The rules of the SEO game seem to be always changing.
To understand how to rank higher, no matter the algorithm, we sat down with Cyrus Shepard. He has seen SEO evolve over nearly a decade and ran in-house SEO for the industry leader, Moz.
He shares with us his strategies to understand Google’s black-box algorithms, do more with existing backlinks, manage client expectations and more.
Guiding SEO Principles
SEO can be thought of as full of tricks and algorithms, but Cyrus’s main principles are straightforward:
- Long-term value over short-term gain
- Create quality content
“Think of your audience first, always,” says Cyrus. “Google is getting better and better at looking at audience signals and engagement signals”
Therefore, if you are writing consistently creating valuable, quality content, you will at least earn back a little bit of success in SEO. For whatever content you create, do the best that you can do.
“When we’re creating content, I like to create things that people can steal, and want to steal.” If people are stealing it, you are creating value and therefore will naturally earn backlinks and improve your ranking.
Is SEO Valuable?
Yet, those algorithms are important. “You can build the most perfect piece of content but Google won’t find it because they aren’t perfect,” states Cyrus.
He hates when people say SEOs aren’t necessary. The algorithm mimics user signals, but SEOs ensure that content and websites are algorithm-ready.
There are basic back-end tasks such as data structure and ensuring it’s crawlable. There is also a lot of experimentation involved in SEOs expertise.
“The Crushing Inadequacy of Best Practices”
Cyrus reflects on the early days of SEO. In 2009, everyone followed the same “Web Developer’s SEO cheat sheet”. That was enough to win lots of clients.
But SEO has evolved.
“A lot of people have this perception today that SEO is a scam because best practices are easy.” But those best practices are now out of date and not enough to rank.
SEOs are continuously experimenting to determine which strategies and techniques provide results. These results depend on the latest algorithm and the vertical.
Test, Test, And Test Some More
“Some people think of SEO as one and done. But it never ends, you can always make improvements.”
More and more, Google is a black box. Ranking factors are developed through machine learning, leaving less direct information for marketers. The only way to really discover how to rank higher is through experimentation.
Given testing is an essential part of SEO success, Cyrus advises to get a better understanding of:
- A/B calculators
With this knowledge, you won’t interfere with your own testing. Cyrus learned the hard way that experiments can provide false positives. An A/B test that didn’t account for returning customers interacting with something new skewed the actual conversation rate changes.
Managing Client Expectations
This degree of experimentation means that SEO success is difficult to predict. Cyrus reminds us that “there are no guarantees.” And yet, clients want to see results.
“Consultants get fired all the time because they didn’t meet expectations of the client.”
Cyrus manages expectations by position everything as an experiment. To ease the process, he gets the client involved.
“I like to give clients many more options than they can possibly implement.” Each option has an estimated percentage of success and cost. Then, the client can make decisions, and understand the uncertainty.
This strategy also offers a longer road map, and can create longer client relationships.
Doing More with Current Backlinks
“I hate link building.”
Yes, he said it. Link building is crucial but also a serious amount of work. Therefore, Cyrus has developed two key strategies to do more with existing backlinks.
1. Maintain freshness
Looking at competitive keywords, the top ones are always updated. That is not an annual refresh, either.
“I update it every two weeks just to get that ranking boost.”
This constant updating ensures the content is fresh and relevant.
2. Review user engagement signals.
Cyrus reviews bounce rate and internal content clicks. He is trying to improve them through experimentation. When these improve, they are a signal of improved SEO even without adding backlinks.
“You can take just a few links with these major tactics and rank for a lot of content with just a few links.”
- The backbone of good SEO is value and quality.
- Google is becoming a black box, so experimentation is the key to continually improving rankings.
- Manage client SEO expectations by bringing them into the process.
- In any vertical, look at the competition. Look at the features of the top three results, then recreate them but better.
- Use the Google Search console to find the keywords for your site. If they do not match your user experience, modify your site.
- Take advantage of your existing backlinks by updating your content often and monitoring user engagement.