When Google came to prominence, SEO consultants began finding ways to proactively create links to their sites from other sites.

Google despises this, and they have spent most of the work on their algorithm over the last 5 years in trying to prevent SEOs and website owners from doing link building. They have penalized people for certain types of links. They have stopped certain types of links from having any value. And they have preached, over and over and over, that you should not do ANY type of proactive link building. Instead, you should just put up good quality content on your website, and because it’s good quality, people will of course naturally link to it.

For years I have been seeing a major problem with this Google sermon. Because any time I have tried to follow it, i.e. just putting up lots of good quality content on a website, without doing any type of proactive link building, NOTHING has happened. No links. Lousy keyword rankings. Little traffic.

And as I have said in other articles, let’s say you are a local type of business in a competitive market, such as a dentist. What type of content is a dentist going to put up on his website that will cause people to link to him? Even if it is “amazing,” how many other sites will actually link to him?

So as time has gone by, Google has sort of modified their sermon from saying “put up good content,” to “put up great content,” to “put up remarkable content,” or even “put up amazing content.”

So why is that? And does putting up content alone, without any efforts to disseminate the content, work?

seo journey 06

Content Saturation

The answer is: NO, it doesn’t! And the reason it doesn’t, lies in the factor of topic saturation. In other words, how much content already exists online for a specific topic? If there is a lot of content already, it doesn’t matter how stupendous or miraculous or mind boggling your content is. You can put up amazing content all day long and no one is even going to notice it, let alone link to it.

Just to be fair, let’s take a look at how Google’s scenario CAN work. Back in 2003, I wrote an article called “The Tytler Cycle,” and posted it on a new website I had created for political commentary. Alexander Tytler was a Scottish historian who came up with a concept that democracies go through about a 200 year long cycle of different phases with different characteristics.

At that time, there was basically no scholarly content online about Tytler. Subsequently, my article was linked to from Wikipedia, I wrote several more articles about it, and now, if you Google “The Tytler Cycle,” my political website occupies the top two positions, even above Wikipedia. And my website gets about 2,000 visitors a month from search engines, mostly going to my articles about Tytler.

But that’s a pretty obscure topic, one that isn’t saturated with content even today. But unless you are in a business related to an obscure topic, chances are good that your topic is well saturated online with tons of content already. So if you follow Google?s advice, and put up jaw-dropping content but do nothing else, I?m sorry to have to tell you that nothing is going to happen.

So What CAN You Do for Links?

That is the question that has occupied my intense research project, because telling people what they can’t do doesn’t solve the problem of getting improved rankings and driving people to your web site.

So here is what I discovered in terms of what link building you actually CAN do today and what will get the best results:

  1. Writing a press release about your business, and posting it to multiple free online PR sites, and at least one paid online PR site. The release should have links to your website within it. These online PR sites usually rank well themselves, so a link there counts for something. The paid online PR sites will usually get your release into multiple sites for newspapers and magazines. I have seen no evidence that these links are negative in any way, or that they don?t work anymore.
  2. Creating online business listings. You can create listings for your business on multiple business listing web sites, such as Google My Business, Yahoo Local, Bing Local, Merchant Circle, Manta, Insider pages, Hotfrog, etc.
  3. Links to your site on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter now count as links to your site.
  4. Contacting the owners of blogs and asking to write a guest post for their blog, with a link back to your site, is good. Then you have to write unique content for that blog only. And obviously it has to be a topic you are actually an expert in. The challenge here is that there is a saturation aspect to this activity as well, as a lot of people are trying to do this, and so blog owners are getting a lot of these requests.
  5. Post your articles, releases or other content to your blog or blogs.

What You Shouldn’t Do

  1. I hate to say it after years of doing it, but I don’t recommend posting articles to article directories any more. I don’t think that it is destructive, but I think Google has eliminated any benefit from it.
  2. Posting on a large blog network, either one that you created or one that belongs to someone else, is a no-no.
  3. Asking another website owner to link to you if you link to him, called reciprocal linking, was downgraded in value by Google several years ago.
  4. Linking to low-value directories is not advisable.
  5. Auto-posting comments on blogs using software. If you’re doing this, please stop.
  6. Most sources say you shouldn’t pay someone to link to your site.

Rules of Thumb:

Here are some rules of thumb relating to links from other sites to yours, and what is good and bad.

  1. Links from more important, popular, trusted sites give more value than less important, etc., sites.
  2. Links from sites that are “relevant” to your site, i.e. in the same or a related industry, give more link value.
  3. Links to your site that are higher up on a page count more than links lower on a page.
  4. Links in the main text content of a page count more than links in the footer, sidebar, or navigation.
  5. It’s better to have 10 links to your site from 10 different sites, than 10 links to your site, all from the same site. This means that it is better to find more sites to get links from, than to continually add more links to your site from the same site or set of sites.
  6. Links in text give more value than links in alt tags (tags connected to images).

Sharable Content

One aspect of all this which was sort of a new idea to me was the idea that you want to create ?sharable content.? I recently read a great book called “The Content Code” by Mark Schaefer.

Schaefer goes over the idea that you want to create content that a lot of people want to share, and he goes over what causes people to share things, which was a real eye opener for me.

What I realized from this book is that getting people to share your content, on social media sites, for instance, is much more important than getting them to like it or comment on it. For one thing, sharing greatly increases the reach in terms of more people seeing it. Plus when someone shares your content on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, and your post had a link in it to your site, their share now creates another link to your site.

Another interesting thing I realized from this book is that it is not wrong that you have to create great content, it’s just a lie that that’s all you have to do. Once you have some great content, your job is just starting. You then have to work to get that content shared and distributed.

I will probably write another article on “The Content Code” as it is an amazing book with lots of great advice.

In Closing?

Well this has been an interesting journey that took me into some new vistas, and forced me to re-evaluate some long entrenched ideas. The overall conclusion I came to is that it is still possible to do effective SEO for a website, but the strategies have changed. And it is still possible to build up links to a website, and not live in fear of each Google algorithm change.

And I feel strongly that the journey is not over yet.

I hope this article series was interesting and that you find it useful. Good luck!

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