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How to Dominate the Search Engines (SEO and Paid Media):

Fun fact: This month marks the 15th anniversary that the Oxford English Dictionary first listed “Google” as a verb. Google and other search engines have since become so important to the business world that digital marketers encounter this question from our clients all the time: “Can you get us to the top of the first search results page?”

That’s a steep request, but also a pertinent one: Search engines are the starting-point for 93% of web experiences, yet only about 25% of users venture onto the second results page. We all know that search engines are in the business of selling your data to corporations, but we allow them to commoditize us because they route us to the answers that we’re looking for. (If they didn’t, we’d jump over to their competitors.) So to dominate the search engines, keep in mind these marketing strategies that the engines reward—and the ones they penalize.

Master the Elements

If you want search engines to crawl your site, you need to become proficient in the basics of search engine optimization. Here are just a few tactics to consider:

Plan Out the User Journey

Before you delve into alt tags and meta descriptions and the rest of it, audit your digital identity to gauge how users are interacting with you. Is your bounce rate going up or down? Are you achieving the holy trinity of clicks, likes, and shares? What’s the final conversion that you’re driving your audience toward? Figuring out how your channels connect will help you plan SEO strategies that ladder up to a larger objective, rather than just improving your metrics for the sake of metrics.

Weave in keywords into your digital content, but limit yourself to about one keyword per 100–150 words—and write a few long-tail keywords that contain the entire phrase that someone might be searching for (4–6-word lines like “how to write a cover letter” along with smaller snippets like “resume” and “job application”). Remember, only weave in long-tail phrases if they feel natural. Search bots will lower your SEO score if your long-tail keywords sound like pianos dropped into the middle of sentences that were otherwise flowing along smoothly.

Incorporate Links

Search engines understand that the internet is a hyperlinked database of information and that we’re all clicking through 37 tabs at once to find the answer to our most pressing question right this second. So if you work in links that are specific, sincere, substantial, and succinct, and that connect to relevant content, search engines will consider your site to be “authoritative.” (If that term seems oddly inflated, that’s because it’s a euphemism for sites that aren’t spammy and that don’t annoy the search engines’ product—us.) Avoid linking to content that’s over a year old, and include internal links to improve the visibility of the lesser-known pages of your site.

Don’t Forget Mobile

In 2011, about 35% of Americans owned a cell phone. A decade later, that number has zoomed up to 97%. Worldwide, you’re looking at 5 billion cell phone users, and to top it off, about half of your audience is finding you through their phones. Point being, optimize for mobile. Search engines will filter you into oblivion if you don’t. Besides, a website today that’s riddled with wonky text and misspaced links when it loads on your phone just feels so … 2011.

Never Cry Wolf

Ever heard of “information scent”? That’s a UX concept that holds that internet users are clicking the links and CTAs that give off a palpable whiff of the intel that they’re looking for. But the opposite could occur, too—sites and content can emit a nasty information scent.

Let’s say you’re writing a blog about starting your own business. If your headline is “Learn How to Grow Your Bottom Line 1,000%,” people will click your link, but if you don’t supply a miracle-gro solution to boosting their revenue, you’re going to disappoint them. In the short term, you’ll drive traffic to your site. In the long term, users may call you out for the charlatan that you are, which could result in search engines downgrading you because of misleading content and sneaky redirects.

Act Local

Search engines are a quandary. On one hand, they make the global village even more united and universal. (Every day, people from Nebraska to Nairobi are all Googling, “How do I fix the printer?”) At the same time, they exert the equal and opposite force of localizing the world. People may or may not be thinking globally these days, but they do seem to be buying locally: Searches with the phrase “near me” in them have risen 150% in the last two years, and 28% of online local searches result in a purchase.

Whether you’re a Mom and Pop shop or an international conglomerate, you’re located near someone, so optimize your web presence for local SEO to make it easy for people to find you, digitally and physically. Update your Google local business listing with the pertinent details about your operation (hours, address, phone numbers), and post customer feedback—especially if it’s positive. Search engines will boost your site’s visibility if people rave about you, since you’ve demonstrated your value to their users.

Make Your Content King

To get noticed online, you need to produce something noticeable, like videos or a blog, and push it out on a regular basis, which demonstrates that what you’re saying is timely and current. If people like watching or reading your work enough to linger on your site, search engines will reward you for having a low bounce rate, since that metric tells them that your site is (you guessed it) valuable to their users.

We’ve talked about linking out from your site, but the real goal is to have authoritative sites link to you. Imagine writing a blog about how to harness fusion and National Geographic gives you a shout-out on social media. Search engines will propel your site up their rankings. But you don’t have to solve one of science’s biggest challenges to craft an organic media plan. If you’re an ecommerce entrepreneur, write an article about your market niche on Forbes that links to your site. Upload your videos to YouTube and your music to Spotify. Even guest blogging on less-established domains can drum up the SEO credit that search engines recognize and respect.

Pay to Play

Blogs, videos, backlink hierarchies, designing for mobile—these are all SEO strategies, sometimes termed “owned media” because they appear on channels that companies or users control. (Or that Big Tech lets you think you control.) The other approach you could take is paid media, where you outright pay search engines to rank you higher. One benefit of paid media is that it’s precise: Spend enough, and you can plop your content in front of your target audience, your competition’s target audience, people who are midway down your funnel, and so on.

The main caveat with paid media is that it can feel, well, like you paid for it. Is it really a surprise when Nike serves you an ad about how great Nike is? But when consumers praise Nike on Google Reviews—doesn’t that feel more credible, like humans are recommending a product to each other? Praise like that is called “earned media,” and brands sometimes pay to put that media in front of audiences that their paid media was intended for. Don’t be afraid to pay for ads, just be sure to interweave them with owned and earned media, and keep in mind the old adage about how money can’t buy you likes.

Be Useful to Users

The seven major search engines today are Google, Bing, Baidu, Yahoo!, Yandex, Ask.com, and DuckDuckGo. But let’s not kid ourselves—“Google” has entered the lexicon in a way that “Bing” has not for a reason: Google commands over 70% of the search engine market and 85% of mobile traffic. Google now handles (give or take) two trillion searches each year. Web optimization trends die every season because Google’s webmaster guidelines change all the time, so you’re better served studying their algorithm rather than trying to trick it. Better yet—study what your audience wants. Explain something that users might not know (how to tie a tie, how to interpret case law, how to dominate the search engines) and Google and its brethren are more likely to route them your way rather than to your clickbaity competitors.

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