In this, the third of a 3-part series on practical SEO for your website, I talk about off-site SEO — sending Google signals from outside your own website, to serve as testimonials to your web content. Here are links to the first two parts in the series:
Part 1: SEO Good Practices: Pleasing the Google Gods
Part 2: Pleasing the Google Gods 2: How to Do Onpage SEO
The SEO of Boasting
We all know that guy who says he climbed Everest, went drinking with Keith Richards, wrote a NYT best-selling book, and that his other car is a Maserati. He may fool some of the people some of the time, but what he says about himself carries less weight than what someone else says about him.
It’s the difference between boasting and a testimonial.
Google uses off-site SEO as a measure of quality. Google needs to provide good responses to search queries. There aren’t enough people in the world to evaluate the billions of web pages in response to the billions of queries per day. Even if there were, different people would evaluate the pages differently, leading to wildly inconsistent results.
Instead, Google uses math.
When Google was young, its math wasn’t very sophisticated. Back then, the search engine’s algorithm figured out what a page was about by how many times a search term appeared on it. It figured out its value by how many links led to it. Because its developers hadn’t developed the system, Google was like the kid who believes the boastful blow-hard when everybody else rolls their eyes at him.
Naturally, people gamed the system:
- Providing poor content (often just gibberish stuffed with irrelevant keywords)
- Creating links from pages of no value to the web visitor
The level of ingenuity people put into fooling Google would have been enough to create useful content, but that’s a rant for another day.
Google Strikes Back
In 2011-12, Google released two major updates to its way of computing page rank. The first, called Panda, released in February 2011, penalized useless content.
The second, Penguin, released in April 2012, cracked down on “black hat” SEO practices that went against Google’s rules.
The image above is from a clever and informative infographic comparing Penguin and Panda. Check it out for more detail about the updates.
This is ancient history in internet years, but it’s still important. Well-meaning people have violated those guidelines without intending to, and the path back into Google’s graces is long and often expensive. And I still get spam from SEO “services” promising to get me “quality” links to my site for a very reasonable price.
The algorithm changes beginning in 2011 marked what some people called the “end of SEO.” What it really meant was the failure of “black hat” SEO, because Google’s algorithm got smart enough to catch the cheaters.
It was good news for legitimate content marketing.
The Value of Off-Site Optimization
“Off-site SEO is all about building your website’s reputation,” says Natalie Erickson. The reasoning is that if more people like your content, it must be better (sometimes called social proof). You can think of off-page SEO as online testimonials.
It comes in the form of links to your site from other sites and social shares.
Legitimate Off-Site SEO
“White hat” off-site SEO benefits everybody: You, your readers, and Google. The same way good testimonials benefit everybody who comes to your site — giving visitors a sense of who you are and the value of what you offer.
Let’s look at the criteria for making the most of off-site SEO.
Whenever a site links to your site, it’s called a backlink. Not all backlinks are equal, however. Some push your site up in the rankings, some are neutral, and some can push your site down or get it banned altogether.
First, the backlinks to avoid:
- Links from sites that have been penalized by Google
- Links from sites whose content doesn’t appeal to your market
- Links from click-bait sites with poor content, spam, or malware
Whenever a stranger emails out of the blue promising thousands of “quality” backlinks, expect these types of links. They are the only links you can get quickly, with no effort, by a complete stranger. By the time Google your site is evicted from the index, the scammers have spent your money and disappeared.
If you do find that you’ve been linked to by one of these sites, there’s a process to disavow these links.
What makes for good backlinks?
If you’re in the business of computer software, a backlink to your site from a source like wired.com or pcmag.com would be great for your offsite SEO. A mention in a scholastic publication, like the MIT Technology Review, would be even more powerful. This is based on the source’s authority, or it’s trust and expertise. Throw in an .edu domain, and you’re in really good shape.
The domains that carry the most authority to your site are these:
- Reputable .org
But any authoritative site will do. In fact, any site with higher page rank than yours will share some of its authority with your site if it links to yours.
Off-page SEO Strategies for Building Backlinks
It takes patience, diligence, and a sharp eye for opportunities to get backlinks from authoritative sites to yours. Here are some of the paths you can use:
- Guest blogging on relevant websites
- Professional directories
- Getting your site in the news (such as getting listed as a source in Help A Reporter Out)
- Reputable online press release services
- Encouraging customers to leave reviews on review sites
- Responding to reviews with relevant links
- Video (YouTube, owned by Google, is the second-largest search engine)
- Social bookmarking (such as Reddit)
Build backlinks gradually. Google interprets an avalanche of backlinks as an indication of spam.
Social Media and SEO
Google executives have said that links to your site from social media are not a ranking factor. On the other hand, “the correlation between social signals and ranking position is extremely high” (2016 Rebooting Ranking Factors White Paper).
What does that mean in real life?
First, when you finish a post and link from your Facebook page to your website, that doesn’t immediately increase your ranking. It’s not a testimonial at that point, it’s just a site owner promoting her own work (which is neutral — neither up nor down, as far as the search engines are concerned).
But “if you create good content, it will most likely be popular on social media, and people are probably going to like it and link it to — which does boost your rankings,” says Ron Dod of Search Engine Journal.
There are two benefits to sharing your content on social media:
- Connecting with an audience
The SEO value follows the audience connection.
At the same time, your social media profiles can appear in search results, so it’s important to keep them updated and engaging.
Onpage and Off-page SEO and Your Site
Optimizing your web content to reach the search engines is essential to content marketing, the most cost-effective means of increasing your customer base and your income.
Ninety percent of all organizations use content in their marketing efforts. Traditional marketing is intrusive and oriented to sell, sell, sell. By contrast, content marketing invites people in. It gives first. And it persuades in a way that doesn’t raise their defenses.
An infographic at Demand Metric summarizes research data about the prevalence of content marketing in the marketplace today. Consumers prefer reading informational content over strictly sales materials, and content marketing costs about a third of what traditional marketing costs, even while it delivers about three times the return on investment.
Requirements for Your SEO Strategy
Even though your investment in content marketing is lower than for traditional marketing, it still demands an investment.
On your own site, you need:
- To post frequently, to keep your content fresh in the Google indexes and in the social media stream
- To post regularly, so that your audience can anticipate that more is coming from you
- High-quality content, so that it’s worth reading and sharing
- Content optimized for the search engines, so that they can understand and display your content for relevant queries.
To increase your off-site search value, you need:
- To keep your social media profiles relevant and up to date
- Repeated sharing of your and others’ content that is relevant to your audience
- Connection with others who speak to your market
- Relationships with partners and clients
If you have the time and interest, you can do a lot of the work yourself. If you’ve got better uses for your time, you can let someone else take care of the keyword searches, planning and writing your blog posts, posting your content to your social media streams, making sure your social media profiles are up to date, and taking care of the myriad tasks that make a successful content marketing campaign.
Let me help you. Check out my blogging package and see if it’s right for your business.