Let’s take a walk back in time to the adolescence of the Internet – which I consider to be the time after AOL peaked. Cue up the dial-up handshake sound. As the Internet went through the ‘hormonal changes’ of transforming from Bulletin boards and Educational portals to the robust, information superhighway we know now – complete with traffic standstills – there was no central clearing place to locate everything.
The Internet itself was birthed by the Department of Defense as a vast network of randomly connected computer portals in the 1960’s. The idea was to create a better system than the Emergency Broadcast System, which, at the time, took an alert, then passed it, station by station, along a huge chain to cover the United States. Think of it like those old Christmas lights – if one goes out, the whole chain stops working. We needed a better way to communicate quickly to everyone. One that couldn’t be interrupted by destroying a single point of contact.
ARPANET Grows Up and Goes to Stanford
As the World Wide Web developed in the 1980’s and linking the random points of the Internet became the thing to do, literally thousands of search engines suddenly appeared, some of them broad and general, some of them extremely specific, and all of them essentially a giant database list of the sites that had been submitted to them. People and companies would literally go to these early search sites and ask them to add their link or links to the list.
Search engines fought to get more powerful and relevant as the Internet fairly exploded in the 1990’s. Excite launched in 1993 at Stanford University, followed quickly by Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web (aka Yahoo!) in 1994, also at Stanford. Then in 1995, sites like Dogpile started aggregating more of the mélange of databases, searching multiple search sites at once to develop the best results.
But the sites were still often hit and miss, the programmers themselves confused as to how to rank the relevancy of the results they were getting. Especially as more and more and more sites filled the virtually unlimited virtual land of the web.
The best option at the time was to count how many times a search term appeared on a webpage to rank results. This led to a ridiculous work-around, that, sadly, some web designers and companies still persist with to this day. They would build a single page of supposed relevant keyword after keyword – or they would try and get clever and build the words transparently on the background of every page on their site.
This practice became known as Search Engine Optimization or SEO. And it was fairly effective, until 1995 when a little search engine named BackRub was created.
Don’t Be Evil
Why BackRub? We’ll get to that in a second, but after two years of trying to sell their revolutionary new search structure, the two Stanford grad students decided to put their PhD candidacies on hold and launch their own company, now named GOOGLE.
BackRub was so named because of the idea that Larry Page hit upon to be his graduate thesis – using backlinks to create more relevant search results. For Larry, backlinks could work like citations in an academic paper. The more times a paper is cited by other papers, the more important it becomes – especially if a significant academic or intellectual cites it in his or her work.
So a site with more, higher-value backlinks should conceivably be more important.
And it should appear sooner in the search results.
That’s a lot to digest, but I want you to understand the basic fundamentals behind how Google – and now every search engine – works before we dive into how to best take advantage of it. No one outside of Sergey Brin and the engineers at Google may comprehend how the often-changing algorithm works today, but it all comes down to the relevance of the links in and out of your site.
By the way, as I mentioned earlier, SEO started as kind of a weird cheat for search engines. One that still persists today. Because of that and just general misunderstandings, the term SEO has a bit of a negative connotation amongst marketers and website designers. Especially the ones who know and apply the proper search building practices.
So for the rest of this post, I’m going to refer to what some call SEO as Search Ranking Elevation (SRE). While I doubt it’ll catch on, it will help clarify just what we’re talking about.
But First, the Black, the White and the Gray
In the old black and white westerns, filmmakers wanted to make it clear who the good guys and bad guys were, so a decision was made early on to always out the good guy in a white Stetson and the bad guy in a black one. Just like in web and marketing design, the high contrast made it easy for viewers to tell the difference.
Richard Stallman, an early adopter of the Internet and promoter of free (often called Open Source) software, proposed designating hackers by the old western tropes in the early 80’s to lessen the negative impact of that term. Today, the black hat and white hat designations have been largely adopted by for several aspects of computer culture, including SRE.
For search engine elevation, black hat means practices that will get you banned by Google and other search engines for attempting, if you are caught. White hat practices are ones that are generally accepted by the search engines, often driven to take advantage, in the appropriate way, of the algorithms used to identify relevant search results.
The relatively recent ‘gray hat’ designation is applied to those SRE tactics and procedures which skirt the edge of the line. They’re not completely bad or banned, but they’re also a little too slippery to be considered white hat.
I will not be providing any gray hat practices in this article for a couple of reasons. First, my personal morality – I don’t believe just because it isn’t completely wrong, that makes it okay. Second, because with the policies and algorithms for Google and other major search engines changing almost daily, there’s no way to guarantee that what was once gray might later become black. So for both our protections, I’m just gonna leave those out. Don’t worry – there’s still plenty to talk about.
Create Consistent Content
We’re going to start with the big guns.
The best way, hands down, to get other websites to send others to your site (inbound links) is to consistently create & publish fresh, valuable, usable content.
And that content gets published in a blog.
Now I know there’s a certain perception about blogs and blogging. Of course the word is a shortened form of weblog – at one time a personal online diary. Which I admit, sounds a little weird when you’re entrepreneur or small business owner. Even if you’re accustomed to journaling.
But the fact is, over the roughly 23 years that blogging has been a thing, it has changed considerably and now represents a variety of styles, platforms and uses. The biggest change for business people and marketers happened between 2001 and 2003 when Matt Mullenweg developed the gold standard for blogging – WordPress.
So, to delineate between the various types of blogging, from here on out, I’ll refer to what you should do to maintain a content blog. That’s actually what you’re reading this on, a WordPress blog that is the heart of our Grow the Dream site. But I don’t refer to myself as a ‘blogger,’ I am a content writer or creator.
Why is a content blog important? The one constant throughout all the Google algorithm changes has been that relevant content is king. Google measures the effectiveness of your content by its relevance to searches, its consistency, reliability and how many other sites link back to it. If you maintain that, you will continue to rank high on Google and other search engines.
Ass you might imagine, I recommend you install WordPress for your content blog. I’ve been using it for close to 15 years myself. And it’s a key strategy tool here at Grow the Dream to implement a content blog for all of our clients. And it has an added secret bonus – because of how WordPress is built, sites that utilize it see an almost immediate jump in search engine elevation.
Building a Better Blog
As much as I’d like to tell you it’ll be easy to create content and get it noticed, I can’t. But as an entrepreneur or small business owner, you should have expected this. It will take some time for your content to start being noticed. But here are some tips to decrease that wait time (or improve your existing content blog efforts) and keep your site growing:
- Set a regular schedule – Google and the other search engines use bots to scour the Internet every day for changes. As the Internet continues to grow, they have more and more to cover. But one thing that will make your content stand out to the bots – and make the site more relevant to the search engines – is consistency of schedule. Publish your posts at least once a month, preferably once a week, and schedule them to hit on the same day and time every time. So if Tuesdays at Noon is your usual time, stick to it. The bots will learn that you always have new content then and will “plan” to come back each week or month to collect it.
- Segment your content – If you catch yourself writing a few monster paragraphs, like me, try and cut them up into smaller, bite-sized pieces. Use headers, lists and bullets (like these) when you can. All of this gives your posts, especially the really long ones like mine, increased readability, and therefore, linkability.
- Write at Least 300 words – no need to get overwhelmed by trying to write a book every time out. Most content posts are between 300 and 600 words. There are exceptions, but if you look around our site, you’ll see we mix it up, short posts alongside the mammoth ones I tend to write.
- Evergreen content – There’s an argument that longer blogs “live” longer in the Internet consciousness. At the same time, shorter blogs are easier to quickly read and digest. But the key, regardless of size, is Timelessness. Posts that are, and will remain, valuable can be used on social media and even re-purposed for email outreach. They also give your content the ability to be rediscovered, and thus, a second chance to be linked to when found.
- Minimize grammar & spelling mistakes – There is no reason your content can’t be completely free of spelling & grammar errors. Write it in Word ahead of time, or download the Grammarly plug in to check your work online.
- Shoot for a High Flesch-Kincaid readability score – this is a measurement you may not be aware of, but, thankfully, is built into WordPress’s Yoast plugin. At the bottom of every post, it will give you a percentage and indicate the age/education level of someone who would be expected to understand it. Somewhere in the 60’s – 70’s range is considered readable by a 6th grader, which will generally be your target. If your company, clients and content skew to the more highly educated, like engineers or scientists, you’ll be okay with a lower score. The important thing to know is, the more readable it is, the better chance you’ll have of people sharing it (This post has a Flesch score of 65).
So Where Does All That Content Come From?
I bet you’ve already guessed my answer… Pull out that strategic work!
Your first and hopefully most relevant posts should answer the questions your ideal client is asking. Knowing about your perfect customer will help you narrow your early efforts. We’ll have a full length post just on that later this year, but if you’d like to get a good head start, check out this article!
On a side note – some companies like to make sure there’s a sales pitch or at least a call to action in each post. While that can be valuable, there is also value in not doing a sales pitch. There’s even one successful pool business that gets more business by recommending its competitors. Ultimately, the choice is up to you, but do your research and remember, sometimes you have to take a chance to stand out.
What Are My Other Options?
Press Releases – If you or your company is doing something noteworthy, a well-executed press release can get you coverage. It may not be in the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, but even local coverage can get attention to your site and often when they reprint the news item on their web portal, they’ll link back to your site. You’ll also want to re-purpose the press release as a post on your content blog.
Help a Reporter Out (HARO) takes things to the next level. Build the credibility and authority of your company just by being available as a source to reporters all across the country. You simply sign up for their service and every day you’ll get a couple of emails detailing topics that reporters in various news outlets need expert sources for. Reply using the links within the email with your bona fides and for a small investment in time, you could get significant publicity that is linked back to your site. You can also refine the parameters of what topics you’ll be sent.
Interview Influencers – You probably know who the leaders are in your industry, or people that can answer key questions your clients might have in creative ways. Invite them to an interview setting where they can share their knowledge and experience. Not only will you look a little better for having spent time in their presence, they will often spread the word about the interview to their fans and followers, drawing more people to your site.
If you want to see how it works, we’ve done several of these interviews on our Grow the Dream podcast.
Everyone loves a good quote, right? So why not use them to bring eyeballs to your website?
Create Quote Graphics – It only takes a little time and effort to gather quotes from leaders in your industry, or business in general. You take these pearls of wisdom and put them on a stock image, along with your logo and website link. You can use these as small content blog posts or spread them across social media.
Top 25 Lists – it doesn’t have to be 25, or 6 to 4 – the number’s less relevant than the usefulness of the content. Since you’ve already gathered all these quotes, you can do a fun post where you list several of them out. Set it around a theme or a particular niche of your industry and you’re good to go!
You can also do the same for curated content on other sites – you provide additional value by gathering up the best articles of the week/month/year that relate to your client’s needs and publish them in a single blog post
Resource & Link Pages – you can’t be all things to all people. That’s why you have a targeted perfect customer. But you can double down on what you know and don’t have time to cover by creating a page of Resources. “The best questions to ask before hiring or contracting someone to ______.” “Books we recommend.” “If your project is too big or small for us,” (if you can’t handle the job, why not gain some goodwill with your larger competitors). You get the idea.
Providing helpful pages that give readers places to find out information and services they need will give your site more value. You can even link to some pages within your own site. Or create a page that collects all your most popular posts, or a collection of posts – like the steps you need to take to get started with ________. By curating helpful content, you build credibility.
You can also ask to be added to someone else’s resource page if you have relevant content to offer.
Guest posting – if you’re a good writer and know your material, you can always offer to be a guest blogger on someone else’s site. The Huffington Post launched their site by generating 75-80% or more of their material this way. If you can, include relevant links back to your site within the article. At the very least, you can get a link back in your bio.
Lead Magnets – as you build up relevant content on your site, you can go back and repurpose some of your older content into a single document – an ebook or pdf that customers can download. These aggregated sources of information are great for getting email addresses, building relationships and bringing visitors back to your site.
Reviews and Testimonials – Nothing helps your brand more than getting positive reviews and testimonials on sites like Yelp, Facebook and Google. Don’t just react to negative feedback and reviews; get the positives on the record now. I’ve detailed several proactive approaches here.
Ask Your Friends and Clients – while they may not be significant influencers in your professional world, every link counts. If you feel comfortable enough asking, links to your site from friends, family and clients do make a difference. Even just a share on Facebook or Twitter has impact.
For clients, you can offer an incentive like discounted or free work – in kind trades. Or, if your business is so-designed, offer an affiliate link, so whatever people come to you through them they get a credit for something. Just don’t keep pestering them if they say no.
A Word About Outbound Links
In your fervor to generate inbound links for your site and build your credibility, don’t neglect to link out to other sites where you did your research, or go more in depth on the topics you’re discussing. Google also values those links and your posts are given higher authority and relevancy as a result. Plus, you’ll be building relationships with those other sites, and they will be more likely to return the favor when one of your posts catches their fancy.
The other key is Interlinking. As you build more and more content on your site, you should refer back to it when relevant within new posts. This builds the relevancy of both posts – assuming they ARE relevant links – and bolsters your site’s profile for providing usable information.
And as you’re looking for new topics for your content blog, try and steer your way back into certain topics that you’ve already written on, and you’ll know you have links that are valuable to the reader.
You may have noticed several instances of both Outbound and Interlinking in this very post.
So I’ve given you a lot to think about, and have possibly overwhelmed you. If so, set this article aside for a couple days, then come back to it. For now, let me summarize my most central point – if you want to build and market your business online, the best way to do that is with a content blog that you update on a regular basis with information your prospective clients are looking for. If you do only that one thing, I can guarantee you’ll see your website gain search engine elevation. Higher Google ranking means more prospective customers will find you. And that’s what you came to learn.