I recently visited with Internationally recognized SEO expert and best-selling author, Stephan Spencer. Spencer wrote Google Power Search, and co-authored Social eCommerce and The Art of SEO. The Art of SEO, now in it’s 3rd edition and weighing in at nearly 1,000 pages is considered the bible of Search Engine Optimization. The book has received high praise from the likes of Seth Godin, Tony Hsieh, and Danny Sullivan, and is even used as a textbook at universities.
I had a lot of questions about the difference between on-page and off-page SEO in today’s search engine algorithms and traffic, so I was super interested in speaking to Spencer, a true industry giant, for some better understanding and clarification.
We kicked off our conversation with Spencer giving listeners some basic definitions:
On-page SEO-What goes in the on-page bucket is anything that would be on the page, in the HTML code, on the render page- anything that affects the page in question.
Off-page SEO- includes things from other pages of the website or other sites altogether.
These are signals that Google pays attention to, that aren’t directly on the web, like domain WhoIs records, or a kind of historical rap sheet kept on you. Spencer reminded listeners that there are way more off-page signals to think about, and they are becoming way more elusive for the marketer to figure out and master. He says that for one thing, as we become more driven by artificial intelligence, it will become more difficult to even know what the off-page factors are. As AI becomes a bigger part of the Google algorithm, he expects that we are going to have a really difficult time understanding what the signals are. RankBrain, the machine-learning artificial intelligence system that’s being used to help process search results, accounts for 15% of all searches, according to Google engineers. Spencer added that this will likely ramp up over time. He also warned that it’s going to get dicey to master SEO for those not on the top of their game.
Before we moved back into discussing on-page SEO in more depth, I asked Spencer to give listeners some examples of off-page signals.
He said that there are a lot of link related signals, and gave just a few examples, noting that not all links are created equal.
Quality links and votes. If someone links to you, that’s considered a vote- but he added a link from CNN is worth more than one from Jim Bob’s homepage. Quality links, Spencer said, are ideally relevant to your industry, important (as far as Google is concerned), authoritative, and trusted.
Link placement matters. Links at the footer of the page aren’t as valuable as links in the body of the page. A site-wide link isn’t as valuable as a link that’s just on the homepage, because with the latter, it will appear to visitors that there is a commercial relationship going on between your company and the linking website.
Anchor text is important. “Click here” isn’t a great choice, as many of you might have suspected! In fact, Spencer noted that keyword links should be natural, and cautioned listeners against using keyword links that look artificial, because they will be penalized. Keyword links should be words that apply to your industry or product, but not over the top and vague. His example was using the anchor text with keyword stuffed links like “used car San Diego” when your business is actually “Mr. Joe’s Car Lot.”
Spencer went on to talk about what should be near the link. Placement of other good, valuable, keyword rich content is helpful. Spam links by your links are harmful, like Viagra, or Pay Day Loan-type links.
Related to domains, Spencer touched on the difference between when a domain is registered and when the site becomes active. Even if you’ve sat on a domain for ten years, used it as a parking page, etc, the clock doesn’t start until the web page starts. Spencer says that number of years that you’ve paid for your registration makes you look serious, as well as registering and paying for years in advance. He mentioned WayBack Machine and Archive.org as two sites used to verify the age of a page. There are plenty of other signals to make you look serious, too, Spencer said.
I wanted to ask Spencer a question about a recent conversation I had with an SEO company looking to place a value on a high quality link back- somewhere like CNN, Forbes, etc. I asked if a value could even be put on those kinds of links.
Spencer said that the way you could determine a value (and he emphasized that it could not be a monetary value) would be an approximation.
He reminded us that we really have no insight into the real page rank algorithm, as it’s all inside the Googleplex. Spencer says that we can use tools like Open Site Explorer from Moz, MozTrust, and Majestic.com’s Citation Flow and Trust Flow to approximate page rank, and look for corroborating evidence. These are all tools that can be used to look for a trend, or a data point that’s real.
Going back to my question, I asked if it would be at all possible to put a monetary value on a link back from a super high value site. Without hesitation, Spencer said absolutely not, and gave a great reason- once you look at an individual link, even though the score might check out, there are also sketchy links will invalidate the good links.
Finding the Right Match
This brought up concerns many companies have with not knowing who to trust, and another question I hear often- how can businesses find a reputable SEO company? Spence recommended checking out two of the free guides and available on his website. The first is the SEO Hiring Blueprint the second is the SEO BS Detector. Spencer gave a great suggestion from the BS Detector, and recommended introducing trick questions in the SEO interview process. For instance, ask a firm or candidate, “What strategies do you suggest for optimizing meta keywords?” Spencer said the only acceptable answer would be “Meta Keywords, are you serious?” Anything else would really be a bogus answer, he told listeners, because meta keywords never counted in Google.
I thanked Spencer for saving our listeners a ton of grief, time, and money, and he also advised listeners that they have access to other white papers on his website, and hundreds of different articles he’s written for websites like Search Engine Land, Multichannel Merchant, and Huffington Post, as well as downloadable PDFs, podcasts, webinars, YouTube videos, and more. Spencer also hosts two podcast shows, MarketingSpeak and TheOptimizedGeek. I’ve listened to a couple of The Optimized Geek shows, and found them to be especially interesting because they’re about self-development and personal transformation.
At this point in our conversation, we circled back to the basics- what can businesses do right away?
Taking Action with Title Tags
Spencer said that one of the most important things to look at on-page is the title tag, as it’s the most important signal in terms of on-page signals. He shared that a great way to see how your company is doing when it comes to title tags is to simply type in the following: site:yourdomain.com and you’ll see up to 700-ish search results. Using those results, you should be able to see if you have good keyword phrases- if they are compelling or useless. He stated that phrases like “welcome to our site” or “untitled document” are lousy, and added that chances are, most sites probably don’t have great, compelling title tags. He recommended starting from the top of the site tree to improve these title tags and go as far down on your site as you can with the time you have available and added that this will have a great return on investment. If you’re using a Word Press based website, Spencer recommended trying a mass edit interface, the plugin he created about five years ago is SEO Title Tag. Yoast SEO plugin basically copied the same functionality, if you’re already using Yoast.
Spencer suggested going through all pages, posts, etc to find descriptions, and remember that meta descriptions don’t influence search rankings, so treat that as a second order activity. Focus first on changes that will move the needle, Spencer said.
Using my company as an example, Spencer typed in site:magnificent.com to see how we were doing when it comes to title tags. The first result he noticed was “Directory Listings.” Spencer thought this was just ok- he wouldn’t have been compelled to click.
Another result that he thought had room for improvement was “Your Team.” He suggested something along the lines of “Your Marketing Specialists Team” instead.
I noticed an inconsistency and brought it to Spencer’s attention.
In our case, Google was overriding our title tag- according to Spencer, is something that’s happening more and more these days. If Google is basically hijacking your title, try making it more value added, less keyword stuffed. It’s hard to know why exactly Google is doing this, but Spencer says that you don’t want to just accept it.
I asked Spencer for a basic checklist that listeners can begin with.
Begin with Title Tags
He said to begin with the title tags, as we had just discussed, and he suggested doing some keyword research using adwords. He added that you just have to sign up to use the tool, but emphasized that you don’t have to pay unless you start a campaign.
Identify a Keyword and Incorporate it
Once you’ve identified a keyword theme that’s highly relevant, Spencer says to incorporate it into your site. You’re not going to keyword stuff, you’re only going to use in the appropriate pages, pick a page that’s highly relevant, include it in the body copy, etc. It’s important to grasp the concept of keyword prominence. This is different than keyword density, or the number of occurrences of keywords. Prominence is about placement- for instance; placing the phrase on the top is worth more than the bottom of a 3,000 word page. Spencer said that you’d want to ask yourself if you’re putting your best foot forward with a page, in terms of what you’re trying to present with keyword focus.
Use a Structured Data Markup
Then, by his own admission, Spencer got a little geeky! He said that you have to think about what is happening behind the scenes, with HTML, using a Schema.org markup, also known as a Microdata markup, making sure that if you have a video embedded, you’re using a Schema.org video object, a Facebook Share format, or RDFa. Depending on what kind of page you have, Spencer said that you will want rich snippets to appear in the search results, and gave a few examples: If you rely on customer reviews, you want a star rating and the number of reviews. If you have stock availability on your page (in stock/out of stock) you’ll want that to appear. If you have pricing on your page, you’ll want that to show up. It a product is $32, you want that to show up in your listing. Spencer recommended using a tool called the Google Structure Data to know if this is happening for you.
Make Sure Your Error Pages Work
Other Configuration stuff you’ll want to look out for is if there a meta robots tag, or a no index directive that causes the page not to show up in the search results, or anything blocking the page being spidered by Google, and that your error pages are working correctly, returning a 404 status code. You can use a server header checker to confirm this, and Spencer said that there are plenty available online at no charge.
To use one, you’ll type in a page that doesn’t exist, in our case, Spencer used the example of www.Magnificent.com/afdafd You want a 404 status code returned, it’s not enough just to see “Oops, nothing here” it has to be a 404 status code returned.
I asked about the confusion in today’s marketplace around linkbacks. At the end of the day, dwell time, social signals, etc. I get emails daily from SEOs talking about linkbacks and I asked Spencer to tell us how important they are in today’s market and to tell us what a good SEO company should really be doing for you.
He said that it’s not about a certain number of links. However, he prefaced the rest of his response by saying that links are still the most important signal in the Google algorithm. Spencer said that if you think about this as a commodity situation, you’re getting it all wrong. According to Google engineers, the three most important signals are
There are hundreds of other signals, but these are the top three- links being at the top of the list. It’s about being remarkable with your content getting the attention of influencers, or the linkerati, in other words. Ask who will link to you from their blogs or sites, and that’s where you get all the juice.
I asked Spencer how one would go about being remarkable. He said that it requires thinking differently about your industry. He suggests thinking outside the box- even if what you’re selling is boring. Maybe you sell plumbing supplies, what if you posted “Top 50 craziest urinals from around the world?” You would start by finding images from Flickr Creative Commons, and create a post that has viral appeal. Up your game by using info-graphics created with a tool like Pictotool, or personality tests, quizzes, checklists, and videos. Spencer added that you should pay close attention to your headline, and make it killer. He reminded listeners that they would be looking for the links here, not the social signals. Links are the end game.
Another awesome idea Spencer shared was a concept around hand gestures and what they mean all over the world. While an info-graphic would be a great start, he took it to the next step, by suggesting the creation of a compilation video of people you could find on Fiverr.com, giving the “thumb’s up” gesture across the world! Give it viral appeal by adding narration, animation, and repackaging it in different formats. Even if it’s tangentially related, that’s ok, he said- this is aimed at the linkerati, not your customers.
This is why content marketing is becoming a bigger factor for small and large companies. I’ve always said that before you invite guests over, you have to get your house in order- and that’s what on-page is about. It’s less about building links, but creating compelling content-that seems to be the winning formula.
Spencer agreed and added that listeners may be questioning how they would even get content out, assuming that they have a small number of followers, or subscribers. The solution, he said, are power users. He talks more about using power users in a recent article he wrote for Search Engine Land called Social Media Underground that instructed readers on how to get power users in your hip pocket, so they can help push out your remarkable content in to social media channels.
Spencer suggests networking with influencers- if you podcast, go to podcast conferences, make friends, add value, then ask for favors! Go to meet-ups where influencers hang out, and try using a tool that allows you to outreach to high clout influencers- like pitchbox.com.
Q & A With Stephan Spencer
Q: Do you think bolding your keywords gives your page an SEO boost?
A: No! This is absolutely false. You can check out 72 other debunked myths for free on my website by reading These SEO Myths Must Die.
Q: Are visits alone a ranking factor?
A: No, if you think about it, Google is not hacking your Google Analytics or using that data. They aren’t watching user behavior once the user is on your site. What they do see is the click through from the search results, to your site. So, if someone comes back to the search results page and visits another site after clicking on yours, that’s an indication that you didn’t answer the visitor’s question. However, if you’re actually just answering the question quickly, Google will figure that out, too.
Time on site, bounce rate, etc- many are not actionable and not useful. I recently interviewed Jarrod Spool on Marketing Speak. We had a whole discussion on these types of metrics and how so many of them are just bunk. You want to focus on the metrics that matter- user delight, user frustration, not the default metrics you get from Google Analytics- they will not move the needle for your business.
Q: Do domain extensions mean anything?
A: What matters is the link neighborhood you’re in. .edu or .gov are in a more trusted neighborhood. If you’re buying a domain, get a .com. There is an unspoken question of a site’s legitimacy when we see a .net, .biz, etc. You can also find domains at an after-market research firm. All the good domains are taken, but you can get a great after-market deal.
In closing, I thanked Spencer for creating an incredibly content rich, educational and valuable podcast, and encouraged people to visit his website to keep learning from this guy. He truly is one of the very, very best in the business.
Stephan founded Netconcepts in 1995 and grew it into a multi-national SEO agency before selling it in 2010 to paid and organic search software/services agency Covario, which was in turn acquired in 2014 by ad agency conglomerate Dentsu Aegis. Stephan invented a pay-for-performance SEO technology called GravityStream that was also acquired and is now part of Rio SEO. After completing his earn-out in 2010, Stephan continued in the online marketing, ecommerce, and SEO space as a highly sought-after SEO and digital strategy consultant. His clients post-acquisition have included Zappos, Sony Store, Quiksilver, Best Buy Canada, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Chanel, to name a few.
Stephan has spoken at countless hundreds of Internet marketing events, including all the major search & e-commerce conferences (SES, SMX, PubCon, Internet Retailer, Shop.org, eTail, etc.). He’s been a contributor to the Huffington Post, Multichannel Merchant, Practical Ecommerce, Search Engine Land, DM News and MarketingProfs, among others.
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