I was hired to create an SEO and content marketing strategy for a mid-sized business in the finance industry. The company had never had an SEO strategy, or even a marketing strategy prior to my start. I strategized and implemented a full-scale SEO and content marketing strategy over the course of 15 months, showing an average increase of 400% depending on metric.
This website had good direct traffic already and a somewhat well known brand, but next to no organic traffic. What little they got came to pages that didn’t align with their ideal customer, or any core CTA.
The extended problem was the marketing budget was pretty thin, so we couldn’t pay for things like content syndication, link building (not that I recommend it anyway), or even digital PR.
With a tight budget and high goals, the only approach was to carefully build a technical foundation, then aggressively target keywords and start building high-quality content.
I took an end-to-end approach to this strategy, starting with an SEO audit of the site and technical fixes. This particular site had tons of old, orphan pages that had been forgotten about, as well as many missing key elements such as meta descriptions, title tags, etc. Additionally, since the entire site was built using SPAs, making the code slow and bulky in places.
Once the technical side of the site was updated, I honed in on the content strategy. This included updating core pages across the site to align with their keywords and the action we wanted users to take, as well as strategizing and implementing a brand new approach to the blog.
Most of my effort went into the blog, since the keywords we wanted to target were highly competitive. This was split into four main parts:
One of the first things I did was take a look at the content that already existed on the site, and run it through Ahrefs to see how much traffic it got/how many keywords it ranked for. If it was over a year old, hadn’t gotten any meaningful traffic, or didn’t rank for any keywords, I deleted the pages and redirected the URLS to relevant and better-performing pages.
If there were any pages that ranked okay but could do better, or had good URL structure, I kept them, to utilize in another step.
One of the weird quirks about taking over a site that hasn’t had an SEO strategy before is some of the most basic rules of SEO weren’t followed, such as: keep like content together.
There was long-form content scattered across several different subfolders on the main URL, making our crawl map a mess. Not to mention there were hundreds of pages, even after the audit, meaning our crawl budget got eaten by non-relevant or important pages.
I compiled a list of all those URLs, then systematically moved them all under one main subfolder: /blog/
This required some manual work, as the /blog/ pages were an entirely different template than the other pages on the site. So we created the pages anew on the /blog/ and backdated them to their original time of publication, then deleted the original page and created a redirect to the new page.
Though we originally took a hit on the organic traffic side when the deleted pages lost their keywords, they regained their rankings quickly enough. And, as a result of the streamlining, our new pages were crawled quicker and started ranking faster.
Once the structural work was done, I focused my attention on the quickest wins possible. The easiest place to start was with the list of pages from my content audit that either started ranking, or had good core keywords in the existing URLs.
I took those and did SERP research on my target keywords, seeing what was already ranking. From there, I built out a content brief to update the page.
The briefs were then thoroughly researched, and then written. Sometimes we could incorporate some of the existing content. Sometimes it was a complete rewrite. Once the content was written, fact-checked, edited, and checked for plagiarism, it was ready to go. We then replaced the old content on the page with the new, and submitted it to Google Search Console for new indexing.
The brand new content always jumped in ranking within weeks, much faster than any brand new piece created.
By far the largest and most important part of my strategy was the brand new content my team created. We had to strike the usual balance between content people actually want to read, and content that ranks. This required several research steps:
I took a look at our main competitors who saw success in the organic space. What were they ranking for? What pages performed best? Which did they most often promote? Did they use any additional strategies, such as downloadable content to funnel prospects into nurture streams?
I took my findings and used it to inform the type of content we wanted to create, as well as the length, and how they were linked together.
The obvious step came next: researching what keywords we wanted to rank for, their competitiveness, what already ranked for them, etc.
As I mentioned above, this particular niche (finance) was incredibly competitive. And since the site didn’t already have good organic traffic, I knew targeting short-tail keywords would be an uphill, losing battle.
So, I created two kinds of keyword lists. The first, the keywords we wanted to target. These were usually short-tail, highly competitive keywords. Ranking for them would be, at best, tricky, and at worst, impossible.
Then I built a second list out of those keywords, which contained long-tail variants. I used those to create my content briefs, targeting the much-less competitive, but still highly-relevant long-tail variations. These would show results much faster than the short-tail keywords. And though the search volume was much lower for those keywords, the quicker ranking provided momentum.
Since I carefully targeted both a long-tail and a short-tail keyword with each article, the momentum provided by the quick ranking and the spike in clicks also helped the articles start to rank for the short-tail variations as well. This took longer, of course, but patience and a good strategy always pays off.
Topics, Headings, and Briefs
Once the keywords were selected and researched, then came a lot of the legwork. I researched each query individually and selected the topic that I thought best aligned with the search intent behind it.
At that point, I built out an outline of the article, including all the major headings. I was careful to place the main target keyword in relevant headings, and semantic keywords in others, but not to stuff keywords where they didn’t belong.
Then, I built out the outline and brief for each article. These varied depending on the category and specific topic. But all the briefs included those listed earlier in this case study, as well as any notes for the writer on intent or quirks on the SERP.
At that point, the articles were researched, written, edited, and fact-checked. Once all of that was done, they were published.
As I stated in the introduction, we had no budget for content syndication or link building. But our content was still promoted in several key ways:
On social media
Email marketing and a newsletter
Promotion from strategic business partners
You can see the graphs at the beginning of the article. Our organic traffic rose exponentially through 2020 and into the start of 2021. You can read more about the ups and downs in the middle in the notes below.
Overall, the tactics I implemented across the site drove the following results:
Sessions: When I started in September of 2019, the website had roughly 5k a month. By January of 2021, it increased by 540%
New Users: In September of 2019, the website had roughly 2.5k new users a month. By January of 2021, it increased by 820%.
Pageviews: In September of 2019, the website gathered roughly 8.7k pageviews in a month. By January of 2021, it increased by 360%.
Some Additional Notes
One of the reasons for the up-and-down in the middle of 2020 was, of course, the pandemic. I always plan my content calendars on a quarterly basis. But when the pandemic started, I had to throw the predetermined strategy out the window and start creating timely content. That’s why we had some sharp spikes in May and July, because the timely content my team created and promoted took off, then became irrelevant almost immediately due to new information, or a pivot in interest.
Then, of course, when we started to shift back to a more normal posting schedule, we battled the same issue: people were tired of reading about the pandemic, but also didn’t want to read about anything else. That’s why it took us a little while to gain back our traction, but once we did, we saw enormous gains in January of 2021.
I fell sideways into working in SEO. I knew someone who knew someone who was looking for a content writer at their SEO startup. I took a chance and took the job, wanting to do what I loved for work.
I soon discovered that SEO is much more interesting than I initially thought. All the different elements that go into the web ranking of a website are intricate, detailed – and always changing. Working in the field requires a depth of knowledge that I enjoyed–but it also requires constant intake of new knowledge to keep up with Google’s constantly-changing guidelines.
That is, of course, not to say that people who write good content couldn’t eventually rank out of luck. That’s how it’s supposed to work–those who create good content and good sites are rewarded.
However, if you want to get more traffic on your website, without waiting for a stroke of luck, you need to use SEO. So let’s just dive right into it.
WTF is SEO?
This is a question I get a lot, since people don’t quite understand what I do.
SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, is the process of optimizing your website pages to draw in organic (unpaid) traffic. This is done by targeting pages to rank for specific keywords within your niche. For example, a local plumber might try to rank his business for the keyword “plumber in Dallas.”
Lots of different tactics and strategies roll up under SEO. Two of the most important are Technical SEO and Content Strategies. However, even more comprises those two deceptively-simple sounding tactics.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to introduce the different aspects of SEO and what each means. I’ll dive deeper into how to execute certain aspects in more comprehensive articles in the future.
Keyword research is the process SEOs use to track down and refine specific keywords people use when searching for services, products, or information online. You can do this using tools such as Ahrefs, SEMrush, or Moz. Or you can do it manually by typing in queries you want to rank for and scraping the SERP (Search Engine Results Page) for related keywords.
A good place to scrape on SERPs is the People Also Ask featured box, which is usually found in the middle-to-bottom of the page.
Manual Tip: If you click into any of the results, more will spawn beneath. This is a great way to find out what questions people have around your desired keyword.
Another option is the People Also Search For at the very bottom of a SERP page:
Content strategy is the process of planning, developing, and managing the content a website puts out. Types of content include site pages, blogs, whitepages, e-books, infographics, images, videos, etc.
Some SEOs will argue over whether content strategy is really part of SEO or not. Many content strategists are more than happy to create their content without even thinking about SEO. Whether that’s because they already have enough traffic to their site that new pages will rank without much effort, or they honestly don’t care, I don’t know.
When I develop a content strategy, I keep three things in mind: my audience, SEO, and search intent.
No matter how much you optimize a page, content won’t rank if it doesn’t fit your audience’s search intent (what they’re looking to find, regardless of the exact query). Likewise, writing content that ranks but doesn’t attract your core audience is a waste of time and energy.
When I develop a content strategy, I target a specific keyword (e.g., “blog”) and a long-tail variation of that keyword (3 or more keywords in a row, e.g.,“how to write a blog”). I check the SERP for what sites already rank for those keywords to see if there are gaps I can fill. Then I use the existing results to determine my user’s search intent, which then defines what the title of that blog should be. In the case of “how to write a blog,” you’ll want to create a walkthrough guide with steps. That way you deliver on the information your audience is requesting in the query.
Content Strategy Tip: Creating a great site structure means internal links throughout the site. I employ something called the Pillar technique to help create links across my site. In fact, I’ve done it in this article, too! I create a base article that covers the entirety of a single topic broadly (this article) and then link throughout to more in-depth articles on each subtopic. That tells Google that the main article is a piece of important content, and any links built across any of the individual pages will be shared with the other articles in the series.
Technical SEO refers to the process of optimizing your site itself for crawlability, beyond just the content on each page. Tech SEO helps you streamline the Google spider’s path through your site, as well as the user experience for anyone who lands on any page. Tech SEO has more to do with the structure of your site than the content on it, which is why it’s called “technical.”
Some components of Tech SEO are sitemaps, audits, site speed, canonical tags, URL structure, site navigation, mobile indexing, pagination, SSL, and robots.txt, just to name a few.
Technical SEO is a broad and complex topic that I’ll cover in more detail in another blog post. For now, I’ll touch on what I believe are the most important aspects of technical SEO.
The sitemap of your website is a file that provides information on all the pages and other media contained in the site, as well as the relationship (or structure) of each. Google uses sitemaps to crawl your site most effectively.
If you ever change or update your site, submitting a new XML sitemap to Google Search Console is a great way to ensure the search engine registers the change right away.
Sitemap Fact: WordPress automatically creates sitemaps for most sites hosted on their CMS. You can usually find it at yourdomain.com/sitemap_index.xml
SEO audits are an important tool in technical SEO. You use an audit to diagnose issues or areas you can improve on to rank more easily in SERPs. You can pay a professional to run an audit, use a tool like Ahrefs audits, or you can do it yourself.
Free SEO Tip: I recommend the software Screaming Frog if you’re going to do an SEO audit yourself. It’s free to use if your site has less than 500 URLs, and gives you all the information you need. Of course, using a do-it-for-you tool would be easier, but not all of us have that kind of money!
When running an audit, make sure to check if your site is mobile-friendly, look for orphan pages (pages with no links connecting them to the main site), 301 redirects, 404 errors, broken links, thin pages, and duplicate pages. These are all ranking factors Google checks.
A canonical tag is a bit of code on your website that tells search engines that your specified URL represents the master copy of the page. It claims original content as your own, and prevents issues with “duplicate” content across the web.
Here’s the code snippet to show original content through rel=canonical:
Confusing SEO fact: There’s debate among SEO experts of duplicate content actually can cause Google to penalize your site. I’m of the mind that–even if Google won’t penalize you–unoriginal content won’t rank anyway, so why bother trying to use existing content? But if you do, make sure your canonical is set up correctly!
Site speed is–I think, obviously–the speed at which pages on a site load. Now, site speed is a lot to do with user experience on a given website. Which is why it’s an important ranking factor. Google doesn’t rank sites that don’t offer quality experiences to their users. It’s the same reason bounce rate is a ranking factor.
Use Google’s Page Speed Insights to check your mobile and desktop speeds. If you’re ranking badly, it’ll suggest changes to improve your speed.
Google’s Core Web Vitals
As of March 2021, Google is implementing another site-speed ranking factor: Core Web Vitals. CWV is a report you can run within Google Search Console that can pinpoint which pages on your site are slow. It measures your site speed against ideal parameters for 3 main vitals:
Largest Contentful Paint
Largest Contentful Paint (LPC) measures the amount of time to display the largest content element on your page (typically some kind of image). A “good” LCP is around 2.5 seconds or less.
First Input Delay
First Input Delay (FID) measures the time between when a user interacts with your page (such as clicking on a link or a button) and when your page reacts to that action. Google measures this when your page first loads, and focuses on the first interactive elements visible on the page (such as a Call to Action (CTA) button at the top of a page). A “good” FID is 100 milliseconds or less.
Cumulative Layout Shift
Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) measures the amount the content elements on your page move around while loading. This metric is more about user experience than it is about site speed. CLS is measured on a rating scale of 0-1, with 0 being no shifting whatsoever and 1 being lots of shifts.
Tech SEO Tip: Make sure you have a good developer on your payroll to help you keep things up to date. Or learn to code yourself–though it’s easy to mess things up and break your site on accident.
This means that sites with good mobile architecture and experience will rank better when the switch is flipped. So it’s in your best interest to make sure your site is mobile friendly before March of 2021.
Google recently updated their guidelines around what is a “secure” website, and what isn’t. At this point, websites that utilize Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (https://) are marked as secure. Websites that use the old Hypertext Transfer Protocol (http://) are marked as “not secured”, and some browsers may not allow users to land on them. So make sure your site is utilizing https://.
All my coworkers will tell you that I’m obsessed with site structure. There’s a good reason why–it’s easy to lose track of your URLs, accidentally orphan pages, or make an absurd crawl map if you don’t pay attention to site structure when you’re building pages.
There are two aspects of this: user navigation and URL structure.
Navigation is how users get from one part of your website to another. It includes things like the nav bar at the top, menus that drop down or fold out, links across the site at the bottom of a page and, of course, hyperlinks.
URL structure is a way of optimizing your URLs to make them crawlable, relevant to a page, and easy for a user to understand.
A general rule of thumb in SEO is the shorter and clearer a URL, the better. Here are some examples:
Try to keep your URLs short. Cut out unnecessary or “filler words.” If you can cut it down to just your target keyword, do so.
Page optimization is the painstaking process of targeting a page toward a specific target keyword. Every page should have one main keyword it’s targeting–otherwise you may confuse search engines as they decide where to rank a page.
The major components of page optimization are URL, title tag, meta description, alt descriptions of any images, and the H1 of the page.
Title Tags are the title of the page that populates in SERP. A meta description is the 160 character description of the page, which also populates in SERP.
Alt descriptions are text that describes the contents of an image to make it accessible to people with vision impairments.
The H1 is the title of the page or article, which is signified in code with the tag <H1>. Each page should only have one H1 tag. Any other headings on the page should utilize <H2> through <H6>.
SEO Tip: I usually try to make sure my main keyword is in the H1 and the first H2 on the page. But beware of keyword stuffing! Don’t shove keywords where they don’t belong.
When optimizing a page, a good rule of thumb is your main keyword or keyphrase should be in each part of the page optimization listed above.
Here’s an example of each:
Title Tag: SEO for Beginners | Riley Irvin
Meta description: Websites don’t rank in Google by magic. Learn SEO for beginners to get your website ranking today.
H1: Easy SEO: The Definitive Guide to SEO for Beginners
Alt Text: Screenshot of a result from SERP of Moz.com that points out the Title Tag and Meta Description as a walkthrough of SEO for beginners
ADA Note: It’s more important that your alt descriptions on images are accurate to what’s in the image than that they have your given keyword. The alt description tag is to help people with vision impairments understand your site.
This post has been a ride but I think I’d have my SEO-card revoked if I didn’t end by talking about links. Most SEOs agree that one of the most important aspects of SEO is the different types of links on or linking to your site.
A link is what connects one webpage or website to another. This can be through navigation, buttons, or, commonly, hyperlinked text within the body of a piece of content.
There are three types of links that are important to SEO: internal links, outbound links, and inbound links.
Internal links are how you link to other pages across your own website. For example, I usually like to link my blog posts to each other as I publish them. That allows curious readers to click through and keep reading my work–and it also shows relevance to Google.
If you have one page that ranks for a certain query and you link it to another page, it shares its link equity with that other page as well (link equity – also called “link juice,” is a term SEOs use to describe how links pass authority to each other through hyperlinks).
A strong internal linking structure is important to SEO because it keeps your site together and shows relevance between pages and keywords.
Outbound links are hyperlinks that connect a web page to another website. So instead of linking within your own site, you link to an external site with supporting information.
Outbound links are important to SEO because they show expertise–which is one of Google’s self-professed most important ranking factors. It shows you’re reading and digesting other information.
Linking to high-authority sites on certain topics (particularly official sites such as .gov or .edu) can help increase your site’s authority. Not to mention it provides value to curious readers, who can expand their base of knowledge through other reading.
I usually try to have 3-5 external links in a blog post, depending on the length. Excessively long posts (like this one) might have more than that depending on if I need to support evidence or link to software that I like.
Most SEOs agree that one of the most important ranking factors for SEO is inbound links. This means external websites that link back to your site.
Sites and pages that rank will naturally gain their own links–if they provide good information to their readers. Or you can use outreach techniques to ask other site owners to link back to you. As long as the link is relevant and contextual, it won’t be penalized by Google for spam.
Some popular outreach techniques include directory outreach, resource sharing, and blog swapping.
SEO Fact: For a long time, black hat SEOs would use PBNs (private blog networks) to build links across a bunch of sites they owned or bought. Likewise, it became common practice for website owners to ask for payment when placing links or publishing content. Anymore, Google frowns upon that kind of paying for links, and asks that people report it so they can penalize sites. All that to say, buy links at your own risk.
All right, so now the real question: if you’re going to start optimizing your website, how do you measure your results?
This is a two part question, in my mind. Firstly, what do you measure? And secondarily, how do you measure it?
There are all sorts of different metrics and KPIs (key performance indicators) you can measure in SEO. But the underlying factor is this: SEO is meant to drive traffic to your site. So you need to measure it in traffic. Of course, you should also measure other things to make sure you’re improving your site performance.
Here are some of the main metrics I use when measuring site performance:
Sessions – Interactions with your website made by an individual user within a specific timeframe. Sessions can include multiple pageviews or tracking events.
New Users – Users that land on your site for the first time. This is measured by causing the browser to store a cookie when a user lands on the site. So, if a user clears their cache or cookies, they can count as a new user more than once.
Pageviews – How many times an individual page was viewed by either individual users, or the same users.
Pages Per Visit – The average number of pages a user visits while on your site. Generally, a higher number is better, because it means users find value on the site and want to stay on it.
Time Per Session – The average amount of time a user spends on the site after they land, before a session times out.
Bounce Rate – How often users land on your page, don’t find what they’re looking for, and bounce off. High bounce rates are a good sign your page isn’t lining up with the search intent of its ranking keywords.
Impressions – How often a user sees a result for your website on SERP, and has the ability to click on it.
Clicks – How many users click on the result for your website from SERP.
Click Through Rate (CTR) – The percent of impressions vs clicks: how often someone actually clicks through to your page after viewing the result on SERP.
Conversions – How often users take a specific action you want them to. Whether that’s calling, clicking a button, or signing up for the newsletter.
Domain Authority/Rank – Domain authority (DA) or domain rank (DR) are two ways of measuring how much authority Google perceives your site has. It’s often calculated by looking at ranking keywords, pages, traffic, backlinks, and referring domains.
The main tools you can use to measure SEO are built by Google, and therefore pretty accurate to Google’s standards. The data contained in the tools can be a little overwhelming for beginners, so make sure you narrow your focus if you’re just getting started.
Google Analytics – This is the main measurement platform most SEOs use, in my experience. Google Analytics attaches to your site property, and can measure interactions with your site in real time.
This is what I use to look at things like sessions, pageviews, new users, pages per visit, bounce rate, and conversions (depending on your tracking).
Google Search Console – Previously called Webmaster Tools, Google Search Console measures your appearance in search results and how often users interact with your results after they’re shown. You can use it to measure clicks, impressions, and CTR. It also has tools to show what keywords you’re ranking for, and what pages they land on.
This is also where you can find the Core Web Vitals report to measure your site speed.
3rd Party Software – I’ve mentioned these further up in this article, but using software like SEMrush, Ahrefs, or Moz can give you the tools to analyze your traffic, as well as backlinks, domain authority, and more.
You Call That the Basics?!
Here’s the part where we pause and take a breath. SEO is a complex and relatively murky industry. This admittedly-lengthy blog is just the basics. Sure, most of it is complex, but believe me, there’s much more to it than what I could fit in this blog post.
If you’re curious and want to learn more, I recommend following Ahrefs and Moz for informational posts about SEO. They cover everything from the basics up to much more complex topics.
If you want to know what Google says, follow Google Webmaster Central Blog. It’s useful for news updates around algorithm changes, new structure data, schema tips, and changes to indexing.
And if you want more Easy SEO information–follow me! I have much more information up my sleeves about how to rank a website. Check back in here for more information on content strategies, keyword research tactics, explanations and tips on how to build links without being penalized, and how to target specific SERP features.
And if you’re feeling overwhelmed but know you need to use SEO on your website? Come chat with me! I provide SEO services tailored to your goals and needs. Book a free call with me to learn how I can help your website rank.