An Idiot’s Guide to Winning at SEO and Influencing SERPs: MnSearch Marquee Event Recap

profile_mike_ramseyThe bitter cold has arrived, Thanksgiving has come and gone, but prior to the holiday kick-off and Black Friday fisticuffs, MnSearch brought in another industry titan for a marquee event. This month it was Mike Ramsey, founder of Nifty Marketing and Nifty Law, with his presentation An Idiot’s Guide to Winning at SEO and Influencing SERPs.

Mike wasn’t shy about telling the audience that he had made a ton of mistakes throughout his career, but that he also learned something from each. He shared six of those lessons, complete with examples and fancy slides:

  • Lesson 1: Question Everything
  • Lesson 2: Get a Site Penalized
  • Lesson 3: Track Competitors
  • Lesson 4: Share Constantly
  • Lesson 5: Good is the Enemy of Great
  • Lesson 6: Show Your Value

Following is a recap of each life/search lesson, from which we will harvest, like so many Idaho potatoes, the delicious digital marketing nuggets.

Lesson 1: Question Everything

Impromptu poll question: who out there reading this has ever read, then regurgitated a story from one of our preeminent industry blogs without doing the slightest bit of digging into the data behind it? It happens a lot, has probably happened to you, and even Mike is guilty of it. He offered a few practical examples of testing and analysis that resulted in conclusions contrary to popular belief:

1. His first example was an article about “Local Search Ranking Factors” from 2009. He read and implemented tactics, but saw no results. Mike then ran his own testing, and one result was the discovery of the number one local search ranking factor (Google’s My Maps at the time), which didn’t even make the published list.

Mike stayed on the subject of local search to describe some surprising results from testing and analysis: the data he collected showed that the click-through rate on the local results trailed not only the organic results, but also the paid results at the top of the SERPs.

When the Pigeon algorithm update launched earlier this year, it decreased the number of local results packs, and also injects organic ranking factors more heavily into the local search algorithm. Mike used his own data to come up with the hypothesis that Google felt the local results didn’t offer enough quality to searchers, and Pigeon was the result.

2. Mike went on to cite a presentation by Rand Fishkin at MozCon in which he had the entire audience visit a given SERP and click through to a test page. The result was a substantial—though temporary— jump in the search position of that page. This is something that Google may have been testing for some time, but no one was talking about it. This kind of missed opportunity can occur if we’re not vigilant and looking at changes in how SERPs are presented rather than just reacting to what Google announces.

3. Finally, Mike talked about the elephant in the room: building great content is not enough by itself to get your site to rank. Sorry, it’s just not. In fact, according to Mike, traditional (non-white hat) SEO tactics like buying links and spinning content are still working to drive rankings. However, by publicly and frequently calling out and destroying sites and networks of sites that engage in these manipulative tactics, Google has scared a large portion of the community into believing that good content alone is the answer.

TL;DR: Push, question and try new things in terms of your digital marketing strategy. Don’t implement tactics evangelized by bloggers, brands, or even Google itself until you’ve put in the time to test and prove the effectiveness of the methods for your business or niche (one size does not fit all).

Lesson 2: Get a Site Penalized

I thought this was probably the best advice in the whole presentation; if we’re going to make a living in Google’s world, it’s important for us, as marketers, to know where the line it. How many links is too many? How many spun blog posts? What is really going to get my site penalized? What does it take to get that site out of a manual penalty?

Mike created a site to push the boundaries imposed by Google. He got penalized, and figured out how to get out of penalty purgatory. He also learned which tactics are effective against other sites whose owners may not being wearing their purest white hats.

Pro Tip: Barracuda’s Panguin tool can help you correlate a traffic drop with a Google algorithm update. Just follow the link, connect your Google Analytics account, and you’ll quickly be able to see which algos have impacted your traffic, positively or negatively.

Lesson 3: Track Competitors

Transitioning nicely from uncovering the nefarious deeds of your black hat competitors, Mike next advised SEOs to track the competition.

“Good artists copy,” Steve Jobs once mused, “great artists steal.”

There are a ton of ways to do competitive analysis for SEO, comparing link profiles, keywords and more. Here are a few tools that Mike mentioned in his presentation:

  • Google Alerts – Keep an eye on what your competitors are up to.
  • Moz – Open Site Explorer has competitive analysis functionality for comparing link profiles (as does Majestic).
  • WebMeUp – Ideal for quick backlink references.
  • Pages to Watch – Facebook’s way to see what’s happening in your industry or niche; you can add your competitor’s sites and get their stats.
  • Rival IQ – SEO analytics and social metrics for your competitors.

The key takeaway here is that competitive analysis shouldn’t be done as a one-off. You should be tracking, not taking a snapshot. Content creation and search are super competitive, so stay on your toes in order to close the gap or maintain your lead over other brands.

Lesson 4: Share Constantly

Sharing is caring, people, and no industry bears that out more than our little community of digital marketers and SEOs.

Don’t have the faintest idea of what, or how, to share? Do what Mike did: find the people you admire, people who can teach you something, and see what they’re sharing. Ask them questions. It has never been easier to engage with influencers than it is now on social media. Take advantage, but also give back.

When we share, it actually increases the overall knowledge of our industry. Mike said that in 90% of the cases in which he has shared something with the SEO community, he has learned something from the additional work or commentary of others.

Not only that, he can directly attribute almost 250 leads from sharing what he knows, via blog and conference speaking. That’s some serious ROI for documenting your process and sharing the results of your work.

Ask anyone who has published something online or via presentation, and you’ll quickly learn he is not alone in this experience. Sharing what you find and getting feedback on the results is a great way to grow professionally; it teaches you that you really can’t think of everything when it comes to digital marketing and SEO (this is also, if you’ll believe it, an important lesson for life in general).

Lesson 5: Good Is the Enemy of Great

Simple enough, right? If you can’t see square, use a level. Pay attention to the details. Ask yourself, before you put your name on an idea or a project, whether you are willing to bet your job on your results, your work, and your conclusions.

Mike’s practical example here was from a blog post that he wrote that received 40 views on his site. He was unhappy with the results, so he added content, created an enticing title, had it proofread, added images, made it more digestible, and put it somewhere it would be seen.

At the time of the presentation, the post that had the details down had 62,285 views. In Mike’s words, if you want to be great at search, don’t turn in something less than great.

Lesson 6: Show Your Value

Finally, Mike reminded us that we need to prove, every day, our value to our clients, our agency, our corporate overlords, whatever. For SEOs, that means you need to master your analytics platform, your attribution models, and your ability to educate others about your craft.

Mike specifically called out analytics as a huge imperative for us to understand and use in our daily work. If you don’t track it, you won’t grow.

TL; DR Takeaways

Today’s digital marketing and search landscape is more competitive than ever, and as SEOs we need to be consistently questioning the information that we’re presented with by bloggers and industry sources. One great way to do that is to push the boundaries put in place by the Google until a site gets penalized, then go ahead and take those lessons forward with you. Also, need tracking the competition to find out what’s working and what’s not is going to provide better insight for your specific niche than anything on the blogs.

In order to improve your skills in explaining SEO, share what you’ve learned. The feedback you get may be more valuable to you than your work was to others. Also stop to consider whether your work is great. Great work will demonstrate your value to the people writing the checks.

Thanks again to Mike for a great presentation, and for all the members and guests who make MnSearch a great and growing organization.

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