Stop asking “How do I rank higher in Google search results”, and start asking “How do I maximize my number of click-throughs when my site DOES show up on search results pages.” Solving that question is cheap, easy, and incredibly powerful. So why aren’t more people doing it? Here’s everything I wish I knew 12 months ago.
I’ve had some version of this conversation at least a dozen times in the past few months, so I’m writing this blog post so that the next time I’m asked for help by a fledgling website looking to build traffic, I can just point them here rather than go through it all yet again. That’s right: there is zero altruism behind this post. (Although if you find it helpful, I’m thrilled — knowing everything below a year ago would have saved us endless time and sanity.)
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. Alright, good talk — now go forth and win the interwebs.
Here’s the thing: the first SEO question everyone asks is “How do I rank higher in Google search results?” Now while showing up on the first page of results for popular search keywords is, indeed, the brass ring of search…well, it’s really hard. I’m going to focus here on the secondary, but massively underrated matter of how to maximize the number of click-throughs you get when your site does show up in search results. Once you’ve got the customer wandering the showroom floor, I’m going to help yours be the car they drive off in.
Let’s start here: everyone knows what a Google search engine results page (“SERP“) looks like, right?
Good. Now let’s get to know our search results a little better. Each listing consists of 3 elements:
- URL (the web address)
- Description (also sometimes called a snippet)
Here’s the cool part that an alarming number of people seem not to know about: Google, and other search engines, actually let you tell them how you’d like your website’s Title and Description to appear in their search results. Yes: you, sitting there in your Ramen-stained sweatpants eating cereal at 11pm can control how Google, Lord of the Internet, showcases your website in its search results. How? By creating what are called meta titles and meta descriptions (together, referred to as meta data). You write them, and Google displays them in its SERPs.
Why does good meta data matter?
Let’s first consider what happens if you don’t customize the meta data for your website, either because you’re too lazy or, as is more often the case, because you simply didn’t know that you could. When Google crawls a page, it first checks to see whether the owner has inserted his own meta data. If none is found, Google will simply scan the page’s text and use its robot-brain to pick out what it thinks is an excerpt that’s representative of the page’s content. Here’s the problem: Google’s robot-brain is sometimes pretty stupid. Check out how this New York sushi restaurant shows up in SERPs:
Look at that garbage. Google’s reptilian robot-brain chose really dumb and unattractive text to display for both the page’s title and its description / snippet. This is a huge fail for Cherin Sushi. HUGE. HYOOOOGE. Internet users aren’t curious explorers who will open every door just to see what lies behind; they’re busy and impatient, and you’re competing for a very limited attention span. You need to stand out and give users a reason to visit your site instead of the others listed.
Now let’s look at a sushi place that does it right and supplies a custom-written meta title and description:
Now we’re talking; spicy tuna roll please. They clearly and succinctly identify who they are, what they serve, and where they’re located. Which of the 2 search results above would you be more likely to click? Which brings me back to the important distinction I mentioned at the outset: optimizing your meta data doesn’t affect how highly your site gets ranked in SERPs — that’s a topic for another day (or week, or year). Rather, writing good meta data is all about making your site more likely to be clicked on when it does appear in search results. When you’re fortunate enough to show up in Google SERPs, accurate and inviting meta data increases the likelihood that YOURS is the link that grabs the user’s attention and, hopefully, the click-through. And that’s what this is all about, isn’t it?
A real-world SEO success story.
Here’s another real-world example that we used right here at Jobstr, with terrific results. Frank and I were SEO noobs. All we’d ever heard was that Content Is King, and thought that all we needed to do was build a site overflowing with high-quality content, and users would beat a path to our door. We were wrong. Terribly, shamefully wrong. Our traffic from Search was abysmal. But in retrospect it’s not hard to see why. This is how a Jobstr page featuring a Q&A with a professional chef initially showed up in Google SERPs:
Consider someone who had never heard of our site and is skimming the results of her Google search. What does “Jobstr | Chef” even mean to that person? She’s never heard of our website, and we’ve given her absolutely no idea what she’ll find if she follows that link. Moreover, what the hell is that snippet underneath the URL!? Google’s robot-brain plucked a random sentence from one of the chef’s many answers and is displaying it as the window-dressing for the entire page. Not good.
Now check out the Google results page after we came to our senses and gave Jobstr a good SEO scrub:
That’s more like it! The new title is a night-and-day improvement: Ask a Chef anything | Jobstr — even if I’ve never heard of Jobstr.com, I’ve got a pretty good idea that it’s a page where I can ask questions of a professional chef. And check out that shiny new meta description: it’s a succinct and alluring invitation to read the confessions of a professional chef. Note that the snippet doesn’t actually have to appear anywhere on the Chef Q&A page…it’s just what we told Google to display as the page’s description in search results. Pretty cool, huh? Google is gifting you the opportunity to highlight your site’s awesomeness to the world…if you don’t take them up on it, then frankly you don’t deserve the traffic.
Alright, I’m sold. How do I create meta data for my site?
First, get in the habit of writing a unique meta title and meta description for every new page or post on your site. If previously-published pages don’t have them, go back and write ‘em. As far as implementation, it depends on how your site is built.
- If you have a developer who manages your website, it’s probably just easiest to hand him your meta data for inclusion…he’ll know what to do with it.
- If you’re using a CMS like WordPress, there will usually be somewhere in your admin dashboard where you can specify the meta data for every page (or every post, if you’re a blogger.) If your WordPress theme does not include meta data fields, search the WordPress plug-in database for an SEO plug-in. I use a popular one called WordPress SEO by Yoast.
- If you’re not afraid of a little HTML, it’s actually really easy to jump into the code for a page and add it yourself. Here’s a quick tutorial.
Hope that was helpful. I’m not an SEO guru. I’m just the guy who was in your shoes 6 months ago, and wishes someone would have explained this all.