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10 Things I’ve Learned in My First 18 Months of SEO

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10 Things I’ve Learned in My First 18 Months of SEO

When I began working at Webspec Design as the SEO Strategist, it was up to me and a coworker to determine the initial pathway we would take running SEO campaigns.

I dove in head first, trying to learn everything I could about SEO and how to do it. I talked to my coworker, who had just about as much experience as I did, I delved into Search Engine Journal and a couple of other blogs, and, at first, I just had to act like I knew what I was doing.

Since then I have researched daily, explored where Google was headed with their search algorithm and worked through the major changes that came with the Hummingbird and Panda Updates. We’ve built up a solid base of satisfied clients who see major results from the ongoing work we do.

Over the last 18 months, I have learned quite a bit about SEO and what is important, what works, what doesn’t, and when to say no to taking on a new client.

SEO Should be Done at Your Agency

At Webspec Design, we get calls almost every day asking us if we would like to outsource our SEO services to them for just $1 and hour. Tempting, right? While these offers can seem attractive to the companies who are in the business just for the money, this isn’t a good option for a company that wants to maintain a level of transparency with their clients.

Our SEO department thrives and continues to grow our business based on the fact that we make the changes to the site, we keep our clients informed, and we meet with our clients in person on a monthly basis to learn more about what is going on currently in their company.

We genuinely care about where they want to grow, and these monthly meetings help build solid relationships with our clients and reassures them their website and digital marketing efforts are in safe hands.

Do Your Research

In SEO, it is imperative to keep up with what is happening in search. What updates are being made to algorithms? What are new techniques industry leaders have found helpful in running their own campaigns? What tactics are your clients’ competitors using on their sites?

These are important things to pay attention to so you can stay ahead of the next update and show your clients you have the experience and knowledge to run their campaign.

SEO Title Tags, Descriptions, Keywords, and Alt Tags Still Matter

While we all know Google considers page titles important and uses well-constructed descriptions to learn about the page, but many believe keywords don’t matter. Based upon in-house testing, I can tell you they do indeed matter, at least a little bit. I have had campaigns where I changed the page keywords to what is currently being searched most according to Google Adwords’ Keyword Tool and the rankings increase dramatically the next week without us touching anything else on the site. Content matters, but keywords are still in the equation for Google.

We have also found keyword / key phrase focused image alt tags and title tags have increased our clients’ rankings in Google Images greatly. Having 10 images ranked in the first three lines of images for their focus keywords has not only improved the traffic to their site, but also the amount of contact requests made.

Also, despite the fact that Google doesn’t put as much emphasis on the description and keywords, both Bing and Yahoo still seem to rely fairly heavily on them as part of their algorithm. Any good SEO agency shouldn’t ignore the other search engines just because Google has a more advanced algorithm.

Homepage Content is Extremely Important

You’ve probably heard time and time again that content is king, but homepage content rules over all. I had a law firm client whose site was having a hard time ranking for their practice areas because there was no content on their homepage. There was an image and that was it. After working with them to formulate the perfect paragraphs and keyword focused h1 and h2 tags to highlight specific areas and services, they saw their rankings jump from beyond the fifth page to the first page in a little less than two weeks.

Google reads the homepage to learn about your company, so be sure to include lots of quality information about the service or product you offer on the homepage of your site. A good way to incorporate more content on a homepage without disrupting the design is to create a content slider much like a photo rotator. All of the content in the slider is read by Google as residing on the homepage, so this is a great feature for when you are tight on space. Another way to save space on a page but still incorporate a lot of content is to use expandable “read more” links.

Both of these help you place great homepage content while keeping the current user experience intact.

Navigation Matters—A Lot

Where your menu is located on the page isn’t nearly as important as how it is set up. The order of the menu items, their labels and the pages contained in them are supposed to help your users – not confuse them. Besides helping your users, Google is reading these tabs too to learn about who you are as a company and what you do.

Recently, I had a client who wasn’t using the top menu on their site in the best way possible and I had an idea that their rankings and contact requests were poor because of it. The old tabs looked something like this:

Navigation Before Example

I sat down with my team and we went through each tab and developed a much easier way to filter users to where they want to go. We looked at the site as if we were trying to figure out how they could accommodate our dining needs as well as our catering needs. To make the site more user and search engine friendly, we created new tabs and new pages to fill the menu and the result was amazing. Our clients went from not even ranking in the top 50 for catering words in our area to being in the top 3 or top 10 for many of them. The new menu looked more like this:

Navigation After Example

We moved the Gallery section to a side menu that appears a little lower on the page where the user can read the latest newsletter, see photos, and read reviews and FAQs. This new structure has increased rankings, traffic and contact requests simply because it is more user-friendly and it has better keywords.

Quality Content Really Does Make a Difference

The SEO industry seems like it can’t decide how it feels about content and its effect on search rankings. Some SEOs will tell you content isn’t as important as backlinks, but any content marketing specialists will tell you that content is king. My team has combined content marketing with SEO in our approach, so what have I learned to be true?

Medium to long length, quality content is king. Google is getting better and better at being able to serve up quick information about everything from restaurants to definitions to movie times. Google has even begun to select relevant information on a webpage and display it as a snippet in the search results.

Google Search Result

With Google reacting more like a human reading a page, our content has to be in-depth, relevant information about the topics we are discussing on a page. I’ve found that when your site is more of a resource it has better user engagement.

I have a client that hired us to create several resources sites for them. We filled each site with about 20+ pages of content explaining terms and procedures and their importance. When a user visits these sites, which rank very well for all of their target terms, they spend a good amount of time on the site and visit five or more pages on average.

It is time to start focusing on producing resources.

Backlinks are Something, But They Aren’t Everything

The members of our SEO team, myself included, don’t follow the edict that backlinks are the supreme to rank in Google. In fact, they are not even on our initial hit list for our clients. We have seen the items above seem to impact our client’s rankings a lot more than backlinks to their site.

A few quality backlinks are much more beneficial for a website than 50,000 spammy ones. I have actually seen several sites fall out of the top 50 because of their poor backlinks.

When we begin the backlink stage of the campaign for a site we go after the highest quality backlinks we can get. These include backlinks that pertain to the subject matter our client is in, have a higher page rank than our client’s site, and don’t have links out to poor quality and unrelated sites on them.

You Don’t Have to Say Yes to Every Potential Client

Turning down money can be difficult, but if you say yes to the wrong client it can cost you a whole lot more than money. There have been a few situations when we should have said no to a prospective SEO client, but since we were just starting out we didn’t know better yet. Here is what we have learned.

It is important to have a few meetings with your potential client before you take them on. This will give you time to see if there are any red flags and evaluate if they are a good fit for your SEO service.

If the answer is no, then politely let them know that you are unable to help them because it just wouldn’t be a good fit. Thank them for their interest and maybe point them in the direction of another agency who might be a better fit for their needs.

The last thing you want to do is get into a relationship with an unbearable client: not only does this negatively affect the productivity of your team, it also brings down the mood in your office which can effect all the work your team does. You also don’t want to enter into a relationship with a client that has unreasonable expectations for their campaign, such as first page results for all their keyword phrases within a month when they are currently not even in the top 50.

Keep in mind, just because you aren’t a good fit for a particular client isn’t an implication that they are terrible people. Sometimes differences in approach can make agencies and clients a poor match. Perhaps they focus on producing fast, affordable services and you focus on in depth services for an industry niche. There is a market for both, but you would make a poor professional match. Save yourself the headache and say no when you need to – you and the client will both be better off.

Make Sure Your Client Has Realistic Expectations

Every client who comes to you for SEO is looking for the same thing, first page rankings. They want to be in the coveted top thre and many expect you can make that happen quickly. It is important to explain first page rankings take time and money to achieve.

When you meet about beginning a campaign, make sure you have done your research. Ask yourself and your team some basic questions before the meeting. Who is ahead of them in the rankings? What basic SEO and content criteria are they going to have to fulfill in order to begin to move in search rankings? How much time do you realistically think it will take for them to get to the top, based on your experience with similar sites? What geographic areas are they targeting? What can they expect from your services in the first six months?

Remember – don’t make promises because we can’t control the search algorithms or what competitors are doing, but they should be fairly good estimates. Give them your best guess, barring any major algorithm updates. Don’t put your estimates anywhere in a contract, but if you have had success in the past with SEO projects like theirs you can use those as examples of what you can do for them.

Most clients understand that SEO takes time once you begin to give them an overview of everything involved.

The majority of clients are happy with gradual upward movement as long as you are transparent with what you are doing. They just want to know all the money they are spending on your services is resulting in leads. It is not unreasonable to tell a client that it is going to take a year or even two years to get the results they want – if you truly think that it will require that much time.

Transparency is Key

This is the biggest one. My team and I have learned that transparency is the key to every SEO campaign we run. A simple explanation of the process we use and a look at the areas we are focusing on during the month leads to a trusting relationship.

Rather than keeping our process under wraps and never contacting our clients after they start their campaign, we keep our clients as involved as they want to be. We keep clients in the loop and provide email updates every week, schedule monthly face-to-face meetings, and provide them with monthly ranking reports and Google Analytic reports. They know what is going on in their campaign every month and why it is important for their SEO.

As a result, our clients can see exactly what we are doing to their site and they see their rankings and site traffic increasing. Because of this, they trust us to run their campaigns, plus they tend to increase their campaign budgets over time, and implement suggested features on their site to improve user experience.

I have learned that when you are transparent, everyone wins.

Transparency allows for you and your client to have open, candid conversations when you need to discuss ideas and problems that inevitably will arise in their campaign. Moving your SEO process to a more transparent, open model will increase usability on your sites, improve client relationships, and gives your clients to a better return on their investment.



What do you find to be the most beneficial part of your campaign structure for your clients? What part of the formula results in the most upward movement? What is the most important thing you have learned since joining the SEO industry? Let me know your thoughts below!


Image Credits:

Featured Image: Andrea Kroeger via Wordle

Image #1: Screenshot taken by Andrea Kroeger on 6/26/14

Image #2: Created by Andrea Kroeger

Image #3: Created by Andrea Kroeger


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Andrea Kroeger

SEO Strategist at Webspec Design

Andrea Kroeger is an SEO Strategist for Webspec Design in Des Moines, Iowa. She organizes and runs SEO campaigns for ... [Read full bio]

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