Keys to SEO
In order for your website to appear in Google, the world’s largest search engine needs to be able to crawl it. Google sends a digital robot (called “Googlebot”) out to collect as much information as it can about every website on the internet.
These robots “click” each link they discover to see where those links lead next. Googlebot then sends the information it finds on the linked-to pages back to Google’s massive server farms, where each page is parsed and cataloged, or “indexed,” based on its content.
Given Googlebot’s reliance on links, as a general rule, in order for your website to be crawled it first needs to be linked to from SOMEwhere. The easiest place to get your first link and help Googlebot discover your website is via the website URL field of Google My Business, a free local profile that you can create for your business on Google.
Once Google finds your website, as a general rule, it should be able to discover each page on it by “clicking” a link. So you should make sure that every page that you want to rank in Google is linked from at least one other page on your website. Your top-selling product or service pages should each be included in your primary navigation (which links them from every page on your website) and also be linked directly from your homepage for maximum effect.
Assessing your site’s crawlability.
The quickest way to assess your website’s crawlability is to enter this search at Google: “site:yourdomain.com.”
Before you even browse the list of results, take a look at the number that Google returns and judge whether it’s more-or-less accurate. For example, if you have a 5-page website and Google returns 1000 pages, or if you have a 1000-page website and Google only returns 5 pages, you have a major technical issue with your site.
Signing up for Google Search Console can give you some free (though possibly too-technical) advice if there’s something impacting your site’s crawlability.
Relevance refers to how closely the content Googlebot discovers matches what a searcher has typed into the Google search box.
What does Googlebot see when it lands on your website — or more precisely, when it lands on each page of your website? How your website content describes your business, its products or services, and its position in the market should match how your customers or target audience are searching for you.
From a content standpoint, the goal of your website is to communicate a strong “scent” to both Google and users about exactly what products or services you offer, and where you offer them.
This doesn’t mean you need to stuff keywords willy-nilly into every corner of every page so that Google sees you as SUPER-relevant for the terms you want to rank for. But unless you’re selling to a very niche business-to-business audience, it does mean that you want to avoid jargon at all costs and use plain English (or Spanish, or Korean, or whatever language your customers speak) to describe what you’re offering. An example from the medical field would be to use “ear, nose, and throat doctor” instead of “otolaryngologist.”
Describe your products and services explicitly.
Maybe an example will help to illustrate this concept of relevance. Let’s say you make or sell one of my favorite products — coffee. Of course you want to describe yourself as a coffee company — and even include the word “coffee” in the name of your business. That’ll certainly help Google see your business and website as relevant for the keyword “coffee.”
But beyond that, think of all the possible ways your customers might describe one of your products:
- is it a light, medium or dark roast?
- is it single origin or blend?
- what countries are the beans sourced from?
- are the beans fair trade? or organic?
- are the beans available pre-ground?
- do you offer free delivery or other special add-on services?
Each product page should spell out each of these attributes in detail. If one of your prospective customers is searching for “Single-origin fair-trade Guatemalan light roast whole bean coffee free delivery” and your product page contains all of those terms, it’s got a great chance to rank near the top of the Google search results and pull that customer in to your website.
Now, it’s unlikely that someone would be searching for all of those terms all in the same search, but you might be surprised what searches your customers will ask of Google! The more explicitly you can describe your business and its products, in the plainest possible terms, the more relevant your site will be for the broadest range of searches. That’s how you’ll succeed with SEO.
Continuing with the example above, every coffee roaster on the planet wants to rank for keywords like “dark roast coffee” or “best coffee with free delivery.” So how does Google choose the roasters to rank at the top of its search results? It chooses the ones (whose websites signal they’re relevant) with the most authority.
At its best, Google reflects the real world, rewarding the most popular businesses in a given discipline with the top rankings in its search results. As a local coffee roaster, you might think, “I’ll never have as much authority as Starbucks, they’re a $90 billion company. How can I compete?”
The nice thing about Google is that, in the case of local businesses, it grades authority on a curve. Google knows that people don’t just want Starbucks every time they search for coffee, so they tip the ranking scales in favor of local businesses. You might see a Starbucks here or there, but unless you’re searching in a town without any local alternatives, they don’t dominate every corner of the search results page. So if you’re a local roaster, you just need to build authority relative to the other local roasters you’re competing against.
Now, if you’re a purely eCommerce business, you should know that you actually are competing against Starbucks, along with every other roaster on the planet. If your local market has enough coffee drinkers, it might be a good idea to focus your growth plan around building a following close to home before you proceed to world domination :).
How Does Google Calculate Authority?
I know we’re all sick and tired of politics, but it makes for a good analogy to illustrate this point.
Google would love to be able to survey every coffee drinker in every town to solicit votes for each person’s favorite coffee roaster. But in addition to being cost-prohibitive, that vote-tabulating strategy won’t work for Google, because Googlebot is only able to “see” what’s online. So Googlebot skims for endorsements it can actually see to decide which business to “elect” #1.
Businesses with the most endorsements, especially from websites that are heavily-endorsed themselves (like the green circle in the diagram above), tend to rank better than those with few or no endorsements (like the yellow circle above). You need endorsements in order to get elected, and you need links to your website in order to rank well.
What counts as an endorsement?
Mentions of your business on other websites
Google has built an incredibly sophisticated index of businesses (and people, and topics, and events, among other things) that it calls the “Knowledge Graph.” Rather than storing the content of webpages in a vacuum, Google is able to analyze the content of each webpage as it’s crawled by Googlebot.
When Googlebot comes across a match of your business’s name in the text on a webpage (or sometimes even in photos), it will treat that match as an endorsement of your business by the website that’s mentioning you.
And it won’t just tally the endorsement, but it will also save the context of the endorsement. So if the mention comes amidst keywords that your business is trying to rank for (like “dark roast” or “single origin”), it’ll consider you endorsed for those terms by that website. The same is true for other kinds of endorsements as well.
Links to your website from other websites
Since the ascent of Google as the world’s #1 search engine, links have been the primary concern of most search engine optimization practitioners. As I described above in the Crawlability section, the seminal idea behind Google’s ranking technology makes it clear that inbound links are the primary vehicle by which Google discovers new pages and websites on the internet.
They’re also the primary way Google assesses the credibility of a given website. Links are like mentions on steroids.
Reviews of your business from customers
While not every possible voter or endorser has a website on which to mention or link to a business, 60-70% of adults have left at least one review of a business online. Reviews are the primary way that Google “democratizes” the endorsements it pulls into its ranking algorithm.
Photos and videos of your business from customers
Similar to reviews, photos and videos help Google capture endorsements from a wider range of voters. These days, everyone has a camera on their phone, and darn near everyone uses Google Maps. Photos and videos uploaded to your business’ profile on Google Maps (which you can create using Google My Business) are one indicator of your business’s popularity, particularly for businesses with lots of natural foot traffic.
Increasingly, transactions at your business from customers (!)
And, of course, the most democratic endorsement of all is a vote-by-wallet. It may sound farfetched (and from my standpoint, dystopian), but Google maintains a massive index of transactions at businesses.
Google has enabled bookings directly from Google Maps since at least August 2017, and given Google Maps’ massive userbase, and even a tiny fraction of customers using those booking links would represent tens of millions of transactions that Google directly tracks per year.
Even creepier is that Google has signed agreements with major U.S. credit card companies which give it access to the credit and debit card records of 70 percent of U.S. consumers.
Google has not confirmed whether transaction information influences rankings (it rarely confirms any specific features of its algorithm), but in addition to making it easier for customers to book services or buy products straight from Google Maps, adding booking and buying buttons and links to your profile may improve your rankings if enough customers use them.
What criteria does Google use to judge endorsements?
Number of endorsements
Generally speaking, the candidate with the most endorsements will win — they’re good indications that he or she has a lot of support from voters. Likewise, if your business has more online endorsements than its competition, you’ll generally outrank that competition.
In the early days of Google, volume of endorsements would overwhelmingly power you to top rankings — including purely spammy endorsements. But increasingly Google is getting better at judging endorsements based on two additional criteria.
Relevance of endorsements
Google largely devalues endorsements that appear on completely unrelated websites (for example, a personal injury lawyer receiving a link from a Russian real estate forum). In fact, paid links and paid reviews on these kinds of sites increasingly put you in jeopardy of a Google penalty.
Conversely, endorsements that you acquire or earn that are likely to refer you actual customers are increasingly the ones that Google values (for example, a personal injury lawyer receiving a link from a neighboring chiropractor’s website).
One of my professional inspirations, Eric Ward a.k.a. “Link Moses,” was building links before Google was even a gleam in Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s eyes. As such, his advice was to build links (and mentions) as if Google didn’t even exist. Living by this “first commandment” of mention-building makes it incredibly unlikely your site will ever be penalized by Google and will make the impact of your mention-building more permanent and effective.
Quality of endorsements
Just as in politics, where an endorsement from a prominent figure usually carries more weight than an endorsement from an ordinary citizen, a link or mention on a prominent website will have a larger impact on your rankings than one from a random blog or social media account. And reviews and photos or videos from active reviewers can have a larger impact than reviews or visuals from someone posting them for the first time.
I lay out some examples of where small businesses can seek out quality endorsements in the next section (“Links, Links, Links”).
SEO Keys in Summary
All three SEO keys (Crawlability, Relevance, Authority) are important, but they are not created equal.
- Think of Crawlability as table stakes — you’ll almost never rank if Google can’t crawl your website.
- Relevance is important — Google needs to hear directly from you what you’re relevant for — and after ensuring that your website is crawlable, it’s the first thing you should focus on. But like a politician touting his or her accomplishments, what you say about yourself is biased and can be easily manipulated. It’s only a small fraction of the information Google uses to rank your business.
- Authority — what other people say about you — is the largest percentage of Google’s algorithm. But it takes much longer and more consistent effort to move the needle.
I’ll lay out how and where to talk about yourself, and how to influence how and where you want others to talk about you, in the rest of this guide.