This post is written for the in-house folks leading the marketing efforts of high-growth companies. While the team at UpBuild enjoys sharing content by and for advanced SEO practitioners, our audience — our customers — are the savvy marketing leaders within organizations. People who likely could do SEO for their websites, but are never going to, simply due to lack of time and, perhaps, passion (it’s okay not to be passionate about SEO; UpBuild has enough of that to go around). We like to think of ourselves as the secret weapon in the back pocket of in-house marketers.
So if you’re an SEO professional hoping to pick up a cutting-edge SEO idea today, you’re out of luck this time. This post isn’t for you. Check back next week!
This post is for in-house marketers who have EOY numbers to hit and are ready to get to work. If that’s you, read on.
Time is Running Out
I say this without exaggeration. There are only ~21 weeks left in 2021 for your marketing team to hit its numbers. Hopefully, you’re already well on your way to achieving your goals for website traffic, Net New Leads, Sales Qualified Leads, etc. If not, I’m hoping this post can help you move closer to your goal by leveraging search engine optimization. If you’re already good on your numbers, I hope this post will help you continue moving the needle to give you a shot at hitting your stretch goals.
And, of course, the tactics in this post will be relevant for any effort with a near-term time horizon — this post should serve you just as well during 2023 as it will for the last two quarters of 2021.
I should mention that my intention is for you to be able to utilize this entire post without any SEO tools. That means if you don’t have Screaming Frog, a paid Moz account, or an AHREFs subscription, you’ll be fine.
An SEO Playbook to Finish the Year Strong
Before we dive right into tactical guidance, let’s acknowledge a fundamental truth — that SEO is a long game — an ultra-marathon, not a sprint. SEO takes time to achieve momentum, and it requires ongoing hard work and attention.
The payoff can, of course, be phenomenal, and that’s precisely why we at UpBuild do what we do for a living. There’s nothing like evaluating YoY (Year-over-year) progress and seeing a 300% gain. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Given that A) SEO is a long game and B) there are less than two full quarters left in the year, now is not the time to stress over architecting and executing a complete soup-to-nuts SEO strategy. In an ideal situation with no constraints on time, you would have the opportunity to:
- find the right SEO team,
- have them execute a full-scale technical SEO strategy,
- develop (or at least vet) your keyword strategy,
- optimize the metadata and text content of every page on your site,
- implement semantic markup,
- and much, much more.
However, within the current constraints, let’s shoot for what’s achievable here and now. The first step, then, is to narrow focus.
Narrowing Focus [Step 0]
If you’re anything like the dozens of clients UpBuild has served over the last few years, there’s a near-limitless opportunity to improve your site’s SEO. The entire website needs an SEO overhaul, and you likely don’t even know the state of the SEO foundation on which the website sits. That said, if we allow the SEO focus to become “fix all the SEO problems,” we’ll likely solve none of the SEO problems. When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.
As such, you’ll have to narrow your focus and see what concentrated effort around a small group of pages can get you. The goals are going to be simple. We want to utilize SEO to:
- Increase organic visibility on winning pages, as well as underperformers, to boost overall traffic.
- Reduce conversion friction to get the greatest value out of that extra traffic arriving on those same pages.
Those two things will be our sole focus. Everything else can wait until next year.
1. Determine Which Pages to Optimize
To start getting our hands dirty, we need to select our pages. We need to strike the right balance of being thoughtful and strategic while not belaboring the decision-making process and wasting time.
To do this, let’s use readily available data to identify target pages that have a good combination of the following.
- Moderate to high organic traffic and CTR from search
- Above-average conversion rates
- Solid ranking lower down on page one, or just on page two, of Google results for a midrange keyword (a three or four-word phrase)
- Potentially overlooked page experience issues
Furthermore, the pages you choose should be at the appropriate stage of your user funnel. Unless your goal is to drive more eyeballs from search, you may not want to invest in a blog post that simply explains a standard industry term; most of you would be better served by working on pages that are closer to the middle or bottom of the user funnel.
To get at this data, I’d suggest the following:
- For organic sessions and click-through rate, use Google Analytics’ report under Acquisition > Search Console > Landing Pages.
- For most folks, I’d recommend grabbing the top 25-50 rows of data.
- For conversion rates, Google Analytics’ report under Behavior > Site Content > Landing Pages and drill down to your primary Goal.
- Don’t use “All Goals”; the data is going to be a mess.
- For keyword ranking data, start at the same report as above (Google Analytics’ report under Behavior > Site Content > Landing Pages) and click into each landing page to see its associated queries and average position.
- Hardcore SEOs are probably screaming to themselves about that data source right now, but remember, this post needs to be useful for anyone, even without enterprise SEO tools.
- For page experience issues, use the PageSpeed Insights tool (you could also use the Core Web Vitals report in Google Search Console if you prefer).
- If you wanted to go deeper into this, check out James McNulty’s Automated PageSpeed Insights template.
Once you’ve downloaded this raw data, I’d suggest mashing it up using Google Sheets (or Excel, if that’s where your loyalty lies) and pulling in the various data points using VLOOKUP. Working with spreadsheet functions and formulas isn’t something I can effectively cover in this blog post, but I think that any time a marketer can invest in that kind of thing pays dividends throughout a career. This video does an excellent job of breaking down VLOOKUP for those unfamiliar.
Once you’ve compiled your data and mashed it up, you can sort your table by the different columns (high-to-low CTR, avg. position, low-to-high PSI, etc.). More likely than not, a pattern will start to emerge. As I went through this exercise myself, five blog posts were clear standouts. Here are two examples from my data showing both one excellent target for optimization and one poor target.
- Great Target: “Find and Fix CLS with Chrome Dev Tools” has a fantastic organic CTR in Google search and is already bringing us a ton of traffic. Its conversion rate isn’t anything to write home about, but it’s still well above the average. The Pagespeed Insights (PSI) score could be vastly improved, but that goes for our whole site (we’re working on it!). Last but not least, the person who ends up on this post is pretty low in our customer funnel. Working with CLS is a pretty hairy technical challenge, so the person reading the post is either a talented SEO in their own right or they’re going to read our take on the problem, realize they don’t want to deal with it on their own, and get in touch with us. All of this makes a post like this a great candidate to work on because it’s not currently ranking all that well!
- Poor Target: As a contrast, “Tools We Love: Regex 101” is a standout post according to a few of these metrics, but it has a few strikes against it. First, its conversion rate is a flat 0%. That’s not to say it can never convert, but it’s already ranking on page one of Google, boasts the best PSI score of the bunch, and has brought in the second-highest volume of traffic — it’s probably doing as well as it can. A story is emerging that the person who’s going to be drawn to this post just isn’t a prospective customer for us. They want to know a few more tips about writing regular expressions. No one will, or should, hire us solely on the basis of our being great at using Regex in Google Analytics reports.
2. Evaluate Keyword Targets
You’ll want to be cautious about messing with what’s already working well, but now’s the time to think critically about keyword choices. Even if you decide to continue riding high on the current primary keyword, you may want to add a secondary or tertiary term to your page-level strategy.
I’d recommend asking a few of these questions about your primary keyword:
- Does the search intent of your keyword align with who you’re trying to reach?
- “Page speed” is probably a poor choice for UpBuild to target because its intent is ambiguous. “Pagespeed insights” clearly shows that the searcher is looking to learn about this aspect of Google’s ranking system. “Improve Pagespeed insights” might be an even better-target and action-oriented term.
- Does it make sense for Google to rank your website in the current SERP for the keyword?
- Our post on “Regex” shouldn’t really be ranking on page one for that broad query. Many of the current results either define the term; others are entire websites and courses geared around teaching people how to understand and use regular expressions. Our post is neither of those things, and it doesn’t seem to match Google’s perceive search intent behind that query.
- Our post on “meta description length”, however, could easily slot right into its respective SERP. Google is already biasing those results towards tools and guides. We’ve been prequalified to rank there, so it might make sense to make a play for page one.
- Is the search volume for this term worth it? How is it trending?
- The blog posts linked below can show you how to get at some search volume data, but do a quick check with Google Trends.
- I think it’s interesting that “Pagespeed Insights” has been falling in Google Trends right at the moment when “Cumulative Layout Shift” and “Core Web Vitals” made an appearance.
- The blog posts linked below can show you how to get at some search volume data, but do a quick check with Google Trends.
If you feel like you need to exercise your keyword research muscle, these two posts make for great additional reading.
3. Tighten Up Page Titles and Meta Descriptions
There’s not much instruction needed here. Once you know what page you’re working on and what keyword you’re optimizing for, all that remains is to do the work of polishing up your time and descriptions. To stay within the current limits for length and pixel width, use UpBuild’s tools for optimizing page titles and meta descriptions. Once you’ve crafted the perfect title and description, update those assets on your website.
4. Right-Size Images
It feels like Core Web Vitals and page experience have been the theme of 2021 for SEO practitioners. Here at UpBuild, we’ve been neck-deep in Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) optimization; CLS being a major detractor to positive page experience. While auditing Page Experience and fixing all issues is a large initiative (our team will spend at least a month on that for any given client), one thing every marketing team has within their power is to right-size images.
Ensure that any significant image file (e.g., anything that’s not a logo or icon) shown on a target page is:
- Saved using appropriate dimensions
- If an image is saved at 2,000px by 1,800px and scaled down to 500 x 450px in the browser, you’re wasting a ton of bandwidth by downloading that huge image unnecessarily. Better to save that image so it’s natively 500×450 and upload that version to your website.
- If needed, you can run your images through a tool like TinyJPG.
- Delivered using “nextgen” images formats.
- For more on nextgen image formats such as WebP, consult the documentation on web.dev.
- Using a height and width declaration
- Doing so lets the browser reserve that space for the image so it can continue building the full page before the image is even loaded.
- Failing to do this can create dreaded cumulative layout shift issues. For more, consult web.dev.
Optimizing images is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to Core Web Vitals, but it’s one that nearly every smart marketer can impact. For a broader discussion of Core Web Vitals, CLS, and the backstory of the entire project, check out Google’s Phil Walton (author of web.dev/vitals), chatting with Simo Ahava on the first episode of the Technical Marketing Handbook podcast.
5. Decrease Click Depth (at least temporarily)
Click depth might be a term you’ve heard before, but it’s straightforward to wrap your head around. Click depth is the number of clicks that it takes to get from your site’s homepage to the target page. What’s the most important page on every website? That’s right — the homepage. It follows that pages more proximate to the most important page might also be more important than those further away.
This is an incredibly simple tactic to implement. It’s as easy as it is overlooked. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked why a certain page or product isn’t doing well, only to find that it’s not linked from the homepage or even any of the secondary core pages on a website.
So take your handful of pages you’re working on and try to incorporate links to them on your homepage. Failing that, use pages directly off the homepage. Be sure to avoid the cardinal sin of linking to these pages using the anchor text “click here.” You may even want to promote a critical page to inclusion within your website’s navigation!
Note that this doesn’t necessarily need to be a permanent change. You can temporarily decrease the click depth of a page while you’re trying to boost said page’s performance in search. Once it’s served its purpose, or you’re satisfied with your progress, you can swap that link out for something else.
For further reading on click-depth and its importance in SEO, I’d recommend the post below from Botify.
6. Internal (and External) Link Optimization
Aside from the optimization of click depth, you’ll want to provide additional links to your target pages. Consider which other pages on your site could link to the page(s) in question. Some page types you should think about include:
- Other core pages on your site
- Thematically relevant blog posts or posts on adjacent topics
- Profiles that you control (e.g., team profiles on your own site and on social media!)
Don’t forget good old-fashioned link building. You don’t need to embark on a big campaign here, but there may be tried and true link-building tactics you could try.
- Guest Posts: If you plan to contribute a post to a third-party site, consider including a link to one of your target pages (as appropriate).
- Press Releases: If your company is planning to issue a press release, see if there’s an opportunity to work a link to that.
- Social: If there’s something worth saying about your page, consider posting about it on social media (if the page isn’t worth talking about with your customers on social media, that should probably give you pause).
7. Manually Check Your XML Sitemaps
XML sitemaps commonly suffer from two fatal flaws. The first is including pages that don’t need to be found (i.e., they shouldn’t be crawled or indexed by search engines). The second is not including vitally important pages. Since XML sitemaps are often A) generated by a plugin or B) set up by developers (i.e., not the marketing team), these sitemaps should absolutely be subjected to some human validation.
- Find your XML sitemap (if you don’t have one…fix that).
- The best location for this is usually yourwebsite.com/sitemap.xml or yourwebsite.com/sitemap_index.xml
- Ensure that all the pages you’re working to optimize are included within that sitemap.
- Flag any pages that shouldn’t be there and get them removed.
- Pages that you don’t recognize might be unnecessary. If the marketing team doesn’t know what a page is for, does Google really need to direct visitors to it?
- Deleted pages that return a 404 error
- Categories of pages without inherent value in and of themselves (for example, blog “tag”, “category”, and “archive” pages).
Bonus: While you’re at it, make sure your target pages also appear in your HTML (user-facing) sitemap.
8. Resubmit to Google Search Console
It should go without saying that all the preceding steps should be completed before this one. Once everything looks good, go ahead and head to Google Search Console and resubmit each URL (“request indexing”).
Crack open a cold Topo Chico and treat yourself after a whole bunch of in-the-weeds SEO work. All too often, organizations spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours working internally or with consultants to audit and plan a grand SEO strategy that sometimes never even sees the light of day. By running through this process, you’ll be one huge step ahead of those folks and many of your competitors. You’ve just done real, objectively valuable SEO work.
Of course, none of this means that SEO is “done.” Remember, it’s a long game, and the time to start thinking about a full-on campaign for 2022 is almost here. If you think the team here at UpBuild might be helpful in that, you know where to find us.
Either way, good luck working toward your end-of-year goals and, as always, happy optimizing!