How Small Biz Can Beat Big Biz at Google – @stonetemple

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Every business needs to know what language their customers are using because that means you can relate better to them. When you relate to them in a way they understand, they will buy your products and services. And this is why SEO is so important, it makes your website easy for both users and the search engine “robots” to understand when you cater to what they’re looking for.

The best way to speak the language of your potential customers is to do some research into what they’re “saying” when they go searching online, by looking at keywords. When you can narrow down the key search words that are most commonly being used, you are that much more likely to rank higher in Google search. And then you can take it even further and see what keywords your competitors are using and how those stack up against your own keywords.

Rich: Eric Enge is the founder and CEO of the award-winning Stone Temple Digital Marketing Agency. Eric founded Stone Temple in 2002 and under his direction the agency has grown to over 70 employees with a broad, diverse client base that includes many well-known Fortune 500 clients.

Partnering with Rand Fishkin – the Moz founder – Stephan Spencer, Jessie Stricchiola, Eric served as the lead author of The Art of SEO, the book now in its third edition is widely used as a textbook for many university courses. Eric, welcome to the show.

Eric: Thanks for having me.

Rich: This is great, I really appreciate your time. Now you and I briefly chatted and you told me more or less that maybe SEO is a game that only can be won by the big corporations, especially when it comes to Google. Do small businesses stand a chance when it comes to search engine optimization these days?

Eric: Well actually I think they do. There definitely are advantages that large companies have, but they also have some disadvantages. They’re actually remarkably inept at getting out of their own way sometimes, and there are ways that small businesses can get an edge if they know how to do the right thing.

Rich: Ok, so we definitely want to get to some of those “right things”. Are there certain things that small businesses can do to play the David to the Goliath out there in search? Should we be trying to go after broad search terms or should we be playing in the niches?

Eric: I think it’s very much about identifying niches and what you can be best at. Sometimes that’s as simple as you’re the best lawyer in Portland, Maine. Locality is one thing that big businesses won’t go after particularly effectively.

Using my example of the law firm, if it has 100 offices they’re not going to focus specifically in your area. So there’s a little bit of understanding what to focus on that you’re going to be best at. Even if you’re a small business and you’re trying to compete on a national scale, maybe you don’t go after the broadest possible search terms, but you pick some logical segments and you do some things to show that you’re the best at them.

Rich: Ok, so don’t dig wide, dig deep.

Eric: Correct.

Rich: Alright. So like we were saying in the intro, you started Stone Temple back in 2002. I’m guessing it was a small business when you started. So for all of our listeners out there that are running small businesses, that are entrepreneurs, or maybe doing a side hustle or marketing for a small business, I want you to put yourself back in those startup days. If you were starting a small business today, regardless of industry, what would be some of the first things you would do to put yourself in a position to rank high in the search engines?

Eric: Ok so we’re going back to the first days of having a website. That’s certainly a very challenging time and it’s going to start as a “follow on” to the advice that I already gave. Before you start the website figure out what your specific focus is going to be. Again, back at that question, what are you going to be best at? And then make sure that as you put your website together and you think about what’s on the homepage and what we call the information architecture of the site or effectively the navigation paths that users might take to the site, make sure that the site reflects those areas that you’re going to target being best at in a clear and unambiguous way.

So the content focus of the site reflects that area which is going to be your specialization, effectively. So that’s a way to think about it and I haven’t even gotten into any sort of technical topics yet that might relate to SEO. It’s just thinking about what a content plan and content focus for your site needs to be like. And once you have that area of focus make sure it reflects hat through and through from top to bottom.

Which doesn’t mean, by the way, that you can’t have other services and things that aren’t that area of your specialization – because you can do that – but make sure that specialization shows from top to bottom.

Rich: And that’s a question I get a lot of times where somebody comes in and – let’s stick with law firms – coming in and saying we have a lot of different lawyers practicing different types of law. We’re doing business law, we’re doing property management law, we’re doing all these sort of things. So is that something where if you’ve got a lot of different “specialties”, do you choose some of your most important specialties and blow those out into their own individual pages, do you put everything on one page, do you have a catchall for things that are important? How might you set that up in terms of just thinking about it from an SEO and a user experience perspective?

Eric: Great questions. The first thing you might do is you might actually have all those individual specializations. But again, if you’re the only law firm or you’re centered in Portland, Maine and you can present yourself as a one stop shop for all kinds of legal matters, “Portland” by itself is a form of specialization.

But to your more specific question, let’s say you have 8 different areas of law that you cover and one which you’re most well-known for or established a leadership, then you might consider having that one practice be the lead practice on your site and then have the others also represented on your site but perhaps not as prominently.

But for each major service area – even if it’s not that lead area – I would indeed plan on having individual web pages for each service area, even if some of those service areas aren’t the major focus. But you can still reflect the major focus on getting more attention on the homepage and those kinds of things. 

Rich: Sure. Now you mentioned earlier you haven’t even gotten into some of the technical aspect, so why don’t we take a look at those. What are some of the technical things we should be thinking of whether we’re just starting a brand new website or maybe if we’re just feeling like we’re not getting the search engine love we so deserve.

Eric: Yeah. So it really comes down to understanding how a search engine is seeing your website. Search engines aren’t humans, they don’t proceed and navigate websites the same way that humans do. And one of the first things you do after you launch your website is set up a Google search console account. Just search on Google for “search console” and you’ll find it immediately. This is a way that you can find out from Google what they’re seeing on your site and that is a wonderful place to start.

Let’s say for example you have 50 pages on your website. If Google is reporting that they see 5, you might have some sort of problem in how your site was implemented. Or you think you have 50 and Google thinks you have 1,000, you might also have a problem. And you’ve got to wonder why would Google only see 5 when I have 50? One reason that might happen is there could be a technical implementation problem that made it hard for Google to crawl your pages and discover all the pages on the site, and there are coding practices that can lead to that. The best way to think about it is if you’ve got 50 pages and Google thinks you’ve got 5. At least you know you need help at that point.

Rich: Right, it might be time to call in a specialist.

Eric: Correct. And in the opposite problem, if you have 50 and Google thinks you have 1,000 then there could be a different kind of technical problem where you’re essentially getting duplicate versions of your pages rendered on your site in ways that aren’t easy for you as a human to proceed. But again it would be an indicator that you might have a problem. And again you’d want to go get a specialist to help you.

Having said that, the search console tools in Google, if it reports that you have 5 pages and you think you have 50, I wouldn’t worry about that. If it reports that you have 30 pages and you have 50 I wouldn’t even worry that much about that. I’m just talking about gross errors that are recognized this way. So you want to see a certain scale of error before you push the panic button.

Rich: Ok. And so “search console” is kind of a diagnostic tool that Google is providing us – I assume for free – to give us some feedback on our website. And if I’m correct in this, you can now pull Google search console into your Google Analytics so you only need to visit one site to read them all, is that the case?

Eric: That is correct.

Rich: Ok, so how important is it to have Google Analytics when it comes to search engine optimization, and how do you use a tool like Google Analytics to improve your search rankings?

Eric: The great thing about Google Analytics is that it gives you real data for home many people are visiting your site, and it actually will segregate that data based on the quantity of people from different sources. So one source would be search engines, so we would call that “organic search traffic”. And that tells you how much traffic you’re getting from Google, or from Bing, or from Yahoo. And that’s very useful information by itself.

You can also see how many people you’re getting from what we call direct traffic. Basically what that means is somebody went to a browser and they typed your site in. Direct traffic is awesome, by the way, it means someone knows your brand and came looking for you.

And then there’s a third major class of traffic called “referrer traffic”. In other words, if someone implements a link on a third party website and the user saw that link and clicked on it and came to your site.

So it’s really good to get that information. But from the point of view of the organic search traffic, I actually should give a little more nuance to that answer. Search traffic has 2 components; “paid traffic” where you buy ads from Google using their Adwords program, and “organic search traffic” which you can’t buy, it’s just Google’s senior site deciding to send you traffic because they think you’re valuable to a given query. So you want to look at this data and understand what’s causing people to come to your site.

With the organic search traffic what you could do is get a sense for how much progress you’ve made. Now unfortunately Google doesn’t give you great information on what keywords are bringing traffic to your site. You can get some of that information form search console and get some idea of what keywords are driving traffic to your site, and that will tell you what kinds of things that you’re ranking on.

So if you’re a personal injury lawyer in Portland you can search on “Portland personal injury lawyer” and see if you rank for that term, and you can do that manually. But the great thing about search console is that it will give you at least an initial idea of what kinds of queries the users are typing in that’s resulting in traffic coming to your site. And that’s fantastic data in your SEO journey because now you know what Google is seeing in your site that they think is worthy of giving you traffic for. 

Rich: I can definitely see how that’s valuable, but wouldn’t I also want to know what kind of relevant terms are driving traffic to my competitors that I’m not seeing any of? Are there tools out there that are going to give me some insight into that?

Eric: Yes, there are definitely tools that can do that. Advanced Web Ranking is a really good tool for doing that. That’s the one that we use here, there are other tools as well. They’re essentially called “rank tracking tools”, and what you do is you plug in the keyword that you want the tool to check for you and you plug it in the sites that you want it to look for search results. Then it will give you a report and says what you’re ranking for as well as what your competitors are ranking for, and you can see how you’re progressing. It’s great data.

Rich: And a lot of this research is definitely helping us use the language our ideal customers are using is my assumption, correct?

Eric: Yeah, absolutely. Which is one of the great things about understanding what keywords people use. As I like to day, even if there was no internet you should be really interested in what language your customers use.

Rich: Absolutely.

Eric: Because that means you can relate better to them. Marketers 30 years ago would have died to have information like that. There’s a very famous story of a major national brand that was selling things like refrigerators, dishwashers and stuff like that, and they took to calling them “kitchen electrics”. Well, the customer was calling them “appliances” and so it creates this communication gap with your potential customers when you’re using the wrong terminology.

Rich: You know it’s funny that you say that because I was just meeting with somebody today who his company was called “Brand X Manual Therapies” and they were doing ok, and people would ask “What is manual therapies?” It’s a type of physical therapy. They changed their name to “Brand X Physical Therapy” and their business skyrocketed just from that one little change. That was their business name, so to your point about even if your offline you should care about these things

Eric: You absolutely should.

Rich: So we’ve gone and used some tools now and we’re getting a better sense of what keywords our ideal customers are using and what the language is. Maybe what they’re using to find us and our competition. What advice can you give us in terms of using those keywords to their maximum effect? Specifically around title tags but really anything you can share with us in terms of how you would use your best keywords on a given page on your site?

Eric: Yes, I’m going to give it to you in two layers right now. First of all I’m going to talk about one page stuff. So let’s say you want to rank for Portland personal injury lawyer. You’ll trust Google to sort out Portland, Oregon and Portland, Maine, which it does quite well.

Rich: It’s gotten much better at that.

Eric: So you know you want to rank for that. There’s an element on your page called “title tag” which is not really in the main body of the concept of the page but if you have a browser open and you notice phrases on the tabs, those phrases are taken from the title tags of your page. So it is visible but most people usually aren’t staring at the tabs in the browser.

So this title tag is actually pretty important for ranking. It’s something that you set up in the head section on a webpage. In the head section on the webpage there’s a place where a lot of set up stuff happens for each given webpage and it’s really important to set up the title tags because Google does use them to assist in ranking.

Now the fact of the matter is that you also want to use the keyword phrase to some degree within the main body of the webpage as well, so not just in the title tags. And this is also important. So again our phrase in this case is “Portland personal injury lawyer”, so you want to reference it in the text of the page. But now here is the more qualitative levels of thought, it’s not the kind of world if I use the phrase “Portland personal injury lawyer” 25 times on my webpage that that will help me rank more than if I use it 5 times.

And you don’t want to think about it in such an overly mechanical way. Yes, you want to use the phrase. If you have it in title tags it might get used a handful of times or so in your text, depending on how long it is. But the text of the webpage also needs to talk about more than just “Portland personal injury lawyer”. What does that mean? What are the kinds of things that people are typically looking for? Got in a car accident, fell off a ladder, different sorts of scenarios. So you want to write text in the body of the page so that is addresses in a broad way the need of people who are looking for personal injury lawyers on our page.

So that starts with asking, what are the things people are looking for when they arrive on this page, and how can I address the needs and speak to them in some thoughtful and well written text that will help users that come to the page on that term find what they need? Does that make sense?

Rich: It absolutely does. Now I’ve been doing this a long time, I started my business back in 1997 – we’re actually celebrating our 20th anniversary coming up – so I’ve heard a lot of things over the years and I just kind of want to get some feedback from you if you think these things are currently true, because they may have been true at one time but not true now.

So does it matter if I put my keyword…do header tags carry more weight than the body copy?

Eric: So thanks for mentioning that. So heading tags, it is useful to have the keywords and related phrases in heading tags. But again I wouldn’t have the main phrase in multiple heading tags. You might have it in one tag at the top, which many people will use a heading tag called the “H1” tag. I don’t think it’s that important whether it’s an H1 or not, but some sort of heading tag.

Rich: Ok. I’ve also heard that it’s important that keyword phrase appears in the first sentence or two, more so than further down the page.

Eric: So I think if it’s in your heading tag and your title tag, you now have it two times already at the very top of the content. I’d be a little leery of starting the first sentence of the page with the exact same set of words that you’ve now seen twice.

Rich: Ok, so we still want to talk like a human being, is what I’m hearing.

Eric: Absolutely, that’s a great way to phrase it. Talk like a human being. If it’s going to look strange to a user that comes to the page, don’t do it.

Rich: Ok. And how about alt tags for images? How important is it if I’ve got a photo of myself up there that I tag it using and alt tag, something like “Portland personal injury lawyer –Rich Brooks”?

Eric: It might make sense to do that. I’m leery of if it’s the exact phrase showing up 10 times on the page, then you’re overthinking it. So what you might want to do instead of using the exact same phrase is use some other variance.

Rich: “Maine’s best courtroom lawyer – Rich Brooks”.

Eric: For example.

Rich: Ok. And are there any other places…I heard I’m also supposed to put that phrase – or again, I don’t want to abuse this phrase – but that instead of having “click here”, “read more”, “learn more”, that sort of thing, that if I want to send people to a page that’s more specific and narrow, that I might use that phrase again inside the link. Is that something that still carries a lot of weight? 

Eric: So “inside the link”, the phrase people use for that is called “anchor text”. So if I’m linking to a different page from the one that I want to have rank for “Portland personal injury lawyer”, then I wouldn’t use the exact same phrase in the link pointing to a different page. I would instead for the anchor text use something that better describes the page that the link is pointing to. Which is probably going to be some variance, like maybe it’s your car accident page. In which case you would want the linked text to describe the destination page you get to when you click on it.

Rich: Perfect, ok. Any other things that we should be thinking of as opportunities to put our keywords or related keyword phrases in it, or have we pretty much covered the on page copy?

Eric: I think we’ve done a pretty good job with that.

Rich: Ok, well I don’t want to open up a whole new can of worms but I do know that inbound links are still important to how Google views our site. How important would you say it is and could you just give us a couple of your tips in terms of getting inbound links to our website?

Eric: Yes. Inbound links are a very important Google algorithm. I’ll just take a moment to give the listeners some intuition as to why they’re important. So when we talk about inbound links we’re talking about somebody implementing a link on their website and displaying it to their users. When users see that link they might choose to click on it and it leaves the site of the person who linked to you. So the reason why I’ve walked you through this is, why would someone implement a link to my site and invite people to leave their site and come to my site.

Well the answer to that question is that they believe visiting your site has enough value to visitors on their site that they’re willing to actually have people leave their site. So they get some benefit by linking to you because you’re such a strong resource for whatever reason.

So this system of being willing to have people leave your site to link to someone else causes a link to be valuable. It essentially acts like a vote for your website page. Imagine we’re talking about Portland personal injury lawyer, I know there’s not only one in Portland.

Rich: That is very true.

Eric: So Google is going to have to figure out which one is most important somehow. Part of that they do by looking at the quality of content on your site. But the other part is links from third parties to your site, so these “votes” that people give to you by linking to you.

Having said that the thing that comes up now is, how do I get these links to myself? The answer is, first of all you don’t want to go out and buy them, that’s kind of against Google’s guidelines. What you have to do is earn them. And if you’re a Portland personal injury lawyer you might earn them by being an active participant in your community. Maybe you go to some of the local events, you might be an active participant and speak somewhere locally about choices in personal injury law or how you deal with certain kind of life events or these kinds of things. As a result, people might then link to you and give you credit for that, or you might get written up in the local newspaper, or get a link on the Chamber of Commerce site.

So all these things and networking and being a part of whatever your community is and contributing to it in such a way that people might then be willing to send a link to your site. This is a really good clever way to think about getting some links.

Rich: Cool. And besides being an active member of the community – which has a whole tons of benefits especially if you’re a personal injury lawyer – but even if you’re a pizzeria or a designer, what other tactics have you seen work? I’m obviously thinking about people who have a small business-type outfit. I know that you do some guest blog posting and I know that you’re on this podcast – and you’ll get a link form this show – are these good tactics to build our list? Are there other things that you think would be very effective for small businesses and entrepreneurs to get involved with?

Eric: Absolutely. Participating in a podcast like this one to get links is a fine thing to do. Guest posting can be fine, too, if you do it the right way. What I want to urge people to think about and the reason why the big “if” was there is don’t just find some crappy site and put some content on it, find high quality sites.

We’ll use a pizzeria for the example now. Write for the local newspaper or some other blog in the area where you live. This kind of guest hosting is an effective way but notice how I try to take these to a high quality sort of place. And the reason why I’m taking pains to walk through this is quite frankly there are a large number of really poor quality websites out there where you could be putting guests on and they might even hurt you to be on there. You want to really pick your brain and think about where might my customers go, and those are the places where you’d like to seek out guest hosts.

Rich: So these should be well respected websites or blogs and they should be relevant to the type of content that we’re creating. Obviously if I am thinking about doing some guest blog posting I’m going to go after some very different targets if I’m selling pizza versus if I sell law services. That’s what I’m hearing, correct?

Eric: Absolutely, Rich.

Rich: Eric this has been awesome and I know that a lot of people listening are thinking they’ve been doing this wrong and see some opportunities for improvement. If they want to keep learning from what you’re doing out there, where can they find you online?

Eric: So first of all my website is www.stonetemple.com. We publish a lot of articles on our blog, https://www.stonetemple.com/blog/. There’s a lot of content that we publish there. You can also follow me on Twitter @stonetemple, so that’s the best way to follow me, those are the two main places to check out what we’re doing and what we’re saying.

Rich: That’s awesome. Eric, thank you so much for your time today.

Eric: My pleasure.

Show Notes:

Eric Enge is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to compelling SEO strategies that work. To find out more about what he’s saying on the subject, check out his website, blog, and follow him on Twitter.

Tools mentioned in this episode that will help your SEO game:

Advanced Web Rankingrank tracking tool

Google Search Consolea view into what Google sees when they look at your site

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, creator of the Agents of Change Digital Marketing Conference, and author of a new book, The Lead Machine. He loves helping business’s fine tune their strategies for digital marketing in the areas of search, social and mobile.