Once you get into online business, especially SEO and copywriting, you will inevitably learn many rules that you must obey if you want to rank good. But is it always the case, and can you rank on first page of Google even if you disrespect ranking rules? Let’s learn some tricks of the trade.
A real-life exemplar
This is my story.
Towards the end of 2013 I launched a WordPress blog with the intention of writing impressions from a local sports club games. I was their fan for quite some time, starting high school; then I moved to another city for University; and after my studies all of a sudden returned home. Going back to the games made my days and coincided with my first real job.
After a while, another fan came across my blog and wanted to share the texts I wrote with others. I agreed. His initial idea was to repost my posts; but it eventually led us to merge our two blogs into one and start cooperating. It was my blog that we went for, as WP gave us more customisation options, and I was more familiar with the platform.
I kept blogging about the games after they took place, accompanying my texts with photos from my phone (Nokia 6300 first, then E72, then Lumia 730 Dual Sim). He wrote shorter texts, usually announcements he found on other sports portals; and he did a lot of on-page maintenance. We never interfere with what the other person does – we are partners, and although our visions do diverge, we believe it is okay to give the other the benefit of a doubt. Still, we kept his blogger platform to use for live streaming, when available, as the free WP domain does not give us the options we need.
In the meantime, a professional photographer joined us, so there was no more need for my non-professional phone photos, as we were given high-quality photo material.
There were some tournaments we covered, and it brought us cooperation with foreign journalists. Some domestic tournaments recognised our blog as the official club’s page, and brought us backlinks. Our city organised a tournament and offered us press seats, without asking anything in return, as their cooperation with the club was non-existent at the time.
One other reason that could have influenced our blog popularity is the fact that the official club’s website went down some time after we had already established ourselves a name. There may be a belief we put it down, but if we only knew how to do it…
Our fan base continually increased, and it continues to this day. We also run a fan page on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and a Youtube channel. Page visit fluctuates on a daily level, ranging from below 100 to over 11 thousand, from both local and global market (Faroe islands, anyone?), and it is something we cannot predict nor influence in any way.
Unfortunately, the only thing we have not (yet) achieved is the cooperation with the club. There were several attempts, on both sides, but they failed due to diverging points of view on what to do in the future. While the club suggested us to basically shut down everything we did and redirect our followers to the official pages, we decided we want to go unbiased and turned the offer down, as we still want the freedom to criticise when there is need to do so. And, according to how they treat us, they do need criticism, at least as a wake up call.
Until then, here is the hack..
How to defy all SEO rules and still rank on first page
Use heading 1, heading 2, heading 3… tags
SEO experts will tell you there need to be only one heading 1 tag in your texts – that one is booked for the main title of the article you publish. Other tags, heading 2, heading 3, etc. are for the sub headings in your text, and need to be used so as Google bots could crawl your text more efficiently and understand what it is about.
Fact is, you do not really need it. Your content can still be good even if you do not divide it into any sub sections with headings tags. For the first 390 out of about 400 texts on the blog, we had no idea about h1, h2, h3, tags, so we did not use them at all.
It will make your content bot-unfriendly, but it will not truly harm your ranking.
Write for people rather than Google
One other SEO secret is to produce content for people rather than for Google, but it is an enchanted circle that goes this way: what is interesting to people is not interesting to Google bots. If you want to rank good, you first need to convince Google you offer quality content. You do that by attracting many visitors who will truly read your content and engage with it. Based on your visitors’ positive stats, Google will deem your website good and push it towards higher position in search engine results page (SERP). If there are no people to read, there are no signals to Google to rank you good.
That is why many copywriters fail into the trap of producing Google-friendly content hoping it would be enough. It is highly tricky finding the right balance between writing for real people and writing for bots and crawlability.
As we knew nothing of this rule when we set off, we wrote for people only. No Google-friendliness whatsoever. That is what brought us so many followers.
When running a website, you need to offer your visitors solid navigation through your website – by linking to other pages and similar content. Also, to make yourself more reliable, you need to link to external websites, for credibility.
The absurd gets even higher when you know that it is today a common practice to insert the “nofollow” tag into the code of the links so that Google could not track the traffic you sent to the linked content. Thus, you kind of trick your linked content into believing you linked to them, but then you mess up with their stats.
At the time when I was starting, I actually had to real need to link to anything. When I did need it, which happened about 5 times in about 50 texts I wrote, I fiercely linked. And survived.
Oh, one of my favourites! Photos optimisation includes adjusting their dimensions to the website-preferred dimensions; as well as renaming them to match the title of the text you include them into; and adding captions and alternative texts. Also, you need to optimise them so their quality remains the same while they weigh less (take up less space on your website server).
But, what did I do? Never changed the dimensions as it would take too much time. Never even heard of decreasing their weigh. Never renamed them to match the title of the article. In fact, I left the original name given by my phone: either IMAGE_8927538, IMAGE_20_05_2014, or WP_20150922, to name just a few. Later I learned it also made it difficult for me to find a photo in the gallery, so I switched to some sort or renaming: WP_20151021_MPCZ, sometimes even adding the final result.
But, I did use a watermark which always contained the main data: the teams that played, the venue and the two important results.
Add featured image and ogp
It is quite common to have a featured image that will represent the article, and an ogp (open graph protocol), which is basically what users will see when you seed the link on social networks. They tend to be one and the same image, usually cut to different dimensions: featured image is width-specific to your website, while ogp is strictly limited to 1200×630 pixels, as that is preferred by Facebook.
But we also never had any of these. Only later, when I learnt about it, maybe last year, did I start adding ogp to our articles, but without really paying attention to FB preferred dimensions.
Write meta descriptions of… Well, everything
Google cannot really bother to read absolutely everything you write, so you need to make it easier for its bots to read through it. To give them, say, a shortcut into understanding your content. That is what meta descriptions are for. But, there is a catch, ha! You need to have meta descriptions to everything! Every photo, every article, every page… May even seem more hassle than writing the content itself. The good thing is meta descriptions for, say, one gallery of photos, can be all the same, so copy-paste is quite handy. And, another cool feature: meta descriptions usual length is no longer than 156 characters.
But, guess what? We never actually incorporated meta descriptions into anything, as we just recently learned we should have. Were there any penalties? Don’t think so.
To rank good, you need to make your follower base hungry for more, and you need to let them know when to come back for it. Plan, plan, plan; publish one type of content today, another type tomorrow, another the following day… Your readers need to be regularly fed with new content, as you will lose them if you fail them.
But, when you are in the sports business, and when you write about the games you went to, and when they take place twice a month, there is really no much material to write about in between the games. You can find some interesting reading on the web and share it with your readers, but other than that, regularity in publishing is not easy to follow. Do not push it. It is better to publish when you have something to say rather than force yourself to produce new content when there is none – and, furthermore, no need for it.
Paid domains in either platform will give you the comfort of using advanced analytics tools, to analyse all sorts of insignificant details: who are your visitors, what brought them to your website, what content do they engage with most, what time of day or week they are most active, bounce rate (how many visitors came to your website and left immediately – the higher the bounce rate, the worse you rank), how long they stayed on the website, if they left the website after reading that piece of information or they rummaged for more, the number of backlinks, and so, so, so many more.
I believe all this is insignificant for what we did with our blog, but some other niche websites might find it crucial. I used the free WP analytics only when WP dashboard notified me of high stats, and after I visit the home page and inspect the stats, go through them some more, just to see how we rank, but that was it. No real need to learn what brought a person from Faroe Islands to my website. If he liked what he found, he will be back. If not – well, nothing I can really do about it.
Paid domain vs. free domain
Do I really need to have a paid domain if free ones can also do the job?
Well, yes. If you are a company, or you want to start your business, you need to have a paid domain, as it offers more customisation options, and it gives you credibility. Also, for WP, free domain offers only 3GB of space, so once you fill it up, you are either forced to move to another domain and continue there from scratch, or, worse, delete the media from the beginning and continue filling up the server with new media – but once you delete what has already been seeded online, you mess up not only all your links but the illustrations as well. Think of it like this: deleting old media is like ripping the pages out of a scrap book you want to present yourself with to your grandchildren one day only when you have no more boxes to keep them in in your attic. But what can you do with covers only?
Even though I did not pay attention to ranking in SERP, I also learned the hard way that free domain websites take ages to get indexed and ranked. And I learned it after we moved to a paid domain – it took us about three years to reach first page is SERP with our free domain blog and only about two months to achieve the same with the paid domain.
The trouble with the paid domains is you can always lose them. When it comes to the difference between WP .com and .org websites, only .org offers you complete ownership of your content – but it will also take you ages to get everything going. Have this in mind.
To cut the long story short, this one you should trust your SEO experts with – paid domain is a must.
Present unique content
I believe this is the only thing that matters, and the key trait that made our website rank as awesome! The more passion you instil into your writing, the better rank will you achieve.
Do not copy other people’s writings (give them credit if you do, as plagiarism is heavily penalised by Google as well as in acadaemia!), do not use bad language, consider orthography and spelling, use proper word order, and, above everything else, write what you know about and be passionate about it to engage your audience. It is the only way for them to meet you, and the only way for you to establish yourself as an expert on the topic you went for.
Write long posts
Short posts are anything around 300 words a piece, medium something between 500 and 700 words, while anything above 700 counts as long. Pieces over 1000 words are recommended, 1200 is quite desired, 1500 – wow, and everything above that – the longer, the better. The rationale behind this is that you cannot really produce any quality in 300 words only, while only a true expert on the topic could go on in 2000 words on a single topic. Try it yourself, especially if you are not into writing – several hundred words is the maximum you will end up with before you exasperatedly sigh “but what is there more to write about it?”
To illustrate this, all I have written in this article, up to this point, is over 2400 words, and is over four pages long. But, with me, when I write about topics I am familiar with, not even 5000 words is a problem. And your audience can recognise this – there is no way to cheat a reader. They will recognise it when you are faking it, or, even worse, when you are biased or forced to write about something you do not personally believe into.
When you work in SEO and copywriting, I understand it is rather difficult producing a 1500-words piece on a topic you care nothing about. Like, who in the world would write passionately about dumpsters system or solid waste disposal in the Netherlands? Can you overcome this barrier? I do have one solution, but I will be smirked upon for it: do not do what you are not interested in. Find another job – one where you will be able to write about what you care about.
Before we started promoting our content on social media, the blog visits were almost inexistent. I actually wonder how did the guy even find me in first place, because at the time when he did find me, after a couple of months of existence, my blog had like several dozen visits. Altogether. After we started promoting the content, the stats boomed, and they continue to do so to this day.
A cool option of WP platform is you can connect your blog with your accounts in FB, TW, G+, and other social media, so the moment you publish new content a notification goes to the connected pages, and there is virtually no need for you to do further social media promotion (SMM). Of course, when you own a paid domain, the notification will look much better, much more professional, while the free WP website domain limits it to the title and the first sentence of the article, together with a featured image (if you even have it).
This inter-linking of platforms is actually a good signal for Google, I dare say. However, in short, social media signals do influence ranking, no matter what Google experts tell you. They will officially tell you these sources of website traffic do not play such an important role, but still rank you better if you publish your content on Google+ as well.
Instead of a conclusion – disclaimer
All opinions presented here are based on my personal experience of running a free WordPress blog on a local sports club topic. I do not talk about business websites nor blogs. I did not have any knowledge, or formal education nor contact with SEO, copywriting, programming, website or graphic design, or anything of the like, for the first three years of running that website.
All SEO rules I presented here are the result of the knowledge I gained after I started working as a copywriter in a privately owned small-size company.
All data presented here emerged as a result of my new knowledge and my interest in analysing what brought us to the first page of Google search based on three keywords only.
There are many other SEO rules to go with when running a website. Stay tuned, part two of this article is on its way in the near future – once I learn enough about those to have more analysis material to extract from my own experience.