As a business owner you want to ensure search visibility and long term traffic you don’t have to pay for each time someone clicks on your listing. Search Engine Optimization (SEO, aka organic search) is a strategic tool to do just that.
Organic search is the third major opportunity area in SERPs. Read my earlier article for context. Organic search usually drives Awareness stage visitors. These prospective customers are not ready to buy yet, but willing to “touch” your brand if you offer useful content.
The biggest traffic lever here is informational content. So, your task is to create content to explain your product to your audience and do it better than your competition.
This article goes into things I would learn and do if I started SEO from scratch today.
Organic search results are listings of web pages that appear based on their relevance to the user’s search query. These are not paid nor necessarily local. Instead, pages are ranked based on their content’s relevance, quality, and alignment with the user’s intent.
How does organic search work?
There are three primary stages of how search engines deal with your pages.
- Crawling: Google sends a bot to discover your page. The bot travels from link to link. It lands on your home page and follows all the links. When it hits the wall, it leaves the website for another homepage on its itinerary.
- Indexing: Once crawled, Google reviews pages it found and catalogues them in its library. It assigns topics, tags, and characteristics to pages for faster retrieval when users perform searches.
- Ranking: Multiple algorithms reach out into the library to pull the relevant page based on the user search query and his/her characteristics (keyword, location, search history, etc.).
Learn more about How search works.
What’s unique about organic search?
It takes time for pages to rank, especially in competitive niches. Treat organic search as an investment. Measure progress in 6-12 months timeframes.
It is not free. A common misconception about organic search is that it’s free. It is true that you don’t pay Google when users click on your organic results. However, it takes time and efforts to create content that is worthy of a user click. Hence, it’s not free.
If local search ranks business listings (the whole business), organic search ranks individual pages. Pages that are optimized for users rather than search engines tend to rank higher in the long run.
In many cases, organic results start after paid, local and featured snippets. This makes organic search results less visible. But it doesn’t mean that they are useless. Customers that are not ready to buy are likely to scroll through paid results anyway.
Who is organic search for?
Although organic results can rank all sorts of pages and files, content creators, websites with blogs, and news outlets are most likely beneficiaries of this SEM opportunity. Anyone who creates content to educate customers stands to benefit by learning more about organic search results and SEO.
Why should you still go for SEO beyond 2023?
Some intents and keywords still produce blue-link results at the top of the page. For example, things like “interest rate canada” or “resp canada rules” will have organic results at the top of the page.
Top-of-the-funnel (TOFU) traffic tends to go to organic results. As users browse, trying to answer questions on their journey, not ready to buy, they read articles to try and learn more about the subject. That’s where SEO still shines.
Multiple (more than one) placements on SERPs get your business featured in several SERP opportunity areas like paid, local and organic gains you much higher visibility.
Contrary to common belief that Google SGE (powered by AI) will deem SEO useless, knowing how your customers search and finding creative ways to provide that information will continue benefiting marketers in the age of AI.
The key to rankings is to match your content to user intent better than the competition. I recommend the following approach.
Identify the user intent that you’d like to match.
There are three major search intents: informational, navigational and commercial.
Informational intent keywords identify a user searching for information. The user is not yet ready to buy or doesn’t know specific brand they’re searching for. Examples of informational intent terms include:
Navigational intent keywords include a brand mention. This is when the user knows exactly where they want to get. Examples include: facebook login, walmart near me, etc.
Commercial intent keywords signal user’s desire to take an action at the bottom of the funnel. Example include: pilates coach near me, buy nike shoes for me size 11, etc. Commercial intent keywords often go with the following modifiers (additional words): deals, offers, discounts, black friday, etc.
Come up with a list of keywords that would trigger this intent.
The most effective intent you can address with SEO is informational intent. Keywords you choose will be based on the stage in your customer journey. These are the most common stages of the customer journey: Awareness, Consideration and Decision.
Awareness stage keywords. At this stage the user is realizing there’s a problem and trying to find ways to frame the problem or find a DIY solution. As a result, examples of keywords will include modifiers like [topic] +how to, +what is, +how much, +how long.
Consideration stage keywords. At this stage, the user will have read a few articles and starts to learn about his or her options including approaching paid vendors, professionals, businesses. Keywords here will include modifiers like: [niche] +reviews, +comparisons, +alternatives, +vs., etc.
Decision stage keywords. At this stage, the user is down a single alternative and ready to make the decision to purchase your product or service. Modifiers at this stage will include: [company name] +hours, +deals, +discounts, +offers, +contacts, etc.
Knowing these stages, create three lists of informational keywords that will help address your customers’ questions at each stage of their journey.
There’s no need to spend for a paid keyword research tool here. Use Google Autocomplete and related searches for keyword ideas.
Test by using Google search and check the results.
Now is the time to study how SERPs look and what opportunity areas Google offers. Using your list from above, take keywords one by one and search Google. Note is there are paid results, local results or organic results. Check if Google is offering featured snippets or Google Search Generative Experience.
Note which types of websites are ranking. Types of pages include:
- Articles (detailed content to address informational intent)
- Marketplace pages (Yelp top 10, WeddingWire top 10)
- Vendor homepages (if Google thinks your query will be best matched by a homepage)
Important: if you see a list of pages with how-to or top-10 articles, it’s not effective to try to rank your homepage for this query. Instead, create an article that is better than the competition.
Consider using a spreadsheet to tabulate the data from your searches.
This manual process can somewhat be automated, but it is super helpful to do it manually a few times. Going slow (instead of using automation) will get your creative juices flowing that might results in a few creative content ideas.
Analyze competitors content.
Visit the top ranking pages. Take a note and answer the question: How do these pages match the user intent that is hidden in the keywords being searched?
If you are looking at articles, then check the following:
- How long is the content and is it sufficient to answer the user intent?
- How easy it is to navigate the article?
- Can I trust the author of the article?
- Is the user engaged on the page (calculators, tools, quizes, etc.)?
- Does the author share personal experience, perspective?
Go one by one and answer those questions. Consider tabulating the results.
Create your content outline.
Now that you know what Google ranks for your target keywords, let’s build a better piece of content. Creating a content outline or a logical structure of the article is the first step.
You can start by replicating the structure of the top 3-5 pieces of content currently ranking. Then add other sections you feel will help your content address the intent.
While adding content sections, think of the user trying to understand and solve a problem. What other pieces of information, links, tools, etc. will help the user at this particular stage on their journey?
Craft your content.
Now that you have the outline, it’s time to start writing individual sections. I would start with body sections and leave introduction and conclusion until last.
Focus on being concise in each section. Link to reliable sources, it’s ok to link out. Think on how to best satisfy the user in each section. Consider adding videos, quizzes, calculators and anything else to diversify your content.
Only use visual if absolutely necessary to convey and illustrate a point. If you’re using images, specify Alt text for each image.
Launch your content.
Now that your content is ready, let’s inform Google about it. The quickest way to do it is via Google Search Console’s URL inspector tool.
Run your URL through the tool (enter in the box, hit enter). First it will show no indexing information and this is normal. Google doesn’t yet know about your article.
Click “Test live URL” button in the top right corner. It will get Google to review this page as it is right now. It might take a few seconds for Google to report back. This is not yet the request for indexing.
Once you see there are no issues with this URL based on this live URL test, you can request indexing by clicking “Request indexing” button in the lower right corner of the first panel on the page. This action will get your page in the queue for indexing.
Build links via outreach and posting to owned media channels.
Backlinks are still important. They tell a search engine if your new piece of content is to be trusted or not. Link also convey location and topical authority. This information helps Google understand your content better and therefor rank it appropriately.
Let’s start with some low handing fruits.
Owned media channels. Examples: Facebook post, Linkedin Post, Google Business Profile post, etc. Anywhere you own access to that can display a link.
Newsletter mention. If you run a newsletter, make sure your next issue has a link to your new piece of content.
Vendors/partners. Ask other sites you know, your colleagues or partners to place a note about your article on their website or a channel.
Business memberships. If your business is part of your local Chamber of Commerce, there’s likely an opportunity for a guest post on their blog. See if you have get the article talking about your new post there.
There are other link building tactics that still work beyond 2023. Let’s discuss those in one of the future articles.
Monitor and improve.
By now your article should start climbing the ranks. It’s a good idea to monitor and improve on the existing results.
Monitor with Google Search Console. Look for the keywords your article ranks. Look for the number of impressions and clicks your article gets as you climb up the rankings.
Review your content based on:
- Something that you noticed can be improved.
- Something your competition does better that you can copy
- Regular content refresh schedule. Depending on your niche the timeframe can be shorter or longer. On average to keep your content from becoming outdated and sliding in rankings, consider reviewing every year.
Tools you need to start
SEO is an industry with lots of tools. Some of them free, some are paid. Remember, time spent testing tools is time not spent optimizing and ranking your pages.
When starting SEO, ignore all paid tools. They’re unlikely to make the difference, at least in the first little while.
Use a limited number of free tools. Particularly, Google Search Console (baseline must-have, covers multiple SEO functions) and Google Analytics (for engagement metrics).
SEO (Search Engine Optimization): Techniques used to improve a website’s visibility in search engine results.
Keywords: Words or phrases users input in search engines; optimizing your content with relevant keywords helps your site appear in relevant searches.
Branded Keywords: Key phrases featuring your brand. Also includes domain name, people’s names that are associated with your company.
Non-branded Keywords: Phrases that don’t include your brand terms, names or domain name. These are usually generic terms that we would like to rank for.
Keyword Density: The percentage of times a keyword appears on a page compared to the total word count; maintaining a balanced keyword density is important.
Long-Tail Keywords: More specific and less common search queries; targeting these can attract more qualified traffic.
Meta Tags: HTML elements providing information about a web page to search engines, including title tags (page title) and meta descriptions (brief page summary).
Backlinks: Links from other websites directing users to your site; quality backlinks enhance site credibility.
Algorithm: A set of rules search engines use to rank websites; algorithms determine search result relevance.
SERP (Search Engine Results Page): The page search engines display with relevant results for a user’s query.
On-Page Optimization: Enhancing individual web pages to rank higher and earn more traffic through content, HTML, and structure improvements.
Off-Page Optimization: Strategies outside your website to improve search rankings, like link building, social media, and influencer marketing.
Anchor Text: Clickable text in a hyperlink; using relevant anchor text boosts SEO.
Canonical Tags: HTML elements specifying the original content source if multiple versions of the same content exist, avoiding duplicate content penalties.
Bounce Rate: Percentage of visitors leaving a website without interacting; high bounce rates may indicate issues with site content or usability.
301 Redirect: Permanently redirecting a URL to another; useful when changing page URLs without losing traffic.
Mobile Optimization: Ensuring a website performs well and is user-friendly on mobile devices, essential for ranking and user experience.
Site Map: A list of pages on a website, helping search engines navigate and index the site. There’s an XML sitemap and HTML sitemap. XML is a format that search engine understand universally, whereas HTML sitemap is created for users to be able to browse all pages on the website.
Schema Markup: Code added to a website to help search engines provide richer, more informative results for users.
Analytics: Tools like Google Analytics and Google Search Console used to track website performance, user behavior, and SEO effectiveness.