As a web developer, my peers have always assumed that I know a weird little trick to game Google search results. Something I would type in a dark themed code editor that could SEO any website. They believe it's my secret weapon to make money online. Not just friends and family though, I recently talked with a client that assumed I just wanted more money. So they kept naming dollar figures, proposal after proposal, each bigger than the previous, until I would say yes. I said "No". I wasn't being a jerk. I just couldn't do it for them. I don't think anyone understood what they are asking me. Let me explain.
Imagine this scenario. I'm in a tour in a famous plant somewhere in Atlanta. While the guide is going on and on about the awesome Bubble Infusing Technology they use in their candy drink, I sneak out of the group and into a little room where the door was left open. In this room, there is a stand with a rolled up piece of paper in a glass box that says "Do not touch."
No one else is in the room and I am very curious to know what is written on that piece of paper. So I do just that, I push the little lever on the side of the stand and the glass door opens up. I roll up the parched piece of paper and take a look. There is a title and four bullet points. We will talk about those points later, but the title says: Coca Cola's Secret Recipe.
Don't run away just yet, I promise there is a point to all this.
I don't even need to write it down, the recipe is so simple that I can recite it with my eyes closed. In fact, I can stand on one leg and recite it. I can stand on one leg, close both eyes and recite it backwards. That's how easy it is to recreate that coca cola formula.
But knowing the secret recipe is irrelevant in our quest of building the empire that Coca Cola has become (wait, that's what we are building?). The recipe is so irrelevant that the company let's you mix and match any flavor you want in their new freestyle fountain drink machines. The power of this company comes from their distribution network. Coca Cola is so efficient at distribution that even in a war torn country you have access to a cold drink of Cola. In a recluse village, in central Africa, you will find a child, bare feet, under a scorching sun, drinking from that ice cold, sizzling bottle of coca cola.
Oh wow, I just recited the secret recipe right now in between thoughts. So easy.
Coca Cola is a distribution company that can deliver a bottled drink to every single corner of the world. If I use their recipe and create my own drink, The Ibo-Ola, I don't think I will be able to distribute it as efficiently as they do.
Freestyle mix and match fountain drink machine
No secret formula for SEO
If you want to figure out how to optimize your website for search engines, well we can do that in a few simple steps.
SEO Secret formula
- Organize your HTML layout (h1, h2,... and p tags)
- Title your pages correctly
- Add meta description to summarize the page
- Load the website fast.
Was that easy or what? I bet you can memorize it right now, stand on one leg, close both eyes and recite it. Like stealing candy from a kid. But do that, and you find that your website appears no where on the search results. Click on page two, and you see that? That's you not being on page 2 either.
That's because, well, most developers that can write HTML do that already. If you have an accounting firm, and SEO your website, well, now you just have to compete with the millions of other accounting firms that did the exact same thing as you. Why should your website appear before the guy that optimized his website yesterday? As a matter of fact, he may appear before you simply because he did it before you, he has seniority.
How not to SEO
In February 2011, I was hired at a company that bragged about how technologically awesome they were. I was hired to work on a fitness website and was even shown the code during the interview. I had accepted to work on their C++ back-end application.
My first day started in complete chaos. I showed up in the fitness department and I was told, "Fitness? Forget it! Do you know PHP? We need you in Shopping." And that was the last time I ever saw the fitness department. My first day had coincided with the first Google Panda update and all our money making websites (shopping) disappeared from search results.
The problem was very simple. Our websites had virtually no content. But oh how amazing they were at SEO. We had hundreds, thousands of keywords and links that we used and abused. Google simply flagged them all. I don't think there was anything of substance that we provided to anyone. When you googled our keywords, you would see our results on Google. You would click on them and realize that although you have spent 5 minutes there, we haven't solved the problem we had promise to solve. In fact, by the time you get to the last step, you would realize that the solution we offer is incorrect.
This tactic is great for simulating engagement. But it is horrible for the user that leaves frustrated. It's like you ask for a banana, I tell you it's on the kitchen counter. You go to the kitchen counter and see that the banana is in a vending machine and it costs a dollar. You really want that banana, so you put in the dollar in the machine and you get a receipt, 3 quarters, and no banana. On the receipt it says, "you can now go to the store across the street and buy a banana for 75 cents."
Our website was as Search Engine friendly as a website could get, but it was the worst experience a user can experience. So we were rightfully flagged for it.
The secret formula is not a secret. It is common sense. Anyone that used Microsoft Word to write a school essay has done SEO. Just organize your content properly on the page. Yes, THE content.
Instead of just saying "content is king" and hiring a content farm to fill your website with content, well, let's not do that. We did that in that nameless company and we also got flagged for it.
Let's go back to our accounting firm example. Why should your accounting firm appear before any other firm on search result? For real, I don't know, tell me why? If I have to guess, it's because your accounting firm website answers a question. And I have a question:
How do I keep my Business accounting organized?
Can your accounting firm answer that question? Yeah? You even offer that as a service? Oh, I have an idea, why don't you put that information on your website? Let's say as an article, or blog post, however you like to call it. Oh, you do other stuff too? You can give me advice on how to be compliant with the government? Wow, that's awesome. Let's put that on the website too.
There are a thousand things that an accounting firm does and it sucks that when I google these terms most the results are from Intuit Quickbook. The accounting firms are scared to put that information on the web because they feel that if they give their secret formula away, the customer will just runaway it and they will go out of business. Whether it is accounting, programming, or dancing, whatever thing you are doing is not a secret. And your customer will not start an accounting firm after reading a single blog post from you. Instead, reading that post will give them confidence in you and they will probably call you to do the thing you said you do on your website.
There are no secrets.
And the more interesting and relevant the content you create on your website is, the more points you get in your distribution empire you are building. (That's right, we are building it!)
Remember that kid you stole candy from? Imagine you take that candy, grind it, liquefy it, add some more sugar, add bubbles with trademarked bubble infusion technology. Drink it. That's Coca Cola. Please don't drink soda.
When Coca Cola comes up with a new flavor, they don't cross their fingers and hope that you somehow come to their website and add a bottle to your cart. Instead, they distribute it. Everywhere. It will be in every liquor store, it will be in every grocery store, it will be in every vending machine, it will be on every billboard, it will be Everywhere until you start tasting that sweet nectar of bubbly high fructose corn syrup in your mouth.
Coca Cola's distribution network is effective. It's like having a million bots following you on twitter (every store) and they will retweet (sell) anything you ever tweet. They are so effective that on Jesus' birthday, everyone dresses in Coca Cola's colors and celebrate.
Whether you drink soda or not, you know about Coke Zero. Never tasted it, never purchased it, but by God, I know it so well.
That's the distribution network you want to create for your accounting firm... lol.
So first things first. Did you follow the secret recipe?
- Do you have your h1s and h2s organized? Do you have p tags to describe those h tags? Very good.
- Have you written answers to common accounting problems? As long form articles? Very good.
- These days, people watch YouTube videos instead of reading, so that could help. Yeah, go on and create a YouTube channel where you discuss some common accounting issue. Very good.
- A podcast you say? Sure, do that too. No, you can't discuss something else, it has to be about accounting. Very good.
You may not have fleets of trucks to deliver your product everywhere around the country. But you have the Internet. You can reach out to people. Coca Cola had to build all these ties with different franchises to have their drink and vending machines. You have to reach out to people who are interested in your field.
No, I am not asking you to tweet. Not that you shouldn't. But what good is a tweet from an obscure accounting firm I have never heard of. I know it's fun when you purchase those bots to follow you, but it does you absolutely no good.
Instead, scour the web for places where these questions are being asked. Look at popular questions in quora about your specialty. Write about it, share your link. Find a community on the StackExchange network and answer questions. Build up a reputation. Share your knowledge with the world. Don't give people just a snippet, give intricate details. Work it like you are working with a real customer of yours. Be the expert in your field. The more interesting and knowledgeable you are, the more people will share links to your accounting firm website. The more links, the more important search engines will think you are, and they will rank you above that other accounting firm you love to hate so much.
It starts slow. You can only reach so many people in the beginning, but for every person you reach, your distribution network grows by many folds. It is hard, and it is the reason why I say no to all SEO request I get, or I just give them that little secret formula and call it a day. Having a website that ranks number one for a set of keywords demands a lot of work. Often you will hear the advice, "Write good content and wait years". It is true that this should work, but it is half of the story. What happens during that "Waiting for years" period? You don't sit down and twiddle your fingers. You build a reputation.
I started my reputation by getting banned from some forums. But over the years, I understood that you can't go to a 7 eleven and ask them to sell your account firm services to their customers. You have to pick relevant locations.
Eventually while you are building your distribution network, you start to see people you never interacted with follow you on twitter. People that share your links on Facebook. People who email you and ask for your services or product. At that moment, you have one job. That job is to give them the best accounting service you ever gave (I don't know accounting, OK?). A satisfied customer will brag about your services. They might even share a link to your website, and the search engines will find that link and drink the link juice from it.
Link building is a perpetual process. You never stop. If you are too busy working with your customers to focus on it, hire someone to do it. It can't be the intern, we don't want him to convert the website to Angular now, do we? Hire an expert accountant with good communication skills. This one will not be sitting in the back room and um, account. Instead, he will write articles about accounting. He will write about how those new tax laws will affect your business. He will write about how you should report your crypto-currency investments. He will make your website appear number one on search engines.
Oh, by the way, replace the term "accounting" with whatever it is that your website specializes in. If you do this long enough, you end up with a distribution network. Post something on your blog, and those people subscribed to your RSS feed will share it on twitter, facebook, reddit, and everywhere they can. Write something on a forum, and people will value your opinion because they know you don't pull stuff out of thin air, you are a certified First Google Result Appearer (FGRA).
Unless there are some obvious technical errors on your website, there isn't much else those SEO firms can do for you. Your best strategy remains to create a useful website on the internet. You can pay people to say you are amazing, but in the end people will use your product and they will feel something. That feeling that they have is what ends up in a Yelp review. You want that review to be a good review.
Coca Cola has been using the same distribution strategy since the late 1800s. Today, it is still the same, only at a much larger scale. For each new bottling plant they get, their reach grows exponentially. To the point that I can safely say that they can reach every corner of the world.
So I gave you the secret formula. I also gave you the blue prints of the distribution network. There are two questions now. Do you want to create a useful website on the internet? Or do you want to create a website optimized for search engines?
When you create a website that makes the Internet a better place, search engines will make the extra effort to understand your content however you present it. They will optimize their engines to understand your content (See Wikipedia), and they will show it to people who are looking for it.
When you create a website that looks fantastic to search engines, well search engines will be happy about it. But there may not be a reason to show it to anyone because your only customer is in this case, the search engine. The whole point is to bring more people to your website.
Today, the barrier of entry is at a groundbreaking low, creating a distribution network is virtually free. Solve a problem and share your solution with an Internet community and watch them come to your website in 2018 and forever.
I'm done, but here are some example.
I thought it would be useful to show some example of companies that provide a service but still give you useful information without holding anything back. Also, I am not affiliated with any company I am listing here.
Pagerduty: This is a company that handles DevOps and security for companies. They still provide a guide on how to protect yourself or your company from malicious actors. See how it works? Because they created awesome content I am here sharing it.
Kapwing: I do not create videos online, I use traditional desktop applications for that. But the folks at kapwing shared their story about how they started getting paying customers in their company. This can be useful to anyone starting a business online.
Digitalocean (this website is hosted there): Digitalocean goes above and beyond to create all sorts of material that could be useful to anyone hosting an application on the web, even if it's on a competing platform.
Many more, there are. But I think you get the gist of it.