Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.
There’s good news for all you wordsmiths—former journalists, ex-English majors and wannabe poets who got into the communication business because of their love of writing.
The secret to search engine optimization lies not just with those IT wizards designing your pages. Excellent content, properly presented, is one of the biggest factors in improving your Google results, says Greg Jarboe, president and a co-founder of SEO-PR.
In other words, that essential element is what PR pros and other communicators do all day, he says in a Ragan Training presentation, “Master new SEO and content trends.”
“There’s a whole lot of gut judgment that you can bring to bear that—you know what?—is probably pretty on target,” Jarboe says. “And, thank you, Google, you’re basically playing to our strength.”
Jarboe has made a career of understanding the porcine search giant, which hogs 88 percent of the search engine traffic. Bing boings along distantly at 7 percent, and Duck Duck Go waddles in at 1 percent. SEO isn’t like a test you cram for and move on. Google keeps tweaking its algorithm. In 2016 alone, Google made an average of 4.5 changes a day after 158,000 experiments.
“What does work is to focus on not every change that comes down the pike, but the big ones,” Jarboe says.
Here are a few points to be aware of:
1. Panda likes you.
Panda was a series of dozens of updates to Google’s algorithm starting in February 2011, Jarboe says. (The search Goliath doesn’t announce most changes.) Those were intended to punish sites with poor-quality content and reward high-quality content.
What is “high-quality” in the hive brain of Google? The metrics megatherium considers these questions:
- Would you trust the information presented in this article?
- Is this written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well?
- Does it involve original content, reporting, research or analysis?
- Does it tell both sides of a story?
- Is it complete or comprehensive?
- Does the article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
In other words, it’s a lot of what many of us learned on the liberal arts side of the campus, chasing stories in J-school or writing research papers on Jane Austen.
SEO success can’t be left just to our beloved pals in IT. In 2002, when Jarboe first delved into SEO, 80 percent of success was technical. Today, most of it revolves around content that meets the above criteria.
2. Penguin hates sneaks.
Penguin is the name for is a series of changes that Google started in April 2012 and continued until 2016, at which point it became part of Google’s standard algorithm. This fat little flightless program focuses not on hunting squid and krill, but on catching sites that buy links or obtain them through link networks.
Penguin distinguishes between natural links (those multitudes who flock to your website from other sites that find it interesting enough to link to it) and “unnatural” ones (the Miss Lonelyhearts trying to buy love from oleaginous link salesmen).
The source of the links matters to Google’s ranking. If you can get a link from The New York Times, that’s gold, Jarboe says.
Over the years, Google has figured out natural versus manufactured links, and that plays to communicators’ strengths.
“Most of us are in the news business,” Jarboe says. “Most of us know how to promote a product launch or feature some other new piece of content. That’s the kind of thing that attracts links organically.”
On the other hand, cheaters never prosper, and you don’t want to be the one caught juicing your SEO with fake links.
“Try explaining to your client why they just disappeared from all the Google rankings,” Jarboe says. “That’s not a meeting you want to be at.”
3. Consider longer search terms.
Web designers used to optimize for two-word terms, Jarboe says. Today, nearly 60 percent of search terms are three or more words. If people are using three-, four- or five-word phrases to find your business or information in your industry, figure it out.
“It pays to know what people are likely to type into that search box,” Jarboe says.
In 2015, Google launched its RankBrain algorithm, which applies artificial intelligence to help Google process rare or one-of-a-kind queries by recognizing words in their context.
Example: Type in, “What’s the title of the consumer at the highest level of a food chain,” Jarboe says.
To a layperson—or a dumb, old-fashioned search engine—“consumer” sounds like a somebody barreling through the mall trying to grab the last big-screen TV on Black Friday. But it’s also a scientific term for a creature that consumes food. There are consumers throughout the food chain, and the king of the pyramid is called an “apex predator.”
4. Speed it up—and fit the device.
This is when you will have to go hat in hand to those cheerful folks in IT. Page speed became a ranking factor starting this past July, Jarboe says. Luckily, Google provided a free tools called PageSpeed insights.
Google also rewards sites that personalize pages to fit the device, whether the reader is using a smartphone, a tablet or a laptop.
Page speed is important, because people tend to wait no more than three seconds for a page to load. If the page doesn’t come up, searchers grumble and go to look for something else.
5. Obey the quality guidelines.
Pay close attention to Google’s basic content standards, Jarboe adds. They include these:
- Make pages primarily for users, not search engines.
- Don’t deceive your users.
- Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. Jarboe suggests asking yourself, “Would you feel comfortable explaining what you’re doing if there’s a Google employee in the room?”
- Also ask: “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist.”
- Think about what content makes your website unique, valuable or engaging.
6. Write enough.
Jarboe asks, “Are you producing a satisfying amount of high-quality content?”
The old notion that pages had to as minimalist as an e.e. cummings poem is dead. Google rewards those who pound out sufficient copy to explain their topic. That could be 500, 1,000 or even as many as 2,700 words.
The point is to create unique, relevant content. That’s good news for us in the content business.
Jarboe says, “The most important SEO factor: content.”