SEO Firms at Their Best: Implementing Both On and Off-Page Initiatives
“So you have SEO capabilities? What does that entail, exactly?” This is a question Fran Acunzo often hears, CEO of Acara Partners based in Branford, Connecticut. He frequently gives them a powerful answer by outlining on and off-page search engine optimization (SEO) initiatives, with the goal of helping businesses optimize their online presence, appear higher in organic Google search engine results pages (SERPs), and drive more conversions.
In terms of SEO, it is important to know that Google’s algorithms are constantly shifting. If you talk to multiple SEO firms you may get a different answer on what’s most important when it comes to SEO. They are probably all correct. This is because there are thousands of different ranking factors requiring a myriad of ongoing activities. With that said, the strategies below come from time-tested experience, practical validation, and rigorous testing.
The purpose of this white paper is to reveal a thorough and in-depth breakdown of the nature of SEO and how it pertains to improving clients’ websites. By clarifying specific aspects of SEO, this will help demystify the process and help one better understand the value in these kinds of activities. Let’s break this down into three phases, with several steps for each phase.
The best SEO firms do not try to just get just any client. They consciously work with clients who need an elevated online presence. After a consultation and making sure it’s a good fit, the firm will contract with the client and let them know upfront what they will be doing. It is important to not promise too much to a client – while there are enormous benefits to SEO, it often takes months of hard work. At the same time, it is helpful to let the client know what will happen, in what order, and what they can expect within reason over time.
The first phase involves getting a crystal-clear picture of the current state of the client’s website and online presence. This is crucial because you can’t fix something if you don’t know what’s wrong with it. The includes, but is not limited to:
- A thorough digital audit
- A review of online listings, including Yelp, Google+, Yellow Pages, SpaFinder, Real Self, and other industry-specific listings
- Reviewing a client’s Facebook and other social media presence
- Keyword research
- Using Google Analytics to review the client’s current website data
- Using webmaster tools to see if there are any crawl errors and to submit the site map to Google (Google will crawl the sitemap either way, but it helps to submit through Google Webmaster Tools as an additional layer of exposure. Google employees’ are incredibly busy as it is – why not make their life easier?)
The digital audit is a comprehensive report that covers a client’s online presence from a number of different angles. It is not a quick report, but rather a detailed breakdown. The best SEO firms ask the right questions and the digital audit reveals the answers to these questions in a professional and mutually beneficial format. Here are some specific things audit includes:
- Internal link building
- Meta tags, title tags, alt tags, and header tags
- Blog keyword analysis
- Is the site mobile responsive? Does it have a clickable phone link? If a mobile site exists, is there a mobile redirect in place?
- Is the website speed/caching up to par?
- What is the layout of the site in terms of services listed?
- Is the “Request a Consultation” form easy for the user to get to?
- Is there duplicate copy of this website’s content elsewhere on the internet?
- Is there a Facebook facepile and like button?
- Is there an XML sitemap?
- Making sure Google Analytics code is properly placed on all pages and goals are set up to track all conversion points (funnels may be necessary)
- Making sure there are testimonials/reviews, before/after photos, and financing options listed.
There is more to this, but this will at least give you some food for thought. Please don’t dismiss mobile devices too quickly. Quantcast released a study showing that people spend, on average, 194 minutes a day on their phones, compared to only 103 minutes a day on their PCs. Further, ABI case studies reveal that mobile conversions in the aesthetic medical industry are increasingly prevalent.
After the digital audit is completed it is sent to the client so that they may review it. This encourages transparency and open dialogue, fostering a collaborative relationship.
While there is nearly always room for improvement, once a website is on the first page of search results, it will see increased exposure and web traffic. Even appearing on the second page of search results is far better than appearing on a later page. But SEO is not just about SERPs. It’s also about website layout, social sharing, link building, and much more. We will see more of this in the next two phases.
Phase one may or may not entail a redesign of the website. If the existing schema and URL structure is solid enough where simple changes can be done, then a redesign is not necessary. But if the website is so poor that it’s design, structure, and layout is directly causing fewer conversions, then a website redesign makes a lot of sense (this includes tablet and mobile redesign).
Helpful SEO tools for phase one:
- Rank watch (http://www.rankwatch.com/)
- Checking for a sitemap (seositecheckup.com)
- Screaming frog free software (http://www.screamingfrog.co.uk/seo-spider/) Note: Phase one is indeed thorough, but this is a good thing because it lays the framework for success that results from efforts in phase two and three.
Transitioning from our discussion about the aspects of a digital audit, the first part of SEO is on-page changes. On-page SEO is an ongoing process, not a one-off duty. At Acara Partners, the SEO analyst works closely with the web design team to ensure a smooth and appropriate implementation of the following measures:
- Title tags: Keep them to 60 characters or fewer (there are certain cases where it can go over 60 characters, but the vast majority of time we want it 60 characters or less)
- Alt tags: when creating alt tags for pictures, keywords are good but only when they are placed within common phrases. Google Panda Update penalizes websites when they come across as spam or unnecessarily repetitive. The best way to describe pictures with alt tags is by describing the picture as it really is, while simultaneously keeping in mind what kind of searches users might be doing when looking for the client’s services. Again, keywords and geolocators are encouraged here, but only when they make sense in terms of a Google end user search.
- Meta descriptions: Keep them to 160 characters or fewer. These meta descriptions are what appear underneath the clickable link title in a Google search result. Google will automatically create a meta description for you, but it is much better to manually enter in meta descriptions to optimize for brand, service, geolocator, and call to action. The important thing to remember here is that meta descriptions need to sound natural. Don’t just copy and paste the first two lines of text on a given page into the meta description; instead, make the effort to read the text on the specific page and come up with a crafty snippet that best describes what the user will learn about once they click through to the page.
- Embedded videos or YouTube videos: making sure the file name contains text that is keyword-relevant text
- 301 redirects and IP canonicalization for websites when necessary (redirecting traffic from one domain to another)
- Robots.txt and rel nofollow code for pages we don’t want Google to crawl. Title tags, alt tags, meta descriptions, and other internal link building strategies must be done for every page on the site. The SEO firm will usually have their digital analyst recommend appropriate on-page changes in a carefully laid-out excel document. The analyst then passes the excel document off to the web designers, who go into the back end and make the appropriate changes to the code. The purpose of this is to give you an in-depth analysis, but not to overwhelm you. The bullet points above are the core of on-page SEO. There are more aspects to the on-page SEO process, including more keyword analysis and a deep-dive into Google Analytics. Helpful SEO tools for phase two:
- Moz’s title tag preview tool (showing exactly how it will appear in search results): http://moz.com/blog/new-title-tag-guidelines-preview-tool
- Seomofo.com’s Google SERP Snippet optimization tool (for meta descriptions): http://www.seomofo.com/snippet-optimizer.html
This phase is all about off-page SEO. This starts with a full optimization of online listings and expands to encompass everything from guest posting, creating and publishing white papers, and link-building strategies.
Some people dislike getting backlinks, but thankfully there are a number of backlink opportunities that are under one’s control. First, one can create legitimate and relevant articles and post them to sites like goarticles, articlesbase, and ezinearticles. Sites like these usually require a minimum of 400 words and will allow one backlink to your client’s site towards the end of the article. Google does not like to see a huge influx of backlinks to a website all at once, so submitting two to three articles to article submission directories per month is perfect.
You can also obtain backlinks by submitting comments to blog posts and forums in your client’s given industry. The rule of thumb is that an engaged, relevant comment is always best. Even if you are not linking directly to your client’s site in the comment itself, usually there will be an opportunity to input the website in a field at the top of a comment box. Make sure to use one of the client’s gmails instead of your own email since you are doing this work on behalf of the client. As outlined in the advanced guide to link building in the resources section below, you can also obtain a plethora of backlinks through blog aggregators, business listing sites, design galleries, and many other of these kinds of sites.
In terms of asking for backlinks directly, it is usually best to have a relationship with someone at a given company before asking for a backlink. This is partly out of your control and it is best to stick to the other strategies, but if you know someone you can ask directly who would help your client by linking to them, go for it.
White papers are great for building credibility and authority as an industry expert. A white paper usually references at least two to three other sources, so as to show that the author is pulling on and synthesizing the input of many (instead of pulling on the opinions of only one person). Once a white paper is published, it can be distributed as a press release, on the actual client’s website itself, or on websites like slideshare.net or issuu.com.
Note: SEO tactics are typically broken down into three general categories:
- white hat are proven, legitimate strategies
- grey hat are strategies that some may agree with, while others may not agree with.
- black hat are strategies geared towards trying to cheat search engines and game the system. The best SEO firms use white hat strategies, with occasional grey hat tactics.
- All strategies outlined in phase one and two are white hat. The tactics outlined in phase three are a mixture of white hat and grey hat. In my opinion, phase three is all white hat, but I mention grey hat here because some people may consider article submission directories to be grey hat. In my experience, as long as one approaches article submission directories with intelligent and carefully crafted articles, Google doesn’t mind a backlink from these posts and it will help your client appear higher in SERPs.
Helpful SEO resources for phase three:
- Negative SEO case study: how to uncover an attack using a backlink audit (this could be included in the audit stage, but I place it here because it involves back links): http://searchenginewatch.com/article/2290087/Negative-SEO-Case-Study-How-to-Uncover-an-Attack-Using-a-Backlink-Audit
- Majestic SEO backlink checker & site explorer: https://majestic.com/
- The advanced guide to link building: http://www.quicksprout.com/the-advanced-guide-to-link-building/