Common Sense SEO

Most people worry about breaking into Google’s top 10 rankings for their most important head term. Almost every site serves a particular niche (or vertical if you prefer). Most verticals today are extremely competitive for ranking page one terms. Getting to the top is half the battle. The other half is staying there. Here are a few common sense suggestions to maintain rankings.

If It Ain’t Broke…

Problem Solving Flow ChartIf you are ranking in the top 5, don’t change the content or the title tag for the page that holds this ranking. It is not broken. Of course, build links and direct value from other pages, but leave your content, meta and rich snippets (if applicable) alone. I mean it. Seriously. Carefully consider what has contributed to your current ranking and build upon those successful strategies.

I can hear it already, “But, wait! We have a new product/service/offer on another page and we have to promote it on the home page!”. Listen that’s great, but unless this new product, service or offer is your new bread and butter, find another way. If you absolutely must make changes, make small changes. A/B test a button’s color–not it’s text. Make minor below-the-fold content changes. Use annoying things like overlays or flashed messages and position their content last in the DOM. Add navigation to the offer, but use secondary navigation. Add it to your site map. Post about it on your blog and social media. Build value to your new shiny thing elsewhere. Make small deliberate changes and roll them out slowly so that you can measure impact.

For sites that rank highly, you already know that click throughs increase exponentially from position to position. In the top 5, the slightest changes can wreck your rankings. When I say “small”, I mean the closest approximation to zero changes you can make. Too many publishers think they are smart enough to make any arbitrary change that supports one or more marketing objectives. These changes should never be made without expert consultation on the probable ranking effect they will have. Proceed with caution.

Be Consistent

I’ve been at this a long time. Over the past 18 or so years, I’ve managed and watched a number of sites that are long-lived. In observing their various fluctuations over time the one immutable conclusion I have reached is that a site that has been mainly about a certain topic for a very long time will always rank better. If you are ranking high in a vertical and have a domain name that is more than 5 (or even better 10) years old, your domain’s history has a lot to say about what your site is mostly about. A consistent message or theme is an important ranking signal. Consistency builds trust. Ensure you are always thinking about what your site is mostly about. How would a machine characterize your theme over time? Are you Pope Francis or this guy:

You want to be able to reliably assert and substantiate that your site is authoritative relative to your main theme. Ask questions to keep yourself honest about your theme and message. Try hard not to deviate too far from your core.

Bear in mind that an “aged” domain is not going to help you get a ranking advantage if it hasn’t hosted content. It has no story to tell. Take a look at archive.org and look back at your site and think about how well it presents the answer to the question, “what is this site about?” Look at your rankings over time and the changes you have made both positive and negative. Make sure you are supporting your theme and building real value.

Content Matters

Content MattersMost sites really don’t have a lot of content. It’s important to generate high quality content that people want to read and share. Yes, think about the questions the content answers, but don’t pander to SERPs. Write solid content. Make it visually appealing. Make sharing easy. If you have forums, don’t use a SaaS solution. Install or create your own forum software so you can determine how its content is consumed by search engines.

Serve All Content Securely

Get and install an SSL certificate and serve all of your content securely. It’s a minor ranking factor, but it’s practically free and could win the coin flip between ranking positions. Don’t serve mixed content once you are serving over HTTPS. Mobile Safari is going to (if they haven’t already) block all content from sites that serve insecure content within secure pages. Open developer tools and make sure you don’t have any images, CSS or scripts that aren’t called in a protocol agnostic way or if served locally called via a relative URL. If you run WordPress, you’re going to have to dump your DB and have some fun with search and replace.

It’s All About the Details

As the saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know. Google’s ranking algorithm is unknowable. It is so complex at this point that even correlation studies are probably worthless. So instead of seeking out the one true answer, let’s finish up with a few more good ideas.

  • Title tags are still a very important ranking signal. Choose your words wisely. Limit them to about 60 characters.
  • Grammar counts. Write as well as you are able. Proofread and avoid careless mistakes.
  • Pay attention to the technical details.
    • Validate your html. There is no excuse for malformed markup these days.
    • Google offers Page Speed Insights. Check your site and start fixing issues. Most of these will involve easy things like optimizing images, reducing the number of requests your page makes, minify HTML, JS, and CSS and setting appropriate headers for caching. You’ll want to also make sure your DNS responds fast. Use a real DNS service like Amazon’s Route 53 rather than your registrar’s DNS.
  • Worry about ad blocking because 20-50% of your visitors use it.
  • Take the time to write excellent meta descriptions of no more than 600 characters for every page you publish. Google may use them in the SERPs or they will use an excerpt of the content on the page. Combined with a targeted title, your well-written description will improve your click through rate which will in turn improve your ranking.
  • If you have content with a high bounce rate that you know is generally navigated to from search, work to get subsequent navigation. Bouncing back to search sends a signal that your content did not fully meet the needs of the searcher. Provide ample opportunities for cross linking content and making relevant related content easily navigable. If you use Events in GA, be sure you have them configured correctly or your bounce rates may look artificially low.

Penalties

If you have been or suspect you have been penalized, it’s time to get professional help. In general, penalties aren’t levied on the innocents of the world (wide web). Unraveling root causes and putting corrective measures in place requires significant effort and experience makes a big difference. Send me a note describing your situation. I will give you an honest assessment and, if you like, a quote for recovery and remediation.

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