As search marketers, we know that there are proven methods of improving our page rank such as creating unique and relevant content with the right keywords, promoting this content, and building links from the domains that matter.
These are methods that have been used for the past ten years and while, these methods have been quite effective, SEO is more complex today.
The rise of social media as an effective SEO tool, the growing competitiveness of SEO, and tough guidelines by search engines, call for a re-evaluation of how we have been doing SEO.
Learning from the Fosbury Flop
The Olympic Stadium in Mexico City was packed that summer day in 1968. Richard Fosbury took a deep breath before the crowd of 80,000 people and then broke into an explosive run, aiming for a simple bar held in the air between two poles. As he reached the takeoff point, he gathered himself and then catapulted into the air, turning his body and clearing the bar in an unusual backwards position, his torso arched upward, landing not on his feet but back and shoulders.
It was a unique style different from any other technique and it gave Fosbury the edge to create a new Olympic record of 7 feet 4.25 inches and the Olympic gold medal in his first ever international event. This technique aptly called the Fosbury flop is used by virtually every successful high jump athlete since then.
Page-centric execution – The Fosbury Flop of SEO
If we look at Fosbury’s success conceptually, we see that the key driver was his focus on the goal, which was clearing the bar. Refining traditional techniques and squeezing out every last bit of performance from existing techniques was not the real goal. This clarity enabled him to pursue what really mattered and gave him the ability to dominate the sport.
In the world of SEO we see the same thing. It is important to remind ourselves that the reason we do what we do is to improve the rank of pages. It is our pages that attract visitors and new customers, promote and build brand loyalty, and sell products. Therefore, pages need to be the center of your SEO world.
You are probably wondering how this is different from how SEO is handled, both conceptually and in practice. Typically, we pick a set of keywords, map each keyword to a page, and then optimize these pages. Keywords are usually the center of all SEO strategies, technologies, and processes, and this is the way it’s been done for the last several years. A page-based approach, on the other hand, transforms how you execute on SEO. The following 4-step framework shows you how.
Step 1: Know what it takes to clear the SEO bar, then optimize
At Indiana University, researchers studied the Fosbury flop in great detail and identified the advantages that it gives to high jump athletes. Don’t worry—I’m not going to start talking about the physics of the Fosbury flop. However, we can learn something from how Fosbury first came up with a technique that enabled him to clear that Olympic bar six inches higher than the other athletes – the foundation for Fosbury’s success was a clear understanding of what drives success in clearing the bar.
Switching lanes to the SEO world, clearing the SEO bar, a.k.a. higher page ranking, is determined by several factors. While these factors are well-known, a different approach to optimizing these factors is needed in today’s SEO.
Start with a list of pages
The first step is to zoom in on a manageable set of pages and target optimizations for these pages. Start small, set up a process around optimizations, and then do a wider roll-out.
How do you spot these pages? Select criteria that make sense for the type of business that you have. For example, let’s say that you are doing SEO for a sports merchandise e-commerce store. Look at your web analytics and/of keyword ranking technology and then choose the top 25 (or so) pages that generate the most visits, orders, or revenue by SEO referrals.
Target multiple keywords per page - forget single keyword to page pairings
Let’s say that the NBA merchandize product page is one of the most popular pages for your business. You may want to rank for: “NBA shop”, “NBA store”, and “NBA gear”, for this page. The aim here is to rank for associated phrases.
You may be wondering why I mention something so obvious. Actually, this is a shift from the common approach of using only one keyword to drive page rank. While most marketers aspire to rank for multiple keywords, technology limitations force them to stick to keyword pairings of one keyword per page. Instead of one keyword, you need to target all of the keywords that matter to that page.
Also, look beyond the keywords that are in your hit list. One way you can do this is to identify keywords that your target pages are ranking for. This will help you expand your list of target keywords beyond the usual suspects and identify the low hanging fruit i.e. keywords that you rank for already, whether or not you knew about them.
Prioritize - not all keywords are made equal
While I strongly recommend that you have a handful of target keywords (between one and five—the homepage can accommodate more), it is a good idea to identify one keyword as the primary keyword for each page. A primary keyword identifies the main keyword for that page and could be used as a tiebreaker – if only one keyword can be used for optimization. An example of this would be the URL or the titles, which usually have space for only one keyword.
After you've determined your primary keyword, identify the next high-priority keyword, and so on. Going back to our example of the e-commerce site, let's say that you have a page for Manchester United gear. Your primary keyword could be ‘Manchester United jersey’, your secondary word could be ‘Man U Jersey’, and so forth.
Optimizing on-page factors for these pages and keywords
Now that you have your priority keyword and runner-ups, look at each page and check to see if it is optimized for all keywords.
- Is the content optimized/relevant for all of your target keywords?
- Does the title contain the primary and secondary keyword?
- Is the primary keyword in the URL for that page?
- Are you using your keyword(s) in your alt tags?
- Are your keywords found in your page content? Do they signal to the search engines the relevance of the page to the keywords?
You can find a complete list of on-page optimizations in this excellent seoMoz post.
Scan and fix internal links for every page
We all know that internal linking is an important facet of SEO. Internal links help search engine crawlers find your web pages and identify the pages that are the most important. The anchor text for the internal link indicates to the spiders what your page is about. A page–centric approach to internal linking takes this to a whole new level. Therefore, check all of your internal links to make sure that the anchor text for them contains one of the keywords.
Build a healthy link profile for every page
As you know, external links act as major signals for search engines. We will come back to external links in our conversation about competitive intelligence since an effective link strategy, by its very nature, relies on a scan of competitive linkscape. We will also look at the Black Hat a.k.a. shady link building techniques to be avoided at all costs.
Promote your pages in social media
Google and Bing have stated explicitly that social signals do matter in SEO. Social media activity leads to a "halo" effect that creates links and mentions in social sites, and that in turn, impacts search results.
For each of your pages, correlate the number of Likes, Shares, and Tweets, and +1, with the rank for each keyword. Ask yourself if there is a positive correlation with rank for any of those keywords. If the answer is yes, try ratcheting up the social media activity for that keyword.This analysis of social signal for every page and keyword across networks can be cumbersome. Therefore, perform this analysis for the primary keyword.
For an example, let's say that you discover a positive correlation between Tweets and rank for one of your pages. You may then want to use Twitter to drive organic traffic to your site. You could use lessons from TinyPrints’ experience in driving 47% higher organic traffic by using the right Tweet content
Step 2: Find your competitive edge
High jump is a competitive sport where the smallest advantage can give an athlete the edge over the competition. For example the gold medalist in the high jump at the London Olympics this year cleared the bar at 2.38 meters – that's about the same height as a delivery truck! The silver medalist cleared the bar just five hundredth of a centimeter lower, and three athletes tied for third place.
SEO is competitive too. Optimizing the variables above is critical but, you also need to find and use every bit of competitive advantage you can to soar over the SEO bar higher than your peers. There are two areas that you can specifically focus on.
Analyze competition for external linking opportunities
For each page, go to your main search engine and identify the top 10 ranking pages for every target keyword for that page. You can use your ranking technology platform to identify these pages or simply type the keyword into the search bar on Google. Looking at the top 10 pages, ask yourself:
- What domains are these pages getting their backlinks from?
- Are these domains relevant to your business?
- What is the credibility and authority of these domains?
- Does it make sense to have a link from these domains to your page? If the answer is yes, then this is an opportunity to improve rank for your pages through backlinks from a credible domain.
- Do the competitor backlinks contain your target keywords in the anchor text? If not, this is a business opportunity for you to be better than them. You may have to focus on one or two keywords for the anchor text.
You may also want to analyze the link quality distribution, anchor text distribution, and TLD distribution for your named competitor domains. Compare your distributions. Are there any striking differences? For example, does one, or more, of your competitors have higher-quality links than you do? This rollup gives you a great snapshot for you to look at the health of your backlinks and identify if there are any areas for optimization.
A critical aspect of external linking is complying with search engine guidelines. Google, for example, evaluates your link profile closely for any unapproved linking tactics. I will cover some of them later in this post.
Analyzing competition for social opportunities
Taking your primary keyword, measure the social media Shares/Likes and Tweets for each page, as compared to the top 10 ranking pages for that keyword. Do their pages have a higher level of social media activity than yours? If so, it might make sense to increase social sharing for your pages. Again, make sure that you are targeting the primary keyword(s) when it comes to choosing the content for your Tweets.
Step 3: Clear the bar by all means, legally
The IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federation) has a clear set of rules and guidelines on what constitutes a legitimate jump. We’re not going to talk about those rules here but I think we are all aware that an athlete being disqualified for not adhering to those rules is common. In addition to the IAAF, the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) has strict rules on the use of performance enhancing drugs and has been known to actively enforce these rules.
In the world of Panda and Penguin, we all know that not complying with search engine guidelines and can carry heavy penalties.It is really important to keep a watchful eye on every page to ensure compliance with search engine guidelines all the time. Pay attention to duplicate page content, keyword stuffing, links from spammy sites and unnatural anchor text distribution for external links, among others.
Such practices, termed Black Hat SEO, carry stuff penalties, which might take a while to recover from. Be aware of and avoid Black Hat SEO tactics. While there are tons of resources on the internet, the Google quality guidelines are a great starting point for getting a sense of SEO practices that Google approves of. Focus on Google’s latest updates Panda and Penguin, which specifically target low-quality content and web spam respectively. You may find the following resources useful:
- Panda – Official Google blog post announcing Panda
- Penguin – Google Webmaster blog announcing Penguin, SearchEngineLand post after Penguin launch
Step 4: Cast a wider net & target more pages
After you have a firm handle on Steps 1 through 3 for your initial set of target pages, you are ready to apply these steps to a broader set of target pages. Scaling your page-centric SEO to a new level requires streamlining your execution and using technology to help you improve efficiency and effectiveness.
Streamline how you work & get more done, faster
Fosbury didn’t just invent a new technique—he practiced it. In SEO, it is not enough to simply keep a watch on all of the SEO variables that influence rank for you and your competition. Instead, you need a streamlined process to implement all the changes you identified to get results.
Transparency and accountability is the key. Have a system and process for identifying owners for different areas such as on–page optimizations, backlinks, internal links, and so forth. Create tasks out of every activity, assign owners to those tasks, and set deadlines for them. Tracking progress on these tasks can be a challenge, but it has to be done. Create a system that automatically tracks progress for things like pages needing URL optimizing, and anchor text for internal links having the right keywords in them. It is important to be disciplined and systematic in your page-centric execution.
Find your cushy mat
When Fosbury started his high jump career, wood chips were used as a landing surface. In his junior year of high school, schools and colleges replaced the chips with thick foam rubber, a much softer surface to land on—especially for someone landing on their back and shoulders. It was this new technology that gave Fosbury the element he needed to use his new technique safely.
Technology in SEO is much like the foam rubber used in the high jump. It makes it possible for us to analyze our competitors, comply with search engine rules, and implement measures to improve rank. Without the right tools, the sheer scale of these measures could become overwhelming. Find your cushy mat that can help you manage SEO for all of your pages, lean on it to collaborate with every team member involved in SEO, and have greater visibility into page level SEO. Believe me, finding your SEO foam rubber cushion will make you more successful not to mention saving you those sleepless nights and unproductive days.
Editors note: Find out more about best practice in page-centric SEO at the annual BrightEdge industry event BrightEdge Share12 on September 12th in San Francisco.