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Sustainable SEO in 5 Steps: Avoiding SEO Pitfalls

Molly Riddle-Nunn, Director of Content Strategy

Posted on May 30, 2017

Recently at Mostly Serious, a digital solutions agency headquartered in Springfield, Missouri, we entertained a brief debate on where search engine optimization (SEO) should live within our hierarchy of service offerings. The debate didn’t last long. The clear consensus is that sustainable SEO is by definition a) born of a thoroughly vetted content strategy and b) merely an attribute of excellent writing. In our world, SEO doesn't exist outside of thoughtful, engaging writing, nor should it undermine the quality or impact of that writing.

Too many organizations have been burned by misguided—albeit generally well-intended—SEO chop shops that waste their clients’ content marketing budgets by failing to make effective content the backbone of their SEO work. It’s time to help business owners and marketing directors spot the difference between SEO hacks and the many experienced content marketers who do SEO right.

With that in mind, we’ve put together a handy guide to the Mostly Serious Sustainable SEO Essentials:


  • First Up
  • SEO Basics
  • Face Forward

First Up: Content Strategy & Writing

Search engine optimization, or SEO, is the practice of optimizing websites to rank high in relevant search results for search engines such as Google, Bing, Yahoo, and numerous other options. Done right, SEO should enhance your writing because it reflects the overarching content strategy planned for all avenues of your online marketing campaign. At worst, even slightly heavy-handed SEO techniques should be minimally perceptible to the audience. How do we pull this off at Mostly Serious?

Both our director of content strategy, Molly Riddle, and director of quality (👋 hi there) insist that high-quality writing trumps any SEO techniques that could interfere with the reader’s experience. In other words, we put first things first. Sure, SEO tricks and gray-hat SEO can get sites ranked for the short term, but when things get too shady, the waters get murky, the writing gets muddy, and ships inevitably stall out.

Google has made this clear: Valuable, well-written content will eventually win out over garbage writing that relies on a careless SEO’s slight of hand to get short-term rankings in search results. Beyond that reality, we believe in serving as our clients’ digital partners for the long haul, which demands actually increasing their revenue along with improving their key term rankings. I mean, why should a client care that SEO pulls in more site traffic if users immediately bounce because the writing is shit?

Inflating SEO rankings without boosting the number of conversion goals accomplished—be it sales, contact submissions, length of stay, page depth, etc.—is a waste of clients’ money. We can’t get down with that. If the digital agency you trust does, they’re leading you down a quickly shrinking well.

SEO Basics

Pursuing targeted website traffic through organic SEO is an excellent, cost-effective way to grow your revenue and help achieve other strategic goals. At the risk of establishing drinking-game level repetition, let me re-reiterate that even SEO basics must center on quality content. The first rule of Content Marketing Club is sustainable SEO is a matter of excellent writing. The second rule of Content Marketing Club is sustainable SEO is a matter of excellent writing. The third rule of Content Marketing Club is excellent writing is bolstered by carefully researched SEO terms.

Got it? Established writing principles always matter more than fitting in that one last key term. Understanding that kicker is what will power your search-optimized writing to outclass competitors’ content and lead to higher rankings. It’s a vital component that separates successful content marketing campaigns from the lifeless budget suckers. Like all good writing, your keyword-rich copy must hold users’ attention and compel them to act.

Here’s the lowdown on the proven path we recommend for SEO-ready website writing and corresponding content marketing campaigns:

  1. Digital Strategy Research
  2. Target Term Research
  3. On-Page Optimization
  4. Ongoing Linking & Insights Tracking

Light Your Path: Digital Strategy Research

Sustainable SEO can increase your revenue.At our agency, we actually call this aspect of the initial discovery phase our “Needs Assessment Research.” Other shops that also put in this crucial work—there are fewer than we’d guess—label it any number of research-y things. The name doesn’t much matter, so long as you’re working with a digital agency that recognizes the importance of deep-diving for insights about your organization, defining your short- and long-term strategic goals, pinpointing internal and external barriers to those goals, and identifying the ideal target audience that will one day have you swimming in revenue, a la Scrooge McDuck.

Fight Smart: Target Term Research

Think about the people you've identified as your key audience, and then research high-scoring target terms they might use to find for your most lucrative products or services. To rank high for relevant search terms as quickly as possible, you'll want to target the options that have lower competition scores.

In other words, tackle terms that aren’t already dominated by especially powerful websites that would be tough to outperform. People use all kinds of similar terms to search for a given thing, so don’t waste time struggling to tangle with the heavyweight contenders right away. Instead, make smart choices to dominate lesser opponents using essentially synonymic terms. That can send targeted traffic your way sooner. As your website's PageRank [based on the algorithm that determines your ranking power in Google results] improves, you can then decide whether or not to take on loftier competition once you have a puncher's chance.

We may have beaten our sustainable SEO metaphor into the ground.Um, have I choked every last breath out of my fighting metaphor yet? Should I drive it home with something a bit punchier? Okay. Okay. [cartoon by the talented Kathryn LeMieux]

Assuming your digital agency uses reputable SEO tools, chances are you don’t need to worry about the specifics. For what it’s worth, though, we can confidently recommend a handful of professional SEO tools for initial target term research. We start by compiling an extensive preliminary list of potential terms with the Google AdWords Keyword Planner, which is free to use with an AdWords account. That lets us build a huge list of terms, complete with the average number of user searches per month for each term. We generally gather a couple thousand options from the lists Google's tool generates.

From there, we roll up our sleeves and start combing through our list, axing “bad” terms that don’t fit the client’s brand messaging or don’t meet our criteria for high-scoring target terms—those that have a good balance between Avg. Monthly Searches and Competitors' Strength. We also color-code the options that deserve consideration for further research.

To increase our chances for sustainable SEO impact, we color code to narrow down keyword options.Color-coding the options Google's Keyword Planner suggests won't improve your SEO results, but it sure helps us narrow the focus to high-scoring terms that will.

Once we’ve weeded out the baddies and whittled things down to a manageable list, we plug the remaining keyword options into our Moz Pro SEO tools, which require a monthly subscription fee. We use Moz’s Keyword Explorer to check the keyword Difficulty Score, which "is based on the PA [page authority] and DA [domain authority] scores of the results that rank in Google's top 10 for a given keyword, as well as several other factors," according to Moz Founder Rand Fishkin. Because we think it's a little more straightforward for the layperson, we refer to this Difficulty Score as Competitors' Strength, and we often use it as the primary determining factor when choosing among a handful of great key terms we're considering for the given page. This score essentially refers to the overall likelihood of high placement in search results for a term.

At this point, we circle back to our fancy spreadsheet and plug in the Competitors' Strength / Difficulty Score so we can consider all the data together. Analyzing the numbers from Google's Keyword Planner and Moz's Keyword Explorer lets us see what kind of battle we will face for first-page placement in search results for each term.

Create Your Finely Woven Tapestry: On-Page Optimization

When writing new, compelling copy for each webpage, you want to increase keyword density by weaving your key terms into the most powerful places (regarding SEO impact) on the page. Rather than a shotgun approach that scatters as many terms as possible all over the page, set your sights on two to three key terms per webpage and place them throughout the copy with laser precision.

Like most SEO experts, we point to the following elements as the crucial places to include key terms:

  • URL for page
  • Browser title
  • Meta description
  • Link title attributes
  • Image file names
  • Image alt attributes

Key Term Placement: URL for Page

This is the web address for the given page. For example, the Mostly Serious content marketing microsite puts this keyword-rich URL to good use: http://contentmarketingpackages.com/

Key Term Placement: Browser Title

This is the brief title (70 characters or less, including spaces) for the webpage. In the example below, you can see that the latest version of Chrome displays the first part of the browser title in the tab for each website and displays the full browser title, just below the tab, when pointing the mouse at the tab.

Sustainable SEO choices like SEO-ready browser titles improve our digital solutions for clients.

Key Term Placement: Meta Description

This is a brief webpage description (155 characters or less) that appears under the link in Google search results. As seen in the following example from a Google search for content marketing packages, it’s important to include carefully chosen key terms in meta descriptions:

Optimized meta descriptions are key for sustainable SEO results.

Key Term Placement: Link Title Attributes

Title attributes are used to describe the purpose of a link or briefly explain what users will find on the webpage after clicking the link. As seen in this example, title attributes appear in a small box near a link (or button) if a user mouses over the link.

Optimizing link titles for sustainable SEO results make our digital solutions more effective.

Key Term Placement: Image File Names

Highlighted in green font, you can see an image file name—which is only seen if digging into the code—from our Digital Services page:

Sustainable SEO techniques include SEO-rich image names.

Key Term Placement: Image Alt Attributes

Image alt attributes—typically only seen if digging into the code—provide alternate text to describe an image that cannot be displayed. Originally, alt attributes were used to describe images to sight-impaired users, and many people still count on tools that read alt attributes to experience an image. So be sure each alt attribute you write accurately describes its image. Highlighted in green font, you can see the image alt attribute for that same image from our Digital Services page:

Part of our digital solutions, sustainable SEO draws traffic.

Additionally, you will need to appropriately include your target terms in headings and sprinkle them sparingly throughout your body copy. While using italic or bold font for target terms can give a slight SEO boost, you will want to tread lightly with that approach—only emphasizing your terms when it makes sense from a writing standpoint. When in doubt, remember that the potential SEO benefit from shoving key terms into every possible sentence is never worth muddying up your message. Hit the spots in the list above effectively, and you’ll be golden.

Learn & Turn: Ongoing Linking & Insights Tracking

Once you’ve set the stage with on-page optimization, it’s time to kick back and watch the ... nope; it's time to stay focused and continue building on the solid platform you've crafted. In many ways, this is when the real work starts. Well, that probably sells short the importance of your initial research and on-page optimization, so let’s rephrase: This is when seasoned content strategists take good to great. It’s also the point where forward-thinking business owners and marketing execs show their colors, their fortitude.

Investing in a long-term link building and content marketing campaign is not cheap; however, it’s simply critical to reaching the digital goals that sent you searching for a new agency in the first place. At the risk of depleting our contact submissions for SEO work, I’ll take this one giant step further: Without a long-term strategy for link building, the investment in on-page SEO won’t pay off—not for any serious length of time, anyway.

To gain inbound links to the page (crucial for SEO rankings), there is a wide-reaching web of avenues you can travel. For Mostly Serious clients, we often write Company News releases, blog articles, and other materials that send valuable links back to the website. Yes, you read that right; ol' fashioned, honest to goodness, news-worthy announcements still correlate directly to improved target term rankings for our clients, despite Google relegating such links as "nofollow" links some time ago. Along with good writing, the key when creating content for link-building purposes is to first study Google Analytics and other sources of trusted data to look for insights based on user behavior. You can then use those insights as your guide for what topics to cover as well as where to share your content. Basically, web writers and SEOs need to rely on the audience’s behavior to tell us what’s working and what needs to change so we can continually trek down a well-lit path that leads to reaching clients' business goals.

If your agency is doing things right, like Mostly Serious 💪, then they will provide analytics insights as the content guard rails for your campaign—including both the content they create for you and any supplemental marketing efforts your internal team handles. The other big reason we recommend studying Google Analytics and the like is for tracking purposes. It's of paramount importance to take an honest look at your successes and your shortcomings, so you can pivot as necessary, not to mention have an unclouded perspective from which to identify the next opportunity for improvement that can increase conversions. If your agency's reporting doesn't cover the bad with the good and include forward-looking insights along with lessons learned, it's time to ask them why.

Face Forward

Fewer and fewer SEO “tricks” are working these days, and that’s only going to become more obvious as Google continues to improve its ever-more sophisticated algorithm so it can reward Googlers with search results that feature well-written information on well-designed, seamlessly built websites that actually benefit users. In other words, Google is getting better and better at rewarding future-focused, sustainable SEO practices. As experienced search marketers will attest, Google's search algorithm updates come frequently and can cause major damage to SEO rankings that weren't achieved through sustainable SEO. Some of the more extensive updates, like Penguin, Panda, and to a lesser extent the more-recent "Fred," have been known to entirely disrupt the landscape of search result rankings, leaving organizations that relied on less reputable SEO agencies scrambling to recover.

Our sustainable SEO practices lead to steady results even when Google updates its algorithm.Practicing the Mostly Serious Sustainable SEO Essentials lets us earn high target term rankings that don't waver when Google's algorithm updates knock others off the charts.

As seen above, in the results from our latest Holloway America rankings report from Moz.com, Google updates (indicated by the fine, gray vertical lines) should leave neither your company nor your digital agency trembling in fear for your rankings or even crossing your fingers. Using SEO techniques to drive website traffic simply does not need to pose such a major risk. In fact, it shouldn't pose a risk at all. We're proud to say that keeping our eyes trained on the long term and following our proven approach to content marketing and SEO has served Mostly Serious clients incredibly well—with excellent results that hold steady even in the face of Google's most powerful algorithm updates.

Sustainable SEO pros know, “you face forward or you face the possibility of shock and damage!”

So there you have it: 5 steps to implementing a sustainable SEO plan and avoiding the pitfalls that have left so many organizations flailing in the abyss of unranked web properties. You are now equipped to handle your own SEO campaign, or at least to oversee it. Here's wishing you good luck and, more importantly, good writing as you grab the opportunity at hand, whether you're tackling things in house or you're embracing a digital partner to lead the way. Hey, here's an idea: Give Mostly Serious a ring and let us put our sustainable SEO to work for you!

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