Marcia Riefer Johnston, special to The Content Wrangler

Do you long for your web pages to jump to the top of your dream audience’s search results? And do you think, “Yeah right—why bother?”

Even if your web pages don’t have a prayer today, you’re probably already doing some optimizing for search, and I bet that you’d like to do more … but what, exactly? The SEO advice I come across all the time often strikes me as either too basic or too advanced. Like Goldilocks, we’re all looking for advice that’s just right.

Image" Book cover: SEO Simplified for Short Attention Spans
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Barry Feldman’s new book, SEO Simplified for Short Attention Spans, hits that spot.

I could quibble with the book’s subtitle: Learn the Essentials of Search Engine Optimization in Under an Hour. Maybe you’ll process it all in an hour; it took me at least twice that. No quibble here, though. This book merits careful reading.

Here are some takeaways that you may find helpful (with details to follow for each one):

  • Like it or not, search ranking is a popularity contest.
  • Some SEO remains within your control.
  • On-page SEO is easy but not trivial.
  • You probably need to optimize for long keyword phrases.
  • SEO keywords matter—within limits.
  • Off-page SEO is hard and important.
  • You can earn backlinks if you’re persistent.

Like it or not, search ranking is a popularity contest

In the popularity contest that is the battle for the highest search rankings, Google decides who’s in. These days, you can forget about rigging that decision.

I’ve known black-hat SEO guys. Back in the day, they rocked. They gamed Google at every turn, adjusted keyword density to a precise percentage, generated staggering amounts of copy on thousands of interlinked web pages—rocketing their clients’ landing pages to the top of SERP 1 (the first search-engine-results page). The black-hatters figured out how to write for machines, and the machines rewarded them.

Image: Google snapshot of content on the first search-engine-results page
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By the way, to rank is to have your page appear on SERP 1, period. SERP 2 might as well be SERP 200. Barry puts it bluntly: “The first page is the only page that matters because it earns an overwhelming majority of the clicks.” In an interview with Barry, web strategist Andy Crestodina puts numbers behind the claim that “there really is no other page”:

“The [clickthrough] rate of pages that rank on the second page of Google is something like 5 percent. Page three is even lower than that. So 90-plus percent of clicks in Google are happening on the first page. Something like 18-plus percent of those rank in the first position.”

Barry makes sure that we’ve heard this popular joke:


Q: Where’s the best place to hide a dead body?
A: The second page of Google.

To score SERP 1 today, you have to post content so good that it gets talked about and shared by lots of people Google trusts.

Remind you of high school? Here’s Barry quoting Andy quoting Copyblogger’s Sonia Simone:

“Google is like the mean girl in high school. You can get her to like you, but not directly. You’ve got to get all the other people to like you first and then she’ll like you … So if your site has credibility among other websites—as in backlinks [aka] incoming links from other sites—then you have more authority and a better chance of ranking.”

You can’t fake your way to the top. Above all, search engines look for evidence that people get value from your pages.

This probably isn’t news to you. Still, any doubt remaining in the reader’s mind had to be squelched, and squelch it Barry does. “Google is the blackest black box in the universe,” he quotes Andy as saying—and you can forget about outsmarting that black box. These days, all you can do is help it find the evidence it’s looking for.

Most of that evidence is beyond your direct control.

Some SEO remains within your control

What control you do have over your search rankings falls into two areas: your own site (on-page SEO) and other sites (off-page SEO). And there’s no getting around the reality that “to succeed with SEO, you must focus on both.”

    • On-page SEO: Barry calls on-page (on-site) optimization the easy part, “ground zero—what you have to do.” On-page efforts don’t pay off the way they used to, but you can’t neglect them.
    • Off-page SEO: Off-page (off-site) SEO is the “more meaningful”—and harder—part of SEO. You need to make your content so good that “other stuff happens ‘off-site.’”

SEO Simplified walks you through both parts: the on-page and off-page efforts, the easy and the hard. You won’t get far doing just the easy part, but ya gotta start somewhere.

On-page SEO is easy but not trivial

You optimize each web page individually. Search engines do factor in the authority of your whole site (domain authority), but they rank each page on its own merits.

On-page SEO is “mostly attributed to the use and placement of keywords.” This kind of SEO alone won’t zoom any page to the top of the SERPs, but it has to be done. On-page SEO involves surprisingly few elements:

  • title and title tag
  • keywords in the copy
  • meta description
  • page URL
  • links to other pages on your site

I won’t attempt to replicate Barry’s how-to’s for each of these elements; a blog post can’t do justice to the details. The main point is that on-page SEO is manageable. The effort is not trivial. It involves tools, time, data, and thoughtful decision making. Still, Barry assures us, “There’s no need to overthink or overdo it.” Whew.

You probably need to optimize for long keyword phrases

In discussing on-page SEO, Barry talks in blessedly plain English about keyword phrases, aka keywords, aka the word strings that people type into search fields. I especially appreciate this clarity since “choosing keywords for your content is a critical first step in SEO.”

Think of it this way: anything people Google could be a keyword.

I know, it’s confusing that something called a keyword can be either a word or a phrase. We just have to get over it; that’s how SEOs (people who “do SEO”) talk.

Barry coaches us through the steps for selecting keywords that not only generate traffic but also deliver “the right kind of traffic—prospective buyers.”

One of my favorite things about this book is that it defines “long-tail keywords” in the clearest, most straightforward way I’ve ever come across. Long-tail keywords are simply “phrases of three or more words.” They may be, as Andy says, “five, six, eight-word phrases … ten-word phrases sometimes.”

Long-tail keyword = string of 3 to 10 words

Aha!

Why bother with long-tail keywords? Because optimizing for long-tail keywords boosts your chances of ranking. For example, Barry has optimized one of his pages on the long-tail keyword “what makes a person influential,” a five-word string.

Image: Screen capture of Google results page showing the impact of optimizing a webpage for long-tail keywords
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While Barry was writing his book, his web page What Makes a Person Influential? was coming in first out of almost 75 million pages when people Googled that exact keyword. This page generates a lot of traffic for his site.

By the way, the long in long-tail refers not to the length of the keyword but to the length of the “search demand” curve’s tail—the part of the curve representing the keywords least searched for in a given month.

Image: The Search Demand Curve
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Reprinted with permission (long-tail callout added)

If this shape were a snake, its fat head would be full of the most-searched-for keywords—terms that people type into Google and other search engines millions of times every month. These are generally single words. Barry gives SEO, baseball, and convertible as examples. Most web pages don’t rank if they’re optimized on single words or even two- or three-word phrases.

If you want a page to rank, you have to optimize on a longer phrase. As Barry says several times, you have to make your page a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

Long-tail keywords also lead to more conversions—more people acting on your call to action.

“The longer, far more specific term suggests [that] the searcher has a better idea of the product he seeks and is therefore closer to reaching for his wallet.”

Want to learn how to pick long-tail keywords that will work for you? Read the book! (I can’t squish all Barry’s advice in here. I can tell you that he knows his stuff and explains it well.)

SEO keywords matter—within limits

One more thing about SEO keywords: their role is limited. Don’t get hung up on them. And don’t go overboard. “Keyword stuffing can result in damaging penalties by search engines.”

Brian Dean of Backlinko, who contributed a chapter to this book, has this tip for how to “make Google happy”:

“Today’s super-smart Google doesn’t care how many times you cram a keyword into your article. Instead, it pays close attention to Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) keywords. (LSI keywords are a fancy way of saying, ‘synonyms and closely related words.’)”

So write naturally. Yes, “seize an advantage with the right keywords.” Yes, use your keywords in all the places Barry tells you to use them on your page. But don’t get carried away. Use synonyms and closely related words, too, as appropriate—Google will keep up with you. When you do use the exact words in your keyword, feel free to use them one at a time or vary their order.

For example, look back at the page Barry optimized for the keyword what makes a person influential. While he uses that phrase verbatim in his title—“What Makes a Person Influential?”—he kicks off the excerpt with a variation on one of the words: “Influence fascinates me.” Then he uses another variation: “characteristics that make a person influential.” He weaves in words from the keyword without beating people over the head with the exact phrase.

The lesson: Write for humans.

Remember that keywords are part of the easy part of SEO—the on-page SEO. That’s the part Google pays the least attention to.

Off-page SEO is hard and important

Off-page SEO is where the real work comes in. Mostly, off-page SEO has to do with the need for other sites—authoritative sites—to link to your page. When you hear people talk about backlinks, external links, acquired links, inbound links, or link building, this is what they’re talking about.

Backlinks win the popularity contest. As Barry puts it, “A healthy inbound-link profile is extremely important for getting your pages to rank high in search engines.”

I find it fascinating that Google also takes note of “nonlinked brand mentions.” If enough people simply talk about your brand in the context of things you talk about on your website—without linking to your pages—Google still gives you popularity points.

Did I mention high school?

You can earn backlinks if you’re persistent

Earning Google-conquering backlinks might seem like an impossible task, but it can be done. Barry points out two tactics:

  • Publish content that your audience loves enough to talk about.
  • Point back to that content in guests posts on respected blogs.

Sound daunting? It should. If you’re aiming for SERP 1, you have to step up. Barry puts it this way:

“It’s important to understand, off-page SEO is an ongoing process and will seldom produce results quickly. Your efforts in content marketing and social media marketing must be ongoing to be productive for earning backlinks.”

Andy concurs:

“The number one factor in Google for ranking … is, was, and will always be the authority of the page. In other words, we’re talking about the link popularity of the page and the domain in general. Are other sites linking to it? Is it credible among other sites?”

In fact, link popularity accounts for about 40% of each page’s search ranking. That percentage makes link popularity the largest of over 200 factors that Barry says are commonly understood to determine search ranking.

Image: Search Ranking Factors
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Used with permission. Original source: “Content Chemistry, An Illustrated Handbook for Content Marketing” by Andy Crestodina.

If you haven’t adopted Barry’s two tactics—publishing content that your audience loves and pointing back to that content from guest posts on respected blogs—you’re not doing everything you could to gain link popularity. SERP 1 goes to those who do everything they can.

Conclusion

Ready to do the work (and reap the rewards) of transforming your web pages into big fish in just the right small ponds? Want to learn more on SEO tools and tactics? If so, you’ll find what you’re looking for in SEO Simplified. Grab a copy, and pull up the closest chair—one that’s not too hard and not too soft but juuust right. You won’t discover any SEO shortcuts or tricks, but you will find accessible wisdom and advice based on the way search engines work today. You’ll come away armed with a plan of action and ready to focus on publishing valuable content. According to Barry, “There is no more powerful SEO strategy for success.”