Posted: April 16, 2018
By now, you’ve probably heard the old joke: Where’s the best place to hide a body? On the second page of Google results. Think of your own search engine experiences. How often do you wander into the wilderness that is everything past page one of your results when you search for information on Google or Bing? Not often, right? If you’re like most web searchers, you concentrate on those first page results.
So it’s no wonder that a lot is written about how to rank on Google. Every other day someone comes up with a new search engine optimization (SEO) hack for how to “trick” Google into ranking your website or your content higher. In most cases, these gimmicky solutions may work once or twice, but they’re not grounded in solid strategy, typically border on unethical, and are almost never a smart move. These tricks are generally considered to be “Black Hat” SEO techniques (“White Hat” strategies are legit best practices to improve your success with search engines). When Google gets wind of these tricks — usually sooner than later — they don’t like it. In fact, they don't like it so much that you could end up harshly penalized by the search engine.
Getting Caught Is No Fun
Google does not take kindly to tricksters. Case in point: In 2010, the retail giant JC Penney got caught cooking their Google search results after outsourcing their SEO to a somewhat shady firm. During a busy holiday marketing period, Penney purchased and traded links to the JC Penney site on totally unrelated websites to trick Google into thinking these were “natural” links. It worked until Google found out.
One major New York Times exposé later, Google and its algorithms were no longer fooled by the link-buying scheme. Penney found itself in the ranking cellar for terms that had previously ranked them at the top. And they got some pretty lousy publicity to boot.
In 2006, auto giant BMW was removed entirely from Google indexing for a time when they got caught using keyword-stuffed doorway pages to entice users to their German website.
The Secret to Search Engine Optimization? There Isn’t One
There are no “secrets” to ranking on Google. At a fundamental level, your website will rank higher on Google if it’s a great website. Period.
What’s a great website? One seen as authoritative and providing value to an audience. Of course, there are some technical design aspects that need to be in place: your website should be optimized for mobile, your loading speed needs to be up to par, your website needs to be user-friendly (and accessible). But beyond the technical, the content you produce needs to be well-written and targeted to the audiences you want to serve. Basically, you need to put in the work and the time; there aren’t shortcuts that will pay off in the long run. Even using SEO best practices, it will take a while to get to where you want to be in the rankings.
It makes sense. Google wants to show the best information from the best sources — and that translates into showing people the information they are searching for.
Best Practices for Search Engine Success
So, if you have a well-designed website and are putting out well-written content that answers people’s questions or provides unique and useful information, Google is going to bump you higher up in their search results. Easy, right? Yes and no. You still need to adhere to some SEO best practices if you want your strategy to work. Here are 20 tips to follow when it comes to producing the quality content that is going to rank higher on Google.
1. Be smart about how you use keywords
In SEO-speak, keywords are words and phrases that a searcher enters into a search engine like Google or Bing to find the information they want. Do your keyword research first; never write the content and then try to stuff the keywords in; it just won’t work well.
Keyword research is fundamental and there are a number of tools you can use to help you out. One of the best is Google’s Keyword Planner — and it’s free. All you have to do is create a Google Adwords account (again, free) to start using it. Try to search for keywords (and variations) that have a higher search volume and lower competition. It’s a bit easier to rank when you are not competing against wildly popular terms that too many people already rank for. Find your niche.
For instance, suppose you have an MBA program you want to promote and you decide to choose MBA degree as your keyword in a blog post. That’s great, there are 18,100 search queries per month using that term — but it also has very high competition. However, long tail keywords like “What is a master’s degree” or “Why get an MBA” have much less competition, but will pull in 4,400 and 1,000 inquiries per month, respectively. Think strategically about your keyword choices.
2. Go long and short
Keywords come in two varieties, short tail and long tail. Short-tail keywords are one to two words. Long-tail keywords are phrases that have three to five words. Although searchers use a lot of short tail keywords, about 70% of searches are long-tail. You need to use both for best results.
3. Include the primary keyword as part of the title/headline
A primary keyword is just what the name implies: it’s the most important keyword you want to be found for. Ideally, try to get it in towards the beginning of the title and be sure to include the primary keyword within the first 300 words or so of your page, preferably in the first paragraph.
4. Remember that you are writing for human readers
In other words, you are not writing for an algorithm. Remember there's a human reader at the other end. Of course, you are including the keywords for search engines, but your content should engage human interest while keeping the SEO best practices that appeal to the algorithms in mind.
5. Do not force a keyword into the copy
The use of the keyword(s) should feel natural. If it feels like a struggle to include the keyword, then it’s not natural; you need to rethink and rework the writing.
6. Use synonyms and variations of the keywords
Google rewards variance and they don’t like to see the same term appear too many times.
7. Use secondary and tertiary keywords
Sprinkle them throughout the article to increase your chances of grabbing additional eyes on your content — but don’t use them as frequently as the primary keyword. They are important, but just as their name implies, they play a supporting role to the primary keyword. Primary, secondary, and tertiary keywords should all work together to fulfill the search intent of a web user. Think of related terms: For example, if you're writing an article about red wine, you should include reference to Merlot or a different red wine varietal.
8. Mix it up — in a good way
Good, long-form content (2,500 words or so) can help establish you as an authoritative resource on a particular topic. Plus, long-form content ranks well — if it provides value. Mix up your content between long and short-form (500-800 words) so readers have a variety of content types to consume.
Please note: the emphasis here is on good. Writing for the sake of filling out word count is not going to keep a reader interested and is not going to help your search engine optimization. If you need to add, add something of value: i.e., quotes from an interview or a useful checklist.
9. Do not stuff keywords
Keyword stuffing is the dubious practice of loading content with keywords (in or out of context) to try to manipulate the SEO ranking. It makes for an awful reading experience. For a long-form article, the exact keyword phrase should appear within the article five to eight times, but, again, only in a way that seems natural. For a short-form article, include the keyword three to four times. (PS: another reason not to stuff is that Google will penalize you for it.)
10. Use subheadings
Subheadings are essential for both readability and SEO. Subheadings act as anchor points for different areas of your text, they direct the flow of your content and can be rest spots for a reader’s eyes. A better reading experience = better SEO. Be sure to include a keyword, if possible (primary or secondary keyword), in one of the subheadings.
(Note: Headings are also crucial for website accessibility, especially for the visually impaired. A screen reader uses them to make an outline of content that can be read aloud, helping a user decide what to read. They also help the visually impaired navigate from one section of the text to another.)
11. Try to write first sentences that grab
Try to begin each paragraph or section with sentences that will draw a reader in and encourage him or her to proceed with the rest of the content.
12. Break up long content into easily scannable sections
Avoid long-winded or convoluted sentence structure or excessively long paragraphs. Remember you are aiming for clarity and ease of use when it comes to SEO-friendly content.
13. Write a meta description to describe the content or article in one or two sentences
A meta description is a concise description (about 150 characters) of your content. Search engines use this description to “preview” your content in search results to let web users know what it’s about before they click. Although metas are not always used as part of the ranking algorithms, they are an important way to get a reader to click through to your content. Include a call to action as part of the meta description if you can.
Bonus tip: Metas are also useful in social sharing. When your content is shared on a social media channel, the social site will either use your meta to add to the share, or pull the first couple of sentences of your content. If it’s the latter, those sentences are usually cut off and they may not make sense as a preview of your content. Use a meta description if you want more control over how your content looks when it is shared. Most CMS (content management systems) like WordPress, for instance, will have some plug-in or extension that allows you to add a meta description for your content.
14. If you are using any images, include an image alt tag to describe the image
An alt tag is a clear and concise description of what an image is about. Ideally, include a keyword as part of the alt tag. (This is also best practice for website accessibility standards.) Again, your CMS will have a place to insert alt tag or text for your images.
15. Associate with the good guys
Much like in real life, if you hang out with the “good” people online, it rubs off on you. If you cite or link to legit sources (or to your own good content), it makes you look authoritative.
Show subject matter expertise and use statistics (if appropriate) and links from reliable and credited sources. If possible, include a link back to another relevant article on your blog or another key webpage on your site to get traffic moving there.
16. Keep your content accessible and engaging
Avoid the kind of jargon that can drive away your readers and drive up your site’s bounce rate. Another tip: Remember what your writing teachers always told you — write in active voice instead of passive voice as much as possible. (Need a refresher on the difference? Here you go.) Some SEO plugins like Yoast will even flag your use of passive voice as something to avoid because it makes the text more difficult, distant and “unattractive” to read. Again, Google rewards quality content. Quality content is well-written content.
17. Don’t try to be a comedian
Readers enjoy both informative and entertaining content (even a combination of the two). Use humor if it comes naturally, but don’t force it. Humor can fall just as flat online as it can in person.
18. Edit, read your content out loud — and proofread!
If it doesn’t “sound” right when you read it aloud, it won’t “read” right, either. Plus there is nothing worse than content that is published with a bunch of typos. It doesn’t add up to making you sound very authoritative.
19. Include a few tweetable sentences
Also, make sure to include share buttons on your blog to make it easy for readers to pass along your great content and help you keep it moving.
20. Don’t forget to post your blog content on your social media channels
To make your life easier (and to develop a good habit), each time you create a blog post go ahead and write Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn social posts to use when the blog article is published.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking of this as a one and done thing: keep posting good, evergreen content on a regular basis — even recycling existing content and posting it multiple times. Your content will always be new to someone coming online, and you can build SEO momentum for good content this way.
Want to Improve Your Google Search Results? Work Hard
If you spend your time trying to improve your SEO with “tricks” designed to manipulate search engine algorithms, you will waste your time in the long run. The only “trick” — if there is one — is to learn the best ways to work with the algorithms.
When it comes to search engine optimization of your higher ed website, there is no substitute for best practices and quality content. Building your SEO with White-Hat techniques means that it may take longer before you start seeing good results. On the other hand, the traffic you do get will be built on a solid foundation for continued and sustainable SEO success.
VisionPoint Marketing has extensive experience in higher education consulting and developing SEO-optimized websites and content for higher ed organizations. If you have SEO questions or want to start a conversation about how we can help, please visit our website or reach out to our team. We’re on a mission to help higher ed institutions succeed.