The question, “How much will you charge to rank my site for Keyword X”? has not changed and the relentless spamming of blogs and forums suggests there are still many companies prepared to make promises that it can be done via any type of link building.
But Google’s changes over the last two years, and the advent of Hummingbird, have made this task very different as we go forward into 2014.
A bit of history
Not that long ago the way to rank for a chosen keyword was to build links from other websites where the anchor text (the words of the actual link) contained said keyword.
The text link could be anywhere – in the footer of a site, mentioned once on a side menu, on a links page, etc. There were certain other factors but I won’t cloud the basic point.
One of the most famous achievements of this was ‘miserable failure’. Here a group of webmasters with strong sites all agreed to put a link made from the words miserable failure on one of their pages and point it to the biography of George Bush Jr.
In no time at all George’s website ranked number one on Google for the search ‘miserable failure’ in what became known as a Google Bomb.
Google intervened and changed their algorithm. To rank for a keyword, links were to be one thing but, the keyword also had to appear somewhere on the receiving page. In other words a webpage has to be about red widgets and have links to it referencing red widgets for the links to count and affect the page’s ranking for red widgets.
Furthermore the link would count for more if it was within the text of a page’s content rather than floating somewhere on its own.
New goal posts, new problems
This concept set loose the SEO world on hell bent missions to find places where they could place links containing the keywords they were pursuing, but within longer texts – on the cleaner side of things they might be articles and guest blogs, on the black hat side it was spamming anyone and anywhere from blog comment posting to forum ramblings to article spinning in unmoderated content farms.
Then one of those moments arrived when Google suddenly saw the light. In real life people don’t create links to other websites using specific keywords. They might give the URL, or say something like ‘see this article’ or ‘as you can see here’ or any number of other ways. What they didn’t do was create links to a page about red widgets using the words ‘red widgets’.
Suddenly, whether you made those links cleanly or wearing a hat the color of coal, to Google they were ‘unnatural’ and could lead to penalties or even a complete ban from Google’s search results.
The new industry of link removal
Overnight the link building industry found a new neighbour, the link removal business who charged webmasters to get rid of, or edit, all those links containing their chosen keywords which were now close to criminal acts in Google’s eyes.
On the dark side some went further. Creating thousands of links on spammy websites to a page they chose and then contacting that webmaster and offering to ‘help’ clean up their link profile for a fee. That is, however, another blog post in itself!
What does Google want in 2014?
But back to the subject of ranking, rather than being banned. You may well be asking the question, “How do you rank for red widgets now?” Well let’s be clear, Google (and most other major search engines) are far more intelligent than they used to be. This means they can take into account three major factors:
- Is the page in question about red widgets? Get your on page SEO crystal clear to achieve this.
- Do people react positively when they search red widgets and visit your site? Do they click through often, stay on your site, share it on social media, mention it on their blogs, etc?
- Are there links, which don’t contain the words ‘red widgets’ from other respectable (and ideally related) websites? By ‘related’ I mean sites about red widgets or widgets, etc.
OK, you may be thinking, I think I can sort out my on page SEO or hire someone who can. But how can I get to step two and show that people react positively if I’m not ranking? Surely this is catch 22?.
Not quite. There are two possibilities:
- Use PPC to establish a track record with Google about user behaviour
- Link build in an extremely selective method which will involve targeting specific websites and building relationships with those website owners which will eventually lead to a link.
I’ll cover the pros and cons of both now.
Using PPC for SEO
I’ve talked about the relationship between PPC and SEO before but what I didn’t mention is how helpful Google Adwords can be in achieving this.
You see many people end up getting their fingers burnt (or should I say wallets burnt) because they jump into Adwords, spend, see no change, and bail out. While right under their noses Adwords does tell them – loud and clear – why it isn’t working.
Taking ‘red widgets’ again. You have your webpage, you target the phrase with Google Adwords, you spend a lot of money but your organic rankings don’t budge (or move fractionally). Why?
With Google everything is relative. You can advertise for red widgets but if people don’t react more positively to your red widget page than other pages which are also competing for red widgets you’re not going to improve your organic rankings and you are also going to waste money in Google Adwords.
What Google Adwords can tell you
And Adwords tells you from day one if that’s the case – a luxury you don’t get with link building or other SEO activities.
Go into Adwords and to your list of Keywords for any campaign. In the Status column you will see a speech bubble beside the word ‘Eligible’. Hover over that and it will tell you what you need to know. Here’s an example:
The quality score is your initial barometer because it tells you how well your advertisement is performing compared to other advertisers. Don’t follow it too closely though because it is also affected by the level of your bid and we’re not interested in that right now. It is what you see below that is a treasure trove of information … in three parts.
- Expected click through rate – how often people are clicking your ad compared to others. Once you get this right you can transfer the content of the ad into your page title and meta description* / first paragraph on the page.
- Ad relevance – How well is your ad received by internet users? Do they react positively to it for the keyword in question? Again this will help you hone how your page should be presented in the organic search results in order to maximise the click throughs.
- Landing page experience – do people react positively to your website once they click on your ad? If not what can you do to make people act more positively when they arrive at your red widgets page as this will be your ‘bounce rate’ once you start ranking organically.
[* For the savvy I am aware most major search engines ignore the meta description for ranking purposes but it still shows up often in the search results and so affects the click through rate.]
How to use the data
So let’s say the ad that achieved the scores above is this:
We know that when people see the advert they are more likely to click on it than other ads so if we want to achieve a similar result when we rank organically we should make sure the page title is ‘Super cheap red widgets’
We also want to try and get Google to use the text ‘We stock high quality red widgets at low, low prices’ in the description area on the search results page so it should be in the meta description and appear early within the visible text of the page. This should help us achive a good click through rate in the organic listings.
We can also see that the Landing page experience is marked only as ‘average’. So when people arrive at our red widgets page they have the same reaction as anyone else’s red widget page. Clearly we need to look again at our page and find ways to improve it so people stay longer or go deeper than they do at the moment. We’ll need to experiment with design and content until we hit an ‘Above average’ score.
If you can get all three parts to ‘above average’ then Google can see that your site should be popular for red widgets in the organic search. But how popular?
In the example above (which comes from one of my clients) they have 2 x ‘Above Average’ and 1 x ‘Average’ for this particular keyword so how does that translate to their organic rankings?
Well their keyword is fiercely competitive. They have risen from no ranking at all to position 43 in the organic search and stabilised there. That means there are 42 competitors who, either via organic search or advertisements, have pages where users react more positively than on my clients.
The funds we spent on adwords (less than $100) established this so we could then go back to the website itself and consider ways to improve user experience further for this keyword. If we can get the landing page experience to be ‘Above Average’ we’ll improve not only the advertisement’s performance (which means paying less per click) but our own organic rankings as well.
Will it be enough to get us into the top 10?
Unfortunately Google only has three classifications: Above Average, Average and Below Average. We can achieve ‘Above Average’ but if we are competing against 100 other websites that only puts us into the top 30 ish. Other SEO activity may still be needed.
Again – remember it is all relative. If your keyword is less competitive getting 3 x ‘Average’ may do the trick. But the principle of using Google Adwords to measure how users could react to your entry in the organic search results and how they do react to your page versus those of your competitors is the important thing to remember here. It’s data you do not see elsewhere.
Link building the right way for rankings
The alternative to using PPC is to ‘fake’ positive user behaviour by creating links to your page about red widgets. This way Google starts to think people like said page, will rank you higher and you hope genuine users will then like your content so much that link building starts to happen naturally.
It shouldn’t need to be said but it probably has to be – links from blog or forum commenting and general low level activities like that don’t count for much. You’ll need to track down highly relevant websites that are in themselves well respected by people and get yourself mentioned there.
Remember you don’t need a link that says ‘red widgets’, in fact too many of those can now get you into hot water. You need a link from a well respected website and ideally on a page that is related to red widgets in some way. Not always, I’ve seen pages rank just because they get a mention on a local news site but the closer the relevancy the better, especially for competitive keywords.
From a purely SEO stand point this effort to fake user behaviour by building links is questionable because search engines can pick up when links were made. Therefore, unless visitors start creating their own links naturally you may rank and then drop again.
Creating win-win relationships
But it is from a business point of view that this approach makes a huge amount of sense. You start building relationships with others (commercial or not) where you both benefit.
Here’s an example. One of my clients last year was an organisation called Dynaread. They help children with Dyslexia but were stalled on how to move their off page SEO forward. My overall advice to them was:
“Think of your business first and your website second.”
I said, “Start establishing relationships with other organisations because you can help them and they can help you. The links that will follow will be natural and genuine but they will be a by-product of mutually beneficial relations so don’t even mention links in your initial contact.”
As an example I suggested they talk to organisations that help adults with Dyslexia. This is not Dynaread’s target market but they often get enquiries from sufferers outside the age range they serve so they could recommend these people onto other organisations while those other organisations could recommended Dynaread if the person approaching them was a child.
I also told them to sort out their Twitter and Facebook pages which were languishing in a half abandoned state as these would be an integral part of their new relationships.
Joy Dekkers, the Operations Director, threw herself at the task with unbridled energy. They now have nearly 800 followers on Twitter and great connections around the globe with others whose goal it is to help dyslexia sufferers.
The links? Well they just came by themselves after that!
I built the links but the rankings didn’t improve …
This is pretty common and where many webmasters go wrong, often because they read SEOers ranting on about links, links, links!
Remember the basics. When Google is deciding if you should rank highly/higher for red widgets it asks three fundamental questions:
- Is your page about red widgets clearly about red widgets (that’s your on-page SEO – page titles, keywords, etc.)
- Do users click through to your page more often than those of your competitors when they carry out a search for red widgets?
- Do users react better to your landing page about red widgets than to those of your competitors – do they bounce less, stay longer, share the content or create links to it?
By building links you have only addressed a small part of point 3. A good SEO specialist will be able to address point 1 and using Google Adwords (as described above) will fill in most of the other gaps for points 2 and 3.
Here are the points to take away:
- It is much, much harder now to rank for a specific keyword using off page techniques so making sure the structure and clarity of your pages (on page SEO) is crystal clear to search engines is more important than ever.
- Using PPC to get ranked organically provides a fast and quantifiable route and almost instant data by which you can improve your pages further.
- Link building only works where the links come from respected websites (and better still subject related as well) but consider building the relationship first and the link later. It’s slower but far more concrete in the long term.
- Link building does not always work if your pages are not clear to search engines and if internet users react poorly (compared to your competitors) to the content. Using Google Adwords for a short period will help you find out if this is the case.