With Google making 10 algorithm changes in the last four months and keyword data getting harder to come by, it may be ideal for marketers to take a step back and get back to SEO basics.
Despite the revolving door of new algorithms and search engine policies, the fundamentals of getting your content found have remained pretty consistent.
So, let's save the hand-wringing and future-predicting for another day and keep it simple. Here’s what you need to know to optimize your blog posts for search.
Turn Keyword Research Into Blog Topics
No company can rank for everything (believe me, we’ve tried). Therefore, the best SEO strategy is to focus on a few key phrases or topics that are critical to your company.
Start with a topic you really want to rank well for -- in our case, it might be “inbound marketing." Then, put yourself in the shoes of your prospective customers (or better yet, interview a few). What would they search for that would bring them to your doorstep? What questions or challenges do they have that you can help address?
People are increasingly using full sentences or long phrases to find the content they need. With the proliferation of content, a simple search for “cars,” for example, is not going to get searchers the results they need. Thus, searches have become far more detailed and specific -- “what to know before buying a car,” “most trustworthy Volvo dealerships near Boston,” and so forth.
As a result of these more complex searches, Google has actually changed its algorithm to better fit conversational questions from searchers. This is good news for blogs, which are designed by nature to be educational, answer questions, and provide background info. It’s also good news because identifying these questions can give you a veritable hit list of search-friendly posts to write.
Optimize Blog Post Headlines and URLs
Once you have your list of blog posts, you’ll want to make sure you’ve optimized the headlines. Keywords do best when they’re at the front of the headline. So, for example, if we’re trying to rank our content to appear for searches about inbound marketing: "Inbound Marketing: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started" will do better than "Everything You Need to Know to Get Started With Inbound Marketing."
Keywords are important, but you also want to write the sort of headline that is likely to get clicked and shared frequently. The frequency with which a piece of content gets shared can positively impact its ranking on search engine result pages. In fact, in recent years, social elements have been increasingly important to search. We’ll touch upon that more below in the Social Search section.
You might want to test different headlines to see what style or format generates the most activity for you. One of the reasons list headlines, like “10 Reasons You Should Have Your Cake and Eat it Too,” are so common online is that they tend to attract more clicks.
Don’t force your content to fit a common practice, though. Instead, try out different headline structures. You may find that questions or humor work best for generating clicks and shares on social media. Additionally, keep your headlines short -- ideally, under 65 characters -- so that they don't get truncated in search engine results.
In addition to the title, search engines use the words in a page’s URL to determine if it's relevant to the search at-hand. So if you are able to edit the structure of your URLs, it’s imperative to make sure that you’re including keywords there too.
The URL serves as a nice backup for your headline in optimizing for keywords. You may decide that you want to be a bit more creative with your headline to generate more interest as the post gets promoted across your marketing channel. If you do that, a good URL structure can help.
The same rules apply for positioning the keywords in your URL. Keep keywords early and separate them by dashes. The URL hubspot.com/inbound-marketing is more effective than hubspot.com/inboundmarketing.
Create SEO-Friendly Links and Anchor Text
When search engine spiders crawl your blog, they don’t read every word. Instead, they scan for certain parts of your post: the headline, subheaders, alt-text of images, and anchor text. Anchor text is the word or phrase you highlight when you insert a hyperlink. Choosing the right words to hyperlink can help add some important SEO value.
In addition to choosing the right words, you want to think about the placement of those words. If you link to the same internal page multiple times in a single blog post, make sure you optimize the first occurrence of that link. Typically, search engines will rely more heavily on the first instance of anchor text for a given link than subsequent instances.
SEO and analytics company Moz has a great post and illustration that explains this practice. So whenever you use your blog to link to other content on your site, make sure that the first reference point includes the best keywords.
You also want to ensure you're linking to the right pages. Instead of dispersing your links and anchor text to a number of different pages, It may be better to point all of your traffic and internal links to a page that is already ranking so you can further advance its SEO weight.
(Tip for HubSpot Users: If you use HubSpot to blog, you'll see a real-time update of how many important keywords you've included in your post. Clicking on one of those keywords will show a listing of pages on your site that already rank for it. This means you can use your anchor text to drive traffic and hopefully improve where your rank in search results.)
Below is a list of pages on our website that rank for the phrase "keyword data." One page currently ranks fifth on Google for that keyword phrase. The other two pages rank much lower. We could drive traffic to the second and third pages on that list, but it probably would be a waste.
Moving a page from a rank of 100+ to a rank of 99 doesn't help much, since most clicks on search engine results pages go to the first few. Choosing to point our internal links to that high-ranking page and possibly moving it from fifth-highest to fourth-highest, however, would have a huge impact.
What About Tags? Are They Good for SEO?
Tags are good when applied judiciously, but they can actually be harmful if overused. As Joost de Valk of Yoast explains:
"One of the most common issues we encounter on sites in our website reviews is the overuse of tags. Note that a tag in and of itself does not improve your SEO. The only way it improves your SEO is by relating one piece of content to another, and, more specifically, a group of posts to each other."
Because each tag creates a separate aggregative page, some SEO experts argue that having too many similar tags on your content -- for example, having “email," “email marketing," and “emailing" -- can come across to search engines as duplicate content and end up getting you penalized.
Due to this, be smart about your blog tags. Don’t create a tag for something you don’t need to rank for and don’t introduce synonym tags for the same content.
To start, choose a set of keywords for which your blog should rank -- roughly 15-25 keywords should be good. Then, make it clear what those tags are to anyone who blogs for you. Advise them not to introduce new tags unless you commonly write on the topic and it’s not addressed in your initial list.
If you have an existing blog and you’ve already discovered you have way too many similar tags, you can improve your SEO by starting to organize and clean them out.
HubSpot’s blogging software allows you to easily group or re-categorize tags whenever you need to. If you use WordPress, there is a collection of plugins that can help you with that too. (Note: I haven’t tried any of the WordPress plugins, so I can’t speak to their effectiveness.)
Learn About Social Search
Social search is an evolving term for the way in which search engines factor a user's social network into how results are displayed after a search query.
In social search, content that has a social connection to you in some way is prioritized. A social connection could mean someone you are linked to via Facebook, Twitter, or any other major social network. Alternately, some forms of social search prioritize content that has been shared by social media influencers, even if those experts aren't directly tied to you.
Further, content that is shared more on social media does better on search rankings because it naturally increases the number of inbound links and traffic to your pages. The best way to optimize your blog posts for social search is to make sure that you are integrating social elements to it.
Social sharing icons have become standard on most blogs. They make it easy for a reader to quickly share your content across their network.
If you've got a particularly salient point in the body of your post, you can add a link after that encourages your readers to Tweet it out with a link back to your post. We did so in this post with each data point and saw great results in terms of the virality of the content. Click to Tweet is a great free service that makes this easy.
Also, if you have author bios for your bloggers, encourage them to link up their individual social media accounts, particularly their Google+ accounts. Doing so will improve how your posts look on search engine ranking pages by adding an image from Google+ to the listing.
In the example below, the HubSpot post is listed with an author picture, whereas the Mashable post is just text. Even though the HubSpot post is lower in the rankings, the addition of the author picture can help grab attention and generate clicks.
Focus on Mobile Optimization
A stat some marketers may not know: 15 percent of all internet search traffic is driven by mobile devices today. Because of this, Google has actually begun to deprioritize websites and blogs that aren't mobile optimized in search rankings when a search is conducted on a mobile device.
It means that even if you've done everything right to optimize your content, you still may not be findable for the growing number of people who search and read content online. That's a shame, as mobile users have been shown to be more action-oriented than their desktop counterparts.
You can take a preview of how your blog currently looks on multiple mobile devices over in HubSpot Device Labs. This tool will show you an emulation of your site on different iPhone, Android, and tablet devices. You'll also get an estimate of the average amount of traffic driven by those devices.
Google recommends optimizing your website using some form of responsive design. (HubSpot's blogging software uses Twitter Bootstrap for responsive design). Any mobile-optimized website will fare better on mobile search results than non-optimized versions.
The strategy of search engine optimization changes frequently, but some things will always come naturally to it. Create content that provides value and answers search queries that people need addressed. Be relevant, shareable, and useful and the search rank will follow.
Have you seen greater success implementing these SEO best practices for your blog? Tell us about it in the comments below!