On-site vs. Off-site SEO Optimization
When designing a search engine optimization strategy, it is natural to wonder whether the primary focus should be on on-site or off-site SEO factors, or some combination of the two. Moreover, it is important to understand how white hat and black hat SEO strategies fit into the context of determining the proper mix of on-site and off-site factors.
In this article, we will cover: 1) a comparison of on-site and off-site SEO; 2) key on-site strategies; 3) key off-site strategies; 4) black hat strategies, both –on-site and off-site; and 5) determining the right mix of on-site and off-site strategies.
ON-SITE VS. OFF-SITE SEO: A COMPARISON
To understand how to evaluate the use of on-site or off-site SEO strategies, it is important to understand what is meant by both terms. On-site SEO strategies generally refer to strategies that are implemented within the web programming language, and appear on the website itself. These can include strategies to aid search engines in indexing and ranking the website in question, as well as encourage visits, especially repeat visits. Some common examples of on-site strategies include frequently publishing sticky content, properly using metadata, and ensuring site navigation is simple for humans and search engine crawlers.
Off-site SEO strategies are all those SEO strategies that are implemented off-site, such as those which incorporate third-party websites. Many off-site SEO strategies involve driving traffic to the website; however, some involve enhancing a website’s overall visibility in search results, while others involve enhancing its index-ability by search engine crawlers. Common examples of off-site strategies include backlinking and email marketing. It is important to note that all off-site SEO strategies are not necessarily performed online. Some of the most effective SEO strategies include traditional media.
Both on-site and off-site strategies can be tremendously effective in enhancing search visibility. In a business context, often, the planning and execution of off-site SEO strategies require the assistance of departments external to that of the SEO professional. Because the SEO professional, or web developer in charge of SEO, can control on-page factors, the pursuit of certain off-site strategies is neglected, stymied, or poorly implemented. For example, properly designing an email campaign is the domain of a digital marketing department, which may or may not include an SEO professional. Failure to incorporate staff with expertise in email marketing may result in either avoidance of that tactic or poorly designed email blasts, either of which may harm overall search efforts.
However, the most successful SEO plans implement a combination of on-site and off-site strategies, and require the buy-in and support of multiple departments. Before evaluating different on-site and off-site SEO strategies, it is critical to understand the difference between white hat and black hat SEO strategies. White hat strategies refer to those strategies carried out in accordance with SEO best practices as defined by the search engines themselves. They involve developing a website and attendant content in a manner to maximize utility for the end-user, rather than the search engine crawler itself. In other words, SEO professionals should develop websites that people love and to which they keep coming back; and the high search visibility will follow.
White hat SEO also involves eschewing strategies designed to fool a search engine into thinking that a website is more popular, relevant, or useful than it actually is. Such strategies comprise what is known as black hat SEO. While black hat SEO can be useful in effect short-term increases in search visibility, in the long run, generally speaking, they will not yield sustainable increases over time. Search engines are constantly on the lookout for websites that use such strategies, and often mete punitive measures (usually involving dramatically decreasing a website’s search engine visibility) to offenders. Moreover, many black hat strategies are the result of SEO professionals devising new ways to game the search engines.
Once these methods become known and are adopted by many, their effectiveness is diminished.
In general, white hat SEO strategies are the most effective in yielding sustainable increases to website search engine visibility. Three key white hat strategies that have onsite and offsite analogues should be a part of any on-site/off-site mix.
KEY ON-SITE SEO STRATEGIES
Of the many white-hat SEO strategies, few can surpass the impact of keyword research, on-site content publishing, and public relations.
On-site keyword research
Keyword research involves researching those keywords and phrases that Internet users commonly use to find the products and services the organization sells, its brand and website, as well as those of its competitors. SEO professionals can then incorporate this content into meta data, indicating to search engine crawlers that the site’s subject matter is about those keywords and phrases, and should be categorized with other similar sites. These keywords can also be incorporated into content published on the site, strengthening the argument to the crawler about how the site should be categorized. Keyword density – the number of times keywords and phrases appear on a page or in metadata can influence a website’s search results for searches involving those keywords.
On-site content publishing
On-site content is more than just a placeholder for keywords. The content on-site can keep people on-site and convince them to perform an action, such as provide lead contact information, or purchase a product. Conversions are often a metric by which SEO results (not to mention marketing and sales results are measured); but time on-site (which is increased by the completion of conversion tasks) can boost SEO.
Moreover, frequently posting new and relevant content can enhance SEO in myriad ways. It can attract new and repeat visitors, as well as provide more opportunities to convert consumers into customers or qualify them as leads. Engaging content can increase time on-site. New webpages allow an organization to increase overall keyword density, as well as signal to the crawler that it is a consistently updated site, both of which can improve SEO.
Website content should be developed as part of the organization’s own integrated marketing communications (IMC) strategy. Ideally, the organization’s marketing department rather than the SEO professional should develop copy; however, the SEO professional should provide the marketing department with a list of branded and non-branded keywords for them to incorporate in website copy. The IMC plan should contain a content development plan and a schedule for publishing said content.
On-site public relations
Public relations professionals will perform most public relation activities off-site. However, consistently publishing press releases onsite can be a powerful part of an overall content development and publishing strategy, enhancing a website’s keyword density, index-ability, quantity of fresh content, and overall usability. Further, pulling public relations professionals into SEO strategy discussions can help generate ideas for additional on-site content, as well as greatly enhance off-site SEO strategies.
KEY OFF-SITE SEO STRATEGIES
Let’s look at how on-site keyword research, content publishing, and public relations play out off-site and drive other SEO strategies.
Keyword research in advertising and social media marketing
Keyword research is significant in a number of marketing strategies that have a significant benefit to overall search engine visibility. Keywords and phrases can provide invaluable consumer insights to advertisers. Increasing the efficacy of an online or offline ad that links back, or refers traffic back to, the website, increases website traffic that, in turn, improves SEO.
Incorporating keywords and phrases into content on branded social media channels can not only enhance the search volume for those terms, and make it more likely that an organization’s brand appears high in one of the Big Three search engines (Google, Bing, or Yahoo); it also optimizes those pages in social network search engines. These often-neglected targets of SEO search are highly trafficked. For example, YouTube’s search engine has long garnered a higher volume of search queries than even Yahoo has. Moreover, even if a particular social search engine yields less total search query volume that is less than one of the Big Three, in many instances, organizations can more easily market to their target audience by casting a relatively narrower net on a social network than on a global search engine.
Keywords/phrases can also be incorporated into content intended for distribution and/or publication off-site.
Content distribution and off-site content publishing
One measure of the popularity of an organization and its brand is the reach of its content. If an organization is regularly publishing content that users are sharing via social networks and other online methods, the volume of keywords that can be indexed increases dramatically. This increases the probability that the organization’s website will appear high in search results for those search terms.
In addition to social media marketing, blogging, guest blogging, micro-sites, and email marketing, are among the many opportunities available to develop and publish content off-site that can link back to the website. Backlinking, as an SEO strategy, is important because it allows search engine crawlers to assess popularity partially based on the sites referring traffic to the website in question.
Key to a strong back-linking strategy is off-site public relations activity. Indeed, even backlink planning should be done in concert with public relations professionals, as search engine crawlers now assess whether the sites referring traffic to the website are relevant to the site’s subject matter. Further, they assign higher relative value to referring sites that are of high quality, and are organic – obtained naturally because of the website’s overall utility. Public relations professionals are tasked with developing earned media – news coverage, in online and offline venues. A single backlink from well-established news sites like The New York Times can improve a website’s search visibility far more than a hundred paid links from webpage that are irrelevant to the organization’s website. Further, obtaining guest blogging opportunities and generating certain email copy is the province of PR professionals; again, they should be provided with keywords to optimize the copy for SEO purposes.
BLACK HAT ON-SITE AND OFF-SITE STRATEGIES
Most black hat SEO tactics involve on-page factors. Of the few that do not, many involve assailing the rankings of competing websites, and/or illegal methods. However, legal (albeit unethical) keyword, content, and public relations SEO strategies can be employed onsite.
Keyword-based black hat strategies
A common black hat SEO keyword-based strategy is keyword stuffing which involves creating content with extremely dense use of keywords and phrases. This can be done in either meta data or in content itself. When it is done in the former, it is known as meta tag stuffing. Because meta data is self-reported data about what the site is about, it usually has less significance in SEO than on-site content. Many SEO professionals using this strategy create multiple articles extremely rich in keywords, often without regard for readability. Some that do create pages wherein keywords are stuffed on the page but invisible to the reader; this tactic is also frowned upon by search engines. It is known as cloaking – and includes more than just invisible text. Cloaking is a series of methods by which SEO professionals show the search engine crawler one site of content and human visitors another, and can include swapping optimized pages for other non-optimized ones, and invisible links, among others.
Content-based publishing black hat strategies
SEO professionals may employ article spinning – a tactic wherein they rewrite a single piece of content multiple times, often stuffing each piece with keywords. The rewrites allow the SEO professional the opportunity to fool the crawler and users into believing the site is frequently updated, in addition to increasing overall keyword density. This is also often done by translating pages into multiple languages through translating programs. These imperfect translations may or may not be readable. Further, some SEO professionals may duplicate content from other sites without attribution to increase their site’s content.
Unethical public relations practices
Unethical public relations are most often used, not to drive traffic directly to a website (which might be considered marketing), but to spin existing, or generate new news coverage, that assails a competitor, and drives traffic to the organization (and its website) as an alternative. These tactics are often used in political campaigns, but can and have been used by corporations to frame an issue as favorable to itself, usually at the expense of a third party. This is known as negative buzz. One notable example, which actually involved an eyeglass firm, known as DecorMyEyes, creating negative buzz around its own products and services by providing legendarily bad customer service in order to obtain bad online reviews. These reviews pushed the site to the first page of Google search results, and significantly increased sales. Unfortunately for the owner, the poor service, which included death threats to customers, led to a jail sentence.
DETERMINING AND ASSESSING THE RIGHT MIX OF ON-SITE AND OFF-SITE SEO
There is no one-size-fits-all for determining the best combination of on-site and off-site factors to use. The only way to determine what works for a particular site is, using best practices (whether white hat or black hat) as a framework, trial and error. Fortunately, there are many methods for testing and analysis, and a variety of metrics available for measurement. The key is a commitment to continuous testing and experimentation, and an understanding that both the dynamic nature of the data (what works one day may not tomorrow), and the interrelation between the variables.
For example, while the exact criteria each search engine uses for keyword rankings is unknown, one can assume that keyword density in meta tags but not on-site content will send a crawler mixed signals and result in diminished visibility. Further, one might attribute a spike in traffic to the implementation of a new method, when it might be a natural spike due to seasonality associated with the brand. SEO professionals must be mindful that sustainable increases in any of the most common measures of SEO success: traffic, rankings, and conversions, are likely due to a number of factors, and must analyze the data until they understand the interplay of those factors in order to maintain and improve the current search results even further.