Here's a cliche among digital marketers: Search engine optimization (SEO) isn't what it used to be.
Here's a true statement you don't hear as often: Your SEO strategy for 2019 shouldn't focus on keywords.
These days, most businesses understand the basic concepts of SEO and why it's important.
However, when it comes to developing and executing a sound SEO strategy for your business, just creating content for the keywords your customers are searching for is both arduous and, well, wrong.
What is an SEO?
Search engine optimizers (SEOs) are people who optimize websites to help them show up higher on search engines and gain more "organic traffic." In essence, an SEO is a highly specialized content strategist, and helps a business discover opportunities to answer questions people have about the industry via search engines.
Here are three types of SEO that an SEO strategist can focus on:
- On-page SEO: This SEO focuses on the content that's "on the page," and how to optimize that content to help boost the website's ranking for specific keywords.
- Off-page SEO: This SEO focuses on the links that are directing to the website from elsewhere on the internet. The number of "backlinks," and the publishers carrying those links, that link to your website help you build trust in the eyes of a search engine. This causes your website to rank higher as a result.
- Technical SEO: This SEO focuses on a website's architecture, examining the backend of that website to see how each webpage is "technically" set up. Google cares as much about the code of a website as it does its content, making this speciality quite important to a website's search engine ranking.
Bear in mind that not every business can optimize their website for search the same way, and therefore not every SEO will have the same optimization process. It's an SEO's job to examine his or her industry, find out what's important to their audience, and develop an SEO strategy that puts the right content in front of that audience.
With that in mind, here are nine steps you can take to make sure all of your SEO bases are covered in 2019. Then, at the bottom of this blog post, you can grab your free planning template to master on-page SEO.
1. Make a list of topics.
Keywords are at the heart of SEO, but they're actually not your first step to an organic growth play anymore. Your first step is to make a list of topics you'd like to cover from one month to the next.
To start, compile a list of about 10 short words and terms associated with your product or service. Use Google's Keyword Tool to identify their search volume and come up with variations that make sense for your business.
You are associating these topics with popular short-tail keywords, as you can tell, but you're not dedicating individual blog posts to these keywords. These keywords are simply too competitive to rank highly for on Google if you're just starting to optimize your website for search. We'll go over how to use these topics in just a minute.
Using search volume and competition as your measure, narrow down your list to 10-15 short-tail keywords that are important to you, and that people within your audience are searching for. Then rank this list in order of priority, based on its monthly search volume and its relevance to your business.
For example, if a swimming pool business is trying to rank for "fiberglass pools" -- which is receiving 110,000 searches per month -- this short-tail keyword can be the one that represents the overarching topic on which they want to create content. The business would then identify a series of long-tail keywords that relate to this short-tail keyword, have reasonable monthly search volume, and help to elaborate on the topic of fiberglass pools. We'll talk more about these long-tails in the next step of this process.
Each of these keywords is called a "pillar," and it serves as the primary support for a larger "cluster" of long-tail keywords, which is what brings us to our next Step ...
2. Make a list of long-tail keywords based on these topics.
Here's where you'll start optimizing your pages for specific keywords. For each pillar you've identified, use your keyword tool to identify five to 10 long-tail keywords that dig deeper into the original topic keyword.
For example, we regularly create content on the topic of "SEO," but it's still very difficult to rank well on Google for such a popular topic on this acronym alone. We also risk competing with our own content by creating multiple pages that are all targeting the exact same keyword -- and potentially the same search engine results page (SERP). Therefore, we also create content on conducting keyword research, optimizing images for search engines, creating an SEO strategy (which you're reading right now), and other subtopics within SEO.
This allows a business to attract people who have varying interests in and concerns about owning their product -- and ultimately create more entry points for people who are interested in buying something.
Use subtopics to come up with blog post or webpage ideas that explain a specific concept within each larger topic you identified in Step 1. Plug these subtopics into your keyword research tool to identify long-tail keywords on which to base each blog post.
Together, these subtopics create a cluster. So, if you have 10 pillar topics, they should each be prepared to support one cluster of five to 10 subtopics. This SEO model is called a "topic cluster," and modern search engine algorithms depend on them to connect users with the information they're looking for.
Here's a short video on this concept:
Think of it this way: The more specific your content, the more specific the needs of your audience are -- and the more likely you'll convert this traffic into leads. This is how Google finds value in the websites it crawls; the pages that dig into the interworkings of a general topic are seen as the best answer to a person's query, and will rank higher.
3. Build pages for each topic.
When it comes to websites and ranking in search engines, trying to get one page to rank for a handful of keywords can be next to impossible. But here's where the rubber meets the road:
Take the 10 pillar topics you came up with in Step 1 and create a web page for each one that outlines the topic at a high level -- using the long-tail keywords you came up with for each cluster in Step 2. A pillar page on SEO, for example, can describe SEO in brief sections that introduce keyword research, image optimization, SEO strategy, and other subtopics as they are identified. Think of each pillar page as a table of contents, where you're briefing your readers on subtopics you'll elaborate on in blog posts.
Use your keyword list to determine how many different pillar pages you should create. Ultimately, the number of topics for which you create pillar pages should coincide with how many different products, offerings, and locations your business has. This will make it much easier for your prospects and customers to find you in search engines no matter what keywords they use.
Each web page needs to include relevant content for your prospects and customers and should include pictures and links to pages on your site to enhance the user experience. We'll talk about those links in Step 4.
4. Set up a blog.
Blogging can be an incredible way to rank for keywords and engage your website's users. After all, every blog post is a new web page that gives you another chance to rank in search engines. If your business does not already have a blog, set one up. This is where you'll elaborate on each subtopic and actually start showing up on Google.
As you write each blog post and fill up your clusters, you should do three things:
- First, don't include your long-tail keyword more than three or four times throughout the page. Google doesn't consider exact keyword matches as often as it used to. In fact, too many instances of your keyword can be a red flag to search engines that you're "keyword stuffing." This can penalize your website and drop your rank.
- Second, link out to the pillar page you created on this topic. You can do this in the form of tags in your content management system (CMS), or as basic anchor text in the body of the article.
- Once you publish each blog post, link into it from the pillar page that supports this subtopic. Find the point in your pillar page that introduces this blog's subtopic, and link it here.
By connecting both the pillar and the cluster in this way, you're telling Google there's a relationship between the long-tail keyword and the overarching topic you're trying to rank for.
5. Blog every week to develop page authority.
Not every blog post or web page you write needs to belong to a topic cluster. There's also value in writing about tangential topics your customers care about in order to give your website authority in the eyes of Google. This will cue Google to pay extra attention your domain as you add content to your primary topics.
With that in mind, make a point to blog at least once a week. Remember, you are blogging primarily for your audience, not the search engines. Write about things your audience and/or prospects are interested in, make sure you're including relevant keywords where appropriate, and your audience will slowly start to notice and click.
Keep in mind that each topic won't be equal in importance, and as your clusters get off the ground, you'll need to prioritize based on your company's needs. So, create a list of all the different web pages you would like to create and rank them. Then, develop a schedule and devise a plan of attack to get those pages built.
Keep your list updated and prioritized by what web pages will help you to best achieve your business goals.
6. Create a link-building plan.
The topic cluster model is your way forward in SEO this year, but it's not the only way to get your website content to rank higher once it's been created.
Our first five steps were dedicated to on-page SEO tactics. Link-building is the primary objective of off-page SEO, and is also a huge factor in how search engines rank your web pages. What is link-building? Glad you asked.
Link-building is the process of attracting inbound links (also called "backlinks") to your website from elsewhere on the web. As a general rule, the more page authority the origin website has, the bigger affect it will have on the rank of the web page to which it is linking.
Dedicate some time to brainstorm all the different ways you can attract inbound links to your website. Start small –- maybe share your links with other local businesses in exchange for links to their sites. Write a few blog posts and share them on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn. Consider approaching other bloggers for guest blogging opportunities through which you can link back to your website.
Another great way to attract inbound links is to use your blog to post articles related to current events or news. That way, you have shot of getting linked to from an industry influencer or other bloggers in your industry.
7. Compress all media before putting it on your website.
This is a small but important step in the SEO process. As your blog or website grows, you'll undoubtedly have more images, videos, and related media to host there. These visual assets can help retain your visitors' attention, but it's easy to forget these assets are still technically computer files -- and computer files have file sizes.
As a general rule, the bigger the file size, the harder it is for an internet browser to render your website. And it just so happens that page speed is one of the most important ranking factors when search engines decide where to place your content in its index.
So, the smaller the file size, the faster your website will load, and the higher you can rank on Google as a result. But how do you shrink a file size once it's on your computer?
If you're looking to upload an image to a blog post, for example, examine the file for its file size first. If it's anywhere in megabyte (MB) territory, even just 1 MB, it's a good idea to use an image compression tool to reduce the file size before uploading it to your blog. Sites like TinyPNG make it easy to compress images in bulk, while Google's very own Squoosh has been known to shrink image file sizes to microscopic levels.
Ultimately, keeping your files in the kilobytes (KB) can sufficiently protect your website's page speed.
Be careful when compressing your images, and check the file's actual size once you export it back to your computer. While some tools might not be true to the size it shows you, others can sacrifice some image quality when compressing the artwork.
8. Stay current on SEO news & practices.
Like the overall marketing landscape, the search engine space is ever-evolving. Staying on top of current trends and best practices is a difficult task, but there are multiple online resources that can make it easy for you to stay on top of SEO news and changes that may impact your website and your SEO strategy.
Here are a few resources to check out:
9. Measure and track your content's success.
SEO can take a lot of time and effort. What good is spending all this time and effort if you can't see the fruits of your labor? There are many metrics you can track on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis to keep your SEO plan on track and measure your success.
Because the metric you care about is organic traffic (traffic that comes from a given search engine), seek out a tool that allows you to track both your overall organic traffic number and how your pages are ranking under each long-tail keyword your pages are targeting. SEMrush is a great reporting tool for just this purpose.
Create a monthly dashboard using Excel, Google Sheets, or a web analytics package so you can monitor how much traffic comes to your website from organic search.
Also, tracking indexed pages, leads, ROI, inbound links, keywords, and your actual ranking on SERPs (search engine results pages) can help you recognize your success as well as identify areas of opportunity.
Once you create your monthly SEO plan, you should also build a process to continue to optimizing it to fit new intent and keywords. Here are a few steps you can take.
1. Historically optimize your content.
Devote some time each month to updating old blog posts with new and up to date information so it continues to rank in SERPs. You can also use this time to add any SEO optimization that wasn't in the original post, such as missing alt text.
2. Look out for changing keywords and new search intent.
After a few months, track where your blog posts are ranking and which keywords they're ranking for. This can help you adjust subheads or text to leverage that new keyword ranking.
3. Add more editorial value to your old content.
Sometimes, you'll find that a post is completely out of date. In this scenario, you should go beyond the average SEO update and give it a full refresher. You can do this by updating out of date information or stats, adding new sections that add depth to the post, or adding quotes or original data that can make the post gain more referral traffic.
4. Note new content and updates aimed at SEO in a monthly content plan.
To keep up with your SEO strategy, it can be helpful to create and refine a monthly content strategy. Then put your content plan into a spreadsheet or document that your team can monitor and track easily.
Below is an example of a content monthly content planning process that takes the steps above into account.
With a monthly SEO plan like the one above, plus a tracking document like a search insights report, you can build out and execute on an efficient SEO strategy. You can also identify and leverage low-hanging-fruit topics to discuss related to your industry.
To learn more about SEO, check out our Ultimate Guide to SEO
Editor's Note: This blog post was originally published in April 2019 but was updated in March 2020 for consistency and freshness.