As part of our Blogvember challenge we invited Brian Dean from Backlinko to share what he’s learned from the past 5 years as an SEO.
Let us know what you think in the comments and be sure to follow Brian on Twitter.
I’ve dedicated much of the last half-decade of my life figuring out Google’s top-secret algorithm.
At first, I struggled with every single site that I worked on.
And when I did find some semblance of success, a punishing Google penalty made my time on the first page short lived.
Fortunately — after honing my skills by experimenting on my own web properties in hostels and internet cafes in far-flung locales like China, Turkey, Malaysia and Spain — I’ve learned how to consistently rank pages in Google.
Here are 101 lessons that I’ve picked up along the way.
Approach & Mindset
Most of the SEO information you read online is dead wrong — The only way to learn SEO is to test, test and test some more.
SEO isn’t the fast-moving industry that it’s made out to be — If you go back in time to 2002, the best SEO advice at the time was: “Build an awesome site and promote it to other webmasters in your niche.” And despite thousands of algorithm updates, that advice rings as true today as it did 11 years ago.
Don’t be afraid to spend money on SEO — Just because you can do SEO on the cheap doesn’t mean you should. A bigger budget can help you do the little things — like better content or an awesome infographic design — that will land you premium links.
Or at least spend some of your SEO budget on Conversion Rate Optimization— Conversions are huge. More conversions=more money. And you can funnel that revenue into better SEO work (see lesson above).
The foundation for SEO campaign has nothing to do with backlinks or keywords — It’s a great site. It’s technically possible to rank a mediocre site. But a great site makes every part of the SEO process MUCH easier (trust me, I’ve tried both).
The advice “You’re the product of your five closest friends” also applies to SEO — You’re the product of the 5 SEO sites you read most. Choose your sources carefully.
Don’t get caught up in “the next big thing” — Like social signals or AuthorRank. Remember that there are hundreds of SEO blogs and news sites out there that are desperate for something to write about. So they tend to over-hype minor algorithm tweaks as massive foundational changes. Don’t believe the hype.
In fact, spend time learning from the SEO OGs — Guys like Eli from Blue Hat SEO and Eric Ward have content on their site that’s just as relevant and useful today as it was when it was first published.
Links have formed the foundation of Google’s algorithm since Day 1 — 15 years — and billions of dollars of revenue — later, they still do. Despite its flaws, the link-based algorithm flat out works and they’re unlikely to change it anytime soon.
I’ve tried black hat, white hat and every shade of grey in between — While I don’t have any moral issues with black hat SEO, I’ve found that the long-term ROI from white hat SEO is hard to beat. And, at least for me, it’s more fulfilling.
The best SEOs are what Rank Fishkin calls “T-Shaped Web Marketers“ — If you know a little bit about PPC, user-experience, video marketing, blogging AND SEO, you’ll do much better than someone that sees the world with SEO tunnel vision.
Diversify your traffic as much as you can — No matter how white hat you are (or think you are :-)), don’t rely 100% on Google traffic.
As long as there are search engines to optimize for, there will be SEO — Shouting: “SEO is Dead” is a way for boring bloggers to get attention. It’s not a valid or realistic perspective.
You want to look forward to algorithm updates — You know you’ve “made it” in SEO when you relish algorithm update announcements, like Panda and Penguin. You want to be at the point where these updates wipe out your competition…not you.
“Quality over Quantity” isn’t a cliche — It’s the #1 rule of link building. One outstanding link is worth more than 500 mediocre backlinks.
Before building a link, ask yourself: “Is this a link I’ll want to have a year from now” — This question shifts your mind-set towards the long-term. If the answer is “no”, move on…even if the link might give you a short-term boost.
Because penalties are a huge pain — Digging out of a Google penalty is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. The reward from black hat SEO doesn’t justify the risk anymore.
Don’t go crazy with link metrics — PageRank, DA, PA, Citation Flow are helpful indicators of a site’s linking power, but they’re not the end all be all. I’ve found that my eyeballs can usually determine a site’s quality (and therefore ranking power) better than any metric.
Use as few tools as possible — Like most SEO nerds, I love tools. But I’ve found that there are only 5 or 6 that actually help me run my business better.
Linkbait is a crapshoot — Create evergreen linkable assets that you can leverage for high quality backlinks for years.
“Relevancy is the new PR” — This quote from a former Google employee struck a cord with me because I’ve seen the SERPs dominated by sites with a only a handful of super-relevant links. Links from relevant sites have more ranking power. Period. A relevant link profile not only helps you rank in the short-term, but gives you the natural link profile that will protect you from Google updates.
Following the pack is a recipe for disaster — If you follow the same exact strategies and techniques as everyone else, you’re toast. Google only makes changes to their algorithm to combat strategies that LOTS of people are using.
So don’t be afraid to move on before everyone else does — It’s better to abandon a link building strategy too soon than too late.
Add your own twist— There’s nothing wrong with using a popular strategy as long as you add your own twist that eliminates any footprint. For example, don’t get all of your infographic links from obvious embed codes. Convince site owners to give you a contextual link in the intro instead. That way, there’s no footprint for Google to find and devalue.
Nofollow links are completely worthless — I’ve tested this ten ways to Tuesday and I can say with confidence that nofollow links have zero influence on your rankings.
Be (really) smart about anchor text — Most people diversify their anchor text the wrong way. Don’t mix in “here” and “this site” with your money anchor text. You may think it looks natural, but it doesn’t. If you look at the anchor text of super-legit sites, they look VERY different than sites that do SEO (and Google knows it).
Adding value gets you awesome links — “Link earning” is overrated. If you can find ways to add value to other people’s sites (for example, with broken link building), you can get links all day long without needing to have a single piece of great content on your site.
That being said, great content matters — Great content isn’t enough (unless you have a huge following). But when you try to build links to your site with email outreach, the content on your site will make or break your efforts.
Don’t go crazy about scale — Instead of working your tail off to scale your guest posting process so that you can get 20 links per month instead of 10, work on getting one of your guest posts on a top-25 site in your industry.
TrustRank is very real — If there’s one metric that I’ve seen correlated with high-rankings and penalty-proof sites, it’s trust. Focus on getting as many legit links from trusted sites (which aren’t always sites with the most authority) as you can.
Invest in an awesome site design — People largely evaluate a site based on design, not the text on the page. You can sometimes convince people that your site is awesome (which means they’ll be more likely to link to it) by rocking an awesome design.
Reverse engineering should be last on your to-do list — Most people kick off their link building campaign by looking at their competitors links. Bad idea. You’re better off tapping into proven strategies and sources that you know work first. Then fill in the gaps with reverse engineering.
But it’s one of the best link building strategies out there — But when you do put your competitor’s links under a microscope, you can usually find golden link opportunities you’d otherwise miss.
Toolbar PageRank is essentially dead — It hasn’t been updated in over 9-months and may never get updated again. It’s time to learn how to use and interpret other metrics.
But Google still uses PageRank internally — In fact, it remains the foundation of their algorithm. You just can’t see it anymore. So don’t discount things like making content you want to rank fewer than 3 clicks away from your homepage. That stuff still makes a difference.
Develop systems for everything — With link building becoming more complex — and with more moving parts than ever — you need systems to get things done. Create systems for guest post outreach, infographic development and anchor text distribution. When you do, you’ll blow your disorganized competitors out of the water.
Become a regular columnist — One-off guest posts have their place. But you can get more juice to your site (and expert status) by becoming a columnist at authority sites in your industry.
Contextual links are the only links — Forget footer links, blogroll links or any link that isn’t embedded within unique content. Because they represent a real “vote” for another site, Google values contextual links above all else.
PR is the holy grail of link building — If you can master PR, you’ll land links that your competitors can only dream of. Invest in small business PR books and sign up for Help a Reporter Out.
Every link counts — Don’t be too picky about your link targets. As long as it’s a link from a legit, relevant site, go for it.
Even paid links — Paid links that are bought “behind closed doors” (as in, not a blog network), still work.
Directory links still help — Links from the handful of directories that Google still values — like Best of the Web, DMOZ and The Yahoo! Directory — can still give you a slight (but significant) boost.
So do guest post links — But they need to be on relevant sites. Linking to your landscaping company from a small business site in a blog post titled “Small Business Tips for Landscapers” isn’t fooling anyone (especially Big G).
Focus on “path of least resistance” links: Don’t ask people to “link to your site”. Even if they like you’re stuff, you’re creating an extra step for them with a vague request like that. Find a specific place on a specific page where your link would be a good fit. Then ask them to add your link there. It’s a bit more direct, but you’re actually making their life easier.
Don’t sleep on your title tag — The words you include in your title tag — and the order that they’re in — can have an enormous impact on your long-term search engine traffic. In fact, you can sometimes increase your search engine traffic significantly by adding a word or two to your title tags.
Embed long tail keywords into your title tags — It takes time to rank for competitive keywords. But you can still milk traffic from your page in the meantime by embedding long tail keywords into your title tag. For example, if you wanted to rank for “pumpkin recipes”, you’d want to make your title tag: “Best Pumpkin Recipes”. That way, you can rank for the less competitive “best pumpkin recipes” while you climb the rankings for the more competitive”pumpkin recipes”.
If you want a fast-loading site, pay for premium hosting — You can play around with plugins all day, but if you’re running your site on a $5/month Hostgator hosting plan, there’s not much you can do. If you’re serious about site speed, invest in a pricier host like WP Engine.
Use a scalpel, not a machete — On-page SEO isn’t about stuffing keywords into your content. It’s about gently — but firmly — letting Google know what your content is all about.
There’s no magic site structure — Breacrumbs navigation and silo structure may help a little, but there’s no magic way to set up your site that makes it significantly more search engine friendly than a static HTML site.
Don’t forget internal linking — Internal linking is not “the next big thing” in SEO. Must be why so many people underutilized it. Just don’t go overboard like Wikipedia (they can get away with it).
Or external linking — Link out to at least a few authoritative sources in every article that you publish. Google wants to send people to “hubs” where they get their question answered. External linking are one way of establishing your page as a hub.
Add “Related Searches” keywords to every post — I’ve done this consistently for the last year and it’s served me well in terms of rankings and long tail traffic. Just Google your target keyword and look at the bottom of the page where it says “Searches related to…”. Add 2-3 of those to your article.
Hack your landing pages for “long clicks” — The book “In the Plex” outlines Google’s focus on “long clicks”, where a users stays on a search result for a while before hitting the “back” button. Add internal links to the top of your posts, use generous subheadings and make your copy compelling to make sure people stay on your site.
There’s more to on-page than keywords — Google uses lesser-discussed on-page signals — like multimedia usage — to determine quality.
UX is the new on-page SEO — Most of today’s on-page SEO actually revolves around creating an amazing user experience for your readers. Google is keeping track of UX metrics like dwell time and time on site, so it pays to create a site that people love hanging out on.
Copy your title and description tags from Adwords ads — Search for your keyword in Google and see what ads come up. These ads are often the products of hundreds of split tests, which means they have a proven CTR. Incorporate the elements that make sense into your meta title and description tags. This will boost the CTR you get when people see your result in Google.
Longer content ranks better — I’ve seen it, and industry studies support it. If you’re gunning for a competitive keyword, make sure you have at least 1500 words of quality content on that page.
Keywords are your compass — If you don’t know your keywords, you don’t know how well you’re performing when it comes to on-page, anchor text and search engine traffic. It’s worth investing time to find keywords that make sense for your business and that you can monetize.
Long tails are overrated — Trying to rank for 50-100 long tail keywords dilutes the quality of your content and sets you up for a Google Panda penalty. Target head terms and make your content the best on the web for those keywords.
Buyer intent is underrated — Search volume is nice and all, but ranking for “organizing tips” probably won’t generate much revenue for you. Go for lower search volume keywords — like “best home organizer tool” — that also have buyer intent.
Don’t rely on the Google Keyword Planner — It will only show you keywords that are super-related to the keywords you put into it. You need to use your head to find those laterally-related keywords that the tool won’t show you.
Reverse engineer your competitor’s keywords — Using a tool like SEMRush will reveal dozens of amazing keywords that you’d probably never find using the Keyword Planner.
Look at trends before you commit — Check out the 12-month trend for any keyword before you commit to it (you can use Google Trends or the build-in feature within the Google Keyword Planner). If it looks like a keyword that’s movin’ on up, you may want to go for it…even if the search volume isn’t that impressive today.
Keywords also help you understand your readers better — Keyword research isn’t just for SEO. They give you an objective look at your target audience’s hopes, dreams, goals and fears. For example, when you see that 12,000 people search for “Google penalty recovery” every month, you know that there are lots of people out there that have been slapped with a Google penalty.
Don’t hit “publish” unless you’re going to blows people’s minds — Don’t fall into the “5 tips for…” generic blog post trap. Ditch the forgettable, rehashed content and write epic stuff that gets noticed.
You don’t need to guess — There’s already enough information out there — from keyword research to other site’s content — to tell you whether or not a topic is something that people are going to be interested in. Do the research to see what’s already performed well in your industry before spending long hours writing an article that no one cares about.
And beat what you find — As Barry Schwartz recently said, “Make something Google would be embarrassed not to rank well.”. If you create the best page for a given search search, the Google Gods have a way of rewarding you over time.
The world doesn’t need another blog post — Seriously.
Because there’s already 164 million blogs online (source) — Keep that in mind before you publish something new. Chances are — unless you created something incredible — it’s going to get lost in the content deluge.
Don’t forget your content’s layout — I see too many great articles go ignored because of 10-sentence paragraphs and zero subheaders.
Stop writing so much — An arbitrary twice-per-week publishing schedule is one of the most common (and crippling) mistakes that bloggers make. If you can only bang out one piece of epic content per month, then only publish once per month. If you can handle two, do two. Google and users don’t care how often you publish — as long as when you do publish — it’s great stuff.
Don’t be afraid to invest in your content — Content like this stops people in their tracks and makes them say: “Daaaaamn.”. It’s not cheap to create a mind-blowing resource like that. But if you’re able monetize the traffic that you get from it, the long-term ROI is hard to top.
Forums are a gold mine — For topic ideas and for content promotion. If you want to get traffic to your content, start getting active on forums in your niche. Then, when you publish something new, share it with everyone on the forum. It’s simple, but effective.
Don’t forget the “marketing” in “content marketing” — Content marketing ? publishing content. You need to hustle and get the word out if you want your content to get any traction.
Write for users AND search engines — The idea that you have to choose one or the other is nonsense. Here’s how I tackle both: First, I write a great piece of content with users in mind. Then I edit it by optimizing it for a keyword or two. The quality of the post may decrease by .05% by being SEO’d, but I’ll sacrifice that for the long-term traffic that I get from a well-optimized page.
Make every post an infographic — Not literally, of course. But you should have so many visual elements in your content that people can get the gist without having to read a single word beyond the headline.
Video is crushing it right now — If video isn’t at least part of your content strategy, you’re leaving a lot of traffic on the table. Top bloggers like Derek Halpern have gone as far as to include video in every single post.
So are roundup posts — I’ve seen roundup posts in several different industries rocket to the first page for their target keywords (and stay there!). A massively underutilized content format.
Useful > Viral — Viral content has a VERY short shelf life. Once the window closes, you’ve lost your leverage. Invest your time creating content that’s insanely useful for your target audience and that you can leverage for link building over and over again.
Increase the perceived value of everything you publish — Add figures, statistics and screenshots to everything that you publish and you’ll get A LOT more traction. It takes quite a bit more effort, but it pays off.
Specific numbers in headlines get more clicks — If you have a specific number to share (like “How to lose 7 lbs.”) with a specific timeline (“How to lose 7 lbs. in 3-days), you’ll get 10x as many clicks as if you published something generic, like “How to lose weight quickly and easily”.
Write content that solves problems — Coming up with winning blog post topics becomes a lot easier when you a) identify your audience’s problems and b) solve those problems with your content.
Email outreach is one of the most critical SEO skills — If you can email people — especially busy people — and get consistent responses, you have something that you can leverage for links and brand exposure all day long. Unfortunately, people shy away from email outreach because of time and a fear of rejection.
Use scripts (that don’t look like scripts) — The more scripted your response looks, the lower your conversion rate will be. Period. But you can easily dodge this problem by creating scripts that have a lot of personalization built in. Aim for one bit of personalization in every sentence or two.
Be patient with big influencers — Don’t go for the kill with a baller blogger or influential journalists. Work them for a few weeks on social media, blog comments and with (legit) complementary emails.
Use someone’s name at least once — When you see a strange email in your inbox you probably look to see whether or not they’ve used your name in the message. If so, you read more carefully. If not, you hit “delete”. Even if you’re contacting a huge organization’s website, use someone’s name in your outreach email. I’ve found that if you address someone specific in your email, your message will get forwarded to that person.
Boomerang like a boss — The timing of your outreach emails is HUGE. Use Boomerang for Gmail to make sure your emails end up in your target’s inbox at 1pm. That time always has always gotten me the best conversion rates (people are bored at that time).
Tier your targets — You should personalize every outreach email that you send. But that doesn’t mean that you need to personalize each one the same way. Bigger name targets should get the red carpet treatment with their emails, while mommy bloggers can get a semi-personalized script.
Where can you add value? — Outreach (especially for link building) works MUCH better if your email includes a way to make another person’s site better. Even a heads up that you just did them a favor (for example, linked to them) works better than a random email.
Outreach is a number’s game — You can have the best scripts in the world and send your emails at precisely the right time. But the fact is, most people will ignore your message. So the more emails you send out, the more responses you’ll get.
It’s all about THEM — The best outreach scripts are 75% about the person you’re sending your message to. I get pitches almost daily from people about their “cool new product” that’s “a first in the industry”. I delete them. But when someone ties together their product with something I care about, I listen.
Pitch your “best match content” — If you have a piece of content that you’re absolutely dying to rank — but it’s not a good fit for that site — leave it for the next email. Always send your “best match content”…even if it’s a lower-priority page.
Outreach isn’t just email — Find out other places where your industry’s link brokers hang out. Is it on Quora, Inbound.org, or perhaps Reddit? As long as you’re not pushy you can usually get some great exposure for your content on sites like these.
Efficiency and Time Management
Stay way from the “white hat vs. black hat” and “SEO vs. content marketing” debates — They’re totally pointless and don’t add any value to your business. Leave those debates for people with too much time on their hands.
Don’t check anything before the afternoon — That means no Twitter, Facebook or email. Trust me: you’ll miss out on a grand total of zero opportunities and get a hell of a lot more accomplished before lunch.
Limit your traffic and ranking checks to one a week (or month) — The best stock market traders check their stock prices once a month or once a quarter. Why? Because they know when they check everyday, they make stupid decisions. It’s the same story with your site’s Analytics. I only check my traffic and rankings on Friday (shout out to Chris Dyson for getting me back on the wagon).
Outsource anything and everything you possibly can — Save the higher-level tasks (like strategy and relationship-building) for you. Outsource the rest.
Set daily goals like a weight lifter — When a bodybuilder shimmies himself below the bar on a bench press, he has a specific number of reps in mind. You should do the same with your outreach and content development. Instead of saying, “I’m going to do outreach for my post about sewing machines”, say “I’m going to send 25 emails today to craft bloggers that are listed on AllTop.”
Get OCD organized — If you’re not a naturally organized person you’ll get lost in all the little moving cogs in an SEO campaign. Use Excel or BuzzStream to keep track of who you’ve contacted or what you need to do next. Otherwise you may reach out to the same person twice or send the same guest post to two different people (I’ve done both of those things).
Do the most important thing first thing in the morning — If you have a boring task on today’s docket, tackle that first thing in the morning. I ALWAYS get things done when they’re scheduled for the morning. Once something becomes an “afternoon task”, it tend to sneak it’s way onto the next day’s to-do list.
Read less, do more — Over the last few months I’ve been spending time that I used to dedicate to reading articles to implementing what I already know. I don’t think I’ve missed anything amazing but I do know that I’ve accomplished a lot more.
Anything I Missed?
I hope you got some value from this 4400-word monster.
I made it so that other people in the industry don’t make the same mistakes I did.
But I know that I still have A LOT to learn about SEO and marketing in general.
That’s why I’d love to hear your insights.
Any lessons that you learned that you didn’t see here? How about a lesson that you’ve also seen firsthand?
Or maybe there’s something you disagree with?
Either way, leave a comment below right now.