Seven White Hat SEO Strategies for Beginners
White hat SEO refers to website optimization strategies performed in accordance with the best practices proffered by that largest search engines – Google, Bing, and Yahoo. Moreover, white hat SEO strategies are those done in accordance with ethical standards. There are many ways to try to fool search engines into thinking that a website should be ranked higher than it is. These are known as black hat SEO strategies. However, white hat SEO is about providing search engines with a clear and accurate picture of what a website is about, and working to improve visibility in search results by increasing a website’s popularity, relevance, and usefulness.
The core underlying principle of white hat strategy is to design a website for maximum user usability – in other words, almost as if SEO did not exist. In addition to burnishing a firm’s reputation for ethical behavior, many of the most influential SEO experts find that the use of white hat SEO strategies provide the best ROI.
So what are the most effective white hat strategies? After all, there are many. However, it should be noted that while SEO strategies, tactics, and conventions change as search evolves, some fundamental white hat principles have remained the same since inception. In this article, we will cover those white hat SEO strategies that have proven the most effective over time, including 1) content strategy; 2) content marketing; 3) proper keyword and metadata usage; 4) ease of navigation; 5) optimal site performance; 6) having a high-quality link-building strategy; and 7) social media marketing; as well as briefly touch on 8) other white hat SEO strategies.
1. CONTENT STRATEGY
Search engine crawlers use site content to index and rank pages. They assess quantity, and relevance of links, freshness of content, metadata, and a number of other factors. One of the best ways to ensure that website content is being indexed properly is to develop content aligned closely with the organizational marketing strategy, which incorporates keywords and phrases. These are common search terms used by consumers to find the firm’s brand and/or products/services, as well as those of their competitors. SEO professionals and SEO copywriters should not prioritize keyword density over readability and relevancy for the user. However, copywriters will more naturally incorporate keywords and phrases when copy is developed in furtherance of a marketing goal, such as building brand awareness or selling products.
To ensure fresh content, SEO professionals should work with copywriters and other marketing professionals to develop a content roadmap – a plan for content development including a publication schedule. This not only affords the firm the ability to align their content with overall brand messaging across media channels, but also harnesses seasonal trends. For example, a firm that outlines its content at the beginning of the year can ensure the development of holiday content, anniversary-related content, and other topics likely to trend and/or be of interest to users.
A content roadmap also allows firms to prepare content beforehand, test it on small groups of users, and use web-editing tools to schedule it to go live before its planned scheduling date. In addition to avoiding operational headaches due to last minute content development, firms can increase the effectiveness and stickiness – the level to which a site’s content keeps users on the page of the content they publish. Stickiness, as measured by time on site, bounce rate, and other metrics, can help a firm’s improve a firm’s SEO significantly.
2. CONTENT MARKETING
The number one driver of high search visibility is not only consistently publishing, but also distributing high-quality content that drives traffic. SEO professionals must not only optimize content for their website, but for distribution as well. Further, they must development a distribution strategy to optimize their SEO. There are multiple methods a firm may use to distribute its content, including (but not limited to) its own corporate blog; guest blog posts; branded social media networks, third-party social networks; and press releases.
One goal that should be a part of any comprehensive SEO plan (and indeed any marketing/PR plan) is ensuring that content is distributed buy users themselves. This not only heightens brand awareness, but also spreads branded keywords, and, in some cases, backlinks, which improves SEO. Content shared and endorsed through social media networks, in particular, have a significant impact on SEO, especially when you consider SEO optimization through social search engines, not just through Google, Bing, and Yahoo.
To develop sharable content, one should consider virality, brevity, rich features, such as animation, audio, or video, and, of course, relevance. Content residing on a website should have social share buttons, and include calls-to-action in the text itself to share the information, preferably in a unique and creative way.
Moving one step beyond simple content distribution is using distributed content to drive traffic back to a firm’s website or landing page. This is the essence of inbound marketing – a key component of content marketing specifically focusing on customer acquisition. A firm’s inbound marketing should inform the types of content developed, the publication schedule of said content, and the content itself to achieve marketing and sales goals. In relation to SEO, a well-executed inbound marketing strategy can increase the number of indexable webpages, the time visitors spend on the site, the quantity of backlinks, and both the branded and non-branded keyword density, all of which can significantly improve SEO.
Common examples of text-based inbound marketing include whitepapers, industry reports, and email marketing copy. Visual content enjoys much higher rates of engagement than does text-based content. Photos and videos should be incorporated liberally into inbound marketing creative materials. Infographics shared with third-party sites, with backlinks to a firm’s website, are one example of visual content that can drive traffic back to a firm’s website, and help improve SEO.
3. PROPER KEYWORD, TITLE, AND METATAG USAGE
Metadata refers to information contained in HTML code that provides crawlers with information about the site for indexing and classification purposes. Often neglected or used for black hat SEO purposes like meta-keyword stuffing, proper use of metadata, can improve SEO. SEO professionals should ensure that the keywords and phrases garnered through keyword research are incorporated in the metadata.
However, it is important not to overestimate the impact of this technique. Essentially, the SEO professional/webmaster, is telling the crawler what the website is about. The search engine must verify that through other measures, such as keyword density and links. Because this measure is open to abuse (and abused often), it is not a dominant factor in determining search engine rankings. However, failure to use them properly, either inadvertently or deliberately can have a dramatic negative impact on SEO.
If a firm’s website lacks meta descriptions, search engines will randomly select content from the website to appear in search results. This may or may not accurately reflect the website’s purpose and/or content. Overuse of keywords/phrases in metadata can result search engines punitively decreasing a website’s search visibility. Sites are allowed a maximum of 10 keywords in metadata.
4. EASE OF NAVIGATION
As mentioned previously, search engines assess the usefulness of a site, and consider ease of navigation a key component. Not only is it important to users, it is important to the crawlers which ultimately index the sites. Web developers and SEO professionals should ensure that highly useful and heavily trafficked content is easy to access. One good rule of thumb is that no information should be more than three clicks away.
Web developers should avoid irrelevant links, use universally recognizable links, and provide a structure that is clear for users. Web developers should test their website’s navigations with users both internal and external to their organization periodically, and especially when new site features are planned.
Poor navigation can decrease visitor time on site and increase its bounce rate – the proportion of users who enter a site and immediately leave without visiting a second page, as well as harm a firm’s link building and/or PR strategy. Moreover, poor navigation can lead crawlers to prioritize non-essential websites in search rankings.
One tool that can be used to improve a website’s indexability is an XML sitemap – a file of XML code that indicate the links that make up the website. XML sitemaps provide crawlers with maps of recommended links to crawler and index.
5. SITE PERFORMANCE
Another measure search engines consider is site and page performance. Obviously, if a site or its pages, are unavailable, the search engine’s crawlers cannot index them. As competing SEO professionals are continuously working to improve the search visibility of their respective sites, a month, a week, or even a day of non-performing pages can have a dramatic negative effect on a firm’s SEO. Just like poor navigation, non-performing pages can decrease site traffic, increase its bounce rate, generate negative PR, and harm an organization’s ability to execute a solid link building strategy.
Site speed is another consideration. In addition to user impact, Google has indicated that sites with long loading times would be penalized. While it is unknown to what extent this factor directly influences overall search results, it is in keeping with Google’s efforts to encourage web developers to create websites that maximize usability for visitors.
6. HIGH-QUALITY LINK BUILDING
In the early days of SEO, conventional wisdom held that it was best to obtain incoming links from as many websites – regardless of what those websites were, as possible. Today, SEO professionals know that the relevance and popularity of the websites that house incoming links are just as, if not more, important than the quantity of incoming links.
Search engines routinely asses backlinks for their relevance to the site in question, and will either discount or penalize websites containing irrelevant backlinks. For example, a website about farming in Wisconsin containing a number of links from Eastern European websites about technology will draw a red flag. This is an indication that the firm and/or SEO professional has paid for links to boost SEO; moreover, visits from these sites are likely to be low and/or have a high bounce rate. Paid search links are known as unnatural links – defined by Google as:
“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.”
While use of paid links will not automatically trigger punitive action, they will be assessed thoroughly within the context of Google’s (and another search engine) ranking criteria. Many firms are able to improve SEO through a mix of paid and earned links, all from relevant referring sites. The best way to use link-building to improve SEO is to focus on natural or organic links – those naturally developed backlinks.
If firms do purchase links, they should do so from high-quality sites that are relevant to their content and/or audience. Moreover, they should seek PR opportunities that provide them with backlink opportunities. These include, but are not limited to news coverage on news sites, press releases, blog coverage, coverage in online trade publications, and guest blogging opportunities. A link from a well traffic news media site can improve SEO dramatically, and perhaps, just as importantly, sustainably.
7. SOCIAL MEDIA MARKETING
Social media presence plays a role in search visibility. While there are mixed opinions about the direct impact of social on overall SEO, social media marketing can lead to improved SEO in a number of ways:
- When users are enamored of a firm’s content, they may share it with friend, increasing distribution. If it is of considerable interest or goes viral, it may be covered by a reporter.
- Google personalizes search results for Google+ users. Content that has been +1’ed (Liked) by other Google+ users will have higher visibility in search results for Google+ users. Bing personalizes results with Facebook activity.
- Social media marketing increases overall brand awareness, which in turn increases the number of users searching for a firm’s site and can increase traffic. Popularity and traffic, of course, are measures considered by search engines when ranking sites.
- Co-citation – a brand mention without a link, can improve SEO. Google sees it as a brand signal, a natural (non-manipulated) indicator of popularity; thus, co-citation, increase rank.
- Social media profiles in search engine results can increase overall search visibility. Many firms, with a number of active, branded social media channels, sees these results appear either immediately following or within a few results of, their website listing on search result pages.
- Further, as previously mentioned, social search engines should be included in any SEO plan. In some cases, social engines outstrip the traditional triumvirate of Google, Yahoo and Bing. YouTube, for example, surpassed Yahoo as the second largest search engine in 2008, and as of 2013, handles 3 billion search inquiries per month. That means optimizing social profiles will enhance their visibility in social search engine results. This can be accomplished through completed profiles, consistently engaging content updates, and opportunities for two-way engagement. Content should contain rich media elements, such as photo and video. SEO professionals should also ensure that social media marketers are not simply pushing marketing messages, but fostering engagement opportunities by soliciting feedback and providing users chances to create content.
- Depending on who you ask, social links may or may not improve SEO. If they, in fact do not directly factor into a particular search engine’s algorithm, that does not mean they should be discounted. Traffic assists in brand awareness and overall search volume.
8. OTHER STRATEGIES
Other white hat strategies include both offline and online paid advertising can increase overall brand awareness and news coverage, which can translate to online visibility. Testing is an often neglecting component of white hat strategy that can optimize not only content, but site performance, advertising, and PR efforts, also leading to increased overall offline and online visibility.