Is SEO dead? On the contrary, SEO is alive and well, and more important than ever with all the changes that happened on Google and other search engines. It’s true, however, that SEO strategy has changed dramatically since the early days of the internet and Google.
With that being said, the strategy you’ve done in 2016 might not work in 2020 and onwards. Here, we will show you effective SEO strategy for 2020, after considering all the recent changes in Google’s algorithm and the introduction of RankBrain.
Let us begin.
Content is Everything
Before anything else, let’s have the right mindset: most grey and black-hat SEO tactics no longer works in 2020. Both Google and the users are getting smarter: Google with its various algorithm updates and especially RankBrain have rendered various grey-hat tactics to be completely useless—and can get your site permanently penalized.
Even if somehow you can get results through these grey or black-hat tactics, the visitor will recognize it if your content is not high quality, and so you won’t get any conversion. Also, if you have high bounce rate or low dwell time—among other UX factors—, RankBrain will demote your site from the SERP.
There’s no shortcut to SEO success besides actually producing relevant and valuable content. This way, we play along with Google’s goal: making the internet a better place for everyone where it’s easier to get valuable information.
So, what should we do about our content to get the best SEO results? Here are some best practices to follow:
1. Optimization Starts From The Planning Process
Don’t blindly develop your content with the aim to optimize later by adding links and optimizing for keywords.
Instead, plan your content strategy with SEO in mind, and there are two main things to consider: search queries/keywords that are relevant in your niche, and the user’s search intent when searching for those queries:
Use various tools like SEMRush or Ahrefs, among others for keyword research purposes. The principles are fairly straightforward:
Find keywords that are relevant for both your brand and your audience
Find keywords with high enough search, yet with manageable competition
Find keywords that are expandable into an informative content
Tools like BuzzSumo and Ubersuggests can help you find trending content in your niche, based on the keywords you’ve found in the keyword research aspect. Some keyword research tools can also help with this.
Understand the search intent behind each keyword. Your content should aim to answer this search intent and help the reader to complete a specific task according to the intent. This is why longer content (1000-1500 words and above) generally ranks better, because they provide more information to help the reader.
Don’t forget the purpose of the content to convert readers. Include engaging CTAs or point them to the next step of the buyer’s journey. For example. you can incorporate lead magnets.
In optimizing content for SEO, the most important part here is to remember that your goal is to align with Google’s mission to provide more value to the human audience. Don’t focus too much on pleasing the search engine algorithm, but focus on delivering relevant, informative content for your human readers.
2. Proper UX Practices
The structure of the content, proper grammar correctness, and the overall layout of the page will affect how the audience is consuming your content. If the reader is properly engaged, it will increase their dwell time—which is a ranking signal—, and will increase the likelihood of them sharing your content—which can possibly get you more backlinks.
While there are no set rules about this aspect, here are some key pointers:
Proofread your content and make sure it’s free of any typos and grammatical mistakes.
Find the right balance between simple and technical languages. This will obviously depend on your audience’s preferences.
Make sure it’s structured properly: short paragraph, bullets and numberings when necessary, bold text, etc.Make sure it’s easy to digest the content quickly.
Use subheadings accordingly, use these subheadings as the opportunity to include keywords naturally.
Link to reputable sites, and when possible, link to your own content. Also, double check all the facts you’ve mentioned in the content.
3. Keyword Optimizations
Optimizing for keywords nowadays is not about keyword stuffing. While there is no set rule on the right percentage of keyword density, the best approach is to proofread your content and see if it’s natural enough.
There are various tools that can help you analyze your content for keyword density, but there’s no clear consensus. Just focus on using your keywords naturally, and use semantically-related keywords.
Use keywords naturally—and their variants— within the body of the content. It’s best not to think too much about this aspect, and just write naturally about the topic. Include your target keyword in the beginning and ending of the content (within the first and last 100 words).
Use keywords (and LSI keywords) naturally in the title, heading, URL, and image text.
The main idea is similar to the above: write naturally with the focus to deliver value to human readers. Also, check top-ranking competitors on how they are approaching their content (structure, writing style, images usage, etc.). Aim to be better than them, and that’s how you’ll rank higher on the target keyword.
We will further discuss keyword optimizations in its own section further below.
Analyze The First Page of SERP
Google’s SERP (Search Engine Results Page) has changed dramatically over the years. The fact is, ranked first on your target keyword is no longer what it used to be.
Also, now there’s the “PEOPLE ALSO ASK” box just positioned above the top organic result.
The thing to consider is, even if you can somehow get featured as rich snippet or in the “people also ask” section, it won’t guarantee a click to your site. A rich snippet is designed so that the searcher can get the required information without needing to click and visit the site, so it’s intended. Nevertheless, it’s still a good branding opportunity.
What will this mean? One one hand, this will mean an additional challenge, but this can also be an opportunity.
If being featured as a rich snippet might help you achieve your goals, by all means, pursue it. For example, if you are a local business, getting on the top 3 of the Google Map results with local SEO services (also a rich snippet for local near-me queries) can significantly increase conversion rate.
Keyword research tools like Ahrefs can help you analyze keywords with high organic click-through rate (CTR). In most cases, these are keywords that didn’t feature-rich snippets as a result, but there are also cases where organic CTR remain high when there are featured snippets. These are the keywords you should target.
Ranking on featured snippets will require a significantly different approach than normal SEO, and is a deep subject on its own. You might want to check out this guide by Neil Patel if you want to pursue rich snippets optimizations.
A Little Bit Different Is Better Than A Little Bit Better
The main goal of SEO is to rank (or get featured snippets) on your target keywords. However, the more valuable the keyword is, the more competition you will have.
To get ranked, you must beat these competitors, and there are two main approaches you can try:
Be the absolute best: bigger, more informative, in-depth content than the others.
Be different: take a unique angle, come up with some brand new ideas, and so on.
The thing is, in most cases, being different is the easier approach (not saying it’s easy). If you are just slightly better than your competitor—by adding slightly more information, for example—, most of the time it won’t cut it. Also, others will eventually come up with a better content, or the competitors you tried to beat in the first place might update the content, making it an endless cycle.
For example, for keywords like “best SEO tools”, you’ll probably get content listing 10-30 tools on the first page. Developing another content listing 20 tools, most of the time, won’t cut it, especially if you are a relatively new brand. In this case, you might need to develop a really big guide listing 100+ SEO tools to compete with your competitors.
On the other hand, if you can really deliver something different—albeit so slightly—, usually it can compete better. This is the top-ranking content for “best SEO tools”, which is just slightly different than other content on the first page by being an expert roundup: including pictures and quotes from the SEO experts in the industry.
So, if you can find a unique angle to approach the keyword, or if you have different actionable tips than the others, go for it.
Being unique also means there’s a higher chance to get your content shared and linked, which will give us those valuable inbound links.
Link Building In 2020
Backlinks are still one of the most important ranking factors in 2020. However, many things have changed in recent years.
All the changes, however, leads to one thing: Google is now smarter in determining the quality and relevancy of your backlinks:
Quality over quantity: the quality of your backlinks is more important than quantity. That is, the links coming from authoritative sites in your industry will be accounted as more valuable.
Relevance: even if your link is coming from a high-quality source, it won’t bring any value—and actually might get you penalized— if the site is not related to your niche. For example, if you are a digital marketing site but you get a link from a golf site when the content is not related to golf.
Frequency: If you get too many links in any given time (yet your content is not going viral or not getting high traffic), Google might penalize you.
Here are some tactics that are still effective to achieve this feat:
1. Make Your Content Linkable
The best way to get more backlinks is to actually have a very high-quality or unique content (as discussed above). If your guide—for example— is very in-depth, complete, and informative, someone will eventually link it. The same thing happens when you provide unique facts or tips not available anywhere else—if the unique fact is actually relevant or interesting.
There are, however, ways to increase the linkability of your content, for example:
Many people link to other sites when they cite for data. Including data and facts (for example, research results or case studies) can increase linkability.
If you can coin totally new things, and if it’s interesting or useful, you will get links.
Find famous things or concepts many people talk about in their content, and write an in-depth content about it. For example, many people discussing SEO will talk about link building, and if you have an in-depth guide about link building, they might link it.
People tend to link pages that are already ranking on top (at least on the first page). This is why it’s wise to focus to build links on just one or two really good content at first. If you get a lot of quality backlinks to this content (naturally), it will also help your other pages.
First, you will get more people reading your content, which thanks to RankBrain, is now valuable as a ranking signal. Second, the more people see your content,the higher the chance they will link it. Third, sharing your content on social media and social bookmarking sites will help your content indexed quicker.
Social bookmarking is, in a nutshell, leaving your content on social platforms with two aims:
Leaving its trace on the internet—”bookmarking” your content—
Getting more people to see your content, and hopefully they’ll share it.
This list by Brandwatch will help you find the best social platforms to bookmark your content, according to your niche.
Guest posting, when done right, is still a very good source for backlinks.
There are two keys to successful guest posting campaign:
You will need to build your own reputation. It’s generally harder for brand new sites or sites that are unprofessional made to get opportunities. Again, having a strong content marketing game is the key.
In most cases, you will need to build relationships with the sites before they’ll give you guest posting opportunities. Comment on their blog posts (not as effective as it used to, but can still work), engage on their social media conversations, or even send an email to introduce yourself.
It is also worth noting that there are reputable sites that will charge money for guest post opportunities (where you’ll automatically get a backlink). In my opinion, it can be considered as a grey-hat tactic so there’s a risk of a penalty. However, if the price is right and the site is trustworthy, it can be a surefire way to get a quality backlink.
4. Pay Attention to Dofollow Links
Not exactly a link building tactic, but an important thing to know nonetheless.
There are two different types of links: Nofollow and Dofollow. The main difference is just a coding tag where a nofollow link will have the rel=”nofollow” behind the html code. So, it’s indistinguishable by human readers, but the difference is very important for Google and other search engines.
In short, Dofollow links are accounted as a ranking signal, but not Nofollow links.
How to check if you have nofollow backlinks? View the page source of any site (especially in this case, look for sites giving you backlinks) on your browser and use the find (ctrl+f) function to search for ‘rel=nofollow’. If you find any, you have a nofollow inbound link.
There are also various tools that can help you. For example, this Chrome extension.
In general, however, backlinks from popular sites like YouTube, Quora, Wikipedia, and Reddit, among others, tend to be nofollow. Links from blog comments, social media platforms (embedded link in a post), and forum posts also tend to be nofollow.
So, aim for dofollow links.
On-Page Optimization Part 1: Content Optimizations
We will divide on-page optimization into two parts: optimizing your content and optimizing the non-content aspects of your site.
First, content optimization, and obviously here we will talk a lot about keyword optimizations.
There are three main things to focus on in this aspect:
1. Natural keyword usage and semantic keywords
There are usually two different approaches in developing content for SEO:
Planning all your keywords beforehand and then incorporate them into your content. Often, a content outline is developed beforehand with a rough idea where the keywords are going to be used
Write your content naturally as a draft, and then optimize the keywords later.
Both approaches work, although we personally prefer the latter. The idea is to include your keywords naturally and also include semantically-related words.
You can use synonyms or re-word some of the keywords naturally. Another approach is to use Google search (or any keyword research tool), and use the “searches related to…” or “similar keywords..” feature. Also, there are many tools dedicated to find these semantically-related keywords or LSI keywords.
Here are some key areas to optimize your keywords usage:
Your title, use your main target keyword naturally here. If you can, use the target keyword upfront.
Headings and subheadings. Use your main target keyword and secondary keywords sparingly and naturally.
Meta description. This will be the snippet shown in the SERP, so it will affect CTR. Include your target keywords naturally and make sure it’s engaging.
Your URL is often the very first thing seen by Google and your customers. In optimizing it, you will need to consider both your human audience and Google’s search algorithms. That is, make sure it’s comprehensive enough for human readers, but make sure Google can easily index it.
In general, shorter URLs that include your exact target keyword will perform better.
So, if for example, your site is xxx.yy and your target keyword is “brand building”, the URL can be like this:
or it can be deeper within your domain and looks something like this
How if we have several content targeting the same keyword? In this case, there are two different approaches.
First is to create unique URLs according to the content’s title, so:
or you can do it like this:
avoid unnecessary repetition of the keywords, for example
the bolded part is unnecessary.
Make sure to structure your URLs properly so that they are easily indexable by Google. Also, some CMS (content management system) might automatically generate URLs that can end up like:
This is called dynamic URLs, and while Google won’t have any problem in recognizing this kind of URL, it will be a problem for human readers. It’s best to edit it out into a static URL variant, as discussed above.
3. Internal Linking Structure
Internal linking is, as the name suggests, when your page links another page in your domain. When done right, this can improve your page’s SERP ranking.
The main principle is to link from pages with higher SEO ranking/overall authority to pages needing the boost.
Use proper keywords as the anchor text. For example, the source page might be a digital marketing content, and the target page might discuss SEO. Here, “SEO strategy” can be the anchor text.
Internal linking should work together with how you structure your URLs, discussed above. Plan your content ahead, and plan a linking structure from your most important content covering the broadest topic, linking to more specific pieces.
There are various plugins where you can automatically add the “related posts” section. It works like an internal linking, but double check whether the related links are actually related.
There are various ways to implement proper internal linking structure, and this guide by Neil Patel might help you further.
6. On-Page Optimizations Part 2: Technical Optimizations
This part will be about optimizing your site as a whole. The main goals here are to allow Google an easier time to crawl and index your site, and to give Google the perception that you are an authoritative site for your target keywords.
While technical SEO optimization is a very broad subject, and might vary depending on the type of your site and your niche, there are several important factors to focus on:
Robots.txt, in essence, is a simple text file included within any website with the purpose of giving instructions to the search engine’s crawlers on which page they should index.
In most cases, you wouldn’t need to make changes to your robots.txt, but it is wise to check from time to time whether there are any errors that will affect your site’s indexing.
You might want to check this guide on how to optimize your robots. txt.
Evaluation and Improvements
SEO is a long-term game where you will need to spend at least a year of consistent effort before you see success.
So, we would need a system in place for us to evaluate our performance, and continue optimizing our site (both on-site and off-site) while following the changes in Google’s algorithm and guidelines.
Setup a Google Search Console account, let it analyze your site and fix all errors. Check this regularly.
Pay extra attention when there’s a change in Google’s algorithm. This is a good place to start. Generally, if you follow the topics of SEO and digital marketing, you will be aware when there’s any major change.
No content is truly evergreen, there is always room for improvement and you can always update the content with new data and facts. Also, if the content is not performing well, you might want to rework it.
Follow your competitors closely, check their link profile, their new content, and their overall approach to SEO. Remember that SEO is a competition, and aim to always stay on top of your competitors.
While SEO is a long term effort, the results generated are also sustainable, where you’ll also get a long-lasting source of leads. SEO remains one of, if not the most effective ways to build your online presence and credibility.
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Mike Khorev is an SEO expert and digital marketing consultant who helps small and mid-size businesses generate more leads, sales and grow revenue online. He offers expert advice on marketing your company the right way through performance-based SEO digital marketing, web design, social media, search engine marketing and many other online practices. Find him on LinkedIn and Twitter