If you’re running or managing a business, you’ve likely heard about “SEO,” but what does it mean? What do I do if my SEO is bad? How would you even know?
SEO — search engine optimization — is the process of getting internet traffic from organic (that means free, editorial, or natural) search results on search engines, like Google and Bing. There’s a lot more to it, so I recommend reading this guide to SEO, in case you need to understand more.
SEO is extremely complex and there are entire businesses and blogs devoted to the subject. This article is intended to be just an introduction to a few SEO concepts, specifically, what do you do if you feel like your SEO is suffering.
Let’s Start With A Story
What we do at Standard Beagle goes hand in hand with SEO. We are focused on designing and developing online sites and applications, and what’s good for users is also good for SEO. Most of the concepts for usability and accessibility that we follow as a rule are also good for SEO — things like content written for humans, well-structured markup and code, fast performance.
So we know a thing or two about how to set up a site for SEO success. We also know how to spot hucksters — individuals and firms who claim they can improve your SEO, but they really don’t. I like to be positive and assume that these people just don’t know what they’re doing rather than assume they are out to steal from hard-working business owners. So that’s where I will start my story.
Not long ago, I was asked to take a look at a local business website and make some design changes to help them improve their conversion rate. The company had been working with an SEO company that had made some big changes to their WordPress site, but their conversion rate was pretty low. They only received two or three email inquiries through the website over two or three months.
It took a little while to get the SEO company to provide me with access to the site. They weren’t responsive to the business’ requests, but after several weeks I got access. I started looking around, and my concern grew. I noticed a number of duplicate pages, which is not good for SEO. I also noticed pages had been built with a visual page builder, which left a lot of messy markup on the site. I asked my friend, who owns an SEO company, to take a look, and he confirmed my suspicions. The site needed a cleanup. The combination of the messy markup, duplicate pages, and poor usability were doing the site no favors with Google. It might not be bad enough for a penalty, but it certainly wasn’t helping.
I contacted the business owner, my client, and told him what I found. I also walked him through my recommendations for moving forward:
- Clean up the markup as much as possible. The site owner didn’t want a brand new site, so I worked within the page builder.
- Clean up with duplicate content. This is confusing for Google. It was confusing for the site owner, too. Which contact page did he need to update? I also needed to remove all of the filler pages that the theme had set up by default and the SEO company had left published.
- Improve the usability. The site needed extra content sections and improved navigation. It was hard to find the most important pages.
I got to work right away. By the time I was done, the site was streamlined and easy to use. And all of the duplicate content had been removed. I made sure to redirect old pages that I had removed.
We launched the site and the client was really happy with how it turned out. He was even happier, three months later, when he told me they were now seeing four to five website inquiries a week instead of one a month.
So How Did This Happen?
Sadly, what my client went through isn’t uncommon. I’ve actually had to clean up similar SEO disasters several times. And my friend who runs the SEO company cleans up bad SEO frequently.
There’s no widely-recognized certification for SEO (not to be confused with Google partner status for AdWords). Anyone can get into SEO, so unless you know what to look for, you might not understand the level of ability of an SEO firm or professional.
How do you know your SEO is suffering?
There’s no easy answer here, and no single diagnosis fits all. You don’t need to become an SEO expert yourself, but it’s always a good idea to do a little research to familiarize yourself with the concepts.
If you’re using an SEO company
I prefer when clients trust me and my staff, so I would never recommend micromanaging the SEO firm’s work, but it’s definitely in your best interest to stay involved. They should provide regular reports about what they’re doing and their results. You can verify what they tell you by looking at your Google Analytics, so make sure you have the highest access available to your account. If you don’t understand what’s in their reports, ask! They should be able to explain it in a reasonable way that makes sense to you.
And if you feel like something’s not right, you can take the results to someone you trust. Don’t ignore the feeling.
If you’re not using an SEO company
You can’t just search your website on Google and see where your site is. Google tailors search results by geographic location. You might be able to go “incognito” on Chrome and see, but this method is tedious at best.
A good place to start is your Google Analytics. If you don’t have analytics, get it. It’s free. Your web designer or developer can easily add it to your site in under 5 minutes. Analytics will show you where traffic is coming from, and you can check over time. If traffic drops off, there might be an issue.
Here’s a good article to guide you through how to check yourself. If your rank has dropped, this article from Search Engine Land is a good reference for diagnosing a problem.
What can I do on my own?
Not every issue you find has to be handled by a professional. If you feel comfortable updating your website, you can definitely take steps on your own.
Look at your content
Are there two or more pages that have the same exact content? Get rid of one of them. It’s confusing. You can set up a redirect from one page to the other. Are any pages old and outdated? Update it. If you decide to ultimately remove a page, you’ll want to redirect that as well.
Make sure your images have an “alt” and aren’t oversized
Big giant images that are too big to display on a screen are only slowing your site down, making SEO harder. You can edit them to be smaller through the WordPress Media Gallery when you click edit. I usually keep full-size images to a max height or width of 1500-2000px. Don’t upload raw camera photos without resizing them. Imagine being on slow wi-fi or locking up your phone browser — that’s the experience you might be giving your customers if they have to download huge images.
Also, take the time to give each photo a descriptive title and “alt” tag that describes the image. Search engines “see” your images through their titles and “alt” tags. So help them out, because “img_0954” isn’t helping you.
Install Yoast SEO
This is a free WordPress plugin we use on nearly every site. It’s easy to install and configure, and my SEO friend also recommends it.
What else can you do? Check out this article from Yoast on other steps you can take.
When should I hire a professional?
We managed our own SEO on standardbeagle.com for years. It was only recently that we decided to hire a professional. The fact is, we know a bit about SEO, but we don’t know everything. SEO is a specialty, and an individual or firm that lives, breathes and sleeps SEO is going to have better ongoing results than I will if I’m only dabbling from time to time.
But you have to make that decision for yourself.
If you are at a point where you feel your time is better spent managing your business than trying to increase your Google search ranking, then hiring a professional is probably the best way to go.
What should I look for in an SEO company?
I wish I could say that SEO firms have certifications you can look for. They don’t.
Companies that also manage AdWords campaigns (not the same as SEO, but definitely related) often receive Google Partner status. Companies that have this are typically well-established, which is a good sign. You don’t want a fly-by-night company managing your SEO. But don’t use Google Partner as your sole indicator.
Be careful of companies that claim to offer everything under the sun — SEO, marketing, web design, web development. If there are only two people on staff, who does the SEO? Who does the web design? These are very different specialities, and no one can do everything really well. So ask lots and lots of questions. Reputable companies will be honest about whether they outsource or have all talent in house.
Check reviews and recommendations. Seriously. Call up former or current clients and ask what they think. Ask them how the company or individual communicates. Do they receive reports? Have they seen results? How long have they been a client? This last question is very important. If the SEO company only gives you customers that are recent clients, find out why. Why don’t they have any clients they’ve been working with more than three to six months? You need to find that out.
Bringing it all together
SEO is complex. I do my best to recommend steps businesses can take to improve. But there’s no quick fix. SEO takes time and patience, and it’s best left in the hands of a reputable company that specializes in it. Make sure you thoroughly research your options and make a calculated decision about whether to hire an SEO specialist or agency. Not all are created equal.
I like to keep up with SEO concepts and if you’re interested, I highly recommend the following online resources:
And we happen to know a fantastic Online Search Marketing firm. Check out Motoza here.
Also published on Medium.