Author: Cory Hedgepeth, Sr. Digital Marketing Strategist, Direct Online Marketing (IEE Member)
Businesses grasp the slew of fundamental reasons to improve their Search Engine Optimization (SEO) rankings. Poor SEO rankings mean less sales and leads. They also depreciate a brand’s influence. Knowing how to properly implement SEO into your brand will create more exposure and accessibility for you website compared to other competitors.
Businesses empower their brand when they show up at the top of search engine results pages. Executives understand that impactful search rankings hinge on dedication and hard work. Therefore, advancing SEO efforts, whether internally or through an agency, is imperative to a business strategy in 2019.
Yet, many executives struggle to implement any sort of strategy at all. This relates less to lethargy and more to confusion. For executives tasked with developing brand marketing, SEO remains an elephant in the room
Purveyors of scam SEO is a large reason for the industry’s black sheep status. Dishonest SEO companies and consultants parade as business saviors, but operate as fraudsters. In fact, Australia is considering new bills that directly target scammy SEO consultants.
Executives want to avoid the carnage of Google penalties and fleeced marketing budgets that are an inherent risk with hiring consultants. But such reservations lead businesses to table SEO agendas for long periods of time. Each day, the business loses more search results page real estate to competition.
So how do executives conquer their fears of SEO consultants and agencies?
As a starting point, they should understand the basics of SEO. This will help in the SEO agency selection process. The more you know, the less likely it will be that you’ll be scammed.
In this article, I will unveil a number of SEO basics and relate them to the agency selection process.
Site Speed – The Speedy Facts
Your website performance serves as a critical determiner in your brand’s success. If your website responds slowly, you lose people. Web surfers today require immediate response times when searching for solutions – if users cannot find what they are searching for, they will move elsewhere to find what they need.
Forget about website speed as it relates to web surfer impatience for a moment. Does anyone like to wait for anything?
For example, if you run a pizza shop, your customers will expect some wait times. That’s par for the course in the food industry. But how long is too long? If you manage a pizza shop, you certainly know that two hour waits are too long. You understand how long competitive restaurants respond to new orders. This is built into your marketing.
Half of all web users expect a webpage to load within just a couple of seconds. A case study from Radware found that 51 percent of online shoppers say they abandon purchases when a site is too slow. That’s lost sales.
But many website owners don’t consider site speed to be critical, or they fail to consider how customers may be accessing their webpages. You may visit your website using the business-class internet access in your office and think it loads up reasonably well, but what if your customers are accessing your website from their mobile device on a city bus? What might their experience be like?
Web surfer expectations are a result of what they experience. If they typically use sites that load fast, and yours doesn’t, it’s sayonara.
Google search factors in site speed when it ranks websites. In full transparency, many SEO consultants put too much weight on site speed. While sites do rank lower due to poor site speed, it seems to be only the slowest tier of sites that incur penalty. But there’s more to that story, also.
When your site is slow, less people view the content. So Google considering your site speed might be less relevant than web surfers considering your site speed.
If you hold the number one search ranking for “teapots,” but half of the people who click your results link back out because your page loads too slow, Google will note the increased bounce rates. When this happens, Google search will determine that your result is not relevant or the appropriate result for the query.
Worse more, you lose a person who otherwise was about to be exposed to your brand. Maybe they’d have filled out a lead capture form, shared your content, or made a purchase that began a repeat customer relationship?
So what factors influence site speed?
Hosting Matters – But Don’t Get Gamed
Some agencies push hosting solutions that they make money from. If an SEO consultant tells you your site is too slow and pushes you to move hosting immediately, that’s a red flag.
There is no question that hosting influences site speed. Often, the culprit of slow site speed is WordPress, not the host.
So I suggest starting with a full WordPress site speed audit. Check out Sparring Mind’s 15 Easy Ways To Speed Up WordPress article. I suggest disregarding their first suggestion, which involves your host. Read #2 to #15 first and see if you can make a difference.
Before you begin, test your site speed on both GTMetrix and Google’s PageSpeed Insights. After you follow the 15 steps, retest your site and see if you moved the needle.
If you begin to suspect that the host is your site’s drag point, but you don’t want to move host, try the free version of Cloudflare. Cloudflare is a CDN that takes over your site’s DNS and keeps a fresh, downloaded copy on its servers. This means that your host will affect your site speed a little less.
Pay Attention To Mobile Site Speed
I cannot count the times I’ve seen a site load super-fast on desktop, but fail to load fast (or at all) on mobile device.
Mobile load times are priority for Google. This is because more and more people are surfing the web on mobile devices.
Both GTMetrix and Google PageSpeed Insights display mobile speed numbers for your website. Pay attention to them, but rely on common sense. Make sure to view your site on your mobile device. Have friends view your site on their mobile devices. Getting feedback from other users makes for more knowledge on what to further improve on.
Action Item: Get Faster Before You Interview Agencies
Before you open discussions with an SEO agency or consultant, know your site speed. Use your own experience by surfing your site on various mobile devices and in different browsers.
Design – More Isn’t Always Better
“Isn’t It Pretty To Think So?” – The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Design is certainly pretty to think about. But it can also turn pretty ugly, also.
Agencies that push businesses into design makeovers might be acting disingenuously.
Design is an influencer in SEO, but the bigger influencer is on-page SEO. Most of the time, the current design doesn’t interrupt the deployment of on-page SEO. When design does disrupt, the SEO consultant usually can tweak things to remove the obstacle.
Rarely, if ever, is a big design makeover needed.
When Design Hurts SEO
In cases where design interferes with SEO efforts, the culprit is typically heavy templates and rogue plugins. Some WordPress templates pull information for too many plugins, each jostling for bandwidth and slowing your website pages’ loading times. A lot of the time, the actions the plugin is creating is not necessary or properly utilized by your content. The agency or consultant’s position should be to diagnose and inform of these issues and find the most efficient remedy to increase your search rankings.
The main takeaway is that some SEO consultants try to make money from design overhauls. They may say “you can’t rank for any keywords unless we completely redesign the site.” But that’s not the full story. Yes, design matters, but an SEO agency most certainly can improve a site’s rankings despite a poor design.
Communications – Can You Hear Me Now?
People rely on sophisticated communications to achieve almost anything in life. If communication your marriage is poor, expect a turbulent ride.
When interviewing agencies, a focal point should be on communication. The agency should proactively discuss their communications expectations. For example, the agency may say “we find the best client results happen with those we speak with weekly.”
If an agency doesn’t want to speak on a regular basis, it is because they don’t want their feet held to the fire. They aren’t results-driven. When you don’t produce results, you avoid communications for fear of being outed.
Web Accessibility and SEO
I know this exercise will feel counter intuitive, but stay with me.
Close your eyes. Now surf the web. Check out Twitter. Find the top stories on Google News.
You can’t. This is because your eyes are closed. You can’t see.
The outcome was decided before I asked you to close your eyes. You knew you wouldn’t be able to read tweets. But even though you know this, how often do you consider web accessibility for those who are visually impaired?
Furthermore, I bet you never consider web accessibility and SEO’s relationship. Just because your agency optimizes your site for SEO, doesn’t mean that web accessibility was taken into account. It almost always isn’t.
SEO and web accessibility relate to video captions, title tags, header tags, link anchor text, sitemaps, and image alt text.
I recommend reading the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
Let’s look at an example of SEO and web accessibility using title tags:
What if you run a fishing site? The fishing site has a page that teaches people how to make a fly fishing bait. Great stuff, right? If you fly fish, you understand the expensive burden that is buying bait.
That banner image is to the point if you can see it. But what if you can’t?
A visual impairment screen reader will rely on elements of proper SEO to convey the content. Two primary ways it achieves this is by using the page’s title tags and the image alt text.
Let me provide an example of this is practice. What if the page’s title tags are:
Fly Fishing | Fly Fishing Bait | Ultimate Guide
and the image alt text is:
Fly fishing bait Yellowstone make bait fishing guide apparel
If a screen reader read that aloud, how confused would you be? Probably very confused.
But what if we updated the title tag to:
How To Make Your Own Fly Fishing Bait
and the image alt text to:
Fly Fishing Bait Is Easy To Make When You Know These Five Things
The clearly stated action items draw the listener in because they convey what the article is about.
Many agencies fail to consider web accessibility and SEO. Opting for spamming titles and tags and descriptions not only worsens web accessible environments, but they degrade site experience. Use title tags that best suit the reader and what they are searching for.
Most businesses rely on their brand’s site to rank for profitable keywords. But many executives don’t have a good understanding of SEO and may have been burned by rogue agencies in the past. By understanding the various factors involved in search engine rankings and being able to diagnose the symptoms of poor SEO, executives can begin to address the actions that will help maximize their sites, lead to more exposure and brand success, and set up a more efficient and productive SEO agency relationship.
About Direct Online Marketing
Direct Online Marketing (DOM) is a top 200 Premier Google Partner and digital marketing agency. Since 2006, DOM has helped clients on every populated continent grow their businesses and sell into over 150 countries around the world. DOM has locations in Pittsburgh and Wheeling, WV.