By Tara Horn and Baruch Landa
When meeting potential clients, one questions that comes up over and over again is “why does my company not show up on Google when I search for my keywords?”
Google search is based on a super complex algorithm that evaluates websites based on over 200 parameters. Google has never come out and explicitly stated what all their ranking factors are, though their engineers are clear that your content needs to be excellent and your pages need to be crawlable in order to receive “Google love”. Fortunately, many within the SEO Community do share a lot of common beliefs about what it takes to rank well.
Employing these “best practices” will not guarantee SEO success, as the competitive landscape for your keywords plays a huge role in this, but they will get you closer to your goals. The many ranking factors all fall under 1 of 2 buckets, on-page and off-page SEO.
To help understand what on-page and off-page SEO mean, I want to use an analogy that I think will clearly explain this concept (thank you Yaron for this one!). If your website can be compared to a car, link building (off-page SEO) is like the gas that you put into your car. While the amount of gas in your tank determines how far you can travel, if your engine does not work, then you are not going to get anywhere. On-page SEO refers to fixing your website so that your off-page SEO can make an impact in ranking your site for your target keywords. Once your “car” is ready, you will need gas to get it to where you want it to go, the gas is the SEO off-page or link building.
What’s involved in on-page SEO?
On-page SEO means making sure that your website is “SEO clean”, i.e. that the code, content and structure are easy for search engines to read and provide users with an excellent experience as they browse your pages.
In a nutshell, even though Google is amazing at understanding content, you need to make it easy for Google to read your pages and figure out what they are about. You also need to make sure that you provide an overall great user experience, because that is what Google wants for its users. Here are some items (listed in no order) that need to be taken into consideration if you want to have an optimized website.
- Content- You need to have lots of interesting and well-written content so that Google understands who you are and what you offer
- Titles – there are several different kinds of titles on your website (H1, H2, H3, title tags). Make sure these are written with your keywords in mind. They help Google understand what is important to your brand
- Errors – There are a lot of different kind of errors that come up on your site as different changes are made to it over the years. When it comes to SEO, they prevent search engines from being able to reach your content and they signal that it’s a low quality, poorly maintained site. Make sure you fix as many of the errors as possible.
- HTTPS – Your site needs a security seal. Your site URL should look like https://sellsidemedia.com. If you do not have this seal, you are at risk for your site not being able to show to customers on Chrome and it will affect your rankings.
- Sitemap and robots file – these are tools that help Google scan your site and know which pages to pay attention to and which to ignore
- Site speed – the quicker your site loads the better the user experience is. If you have heavy images or code that is not minified, your site maybe slow and therefore ranking could be affected
- Mobile – Today Google looks at mobile first for rankings, so make sure that your site has a great mobile experience. Having a bad mobile experience can severely affect your rankings
In order to make sure your site if well optimized for search engines, you should consider doing an SEO audit to check in detail for all of these factors.
What is Off-page SEO?
On-page SEO is a critical factor in determining your site’s Google rankings success. You can hire the top off-page SEO expert in the world and you still won’t achieve results in the Search Engine Results Page (SERPs) if your on-page SEO is mediocre.
That said, let’s assume you do in fact understand the importance of on-page SEO and you have everything covered on that front. You’re well on your way to ranking on Google for your desired keywords, right? Well, not so fast. SEO is a two-headed beast. You need to be the very best in both on-page (as discussed above) and off-page SEO. It’s great that your site provides a wonderful user experience, but if you don’t know how to do off-page SEO, your site will linger in “nowhere land” (i.e. lower than position 10 on Google).
Ask any SEO expert how much off-page SEO accounts for their Google rankings. You will likely hear somewhere between 20-50%. In our experience of working on numerous SEO projects, off-page SEO accounts for at the very least 80% of your Google rankings.
Let’s say you start a website in the insurance industry, while your friend builds a similar site in your exact niche. You both hire developers that have virtually the same background and experience. They both build a mobile friendly site, the code is clean, the tags are all in place and correct, the site is fast and includes 30 high-quality articles written by industry experts. How does Google know which site to rank above the other? They are both essentially the same! The obvious answer to this is off-page SEO.
Let’s Call a Spade a Spade
While off-page SEO includes factors like the amount of traffic you get, mentions of your brand on other websites, your social media activity, it overwhelmingly refers to “back link acquisition.” The goal of off-page SEO is to get links on other relevant websites that point (link) to your website. This let’s Google know that you (your website) are an authority in your space and are therefore worthy of ranking for a range of keywords that relate to your industry. We all know that the “www” in the address bar stands for World Wide Web. But why? Simple – the internet is essentially a web of links. The below picture shows what looks like a web: a globe (your website) with roughly half-dozen computers (websites) that “link” to your globe (website).
The very basic understanding goes like this: the more quality and quantity of links you have, the better you will rank on Google. While this sounds pretty simple and straightforward, creating and implementing the right strategy is extremely difficult. There are dozens of factors that go into off-page SEO. This includes knowing which websites to acquire links on, which method to use in order to acquire these links, how to analyse a website, understanding back link profiles of target websites, knowing anchor text schemes, along with tens of other factors. If you’re building links and miss out on one of these factors, there’s a chance Google will penalize your site for not following their guidelines. Similarly, if you don’t invest enough in building links, there’s a good chance your website won’t be where you want it to be.
Think about how many businesses in the world invest in off-page SEO. How many actually succeed? A very, very small fraction. The primary reason for this is because they don’t know what they’re doing. The other main factor has to do with budgetary constraints. If you have a bad plan with a limited budget, you will fail. If you have an excellent plan with a limited budget, you will win on a small scale (how much you win here depends on your competition). If you have a bad plan with an enormous budget, you will also win on a small scale (sadly, money talks and if you throw enough money at a project, something will stick, albeit not much). You need to have both a stellar strategy and a budget large enough to compete with your competition. If either of these factors is an issue for you, it’s not worth investing in SEO.
Again, I’d like to make it clear that on-page SEO isn’t something to brush aside. You need an amazing on-page experience in order to rank for whatever keywords you want to target. However, once this is taken care of, your off-page SEO will be the driving force behind your Google rankings. Make sure that you know what you’re doing (or hire someone that knows what they’re doing) and come into it with the mindset that this will likely be a costly endeavor, and one that will take several months until you reach peak success and it needs to be constantly maintained. However, it’s one that generally backs out a great deal. Most people don’t have the patience for SEO either, which should make this route all the more enticing for businesses. With patience, a budget, and most importantly the correct strategy, you should be on your way to seeing rankings you once thought were impossible.