You’ve just created a shiny, new website for your business, now you just need to “SEO it,” right? Wrong. Search engine optimization isn’t something you just sprinkle on at the end, it’s an important ingredient that should be used throughout the website building process.
Like an onion, SEO has many layers that make up the whole. It is so much more than just picking some clever keywords and calling it good. No longer is it brushed off as an IT issue, but rather part of the ongoing branding and marketing process. By implementing elements such as optimized title tags, link profiles and metadata into your website, you’ll be well on your way to making friends with Google and ranking through the roof in online search.
Thom Craver is a SEO ninja. He has been teaching the finer points and nuances of effective SEO and related digital marketing strategies to business owners, college students and conference attendees.
Rich: Thom Craver is a seasoned technical, SEO and digital analytics veteran. His current role as VP of development and IT at Internet Marketing Ninjas includes the improvement of internal processes, leading the creation and refinement of industry leading tools across multiple brands.
Now previously he was a premier independant consultant, held a senior search position at the nationally renowned TopRank Online Marketing – which I subscribe to their email newsletter – and led in all digital, web related technologies at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Saunders College of Business. He also led analytic strategy efforts for the university’s mobile initiative.
Part of the ClickZ Academy faculty, Thom has also taught for several well-respected colleges and universities. He is a regular speaker at ClickZ Live events and is a veteran of TEDx as well.
Thom, welcome to the show.
Thom: Thank you very much, Rich, appreciate it. Great intro.
Rich: Thank you. So let me ask you, how did you become interested in SEO or search engine optimization?
Thom: Actually it’s a really cool story. I did a lot of stuff in college working on an information system for the campus. We ended up turning it into this thing that would later become a webified version. We actually kind of wrote our own hypertexting language and when we were all done with this project some seniors said, “Hey this is great, but why didn’t you do it mosaic?” And we wondered what the hell was mosaic.
We ended up realizing we had actually written our own hypertext markup. Which and then I started explaining this thing called the web and eventually founded my own web agency and I had a lot of clients that were doing a lot of great things and I kind of got sick of them saying to me, “So now you built it, they’ll come, right?” And I’d be like, yeah, sure. And I found that I needed to know how to get people to the website. And then not just to get them there but make them buy and all that happy stuff that goes along with it.
I started attending SEO conferences, then Cody and I met through the networking sessions and whatnot. People would ask when I was going to speak, and I didn’t feel like I had known enough at that point and they were like, “No, you know eons more, why don’t you start speaking here?” So I did and a lot of practical, hands on doing things with client and sometimes experimenting with clients in the early onset, but getting some really good victories at the same time, too.
I had a client back in the day that when there was still film for cameras there was a company that I worked with that had bought all of the rights to be the exclusive vendor to fix the one-hour photo machines. I ended up outranking Kodak, HP and Fuji in photographic printer terms. That was my first really large victory, and in fact the site stayed that way in the top 1,2,3 all the time for many, many years and it kind of gave me the encouragement to keep going out and learning new things. And then of course Google makes that job easy because they keep changing things all the time. It’s kind of a full time job just keeping up with what Google’s doing this week. They say they have 500 updates a year and there are 265 days in a year, so do the math, they’re doing more than one update a day. Granted not all of those are penguinesque or great game changers but it became a full time job then.
Rich: Alright, cool. And I want to come back to those changes that Google has been making but before we get to that, let’s assume that you’re speaking to someone that’s either just launched a website or maybe they’ve had a website for a while but they haven’t really focused on SEO, at least intentionally. What are some of the steps that they need to take to rank higher, or is that even the right question to ask?
Thom: It’s funny because people always talk about, “So I have this website now, how do I add some SEO to it?” And I think that’s the wrong approach and finally the industry is starting to see this but it’s still a slow change in methodology of thinking. It took a long time for websites to come out of the, “Oh, it’s an IT thing”, to saying, “This is a primary marketing strategy.” And as slowly as that change has come – and some companies still haven’t taken that route either – now this change of “hey I have a website now I need to add some SEO to it” moniker is starting to slowly creep in.
You should be thinking about your website – and specifically SEO with your website – all in the same lines as your traditional marketing and brand messaging and whatnot. So if somebody comes to me and says they just had a website built and can I SEO it for them, the first thing I’m going to do is audit their website to see how it was created. Especially in new website creations, one of the things that developers do to take shortcuts is copy a snippet of code and add it to all of the pages.
I ran across a client that updated their website every 2, 3, 4 years to keep it fresh, but their developer just kept pasting the same analytics code that was an old code from 7 or 8 years ago. In their case what happened was the code that was executed stops, it stops a page from loading and goes off to Google and says, “Hey, you report some analytic stuff for me and I will wait for you to come back.” Well, when Google servers are on their game that’s fine, but when there’s network traffic or an outage that brings the internet to its knees that a problem.
So I look for that, I look for messaging. People who use optimized title tags – here’s a super secret tip – it’s the first thing Google sees, it’s the first thing most people see in a Google result, those should be optimized. If those aren’t optimized then nothing is optimized. I’ll also look for things like their link profile and how they’re using certain microdata and that sort of stuff. But I’ll go through their site and grab a great audit, and then talk to their marketing people and look at their messages say you’re consistent here but you’re not here. Everyone wants to rank for business school, but no one actually wants to say the words “business school.” I may be getting a little in the weeds here.
Rich: No. I think what you’re sharing is really good, and I just want to make sure I grasp it. This is what I’m hearing from you, one is SEO isn’t done in a silo. In other words, your search engine optimization has to be part of your ongoing marketing and branding as a company and it’s not just something that is like icing that you shellac afterwards when someone asks if you can SEO their website.
You also mentioned some things we should be paying attention to, one is the title tag. You also said link profiles. And then was it metadata, or was it something else you were taking a look at?
Thom: I said microdata.
Rich: Microdata. Alright, so can we take a pause and talk a little bit about link profiles and microdata, because I don’t think that a lot of our audience are going to be familiar with those terms.
Thom: Sure, absolutely. Link profiles is the easier of the two to describe. Google founded their algorithm and they basically said if you type in a word and you include that word on your page, you’re included in this set of results. If the word was found more often on one page or another then those pages get to the top of that set of results.
Google came around and they said that’s good and there’s nothing wrong with that, however, some sites can game that system. All it is is throwing a bunch of words on a page. But one of the things they found in their research at Stanford is that if I have a website of my own and people visit it and pass on and read that information. But if I link that information to somewhere else, I’m trying to basically say I’m voting for the site, it’s a really great site that I think has good information that you should see, too.
So what Google ended up doing is the basis of their original algorithm was if you have links coming into your site, the more links you had the better off your site was. That eventually evolved so it wasn’t just the number of links you had, but the quality of the links and how relevant they were. For example, if I’m in higher education and I have a website and Joe the plumber links to my website, that’s not going to count so much as if US News links to it. It’s the relevancy of the information, linking to a college means more than Joe the plumber, the relevancy of the links is a big deal.
So how many links in the link profile and the relevancy as well, too. And if two sites link to each other back and forth, it’s one of those common myths that I love to debunk. They say if you link to me and I link to you we’ll be better off on Google. No, it doesn’t work that way anymore. You can link to me because you’re talking about something and you might be referencing something that’s pertinent with more information or a value add to your reader. Me linking back to you may or may not make sense for my particular audience. All Chevys are cars, but not all cars are Chevys. It’s one of those situations that if you’re providing extra value to your audience by the link that’s great, the person receiving that link sets the SEO benefit from that. So that’s link profile.
Rich: Before we go on – because I like what we’re talking about here – is for link profile, so what we’re really looking at is to get quality inbound links. Quantity is also nice, but really they should be relevant to what we’re doing, reciprocal links when we link to each other don’t necessarily provide double value or anything like that. It only makes sense to link to sites that it makes sense to link to, and Google’s getting better – if I understand you – at understanding that.
Now a quick question before we move into the next segment is, are there tools that you use that will help us understand if we have a healthy link profile?
Thom: Yeah, and let’s start with full disclaimer. I’ve pretty much worked with or shilled at one time or another for every tool company that’s out there. I do not have allegiances financially to any of them. That said, I am a huge fan of Majestic. They used to be called Majestic SEO, they’re just Majestic now, it’s majestic.com. They have what is probably too large of a list, the largest collection of links pointing to other people.
The way their company works is basically just like Google crushes all of the entire web looking for content on a page. They crawl the entire web looking for link relationships between different pages and sites, and as such they understand – probably even more so than Google to certain extents – who links to who and they have other algorithms put into place.
They have two metrics called “trust flow” and “citation of flow.” Trust flow is basically how many, they have a list of seeded, trusted sites – I’m assuming Wikipedia is one of them and certainly government educational sites are some of them – how any of those trusted sites Majestic has can link back to my site. Kind of like a ‘Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon’. So one of these trusted sites links to another one, links to another which eventually links to mine. The closer I am to those trusted sites, the better off I am. The more of those trusted sites I can be traced back to, the better off I am. It’s a very good measure of trust in the industry.
Citation flow is basically a measure of how many backlinks are coming into a site that links to you. Also important, just not as important as the trust. Honestly I think those two are the best tools and very easy to use, too.
Rich: So you were going to talk about microdata. Now is this something that the average, small business or entrepreneur does pay attention to, needs to pay attention to, what do you think?
Thom: Needs to pay attention to, absolutely. If you’re trying to compete – especially if you’re a little guy – with the big guys, it’s possible. Microdata is what helps Google – and the rest of the web for that matter – understand what it’s about. For example, I can do a search for hammer and I might get back something that belongs in a tool box, I might get the musical artist from the 80’s and I might get back a museum that’s in California, of which only 2 of those are actual tools. Trying to understand which hammer I’m talking about makes a big deal.
If I’m searching on mobile and I type in the word “hammer”, Google will probably return to me a local hardware store where I can buy a hammer and before it gives me a definition or talks about the museum. If I’m in Los Angeles, California driving around it might tell me the Hammer Museum. So how it knows that is by if I’m the hardware store, for example, and I want to be found for people looking for hammers, I not only say I offer particular hammers on a page somewhere – and this is where the microdata comes in – I can tag with additional HTML-type code that goes in around the words and the pictures describing the hammers that you sell. You list your store hours, the kind of hammers you sell, and information like that, and that microdata helps Google and the rest of the web understand that out of a store I sell things like hammers and these are the prices I sell them for.
When you say, “hammer dealer near me,” it will come back with the stores that it knows about first. It will find everything that it knows, however, Google’s whole intent is to create a better experience for searchers. As such what they’ll do is say, “Ok, I know about all these results that I have in the set, I definitely know more because of the microdata of these ones here so I’m going to put those in a special spot on a map with these little callouts or set them higher up on the list because I’m more confident in these results because the site owner has helped me to understand them.”
So in a really interesting, weird way, Google does not necessarily rank you higher for having microdata. They will never say that if you have microdata you’ll rank higher. However, tangentially, if you help Google understand things better and more fully, and it’s confident in its results, it’s going to put those best results forward.
Rich: I think that makes sense. I mean even if they won’t come out and say you’re going to rank higher, I think that in certain situations you can see why that would pay off.
Now on this microdata, this is the same thing as like, schema? Is that the same kind of thing?
Thom: Yes. Absolutely.
Rich: So with the microdata – because I played around with this a little but last year and I got frustrated – speak to me like I’m the idiot child you’re trying to help. I was putting together microdata for the Agents Of Change Conference and there actually is microdata for events out there. Now what I found is I could put the information in but it showed up visibly in the website itself as opposed to being like metadata behind the scenes which I wasn’t in love with because it was visually awful looking in my humble opinion, and we are a design firm so that was part of the issue. But also I didn’t see any change in the results when I went to search on Google. So do we have to have that microdata visible to the visitor on the website and how do we actually put it on the site?
Thom: I could just say go to schema.org and it’ll give you all the instructions.
Rich: Ok, and we’ll link to that for sure.
Thom: There was a tool inside Google’s search dashboard (formerly Google tools), there was a spot where you could visually mark it up. You’d give it a url and there was this little sidebar and you’d say “highlight some text on the page” and click “this is an event” – or whatever the details were – and you could highlight each part. So what you really want to do – and make your page the way you normally would make your page – if you do it right the microdata should not show up. You effectively just go into the HTML code and place these fake tags around it.
So if you have a H3 – a heading 3 – for the title of your event you’d put the microdata in there instead of the color change details and that area. It shouldn’t change – if you do it right – it shouldn’t change the look and feel of your page at all. The only time I’ve seen that actually happen is when you start doing it in WordPress. WordPress doesn’t always understand that, so you have to go to the HTML point. I’m hoping if anyone from WordPress is listening, a future version of WordPress will keep that in there.
Rich: Or just a nice plugin. That’s what I did, I used the WordPress plugin for schema.org for the microdata and I got a lot of really ugly looking information on my page. I did find a tool from Google – if I can find it again I’ll link to it in the show notes – that actually did a better job of the information that was already on the page. And I think this is what you’re talking about, Thom, is I was able to tag it by saying the event date, the event time, the event dollar, whatever, and that seemed to be a better tool. But still I didn’t see it visually appear like when I Google something and Ticket Master results come up and it shows me dates, times and prices, which is kind of what I was hoping for.
But great information, I really appreciate that. What I want to know next is something you brought up earlier. So there are all these Google algorithm changes with these cute animal names, and for the average small business owner who does not live and breathe search engine optimization, what do they need to know about hummingbird and panda and all these different changes? Is there some overall advice we can give them on what changes these are and how they affect their business, and should they be paying attention on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, or is this just something that you outsource to an outside agency?
Thom: As the consultant I can say, yes, that’s exactly what you do.
Rich: Good advice, good advice.
Thom: As a former business owner – I had 2 of my own startups – I’d still say the same thing. You’re running your business, you don’t want to waste your time on anything in particular too often. We use things like WordPress or whatever to make a site faster, we use all kinds of Quickbooks and things like that to make our lives easier. Have a good SEO on retainer like you’d have a lawyer on retainer and just ask him every month or whatever what’s up on things you want to know. If you want to follow some industry blogs that’s great, too. Go to a conference. In fact I usually have a discount for any of the ClickZ conferences that I can always pass along to people because I’m a regular speaker there.
Truly what you need to know is Google wants good content, they want to help people find good content. If you put up your website and you have your 5 pages – your home page, your “about us”, your “products” page, “contact us” page, or whatever the case may be – and you leave that sitting out there statically, you might rank for a while but Google will eventually drop you because you have a stagnant site that doesn’t change. You want to watch for thin content. Panda was all about thin content and the quality of stuff on your page.
Rich: Thin content meaning just that there’s not a lot of copy per page, is that what you mean?
Thom: Correct. FIfteen or twenty words about three products on one page isn’t going to cut it, and a lot of stores do that. You want to have a nice description. Look how Amazon ranks for everything, but Amazon has 12 pictures, you can zoom in, there’s pricing up front, there’s a big, giant description, there’s reviews, there’s suggested products and all kinds of other stuff. In fact the reviews are usually the best part of Amazon, right?
But that’s extra content that we actually ignore until we’re at that stage where we want to buy something because we want to know if somebody approves of it or not. But that’s content. So thin content is one thing. Penguin was all about the links, making sure your backlink profile that I discussed earlier is intact. Hummingbird was kind of a content thing, a content update. The bottom line is if you provide a good service to your users and the people visiting your site, find good content and make it easy for them to find and understand what they’re looking for once they get to your site, you’re in good shape.
There’s no quick fix for SEO. When you start talking about what do you tell somebody, it’s not like a pizza where you sprinkle stuff on top at the end, it’s really not the sprint, it’s the marathon. You have to do everything together along the whole way. It’s not set it, forget it and you’re done. It’s an ongoing process afterward, too.
Rich: That actually leads exactly into my next question, so kudos to you, Thom. We talked a lot about the kind of things you want to do before you get started or the setup, the changes you need to make to your website. But what is the ongoing work involved with getting and keeping good rankings in how you see it?
Thom: You want the secret sauce?
Rich: Sure! Or I want here’s what you need to do week in and week out, monthly. When we talk about social media, it’s always, “Oh, it’s 1-3 posts a day on Facebook, 3-5 tweets.” And I hate magic numbers, but at the same time they give people something to kind of measure themselves or at least a starting point.
If somebody came to you and said, “Hey, we’ve got the website up, it’s been optimized for the search engines”, how much time or what should I be doing on a weekly or a monthly basis to improve my search engine rankings? Obviously everybody is going to be different, but what kind of general advice might you give them.
Thom: Like I said before, start by examining your site. Don’t assume that because we always copy and paste this thing and upgrade the design that it’s going to work for you. Make sure your title tags look right. I had a client once that said to me, “Well, why doesn’t Google just know this?” I explained that nowhere in their site did it say that they sold widgets in this area, so Google’s not going to know that. Everybody thinks Google is magical but they’re not, they don’t know anything until you tell them.
So make sure you tell your page the things that you want to be found for, talk about and do. Look at your content and make sure it’s good. Once you’re all done with that, make sure that you’re doing more things. Blogs are great. You are obviously in business because you know what you’re doing in your little field in the world, so write a blog post once a month or once every week, whatever you can do. But that generates new content.
If you have products that you offer or services that you offer on a page someone, let the audience review you. Star rankings are great. If you can find a plugin that lets you do star ratings and it’s actually tagged with rich snippets, that does absolute wonders for things in Google.
But create new content, keep it fresh, keep it updated, use that as part of your social media. We talked about it before, 3 posts here and 4 posts there. What do you post? Well, you post things that you’re an expert in, you find other things that you can link to and post your own content, too. That starts to generate a buzz. Don’t feel bad if people come to your site to read your new blog post and leave, that’s actually a very good thing.
I had a great conversation with somebody at a conference one time about bounce rate. We started measuring it. Turns out what happened was he had several people that came to his site, found his new blog post that he put out every week that he tweeted, came in from his Twitter link to his blog post, read that and left. And all of the bounce pages that people came from were his latest blog post. If you looked – and you can do this in Google Analytics – add those visitors over time, they ended up being the people who were the most brand loyal to him and had been to his site hundreds of times and considered him a thought leader. That kind of traffic generates buzz with Google.
Rich: Interesting. I have a high bounce rate, too, that I’m embarrassed to share, and a lot of that does come at our blog, so this could be people visiting the blog post, read one article and that’s great. But meanwhile they’ve touched our brand and vice versa – in a non creepy way – and Google may be paying attention to people continually doing that type of activity which Google sees to be a positive, normal, organic activity. Is that correct?
Thom: Exactly, because of your blog and that kind of social stuff. It’s kind of your handshake, you’re reaching out and the trust that you build with somebody before they actually come and commit to you. You date somebody for weeks or months before you actually go on vacation together or get married. You don’t do that right off the bat, you build a relationship with somebody. All these bounces on your blog are part of that relationship building, it’s a sign of trust.
Rich: Alright, that’s good. That is good advice right there. One more question before we go, can you take advantage of some random phrase that you rank well for that has little to nothing to do with your company? Have you ever run into this? LIke if you just are crushing it on some topic that you maybe did one blog post on or just used a term or phrase and suddenly you’re the authority. Right now, flyte new media, we’re the authority on the mobile app YikYak. I have no ties to this company, I mentioned them in one blog post because I was on TV talkin about it and we literally are getting thousands of visitors a month on this topic. I can’t figure out how to make any money on this. I’m just curious to see if you have any ideas on this.
Thom: I’m in a similar boat. I used to write a gadget column for a regional magazine in western New York and there was a device that came out that nobody had written about and I was the only one who had. Eight thousand people linked to me and I still write for that to this day. What you do is you edit that page and clean it up and not change it completely, but you certainly want to add things to it and bring some call to actions that might resonate that kind of ties tangentially somehow to your product or your services to whatever it is people find you for.
In my case it was a LapDock free mobile phone. So I was like, “If you like the review of this phone, there’s more reviews for this, this and this if you click here.” Hopefully, eventually it’s about numbers. You’re not going to catch everybody but I’ll find one eventually that’s interested. As long as you’re driving them with a very obvious call to action, if the text is enough to get the click to the new thing, then you’re in business. At that point it’s up to the rest of your pages you bring them to to sell them and drive them home for you.
Rich: Alright, Thom, thank you very much. This has been a lot of fun and I gained a lot of information and knowledge and I hope all of our listeners did, too. Some I know will feel like they want to know more, so where would you send them online?
Thom: Google me. Thom Craver. You’ll find me almost everywhere, or come right to my website, thomcraver.com, or through my employer internetmarketingninjas.com. I’m Vice President Ninja at this point in time.
Rich: Congratulations on that. Awesome, thanks again and we’ll have all those links from the show in the show notes. Thom, appreciate your time today.
Thom: Thank you, Rich, pleasure to be here.
- Want to find out more about Thom and his ninja internet marketing skills? Check out both his personal website as well as his business website.
- Need help linking microdata to your website? Check out this nifty site that Thom recommends to make it easy for you!
- Helpful Links discussed in this episode:
- Structured Data Markup Helper: https://www.google.com/webmasters/markup-helper?hl=en
- Structured Data (microdata) Testing Tool: https://developers.google.com/structured-data/testing-tool/
- Rich Brooks is the “captain of the ship” at flyte new media – a web design and marketing firm in Portland, Maine. Follow him on Twitter for useful tips and info on all topics related to digital marketing, as well as his dry humor and infatuation with Spiderman.
- Have you purchased your tickets to the Agents Of Change Digital Marketing Conference yet? It’s not too late, get them here!