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Stop Playing the SEO "Game"
August 17, 2018 |

Corporate CMOs and non-profit Communications Directors are looking for any tool they can to raise the profile of their organizations and make them more visible than their competitors. In some cases, they turn to SEO consultants who promise to quickly raise brand awareness and revive failing pageview metrics. In practice, hiring a SEO consultant often means paying thousands of dollars a month for them to monitor Google search results pages for the slightest changes and then tweak site content in reaction to those changes, with the hope that the next tweak will be the one that increases visibility, spurs conversions, and improves revenue.   

At Phase2, we believe that trying to react to Google’s every move is the wrong approach, because of the way that Google publicizes the updates to its search ranking rules. Experts who follow Google search engine changes closely estimate that Google patches its ranking factors more than 500 times per year. This is an estimate because they rarely announce changes in advance. When they do announce changes, they typically don’t give actionable guidance on how to respond. For instance, this is how Danny Sullivan, Google Search Engine Liaison, announced the August 1 “Google Medic” update:


Along with guidance on how to respond to the update:


Trying to react to  the twists and turns of Google’s search rankings can feel like an unwinnable game. That’s the bad news.

The good news for communications directors and marketing managers is that you shouldn’t play the game. Maintaining your site’s search engine visibility doesn't have to be “one more thing on your plate” or one more line item in your already stretched budget.  While improving SEO can seem overwhelming, there are many ways to improve and maintain website search rankings as part of your team’s daily editorial activities. Those activities fall broad into writing great content for your audiences, connecting to your partners and community with a smart linking strategy, and ensuring that your websites are coded following best practices.

Content is (Still) King

While Google’s ranking factors do twist and turn, what has remained constant is that content that serves audiences first performs better with search engines. Search results pages are chock full of “ultimate guides” on how to create SEO-friendly content, all of which boil down to a simple notion: The more you understand your audiences and their goals, the better you will grasp the intent behind their search queries and have a foundation for creating content that will help them achieve those goals.  

Write in Plain Language

Great content is approachable and written in plain language that serves both your audiences and your business needs. Content that uses specialized industry lingo, internal acronyms, or jargon can confuse audiences who don’t already know your code words and product names. Those potential clients will flee your site and instead will be funneled to your competitors who are using plain language and clear descriptions. You’re likely already writing in plain language because it is crucial to your organization’s mission. A few common plain language practices are:

  • Concise, scannable text
  • Highlighted keywords (hypertext links, typeface variations, colors
  • Meaningful sub-headings (not “clever ones”)
  • Bulleted lists
  • One idea per paragraph
  • The inverted pyramid style (start with the conclusion)
  • Half the word count than conventional writing

Keep it Conversational

Digital assistants like Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa have changed how people search. Rather than simply using keywords, people are more likely to use a conversational “question and answer” style. This means that content can itself be much more conversational, with copywriters being more likely to write how they speak. Marketing and communications professionals can ensure that their content is voice-ready when working with their content creators:  

  • Almost 70% of voice searches with Google Assistant use a conversational style of asking complete questions. Google uses your page titles, section headers, and Frequently Asked Questions pages to power responses to voice search questions. If you collect the questions and phrases that come through voice search, you can create content that caters to that “Q+A” need.
     
  • The rise in natural language voice searches makes it easier for search engines to decode intent. The way users ask questions can help us understand how their searches are progressing from informational to navigational to transactional - mirroring the traditional customer funnel progression. Continue to craft content that anticipates and serves the consumer funnel.
     
  • Voice searchers are often looking for businesses and services “near me” or “by me.” Forward-looking content strategies include location information to take advantage of proximity.

Use Clean Interaction Design

As search engines have matured, they are able to do more than just consume the text on a page and blindly follow links. Many search engines are able to fully “view” and interact with pages in ways that are similar to true site visitors. Because of this, successful content (and SEO) strategies incorporate common practices from user experience and visual design:

  • Employ a well-tested information architecture with clear navigation labels
  • Use engaging landing pages that incorporate brand voice
  • Feature clear content aggregation pages that provide paths for content exploration
  • Create a clean interaction design that encourages completion of onsite transactions
  • Link titles, button labels, and calls to action should be very clear and intuitive. A user should easily understand what they will get, or where they will land, when clicking a Call to Action.

Community Matters

When we talk about “the web”, we’re really talking about the web of conversation. It doesn’t matter how good your content is, if no one can find it. Luckily, the simple acts of linking out to other websites while monitoring the links that are coming into your site can improve your SEO rankings. Maintaining your site’s links includes:

  • Scan the site monthly to detect bad URLs, including expired offsite links.
  • Reduce 404 errors by eliminating dead links.
  • Reduce duplicate content pages by adding 301 redirects and canonical URLs.
  • Review incoming links for quality and disavow low quality links.

In addition to maintaining your site’s links, it’s equally important to share your content broadly:

  • Write page titles and page excerpts that encourage click through from Google
  • Nonprofit and governmental organizations should collaborate with their community partners to broaden the reach and availability of content.
  • Include social media in your marketing and outreach plan

Code it Cleanly

The quality of your website’s code is just as important as the quality of the content. Google values sites that demonstrate expertise, authority, and trustworthiness, and quality code is a sign of a trustworthy publisher.  First and foremost, implement HTTPS everywhere, not just on checkout pages. Using SSL on every page improves the security of your site for your visitors and signals to Google that your site is trustworthy.   

Also, pay attention to the size of web pages and leverage strategies that keep them as small as possible. Techniques such as using a content distribution network, browser caching, optimizing images, page compression, and  minifying your code all reduce server response times and improve your site speed. Many of your visitors are on mobile phones with limited data plans. Keeping your pages slim and speedy serves your audiences, as well as being positive ranking factors on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

Introduce Schema Meta tags

Schema microdata is structured HTML that you add to your site to improve the way search engines read and represent your page in Search Engine Results Pages. In the same way that the traditional HTML details the content of a page, schema tags can signal to search engines the intent of a single paragraph or a single word or phrase. For example, on your contact us page, Schema can identify which paragraph is the telephone number and which paragraph is your mailing address.  

Structuring your content using common microformats aids in accessibility, while also helping search engines more deeply understand the intent of a single paragraph or section of content on a page.  If you implement these tags correctly, the results can be higher rankings on search results pages, and more information from your website being displayed on SERPS. This includes knowledge graph results (the right column of a Google search results page), breadcrumbs in your search result (versus a URL under the title), or your sitemap appearing with your results pages. Additionally, applying structured data to your FAQ pages and conversational content increases the chance that they appear in voice searches.

Build for Accessibility

By now, content creators all understand the civic value of making accessible digital experiences. Making content accessible is fundamental to serving customers, 1 in 10 of whom likely need some sort of accommodation. Given that, it should be no surprise that the same techniques that make websites accessible also improve SEO and website authority. Creating accessible digital experiences is a topic unto itself, and Phase2’s Web Accessibility Playbook, can guide publishers toward best practices. Accessible content should incorporate these three concepts:  

  • Choice: Provide options for how audiences can engage with a site, not forcing them down a single path.
  • Context: Give more information about what they are reading, watching, or listening so they are confident that they’re going to get the content they are expecting.
  • Clarity: What is the reader clicking, viewing, or watching? Can they easily understand and follow along?

Although Google is constantly tweaking its search ranking factors, it is a conservative organization at heart. The big changes it has made to the ranking algorithm have been in response to natural shifts in how people use the web (mobile-first, conversational, locally focused), rather than being the vanguard of those shifts. Savvy marketers will understand this and hold a true course. Understand your audiences’ goals and devise a content strategy and digital experience that encourages audiences to achieve those goals. Continue writing great content for your audiences, connecting to your partners and community with a smart linking strategy, and ensuring that your websites are coded following best practices. With patience, SEO success will surely follow.

SEO

Jason is a digital communications strategist with more than 15 years' experience in creating award-winning online presences for organizations, both large and small. Over the course of his career, he has developed customer and audience engagement strategies for national brands like CrossFit, national non-profits like the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation, and government organizations like the National Institutes of Health and the US State Department.

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