Tackling SEO and Digital Marketing, Part 1: Finding the Right Help
Let me get something out of the way. This post is NOT a how-to article about SEO. Search engine optimization, or SEO for short, is a complex subject. For most people, it isn’t necessary to spend the time and energy it takes to learn the inner workings of how search engines rank sites. What this post is designed to do is to teach you SEO concepts and fundamental principles so that you can correctly hire someone to help you reach your goals. For this post, let’s think about the relationship you have with your car and your trusted mechanic. You don’t necessarily know everything about how your car functions, but you understand enough to have a conversation with your mechanic. Hopefully by the end of this post, you’ll understand enough to hire a consultant for your SEO or digital marketing needs.
Also, SEO is an investment. This isn’t a get rich quick solution. Before embarking down the path of investing in your digital assets, you need to have a tough conversation with yourself and determine exactly how many months you can comfortably write a check without a return on that investment. Then have that discussion with any consultants you are considering hiring and see if your expectations are reasonable.
Additionally, because SEO is essentially a technology topic, it changes quickly. What I share with you today might not be true in six months. There is no shortage of opinions on this topic. However, since most people are starting their home search online, we can’t ignore optimizing our digital assets utilizing best practices for modern SEO.
Search Engine Optimization falls into 5 basic categories
- User Content
- Technical Markup
- Admin/Server/History (to be covered in Part II)
- Visitor Metrics (to be covered in Part II)
Discovering and Ranking Content
Search engines use computer programs called bots that view websites and record the data and content on the page in a process that closely resembles what a real user sees. In the past, these bots would ignore the styling or design of a site and only read the actual words and code on the page. That is no longer the case. Now the bots can interpret colors, font sizes, white space, images, etc. Everything that search engines read and find on a page or URL is categorized as an “on page” ranking factor. Everything “on page” is typically broke out into two main categories. “On page” is either user content or technical markup.
The most prominent search engine, Google, uses over 200 variables to determine how a site should rank. The content on the page is where this process begins. Unique, relevant and ENGAGING content provides ranking signals to the search engines that a page is worthy of ranking. Some of those ranking factors include things like how often the keyword is mentioned, the placement of the keyword, and the length of the content. Because of this, there is definitely a difference in writing content for an end user and for a search engine. A talented SEO consultant can take content written for the end user and optimize it for search engines as well.
More Than Words On The Page
The second category and often the most mysterious (and constantly evolving… ) aspect of SEO is technical markup. These are the words on the page that you don’t see. This is the code placed on the page specifically for search engines. The search engines essentially create these snippets of code and they ask webmasters to use these consistent rules so they can easily gather the info from a site.
Think of this like shopping in your grocery store. Each aisle that you are shopping in has overhead signs that tell you which aisle has the pasta and which one has the cans of soup. These are items that you were specifically looking for, and when you know which aisle and where these items are located, you can complete your shopping a lot quicker and more efficiently.
Now consider that search engines need to send out their bots to look at as many pages as possible and then return and review those pages every once in a while for changes. It is easier for the bots to do their job when they know where to find things. Because of this, sites with proper technical markup allow the bots to discover the content on the site quicker. This is especially important on sites with hundreds or even thousands of pages because the bot is only given a limited amount of time and bandwidth to catalog the data on your site. Technical markup allows the bot to “speed read” your pages.
Links, But Not Golf
In the beginning, before search engines existed, we had directories. These were human-created and categorized listings of websites. If you were interested in a certain topic, you found a long list of websites to search through. This approach wasn’t easy to maintain, and there was no way to filter or rank the results. Many times they would just be listed alphabetically and it could take months to get a new site listed because someone had to manually add it.
The next evolution of search engines introduced us to bots. But they weren’t very smart. They looked mainly at a few pieces of technical code and then looked at the words on the page. A site could oftentimes rank for a specific keyword simply by having the keyword repeated several times on the page.
Then in 1996, two guys from Stanford who were working on a project for their PhD came up with an idea to use the number of times a page is hyperlinked to as a vote of the page’s quality and popularity. Those guys eventually launched Google in 1998 and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, links are still one of the most important ranking factors. The links are graded, though. Some links are more important than others. Just as your recommendation about a new restaurant in town would be important to the 20 to 30 people you might tell, it would not have the same impact as a positive write up in the local newspaper that would. In simple terms, the write-up in the paper is more valuable. The location of the link on the page also matters. For instance, a link in the footer might not be as valuable as a link in the content itself. The anchor text matters as well. A link that uses the word “here” isn’t as valuable as a link that uses descriptive anchor text such as “pewee valley homes for sale” as an example.
Because all links are not created equally, it is important to consider the quality as well as the quantity.
Links can happen in one of two ways primarily. Organically—when someone reads your material and finds the content appealing and worth sharing—and through outreach. Outreach is when your content is essentially marketed to other site owners to ask them if they would consider linking to it. The success of the outreach depends largely on the quality of the content.
If you are limited in your digital marketing budget, in my opinion, you would be best served by investing in quality content. In the future, you can hire someone to rework some of the content, optimize the technical markup and possibly do some outreach for links… but none of that will be possible without quality content.
Ready To Hire?
Hiring an SEO consultant can honestly be a frustrating process for both the client and the vendor. That frustration is usually tied to the fact that making changes that offer results can take a few months. Meaning, you could be writing a check for a few months before you start to see any real change in your rankings, and thus any real change in your traffic and lead volume. If you are in a really competitive market, the results could take much longer. Additionally, there are no guarantees within the SEO industry. Or, to be more accurate, anyone reputable isn’t going to provide you any sort of guarantee related to rankings or traffic.
How to Find Someone
Before we talk about the questions to ask your potential vendor, we need to find a few people, right? The easiest way to do that is to simply ask other people. Find people who seem to have a good understanding of SEO and digital marketing or who rank well for places outside of your own market and personally ask them for a recommendation. You can either pick up the phone and call them, email them, or send them a PM via Facebook, but you need to ask personally to get results.
Ask The Right Questions
Once you have someone you’d like to discuss working with, you need to find out what their strengths are. Do they cover all aspects of SEO but not specialize in one category? Are they really great at content optimization? Do they have the availability to generate new content AND optimize old content or just one of the two? Are they well-versed in technical on page… and are they familiar with working within your website platform’s limitations? Each platform has its own advantages and disadvantages. You also need to be sure that the person you hire will work on your site exclusively in your market. Find out how you’ll be notified of the work being done. Will you receive a report with the pages that have been built? Will you get a monthly update with a list of keywords and their placement in the search results?
SEO vs. Digital Marketing
Lastly, a parting thought… Do you hire an SEO consultant that can do digital marketing? Or do you hire a digital marketer that can help with SEO? The difference is in their individual strengths and your own goals. A digital marketer can take existing traffic and help you convert that traffic into more leads. They could also possibly help with Facebook and Google AdWords pay per click advertising. Both of which can deliver fantastic results in a short period of time and help bridge the gap while you are waiting on SEO rankings to improve. It can also help generate much needed revenue that you can then reinvest into your business, including additional SEO work.
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