Why is SEO important? For starters, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) can break your brand. You might be wondering why I’m not saying “SEO can make or break your brand”. Well, in my experience, optimizing SEO isn't a game changer but it is extremely important to know when making any technical changes to a website or building one from scratch. If you built a site on a popular website builder and are looking for more organic traffic, I recommend reading the section below titled "Sumary: What's most important?" and skipping ahead to our article on content marketing here. It covers everything you need to know about content marketing, it’s what will get you the results you’re looking for.
Many marketers include content marketing under the umbrella of SEO or speak as if the two are one in the same. I see the two as completely different forms of marketing. For 90% of companies, the technical aspects of SEO will be something that can mostly be ignored and I hate to see companies wasting valuable time on technical optimizations that will yield little to no results. However, for knowledge thirsty marketers out there and the 10% of companies that should know the technical aspects of website rankings (SEO), I’ll be covering everything that matters below. I'll also remove any nonsense to make this guide as simple and streamlined as possible.
Before we dive in, it's important that you know search engine optimization is not an exact science. Nowadays, it's almost impossible to game the algorithms governing search. So, the below article and tutorials are based on my experience (millions of organic visitors) and time spent researching SEO (thousands of hours). I have also been fortunate to oversee the successful migration of websites with millions of organic visitors, test what is preached online, build successful blogs, and learn how ineffective SEO agencies can be. If there is anyone you can trust to be a straight shooter on this subject and skip you past the falsities you'll find online, it's me. There are also tons of different search engines but I'll be focusing on Google and their SEO tools. After all, Google controls ~88% of all search traffic according to Statista.
What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the technical process of preparing a website to be crawled (scraped) and indexed (recorded) by search engine crawlers.
If you’re wondering what a crawler is, it’s a bot that Google and other search engines use to read the content and layout of your site. It provides them with the information they need to categorize and rank a page or website.
Summary: What's most important?
If you're not interested in diving into the minutiae of SEO, here is a quick overview of the things you should focus on to ensure your website covers the most important ranking factors.
Pages and Page Content
For starters, it's important that your website hosts all of the pages users might be searching for. For example, if you're a marketing or design agency, you should have pages dedicated to web design, print design, packaging design, and anything else that you might be offering. It's also best to build out pages highlighting the features of your product or service. This ensures that your website has the opportunity to rank on search queries that relate to the services that you offer, like “Web design agency in LA”". If you failed to mention web design on your website, you'd obviously fail to rank on this search. While building out these pages, do your best to avoid corporate jargon as this leads to vague terminology that Google will struggle to categorize. As long as the copy is simple and helpful, adding additional length to a page can be very beneficial.
Beyond the content of a page, the page title is also extremely important. This is because the title is what every searcher sees while on Google or any other search engine. It gives a clear concise overview of what the page does and helps both users and Google to decide whether or not it fits a search or topic. For example, a page titled “Funnel Builder | LeadPages” will not perform anywhere near as well as a page titled “The World's Fastest Funnel Builder | LeadPages”. It’s worth spending the time to write unique copy that precisely conveys the offering and value of your product in the page title.
Don't forget mobile!
Mobile experience is now a top priority. According to Datareportal, more than 52% of all traffic is now mobile. Google has taken notice and made it clear with their announcement with the move to mobile first indexation. Once you've fixed up the page titles and website and page content, take the time to ensure your website is optimized for mobile.
If you can check off these 3 boxes, your website will be more optimized than 99% of the websites in existence today.
If you're interested in learning how to implement these best practices, we go into more detail below. We also linked each sections to instructions on how to change the page title on the most popular website builders.
SEO Jargon: What You Need to Know
The world of SEO is full of jargon. So before we get started, it's probably best to do a quick overview of what new SEO terms you should expect to see in this article. I'll be doing my best not to avoid the use of jargon, however, in case I do a poor job of breaking out of my bad habits, the below definitions should help you out.
- Search Query: A search query is the text of a search. If I google “How to write a blog”, my search query is “how to write a blog”.
- Search Console is short for Google Search Console, a search tool to help you track the errors, usability, coverage, and performance of a website, web page, or even a search query. If you haven’t already, go sign up and verify your domain on Google Search Console.
- Search Engine Results Page (SERP): This is the page you see after every search on Google. It will be a long list of results with blue links and grey text that I’m sure you’re familiar with. So, if you ever see SERP, just think “search results”.
- Ranking: This is the position a page appears within the search results for a specific search. If you were to Google “LeadLoft”, we’d show up as the first result. Therefore, our ranking on the search query “LeadLoft” is 1.
- Crawler: If you’re wondering what a crawler is, it’s a bot that Google and other search engines use to read the content and layout of your site. It’s what gives them the information they need to read, categorize, and ultimately rank a page.
- Search Intent: The goal of a search. The search intent of “How to cure a cold?” is to find an article that clearly outlines how to cure a cold. It’s important to understand fulfilling search intent is the goal of every search engine.
How do you change the optimization of a page or implement SEO?
In most cases, optimizing a page for search, or SEO, requires a simple edit to the HTML. If you built your website using a popular website builder, it may be as simple as editing a text field. If this is you, I’ll be including links to the instructions for the most popular website builders out there. Although it's not necessary, I recommend spending 3 hours and completing the free HTML course at FreeCodeCamp. This course will lay the groundwork for a more clear understanding of the technical aspects of a page and the optimization you may be making. If you do decide to checkout HTML, take the learning a step further and also take a short course on CSS, this will also help you to better understand the spacing and design of web pages.
What’s the most important aspect of SEO? The page title.
When creating a new page, the most important aspect is the page title. If the title is incorrectly labeled or too general, Google will not think it is a fit for the searches you wish it to be ranked on. The issue here goes beyond Google categorizing your page content. If your page title is vague or slightly inaccurate, searchers on Google will overlook the page thinking it’s not what they’re searching for, ultimately leading to no click. A low click-through rate (CTR) sends Google signals that your page doesn’t match the searcher’s intent and after testing for a period of time, the Google algorithm will eventually decide to rank the page lower in the search results or possibly not at all.
Adding a well worded page title allows Google and searchers to understand the purpose of the page more clearly. So, when naming a page, be sure it clearly indicates the kind of content reflected inside the page. If you need ideas for the page title, I recommended giving Google a quick search and seeing what other top 10 listings used as titles and creating a variation based on their success.
How to Set a Page Title:
To implement, add the below tag between the <header> and </header> tags of your website. We also listed the links to guides on the most popular website builders.
<title>Your Page Title</title>
- If you have a custom website, I recommend contacting your webmaster.
You can take the appearance on the SERPs page a step further and optimize page descriptions (meta description). If you forget to set a page description, Google will fill it in themselves by pulling from the first piece of content they believe fits, usually the first paragraph on a page. In my experience, this is something that you can ignore for the most part. However, if you want to go the extra mile, feel free to set a custom meta description yourself.
How to Set a Page Description:
If you're going the extra mile, add the below tag between the <header> and </header> tags of your website or if you're using a website builder, use one of the guides we linked below.
<meta name="description" content="Your description goes here.">
- As mentioned before, if you have a custom website, I recommend contacting your webmaster.
What's the second most important aspect of SEO? Page's & Page Content
The second biggest point to check on your website is the pages and page content your site covers. If you're a digital agency, you may want to have a page for social media management, web design, digital ads management, and any other solution you offer. Each page will point out the highlights of your offering, past work, and other benefits of your service. The title of each page should also be written to target the specific solution. For example, if your offering web design the title may be "Professional Web Design - Venice Beach | Brand Name". This clearly conveys the service being offered and stands a good chance of ranking for searches for web design in Venice Beach.
This kind of tactic should be built out for all offerings and features. If you visit successful companies you'll start to notice they're doing it. FreshWorks is a great example. If you're unfamiliar with FreshWorks, they're a SaaS (Software as a Service) company that offers a variety of products like FreshSales, FreshDesk, FreshChat. All of these products are offered under the umbrella of FreshWorks. The FreshWorks suite boasts around 11 products, and each product comes with its own set of features and solutions. To optimize SEO for each product, the FreshWorks team build and designs pages for all the solutions and features of their 11 products.
Below is the FreshSales' (FreshWork's CRM tool) features and solution pages. They've built out a tons of them so they will rank for search queries in specific industries and for specific features. This is a great example of building out the correct pages for your offering.
How do you hide a page from Google? No Index Tags.
Many websites have web pages that they do not want to be listed on Google. In this case, I recommend using a no index tag. Once the tag is installed on a webpage, Google and other crawlers will not index (record) that page. This keeps unwanted content from showing up in the search results and is great for conversion pages or thank you pages, two use cases we use here at LeadLoft.
If you have not yet done this and would like to hide a page Google has already indexed, simply you can add it to page. Once the crawlers circle back to the page and record the no index tag, they’ll update the search results accordingly. This may take days or even weeks depending on the popularity of your website.
How to Install No Index Tags:
The tag outlined below, goes in the HTML of your website between the <header> and </header> tags. If you're using a website builder, we linked to guides for the most popular website buiilding solutions.
<meta name="robots" content="noindex">
- Wordpress: Use the Yoast add on
- As mentions before, if you have a custom website, I recommend contacting your webmaster.
Moving domains or moving the location of a page? Use a 301 Redirect.
Often times websites will change page URLs, merge two domains, or migrate to a new website altogether. In this case, it's common for URLs to be changed along the way. Immediately after the migration of the website or the update of a webpage, I recommend setting up a 301 redirect. This tells Google that the page has moved permanently and to send all value from the URL with the 301 redirects to the new URL. This is the best practice for changing URLs or the locations of pages and should be taken seriously when making updates to URLs, merging/ migrating domains, or moving content. If you don’t do this, all the value of your old pages will be lost ad your visitors will hit a 404 error page instead of being redirected to the content you wish to show them.
How to Add 301 Redirects:
If you’re using one of the below website builders, I linked you to the process implementing a 301 redirect. It’s a relatively common practice so most website builders offer great URL redirecting tools within their suite of features.
- Wordpress: Redirection Add On
- If you have a custom website, I recommend contacting your webmaster before making any changes. 301 redirects are an especially technical implementation for custom websites.
How to track Performance & Errors
Fortunately, tracking the performance of SEO and crawling errors has become increasingly easier over the years. Google now offers an amazing tool called Google Search Console, linked here, for tracking search performance and SEO. In fact, Google just updated the design in 2019, making the service easier to use than ever. Google Search Console can be used for tracking performance, inspecting URLs, website speed, mobile usability, and much more.
Integrating with Google Analytics
If you'd like to simplify your toolset, you may do so by connecting search console to Google Analytics, in which case, the coverage report would then be shown in Google Analytics under Acquisition > search Console.
What to Look For
Within Google Search Console there are two main sections that require your attention: performance and coverage/ mobile usability.
Performance outlines the impressions and clicks you receive by search query, page, device, country, appearance, and dates. This is especially helpful in determining the value of your content marketing team’s efforts. If impressions and clicks are increasing, they’re likely writing great content for the team. Conversely, if the impressions and clicks are beginning to decrease or drop off entirely, it may signal something is wrong. We cover how to deal with sharp drops in traffic later in this blog.
Coverage and Usability Reports
To reiterate what was covered earlier, Google has now moved to mobile-first indexing. This makes mobile webpages and experiences extremely important when trying to rank your website. You can even see within Search Console that the crawlers indexing and recording the content on your site are meant for mobile.
What does this mean? You can ignore the mobile usability report because any errors in that category will fall under the standard Coverage reports for most websites.
To find usability and coverage reports, simply click “Coverage”. Google search console will display all valid web pages, errors, warnings and more.
Have duplicate pages or articles? Use canonical tags.
Firstly, it's important to understand duplicate content is bad for SEO. When you have multiple pages with the same exact content or very similar content, Google will be unsure which one to rank. In the end, Google will likely rank the most prominent page but if there is no clear winner you may end up poor rankings for all of the duplicate pages. So, if duplicate content exists on your site, we recommend using a rel=canonical tag (canonical tag).
A canonical tag indicates to Google that the page may have duplicate or similar content. You'll commonly find this tag in the code of category or tags pages on blogs and news websites pointing to the site’s main content hub.
Self-Referencing Canonical Tags
I recommend having a canonical tag on every page pointing at itself. This is Called a self-referencing canonical tag. This is recommended because small variations in URLs, like tracking codes or UTMs, may affect the way Google sees the URL. However, if this page has a self-referencing canonical tag, Google will send all value from the URLs with small variations to the URL referenced in the canonical tag.
Now, where should you place canonical tags? Canonical tags are more important for category pages, tag pages, and pages with duplicate content. Truly duplicate content is more commonly found on websites that are custom-made and on e-commerce sites. So, if you're a website with category Pages, tag Pages, or two pocket content, I recommend setting a canonical tag and pointing it to the page you want to be listed in the Google search results. This page will likely be a blog homepage, news homepage, or even a product landing page.
No Index Tags vs Canonical Tag
When it comes to duplicate content, many companies will try to use a no-index tag to hide the duplicate content. It’s best to avoid using no index tags in place of a canonical tag. Letting Google index the page, read the canonical tag, and realize that the content is duplicated is a better practice and will yield better results. What’s a no-index tag? We cover this down below.
How to Install Canonical Tags:
Here is a list of guides outlining how to change the heading tags on both custom and website builders:
<link rel="“canonical”" href="“https://your.website.com/”">
- Shopify (Requires technical changes)
- Webflow (Use the code above, update the URL, and paste it in a pages header code.)
- If you have a custom website, I recommend contacting your webmaster to make the required changes.
My clicks & impression have dropped off! What do I do?
If you’re experiencing a sharp drop in impressions or clicks on Google Search Console, it’s likely because of 1 of these 4 reasons: duplicate content, usability errors, changes to page titles, or the deletion/ migration of content. In any case, I recommend starting with Google Search Console to see if there are any errors being reported. If not, check with team members responsible for updates to the website and ask what changes they made recently. 90% of the time, this tactic will surface the problem causing the drop in performance.
It's also important to note that Google occasionally makes updates to its algorithm. In this case, it can cause a sharp drop in traffic. However, if you're not using Shady tactics, google updates will usually only be beneficial to your rankings and results.
Subdomains and When to Use Them
What's a subdomain?
A subdomain is a domain that is part of a larger domain (e.g. help.leadloft.com, app.leadloft.com, example.leadloft.com). The only part of a domain that is not a subdomain is the root domain (e.g. leadloft.com).
What's a subfolder?
A subfolder is a folder that contains URLs (e.g. leadloft.com/use-cases). The subfolder here is /use-cases. LeadLoft uses subfolders to organize and group pages, similar to how you organize files into folder on your computer (e.g. /use-cases/lead-generation, /use-cases/investor-acquisition).
Which to use?
This is an extremely common question when it comes to SEO and it has relatively vague set of answers. Google's John Mueller has stated that google now recognizes when subdomains contain content relating to the main website. But if the content is different (think back to Wix hosting customer sites on CustomerSite.wix.com), google will do it's best to recognize that the two are unrelated.
Ultimately, this debate has/can go on forever so I'll give you my two cents on what I would do if I were in your shoes.
Do you want the content on this URL to rank on google?
If so, then use a subfolder not a subdomain.
If not, then a subdomain is totally fine. This is why subdomains are commonly used for digital ad landing pages.
Do you want the content to rank on Google but adding a blog to your main website domain would be costly or time consuming for the engineering team?
Then use a subdomain. Getting started on your blog is more important than waiting around for engineers. Set up the subdomain and Google will recognize the content is related to the same main domain and will eventually recognize the two as the same site.
Organizing a Website for Google
Organizing a site for Google simply requires a hierarchy of pages which is done through subfolders. HubSpot does a great job of this on their blog. For every sales article, the domain will display www.hubspot.com/sales/article-slug. For articles in the marketing category, they'll place all articles under www.hubspot.com/marketing/article-slug. This allows them to categorize their content into silos and makes crawling and categorizing content easier for crawlers.
The same goes for other hierarchical pages on your website. If you have 11 products, like Freshworks, where each product has 10+ pages outlining its specific benefits, you'll want to organize these pages within subfolders to make it easier for Google to categorize.
To clarify this point, you can see how the Freshworks URL has subfolders within subfolders within subfolders. This is all to organize the content and to clarify the purpose of the pages for Google. Now when looking at the image below, you can see that "CRM Real Estate solution" is nested inside of Freshsales CRM. This shows Google that the real estate solution is related to Freshsales and not one of Freshwork's other products like FreshDesk or FreshConnect.
I wanted to go ever further and give the Freshworks team a test. So, I gave "Real Estate CRM" a search and sure enough they're ranking in the top 20 on the SERP:
Beyond making content more organized for search engine crawlers, there are tons of ancillary benefits to the user experience. If you have hundreds of web pages it can be daunting to navigate through a website and find the specific page you’re looking for. When pages are correctly organized by subfolder, it makes navigating websites infinitely easier, making for a better overall user experience.
Want to organize the content of a page for Google? Here’s how.
When organizing a site there are a variety of tactics that you can implement. Nowadays, if you skip the organization of your website, Google will do its best to figure it out on its own. But telling Google which content is most important and outlining the hierarchy for the page is a best practice so I recommend it.
Now, onto the organization of your web page. Fortunately, organizing a web page is fairly simple because there are really only 2 aspects to think about: heading tags and the HTML5 tags.
Heading tags indicate to Google the hierarchy of the content on a web page. I outlined how they should be used below.
- H1 - The H1 tag is used for the main title of a page or blog post. This title tag should only be used once per page and usually in the hero section.
- H2 - All titles following the H1 title.
- H3 - All tags that reference an H2 tag or are titles of lesser importance.
- H4 - All tags that reference an H3 tag or are titles of lesser importance.
- And so on… until H6, the smallest heading tag
How to Change Header Tags
Here is a list of guides outlining how to change the heading tags on both custom and website builders:
Heading 1: <h1>Your Heading Here</h1>
Heading 2: <h2>Your Heading Here</h2>
And so on...
- Shopify (Requires technical changes)
- If you have a custom website, I recommend contacting your webmaster to make the required changes.
HTML5 Tags (for more technical readers)
HTML5 introduced a new set of organizational tags to allow websites to specifically point out the important content on a page. <nav>, for example, can be used to highlight navigation links, similar to the links you’d find at the top or bottom of practically every website.</nav>
Note: If you don’t have these on your website, that’s totally fine. Google will still read your website and rank it accordingly.
How does Google decide which page to rank?
How Google ranks pages is mostly a mystery with thousands of data points at play. However there are some obvious factors that make clear differences. Below is a of what I believe to be the most importatn ranking factors when it comes to Google.
These are the pieces of a website that I believe are the most obvious and deserve your time and focus when it comes to SEO.
- Click Through Rate (CTR): The rate at which impressions of a snippet convert to a click. If 100 people saw your websites snippet on Google and 10 clicked in, your CTR would be 10%. This is quite an obvious point when you look into it deeper. If someone searches for “How to write a blog?” and receives the results “This is How Your Write a Perfect Blog” and “Writing for Website Blogs”. Which would you expect the searcher to click on? Obviously the former! We’ll cover how to increase your CTR below under the most important aspect of SEO.
- User Interaction: Like mentioned earlier, how searchers interact with a web page is extremely important. If a searcher visits your website, takes a look, and navigates to another website on the search results page (pogo sticking), this tells Google's that your site did not answer their search. If they interacted with your page and left the search entirely, Google might think you answered their search. The best way to ensure the user interacts with your page in a way that tells google they like your content is to provide great content. If you want to learn more about creating content for users, we went into it in more detail here.
- Page Title: Google spends tons of time learning about websites and trying to categorize them. If a website clearly outlines its purpose or offering, it will be easier for Google to classify the page and rank it. Clear page titles also increase the CTR and user experience, compounding the effects it can have on your pages ranking.
- Usability Reports: Crawl errors and bugs with usability can completely hinder a website from ranking well. This is self explanatory, but just make sure Google Search Console (Covered Below) isn’t reporting any errors for your website.
- Page Speed: Google recently announced that page speed will be taken more seriously now more than ever. This makes sense with the growing migration to mobile devices. The bandwidth on a phone just isn’t anywhere near that of a computer on wifi.
- Security: Google now gives websites with SSL certificates priority over unsecure websites. If your website has “HTTP” at the beginning of it, we recommend securing your website. If you want to learn more, checkout GoDaddy's article on SSL certificates.
Literally everything else! When searching the web, it’s quite clear that what matters most is the content google displays in the results matches the goal of the search. So, make sure your page title is enticing, the content exciting, and the loading speed isn’t god awful.
At the End of The Day
Most companies will be using Wix, Shopify, or Squarespace to build their website. Most of these companies have set up SEO best practices by default for everyone using their services. However, if you are making changes we recommend following the best practices we laid out above to avoid any SEO catastrophes.
If you have any deeper questions regarding SEO, feel free to request a blog post here.