Last week I attended and presented at the SES conference in London where online marketers from all over Europe and as far away as Australia converged to learn about integrated marketing and paid, earned, and owned media.
With it’s history in search marketing, the conference complemented presentations on digital marketing with sessions on SEO as well.
Making sure content is easy to find by the right audience in search is an important part of our consulting at TopRank Marketing, so I am acutely aware of the changes in the search optimization world from Panda to Penguin to Hummingbird. Regardless, as a content and social media focused marketer, it was interesting to hear the shift in current SEO and link building best practices.
In the race to win buyer’s attention through search, I’m pretty sure many social media and content marketers aren’t even aware of, let alone optimizing for, crawling, indexing and combatting against negative SEO and risky links.
Because of Google’s crack down on page and link quality, many SEOs are changing gears and going on a sort of defense to remove negative signals. In fact, negative signal removal is actually a blossoming industry in niche SEO circles, something that is in stark contrast to simply focusing on creating and promoting high quality content that people will want to share and link to.
I thought the most striking public comment was the disclosure by a speaker of having been paid to procure links of a certain type in the past, only to now get paid again to have them removed or disavowed. It’s not exactly “dodgy”, but not exactly honorable either.
One presenter related a story about how an owner of 10,000 or so directories used to charge pennies for inclusion now charges $5 for removal.
Another irony was the claim that Google Webmaster Tools is the logical place to start for signals to determine the SEO health of a website, only to discount the accuracy of WMT data, feature by feature.
Beyond some of the smugness of gray/black hats now doing white hat SEO, there were many useful insights shared regarding the mechanical aspects of SEO audits and the current state of link building. I found the tips shared by Paul Madden – @pauldavidmadden on link building and Andre Alpar – @andrealpar for SEO Mechanics to be particularly useful. In combination with our perspective at TopRank Marketing, here are some of those insights:
Mechanics of SEO – Crawling & Indexing
Most people in the social media and content marketing world focus their SEO efforts on keywords and content or they don’t really consider it at all. But any site with a volume of content, a long history and a fairly competitive market will need to consider the technical aspects of SEO – or lose business to competitors who do.
Search Engines are far from perfect in their ability to find, understand and organize content on the web. It also takes formidable resources for search engines to continuously do this with the explosion of content and links being created every second of every day. As a result, search engines have made some aspects of the crawling and indexing process more explicitly part of what it takes to achieve prominent visibility.
Part of the burden is now on the website owner to make sites easier and more efficient to crawl, (in the name of better user experience). That means your pages need to load fast, be error free and maybe even include extra markup in the code. They need to be “search engine friendly” so it’s easier for Google and Bing to make copies of your content.
When your site complies with these more technical website standards, the rewards can be anything from having more of your content included in a search engine index to an improvement in how your most important content stands out from other search results.
Here are some important considerations for tuning up your website performance, “SEO Mechanic” style:
Crawling Management – There are three essential components to how search engines discover and copy, organize and sort your website content amongst the billions of other documents on the web. They are: crawling, indexing, and ranking. Without good management of the crawling and the indexing portions of this process, it can be pretty difficult (or random) to achieve and maintain good search visibility across your portfolio of digital marketing assets.
Most content and social media marketers aren’t accountable for the crawling and indexing of the content they create. If they have a SEO consultant, those responsibilities are left to others. Who’s to say whether it’s being managed for maximum marketing benefit vs. pure SEO objectives? i.e. gross “ranking” counts vs. qualitative brand and topic inclusion.
Think if it like this: When you build a house there are many things to decide, but getting the crawling and indexing right is like getting a solid foundation in place for your house. However, different than with a house – you have to manage crawling and indexation efficiency for performance on an ongoing basis.
Crawling the web is difficult, so that means there’s an opportunity for SEOs to make crawling easier and more efficient for search engines. A good SEO mechanic can help focus crawlers where they need to be – what to crawl and what not to crawl.
Andre Alpar says blocking less important URLs from being crawled increases the probability that important URLs will be crawled. Look at your URLs as sets or layers. Some layers, you don’t want to be crawled including: printable versions of pages, some PDFs, thumbnail versions of images, or alternative sorting and filters pages in ecommerce sites.
Robots.txt and 301 redirects are tools you can use. Parameter handling within Google Webmaster tools also offers some options.
Indexation Management - Indexing strategy focuses on which URLs are important for users only and which are also valuable for SEO. Rather than viewing this separation in black and white, I prefer to think of them in order of priority. Marketing content should not be competing with other content, but it might get priority when it comes to technical and topic optimization.
When you take the approach that some content has search engine priority, you’ll have to decide: Across how many URLs will you focus authority? Andre says that the less pages you push in the index overall, the more likely those that you do publish will appear high in the SERPs.
The first step in an indexation strategy: sort through your user-oriented pages. Some URLs are only important for the user and internal linking, but not for SEO. Examples: Shopping cart pages on an ecommerce site, help pages, pagination pages.
Andre says you don’t want to rank for “help” content, which I don’t agree with at all.
Current customers use search engines to find help information related to products and services all the time and ensuring relevant search visibility can create a great customer experience. Keeping an existing customer should be one of the top priorities for companies as the cost of new customer acquisition is far higher and a lot less efficient investment. Optimizing for help content means different, more niche terms and should not compete with marketing content. Even so, help content can double as marketing content anyway.
Andre shared these three groups to organize your site’s URLs for steering Googlebot in the right direction using the robots meta tag:
- Group 1: Pages good for users and internal links (Noindex, follow)
- Group 2: Pages good for SEO and internal links (index, follow)
- Group 3: Pages good for users, for SEO and internal links (index, follow)
He closed up his presentation with: “The more you focus on Google with its crawling and indexing, the more deterministic SEO successes will become.”
There are some that say link building is truly dead and that social signals have replaced the web page to web page links many SEOs have pursued since PageRank entered the online marketing lexicon. Google’s Matt Cutts has recently stated that “We Don’t Use Twitter Or Facebook Social Signals To Rank Pages” which some have interpreted as Google not using links within social content for any part of it’s efforts to understand and sort the web.
That’s a silly interpretation of course, because if you’ve been following people like Matt Cutts for years, you know there’s not only a lot of nuance to his well coached media relations commentary, but also the likelihood that things will change.
Regardless, social networking and community is a content distribution channel that can drive search as well as awareness of content to be linked to. For example, I’ve heard about numerous tools and resources through Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google Plus and then linked to those resources from our blog within an article.
Beyond link acquisition is the ever growing need to go on defense with links and win the competition for the most “natural” link profile. Part of that process is to become aware of unsavory links pointing to your site and doing something about it.
Clean Up Those Links – Paul Madden made it clear that the first priority for any site of age that has links pointing to it is clean up. That means an audit of inbound links to your website and evaluating link source quality.
Any spammy, artificial, or low-quality links can hurt your search visibility, so it’s important to get them removed or ignored by Google. Once you have a good mapping of links to your site, work on getting the low quality link sources to remove the links. This is a LOT easier said than done and will be an ongoing effort for any site of popularity and/or age.
For those link sources you cannot change, disavow them using Google’s tool. The disavow tool should not be used lightly. Using it basically tells Google not to trust any link from a particular domain to your site.
Manage Your Link Profile – Just because you get a few sites to remove unsavory or overly commercial links, doesn’t mean you can stop there. There are a variety of ways that more undesirable links can start pointing to your website from scrapers that copy your RSS feed to negative SEO. For a website that’s even nominally popular, the link profile should be managed and optimized on an ongoing basis.
Again, I don’t think many social media and content marketers are paying much attention to link clean-up. They’re busy creating and promoting fantastic content amongst their communities, often oblivious to automated or sinister linking happening that may become a hole in their bucket for SEO progress.
Tools for auditing and managing your website’s link profile:
How can you tell the difference between good and bad links?
Paul shared that some indications of link risk include:
- Commercial text
- Sitewide links
- Obvious linking tactics
- Network sites – hosting and group behavior
- Paid links
- Directory sites
- Guest posts
- Comment spam
Links that might get risky in the future:
- Disavowed sites
- Guilt by association
Tactics for safer link building:
Paul says “It’s now the person that’s the signal, not just the website.” That means considering the authority and link / share capabilities of individuals vs. solely based on a domain or page. Here are some of his guidelines for “safer” link building:
- Do your outreach in an intelligent way. Start with a good site. Follow the links to the community.
- Think about mining social data for linking opportunities
- Find hashtags specific to an industry and discovery who’s important
- Form relationships with influentials. Make the content more important than the link
- Clean up your link profile and when you’re done, clean it up again. Because you’re never done.
- Create core content on your own site to define the concept
- Spend more time gathering data on who are the influencers in your niche an use a risk averse outreach to approach them. (In other words, don’t pitch like a common SEO link spammer)
- Partner with the person not the page
- Anchor text is dead - Don’t use commercial anchor text or sites that use commercial anchor text.
Conclusion – But Not the Final Word on this Topic
If you think your website marketing program is doing all that it can to capitalize on being the best answer for buyers at the moment they’re looking on search engines, think again. “Great content” and social network promotion are now the minimum requirements to compete in today’s digital marketplace. As highly skilled auto mechanics assess and fine tune high performance sports cars, experienced SEO mechanics and link building specialists can evaluate, manage and optimize your website’s performance on the search engine racetrack.
Anyone that has been in this race for a while knows it takes a lot more than a nice car (website) to win the race. They also know that the race never ends.
When you hire a digital marketer, think beyond their content and social media marketing skills and see if they can speak “SEO mechanic” and manage efforts like crawling and indexation management. Can they also manage link profile audits, ongoing cleanup and management as well? If your business expects information discovery through search, then these skills are a must – for digital marketing consultants and agencies too.
Are you trying to win the race for top of search by leaving technical SEO and link building to chance? Are you proactively managing past “sins” of SEO or even negative SEO regarding link building and website optimization?