Guest Post: Giulio Chiarenza is the co-founder of Equipboard, the world’s largest database of artists and the gear they use.
SEO (short for Search Engine Optimization) is a fickle beast.
We usually see companies fall into one of two camps; those that think of SEO as a “nice to have” secondary growth channel, and those that rely on it as the primary driver of growth and monetization. Our site Equipboard (batch 8) decidedly falls into the latter, but the journey to SEO competency has been an adventurous one to say the least.
We’ve taken our fair share of missteps, and were it not for the SEO gurus we’ve met through 500 and the rest of our network, one of those missteps could have been our last. Below we’ll focus on seven effective and actionable tactics that have made a big impact on our business, so hopefully you can avoid some mistakes and reap the benefits of having Google firmly on your side.
1. Go After Keywords with High Intent
In the SEO world, a keyword is a single word or query that you want to appear at the top of the organic Google results for when that word or phrase is typed into the Google search box. “Debt consolidation,” “best electric shaver,” “cloud CRM” and “1 year old birthday party ideas” are examples of such keywords.
As you can imagine, keywords are very much not created equal, both in their search volume (that is, the amount of people searching for them in Google each month) and their intent. Most SEO articles talk at length about just search volume and tend to stop the discussion there. Paying attention to search volume is absolutely correct; if you’re going after keywords with negligible volume, whether you rank for them in Google or not won’t make much of a difference, the traffic won’t come.
Several tools provide keyword volume, but for us nothing beats Google’s own data found in their Keyword Planner, which is part of their AdWords tools. Oh, and a quick Keyword Planner tip – remember to filter by geography if your customers are only based in one area.
Keyword intent, however, is just as important as monthly search volume. By intent, ask yourself this question about the keyword:
What is the person looking to do after they search for [keyword] in Google?
For companies using SEO as inbound lead gen, hopefully the person is looking to transact, i.e. buy something. To use our previous example, “best electric shaver” is a high-intent keyword since it stands to reason that the person searching that has decided they want an electric shaver, and is looking for some rankings or reviews to decide which one they should spend their money on.
“1 year old birthday party ideas” is a little bit trickier, since that’s someone who could simply be doing research and brainstorming, yet also someone who could be convinced to buy party supplies. The point here is to be careful of informational or research queries with high volume, since people searching those are likely not in the buying mode.
Be careful assuming that just because someone is looking for the “best xyz” that they’re ready to click Add To Cart. We learned this the hard way by achieving a good ranking for “best electric guitar,” yet not seeing that traffic transact on our website. Despite online shopping slowly taking over the way we shop, some items still beg to be touched and tested out in a store or showroom, and an electric guitar is one such item.
This is true for items with high price points, items that collectors and enthusiasts might enjoy, or items with variations from model to model (e.g. two identical electric guitars might feel different due to nuances introduced during manufacturing, whereas two identical digital cameras or electric shavers should functionally be exactly the same).
Gauging intent is both art and science. In Keyword Planner look for the Competition to be high, and the Suggested Bid/costs-per-click to be a high dollar value. These are indicators that people searching for this keyword have high purchase intent.
Here’s a bonus tip for your keyword research: Aside from just volume and intent, it helps if your keywords are evergreen, i.e. have long term relevance. You can use Google Trendsto explore topics and look at their popularity over time. If a trendline is steady, or better yet gradually increasing over a year or more, that’s a good indication that the amount of people searching for it will remain steady (or better yet, increase).
2. Social Shares First, SEO Later
A company who relies on SEO for traffic and revenue is typically adept at producing content. The old adage in SEO is that quality content always wins in the long run, and that’s absolutely true. Quality content takes time, money, or both to produce consistently, so why not make it work on multiple growth channels?
We were turned onto the strategy of optimizing for social shares first, and flipping to SEO later. So, what exactly does that mean?
An SEO knows that a piece of content needs to be meticulously optimized for Google before being published – keyword research, title tag, headings, schema.org markup, image optimization, etc. But before putting in all that work, think about how to get the article shared on social media, and try for that first. For instance, an article’s title optimized for SEO is far less interesting and clickable than one made to be shared on Facebook and Twitter:
SEO: Best Electric Shavers – Ratings & Reviews of Our Top Picks
Social: Ready to up your electric shaver game? You won’t BELIEVE our #1 pick!*
Tweak your content as if you were trying to go viral with it. Sure, going viral is hard, but it’s not going to happen if you don’t at least try. Then, share it on your own social channels several times over a week or two (use a scheduling tool like Buffer). Are any brands, publications, or influencers mentioned in your content? Hit them up to let them know and kindly request they share it.
During this social media blitz, your article probably won’t rank as well on Google, but that’s OK! Remember, while social media shares don’t directly influence rankings, they do generate backlink opportunities and help with brand awareness, which indirectly helps your SEO.
Once you feel like you’ve adequately blasted out your content, now is the time to go back and put your SEO hat on and optimize to get that Google ranking. Remember, just because you’re producing evergreen content doesn’t mean it won’t get shared if you make it sound more sensational. We’ve found BuzzSumo to be effective at showing the most popular content for any topic, sorted by social shares.
*You can actually accomplish both SEO and social optimization at the same time by using Open Graph tags.
3. Be Thoughtful About Your Site’s Navigation
When it comes to SEO, your relationship with Google is fairly one sided. You do your best to signal all the right things, and Google ultimately decides what it wants to do with you. However, that doesn’t mean you don’t have the power to be persuasive!
Your site’s navigation and hierarchy can be the difference between your site languishing, or being a powerhouse in the SERPs (search engine results pages). When Google crawls your site, it starts at your root domain, in our case equipboard.com. From there it fans out based on your navigation hierarchy, which is one of the most impactful on-site optimizations you can make to persuade Google into treating some of your content more importantly than the rest.
On our home page for instance, we have a nav structure that prioritizes the pages where you can browse artists by their role: Music Producers, Guitarists, Drummers, etc. We’re signaling to Google that those pages are very important to be crawled. On each of those is a list of tens of thousands of artists, and we are not expecting for Google to crawl every single one.
The concept of crawl budget is important here. Basically, a bigger, more established site will get more crawl budget than a brand new web property, which just means Google will spend more time and effort crawling the site with the bigger budget. We’re an established site, but much smaller than, say, Wikipedia, so we have to be cognizant that at some point the Google crawler will stop crawling our pages and move on.
You’ll also notice we have some individual artists we feature on our home page, which further reinforces to Google that we want those pages to be indexed and crawled frequently; they’re important pages to us.
We could write an entire article on optimizing your site for search engine crawlers, but the takeaway here is to carefully whiteboard your nav structure and what links to what. Other relevant topics we strongly encourage you to familiarize yourself with are how Google views pagination, canonicalization of pages, and sitemaps (both HTML and XML).
4. Be Realistic About Your Competition
SEO is a zero-sum game, and only one site can hold the #1 organic ranking for a certain keyword. Your competition needs to be an important factor in your decision making.
You’ll hear SEO gurus preach that everything starts and ends with keyword research, and your success will be determined by how well you’re able to do that. Picking the right keyword often means picking a keyword you think you can be competitive for.
“Debt consolidation” is a monster keyword – search volume is high, and the Suggested Bid in AdWords indicates there is a lot of money to be made from people searching it. You absolutely should not stop your due diligence here! Because it’s such a highly-searched and lucrative keyword with high intent, the competition is fierce. If you have a site that hasn’t been around a while with low authority, your chances of ranking somewhere meaningful for “debt consolidation” are almost nil.
So, how do you analyze the competition? Usually it’s a matter of understanding how “powerful” the results are on page 1 of Google. Moz, a well known suite of SEO tools, has a browser extension called the MozBar which helps you see the DA (Domain Authority) and PA (Page Authority) of each Google result (also have a look the Keyword Explorer on their site). Majestic is another good tool, and one of our favorites for looking at how strong the backlinks are for competing sites. SimilarWeb is one of our favorite tools for getting an overview of a competing website, as well as what keywords are driving traffic to them.
If you run these tools on your page 1 competition as well as your own site (or specific page you’re trying to rank), you should be able to see how much work is realistically needed to get those coveted top search result spots.
Keep in mind that user engagement metrics like time on site and bounce rate are thought to be heavily weighed, especially for the front page of Google. SimilarWeb can give you a proxy for how well your competition is doing for those metrics, though those numbers are often not self-reported and could be inaccurate.
5. Test out How You Look in the SERP
When a new page or article goes live on your site, it’s not uncommon to see your site quickly appear on page one or two of Google search results for your targeted keyword, only to disappear or jump around some time later. What Google is doing is testing your result versus what was already there, in order to be fair and give new content a chance to shine.
One of the things Google looks for is how likely people are to click on your content versus the competition. While there’s no clear answer of how important click-through rate is as a direct ranking signal for Google, in the spirit of leaving nothing on the table you want any advantage you can get in this area. The two biggest things you can play with to affect the way your result looks are the page title and meta description (the meta description to a lesser extent, since Google might show something else entirely in its place).
It’s a delicate balance; you want your title and meta description to contain your keyword(s) and be search-engine friendly, but at the same time not sound too “robotic.” This is where some AB testing can be massively helpful. Go to an incognito window and do a Google search for your target keyword. Use your browser’s developer tools to go in and edit the content of the page, and replace the third or fourth result with your site. Go ahead and make the title and meta description something you think will perform well. Save a screenshot of the result.
Now, poll an audience, show them the search result screenshot and ask them to rank the top three results they would click on for the given keywords. Ask your Facebook friends, do a Twitter poll, or use some poll service out there to ask a bunch of strangers. It’s far from a perfect test, but you should get an idea of how compelling your title and description is. Don’t put the actual URL or brand of your website when you splice in your result, as to not bias people who know you already.
You could do this test live, by actually changing your title and meta description and seeing if you move up or down. In our experience that can be frustrating more often than not, since there’s no telling how long will pass before Google recognizes the title or description have changed and updates their cache accordingly.
6. Optimize Images
If you’ve read anything about SEO, you’ve surely seen things written about the importance of optimizing your images. The high-level view is that you should make good use of images on your pages to enhance the user experience (e.g. keep users on the site longer). While Google has gotten pretty good about understanding what images are about without much help, you should still think about every single aspect of your images image and they can influence the ranking both of the page as a whole, and your individual images appearing in Google’s image search. Let’s go through them:
Image filename: Most people don’t realize this, but the actual filename of the image should be search engine-friendly. Which filename do you think better signals to Google what your image is about? 4whLbSF.jpg or ed-sheeran-acoustic-guitar.jpg?
Title and alt attributes: The HTML tag to insert an image on a page has two golden opportunities to insert more keywords, the title attribute and the alt attribute. Technically, the alt attribute is a placeholder that shows before the image has loaded (and a text alternative of the image for screen reader users), and the title attribute is what appears in a tooltip when you hover over the image. Make sure to fill in both, and you can even use slight variations of your keyword to increase your chance of capturing more long-tail searches.
Image size: Make sure your image file size is optimized before slapping the image on your website. There are a variety of ways to do this. First, make sure the image width and height are no bigger than they need to be per your available space. Next, make sure the image is stripped of all metadata that would otherwise bloat the file. If you use Photoshop, using Save for Web is the way to go, as opposed to Save As. You can even run images through a tool (we like Compressor.io) that compresses them and can save tens (if not hundreds) of kb without affecting image quality too much. There are tons of ways to optimize image size automatically for whatever framework or CMS you’re using, it just takes a little research.
Image delivery: If you’ve optimized your image sizes, good for you, that’s step one. Step two is to deliver them to users hitting your website as fast as possible. This is where CDNs come in (content delivery networks), which cache images at endpoints closest to where your website visitors are geographically to ensure image load times are lightning quick. Look into using Cloudflare, Fastly, or Amazon CloudFront to name a few.
Want to see how your site’s pages stack up? You can start with Google PageSpeed Insights to see how Google rates your speed on desktop and mobile. You should also check Search Console and take a look at the time spent downloading your pages. When we optimized our images and improved the speed of Equipboard, we observed better rankings in Google, more traffic, higher conversion rate, and a bigger crawl budget.
Giulio and his cofounder Michael started Equipboard as a nights and weekends project. Four years later, Equipboard has grown to be one of the most popular music gear communities on the web. Aside from being the largest database to discover what gear famous musicians are playing, Equipboard has an extensive list of buying guides for guitarists wanting to find the best online guitar lessons, all the way to the budding music producer looking for the best audio interface. Follow Equipboard on Twitter and Facebook.