We started with a goal: increase organic search traffic 100% in three months. It was a little lofty, but achievable.
Instead, after six weeks, traffic had grown by 373%. In fact, it multiplied almost overnight:
And it’s stayed that way ever since. We’ve maintained those rates of search traffic, increasing it each month.
To date, we’ve signed 126 clients who found us through through SEO. And those clients bring in more than $50,000 in recurring revenue a year. We’d like to tell you how we did it.
Read on to learn every step we took and how you can take them too. You don’t need advanced SEO training, just a basic understanding of your own website and customers.
Want the Cliff’s Notes version? Download our cheat sheet now.
But before we get into our SEO tips…
A little background
At the end of 2015, Mention was doing well.
We had a good website that brought us customers. People who knew about Mention could find us. And traffic to our website was converting at a solid rate. A few hundred thousand Mention accounts had been created, and most signups were from the site.
We also had a good backlink profile. PR outreach had led to articles in Forbes, TechCrunch, and Social Media Examiner. Plus, we had a really cool product.
But we wanted to make it easier for people to find us – especially people who didn’t know who we were.
At this point, we had no formal SEO process. We hadn’t identified keywords, which made it hard for anyone to find us. Sure, if you Googled “Mention media monitoring” you might have found us, but just “media monitoring?” No chance.
That’s not great. Without new website visitors, our growth would stall.
So, in January 2016, we created a two-step SEO strategy. First, we needed to target good keywords and optimize our existing content. Second, we made a ton of smaller technical fixes. Together, these led to an enormous improvement in search traffic.
We’re excited to show you how to do the same.
How to use these SEO tips
We’ve divided this guide into two sections:
- Phase 1: Keywords and content creation
- Phase 2: Technical fixes
Both steps were instrumental to our improvements. We’ll explain why later, but know this: most of the technical fixes still require good content. We suggest you implement these tips in this order.
In general, SEO is a slow process. It can take time for new content to give you a boost. On the other hand, technical fixes can make an immediate difference. A lot of our success in those first three weeks was thanks to correcting bad practices.
If you want the bare-bones version, download our SEO tips cheat sheet.
Finally, nothing in the world will help you if you don’t have good content. Google’s algorithm helps people find the best content. And if your stuff is spammy, you’ll be penalized. There’s no shortcut for SEO anymore.
We’re about to dive deep into our strategy. But before we do, there are two things to understand.
1. Focus on user experience
This is the central theme of our guide. Every step should make your site’s user experience better. If you make decisions that harm it, Google will penalize you and your search rank will suffer.
In 2012, Google released its Penguin update, which introduced penalties for keyword stuffing, link buying schemes, and other obvious SEO “hacks.” Before this, webmasters had tricks they could play to make bad content rank.
Penguin and subsequent updates put an end to this. Its goal is “to help searchers find sites that provide a great user experience and fulfill their information needs.”
2. Maximize “link juice”
We’re going to use this term a lot. Think of backlinks like references in your resume. The better the references, the bigger the boost they give your job application. Google looks at backlinks the same way.
A link from a high-authority site like Wall Street Journal means more than a link from your friend’s blog.
Link juice is the hard-to-measure impact that each link provides. We can’t give strict value to a link, so we talk about pages having “good link juice,” or “less link juice.” We always want more link juice, and we want to keep the juice we have.
Enough of this weird jargon, let’s get started with the strategy.
Phase 1: keywords and content creation
Phase one of our SEO strategy was getting serious about using keywords well. Previously, this hadn’t been a big priority. But if you want people to find you on Google, you need to choose the right keywords and feature them prominently.
Keywords help Google understand your page. Robots aren’t great at context (but they are getting better!), so you need to tell Google what your site is about.
If Google can read your page easily, you’ll get a bump in search ranking. So it pays to choose your keywords wisely.
How to choose a good keyword to target
There are three factors to consider when choosing a great keyword:
- Volume: the number of people searching for that term
- Difficulty: how competitive that keyword is
- Are potential customers using this keyword? This is the most important factor
Simply put, higher volume is better. The more people that search for your keyword, the more of them that might find your page.
There are exceptions to this rule, though. For one, high-volume keywords are usually more difficult to rank for. More on that soon.
You should also consider trying to rank for low-volume keywords that match your product perfectly. These are often long-tail keywords, which are short phrases. When users search these queries, they often know exactly what they want, and are ready to convert.
For example, Mention is a natural replacement for Google Alerts as a media monitoring app. So we targeted the phrase “Google Alerts alternative” with a dedicated landing page.
When people search “Google Alerts alternatives,” they want functioning substitutes for Google’s tool. We want them to see Mention. Now, we’re the third result when you search for this phrase.
In basic terms, this tells you how hard it will be to rank for your chosen keyword. The more difficult a term is to rank for, the more work it’ll take to rank for it.
When you choose target keywords, ask yourself the following questions:
- What resources do you have to pursue this keyword?
- How much domain authority do you currently have?
- What do you stand to gain?
When we optimized our site in early 2016, we targeted five or so major keywords. These had high volume, and relatively high difficulty. But terms like “media monitoring” and “social media monitoring” are central to our product, so we needed to try.
3. Are potential customers using this keyword?
This consideration is often overlooked, but it’s the most important. If the wrong people visit your site, they won’t buy your product and may even lower your search rankings.
Let’s look at an example: imagine you created a product to prevent hacking into social networks. You see that the term “social hacks” has low difficulty and some search volume, so you optimize your site for that term.
The problem is that “hacks” has become the common slang for skills or techniques. People searching for “social hacks” are probably looking for tips for social media. It’s very unlikely they’re trying to prevent hackers.
Users will arrive at your site, realize they’ve made a mistake, and leave immediately. Google sees this, and figures your site must be subpar for this search term (or worse – spam). You may have a good ranking, but it won’t last long.
The point is, you need to deliver what people are looking for. Low-difficulty keywords still need to be a fit for your business.
We based our keywords on product features. When people search “web monitoring” or “Twitter tracking,” they want a product like ours. Even if they don’t eventually choose Mention, they look around, explore the site a little, and see what we offer. This shows Google that the right kinds of people are visiting the site, which is huge for SEO.
The semantic universe
It makes sense that when targeting a keyword, you should use it wherever possible, right? Actually, no.
You do want to prioritize your keywords, but Google understands variations. They’ve built what’s called a “semantic universe,” which is like a spider web of related terms and synonyms. When you use terms that are similar to your keywords, your keywords get a bump too.
In fact, if you overuse keywords, you’ll be penalized. You wouldn’t write a novel using the same phrases over and over again, so don’t write your website copy that way either.
Remember, it’s all about user experience.
What to do now
Choose your keywords. Make sure they have good volume, aren’t too difficult, and suit customer intent.
Once you’ve selected target keywords, you need to create content around them. Use your keywords (and related terms) in titles, headings, image tags, and the body of your page text.
If you’ve written your content so that Google can understand it, you’re already doing a great job. The next phase is nailing the little technical things that give you an immediate boost. These remaining steps help you stand out to Google.
Phase 2: technical fixes
This is the fun stuff. Each of these changes will make a difference to your search rankings. While these fixes are “technical” in nature, we’ll give you everything you need to do them yourself.
1. Get your headings right
Headings are a big deal for SEO. They tell Google exactly what’s on each page. If you don’t use them correctly, your page isn’t going to rank well.
Before the SEO upgrade, our heading use was a little… casual.
Focus on heading order
Heading order is important for SEO:
H1: This is always first, always the title, and should always include your keyword. You shouldn’t have more than one.
H2: These should come after your H1. Generally speaking, these are your main headings and break the page up into logical sections.
From there, you can continue through H3 and H4. Make sure to descend in order: if you want to use H3, you should have an H2 before it.
And the headings should contain keywords. Since Google’s looking for keywords, make them easy to find.
Protect H1s and H2s
H1 and H2 are the highest value heading types. Google looks for keywords everywhere, but especially here.
For this reason, don’t dilute them and use keywords. This should be easy, since your page content was written with them in mind.
This isn’t to say that H3 and H4 aren’t important. But whereas its okay not to load them with keywords, H1 and H2 levels should always be optimized.
Use fake headers if necessary
Headers are supposed to be used to style the web page. So what if you want H2-style text that doesn’t use any keywords?
Simple. Use the same style as your heading tags for a new class in your stylesheet. Then just apply this to text that you want to look like a header. It’ll appear the same for the user, but Google knows it’s not “important.”
That big white heading is styled just like an H2. Except it’s actually normal paragraph text (<p>) that we’ve made to look like one. Our designers are happy, and Google doesn’t get confused.
2. Change your 302 redirect links to 301
When Mention redesigned our homepage, the URL went from www.en.mention.com to www.mention.com/en (or /fr for French, etc). For some reason, we used a 302 redirect.
301 links are permanent and tell Google that page B has replaced page A. 302 redirects are temporary. Even if you never change them, you’re telling Google that you intend to change them.
Image by Moz
How do redirections affect search rankings?
301 redirections carry link juice with them. You’ve told Google that page B replaces page A, and that users can get the same great value from the new page as they did from the old.
Since 302 links are temporary, Google doesn’t treat them the same. So if you’re using a 302 redirect for a permanent change, don’t.
What to do now
Check for 302 redirections to permanent content, and change ‘em!
Now that you’ve got your headings and redirects working properly, you can make some content fixes.
3. Watch out for duplicate content
Google’s on the lookout for duplicate content. It sees this as keyword stuffing and will penalize you for it. That’s bad. Really, really bad.
Get a site report from a service like SEMrush and Moz. They identify all sorts of issues affecting your SEO performance, including duplicate content.
Our site report threw up a few major duplication issues. Here’s how you can avoid them.
Declare the language of your HTML page
Note: this is for sites in multiple languages.
Mention has websites in four languages, and they all look very similar. They also have similar content, just in different languages.
Originally, Google didn’t know we had four different languages. Instead, our different sites looked like cheating, which hurt our search rank.
Thankfully, there’s a line of code to prevent this punishment. HTML lets you declare the language of a page, or even a section of text within a page. Now, Google knows you’re not trying to cheat the system, and your rankings improve again.
How to declare the language
The Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) has a full guide to language declaration. It’s not too tricky, you just need to add the right tags:
- Choose a file (typically the header or footer) that’s present on every page of your site.
- Get the correct language code from IANA.org.
- Insert language tags. They look like this: <html lang=”fr”> (fr for French, en for English, etc).
Added bonus: each of your pages will see a boost in Google for the language you’ve declared. French pages rank better in google.fr, and so on.
De-index pages that shouldn’t be public
This is absolutely essential. It sounds technical, but it’s not.
For a while, Mention had a public pre-production website. We used it to test new pages, play around, and get everything perfect for our real site. In hindsight, it seems obvious that we’d want it private, but we didn’t think it would make a difference.
Except Google could find it.
That pre-production page was indexed, meaning it wass added to Google’s content database, letting crawlers find it. When you “de-index” a page, you remove it from this list.
But we want Google to find our content, right? Not in this case.
Remember, duplicate content will give you a penalty. Your pre-production space is almost exactly the same as your live site. That’s a huge amount of doubled-up content.
So you need to tell Google not to identify your pre-production content.
How to fix this
For our pre-production space, the solution was simple: make it private. The site is password protected, so Google won’t crawl it.
But sometimes you don’t want to make your content private. For instance, you might have an old website you’re still associated with. You want to keep the content live, but your new content is better and you don’t want to be dragged down by the earlier stuff. Rohit Palit knows of a few good solutions:
- Use a robots.txt file to prevent Google from looking for your site.
- Add no-index tags to the <head> section of each page. Rohit provides a detailed walkthrough of this in his post.
4. Improve your internal website linking structure
In the first half of this post, we talked about choosing keywords. Here’s where we really start to benefit from them.
This involved three major changes:
- A new navigation bar for the whole website
- Logical URL structure
- Updated anchor text for internal links
Updating the new navigation bar
You should definitely include keywords in your navigation bar. Kristina Kledzik says this is key, as “every link in the universal navigation will have a backlink from every page on your site.” So if you’re trying to rank for certain keywords, it’s an opportunity to give those pages extra link juice.
None of our keywords were included in our old navigation bar. By adding links to five pages targeted at important keywords, we saw a huge boost in organic search performance.
Important note: webmasters everywhere would strangle us with their mouse cords if we didn’t remind you to keep things practical. Your navigation bar must always help people get where they need to go.
Using a logical URL structure
URLs are great real estate for keywords. Add keywords to them so Google has an easier time determining what your page is about.
For instance, our page “Social Media Monitoring” is in a subdirectory folder of our “Media Monitoring” page:
Now, “Social Media Monitoring” gets a boost from the “Media Monitoring” links, and the keyword “media monitoring” is present in this URL. This works because social media monitoring is a natural subset of media monitoring.
But it needs to be logical. We couldn’t make our “Pricing” page a subdirectory of “Media Monitoring.” That doesn’t make sense, and Google knows it.
As long as the structure is rational, you can easily do the same for your pages.
Optimizing anchor text
The clickable text for a link is another place to use keywords, and to help guide the user to their destination. As a result, Google respects good anchor text.
For example, “download our guide to monitoring for SEO and PPC” is far better than “get our guide to monitoring for SEO and PPC here.”
This is a simple best practice, and for a while we weren’t doing it. So we went through our website and made sure that links to our optimized content were optimized too.
Just be sure you’re making the most of your internal links to key content.
What to do
- Create landing pages for your chosen key search terms. They must be relevant to users and contain the information they need.
- Add these landing pages to your navigation.
- Update anchor text for links pointing to targeted keywords.
Make your site faster
This is a big deal. Again, Google wants to send people to the best content. Faster is better for the user, so Google gives fast sites a bump.
Google gives pages a speed ranking out of 100. When we started our SEO strategy, we had a ranking of 55. So far, we’ve bumped that over 70. It’s not fast enough (we plan on reaching 90), but even that change helped our SEO performance.
So how can you speed up your site?
Large images slow down your site, so you need to make image file sizes as small as possible.
The biggest change we made was to introduce coded compression for the whole website. This compresses all of our images automatically, whenever we add them to the site. It’s custom coded, but plugins like WP Smush do the same thing.
We made it clear to our designers that all images need to be web-ready. Our image files are now as small as they can be, without noticeably losing quality.
We also manually compress any images that need it with Compressor.io.
Use a page speed analyzer
These tools tell you how fast your site is, and what’s slowing you down. We mentioned the Google speed ranking above, which comes from PageSpeed Insights.
Another option is GTmetrix, which tells you how all the major search engines rank your site.
It also gives you specific steps to take to improve those rankings:
It’d be nice to tackle every one of these issues today, but we all have other work to do. Fix what you can, and make plans to make other changes when you have more time.
Make your blog a subdirectory (not a subdomain)
Moz’s Rand Fishkin recently addressed this on Whiteboard Fridays. It’s well worth watching.
Originally, our blog address was blog.mention.com (a subdomain). We changed to mention.com/en/blog (a subdirectory), and saw an immediate improvement in search engine performance.
Google sees a subdomain as a different website, while a subdirectory is just a part of your main site. This is important, because your site may have a load of link juice and authority. More of that will carry over to a subdirectory than a subdomain.
There’s a debate as to whether or not this really matters. We say it absolutely does, and clearly Rand agrees.
Craig Emerson’s case study details how his blog went from outside the top 200 for his keyword, to number 57. Moving to a subdirectory was the only change he made. Moz ran a test along the same lines, and saw similar results.
Some people argue that while it does make a difference, it’s not the most important SEO consideration. Content quality is what will really change your ranking. But we’re confident that our content is already pretty great, so we made this move.
For some, changing probably isn’t worth it. But if you get a chance to change, or if you haven’t built your site yet, subdirectories are the way to go.
Address quick fixes
Here are some easy and fast changes you can make to see results immediately. They won’t be as impactful as the tips above, but they won’t cost much time, either.
Make sure Google sees your sitemap
Sitemaps help Google understand your site. Anything that helps Google do its job will give you a boost, and these are no different.
For some reason, Google didn’t know we had a sitemap. All we needed to do was submit it to Google. This is an easy fix that takes two seconds.
Submit your own sitemap here.
Fix broken links
Broken links affect site experience, and, say it out loud, Google penalizes bad experience. Get a site report from a provider of your choice. We like SEMrush, but there are other options out there.
Use alt tags correctly
Alt tags tell Google what’s in an image. Since Google can’t look at an image and say, “that looks like media monitoring,” we have to say so.
Add (logical) keywords to image alt tags for any past blog posts that you think should perform well, or are already doing so. It’s not worth going back through your whole site or blog, but keep it in mind as you add new content.
What we plan to do next
So that’s our mega-list of SEO tactics that improved our site traffic. But SEO doesn’t sleep, and we all need to keep making changes.
SEO changes too quickly to plan years ahead, but here’s what’s next on our list.
- Drastically improve our page speed. It’s good, not great. The reports above have given us plenty of areas to improve in.
- Continue to create content with page speed in mind. Our designers and developers know that every image and widget that goes on Mention.com needs to be optimized for speed. When we create new site features, they don’t go live until they’re fast.
- Create content with SEO in mind. As Mention adds new features, we keep building new landing pages. Now that we have a proper plan, we need to make sure new pages follow it.
- Same for the blog. To make posts easy to find – hopefully long after publication – they need to be search engine optimized. We have our SEO guidelines and use the Yoast WordPress plugin, which tells us when our posts aren’t search engine-friendly.
- Optimize for more keywords. Using our new strategies, we hope to add to our list of well-performing search terms.
And that’s everything, past, present, and future. These tactics are easy to enact for websites of all sizes. Do them, and you’ll absolutely see results.
If this is all brand new to you, there’s nothing else to do but dive in. SEO is constantly changing, and the only way to get better is to start experimenting.
After that, the best way to learn more is to keep reading. There are tons of great resources on the web. To get started, here are a few of the best SEO voices on the web:
- Matthew Barby: He’s one of the best-known SEO advisors around.
- SEMrush: They’re an excellent SEO tool, and their blog is full of wisdom.
- Yoast: A great plugin, their blog also provides plenty of advice for WordPress users.
- Kaiserthesage: The personal blog of Jason Acidre, a brilliant search strategist.
- Backlinko: A digital marketing training hub created by SEO wizard Brian Dean.
If you’ve been doing SEO for ages, hopefully we’ve given you a bunch of new ideas. We’re all constantly learning new things, but these are a few that we know have worked for us. If you think we’ve missed anything obvious, please leave a comment.
Oh, and if you want to revisit these SEO tips in a hurry, here’s the cheat sheet.