The Blue Compass SEO Guide
If you’re looking to learn about Search Engine Optimization (SEO), this is the place. After hundreds of blog posts from our digital marketing team and more SEO hours than we can count, Blue Compass decided it was time to write a comprehensive SEO guide. This isn’t just a set of predictions — this post focuses on what’s happening in SEO now and how you can best attack each and every aspect in your digital strategy.
There’s a lot that goes into SEO (over 300 ranking factors from Google) and we realize it can be overwhelming. That’s why we’re giving away some of our best kept SEO secrets and highlighting SEO website mistakes to help you better conquer the digital landscape.
This guide contains everything from copywriting tips, to local search, to international targeting. Whether you are starting your SEO journey or are a seasoned expert, this guide will give you the knowledge and tips to kick it up notch.
Let's jump in.
Chapter 1: SEO Basics
Just in case you’re new to this, SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. It’s the process our SEO experts use to make sure your website shows up when people type various terms into the search bar. In its simplest form, SEO is all about structuring your site for a search engine while remaining natural and engaging for the user.
What do we mean by natural and engaging?
Most people look at SEO and think it’s a way to bring free traffic to your site. They’re not wrong, but they’re not right. Free, organic traffic is a byproduct of SEO. Proper SEO is about optimizing your site to best provide what a user is looking for. When you start optimizing to answer user questions, you get highly engaged visitors who find your content valuable.
With that out of the way, we can jump into the four overarching facets of SEO:
- Errors and Violations
On-Page SEO focuses on what’s on the page (we know, mind-blowing). Think of keywords, H1s and H2s, meta tags - things you can easily control and see.
Off-Page SEO is all about backlinks — who is linking to your site, are they trustworthy, are they authoritative? You have to monitor your backlinks and clean them up on a routine basis.
Technical SEO is all about the code behind your site. This is made up of things like canonical tags, schema, SSL protocols — lots of jargon-filled words that may be hard to understand if you’re new to the whole SEO thing.
Then comes errors and violations. These are exactly what you think. They hurt your site and can be as simple as missing information or as complex as invalid markup.
If this information has already caught you off-guard, or you’re looking to dive a little bit deeper, check out our technical SEO audit checklist for more tips on how to get your site a clean, SEO bill of health.
Remember, these are just the basics. Keep on digging and you’ll find some serious gold throughout the rest of the post with some valuable deep dives into the above-mentioned topics.
Chapter 2: Content - SEO Copywriting for Google
“Content is king.”
This quote is used again and again and we see it at just about every marketing conference we attend. Mainly, because it’s true.
Content is king, though the phrase should be taken with a grain of salt.
If you create one million pieces of content tomorrow, you won’t dominate the search engines. There are already millions and millions of blogs - more content doesn’t always equal better search rankings.
Search engine optimized content is the answer to more visibility and traffic to your site.
For now, we’re going to focus on how to best use copywriting to increase traffic, but there are many other forms of content to consider when developing your overall digital strategy:
Web copywriting is where SEO started. Remember keyword stuffing? Or hiding text on a webpage? Nowadays, these practices will result in negative rankings, but keywords and content still remain a large part of targeting users and improving rank.
Why is SEO copywriting so important?
- It’s the easiest way to target relevant keywords.
- Great, long-form content will increase dwell time (the amount of time spent on a page).
- It brings a targeted audience to your site based on their search terms.
Sounds like a good deal, right?
Harnessing the power of SEO through your writing to achieve these goals is a whole other monster. To do so, focus on three things: the audience, their language and the search engine.
Before you put the first word on a page, think about who is going to read your content and how to make your brand story interesting to them. By focusing on user experience – UX storytelling – you can identify the tone you choose, the vocabulary and the depth you want to cover in a topic.
Then ask yourself if the audience cares about the topic.
Google Trends, Buzzsumo or surveys are a great way to gauge trending topics and audience interest. There’s nothing worse than finishing up a blog only to have zero people read it.
Take Moz as an example. They sent out a survey to readers to better understand their audience and then recapped it in a 2017 readership post. Not only is this a great way to gauge what your users want to read about, but it creates insightful data to use in case studies or targeting efforts.
What terms does your audience search for when looking for information?
Do they ask about “SEO” or “search engine optimization?”
It’s surprising how much simple nuances of language lean into SEO. Understanding the search terms your desired audience uses is crucial to copywriting; and if you haven’t already guessed it, this is where the keyword research part of SEO comes into play.
If you have keywords you think are important to your brand, take a minute and enter the search terms into Google. What results pop up?
Are they similar to what you’re trying to sell - what you’re trying to educate your audience about?
If they’re completely different, chances are they’re not the right keywords. Experiment with long-tail keywords that are more specific to your content and check things like Google Search Console to see which queries already bring users to your site.
With any luck, this will give you some valuable feedback on what keywords you should be targeting — AKA, your audience’s language. If you need any other help finding keyword value (how often terms are searched), check out these tools:
The Search Engine
When Google crawls content, it’s looking for specific things within your page to understand what your content is really about. Knowing this, we have to structure content to best fit the search engine’s needs. The easier it is for Google to identify what your page is about, the better.
We like to think of this as a part of the outline process when we write. There are four things we require everyone to think about when putting together a content piece.
- Keyword density
- Word count
- Meta information
- Header tags
Keep these in mind and follow best practices to make your content search engine ready.
Also, be sure to check out our in-depth post that focuses on SEO copywriting best practices if you’re looking to learn more about how content interacts with search engines.
Chapter 3: What is Link-Building and Why Does It Matter?
While content may be king, link-building sits right next to it on a throne of its own. Link-building is a necessity for those looking to top the Google charts, and may qualify as the most important skill to have when it comes to SEO. It requires communication, great content, strategy and an understanding of Google’s algorithms.
If you’re looking for a straightforward definition, link-building is the process of gaining links back to your site from other sites. This provides SEO value by identifying the authority of your information. Like a friend recommending a great restaurant, Google is happy when other sites refer to your site.
Links are used to judge a site's authority. The more links to a site, the more authority that site garners — though the quality of links also comes into play.
While 500 links from local businesses will give you authority, five links from national publications, like Forbes or Inc. can produce similar SEO value. Similarly, 500 links from spammy sites will send a signal to Google that you’re trying to cheat the system. This just goes to show that the days of buying backlinks are long gone.
How does this work?
Well, we like to think of sites as bubbles. The more authoritative the site, the bigger the bubble. As bigger bubbles point to smaller bubbles, Google notices. This sends a signal to search engines that your content must be high quality because reputable sources are referring their users to your information.
How do you identify domain authority?
The easiest way is through Moz — they carry the most respected metric for domain authority. A score of 1-100 determines a site’s authority (sites like Google and Facebook carry close to 100). With Moz’s Open Site Explorer anyone can search for domain authority and backlink information on a limited number of sites per day.
If you’ve hit your Moz limit, common sense goes a long way. Do you see the source of your backlink as a trusted domain? Do lots of people read their content, treat them as an authority?
If the answer is yes, they most likely have a high domain authority. Unsure if a site is spammy? There are a few red flags to look for as signs that a backlink is low quality and potentially giving you an SEO penalty.
- Is the linking site’s content at all related to yours? If the answer is no this might be a good sign to investigate further.
- Is the site in the same language as your site? As a general rule of thumb, if you are not an international company and a site in a foreign language is linking to yours, it is likely a low-quality link.
- Is it a directory site? With directory sites, there is not always a clear-cut answer, but if a website looks as if its only purpose is to produce backlinks, then we recommend avoiding links from that site.
If the link seems sketchy, you can always disavow it in Google’s Search Console (this will also be where you view backlinks to your site). We will warn you: the disavow process is simple to do but can hurt your site's visibility if improperly executed.
Chapter 4: Getting Found With Local SEO and Local Search
As SEO has grown into more of a developed field over the years, we’ve seen various subjects popup — one of the most prominent and talked about being local SEO and local search.
The integration of Google Maps into everyday search has increased the need for businesses to provide local search optimization outside of their normal SEO tactics. It’s all about immediate relevance and how to best address a customer’s wants on-demand.
At its simplest form, local SEO comes down to claiming where your business is located and providing basic information about your business to the search engine, and thus, the customer. Think name, address, hours of operation, etc. While this is a super simplified explanation of local SEO, it is the basis of establishing an online presence in local search.
The more information you share about your business the better, and the easiest place to share that information is Google My Business.
Google My Business houses your online business listing — acting as an online profile for your business entity. Staying active on your Google My Business listing and learning how to respond to Google reviews is crucial for ranking locally and garnering business. Did you know that 50% of consumers who conducted a local search on their phones visited the location within one day?
Now don’t run off and go crazy on your Google My Business listing after just one stat. For a site that crushes your local search rankings, there are a few other factors you’ll have to work through, like:
- Directories and Business Citations
- On-Page SEO
On-page SEO and backlinks operate the same as they do traditionally — a city or town name in your copy and headings helps Google identify what the copy is about while locally sourced backlinks help identify your site as a reliable local business.
Online directories and business citations are the new addition to the fold with local SEO. They’re a tried and true tactic dating back to the beginning of SEO. A local business citation is any place your name, address or phone number is mentioned. These citations must remain consistent — any inconsistency among them can negatively impact site ranking.
Luckily, there are many tools for auditing and updating online directories to ensure a cohesive local presence online. Moz Local offers a free tool to check online listings, find inconsistencies and discover ways to better optimize for a variety of platforms. For more insights and listing management, Moz Local also offers a more robust paid version. Yext is another great tool for managing multiple online listings from one dashboard.
It’s online directories like Yelp, BBB or YP that are frequently used for local business citations. Updating these directories can do wonders for your SEO value. Be sure to dig through your local citations and add photos, choose appropriate categories or double-check business reviews.
For an in-depth look at local SEO check out our Google My Business SEO blog.
Chapter 5: Website Design and How It Affects Your SEO
It may seem a little strange to focus on design in an SEO guide, but it turns out website design is one of the key facets of a great, well-ranking website. Think of prominent brands like Airbnb and their beautiful designs — a great website design can make a site.
What does this have to do with SEO? The design of a site, and whether or not it's following UX and SEO best practices, has a lot more to do with it than you may think. Let’s start out with user interface (UI)/user experience (UX).
Too often we see people focus on the design of their site when they should be focusing on the landing page UX, or the experience their user has when they get to the site. Going back to Airbnb, their site is neatly laid out and the first thing you see on their page is what you came to do: book a stay. Another example would be Domino's Pizza. When you get to their website you want to order pizza, and they made this even easier for customers by adding a chatbot to take your order. Following landing page UX best practices will ensure an easy-going, memorable experience for your users.
This is the type of thinking that you need to use when designing your site. It’s all about the behavior metrics (time on page, bounce rate, etc.) and how your design can improve those metrics.
What does this look like in action?
Late 2017 we launched a new site for a client and immediately saw the benefits of better design.
While seeing pageviews and sessions increase, we were most pleased with the pages/session metrics and average session duration. A redesign with the user in mind made the site much easier for users to move through and kept them on the site longer — we couldn’t have asked for better results.
Still wondering how applicable design is to SEO? Just take a look at SaaS company Hubspot. Hubspot takes a whole part of their software certifications and dedicates it to what they call “Growth-Driven Design.”
Growth-Driven Design focuses on the creation of user-friendly landing pages that engage the user and are changed minutely over time. This is the same approach Blue Compass takes with our UI/UX testing. We know a site should be monitored, the copy should be changed, and even menu formatting should be altered to best engage the user.
Outside of the on-page user experience, you shouldn’t forget about things like responsive website design and site speed. A push for mobile-optimized sites make mobile-first responsive design a necessity, and heavily weighted sites are slow to load no matter what medium they are viewed.
According to Kissmetrics, 47% of users will leave your site if it doesn’t load within two seconds, followed by another 40% leaving if it doesn’t load within three seconds.
Make sure your site is optimized for load time by compressing images and keeping the site lean. You can easily test your speed using Google tools or other third-party services — both should give you insights on how to speed up your site.
Chapter 6: Schema - Future-Proofing Your Website
If you frequent our blog, you’ve probably seen content about Schema.org and structured data markup. If this is your first time hearing about it, schema is a framework language that tells the search engine exactly what your page is about. Currently referred to as schema structured data, Schema.org or just schema, it has been around since 2011 and was created as a joint effort between search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc.) to offer a standardized vocabulary across the web.
Currently, schema is only used on about 30% of websites worldwide.
A number we believe shows just how underutilized schema is.
Schema isn’t necessarily the answer to ranking at the top, but it’s a Google-sponsored tool that tells search engines exactly what’s on your page. What’s not to love?
Google has never officially stated that schema helps page ranking, but we tend to see Google-sponsored tools as an indicator of probable search ranking factors. Just like with Google Plus, a tool Google denied gave SEO value, we’ve typically seen value in posting and linking to various content pieces.
Tools like Data Highlighter and Structured Data Testing Tool only further our hypothesis that Google wants websites to implement schema markup. Whenever Google incentivizes a tool, we listen.
Outside of these incentives and SERP results, schema can lead to the generation of rich snippets in search results. Something that looks like this:
You can get as detailed as you want with schema, using it site-wide or individually on each webpage. We see it as a future necessity for webpages to be SEO-compliant, just as H1s or image alt tags are an SEO must, we believe every site implementing schema is ahead of the game.
Schema is continually updated with new additions to markup language coming every few months, but with proper utilization the first time around, it’s easy to maintain healthy schema markup.
Whether you’re looking to start schema or test your knowledge against ours, you can read about our schema best practices in our blog outlining the specifics behind all things markup language.
Chapter 7: Going Worldwide - Understanding International SEO
International SEO? We know, it sounds strange at first. Isn’t SEO inherently international? The web doesn’t serve just one country, so shouldn’t Google crawl every site equally?
The answer to these questions come to a resounding yes… and no.
While SEO is inherently international, Google, and other search engines, focus on relevancy at all times — meaning a result in the United States can be vastly different from a result in India, though the same query was pushed to Google.
In its simplest form, international SEO is the process of making your site appeal to various regional markets and is similar to traditional SEO, just with more layers. At Blue Compass we’re lucky enough to work with some clients that operate in international markets, giving us the opportunity to implement international SEO at scale.
If you’re looking into international SEO, it mainly comes down to site infrastructure and URL structures. We could spend pages and pages of walking through the various options, but if you’re interested in site infrastructure options, read our blog on specific international SEO tactics for a deep dive.
For now, we’re going to keep it high-level and focus on localization of your site in various regions.
One of the first barriers you’ll face with localization is language. We choose to solve this problem with hreflang tags.
What are hreflang tags?
Hreflang tags communicate between pages and the search engine, giving it direction on what language to display based on where the user is accessing the site. Simply put, it displays the correct language to the correct region — this way you’re not relying on Google Translate.
These tags can even distinguish the differences between similar languages, like French Canadian and French.
All region codes for the tags are sourced from using the ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 format while languages follow the ISO 639-1 format.
How do you implement these tags?
They can go in your website header, within your on-page markup or within the HTTP header. Once you’ve put your tags in place, Google’s Search Console will be your first warning if a tag isn’t firing correctly. After a crawl, Search Console will tell you if there are any errors within the international targeting section.
Once your tags are implemented, your next focus should be on localized keywords. Like local search, these keywords will be region specific, just on a much broader scale.
Your keyword research will focus on the nuances between similar languages (jumper vs. sweatshirt) or actual language differences (camisa vs. sweatshirt). Just as we talked about in chapter two of this guide, it’s the minor vocabulary changes that will give you the best results in your keyword research.
Chapter 8: Google Updates and How They Affect Your Site
If you can’t tell, we like to stay “in-the-know” when it comes to all things digital marketing. Part of staying on top of the trends comes down to keeping our ear to the ground for Google updates.
It’s no secret that Google runs the show when it comes to SEO. They account for about 77% of global searches — meaning what they say, goes. Whether you’re just now paying attention to SEO or have been trying to optimize your site for years, knowing these Google updates and their effects will help you in the long run.
This is the search algorithm for Google. It came about August 2013 and changed the face of SEO. Hummingbird was built with the intent to understand user search queries — basically, figuring out what you’re actually saying after you’ve typed something into the search bar.
It’s Hummingbird that helps Google understand when you type in “burritos,” that you’re looking for a place to eat a burrito.
Now when Hummingbird was introduced, the idea of “conversational search” was making its way around the message boards. Conversational search is the idea that people search for things like they talk to their friends — a conversation. In 2017 alone, we’ve seen “conversational SEO” take a literal turn with the proliferation of Echo, OK Google and other smart home devices.
Now Hummingbird has seen updates since it’s 2013 inception, but it’s important to keep the base of its programming in mind with any other updates that have come since.
On To RankBrain
RankBrain is the artificial intelligence behind SERP results. Commonly referred to as the third-most important ranking factor in Google’s algorithm, RankBrain isn’t really a ranking factor at all — at least not in the way we typically think about ranking factors.
Starting in April 2015, it’s the introduction of algorithms that try to quantify the human language and relationship between objects into mathematical equations.
Instead of using on-page and off-page factors, Google uses RankBrain and it’s database to pull on past information and behavior metrics on what SERPs you are served. So, when you search for “red apple” Google understands what you’re looking for and pulls the best result.
It doesn’t have to look at other inbound links and such to figure out what your page is about.
We see RankBrain trip up when it comes to new queries (about 15% of Google’s traffic every day). Because it can’t infer the relationship between certain words, it has to pull SERPs to the best of its abilities.
So how do we optimize for RankBrain?
Easy. Write naturally.
If you use natural language, RankBrain will understand what you’re trying to convey and deliver the results. Write great content and Google will reward you.
Penguin was put in place April 2012 to fight against bad links and spam links. This update was put in place to fight against those using blackhat tactics to bump up site rankings (think purchasing links or fake site links).
In the early days of Penguin, once your site was caught by the algorithm, it stayed in limbo until Google set it free — a process that kept some sites waiting up to two years before being set free.
In late 2016 Google laid out their 4.0 update to Penguin, making it more page-specific and setting it real-time. Now pages are “caught and set free” by Penguin as soon as a recrawl and indexing take place (good news to those who unfortunately found themselves in Google purgatory).
Though you no longer have to wait through extreme periods of time if hit by the Penguin update, it doesn’t mean you should take it lightly. Once your site is caught in Penguin, it’s heavily penalized.
For those worried about any fishy backlinks pointing to your site, just use the Google Disavow Tool in Search Console to remove sitelinks.
You may be starting to notice that Google really seems to enjoy their birds. Pigeon may be our last avian update we talk about, but it’s certainly not the least.
Pigeon was released in July 2014 and changed the way we do local search to this day. The coveted local 3-pack and the way Google maps integrates with search results are all thanks to Pigeon.
How does it work? Pigeon tries to emulate traditional search as much as possible, giving weight to reviews and relevancy in the same way links and behavior metrics affect site rankings. This update relies on businesses giving a complete profile. Think things beyond name, address, phone number, and customers reviewing their experiences at the places.
The more information Pigeon is handed, the better for your local search ranking results.
The SSL Update
In August 2014, Google started boosting rankings for site that were deemed secure with an SSL certificate. If you don’t know what an SSL certificate is, just take a look at your search bar and you’ll notice a padlock with the word “secure” typed next to it.
This move from HTTP to HTTPS sites are now a mandatory standard and one of the first things we try to fix when working on an unsecured site. Be sure you have your certificate in place, or Google will knock you for it.
Phantom updates are known to shake the SEO community — they’re core updates to Google’s algorithm without much explanation to back them up.
We do know that Phantom works to determine the quality of content on page (you should be seeing a trend here when it comes to algorithm updates). User intent is key, and Phantom largely affects the visibility of your pages in SERPs.
Like most of the updates we’ve talked about, you can beat any Phantom update by following white-hat practices. Write naturally and for the end-user. If you do, these core updates should be but blips on your radar.
Maybe the most famous of all the Google updates, Fred rolled out March 2017 and was given its name by Gary Illyes, the Google Webmaster who confirms any updates.
Fred hit the SEO community with a bomb. It targeted sites that were ad-heavy and/or low-quality — like pages littered with pop-ups. While this is great for those using the web, it was troublesome for major brands and publishers that were still using old-school site layouts.
The advent of Fred makes for a better user experience across the web, and another update just a few days ago of typing this is furthering that user experience.
So how do we beat it? Don’t have a spammy website. Focus on the user and create a pleasant experience for those on your site.
November 2016, Google announced it would switch to a mobile-first indexing. The rise of AMP pages was certainly an indicator that the looming mobile-first index was fast approaching, and March 26th, 2018 Google finally delivered. Google now uses a mobile-first index.
Exactly as it sounds, Google’s Mobile-First updates is taking the ranking factors that affect a good mobile experience and using those as the basis for SERP rankings. With the growing number of mobile usage across the world, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. In 2016, 69% of media time was spent on a smartphone.
Google has already announced certain sites are being indexed mobile-first, so we should expect to see the update roll out worldwide within the next couple of months. How can you prepare? Easy, don’t panic and simply follow normal SEO best practices. Be sure to:
- Display the same content as your desktop site (think images, text and video)
- Have structured data present
- Ensure canonical tags are in place for any mobile-specific/desktop pages
- Hreflang tags should be clean and properly linked
- Make sure your server can handle the smartphone Googlebot
You can always use Google’s Search Console to check how your site is indexed on mobile and if there are any mobile-specific errors occurring.
Winning the SEO Game
Now that you’ve made it through this guide you’re one step closer to taking hold of your SEO and conquering the SERP battlefield. Just remember, if there’s one thing to keep in mind when looking to establish your SEO it’s the need to be user-focused and natural in everything you do.
Humans are the one’s using the web, and as much as we pander to search engines, it’s all about how a user experiences your site that determines its success. Keep using clean SEO practices and stay in it for the long-haul. Any “quick-wins” will come back to bite you in the long run.
SEO is always changing, so be sure to stay on top of the trends or come back to this guide as we update it with new SEO knowledge on a regular basis.
To revamp your website's SEO, reach out to us today.