Current SEO Trends (and What Business Owners Should Do)
The word “SEO” has dirty connotations because it began as a way to deceive Google. It was a form of cheating. In the early 2000’s, without having any substance, you could drive traffic to your site from Google. Every time Google changed their algorithm, the way to hack it changed. But those days of hacking Google are over. In this article, I’m going to go over how SEO changed over time and what these changes mean for you as a business owner.
The Reality for Business Owners
Today, Google’s search ranking aligns quite well with how we perceive “quality” in content. Because of this, most SEO advice we see on YouTube today is not very helpful; they are essentially telling us to produce quality content. We don’t need SEO consultants to tell us that. But this does not mean that you as a business owner do not need any help. The way to work with SEO consultants had to change.
Now that Millennials are in charge of B2B purchasing decisions, we have to cater to their sensibilities and one of the key qualities they look for in content is authenticity. It’s hard to create authentic content if you outsource it. Ideally, it should come straight from the horse’s mouth. But this is easier said than done.
Let’s be realistic. Nobody is good at everything. Firstly, in order to succeed in SEO, you have to enjoy writing, otherwise you are not likely to keep it up. In my career, I’ve seen countless business owners who asked for blogs on their sites but never kept them up beyond the first few months of excitement. If you are not naturally compelled to write, you are not going to do it, because self-promotion always takes a backseat to your paying tasks.
But that’s not enough. Even if you like writing, you still have to understand the technical aspects of SEO. For instance, even if the quality of your article is exceptionally high, if it’s not formatted correctly, it won’t appear on Google search. And, even if it does appear, it may not appear correctly or appropriately, in which case, people may not click on it even if they see it.
Google does not reward great technical execution but they do punish poor technical execution of your website. The difference between appearing on the first page and the second page of the search results is huge because more than 75% of people do not go beyond the first page. Poor technical execution could push your article from the bottom of the first page to the second page. So, if you are not technical, you should get help, especially since the technical aspects are relatively easy to outsource.
But the part that you cannot entirely outsource is content creation. This part would have to be at least collaborative, and because of that, it’s important for you to understand how to create content for SEO.
Learning What It’s Like to Be Your Customer
Thinking like your own customer is deceptively hard to do because we know our own business too much. We don’t know what our prospective customers don’t know. We take for granted what we know.
It’s relatively easy if your business is B2B and your clients are experienced buyers of your services. Say, for instance, your business is video production and your target clients are advertising agencies. In this scenario, the agency art directors are essentially in the same business as yours, so it’s not hard for you to know how they think and look for vendors.
But, let’s say, a lawyer or restaurant owner wanted a video produced. They would have no clue about what type of production company they need to hire. They might end up calling a company that produces sitcoms for TV networks. They might not even know what the difference is between hiring a freelance videographer and a production company is. They have no clue about the budget, process, or timeframe. What keywords would they use to search on Google? It’s not easy to guess.
For instance, “corporate video” is a term commonly used to describe videos produced for businesses, but a restaurant owner may not know that. She might search for “business video” instead. You should to do some keyword research by using tools like Google AdWords and avoid making any assumptions. Once you know what people are searching for, you can then begin writing your article using those terms. This isn’t about hacking Google; this is about aligning your language with your audience. This is something you should do anyway regardless of SEO.
Personally, I love doing this because it forces me to step outside of my own bubble. Keyword research is almost like a sociological study. After all, trying to understand what other people in the world want to know and contributing what we know is what the Web is all about. So, don’t just start writing whatever you feel like. First do some keyword research to see if anyone is looking for the answers, and more importantly, how they are looking for those answers.
Also, pay attention to what your friends and colleagues are already asking you. People ask me all sorts of questions all the time. If someone asks me a question, it’s a good indication that others too are interested in knowing the answer. I often turn my answers into blog posts, like this and this.
Quality vs Quantity of Your Content
How much content should you produce? And, how good do they have to be? These are important questions because they have cost implications for your business. You might assume that the more content the better, but this is not always the case.
A good way to think about “quality” is your Google ranking. For SEO, this is the most relevant way to think about “quality” anyway (even if you disagree with my definition here). All else being equal, if you improve the quality of your article, it is likely to go up in ranking.
If your goal is to increase the number of visitors to your site from organic search, it’s better to have 10 pages that rank on the first page of Google search than to have 100 pages that rank on the subsequent pages because of the so-called “power law” where the vast majority flocks to the top 20%. As mentioned above more than 75% of people never go beyond the first page, and even within the first page, most of them click on the first few. So, quality trumps quantity.
Here is a relevant case study. The site mentioned in this article has mostly user-generated content, which means the overall quality is low. Since around 2013, the growth of their organic search traffic flattened. They tried many different ideas but the most effective one was what they call “merge and purge” where duplicate threads were merged into one page and low-quality contents were purged. The SEO consulting firm, Backlinko, brags about getting 150k unique visitors per month despite having only 40 posts. For the discussion forum I manage, I have always curated the questions the users submitted and did not allow duplicate questions, so it has grown steadily since 2002.
Having a small number of high-quality articles works for SEO because Google rewards quality over quantity. This must be conceptually differentiated from viral marketing. With viral marketing, quantity may trump quality because it’s nearly impossible to predict what goes viral, and most viral videos have low production quality. Many are just amateur videos caught on mobile phones. SEO is not viral marketing. SEO is determined by what Google thinks is good. Viral marketing is determined by what the people on social media think is worth sharing. Two different mechanisms. So, be careful not to conflate the two.
In terms of SEO, we are better off continually improving the quality of existing content than to keep adding more. We almost need to think of each page as a website that needs continual updates. This has some cognitive dissonance to us because we associate writing as a historical record. The idea of modifying what we have written in the past almost feel unethical but that’s only because we have come to associate writing with permanence, which was true in the days of print media but no longer relevant for our digital world.
But to have 10 articles that can rank on the first page of Google search, you might need to start with 30, see which keyword ranks highest for each article, and then optimize for it. Even if the quality of your article is exceptionally high, it may not make it to the first page because of other factors like competition and your site’s overall authority/popularity. Finding the keywords for which you have a fighting chance would probably require many more articles than 10 even if your goal is 10.
Another factor that Google rewards is the specificity of your content. In other words, go niche. Because the amount of content available on the Web is so great, it would not make sense for Google to send their visitors to articles that cover a broad range of topics when there are many other articles that cover the specific topics the visitors are looking for. When they send visitors your way, they want your content to be as relevant and specific as possible to their queries. So, be specific and detailed.
Many people think it’s important to be short and concise when communicating any ideas, but research proves this to be wrong for SEO. As long as you employ the inverted pyramid style of writing, your readers can stop reading at any point, so the recommended minimum for each article is 1,500 words.
Quality vs Quantity of Your Audience
But don’t get caught up on the number of visitors. It’s important to think about the quality of your audience too. The era of just amassing eyeballs is over. Venture capitalists no longer invest in companies that only know how to drive traffic without knowing how to monetize it. “The more eyeballs, the better” works for sites whose source of revenue is advertising but they are all struggling these days. There are just too many ideas that people cannot find a way to monetize. They always fall back on advertising, which leads to over-supply and lower value of content, which in turn makes it nearly impossible for anyone to survive from ad revenue alone.
If you sell complex services like law firms, video production firms, or IT firms do, you are likely looking for a very specific type of clients. And, your target lifetime value of each client is likely above $10K. Let’s say you are willing to spend $10K on SEO. You could employ a strategy that can draw a million random visitors to your site or 100 visitors who are ready to buy your type of service right now. I think you would agree that the latter would be better. Every Super Bowl has TV commercials that we thought were funny but cannot remember whose ads they were. Why throw away your marketing budget on entertaining a bunch of random people?
At the end of the day, what matters is how many visitors become your customers, that is, the conversion rate. Increasing the number of visitors shouldn’t be your ultimate goal; it should be increasing the number of customers. They do not necessarily correlate.
Also, you might be tempted to encourage repeat visitors but doing so may require a different strategy from getting new visitors, and it may not be what your business needs. If you have a video production company, for instance, it might be better to get more new visitors than repeat visitors. Once the visitors convert and become customers/clients, it’s not important whether they keep coming back to read your blog. And, if the same visitors keep coming back but never convert to business, they are not particularly useful to you (although it wouldn’t hurt to keep them). They might be your competitors or amateur videographers who are eager to learn what you know. They are never going to be your clients. From the perspective of conversion, it may be better to constantly draw new visitors than to focus on retaining the same visitors.
To get repeat visitors, the quantity of your content becomes more important than the quality. Emailing a decent quality content weekly to your subscribers would be more effective than a long, high-quality article sent every 3 months.
Building a regular audience would work well if your business continually produces new retail products, particularly with the price point below $100. For instance, if you are an author who publishes books regularly, building a regular audience, or your fan base, would be a great strategy. Every time you publish a book, you would have immediate access to a large pool of potential customers.
If you want the number of “followers” or page “likes” on social media to be at a respectable level, using social media advertising might be a quicker and cheaper way to achieve it than SEO. This is particularly true if you just need to reach a respectable number and no more. After all, if you are a law firm, having 10,000 followers on Facebook would probably make no material difference from having 2,000 followers in terms of converting visitors to clients. You just don’t want the page to say, “5 followers.” After all, the lawyers who frequently appear on TV could have hundreds of thousands of followers, but they are not necessarily the best lawyers.
The search engines have come a long way. Even though Facebook has created an entirely different way to find content on the Web, search is still the most powerful method if we know what we want. Just ask Google and it has the answer. SEO today is less about knowing how Google works and more about knowing what people want, and Google just happens to be the best tool for us to learn it.