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.”
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:
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.
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 = “https://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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Are You a Talented SEO? Looking to Hire One?
If so, check out the current open SEO jobs or post your SEO job listing on the eCommerceFuel job board. It’s the ideal place for talented managers and marketers to connect with interesting eCommerce stores and opportunities.
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. There are also of plenty of great conferences that can help take your knowledge to the next level.
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