Attracting traffic to your site via a search engine results page (SERP) can be tough.
And if you don’t have an effective and all-encompassing search engine marketing strategy, it can be worse than tough.
It can be almost impossible.
What makes a search engine marketing strategy so difficult to deploy is what we can call ‘information asymmetry’. Because Google and other search engines do not publish their algorithms, marketers and SEOs lack the essential information they need to help a page or site rank high on relevant SERPs.
Search engine marketing strategies, then, often become a matter of trial and error, or applications of the results of trial and error attempts by other SEOs.
Yet while no search engine marketer can be 100% sure that their search engine marketing strategy is complete and entirely efficient, there are certain signals and best practices that have been developed over time and have proved effective.
In this post we’ll explain the elements that can be considered essential to a search engine marketing strategy. We’ve divided this discussion into four parts:
- Positive On-Page SEO Signals
- Positive Off-Page SEO Signals
- Negative On-Page SEO Signals
- Negative Off-Page SEO Signals
A search engine marketing strategy should ensure that the positive on-page and off-page signals are optimized, while concurrently ensuring that that negative on-page and off-page signals are minimized.
A final note: there are potentially hundreds of signals that search engines use to rank a page or a site, and this post will cover nearly 50 of the most significant. SEOs specialized in developing search engine marketing strategies – including our experts here at DOZ – can and do structure more complex strategies and, while these strategies might include attention to hundreds of different signals, all will necessarily include the signals outlined below.
Some Notes on Search Engine Marketing Strategy Terminology
When developing a search engine marketing strategy, we can quickly fall into jargon.
In some ways this is unavoidable as a search engine marketing strategy is a specialized document prepared by experts in the field of search engine marketing.
Yet while these experts – known as SEOs – might easily navigate the jargon of their field, it is often left to the business owner or site manager to implement the strategy, and this means that the jargon can end being an impediment to success.
Hence, before we dive too deeply into what elements and signals should be considered in a search engine marketing strategy, it is probably worthwhile to define a few key terms we’ll repeat throughout.
First is the notion of a signal.
For SEOs a signal is anything that is included in the algorithm that a search engine uses to rank pages.
A signal can be either positive or negative.
When a signal is positive it helps lift the ranking of a site on a SERP. Conversely, where a signal is negative it pushes the ranking of a site down a SERP.
Signals can exist either on-page or off-page.
On-page signals are the signals that exist on the pages and site owned or managed by the company or person implementing the search engine marketing strategy. These signals can and should be optimized with ease as they all fall within the control of the page manager.
Alternatively, off-page signals are the signals that exist outside of the pages controlled or managed by the company or business implementing the search engine marketing strategy. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these signals are entirely outside of the control of the page owner, but they are certainly more difficult to control than the on-page signals.
With those basic terms defined, let’s start by considering the positive on-page SEO signals that every website owner and manager should ensure are a part of their search engine marketing strategy.
Positive On-Page SEO Signals
There are thirteen signals that have been proven time and again to have a positive impact on the ranking of a page or site on a SERP.
These thirteen signals, then need to be considered when creating and publishing content as part of a wider search engine marketing strategy.
None should be considered more important than the others, and it should be a company’s standard operating procedure to address each and every signal on each and every page of their site.
- Keyword in Page URL
If a company would like a page to rank in a high position for a particular keyword it should make sure that the keyword is included as part of the page URL.
- Keyword in Title Tag
Additionally, the keyword that is being targeted by the company should also be included in the Title tag for the page in question. In some ways this is ‘doubling up’ on the URL, but it counts and should not be ignored.
- Keyword in Image Alt Tag
Where images are used on a page an Alt tag should be added. This Alt tag should also include the same keyword as the page URL and the Title tag.
- Keyword Used with Special Formatting
The targeted keyword will have a positive impact on a page’s rank where, in the text of the page, it is formatted in a special manner. This special formatting can include bolding, being underlined, or being placed in italics. It’s a simple but also essential part of search engine marketing strategy.
- Natural Keyword Stemming
Repeating a specific keyword on a page where it is grammatically incorrect or where it makes for a poor user experience is ineffective, but using a word with the same ‘stem’ helps a page improve its rank. For example, instead of repeating ‘transport’ a page might also use ‘transportation’, ‘transported’, and ‘transportable’.
- Internal Links with Strong Anchor Text
Every page on a website should include at least one link to another page elsewhere on the website. This indicates to the search engine that there is value elsewhere on the site and lifts the ranking site wide. Use strong and relevant anchor text instead of generic anchor text such as ‘click here’ or ‘read more’ and your search engine marketing strategy will stand a greater chance of delivering on its promise.
- Keyword in the Domain Name
In addition to including the keyword in the page URL, if the keyword is also a part of the domain name there is an additional rankings boost. Hence, is a search engine marketing strategy is seeking to rank for the keyword ‘transport’ then bus.com/transport is strong, transport.com/transport-options is better.
- On-Site Linking and Page Ranking
The pages on a site that link to the page in question provide a signal to the search engines, too. If the homepage of a site links to a certain page it signals the search engine that this is an important page – or at least more important than two blog posts that only link to each other.
- Use of SSL/HTTPS
Ensuring that a page includes a security certificate (SSL) and is presented as https:// instead of http:// has a positive impact on the ranking of the page. This is generally a site wide feature, however, rather than a single page feature but can and should be included in your search engine marketing strategy.
- New Content for QDF Searches
Search engines favor content that is fresh or new when searches for that keyword ‘deserve’ fresh content. Sometimes abbreviated to QDF (query deserves freshness) this signal rewards content that is new over older content. Note, though, that a search for ‘date of the battle of waterloo’ is not a search term that would be considered QDF; alternatively, a search for ‘gross domestic product of china’ would be considered a QDF search term.
- Old Content for Some Searches
It’s a little confusing, but search engines sometimes reward old content over fresh content. When content is older and nothing in the search query is required to be fresh, older content is more likely to be useful to the user. Hence, while fresh content is better for ‘gross domestic product of china’, older content will be rewarded with a higher ranking for ‘date of the battle of waterloo’.
- High-Quality Outbound Links
Search engines reward pages that link to high-quality sites. Hence, given the choice between linking to a site like Wikipedia and a site hosted by Blogger.com, it is better to link to the Wikipedia page and win some small (but not insignificant) ranking juice. Addressing this signal in a search engine marketing strategy can be as simple as training the content creators to link to quality sites.
- Responsive Webpages/Mobile Friendly Pages
Search engines reward sites that offer the best user experience. In today’s world, that means ensuring that pages display correctly on smartphones and tablets via the use of a responsive page or a mobile friendly site. A site that does not render correctly on mobile devices will be penalized.
Positive Off-Page SEO Signals
There are 11 signals that search engines respond to with regards to off-page SEO. Unlike on-page signals, however, these signals are more difficult to control and may be even be entirely outside of the control of the webmaster or SEO expert.
That aside, some of these signals can be addressed with the intervention of a skilled SEO and, in constructing and deploying a search engine marketing strategy, all should be considered.
- Quality Inbound Links to the Page
Just as search engines reward quality outbound links, quality inbound links – that is, links from quality sites to your page or site – are important signals of quality content. Hence, part of any search engine marketing strategy needs to include a means of developing quality inbound links.
- Quantity of Inbound Links to the Page
As well as attracting quality inbound links it is also important to develop many inbound links. In other words, quality counts but quantity counts, too. A search engine marketing strategy needs to concentrate on both types of inbound links.
- Quality Inbound Links to the Domain
The quality of the inbound links to pages on a site impacts the other pages on the site. Search engines use the quality of the links to all of the other pages on a domain as a signal of the quality of pages that may not be linked directly.
- Quantity of Inbound Links to the Domain
In a similar way, just as many inbound links to a page improve the ranking of that page on a SERP, so too the quantity of the links pointing at pages on a single domain impacts positively the rankings of all pages on that domain. Your search engine marketing strategy needs to have a plan for developing numerous and quality backlinks.
- Link Longevity or Stability
The longer a specific backlink has pointed at a page on a site, the more weight is given to that backlink. Hence, a search engine marketing strategy that relies on temporary improvements in rankings via the purchase of backlinks is far less likely to prove successful in the long term as a search engine marketing strategy that focuses on adding real value and creating great, evergreen content.
- Relevant Anchor Text for Inbound Links
If your page is optimized for the term ‘new york city taxi’ and the anchor text that is used to direct users to your site also happens to be ‘new york city taxi’ this sends a strong signal to search engines that your site will be relevant to users. The result? Your page rises up the SERP for those keywords.
- Keywords in Alt Tags
As with the Alt tags on your won site, the Alt tags on images that direct users to your site from elsewhere – whether another site or a search engine like Google Image Search – are a positive signal for ranking your pages for those keywords.
- Inbound Link Context
A single, naked link on a page has a weaker signaling component than a link placed in a wider context. Hence, a link to your page optimized for ‘new york city taxi’ placed in a sidebar is less of a ranking signal than one found within the context of a webpage discussing transport options in Manhattan.
That acronym again: query deserves freshness. Where a search query is judged by a search engine to benefit from fresh content, an inbound link to a page or site will be a strong signal to the search engine that the linked content is valuable.
- Safe Search Concerns
Search engines today offer users the option of a ‘safe search’, that is, a search with adult content removed. A page or site that includes adult content will not appear on a safe search SERP and so a search engine marketing strategy should consider how the content on a site will be ranked on the increasingly popular safe search SERPs.
- Links from Relevant Sites in Your Industry
Finally, the inbound links that point to a site that come from sites in relevant industries and even competitors carry greater ranking weight than non-relevant sites. The reason is clear: if others in the same industry rely on your web content and link to your site then search engines assume there is significant value in what you’ve published and rewards you accordingly.
Negative On-Page SEO Signals
To this point, we’ve discussed the things that a site and page should include in their search engine marketing strategy. These should all be considered essentials; skimping on any of these will have a negative impact on the ranking of a page or site on relevant SERPs.
But as well as the things that a search engine marketing strategy should include – think of these as the do’s – come the things that we can think of as the don’ts.
Because as well as sending positive signals to search engines there are a myriad of ways to send negative signals. And when you send a negative signal you are undoing all of the hard work that you’ve put into building, optimizing, and ranking your site in the first place.
In this section we’ll list out 16 signals you don’t want to send to search engines, and you search engine marketing strategy needs to be designed to avoid each and every one.
- Foreground and Background Colors
Modern search engines reward sites that make it easy for users to negotiate the page as well as those sites that make it easy for the user to find the information they need. When foreground and background colors are the same or very similar, search engines will apply a penalty to that page’s ranking on a SERP.
- Tiny Links
Formerly some sites sought to hide links on their pages either with very small fonts or even tiny images (perhaps 1 pixel square) with embedded links. Search engines today penalize sites that deploy a search engine marketing strategy that attempts to build or generate links in this way.
- Empty Anchor Text
Effective use of anchor text can help improve a page’s rank on a SERP; empty anchor text negatively impacts a page and should not be a part of any search engine marketing strategy.
- Copyright Violations
If a site publishes content that is covered by copyright, and particularly if the rights holder files an official complaint such as a DCMA takedown notice, then search engines quickly apply penalties. Often these penalties are site wide and thus it is a bad idea to include copyrighted material on a site without securing a usage right.
- Doorway Pages or Gateway Pages
A doorway or gateway page is a landing page that offers little value for the user, mainly existing to direct the user to another page on a a site. Gaming or attempting to game a search engine through the use of such pages is not a good tactic, and should be avoided.
- Broken Internal Links
A site owner needs to make it easy for a search engine to index the site, and everything that makes that job harder for a search engine’s crawler sees a penalty applied. It’s not hard to keep internal links active and live, so make it easy for Google, Bing, and other crawlers and make sure that all internal links work as demanded.
- Redirected Internal Links
When a user clicks on a link they should go exactly where they expect to. When, instead, they are redirected, then redirected again and again, the user experience suffers. The result? Search engines apply penalties.
- Keyword Text In or On Images
Using keywords in the Alt tags associated with an image is a positive signal. Including text in or on the image, however, is not so good for search engine optimization. While it may not be a clear negative signal, it is a useless one; save the keywords for the Alt tags and leave them out of the images where they don’t add to the user experience on the page.
- Keyword Text In or On Videos
Just as with keywords in or on images, sites should avoid stacking keywords into or onto videos. It’s not that they send an entirely negative signal, they just don’t help and can make a site owner forget to add them elsewhere (for example, in the title tags of the video). A transcript or summary of the video is always useful to drive home the message, and will help with SEO more than a slide or keyword repeated throughout the video.
- Limited or Thin Content
There’s no hard and fast rule on what constitutes thin content for a search engine, but where a page adds little value for users search engines apply penalties and this negatively affects the ranking on SERPs.
- Too Much Advertising ‘Above the Fold’
Modern search engines favor a positive user experience on a site above many other signals. When a page serves up an advertising-heavy interface to visitors and makes it harder for them to access content there is a penalty applied.
- Duplicate Content
Duplicate content is not the same as copyright infringement. Duplicate content does not always earn a site a DCMA takedown notice, and it might even be content that the site owner created themselves. What’s more, content that is duplicated on the same site can also send a negative signal to search engines. Thankfully, the solution is simple: use and create original content across the site and avoid duplicating the site’s content elsewhere.
- Linking to Penalized Sites
Just as linking to authoritative sites sends a positive signal to search engines, linking to penalized or low-authority sites sends a negative signal to search engines. To avoid sending this negative signal ensure that the search engine marketing strategy clearly states that only high-authority external sites earn links from your content.
- Slow Websites
A website that loads slowly – whether on desktop or on mobile devices – provides a poor user experience and therefore sends a negative signal to search engines. Avoid this by working on things server side.
- Poor Domain Reputation
Maybe you’ve never suffered a penalty from a search engine, but has your domain? Unless you were the first to register a domain and have controlled it since it is possible that another person or company used that domain and was assessed a penalty by a search engine. Unfortunately for subsequent owners, these domain penalties can continue in spite of a site changing hands.
- Automatically Generated Content
Similar to other signals above, search engines will penalize sites that trade in automatically generated content. While there are some exceptions and while AI journalists continue to improve, there is more value in original content than there is in computer-generated text. If your search engine marketing strategy includes automatically generated content and you are not a major newspaper or financial reporting site, you could be headed for troubled waters.
Negative Off-Page SEO Signals
Finally, alongside the negative signals that a site can send to search engines via the content and pages they control, there are also the negative signals that are sent to search engines by content that is not usually controlled by the site owner.
If it seems unfair that content that is not controlled by the site owner can affect the ranking of that site, it shouldn’t. After all, when those inbound links and backlinks were sending all sorts of SEO juice your way there were no complaints, right? If your search engine marketing strategy can be positively affected by off-page signals then it makes sense that there might be negative signals off-page affecting your rankings, too.
In the end, a search engine marketing strategy needs to minimize the negative signals that are sent to search engines by sites they do not control, and here are 5 to watch out for.
- Cross Site Linking
Search engines aren’t perfect at detecting when site owners buy multiple domains and interlink them – but they are getting better. When a search engine detects excessive linking between sites that are registered by the same person or enterprise, or where inter-linking between sites looks suspicious, a negative signal is sent to the search engine and penalties can be applied no matter the quality of the content on the individual sites.
- Paid Link Schemes
Search engines expect links from one site to another to represent an appreciation of the linked content and a sign of value. Paid links, like paid endorsements by a celebrity on television, are rarely valuable; instead, they simply represent a transaction that is meant to benefit the linked site – and this sends a negative signal. After all, if your content is good, why are you buying links? No search engine marketing strategy in 2015 should include buying links in the style of 2005.
- Link Dilution
Search engines look at links in much the same way as users: if there is only one link on a page about ‘new york city transport’ then that link will carry significant weight. However, where there are dozens or even hundreds of links on a page about ‘new york city transport’ then the value of that outbound link is considered to be diluted. It won’t attract a penalty for your site, but it will not be a strong signal for search engines, either.
- Diluted Domain Authority
Similarly, what works for a page works for a domain, too. If a domain links to hundreds or thousands of sites then the value of that link is significantly less than a site that links to only one other site. Again, this is a site-wide issue but it belongs in a search engine marketing strategy document all the same.
- Negative SEO Competitor Strategies
All those negative strategies – excessive cross-linking, buying links, duplicating content – that can drag your site down can also be instituted by a competitor pursuing their own negative SEO campaign against your site. Any search engine marketing strategy needs to allow for time and resources to track mentions and links to the client site and keep a close eye on negative tactics that might be deployed by a competitor in an effort to earn the client a penalty.
When deploying a search engine marketing strategy, it is essential to keep both on-page and off-page factors in mind, and be aware of both the positive and negative signals that on-page and off-page actions send to search engines.
There is no ‘magic bullet’ and, truth be told, there are potentially dozens more signals that are significant positive and negative factors in a search engine’s algorithm, and probably hundreds all together. No SEO can claim to know, 100% for sure, what all of these signals are, but a good search engine marketing strategy will at least take into account all of the signals mentioned in this post.