How I Became Number 1

After a ridiculously long 16 months of hard work, my SEO efforts have paid off. After bragging some on a thread in the SEO Chat forums, I figured I should actually explain what I did and how I did it. Before I begin, I should thank the loyal SEO Chat members for all of their help.

If you’d like to read the original comments, here’s a link to the SEO Chat thread that inspired this article. If you’d rather not read the thread, you are probably wondering what exactly I did. Well, I took over the coveted #1 spot on Google for a highly competitive keyword in the health care field, beating search behemoths About.com and Wikipedia.org along the way. Now would you like to know how I did it?

To the chagrin of most of you, there is no SEO “silver bullet.” In fact, much of the time you waste searching forums and web sites for that bullet could probably be better spent doing what works. And as much as you hate to hear it, what works is linking. I’d love, as much as anyone, to flip some switch and get all of the traffic in the world, but at the end of the day, you really need to roll up your sleeves and build links aggressively… very aggressively.

There is no magic number as far as number of links to get or number of hours to spend, but if you budget ten hours a week on SEO, 85 percent of them should be spent on building relevant links. Before I get to the all important linking strategy, I’d first like to discuss a few road blocks which you may be facing now.

Obstacle #1: Registration and login. Before I began working on this site, visitors were forced to register on their first click from the home page. So, the home page was “free” but anything else required registration. After much debate and hours of meetings, I finally convinced the powers that be that this system was as search unfriendly as could be. Because spiders cannot register and then login to a web site to crawl it, search engines have no way, other than links, to determine what your web site is about.

At the time, Google had indexed just 12 pages of the entire site! We decided to give visitors ten “free” clicks to use as they pleased before being asked to register. At that point, they would have familiarized themselves enough with our site to determine if further access was worth giving up their personal demographics or not. Today, Google has 2,580 pages indexed. However, removing registration introduced me to my next major road block, frames.

Obstacle #2: Frames! I have always been aware of the old adages about frames and all of the obstacles that they come with, but I never really fully understood how it pertained to search. I can now say that I fully understand how frames relate to search. On August 1 of 2007, I implemented the aforementioned “ten-click registration” policy. As illustrated in the graph below, search engine traffic absolutely took off. In just four months, we went from 5 search engine visits a day to over a thousand!

Then December 1 hit, and our traffic and ranks began to plummet. One random day, Google just decided to index the header frame of all of my pages and not the body frame. Of course the former had just an image in it and the latter had all of the content! For about a week, if you searched “The document you have requested requires a frame-capable browser,” you would get about 1,000 of my pages, as this was the only text in the entire top frame! Don’t you just love how unpredictable Google can be? It took about a week to rid the site of frames, and in the same graph below, you can see how much of an effect that had!

 



Obstacle #3: Title Tags. I had some questions about the relation of a keyword’s placement in the title tag to its search engine rank and how keywords can be diluted by the number of words in a title tag. There really wasn’t much real data on the web about it so I decided to find the solution myself. I was most interested in a definitive answer about the effects of having the web site name or company title in the front of EVERY title tag on the site. Interestingly, there are hugely successful sites that do this and hugely successful sites that don’t which further complicated the issue for me. For example,

Walmart.com – Bridal Jewelry Designer

Walmart.com – Music Downloads ……..etc

I looked at the 14,399 unique keywords searched to find my site in January 2008. With Excel, I randomly choose 300 keywords to test. I then found the highest ranked pages for my site which included these keywords. There were examples with keywords in the front of titles, in the middle and all the way in the back. I removed the title of my site from the beginning of all 300 test pages of my site. While ranks improved more times than not (59%), sometimes they stayed the same (11%), and surprisingly often, they fell (30%) for one reason or another. Interestingly, some keywords at the very end of titles were not even in the top 1,000 SERPs, and then jumped WAY up after the web site name was removed. I don’t have this one completely figured out, but I now believe search engines ignore words beyond x characters in title tags when returning search results.

So for example, the keyword “example” on Yahoo.com:

Variety of remedies available to patients for “example” (rank #1)

MySiteTitle.com – Variety of remedies available to patients “example” (rank 882)

Regardless, 30 days after I flipped the switch on this project, search engine traffic was up 18.9% during the four months following the change over the four months preceding the change. (And yes, I understand the many variables at play here).



Finally, the good stuff: linking. Before you set out on any serious link building campaign, I highly recommend you create an Excel spreadsheet to organize your efforts and to stay efficient. My spreadsheet includes these fields: date, web address, contact information, email #1 date, email #1 response, email #2 date, email #2 response, link request date, link request response. Okay, now you are ready to get started.

Whenever I contact a webmaster with the intent to get a link, I never ask for it in my first contact. Your response rate will be exponentially higher if you adopt this same practice. After an email or two, I ask if they’d mind linking, all while playing dumb to SEO. You will get much better results than, "Hey I noticed you have a site about x, would you please consider linking to my site about x because your visitors will like it I think." This may not be the best example, but you’ll get the idea:

Email #1: “Hey so and so, I love your site. Since you seem to be running a great site yourself, would you mind taking a peek at mine and letting me know what you think. I’d really appreciate any feedback or suggestions."

Email #2: “Thanks a lot for the feedback. I worked so hard to build my site and no one seems to be coming to it, so I am trying to find ways to improve it and get people to come."

Email #3: “Good ideas. Speaking of which, would you happen to mind linking to me. I’d be happy to link back."

And there it is, my “secret sauce,” so to speak. Just a little precaution, time and patience when requesting links will get the most out of your time.

So, in conclusion, after months and months of decent success with this method, I have finally got the #1 spot, and it sure feels good when the hard work pays off. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: I fully expect maintaining a #1 spot on this keyword to be just as hard as obtaining it. In case you are wondering, traffic for that keyword has increased 94 percent just from going from #2 to #1. Graph here. Good luck!

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