Content, Optimization, Links – Oh My!

SEO is often described as a combination of art and science. Indeed, explaining SEO methodologies to clients and laypeople can be a daunting task. There are so many specific, drill-down details that it quickly gets confusing and overwhelming. Still, it’s not difficult for most dedicated SEO specialists to boil down the key elements of SEO into three relatively straightforward variables – content, links and site optimization. There are numerous articles online and off about all three of these elements, and this can make it easy to focus on only one or two of the three. Since all three are critical to achieving a high position on search engines, it is important to take a step back and understand how they work together to help your website rank well.

Let’s look at content first

The most important of the three, and in my opinion the most ignored, is content. Your website should start with your content and not with optimization and links. It’s easy to forget this. Websites that contain a handful of pages with little meaningful content, but lots of keyword repetition and link text abound. Likewise, e-commerce and other commercial sites that contain nothing but lists of products and/or services with “Buy Now” buttons are not as effective in terms of converting leads to sales as sites that provide detailed product descriptions, customer reviews, editorial articles and information and other juicy content. Websites that contain complementary information are favored by search engines because they are thematically relevant and are likely to be updated regularly.

I have seen many websites that contain a fair number of backlinks and on-page optimization, but very little actual content. Financial sites are a great example of this. For example, a site that sells mortgage loans may have five different pages with applications and/or contact forms which collect an individual’s information. These types of sites focus on lead generation. They want you to fill out something so they can get back to you with a phone call. Sparse information about the types of loans available is often provided, in addition to rate information, company information, calculators and perhaps a FAQ. Sites like these are missing a valuable opportunity to differentiate themselves in an extremely competitive environment.

A site that takes the time to provide detailed information about its area of expertise in the form of articles, current news stories, editorials and “how-to” guides or tips will not only differentiate itself from sites with little content, but also start ranking well in search engines for keywords contained in all that content. Content helps with conversion too. After all, from which site would you rather buy?

Adding content to your website seems like such a simple solution to me, but I often meet with resistance when I suggest it. That’s because it’s not always easy to update your website. You can start small by adding an “articles” or “information” page and linking to it on the home page and the site map without integrating it into the main navigation. It’s much easier to update one page than an entire site. Your articles page could contain links to all your articles, with each link accompanied by a short description of the article. Each article would reside on its own page. If you wrote one article a week, you’d quickly build up a nice collection of articles that could serve as a great resource in your industry (be it financial or otherwise), while also expanding the size of your site and providing regular fodder for site updates.

Once you have a plan in place for creating meaningful, regularly updated content for your website, optimization will fall natural into place. Each new page of content provides you with the opportunity to further optimize your site. On-page optimization of the Meta, Title and ALT tags and modified text should be customized to match the text for each new page of content. If there is a specific term you want to target, you can create an article around that term (e.g., an article about rising “interest rates” could be written for a site selling “mortgage loans.”)

Updating your site on a regular basis with new articles which are likewise optimized for search engines eliminates the need to rework and reoptimize existing pages which may or may not contain relevant text supporting the terms you want to target. So while you are spending more time writing more content, you’ll be spending less time trying to figure out how to change the content and layout of your keywords to get a better ranking.

Pages are appropriately optimized when they match the subject matter on the page and not when they target random keywords which have no content to support them. Simply optimizing pages based on what words you want to target is only one piece of the puzzle. You’re on the right track if you start with content, then move to optimization only after the relevant content has been created. The final step is link placement, but even that must be relevant and content-driven.

I will not restate the how and why of link placement since there are a gazillion articles about it (half of them on SEOchat.com). However, it is important to mention “link placement,” a.k.a. “reciprocal linking,” when discussing the big picture. The reality for website owners in this day and age is that great content and superb optimization just isn’t enough for optimal positioning in Google, which is the #1 search site in the U.S. You need people to link back to you, and these links must be meaningful. I mention Google specifically because Yahoo and MSN (the other major search players) still seem to favor on-page optimization more than link placement. This, however, is changing.

Contrary to popular belief (and practice), link placement does not exist in a vacuum. You want sites that have a high PR and/or many backlinks to link to your website. The best sites contain quality content and are leaders in their particular vertical. They are updated regularly and have a generous amount of dedicated customers and industry partners linking to them. So why should they link to you?

It all comes back to content. If you are providing meaningful, relevant content which is updated regularly, you are more likely to get great sites to link to you. As a website owner, I would rather link to industry thought leaders and valuable resources than five-page sites that contain nothing but online forms or 100-page sites that contain nothing but product thumbnails and “Buy Now” buttons. You have to give a lot to get a little in this business.

So content, optimization, links –- is it really that simple? If so, why are SEOs charging so much? Why can’t they guarantee that your site will rank well in the search results? What, after all, are you paying for? Let’s break down these questions.

Is it really that simple?

Yes, it is. The simple formula for a great ranking is to provide lots of content which is expertly optimized and get great backlinks to boot. What’s not so simple is actually developing the content and updating your site. This is where many website and business owners balk. It takes time to develop content, review it, edit it and upload it. It takes even more time to redesign a website that is scalable enough to accommodate regular updates (there are some great content management tools to help with this, but that’s for another article).

If your core business model involves selling cars, for example, then it is very difficult to think in terms of providing online resources (in the form of articles, white papers and FAQs) to potential clients. You want to sell cars, period. However, if you provide articles about the importance of oil changes, how to change a tire or the benefits of premium gas over regular unleaded, then you begin to differentiate yourself from all the other car dealers out there.

Chances are you have at least once employee who is a halfway decent writer, too. Pull on your resources and get the guy or gal to write one or two articles a month for your website. It may take a few months to start seeing where this pays off. But, eventually, it will pay off as your site begins to show up in the search results for thematically relevant terms that probably never even occurred to you to target in the first place.

Why are SEOs charging so much?

The short answer is that on-page optimization is extremely important, and knowing how to do it is a unique skill. Although I personally don’t recommend optimizing pages without also devising a comprehensive content update strategy, it can’t be argued that your entire site is better off if it is optimized. SEOs spend a lot of time following industry trends and doing actual hands-on optimization. We know how to optimize a page so that it is search engine friendly, without being spammy. Many of us can also generate search-engine friendly content that follows the tone of your site naturally. This is a skill acquired from long hours of writing highly-optimized sentences for a wide variety of clients.

Proper optimization of existing pages is very time consuming. You’re paying for the expertise of the SEO and the actual service itself. A good SEO will review your competitors’ websites, thoroughly evaluate your site and provide you with a concrete plan on what, how and where to implement changes to your site. You’re paying for this service, not for the results, and it is a service you have chosen to implement.

So why won’t SEO’s guarantee results?

SEOs are very hesitant to guarantee concrete results (e.g., you will be in the #5 position in Google for yourkeyword.com by May 21st). The main reason for this is that we don’t work for Google or Yahoo or MSN. We work for our clients and base our strategies on past campaigns and successes. While I cannot guarantee what position your site will be in for a specific keyword or keywords, I can almost certainly guarantee that traffic will increase to your website once it is optimized.

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