Labcast: SEO Strategy for Expansion-Stage Companies

OpenView resident user experience designer Kevin Leary sits down to discuss SEO strategy and what expansion-stage companies can do to establish and scale their online presence.

SEO strategy

In the vast, competitive world of search ranking, what steps should your company be taking to make sure you’re discovered? Should you go it on your own, or reach out to an agency for help?

What tools can you use to give you an edge? These are the questions OpenView’s Kevin Leary tackles in this week’s Labcast. Listen in for insight into effective SEO strategy. After all, your site and your content may be top notch, but until you can ensure Google feels the same way it’s far from certain it will land the Page 1 billing it deserves.

Kevin Cain: Hello, and welcome to this edition of LabCast. I’m Kevin Cain. Today, I’m joined by my colleague, Kevin Leary, to talk about search engine optimization for expansion stage companies. Hey, Kevin. How’s it going today?

Kevin Leary: Good. Thanks for having me, Kevin.

Kevin Cain: So for those of you that don’t know Kevin, he’s actually our user experience designer here at OpenView, and he’s someone who’s been integrally involved in our SEO efforts here at OpenView. So I thought it would be really helpful to hear from him today a little bit about how SEO works and how expansion-stage companies can think about SEO and what they do. So, to start things off, Kevin, I wanted to get your thoughts on why every expansion stage company needs to be having an SEO strategy.

Kevin Leary: I think it’s very important for an expansion stage company to have an SEO strategy, because mainly, people tend to look for solutions to their problems online these days, and search engines are usually the first place they look. And quite often, it’s common for prospects to have a problem, search for something, and then not really find some of these products that software companies offer. Sometimes the software company might have their own brand name for each product that’s nowhere near what a potential customer would be searching online. Other times, nobody’s really going to link to their product pages because they don’t know they exist.

So it’s very important for that reason. It’s also important because it’s mainly about making your website easy for robots, but it’s also about making it easy for people, too. During the process of optimizing for SEO, as people call it, you may start to learn things about your customers that you don’t already know. Specifically, you may learn what they search for online, what their habits are online, where they typically find answers to their problems online. It could be forums, it could be question and answer sites, it could be social media.

SEO can help with all that, and it can also help tweak the way you look at your website. You’ll start to look at it from a customer’s point of view. At least, in my experience, that’s what I’ve seen. That can really help all around, with web design and the overall marketability of your site.

Kevin Cain: What suggestions or tips would you give to people who have expansion stage companies that are trying to optimize their websites for search engines? Is there a certain thing that they can do, or formula that they can follow, to land on Google page 1, or is it more of an organic process? How would you describe it?

Kevin Leary: The answer to this question, it’s a very good question, Kevin, the answer would probably differ between who you’re talking to, but I would say I typically advocate the organic route. What that means is it’s usually the slow process of making sure that you target the right audiences, and making sure that you follow the right practices to get on their naturally. So you want to make sure that if you’re targeting a keyword, you can’t really trick the search engines to get into the top. You have to provide good content that people are looking for. Find a keyword that the people will be searching for, and then make sure that your content shows up for those people.

So, I would say, overall, the four main ingredients to getting up high on Google would be, first, probably, actually, I would say these are in no particular order. They’re all ingredients in a recipe, so to speak. The first one, I would say, would be social influence. Social influence would be the number of followers you have, the age of your accounts, the number of back links to your social media accounts, the activity frequency you have on Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn, the loyalty of your followers — so if you retweet something on Twitter, what’s the likelihood that someone will actually be interested in it, and they’ll actually share it with other people? That would be a good measure of your loyalty.

And a good way to check, a good benchmarking tool for that, would be a piece of software out there called Klout.com, and that will give you a score, and let you know how much influence you have in the social world. Google is now including that in their algorithm, and they’re using that to basically figure out the importance of a website.

So that’s one factor. I would say another factor would be backlinks. A backlink is, basically, any time somebody links to your website. What Google will do is, they’ll look at the number of backlinks you have, but more importantly, the quality of those backlinks. If you have 10,000 backlinks from very unimportant sites, it’s really not going to do much, but if Google sees that 100 or so very important sites — and when I say “important,” I mean what Google deems important. Google was founded on that principle of, basically, the more people that talk about you, the more important you are.

If you have a lot of high-quality links coming into your site, that’s going to move your ranking. So a lot of companies will start blogging, and they’ll start blogging about topics that people like, related to their product, and those blog articles will build up incoming links, and when those incoming links build up, subsequently some of your landing pages will bump up in search engine result pages. That’s probably the second ingredient in the recipe.

The third ingredient would be your authority or your brand. So that would basically be how much trust and authority you have within your domain. That’s sort of similar to the first one, which would be social influence. In general, if you have a lot of social influence, you’re a pretty authoritative figure in your space. But in general, you want to make sure that the content that you’re trying to write and the way people perceive you when they go to your website is that you’re an expert on whatever it is you’re selling.

Sometimes, if you can do it, it doesn’t even appear that you’re selling. It just appears that you’re someone who really, really loves what product you provide or service you provide, and you enjoy helping people get better at it. You enjoy sharing your expertise, and people can really look to you for sound, solid advice that they can use either at work, or in their everyday life at home, or whatever the product is, or whatever the target audience is looking for from the product.

Kevin Cain: So, Kevin, if I can just jump in, it makes a lot of sense how Google would measure your social rankings, and how it would measure the number of backlinks you have, but how exactly would Google establish whether or not you’re genuinely talking about something you’re interested in versus trying to pitch or sell? How do they determine that in their algorithm?

Kevin Leary: That is a good question. My fourth item was going to be content quality, and that is what Google tries to look at to solve that, Kevin. It will try to look at, basically, it deems quality, and this is again, I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily an SEO expert. I just have a pretty strong interest in it. But from what I know, Google looks at content quality in terms of the number of people that are sharing it, like we talked about. In general, people who have a very high authority won’t really link to someone unless it’s worthwhile linking to them.

Also, Google now will, you’ve probably heard of Google Analytics. Almost every site out there that I’ve ever worked with has it installed on their site. Because Google Analytics is owned by Google, it’s closely tied to their algorithm in some respects, and things like time on site and bounce rate. Also, without getting too complex, there’s this new Panda algorithm that came out recently.That’s essentially a way for Google to go in and look for certain aspects of your website and say, “This is kind of a spammy-looking website. We’ve seen other sites that people have flagged as spam, and this has some of the same elements that that website has, so we’re not really going to say that this is a quality source of information.” And then, vice versa, if you have quality sources, have these patterns in what they have on their site and what they don’t have on their site, and Google will look for those patterns, and it will use those patterns to determine what is quality and what is not quality.

Kevin Cain: So it sort of sounds like SEO is both an art and a science, and one that spans a bunch of disciplines. I mean, you’re talking about social media, you’re talking about content creation, you’re talking about branding. Is this something that a single individual in an organization should take on themselves, or is it a team effort, is it something that you really want to outsource to other firms? What’s the criteria for deciding that?

Kevin Leary: Ideally, in a perfect world, I think it’s almost a culture shift in your organization. At least in your department, if you had an online department that was made up of developers, designers, writers, and maybe even an SEO specialist. It’s a different way of thinking of how you should be marketing online altogether. At least, that’s the way it is in my mind.

But in terms of, if today you wanted to decide whether or not you were using an agency or if you were going to hire someone in-house, I would say there’s definitely ups and downs to both. I would say probably one thing that’s good about hiring an agency is that they’re very good at providing audits and best practices, and taking an outside look at how you’re doing. They can come in, and they can look at things and immediately notice things. And I guess this goes for design as well. They can immediately notice things that, because you’re in there working with the website every day, you just might skip over or glaze over. That, in turn, will help you understand what you can improve and focus on.

The one thing I would say that’s a downside about agencies, is that I’ve worked at a couple agencies myself, and in general, everyone there is juggling different projects at once. So I would guess that whoever is working with you is going to do their very best to fully understand your product and fully understand what your customers are looking for, but they won’t be able to do as good a job as someone who is in-house, and that’s where the in-house staff really, really helps. I think you get a more personal level, almost, of communication with the people that are buying your product, the product that you’re offering, and also the people that matter inside your organization have more of a personal relationship with the in-house expert. I think that allows you to make cultural shifts a little bit easier, as an in-house person, over an agency.

Kevin Cain: If you’re going to take SEO on in-house, you’ve already mentioned one tool that you like to reference, and that’s Klout. Are there others that you would recommend people use to help them with their SEO work?

Kevin Leary: Yeah, definitely. There are a lot of SEO tools out there. There are a lot of them that are spammy, but there are a lot of really good ones out there, too. One that I would highly recommend checking out would be SEOmoz.org, and that’s basically a hosted tool. I would say probably the No. 1 feature that that tool has is a search engine results page monitor, or a SERP monitor. What that will do is, it will basically tell you how you’re doing on search engine result pages for certain keywords.

So if you were targeting the keyword that said, like, “money management tools,” if you were Mint.com, and you wanted to optimize that page and then see if your optimizations actually paid off, you need a tool to benchmark where you are before you do the optimizations and where you are after. And that’s what SEOmoz will let you do. It’ll basically tell you, hey, you made some changes. Did you go up, did you go down? And then it will also be on that. There’s a whole suite of tools that will help you figure out what search engine spiders are having trouble with indexing on your website, figuring out how to optimize certain pages for certain keywords. It’ll also help you figure out what keywords you’re likely to rank for versus which ones you might not have a chance of even getting first page for.

That’s probably my No. 1 suggestion for a tool. I’d say probably my second suggestion, if you’re running a WordPress website like we are, is the Yoast SEO tool. And I know you and Jonathan have used it a lot, so you know what I’m talking about. It’s a really solid tool. Makes it very easy to optimize your on-page posts in WordPress, or pages, and it will basically when I say on-page, I mean picking a keyword. Like I imagined before for Mint, it could be “money management tools.” And in WordPress, you can basically see how well your page is optimized for that keyword. It will give you in-line suggestions, and it will say, “Hey, you’ve only mentioned this keyword once in your content. You should mention it five times if you really want to get your keyword density up. You should also have it in your title. You don’t have it in your title. And you should also put it in your SEO meta description.”

So that’s a really good tool. If you don’t have WordPress, I would suggest checking out Linkdex, which is a tool that Yoast SEO plugin integrates with. Linkdex is basically the tool that will look at any given web page on a website and it will give you suggestions for what you can optimize. So it will tell you those things like, “Your keyword density isn’t quite there. You need to optimize your title. Your description needs to be improved.” And it will basically give you a green, red, or yellow report, and it will let you know how you’re doing. Green would be the best, red would be the worst. And then as you optimize those specific things, you can re-run the report, and it will let you know how you’re doing.

Kevin Cain: Fantastic. Hey, Kevin, thanks so much for joining us today and giving us some insights into SEO.

Kevin Leary: No problem. Thanks for the time, Kevin.

Kevin Cain: All right. Thanks. Take care.

photo by: katerha