I’m turning the microscope inward for this post and looking at some SEO data from Version2’s own efforts.
I know everyone shares everything online, but I’m not generally inclined to do so. I don’t like volunteering myself up for ridicule…especially not professionally. To clarify, I’m a pretty generous person by nature, but I don’t usually share what happens behind the curtain. I’m more than willing to help people by sharing my knowledge via consulting or fixing code problems. However, I’m less inclined to share the choices I’ve made in navigating my own problems. Mostly because I know someone somewhere will tell me I’ve done something wrong. But this is the web. We’re all trying our best to make sense of this constantly changing landscape. So I’m putting my emotional baggage aside and sharing some of my own SEO journey. The data is somewhat interesting, so I hope it helps someone. Just know that writing this is a pretty big deal for me. :)
The SEO (search engine optimization) industry has been around for at least 20 years. I’ve known the fundamentals and pitfalls about SEO for almost that long, but it always seemed like a fool’s errand. The world wide web is a humongous place. I always considered elbowing yourself into the fray to be a losing proposition. Instead of wasting hundreds of hours, maybe just spend some money on pay-per-click ads? Besides, generating the amount of content it takes to become really relevant is a spectacularly massive undertaking.
Yet, SEO is no longer something that I (or anyone really) can ignore. There’s a lot of hype about SEO and its buzzword status is getting the attention of a lot of people. I’m getting questions about SEO a lot more frequently than I used to…usually from clients looking for the silver bullet of online marketing. I needed to move from theoretical info to the real world. I needed to know what kind of results to expect.
Cleaning up the SERP (search engine results page) Appearance
This is usually pretty easy. To fill in the info on a search result page, Google grabs the page title and page description of the pages it displays. A good tester and simulator can be found here: https://mangools.com/free-seo-tools/serp-simulator
What you put in your title and description should be keyword rich so that it helps with SEO, but it also has to be compelling to those who see it. It can't just be keywords, you need to give people a reason to click it. Also, it’s important to limit your title to about 60 characters and description to about 150. This is all that will be displayed on a SERP and more than that just gets spammy*.
*over stuffing things with redundant info gets flagged as being unwanted spam and usually comes with a penalty.
Do an SEO Analysis (or Three)
These tools do their best to find the things that search engines ding you for. Most are pretty technical and some are much easier to fix than others depending on the construction and hosting of your website. Still, it’s good to know where potential problems are and to patch as many of the holes as you can easily.
I fixed all the problems I could on my site without a complete overhaul. When I have downtime, I try to fix some of the remaining issues, but they can become a lot of work for a questionable amount of payoff.
Two great tools for understanding your SEO come directly from Google.
The first is Google Search Console. Google Search Console will tell you how you’re doing and help you track your Search Engine Performance. It will also tell you what queries are being used most and how well you’re performing with each over time.
The second is the Google Keyword Planner. The keyword planner really helps you pick your targets. You can enter a few searches for which you’d like to appear and it will give you a ton of raw data about similar queries and the monthly volume of each. It will also give you an idea of how much competition there is for each query. With a little work, you can find queries that have decent numbers of searches that are relatively low competition, or just dive in on the specific queries that have high volumes.
Search Engine Food
I’m generally a fan of brevity. Having large amounts of text isn’t really fashionable in web design in the 2020s. But search engines read text so text there must be. I generally try to break copy into bite-sized pieces visually with big headings, icons, different background colors, images, etc. This makes text more digestible and ensures you have plenty of text for search engines that’s still easy to scan and consume for humans. Most critically, I expanded the copy on the Version2 home page, about page, and services page. These were pages of importance where extra keywords made the most sense.
Online Directory Submissions
Backlinks (links from other sites to your site) are the currency of SEO. I started looking for directories of businesses and web designers. If Version2 wasn’t listed, I added it. Some of these directories are obvious like Yelp, but I found a ton of niche, specialized directories for web design companies. I’m sure there are plenty of industry-specific directories out there for many types of businesses, so do a little digging.
This is such a big part of SEO. In fact, writing articles is most of SEO. I used Google Docs almost exclusively for tracking my efforts. If you don’t already know this trick, typing doc.new in your address bar opens a blank doc and you can start typing in a few seconds. I tracked my ideas by starting titles with “Blog: .” I also sent myself emails with my phone about blog ideas that occurred to me while walking the dog, etc.
How it Went
There are a lot of web designers and web design agencies in Cincinnati. I knew the competition would be intense. Getting to the first SERP isn’t a realistic goal...for the moment.
I did my basic cleanup, patched the easy SEO holes, and updated the content of the home, about, and services pages on 4/22/2021. I also started submitting my company info to directories over the next two weeks.
I measured my progress on Google Search Console for my priority, high-volume query and filtered out traffic that wasn’t coming from the U.S. Almost overnight I went from complete obscurity (somewhere around #134, but technically off the charts) to a respectable #75. My rank improved 50% by just doing the basics. I was pretty shocked. I know not many people bother digging down to the eighth page of results in Google. Still, this was a serious improvement from total exile to at least being on the fringes of the radar.
April 24th: #134 (page 14)
May 1st: #75 (page 8)
(Left arrow on the above chart)
It probably has to do with the fierce competition and relatively small amount of traffic in the Cincinnati market vs. global, but I have seen a TON of volatility in my SERP position. There are some big swings, but there are regularly spikes, drops, and shifts of 20-30 positions.
On 10/26/2021 I added a new paragraph on the ver-two.com homepage and expanded my services page from a single overview to an overview plus three detailed sub-pages on specific services. My monitored results went from 80 to 41. This shattered my previous best of 62 and it hasn’t gone higher than 50 in six weeks.
(Right arrow on the above chart)
It’s my current theory that more content gives you a certain degree of inertia. Because there are more good pages of content on the site and more backlinks, my site gets bounced around less in the results.
Plateau & Stagnation
Around the end of October 2021 I decided to make adding fresh blog posts a priority by posting every two weeks. That initiative resulted in a slow and steady climb into the 20s (or page three). Unfortunately, December ended up being rather hectic for me personally. I posted on 12/1/21 but didn’t post for the rest of the month. Around 12/21/21 the SERP performance started dropping. Now, the holidays are a crazy time and I’m sure there aren’t many people shopping for new web designers in the last week of December. Still, it’s interesting to think that this gradual decline might be a result of a site’s “freshness.” You might have a short grace period before the smell of a three-week old website starts to hurt your results.
I’m going to dive into 2022 with a blog-post-per-week strategy for as long as I can manage to do so. I’m very curious what effect this will have.
When searching for a web design agency, there are a lot of results that aren’t web design agencies. Looking at the first five pages of results for my target query, only 60% of the results are web design companies. The other 40% are web designer directories or “best web designers” lists.
For other businesses, the competition might be industry publications, bloggers, or something else all together.
While these sites absolutely have value, you’re not in direct competition with them. Because these directories have a ton of “link power” behind them, they will be very hard to out-SEO.
Backlink Snowball Effect
I noticed that as I added backlinks through various directories the number of backlinks being reported (via several SEO tools) increased several times more. The reason for this appears to be bot-driven directories that are harvesting info from other directories. These sure seem spammy, but Google seems to know these are not your fault. They don't seem to have any real repercussions on SERP, they just inflate backlink statistics.
I just noticed in my own testing that ver-two.com dropped to page six of my primary Google query for a day, and is now back up to page three. I’m sure there is much more volatility when you’re competing with web designers and SEO professionals than you’ll find in other industries. Still, it shows that you cannot guarantee SEO results. Fluctuations happen. Sometimes drastically. Anyone that guarantees results is lying.