The “New” SEO Secret Weapon

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If you have a web site, you may have noticed one of two things about the traffic you get from search engines.

Your search traffic may have dried up overnight, with once-healthy streams turning into a sad little trickle.

Or you may have noticed a nice, steady improvement as you’ve climbed higher in the SERPs (search engine results pages), while other sites that used to outrank you suddenly evaporated.

There’s a super-secret new ingredient in SEO.

It was always a factor, but it’s become even more important recently, as the Google team relentlessly declares war on what they see as tricks and sneaky tactics.

Today we’ll talk about the “new” SEO copywriting techniques you can take advantage of in a post-Panda search world.

Ready for the mind-blowing “secret new ingredient”?

It’s the authority, editorial focus, and relevance of your site — in other words, your site quality.

Be careful — site quality may not mean what you think it means

It’s not just good writing. That can help, but it’s not enough.

It’s not just having a lot of content. That helps too, but it has to be the right content.

And it’s not just optimization. Optimization still matters … but only after you take care of these key site quality factors.

Improving your site quality means building a site that works for users first, and search engines second.

In other words, it’s what Copyblogger has been telling you to do with your SEO for six years now.

Let’s take a look at some individual elements of site quality, and how you can boost them to create a site that works for users and search engines.

Is your site someplace readers want to be?

One of the factors Google looks at is how long a reader spends on your site. Not just on the page they land on, but are they sticking around to check out other pages?

It starts with site design that’s clean, uncluttered, and appealing.

It may not make sense for you at this point to spend thousands of dollars on graphic design, but anyone can benefit from great-looking site design (that also happens to be well-optimized for SEO) for less than $100.

You also want to make sure you’re on good, reliable web hosting, so that waiting for your site to load doesn’t resemble waiting in line at the DMV. Slow sites aren’t good for users and they don’t earn search engine love.

Finally — and most important — you need to put reader questions, problems, and concerns front and center. If you’re a great resource for them, they’ll stick around and see what else you have to offer. What’s the secret there? Content, of course.

Less sophisticated SEOs might advise you to outsource a writer (who may or may not be particularly proficient in English) to slap together hundreds of pages that have the right keywords on them.

That’s a sign that you need to fire your SEO. The true SEO pros know that it isn’t just content you need — it’s good content.

Good content isn’t always the most gracefully written. It might violate every grammatical rule in the book. It might be brash, or weird. It might offend your in-laws.

But for your purposes, it’s good content if it’s:

Good content is persuasive, it’s interesting, it’s useful, and it gets shared. It earns the “signals” that tell search engines you’ve got the best site in your topic.

What do you talk about most of the time?

This one can be a real advantage, letting a relatively small site win the SERP battle against a much bigger competitor … for the right term.

That’s because Google now looks more closely at what you talk about most of the time.

Here on Copyblogger, we talk a lot about writing and content marketing. And we tend to do very nicely for terms related to those things.

We don’t talk much about pizza, weight loss, FOREX trading, pharmaceuticals, or naked mole rats. So even though this site has lots of authority in general with Google, because we’ve attracted a lot of high-quality links over the years, we’re not going to rank for those terms.

That’s why for every site that got kicked in the teeth by Google’s Panda update, there was another site — one with a lot of high-quality content that was well focused around a particular topic — that started to see a nice boost in search traffic.

Write about what you want to rank for. Then write some more about that. Then write some more.

Keep your content focused. Keep serving your audience. And keep showing up.

Every page is a landing page

Seth Godin made this observation about a million years ago, and it will always be true.

You don’t know how your next reader will find your site. It might be the result of a search. It might be from a social media share. It might be an email post that got forwarded. You might have bought some traffic with pay-per-click.

It doesn’t actually matter. Because every page on your site is a landing page for someone. The reader jumps into your site there … and looks around to see what to do next.

Every page has to lead gracefully into everything else you do. Every page has to underscore the value you provide.

That means you make your navigation user-friendly, you highlight your very best content, and you get smart about internal links. Which brings us to …

How to use your link structure

Remember when we talked about keeping readers nicely stuck to your site, poking around and finding lots of good stuff to read, listen to, or watch?

That’s one of the many excellent reasons to have lots of internal links in your content.

What should you link to? To your best content — what we call your cornerstone content. Your best advice, your best thinking, and your best answers to the questions readers come up with again and again.

Content landing pages are a handy way to focus those links, but you should also keep linking to your favorite posts that address a key point in your topic particularly well.

Not only does this encourage readers to spend some more quality time on your site, it also gives you a little something when the &$%# scrapers re-post your work. The resulting backlinks you get aren’t exactly going to make or break you with the search engines, but if the scraped page has any readers at all, some of them will come find you.

Remember to be smart about how you’re using anchor text when you link to your own stuff. Use keywords gracefully, and again (as always) write for your readers first. Don’t try to stuff your content with internal links — use them when they make sense and give the reader a deeper view into what you write about.

Of course it isn’t new

Obviously I’m indulging in a bit of silliness by calling this a “new” factor. Google (and the other search engines) have always wanted to make site quality their main factor — but doing that was difficult.

So they put a bunch of very brainy engineers on it, and every year they get a little better.

Here’s what one of their relatively new engineers said in a recent interview, quoted in Web Pro News.

Manipulating Google results shouldn’t be something you feel entitled to be able to do. If you want to rank highly in Google, be relevant for the user currently searching. Engage him in social media or email, provide relevant information about what you’re selling, and, generally, be a “good match” for what the user wants.

That’s always been their position. Trying to fight that by exploiting weaknesses in their algorithm is a short-term solution that tends not to work very well for your readers … or for the long-term health of your business.

Don’t take shortcuts, they take too long

I was talking with a gentleman at a conference this week, and he mentioned a colleague with dozens of clients who got utterly demolished by Google’s Panda update — an update designed to improve the quality of the sites Google ranks well.

Interestingly, every one of those Panda-smacked clients followed the same marketing guru for “shortcuts” to good search traffic.

Shortcuts can work for a little while. And you may have found a good one that will get you a quick burst of traffic while you build something that lasts.

But if you aren’t building a site that’s worth reading (and that’s therefore worth sharing in social media, and worth linking to), the most brilliant shortcut in the world will take you away from where you want to go.

Because you aren’t serving search engines. You’re serving readers and customers. Put them first and everything else will start working for you.

About the Author: Sonia Simone is co-founder and CMO of Copyblogger Media. Share your favorite SEO and content marketing techniques with her on twitter.

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  1. You should also add the recent page layout update to penalize sites for plastering excessive ads on their sites. Ironically, at the same time, many marketers (including myself) received emails from the AdSense team to put more ads the sites!

    • They only recently corrected that. Recently, as in 2 days ago.

      Ads that break the stream of content are a no no now, yet Adsense has advocated it for years.

      If Google’s spider was able to tell the below the post box is an ad, Copyblogger could have been hit by panda too

      • The most recent “correction” targeted too many ads above the fold. Below the post is not an issue.

        • Indeed. I worked for Google Adsense two years ago, and sales people hated – dreaded, actually – to hear from clients torched by an algorithm change.

          Many of whom follow Adsense’s best practices, and not Search.

          The sad thing is, Google’s departments are purposely separated. While a good thing in theory (much like communism, veganism and American Idol) it really doesn’t play out well in reality.

          Around every turn, users get two different answers:

          Google Adsense Sales Team: “Place your ads everywhere! You’ll make a ton!”
          Google Search Engineers: “Place ads everywhere and you’re torched. Don’t do it. Seriously.”

          It’s like a two-headed snake… you never know which is gonna bite first.

          But here’s the thing: Adsense’s biggest customers – at least when I worked there – are gigantic, ad-riddled content farms with “meh” grade writing and editorial sub-standards.

          Unsurprisingly, these sites got mauled by the Panda update.

          So what is Google to do? On one hand, they’ve got to watch their users experience (which Sonia eloquently portrayed above)… while on the other they’ve got to pay their bills.

          At some point, these two snake heads will bite. And my money’s on the search team because – without search – Google’s whole model goes in the can.

          So Adsense must evolve, or die. Copyblogger proves that creating your own products trump advertising eCPMs (Adsense or otherwise)… and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Google shift their ad program to something less, well, obtrusive.

          What do you think?

          • One thing Adsense customers are finding is that improving their site quality is making their clicks cheaper. And if you put readers first, you’re going to find that when you get that click, it actually does something for you — the traffic doesn’t bounce as hard.

            I agree with you that the smart way to go is to follow the search team. It sucks for Adsense customers that Google doesn’t have its internal communication house in order, but my guess is that will smooth out.

            Long-winded way of saying that creating sites for users is smart for Adsense customers too, not just people trying to improve organic search.

          • First of all, thanks Sonia for another great article.

            Second your reply (Adam Costa) was written on February 8, 2012.

            Now, almost 1 year later, your comment is proved right, as I’m receiving from Google sales team department messages such as “Earn more from 62.50% of your impressions by placing your 336×280 ad unit on mysite.com above the fold”

            The thing is that I already have an ad above the fold, however even after Panda and Penguin, they are encouraging people to ad as much ads as possible and also above the fold.

            So, yes it seems they are confused, and not communicating. Thus I guess, as Sonia said, we should concentrate on content, on each page optimization, and create content more for the people than for the search engine. I guess this goes for Google Adsense too, as is wiser to get more traffic trough Seo and good content and then profit from the ads, than packing the page with Adsense but having fewer visitors because of the bad content and poor page interlinking and navigation.

    • I LOVED your post! It feels good to know hard work, content creation, pays off! I am glad I have built our search traffic organically rather than hiring out SEO. Thanks for sharing!

  2. “Because you aren’t serving search engines. You’re serving readers and customers. Put them first and everything else will start working for you.”

    Excellent said, Sonia! This is something that I am preaching and try to make my readers understand that their visitors/readers/customers are more important and all they have is just focus on delivering great value for them.

    Google loves us because it makes more money from us (through advertising) if we create good value and will definitely want to have our website ranked as high as possible.

    But from the same reason puts a lot of accent on value, obviously.

  3. Love the line about what you talk about most of the time. It’s so true and most people will ignore that quick line that has so much value.

    Cheers!

  4. Bang on Sonia. Compelling content is so much more valuable than jury rigged seo tricks. If you always remember that what the search engines want, is what the reader is searching for. This goes for local search,specific topics or general content. Give ‘em what they wanty and you willprosper

  5. Thank you so much for writing this. That is what I have been telling my clients since I’ve taken on clients. Write for your readers first, make intriguing titles that people will want to read about, and take every possible opportunity to reach out to flesh and blood visitors, not the crawlers.

    For example, I point out that they miss a great SEO opportunity and shoot themselves in the foot by not filling in alt tags. Their first instinct is always key words. I have to explain that this is an opportunity to write a short story about the image. The alt tag is first for the people that can’t see the image. Maybe the images are turned off or they have to use a screen reader. No matter the reason, if you don’t use the alt tag correctly you present a terrible user experience for those visitors. Tell your users what the image is in the alt tag, and why it relates to your topic. Then when your site is crawled that is relevant content, but more importantly you have made the space useful for your visitors who won’t be seeing the image for whatever reason.

    It is stuff like that, making your site more useful for people, that will give you the edge. It is hard work but it pays off in the end, unlike shortcut SEO.

    It is great to have a thorough and authoritative source to send them to when I describe this concept.

  6. Hi Sonia,

    Sensational post.

    What you preach vibes with my experience. When I started to write about 1 thing all of the time, I moved up search engines. When I made my site even more clear and simple, I moved even higher.

    The weird thing about SEO is by simply writing about 1 thing consistently and doing all the simple little keyword steps with each post – keyword in title, in h tags, etc – makes the difference between 5 searches a day and 500. Seriously, the tiny little details combined with consistency works so amazingly well, and it is stunningly simple, when you get it down.

    Key point: remember, search engines do not buy your product, or join your team. Set the intent to solve a problem each time you post. Before sitting to pen my latest, I replay my day. I study each interaction with a prospect or team member. I listen to the questions, concerns, problems, anxieties, all that good stuff, and I set about creating.

    If 1 person feels this way, 10,000 probably do, from the same cash gifting niche I work. So that means as I get my SEO down and remember to solve problems with my post, I move up the search engines more quickly.

    I am doing quite well with a Plain Jane, blogger blog. Nothing fancy, but I create like a fiend, pay attention to keywords, solve problems, and get some nice backlink juice from blogs like CB and PB. A few moments of mindfulness can pay immense dividends in a hurry.

    Thanks for sharing your insight Sonia.

    Ryan

    • “Nothing fancy, but I create like a fiend, pay attention to keywords, solve problems, and get some nice backlink juice from blogs like CB and PB. A few moments of mindfulness can pay immense dividends in a hurry.”

      Brilliant. Simply brilliant.

      Now add 75 pages of filler and you’ve got yourself a brand-spanking “new” SEO course.

  7. The most important point, is that every page is a landing page, these days you never know which page will be your visitors first stop, you need to make no matter where they land there aren’t lost.

    • Absolutely. And as Sonia points out (and we practice), by creating targeted content landing pages for your most important topics, you can control the entry experience from search for the most important visitors to a higher degree.

    • I think this is one of the most important points I’m going to take home from this article. There are so many ways to access any content anywhere on a Web site these days that it’s necessary to always remember to stay on topic with everything you do.

  8. Sonia – Another great post full of amazing insights that hit the nail squarely on the head. I’ve been trying to pound these ideas into the heads of my coaching clients, many of whom think that just showcasing their photography with pretty slideshows is enough for them to get traffic.

    I love Seth’s concept that every page is a potential landing page, too – really makes you stop and think each time you write new content, whether it’s a post or a new page.

    Great job, and thanks for sharing your wisdom!

  9. I Agree !
    SEO is an attraction tool for your Cyber Experiencve (website) What’s waiting for them once they get there? (The Main Part of The Experience) – The Moment of Truth- Think of having great content on your site as Staging a Great Customer Experience.

  10. Great post! I am a health and beauty writer and started a little beauty blog for women over 40 two years ago. I had modest traffic for six months, which suddenly doubled and tripled.. The spike turned out to coincide with Google panda and my google rankings in a number of areas continue to grow. As a writer, rather than a techie, I did the only thing I knew how– to provide original well reseached posts on a narrow range of topics. I know first hand how well your advice works.

  11. Ties in even more with having a finely honed USP and to know the language and word use of your reader (which probably wouldn’t include knowing what the acronym USP was)!

  12. I feel like I was just lead on… and that I need a shower now…

  13. Hmmm….perhaps an opportunity for naked mole rats then?

  14. Really, really, disappointed there was no Guru naming! I demand naming and shaming

    Panda really worked well for me and I’m now hovering around 5th on the first page for the term ‘Life Coach’

    Weirdly though, my Alexa ranking has plummeted from 52,000 to 92,000 as my quality traffic has increased. No idea why, and not sure I care.

    • I don’t name the guru because a) I’m not insane, and b) it could have been one of 100 people, all of whose students I suspect are in the same uncomfortable boat.

  15. Hi Sonia,

    A ton of good solid advice! No fancy gadgets no shiny new objects…just common sense. If you give your readers what they want, Google will love you.

    Great point on narrowing down what to write about! I will take that to heart. I have been doing much better on the “stickiness” part and noticed the time people are spending on my site go up. Thanks for the reminder!

    Ilka

  16. Bulls Eye Sonia. Very well said. Right Content is the king and will be the king in the foreseeable future.

  17. Great post! It only makes sense that as SEO gurus find more ways to work around having to write great content, that Google would find ways to make those loopholes harder to get through. That’s true in every other aspect of society. Why would this one be any different? You are right in that (in general) the people who make good content will always come out on top of the optimization mountain.

  18. I am patterning the content of my blog along the lines of what I look for as an article reader. I prefer to enter sites as an observer, to eavesdrop on folks talking about what they do best. I don’t want pop-ups and hard-sales, but rather to discover high-quality material written or created by folks who are genuinely passionate about their niches.

    This excludeds 99% of the blogs on the Internet. I think I’m going to shoot myself the next time I see another worthless article about the value of social media to bloggers and website owners. My dream is that eventually the search engines will get good at recognizing quality content and at penalizing the yokels who create trash. Thanks for the tips!

  19. “In other words, it’s what Copyblogger has been telling you to do with your SEO for six years now.” Booya! I love it.

    -Andrew

  20. Complete agree. Last year 40% more unique visitors, while almost nothing changed at the site. For http://www.helenahoeve.nl/ Panda works excellent.

    See the graph at: http://webhel.blogspot.com/2012/01/yearly-statistics.html

  21. Great post. I don’t know if it’s the change in Panda or some other strategies that I’ve been testing out, but my site is definitely benefitting. A month ago, I had my biggest traffic day overall (before I noticed a change), but almost all of my traffic was referred from Facebook. Yesterday, my site had about a fourth of the total traffic of that big day, but double the search engine referrals.

    While having one great day is nice, you can’t sustain it without consistently solid search engine referrals. And that’s what I’m seeing during the past few weeks. My traffic isn’t taking the huge dips that it used to take when Facebook became bored of me. Search engine (basically Google) is propping up my numbers so that they remain consistently solid.

    Thanks for the post!

  22. You are the master of the headlines! “New” and “secret” always works to keep me interested in reading on.
    I’ve been following Copyblogger for 3 years, and your message has been very consistent – quality, relevant content matters. Thanks for reminding us!

  23. I really like the idea or rather thought that every page is a landing one. I did not really think about it that much before. Having read it here, it got really obvious why you need to make sure that every page or post in your site should be fine-tuned and polished as in-depth as possible. So, if you are not sure about the quality about some of your site’s pages, better get back to them and ‘fix’. That exactly what I’m gong to do first thing tomorrow. Again, thanks. Really nice insight!

  24. I do remember the time when I knew nothing of SEO and the search engine results were often frustrating due to spam sites with scrambled words. At that time I had no idea what that was about. Seach engine results are definitely improving, and hopefully they’ll continue to do that, so that also means we’ll have to do our best to improve our sites.

  25. My Google traffic has also gone up since the Panda update.

    I keep on point, update frequently and generate links from high authority sites like the New York Times, The Atlantic, CNN, BBC, etc.

    It isn’t rocket science.

    Do good work, be consistent and keep on topic.

  26. One thing I don’t understand, if humans can’t agree on what constitutes “quality” content then how does an algorithm do it? I was told by a techie recently that there is no way for an algorithm to do just that.

    • That’s a great question. While there are many things in the minds of Google engineers that I will never understand, a lot of what they do is observing what users do — in other words, they look for things like incoming links, how long readers are spending on pages and sites, and social sharing in venues like twitter and Google+.

      That’s how we measure “quality” as well. We look at what our readers do — which articles they’re most likely to read, send traffic to, share with social media friends, etc.

      • I’ve been trying to answer the same riddle: what is good, quality online content. Sonia, I’m glad you addressed that analysts are looking at the data, too. However, on the one hand, it never ceases to amaze me how a random topic can have a stellar run of viewers. I wrote a piece for a beauty school on cosmetology licensing reciprocity, of all things, that went through the roof. I wonder if we’ll every truly be able to capture the human marketing psych?

        I feel strongly Copyblogger has some of the best headlines I’ve read. The writers always grab me.

    • Joanna, when you take away all the Bad, what’s left must be Good.

      In a sense, the techie you refer is correct: there is no way to algorithmically assess “Good.” Assessing “Bad” is a lot easier.

  27. In short, integrity is what counts. Don’t eat a bar of chocolate when what you need is a square meal and don’t expect your readers to either.
    I love your content because it’s built on a solid foundation. Peace out dudes!

  28. That’s brilliant thank you! I was wondering why my google hits were rising recently given I’ve never consciously “done” SEO (aside from for-the-reader content and guest posts of course). Explains all, and great to hear they are moving on the right path!

  29. Sonia, this is probably my favorite of your posts. It’s insightful, succinct, and a great reminder of what is (or should be) at the core of SEO copywriting. It’s a lot of information, but it’s the right information…funny, isn’t that just what it also preaches? Thanks for writing this!

  30. I’m just starting trying to build up an Internet presence and this post is very encouraging – I like the idea that I can write for my audience rather than write for some marketing strategy. Thanks.

  31. I guess, you are right! Focus on a subject theme is extremely important although I don’t know how is that ingrained in Google’s algorithm.

  32. Nice tips! I write for my readers and not for the search engine. I’m not very good at SEO, but I guess it’s turning out well after all.

  33. I highly recommend everyone read up on how to use the ‘rel=author’ attribute in your content.

    While Google may or may not decide to show a profile pic in the SERPS for what your write (which increases clickthrough and authority and yadda yadda) – more importantly it tells Google you are the original author of the content. That way a $#@& Scraper blog, as Sonia put it, won’t accidentally outrank you with your own content.
    http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=1408986
    Or if you prefer a video featuring Google dorks: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=FgFb6Y-UJUI

  34. Very informative and concise. Thanks!

    I write from my heart and i this way it shines through like a good musician. You have to express your craft and passion and as long as you have some S.E.O knowledge you can outsource the rest or learn it yourself. Either way I wouldn’t be without my blog and my friends there now!

    Best
    Greg De Tisi

  35. Hi Brian
    A good read and tons of advice that can be applied.

    Love the line… “Don’t take shortcuts, they take too long”
    Guess that’s true in any line of business.

  36. Ah…shortcuts. You are absolutely right….shortcuts for SEO seem to eventually get the boot.
    However….legitimate shortcuts for creating relevant content will work like gangbusters. One of the best shortcuts is to use audio as your content-generation method. You can post as a podcast, then transcribe and edit into an article with internal links to your cornerstone content. You could even post the transcription and article separately because they should have enough differences to avoid a duplication penalty. And…of course, if you do it consistently, after 6-months or a year, you’ll have plenty of content to make into ebooks, kindle books, white papers, etc. That’s good content marketing….but it all starts with creation.

  37. Great Post. As long as you have original content and don’t have ads everywhere I believe the search engines will always rank you well. As you say “give the visitor what they want”. Very Informative Thanks. Best Regards Steve

  38. Great comment about “Every page is a landing page.” It’s amazing how much time clients will spend on the home page and give so little thought to the internal pages — some of which can drive a significant amount of traffic because they are focused on one topic.

  39. I love your post.
    Basically, the idea of quality content is not just having a good content. In this process, you also have to think under your reader’s toes. Not just ‘oh drat, have to make a quality write up’.

  40. I agree “Don’t take shortcuts, they take too long” is a great saying. The point about any page being your landing page, I think that points out that it has to be obvious what the whole point of the site is in the header, or an area that is present on every page too. Some websites seem to think its enough just to explain what they do on the homepage, like EVERYONE arrives there.

    I do have one question though – what does this mean for hiring an SEO or outsourcing your SEO work. Are their traditional tactics now not really going to work? Is it better instead to hire someone to produce quality original content for your site if its not something you can manage alone?
    Thanks again Sonia

  41. Thank you for this clear and concise post!

    One of the issues that my clients have is to find that target market and fine tune it until they start receiving leads from it. Well written content, inside the topic the readers are looking for, has given my clients a distinct opportunity to gain readership and boost the numbers of incoming leads. The right content for the right market. Bottom line, for my clients is, how much business is my website generating and how many people are calling me and buying my service/product. It doesn’t really matter how many people are reading a post … for my clients, it’s all about … how many people are buying from a post.

  42. i needed that post right now
    with the hundreds of new elements Google is introducing these days it makes a lot of sense of be parepared
    thanks for this post

  43. You have to earn it.

    First it was Panda, now it’s the over-optimization penality, and the deindexing of sites that were using Blog Networks to game backlinks.

    It was surprising to hear about some of the big names that were impacted by the most recent update. But it was also nice to hear some of them come out and say they did something a little shady.

    Grinding it out in the comments, getting guest posts, asking for, and earning your back links is simply the only way to go for the long term sustainable strategy. It’s not nice to hear, and it’s a ton of work, but if it feels like what you’re doing is too easy, chances are likely the big G is going to slap the crap out of you sooner or later.

  44. Great article. We were hit badly buy Panda ranking, but ironically, it didn’t hurt, but improved our sales. Gogle continues to mystify me!

  45. It finally seems as that Google is starting to reward all the sites that have been staying away from Black Hat techniques and doing it the right way from the beginning. I’m happy to see these changes.

  46. Halleluia! I say it’s about time Google smartened up and is now ranking on true quality – content, relevance, and the whole she-bang. My site did drop a step in the *Panda Shuffle* but has now caught onto the beat.Thank you for once again, providing quality information we can use. This site has become an excellent resource for me.
    Cheers!