The 15-Minute Guide to Becoming an SEO Ninja

Learning SEO can be an intimidating process. There’s an incredible amount of information online and even more conflicting opinions from so-called “experts.” You could spend months trying to sort everything out.

Or you could invest 15 minutes reading this guide and come away with a solid foundation of how SEO really works. I’ve focused on highlighting the core need-to-know concepts to give you a working knowledge of SEO as quickly as possible. If you read and absorb everything is this eCommerce SEO guide, you’ll have a better understanding of search than 90% of store owners. In my book, that qualifies you as a bonafide search optimization ninja.

Enough talk! Let’s start by talking about the currency of SEO: links.

 

Ranking Factor #1: The Almighty Link

It’s widely accepted that inbound links are the most important factor in determining your ranking in the search engines. When determining rankings, Google looks at a number of different link metrics for your site:

Links Pointing to a Page

The number of links to a specific page has an enormous amount of influence on how well a specific page will rank.

Links Pointing to a Domain

Just as important as page-specific links, at least according to SEOMoz, are the number of links pointing to the page’s domain. So, in the case of ranking this post, Google would largely weigh how many links are pointing to all the pages on eCommerceFuel.com. The more incoming links to the domain, the higher likelihood that the domain is a trusted, authoritative source and will be ranked highly in Google.

This is why a breaking article on  The New York Times is immediately promoted to a top position in Google for a term, while an established page with more back links languishes in the listings.

What Those Links Say

The anchor text of a link — the clickable underlined words, like these – have a huge impact on what search terms your page and domain will rank for. If a significant portion of the links to your site includes the phrase “coffee mugs,” you’ll rank much better for “coffee mugs” in the listings.

 

Links Aren’t Created Equal

While the number of links is weighed by Google,  the quality of those inbound links is even more important. The higher the quality of the link pointing to your site, the more it will help you in rankings. The quality of a link is a factor of three different things:

1)  Quality of the Linking Page

The more authoritative a page, the more an outbound link will help the recipient rank well in Google. The most well-known metric of a page’s authority is PageRank.

PageRank is a proprietary measurement by Google that indicates how highly Google regards a page.  It’s a scale from 0 to 10, with authority increasing as the numbers grow. It’s also a logarithmic scale, meaning a PageRank 4 isn’t twice as good as a PageRank 2 — it’s likely 5, 10 or 50 times greater.  Nobody is sure exactly how exponential the scale is, or what the base is, but it’s definitely not linear.

As with most of Google’s inner workings, the exact formula for measuring PageRank is unknown. But generally speaking, PageRank measures how many other pages link to a given page, taking into account the authority of those linking source pages. You can measure a page’s PageRank with common browser plugins, including these for Chrome and Firefox.

 

2)  Quality of the Linking Domain

Google also looks to the quality of a domain when deciding how much weight to give outbound links. Even if a specific New York Times page has no PageRank, you’d receive a lot of credit if the Times linked to your domain because it’s such a trusted website.

Google doesn’t have a specific metric for measuring domain authority, but you can estimate it by checking the PageRank of a website’s homepage. Also, the team over at SEOMoz has developed their own metric, Domain Authority, which can be seen when using their free SEO toolbar or when entering sites into Open Site Explorer.

3)  On-Page Link Factors

PageRank is transferable and can be passed to other pages via links. If a page links to only one site, the linked-to page will receive all of the available PageRank “link juice” the original page had to give. But if a page links to 50 different domains, this “link juice” is divided among all 50 links on the page.  So all things equal, you’d rather receive a link from a page with fewer outbound links, as more “link juice” would be passed to your site.

Link prominence also plays a part in how much “juice” a link will pass to the target site. The higher up on the page a link appears, the more heavily Google will weight that link.

 

The Finer Points of Linking

 

Unique Linking Domains

The first link you receive from a new domain will always be the most powerful. Subsequent links from the same domain will always be worth less. Why? Google looks at the link as a recommendation or a vote of confidence from a unique source, so repeated recommendations (additional links) won’t count as much.

The “unique linking domains” metric is one that’s commonly used in SEO. This metric reports only on the number of unique domains linking to a site while disregarding multiple links from a domain. Though it doesn’t weigh page authority, it will give you a sense of how widespread and popular a site is, and how many unique sources have “vouched” for it. You can use Open Site Explorer to measure unique linking domains, as seen below.

 

The Power of Internal Linking

People will often invest heavily in getting perfectly optimized inbound links and then completely disregard links on their own site, which they can control! Internal linking (the way you link to your own pages from within your site) can be very powerful. Make sure to link liberally to internal pages using keywords you want to rank for, and think about how you structure the navigational links on your site.

While internal linking will do little to improve the authority/PageRank of your site, it’s very effective for influencing the search terms that a certain page can rank for, or for impacting a page’s “reputation.”

Deep Linking

A “deep link” is any link to a domain that is NOT pointed at the homepage. The number of deep links compared to overall links can give you an idea of how much useful content a site contains and indicates a broad interest in the content offered by the domain.

The deep-linking ratio isn’t an SEO metric that’s commonly discussed, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that deep linking is a highly effective SEO technique. For starters, it’s a signal to Google that you have valuable content that people are individually linking to. Additionally, deep pages are more likely to be optimized for longer-tail, more specific keywords, which are easier to rank. By pursuing a deep-linking strategy (instead of linking exclusively to your homepage), you’ll be able rank more quickly for these long-tail keywords while raising the authority of your overall site.

Anchor Text Over-Optimization

It’s definitely easy to overdo a good thing when it comes to targeted, keyword-rich anchor text. Google’s recent Penguin algorithm update dealt a severe blow to sites that seemed to be trying a little too hard to rank for a specific term. As I’ve mentioned before, one of my own sites, TrollingMotors.net, was hit hard by this update after an SEO firm I hired did a poor job diversifying our link anchor text. As you can see below, our traffic decreased significantly:

Penguin Traffic

What exactly is “over-optimization”? It’s when your backlink profile contains an unusually high concentration of the same number of keywords. This almost always happens because someone is trying to rank highly for a specific keyword.

To illustrate: When people naturally link to a website, they use all sorts of different methods and words. For a page about break dancing, you’d likely see the following inbound links and context:

 

“found this awesome site on break dancing – check it out!”

“Good videos on breakdancing:  http://www.breakdancing.com/intro

“I learned how to breakdance at this site.

 

Notice the variation, non-keyword links (“this site”) and use of URLs. But for eager sites trying to rank for the phrase “break dancing,” it’d be easy to coordinate inbound links that looked like this:

 

“Check out this break dancing site”

“Download break dancing lessons here”

“We have the best break dancing information anywhere”

 

Spot the pattern? Google can, too. And recently Google has gotten much more aggressive about penalizing pages and domains with over-optimized linking profiles. So when doing SEO, you want to make sure you’re managing your anchor text reputation with a handful of carefully optimized, keyword-rich links. But you always want to make sure you have lots of naturally occurring links as well.

Nofollow Links

Usually, a link indicates a vote or recommendation for one site from another. But in situations where user-generated content is being created, a site owner may not want to “vouch for” (i.e., giving a link to) every site that their users happen to post. At the same time, preventing people from posting links (in forums and blog comments, for example) can be a detriment to the usefulness and convenience of a community.

To address this problem, Google introduced the “nofollow” link back in 2005. Nofollow links look exactly like regular links, but they don’t pass any PageRank (or authority) to the site being linked to. It’s a way for site owners to provide the convenience of a link for usability purposes without have to provide an endorsement of it OR pass any SEO benefits to the site. For SEO purposes, a nofollow link is the same as no link at all. Although Google introduced the nofollow link, it’s treated the same way by Yahoo! and Bing.

Without special tools, you won’t be able to tell the difference between a regular link and a nofollow link. The difference is at the HTML/coding level, which you can’t see in a web page viewed in a browser. For those who do the occasional HTML coding, the difference between a regular and nofollow link can be seen below:

<a href = “http://www.ecommercefuel.com>Visit eCommercefuel.com!</a>

<a href = “http://ww.ecommercefuel.com” rel = “nofollow”>Visit eCommercefuel.com!</a>

To spot nofollow links while browsing the web, you’ll need to use a browser plugin like SearchStatus for Firefox. With the plugin enabled, nofollow links will appear highlighted in pink, as seen below:

 

When evaluating SEO opportunities, it’s a good idea to make sure the links you’ll be acquiring are regular, followed links.  If they’re nofollowed links, you may receive some click-through traffic, but you won’t receive any SEO benefit in the eyes of Google or other search engines.

 

On-Page Ranking Factors

On-page factors have become less important over time as the search engines have developed. In the early days, you could simply include a keyword 200 times on your web page (called keyword stuffing) and rank at the top of the search engines!

Fortunately, those days are long gone. And while on-page factors aren’t weighted quite as heavily as they used to be, they’re still important. If you’re using an eCommerce shopping cart, all the metrics below can be set on a per-page basis using your cart’s content management interface.

Meta Title

The meta title, used to describe what the page is about, is the most influential on-page element. Google places a strong emphasis on the meta title when determining what terms a page ranks for. The meta title appears in two places: at the top of most browser windows, and as the primary title in Google’s search results.

 

 

You should have the keyword(s) you want to rank for in the meta title of your page. Also, the more prominent a keyword is in your title — the closer it is to the front — the better chance you’ll have of ranking for that keyword.

Page Headings

Page headings, denoted by h1 and h2 HTML tags, also influence a page’s ranking.  All things equal, the more you use a keyword in a page heading, the higher likelihood you’ll rank for it.

A typical page heading, usually defined by a HTML H1, H2 or H3 tag.

 

Meta Description

The meta description is a snippet of text you provide to search engines as a recommendation for what to display below the page title in the search results.

 

The meta description has no impact on page ranking, but is a VERY important tool in increasing the click-through rate in the Google search listings. Think of the meta description as advertisement copy. The more compelling it is, the more likely someone scanning through the listings will click on your site.

On-Page Copy

Years ago, people were obsessed about “keyword density,” the percentage of overall text that included the keyword. If having a high keyword density in copy once helped with SEO rankings, it certainly doesn’t anymore.

So what should you do? Write your copy naturally. Instead of trying to write SEO-optimized copy that comes off sounding stiff and robotic, write for your audience! If you’ve done a good job optimizing your title and headers — and have a few inbound links pointed to the page — that should be enough to help boost your rankings.

I’ll make sure that my keyword is included once or twice in the on-page copy and call it good. Spending more time trying to “optimize” your on-page copy will likely be a waste of time and may hurt the readability for your visitors.

 

Balancing SEO and Readability

When it comes to writing effective meta titles and descriptions, you’ll want to consider both the impact your copy will have on SEO and readability for visitors. “Learn to Kick Box With Kick-Boxing Experts & Kick-Boxing Tips” might be a great title for a kick-boxing page from an SEO standpoint, but it’s stuffed with keywords and doesn’t do a good job of “selling” your site to earn the click from the searcher. A more balanced title would be:

“Learn to Kick Box With Over 200 Videos From World-Class Experts”

This meta title still manages to get the primary keyword in near the front, but offers a much more compelling description and reason to visit. Including your target keywords prominently in your title is important, but perhaps even more important is crafting a title that’s compelling enough to catch the user’s interest.

A top ranking in Google doesn’t do you much good if no one clicks on it, so make sure you’re writing compelling titles and meta descriptions. Striking a balance between effective copy and effective SEO keyword integration is important.

 

Social Media Factors

About two years ago, Google confirmed that it used social media signals in its ranking algorithm, especially for time-sensitive and real-time results. Since then, there’s strong consensus in the SEO community that social factors are becoming increasingly important.

So the more Likes, Tweets and +1′s you have, the higher likelihood you’ll rank well in Google and other search engines. While social signals are still weighed relatively lightly compared to links and traditional on-page metrics, their influence will likely increase with time.

That said, if you’ve found this guide useful, please support me by sharing it on Facebook or Twitter via the bar on the left. As you now know, you’ll be helping this page rank well in the search engines and I would REALLY appreciate your support!

 

Other Factors That Affect Rankings

The following are additional factors that are known — or highly suspected — to influence SEO rankings.

Site Speed

Don’t you hate it when a site takes forever to load? Google does, too, and it has made it known that page load time is now a factor in its ranking algorithm.

Page speed doesn’t seem to be factor that heavily weighs into rankings, but it’s wise to keep your pages loading fast both for SEO and customer usability. To help site owners identify issues slowing down their pages, Google has created PageSpeed Tools, which analyzes a page and offers suggestions on how to improve load times.

Page Interaction Metrics

It’s suspected that metrics like the click-through-rate (CTR), bounce rate and time on page may be used to influence your rankings. As the hypothesis goes, the more people who click through to your site from the search results page, and the longer they stay, the better the chances you’re offering quality content. I’ve yet to see this officially confirmed or denied by Google.

Writing compelling page titles and meta descriptions should help you increase your click-through rates, and offering top-notch content should keep your visitors engaged. Even if it doesn’t technically help your SEO rankings, these are still great practices for effective marketing.

Ads to Content Ratio

The number of ads you’re displaying on your site could negatively affect the rankings, especially if you’re using Google AdSense. But if you’re running an eCommerce site, this shouldn’t be an issue, as you should NEVER run third-party ads on your website! You’ll hurt your store’s credibility and lose visitors to other sites. If you need to run ads on your eCommerce site to make money, you’ve got a major problem with your business model, niche or marketing.

Domain Age

There’s a lot of speculation that domain age (the date the domain was first noticed by Google) plays a role in rankings, with older domains receiving a significant “authority” boost. However, Matt Cuts, a well-known spokesman for Google, stated that it may take a month or two for a new domain to appear in Googles results, but downplayed the importance of having an established domain name overall. So while there’s some debate on the issue, I wouldn’t recommend dropping $10,000 for a domain registered in the 90s in the hopes of scoring a domain-wide rankings boost.

 

Questions? Ask Me!

If you can remember all this, you should have a solid understanding of what impacts Google’s rankings and how to best approach your SEO efforts. In my next post on SEO, I’ll be talking about how to take your new-found ninja knowledge and apply it to marketing and link building.

Have questions about the content I covered or think I’m off base on an issue? Let me know in the comment section below! I love hearing from you and will do my best to reply.

Post photo by BrittneyBush

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Comments

  1. Cody says:

    W00t! I’m now an eCommerce Fuel rock star!

    • Andrew says:

      Ahhh yeah! You can just sit back, relax, and watch that organic traffic start to roll in. At least, I think that’s how it works….

      Thanks for reading, Cody!

  2. Noreen says:

    I was going through your Profitable eCommerce book and just finished reading the SEOmoz Beginners Guide that you sent us to read up on, and now you created a summary for me.

    Thank Q!

  3. Paul says:

    A good guide which covers a lot of the major elements. The main part about link building: time and then linking SEO ranking to conversion. When I worked for a major retailer, we tracked the path from Natural SEO all the way to sales -down to value from the keyword – which was great for the whole marekting plan.

    Ever thought about putting together a guide to SEO (and particular the link building and how to outsource it so it works?)

    Lots of things that worked last year are now gone…..drop me line

    Oh and BTW I came across this this year:

    http://www.seomofo.com/snippet-optimizer.html

    not my site, but shows what your Title tags etc looks like in Google results- very helpful for optimizing getting clicks….

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks for the comment, Paul! Have thought of putting out a SEO guide, and AM working to systemize something for my team so that SEO can be more of a process-driven approach that can be passed off to others. I have a hard time handing it off now, but that’s because I don’t have good systems in place. YET. Working on that now.

      Thanks for reading!

      • Paul says:

        Yes, I have I have put several guided up on amazon -under the brand of the Whole Truth- I contacted you a while ago about an intro to ecommerce – do you have some time available now? (no need to publish this)

  4. Dima says:

    Thank you, Andrew for this SEO summary:). I didn’t understand what keywords density you suggest? You wrote once or twice you are using it in the article. But if I have articles of 700 words and more, what k.d. I need? Somebody told me to use 1% to 3%. Is it right?

    • Andrew says:

      I think you misunderstood me, Dima. While keyword density may have been important years ago, it’s not a key relevant factor anymore. As long as I have my keyword in the title, heading and at least a few times in the copy that’s all I worry about. The bottom line? Don’t worry about keyword density and write naturally. Hope this helps!

  5. Adrian says:

    Hi Andrew, great informative article. In my last drop ship business I used several micro sites to link back to my main site for some specific keywords. eg; If my site sold furniture I’d had several micro sites called ‘kidstables.com’ and ‘officechair.com’ pointing back to my main site with links that mirrored the micro site domain. Do you think this is a good strategy to use (especially after the latest Google update).

    I’m thinking of launching a new drop ship business before the end of the year. Not sure if I should though as there are lots of great reasons to but also lots of caveats (consumer regulation etc). Any advice?

    • Andrew says:

      Hey Adrian!

      I would shy away from that strategy especially, like you said, in a post-Penguin world. Also, you’ll be diluting your efforts into a number of different sub-domains which is more difficult that building up one really strong, well trusted website.

      To your second question, I definitely think drop shipping is a great model if you pick a quality niche, add value and are committed to marketing and long-term investment. Best of luck!

  6. Hey, I discovered your site the other day through your post on HN. You’ve got a wealth of information and I look forward to reading more. On a side note, I couldn’t help but notice that your social media bar ( the dd_ajax_float div, is positioned to far left, I can only see half of it. On your inline styling you have left: -95px. I changed this to -60px and that seemed to be the sweet spot to me… elsewhere in one of the stylesheets that also covers the styling of the dd_ajax_float div (where the inline-styling should probably be anyways), I would change the background to background: rgba(255,255,255,.3); or something similar… so the content isn’t covered up…. actually to tell you the truth, I think the social sharing widgets should be positioned elsewhere entirely and not it a “floating” div…. just my opinion though. It just seems out of sorts with the rest of the site’s style. Anyways, if I didn’t say it earlier… Keep up the great work! Oh, and thanks!

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Michael! I’ll definitely make the CSS changes – thanks for letting me know. As you can likely guess, design isn’t one of my strong suits. ;-)

      Great to have you as a reader, and thanks again for the tips.

  7. Hi Andrew,

    Excellent post here!

    Google can be such a finicky pain in the rear, as you well know from a recent update you mentioned. One of the big problems is that the rules constantly change and what is great SEO today can cause you to get Google-slapped tomorrow. I understand it on one level because there’s always those who will try to cheat the system, and Google works hard to catch and penalize them. But I think they’ve gone too far when legitimate sites are getting crushed because of a rules change. I can’t tell you the number of bloggers I’ve seen complaining about the Penguin update and how it killed their traffic and business literally overnight.

    You’ve pretty much nailed it on the head here, though. All you can do is work on the things you can control, like where and how you build your links, optimizing your on-page SEO, and providing content and products that people want. The rest you have to just let ride because you can’t control it anyways and you can drive yourself nuts worrying about it.

    Thanks for sharing. I plan to be around quite a bit more now that I’ve got my site up and running. You provide some extremely valuable insights into the ecommerce arena, and any time spent here is time well spent!

    I hope you have an outstanding week!

    ~Barry

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks Barry!

      Google updates can be frustrating, for sure, but if you stick to a philosophy of generating awesome content, building real relationships and not trying to “buy” / rush your way to SEO success I think you’ll be very safe from future updates designed to penalized spammy or over-optimized sites. It’s pretty rare that I hear of people who played by the rules – or earned a great natural link profile – that are penalized by a Google update. Possible, but rare.

      Thanks for reading and glad you’re getting some value out of the blog!

  8. Danny Howard says:

    Hey Andrew,

    Another great post, It was on my reading list for a few month and I can’t believe I’ve just got round to it :)

    Great tips and advice, It’s also very intriguing to see if the other factors that might affect rankings, these for me are incredibly important not just for SEO but the users as well, so I would imagine Google weighing something on these as factors as the post was written last year, some of these have now started to make sense.

    Just tweeted it, great info mate.

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks Danny! I think factors like Google Authorship, social shares cross-device optimization and site speed will increasingly play a ranking role in the future. But we’ll see.

      Glad you found it useful!

  9. Hi Andrew,
    Prior to this article I didn’t even know there was was a difference between inbound and outbound links! Great post, it’s really helped me understand link building.
    I have one question though, how do you create inbound links … is it through blog commenting and articles? Where do you even submit these articles? I am new to the concept of SEO so the answer is probably really obvious. Do you have any suggestions or guides that have information on how to build inbound links?

    Thanks again !

  10. khaleel says:

    Hi andrew,good article indeed.But i think you missed to mention some crucial seo factors for an ecommerce site such as duplicate content issues,use of canonical tags,site structure etc.

  11. Brent says:

    Hi Andrew,
    Thank you for the great article! Do you suppose that Penguin’s new way of looking at links was a reaction by Google to tools such as SENuke XCR?

  12. Scott McKirahan says:

    Very good article. I think you covered all of the basics that the majority of people can understand and control (i.e. most shopping cart platforms give you little opportunity to do much about canonical references and other more technical things like schema markup). Everything you mentioned is something that can be controlled, regardless of the platform they are using.

    I have heard it said that you do still need a fair amount of no-follow links, simply because a website with nothing but followed links looks unnatural. The primary consideration in my mind is traffic. Chances are, if it is not a link that will drive any traffic to your website, it is not a relevant link to your website and will hold little to no SEO value, regardless of the backlinking site’s PR or authority. Relevancy is the new PR, so to speak. So, first think “traffic,” and go after any links – regardless of whether they are followed or no-follow links if they will bring you potential customers. Just don’t knock yourself out trying to get the no-follow ones, though.

  13. Andrew says:

    Thanks Scott! Tried to keep this post the “must-know” SEO post, so didn’t get into canonical and schema markup. But both are obviously important. :-)

    Odd, I’ve never heard that you should actively try to go out and solicit no-follow links. Generally, those are pretty easy to get via blog comments, forum posts, etc. Could you let me know where you heard that advice?

  14. Cristian says:

    Thank you Andrew for the article.
    I have a chance to buy a 15 years old PR4 website in a particular niche which is an affiliate store. The site is organized as a web store with categories, nice pictures and descriptions. When the customers press the buy button, they are redirected to the affiliation website. The site is not making money at the moment. I want to buy it and transform it in a dropship e-commerce store. Will this site lose its page rank and authority once it will be changed?

    • Andrew says:

      Simply changing the site from an affiliate site to an eCommerce should shouldn’t have any effect on the PageRank of the store, no. Good luck!

  15. Excellent article. Probably the best I ever read on that topic. I also read your book Profitable eCommerce. Very good stuff!

  16. Shannon says:

    Hey, simply questioned if you have some type of newsletter or a way that I can download your posts
    so I can review them when not at the computer? I tend to travel a lot now and its so considerably
    easier having them on the pc itself

    • Andrew says:

      Hey Shannon! Don’t currently have a way to download my posts but will look into that in the future. Thanks for the recommendation.

  17. Natalya says:

    This is very useful information, Andrew. Thank you for researching and posting it.

  18. Mark says:

    Hi, you provide a lot of good information, however, I think you should put a print option so we can print out this information.

    Thank you,
    Mark

  19. Chris says:

    Nice work Andrew. One data point I’d add: SEO friendly URLs that match the title and h1 have proven to be beneficial in the e-commerce space.

    Thanks,

    Chris

  20. Chase Isley says:

    Great Post Andrew. Love your site and always recommending it to friends as well as your e-book. Keep up the good work. Thanks

    Chase

  21. Karla Buist says:

    Very good information about SEO. Thank you for the insight. I know there is a lot of options out there in the form of SEO. I think it is very important to be educated and know about SEO. Did you ever consider paying someone to help with your SEO? In your opinion would you find it at all beneficial to pay for SEO services?

  22. Jim Munro says:

    Good article, thanks for the concise summary.

    I’m just curious if you saw a reverse in the downward graph once you fixed (I assume you did) your over-optimized keywords?

  23. Chris says:

    Thanks for a good post Andrew! The PageRank plugin is now a standard in my Chrome browser :)

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