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Supporting image for Taking the Mystery Out of SEO – @nickihicks
Taking the Mystery Out of SEO – @nickihicks
The Agents of Change

AOCP-Pinterest-Nicki-HicksWhen people think about SEO, they often think of it as a cumbersome and laborious task, but it’s actually less complex than a lot of marketers make it sound. It is, however, a mandatory marketing tactic if you want to increase visibility and take your business to the next level.

Certainly you can – and in some cases should – hire a SEO pro, but there are some fairly simple strategies and techniques – even free tools – that a novice can use to make all the difference. It all starts with content, of course, but making sure you’re choosing your keywords carefully, testing them out, and measuring their effectiveness makes all the difference. And don’t forget to check out your competition, learn from their triumphs and failures, too.

With over 8 years of experience and a true passion for web marketing, Nicki Hicks loves to help businesses reach their ideal target audience and increase their online presence with smart SEO.

Rich: For over 8 years, Nicki Hicks has been working with small to medium sized businesses to improve their online presence using web marketing. As president and co-founder of Red Vine Web Studio, Nicki runs her business in St. Augustine, Florida. From search engine optimization to copywriting to blogging and social media consulting for clients, Nicki is passionate about the power of the web for business. She’s constantly working on figuring out the deep, dark secrets of Google, writing content for her customers that helps grow their business, and discovering unique ways to take marketing to the next level. Nicki, welcome to the show.

Nicki: Thanks for having me, Rich. I’m excited to be here.

Rich: Now how did you get interested in SEO, or, search engine optimization?

Nicki: Well, I actually have to give those props to you, in fact. You were nice enough to give me a job right out of college and I had never heard about SEO until I started working at flyte. It was also not necessarily a household term back then either, so I would say that was the time that I really became interested in it and I started going to conferences and learning on my own, learning through flyte and basically using all of our clients as guinea pigs that first couple of months. But from there it’s really taken off and I think SEO certainly is becoming a household term where I don’t have to explain it every time I talk about it to somebody these days.  

Rich: Well I certainly thank you for giving me props, I will have to say that all goes to you, you were a great employee and basically you kind of figured out a lot of that stuff out on your own. But you’re really the star here, so let’s put the spotlight back on you.

Now often SEO is considered to be something businesses need to outsource. But let’s start with some of the things that we as entrepreneurs can do ourselves. What can we do on our website or blog to improve our visibility?

Nicki: I hear that a lot. People don’t have the budget for someone to do SEO, and that’s ok. Obviously at the end of the day, a professional doing it is probably best because that’s what we do as SEO’s – and there’s quite a few of us out there – but that’s what we do full time, and business owners do their business full time. So it makes sense to hire someone. But right out of the gate – and especially when someone is just starting off or just becoming a new entrepreneur – there’s a couple things that you can do on your own that can really help establish  yourself online.

One of the biggest is putting some of that budget into your website, I would say. Going right out there online with a poor web presence is one of the biggest mistakes that I find that people make. No one, regardless of how great the keywords are on your website, is going to be interested in your business if it doesn’t look nice, it doesn’t work well. So that’s kind of the second big thing, I would say, is usability is a big portion of SEO.

If you do things on your website that simply make sense, again that’s probably in working with  web design and development company. If you do things that simply make sense as far as navigation, the content on your pages, the things that you’re sharing with people. If that makes sense on a basic level, then that would put you that much further ahead when it comes to overall optimization.

And I would say probably the third big thing kind of outside of your website that people can do and I actually find that they don’t often and it’s so easy, is to optimize your social media profiles. Depending on the profile, there’s opportunities to add information about yourself or about your business, and I find that a lot of people miss out on that opportunity because they didn’t fill out all the information on their Facebook page or Twitter account or their YouTube page – whatever it is – and that’s a huge missed opportunity.

And I actually want to add one. Of course it’s content, and we’re not going to talk about content too much today, but of course I’m going to be talking about that at Agents Of Change. But content creation is certainly something that you can do on your own as far as SEO goes.

Rich: That’s great. And just to reiterate, so you’re going to be presenting on how to write for Google at this year’s Agents Of Change Digital Marketing Conference.

Nicki: That’s correct. So we’ll get into content a little bit more then.

Rich: Alright, sounds good. So you mentioned content, social media profiles and optimizing those, making sure that the website is usable – and I want to talk a little bit more about that – and was the first one just having a strong web presence?

Nicki: Exactly. Just essentially being out there. I mean, nobody obviously can find you unless you have some sort of web presence, so certainly having a hub – whether it’s a blog or a website – is certainly going to be valuable for your SEO efforts.

Rich: Alright, so you mentioned usability, and I had a question about that. So often, people think that to do SEO right you have to sacrifice readability and usability because you’re only focused on the search engines. What is your argument to these people that say that you have to sacrifice readability or usability to be optimized?

Nicki: I would say, honestly, at the end of the day Google isn’t your customer, the readers are your customer or the visitors to your website are the customer. I would actually argue sacrificing the optimization of a website almost to the point for better usability. But, the caveat to that  is more often than not there’s been very few times where I’ve encountered issues where they actually work together. Optimizing a site and improving the usability of it can actually work hand in hand. As far as Google is concerned, the more usable your site is the better optimized it is, the higher they’ll rank you and the better that you’ll do overall. So it’s really kind of a win/win situation.

Rich: I would just second that. I’ve been doing this whole web thing a lot longer than you, young lady, and things have definitely changed over the years. In the beginning, search engine was really easy, you just crammed as many keywords in as possible.

It feels like with every major tectonic shift of Google – and to a lesser degree some of these other search engines – it feels like the search engines are trying to more emulate what humans are looking for when it comes to search engine optimization, which is sometimes reflected in the reports that they’re yanking out of Google Analytics and where they’re telling us to put our focus, which is in creating good, unique, well researched, well polished content. And moving away from just trying to hit the right spots on some sort of algorithm they keep shifting.

Nicki: Oh, absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. I still have people coming to me doing things like adding in the meta keywords sections, and I have always thought just stay far, far away from it. Even with a couple in there, you can still get blacklisted. So essentially having even a long list of keywords in the code of your website could be detrimental, essentially because Google’s seeing that as a negative thing.

Instead, I would rather someone spend their time and effort on something like really fleshing out what a good, navigational structure looks like for their website and what makes the most sense as far as how they’re organizing their content on their website. Someone’s not going to want to learn about you first, we want to put the “About” page near the end of your navigational structure, and instead focus on services or products and how those items are really beneficial for your visitors. Making it about the user first will always win out, as far as I’m concerned.  And to your point, that’s really what Google is looking more towards these days as well.

Rich: Yeah. And just to kind of draw a line under that, a couple years ago when flyte was looking to change our domain names – we were at flyte.biz –  adn I had the opportunity to move to takeflyte.com – which I just loved from a branding standpoint – I felt that we’d built up so much trust at this original domain and I was going back and forth. I’m not sure what SEO forum I went to but I asked that question, is it worth this, is it worth the loss in SEO and the time it will take me to build it back up. One of the lead SEO people in the forum said business decisions should always trump SEO decisions. And right then and there I knew I would do it.

Nicki: Absolutely.

Rich: I think we’re both in agreement that SEO is critically important and it is a great way of driving – especially new – potential customers to our website. But at the end of the day, it has to be in service of our business which in turn should be in service of our customers.

Nicki: Absolutely. And I think that’s where a lot of people lose sight these days because they’re just constantly being drummed with, “Oh, you need to optimize your site”. But a lot of people – while SEO is certainly a household term now – don’t necessarily know what that means. So they think they just need to use the right keywords or a bunch of links. Well, pump the breaks and let’s talk about what that actually means, because it really is more about the user at the end of the day. That’s your customer, those are the people that are going to be writing your checks, it’s not going to be Google.

So I agree with that. Keeping that end user in mind while keeping Google sort of over here and pleasing them using the right keywords and certainly establishing great incoming links to your site and doing all those wonderful things will go hand in hand with also growing your business, and let’s be honest, making money as well.  

Rich: Alright, so this is some good information, but let’s really anchor this down to some specifics just so people listening can be like, “Ok, I know what to do next.”

So one good piece of advice you gave is putting some focus on the sitemap, or the organization of the website. What are some of the other things that entrepreneurs and small business people should be thinking about? Yeah, we can all create content that’s valuable to our customers, but then what do we do to make that content more optimized for the search engines? Maybe that’s the wrong question, but specifically what tactics can we use to make our content  – whether it’s a webpage or a blog post – better optimized?

Nicki: Certainly. So one of the tools – kind of a missed opportunity – that I think people lose out on is actually talking to people face to face.  Maybe it’s a new business, maybe you’re not even established yet, maybe you’re still kind of kicking around some ideas, but just talking to people that might be good potential customers of yours, a good target audience. If your grandma or mom isn’t going to be your target audience, they may not be the best people to talk to, but maybe friends or family that could potentially be customers of yours, simply asking “if you’re looking for a business like mine, what are you searching for?”

Let’s say I have a landscaping company, are you going to be searching for “mowing grass” or “mowing grass services” or are you going to be searching for “landscaping company” and things like that. So that’s going to really drive what the keywords you’re using on your website are, and you don’t need any fancy tools for that. As SEO’s we use a lot of different both paid and free tools, but just have a conversation with a friend or family member, and you don’t need any fancy tools for that, it’s just that conversation.

So for a lot of business owners, I think they find that the keywords that they may have in their mind or just the buzzwords that they may use in general don’t always align with what potential customers are searching for online. And that’s a small tweak, it’s not a big change but they want to make it to incorporate those on the website is the next step. So that’s one of the biggest things, I would say, as far as keyword optimization goes for a website.

Rich: Alright. So you brought up something that I think a lot of us aren’t doing, which is talking to people when it comes to the keyword research. But you mentioned that you also use a number of tools. What are some of the tools that you recommend that you think if somebody is trying to do it on their own might be worth taking a look at?

Nicki: So one of my favorite free ones is through Google Adwords. The Google Adwords keyword tool is still by far one of my favorites. While it will still depend more on that paid traffic, it does give you some really, really good insight as far as what people are searching for online.

Another one that I really like to use from the free side is simply by starting to type in a search, you’ll start finding different keywords that other like companies or even competitors are using, and that will kind of set you on a path to find interesting ones that you never thought of.

I’ve also been using social media tools of late, too, as far as Twitter search tools and even searching in Facebook. Doing just a couple of small, little things, just to see what kinds of terms like companies are using. That’s really one of the biggest things I would say is using competitors or even like companies as a springboard to get some ideas and inspiration. I’m definitely a big believer in learning from other people’s mistakes, and their successes as well. So using that and not starting from scratch or reinventing the wheel is a good place to start for your business especially.

Rich: Alright, so what we’ve done so far is kind of get a sense for some of the keywords that people are using, and maybe doing a little bit of research to find out some search volume. So now let’s say that I’ve got a good sense of the keywords that I want to use – “landscaping companies near me” versus “mowing my lawn” – how would you say that I take these nuggets and work them into valuable content or into the copy on my website?

Nicki: Great question. I always say it’s dependant on your writing style on your website. So some people are really comfortable just sort of putting together some content and then maybe cleaning it up from there, and that includes incorporating more of those keywords. And sometimes I’ll even do that when I’m writing for a client and I go through and physically highlight them.

Kind of as a tidbit, my rule of thumb is it’s very dependent on the size of the copy, but typically for let’s say 250-500 words – which is pretty typical for a basic webpage – you’re not really going to want to use the same exact keyword more than 3-5 times. Otherwise it’s not going to read well, so automatically you’re going to be able to have that red flag go up in your brain telling you it doesn’t sound good, it doesn’t have good usability. So naturally, again, usability is just going to come up.

Now that’s not to say you can’t use variations of those keywords.  If we use the lawn example, if we say “lawn company Maine”, that’s going to be a little bit different than something like “Maine landscaping services”. Those are technically two different keywords. So you can certainly use variations of the two and incorporate them into your copy that way.

Another way that I find people write copy well is simply by starting with the keywords and really focusing on them as they’re writing through. Very few people can do that, I find, because it tends to make “keyword stuffing” happen a little bit more, which is essentially where you’re using a keyword too often. Again, that’s a usability issue. Reading through it you would automatically say it just does not sound good and I’m using “landscaping services” three times in one sentence, it just doesn’t work well.

But I think the highlighting example of going through and highlighting your keywords is a really good strategy for people, especially those that aren’t professional copywriters. It’s often difficult to write about your business anyway, so kind of pointing in on those keywords a little bit more is really going to be best.

Rich: This is an interesting question. One of the things I’ve seen shift in web design over the years is out homepages are often considered to be the most important page on our website, we’re always optimizing for this which is always a challenge because there’s so many different things that we have to offer and different audiences. These days it feels like the design of the typical website is almost more like a lobby in a giant office building where it’s like, here are different products and services that we have each with it’s own keyword-rich link. And that, plus the fact that a lot of times search engines will take us deeper into a website depending on what we’re looking for. Has the value of the homepage changed, and the strategies that you use to optimize that homepage, have they changed over the years?

Nicki: That is a great question. I wouldn’t say that they necessarily changed. I’ve definitely always been a big believer in optimizing each page individually for a certain set of keywords. So for example if we stick with this landscaping example, I wouldn’t want someone to land on my homepage if I have a specific lawn mowing services page. I would want that person who’s searching for lawn mowing services near me to land on that lawn mowing services page. They’re going to completely bypass my homepage. However, for those people that do land on the homepage, I would say that especially now in 2016, design is winning out there in a big, big way, especially when you talk about having multiple dividers on a homepage, dividing up small bits and pieces of content. It’s really important to then optimize those deeper pages because of that.

I love your lobby in the building example, that totally clicks in my mind, But yeah, it’s kind of sort of settling ground on the homepage for all of your topics. So if you’ve got a lot going on and there’s a lot of different keywords that you’re going after, I would say to hit your top 4-5 keywords on the homepage, sort of generalize it but really focus on the homepage to link and link properly to the correct pages.

So for example if you have 4-5 products or services that your business offers, making sure you highlight each one individually, and then have a phrase or a couple of sentences on each, and then link to those deeper pages where people can learn more. Then they can self identify what they’re looking for.

I also like the strategy of breaking up your homepage based on your audience. So typically a lot of us have maybe 2-3 different types of audiences. So let’s say it’s an individual versus a business versus a large corporation, and those are all our audiences. By targeting each one of those on your homepage and having three separate callouts, you can help people self identify and then they’re off to the races, they’re diving deeper into the site on their own. One of the biggest problems I would say these days with homepages is people are trying to do too much with them rather than having people do that self identification process.

Rich: Alright, so have people self identify and then you can get them to a page where you can have those different kind of conversations you would have with them just like you would in real life.

Nicki: Exactly.

Rich: So let’s say that we’ve done all this work, we’ve got our website up and running, I know full well the job is not done. So what are some of the ongoing activities that you would recommend we do? Is it about blogging, is it about reviewing our Google Analytics regularly, what should we be doing to stay ahead of our competition or other like companies, as you say?

Nicki: Certainly all of the above. That’s another missed opportunity I hear from a lot of people, whether in just meeting someone or a potential client that says they feel like they’re doing really well infiltrating the space writing great content and doing all these good things, but they’re just not seeing the return on investment. And typically one of the first questions I’ll ask is what they’re doing to track what they’re putting out there. More often than not, unfortunately, people will say they’re not really doing much by way of measurement, which is really unfortunate because they’re doing all this hard work but not measuring it so they have no idea what’s working and what’s not. So first and foremost, absolutely you want to make sure that you’re measuring what you’re doing. Now depending on what platform we’re talking about – if it’s your website and your blog – I highly recommend Google Analytics, I use that for all of my clients. It’s free and lots and lots of great information, sometimes too much, Google likes to give us a little too much sometimes and that’s ok, you just have to look for the right stuff.

So typically  what I say to people is have your Google Analytics information – if you’re doing it internally – emailed to you once a month, and then you have no choice but to go through the process of deleting that email. So you get the notification, at least you’re feeling a little bit more guilty by having to delete the email rather than saying you don’t have time to log into your account.  So that at least gives you a little bit more reason to check it out.

Rich: It’s the very least you can do.

Nicki: Exactly. And you can kind of just take a quick peek, a quick scan and then move on with your day. And what I Like about doing that is you can define what metrics you want to look at. So let’s say you’re really interested in your bounce rate. Your bounce rate is of course the percent of people that come onto a page and then leave after only seeing that one page. Well maybe your bounce rate is all over the place and you’re really trying to dive into why that is, so that’s a statistic you want to look at. As entrepreneurs we’re all very busy and I get that, but if you are going to put in the effort into all of your web marketing efforts and into all that great SEO and content creation, then you really want to make sure that you’re seeing what’s working, and improving on what’s not working.

As far as ongoing stuff, just quickly, certainly creating regular content is very, very important – and really you mentioned it earlier – the relevant, useful content that your audience is really going to enjoy. And that’s a big difference from just writing content for the sake of writing content. Really having your end users and potential clients and customers in mind as you’re putting together any kind of content, whether it’s on your website, on a blog, on social media, kind of having them in the back of your mind saying “are they going to find this interesting or not?” And if the answer is no, then you probably shouldn’t be putting it together anyway.

Rich: Is there a point when you should hire a professional? Like, is there sometime when you just say to someone, listen, you’ve done all you can as a non SEO professional, it’s time to bring the big guns in?

Nicki: Absolutely. I would say often small business owners find that point as well when they just can’t do it anymore. There’s just not enough time in the day and typically they kind of feel that weight of knowing that they’re not getting as much bang for their buck as they want to be seeing, and often it comes by way of content creation where they say they know they need to be doing it, but they just don’t have the time for it.

Rich: Good advice. Alright Nicki, this has been great. I’m sure a lot of people are going to want to check out some of the other stuff you’ve written and created, where can we find you online?

Nicki: You can certainly check out my website, which is redvinestudio.com, I’ve got a blog up there that I write about once a week when I’m being good. It’s got good web marketing advice and overall things you can be doing to take your business to the next level. And also I’m on practically   every platform, per se, under Nicki Hicks.

Rich: Awesome. Nicki, this has been very helpful. Thanks a lot, I appreciate the expertise.

Nicki: Absolutely. Thank you, Rich.

Show Notes:

Check out more of Nicki’s great tips and advice on web marketing at her website and blog, and be sure to follow her on Twitter.

If you’re interested in hearing more great speakers – including Nicki Hicks and Rich Brooks – talk on the topics of search, social and mobile marketing, then be sure to grab your tickets to the Agents of Change Digital Marketing Conference! AOCP-FB-Nicki-Hicks