Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a topic that people ask me about all the time.

SEO is complicated and there’s a ton of misinformation out there as well.

I’ve put together this post to outline how everything works and why I don’t think you should invest much in SEO right now, or really worry about it much at all.

To establish my SEO credentials, here’s some background. I’ve taken two of my own websites, JapaneseEmoticons.me and Origami.me to the number one spot on Google for some very high volume and competitive keywords.

JapaneseEmoticons.me used to rank #1 for the term “Japanese Emoticons” as well as several other related terms such as “Kaomoji.” As a result, this website received around 25,000 visits every day. I sold this website in 2016 and unfortunately don’t have a screenshot of it ranking #1. The new owners haven’t done a great job keeping up the SEO and it now ranks #3.

Origami.me ranked #1 on Google for the search term “Origami” for almost two years. This was a very high competition keyword, and it took a lot of time and money to get the site ranking #1. Here’s a screenshot of the search results in an incognito window. It also ranked #1 for the term “Origami Crane” and ranked in the top 5 for several other high-volume origami-related keywords bringing in around 10,000 visits per day from organic search.

martial arts tournament

On-Site vs Off-Site SEO Optimization

There are two major components to SEO, the optimizations you make to the website itself and the optimizations you make off the website (link-building).

While both are important, everyone usually over-fixates on the on-site optimization when the off-site portion is where 99% of your ranking power comes from.

Imagine SEO is a martial arts tournament.

Your on-site optimization is the application form you fill out to join the tournament.

On this form you fill in information such as your name, your age, your belt-level, etc.

The tournament then matches you with similar people who you then have to fight.

The actual fighting part is your off-site optimization.

How well you do here is going to come down to how skilled your competitors are, how many different people you have to fight and how good your training is.

When I turned eighteen I was at an intermediate level in Karate.

I would go to tournaments and there would be no one in the 18+ age range who were at an intermediate level. They were all either beginners doing martial arts with their children or black belts who’d been training since they were kids.

Because of this I would win in my category by default (and then they’d let me just fight the black belts and I’d usually lose).

On-site SEO is kind of the same way. If there’s no competition, then you win by default. This is why with just some basic on-site optimizations you can usually get your website to rank #1 for something like your brand name.

No one else out there is trying to rank for your brand name so it’s easy.

When you start trying to rank for other keywords related to your business or industry this is where the competition comes in and things get a lot more difficult.

wooden desk with mac computer

What is On-Site SEO Optimization?

The goal of the on-site optimization is to make it as easy as possible for search engines to figure out what you’re about and where to fit you into the overall SEO competition.

A lot of this is “Best Practices” sort of stuff that you should be doing anyways when you build a website.

 

Titles and Meta Descriptions

This is the number one thing people love to obsess over.

Every page on your site has some meta data that you don’t normally see, and this includes a title and a short description of the page.

You see this title and description in the search results and if you share a link to the page on social media sites.

These should describe what the page is about and have the keywords you’re trying to rank for but at the same time be enticing to get a human to want to click to see more.

There is an optimal length for both of these based on how many pixels they take up (an i takes up less space than an m) so try to keep these under that limit but if you go over, search engines just won’t read the rest. They’ll show a … and the end will just be cut off. Not a huge deal.

 

ALT Text

Search engines can’t tell what’s in an image, so you need to add what’s called ALT text. It’s basically just a little description in the code of the site that says what’s in the picture.

This text is also used by software for people with disabilities to describe what’s in the image to someone who might be blind.

After the titles and meta descriptions this is usually the number two thing everyone obsesses over.

 

Headings

This is the last common thing people usually obsess over. You should have the page title in an H1 tag (which it probably is already) and then organize out your content into headings and sub headings.

You should have keywords in your headings which if you have well written and organized content you probably do already.

The more important thing here is that the content is well organized for both search engines to crawl and humans to read.

 

An XML Sitemap

The sitemap is an XML file that has links to all the pages on your website to make it as easy as possible for search engines to crawl your website and index everything.

You can see the sitemap for this website here.

 

Canonicalization

Search engines see yourwebsite.com and www.yourwebsite.com as two different websites.

This can cause problems because they hate duplicate content and you will get penalized for it.

So you need to decide if the www version or the non-www version will be the canonical version of the website and set the other one to redirect to it.

 

index vs noindex

Pages can be set to either index or noindex.

Index means you want the search engine to crawl the page and show it in the search results.

Noindex means you don’t want the search engines to crawl the page and you don’t want to show the page in the search results.

Why would you want to noindex pages?

Certain pages like thank you pages you don’t want people to stumble upon by having them show up in the search results.

Other pages like a cart page or a checkout page are low quality pages with no content that don’t look so great to search engines so you don’t want them looking at those pages.

If you have a blog you probably have archive pages for every category or tag on your website. This results in a ton of very similar pages that look like spam so it’s best to noindex these archives.

Basically only the main, really important pages that you want to rank and that look good to search engines should be set to index.

 

Structured Markup

This is extra meta data that helps search engines determine what kind of content is on a page.

There are different categories of this such as recipes, articles, courses, products, etc.

If you have a recipe post for example and you fill in all the recipe meta data your post could appear in the recipe section of the search results on Google instead of the regular website results.

 

Open Graph Meta and Social Media Tags

There’s also meta data used by all the major social media companies that you can include to set things like a separate title and description for each social media network, whether you want to show a large or small image, a default image (like a logo) to show when sharing links on your site, etc.

 

Performance, Code and Security

Google also uses site performance and load speed as a ranking factor.

Having clean code on your site makes it easier for search engines to crawl the website.

You also need to have a proper SSL Certificate installed on the site as well.

These are more of those best practices sort of things that you should be doing anyways. In general the better planned out and designed the website is the better it is for your SEO.

 

There’s some more little things you can do with the on-site optimization but there are all the major ones to look out for.

headphones, keyboard and phone on desk

Why You Shouldn’t Obsess Over Your On-Site Optimization

There are a lot of sketchy SEO companies, and they love to obsess over the on-site optimization.

One, it’s something they can actually make changes to with minimal effort and demonstrate that they’re doing work.

And two, they love to give you an insane number of changes to make and when you can’t change the alt text on 5,000 different images because no one has that kind of time, they’ll blame their lack of results on that.

Think back to my martial arts tournament example.

While it is important to fill out your application so you can get fighting in the correct ring, you could also obsess over filling out everything in that application with the absolute most perfect handwriting.

And yes, the on-site optimization would technically be better but it’s more important to just get that application filled out and then get focused on the fighting.

Look back at my screenshot that shows origami.me ranking #1 on Google.

The #2 result there is a website called origami-instructions.com.

This website used to rank #1 and it took a lot of work for me to finally outrank it.

Go visit the site and take a look. Its on-site SEO is a disaster. They don’t even have an SSL Certificate installed; you can see the “Not Secure” error in your browser.

Yet this site ranked #1 on Google for the term “origami” for years and the reason for that was solely because of their backlinks.

Just because they’d been on the Internet probably since the late 1990s/early 2000s they’d picked up so many links from other websites and this is what actually makes you rank.

Going back to the tournament example, this is like a person who barged into the tournament and just beat everyone up because they were the strongest and most skilled. Sure it might have been better if they filled out their application properly first but in the end they still won.

chain

Off-Site Optimization or Link Building

Google looks at a link on another website pointing back to yours as a vote for the quality of your content.

To put it very simply, the more links you have from other people’s websites pointing back to yours, the higher you rank.

These links are called “Backlinks” and it’s where 99% of your ranking power comes from.

This is also where SEO gets expensive and complicated really fast.

To use origami.me as an example again.

I wanted to rank #1 for the term “Origami.”

To do that I basically needed a lot of links from high quality websites, in the same niche (other origami websites, craft websites, Japanese websites, etc.) with the word “Origami” as the text of the link (this is called anchor text).

I wish it was as simple as that though.

If you have 99% of the links to your website with the same anchor text that’s a big red flag to Google that you’re doing SEO.

The Penguin and Panda updates from years ago penalized sites that did this hard.

So basically, you’ve got to go out there and build a giant number of links all with different anchor text in a way that looks natural to Google.

Links that have your website name, links that have text like “Click here,” links that have your website URL, etc.

I’ve written another post about all the different types of anchor text here, if you want to read more about this.

Building these links is where things start to really get overwhelming.

You still need those links with the keywords you’re trying to rank for as the anchor text though, so you’ve got to casually mix those in with what you’re doing.

 

So How Do You Get These Links?

Have you ever got emails that say something like “Hey, I was just reading this post on your site, and I noticed that you shared a link to this resource, here’s another resource that your readers would probably find very helpful.”

Or “Hi, I love your content, but I just wanted to point out you had a broken link in this post and here’s something else to link to that’s even better.”

Or my new favourite “Hi, you’ve used my image without permission, and I should sue you but if you just add a link to my website below it then it’s all good.”

These are people cold emailing thousands of people hoping some of them will give them a backlink. There’s a bunch of common email scripts everyone uses for this.

This is not an efficient way to get backlinks.

The best way to do this is to find a reputable SEO company and just pay them for the links.

A good SEO company will have connections with tons of other websites where they can get you links.

They’ll usually use two major strategies, Guest Posting and Private Blog Networks (PBN).

 

Guest Posting

This is exactly what it sounds like. They’ll find a website in your same niche and publish a guest post with around 1000 words (ideally) of related content and insert a natural-looking backlink to your website in there.

For a good link from a decent quality website you’re probably looking at around $400 USD per post at least.

I have a few websites where I sell guest posts to SEO companies. They usually pay me around $50-$60 USD per post. Then they’ll pay their writer, account manager, the company will take their cut, etc.

This is probably the safest way to get backlinks.

It always looks natural and should be fairly safe against future algorithm updates. There haven’t been any issues so far at least. There isn’t really any way for an algorithm to tell the different between guest posts for SEO and normal posts on a site.

 

Private Blog Networks

A PBN is basically a network of fake websites with links to other sites.

What people do is watch for expired domains with good SEO metrics that come up in auctions.

Then they buy the domain and throw up a fake website full of fake content and sell links on it.

As far as search engines can tell these are real websites with a good backlink profile and authority.

That’s all from the previous expired website but search engines can’t really tell that.

 

All Websites Are Not Created Equal

There’s a ton of different metrics such as Domain Rank, Domain Authority, Page Authority, Trust Flow, Citation Flow and more that determine the quality of a website and how good a link from them will be.

Basically, the bigger and better the website the more a link from them will help your SEO.

Getting a link from the New York Times website will help you way more than getting a link from your nephew’s blog that he just started last week on a free blogging site.

 

Other Strategies SEO Companies Will Use

Remember you must diversify your anchor text so SEO companies will also do things like put out press releases that get you a ton of links with your website name or URL.

This gives you a nice pillow of links that looks natural so you can focus on getting good links with the anchor text you need from the good websites.

They’ll also create social media profiles, Web 2.0 sites, social media posts, create links to the links, and all kinds of other stuff like that to make all the backlinks look natural and like you’re not actually doing SEO.

health drawings

Why I Don’t Recommend You Invest In SEO

Now that you have a basic understanding of how this all works, this is why I don’t recommend you invest in Search Engine Optimization.

To do this properly you’re looking at spending $1,500 USD per month, minimum, with a proper SEO company.

You probably won’t see any changes in your ranking or traffic for months. It can take Google a long time to find and index all these links you’re building.

There are no guarantees. All SEO companies will mention in their contracts that there are no guarantees. You could spend thousands of dollars over several months and never see any increase in your traffic or rankings.

Your competition could just be too high and have too much of a head start. This is especially an issue if you have a brand new website in an industry with very established competitors. The amount of work and cost to try to beat them just might not be realistic.

Google can change the rules at any time. They’ve done this a bunch of times in the past. Everyone figures out the most optimal strategy then Google updates their algorithm, and all that work gets wiped out overnight.

This happened with origami.me, it was #1 on Google for almost two years, then there was an algorithm change and it got knocked down to #30. For the next couple of years, I slowly worked away on the SEO just by myself (I didn’t want to invest more money) and managed to crawl back up to around #10 before I eventually sold the site.

If you do want to get more traffic from search, and that is the goal here, my recommendation to everyone now is just buy Google Ads.

With Google Ads you know exactly how much traffic you’re getting. You know exactly how much that traffic costs and you start getting traffic immediately.

You can also use their conversion tracking to see exactly how many leads or sales you’re getting from your ads too.

 

What Not to Do

Don’t hire any companies that charge something low like $200 USD a month.

At best these companies will waste your money.

At worst they’ll make a complete mess of your website, have non-native English speakers re-write all your content and cause a bunch of problems you’ll have to fix later.

Do not cram keywords all over your site, especially in your titles and meta descriptions. Write these for humans first, search engines second.

Don’t re-write all your content so it reads like “When you’re looking for the best <insert service> in <insert city name>, <insert state name> be sure to choose <insert company name> in <insert city name>, <insert state name>.”

This reads super awkward and will turn off your customers. Get a good copywriter to write good content for humans.

Don’t add the meta keywords tag. This was discontinued in 2009 and all it will do is tell your competition exactly what you’re trying to rank for.

If you see any companies trying to do any of these things, run.

 

An Important Note for Anyone in the Health & Wellness or Medical Niche

If your website has anything to do with health or medicine, you’re kind of screwed when it comes to SEO.

Google does not want to show any sort of medical misinformation in its search results so it’s extra strict with what it allows to rank.

Go do a search right now for anything health or medical related.

You’ll see the top results are always sites like Web MD, The Mayo Clinic, government health agencies, etc.

No matter how many thousands of dollars you invest into SEO Google will never let you out-rank these websites.

If you have anything to do with natural or alternative treatments you’re definitely not going to be allowed to rank.

Because of this I just can’t recommend anyone in this niche invest in SEO right now.

computers and tech on a desk

If You Still Really Want to Invest in SEO

If after reading all of this, you still want to do SEO here’s what you need to do.

Step one is keyword research.

I cannot emphasize how important this is.

You first need to figure out what keywords you want to rank for. These should ideally be high volume (lots of searches per month) and low competition (somewhat easy to rank for).

Do not just pick random keywords that sound good.

Make sure you use the Google Keyword Planner to check the search volume.

This is a free tool inside of Google Ads that will tell you exactly how many people search for a keyword each month.

There is no point investing thousands of dollars to rank for a keyword that gets 0 to 10 searches per month.

A common dirty trick SEO companies will do is convince to you pay them to rank you for some random easy keyword that sounds good but doesn’t actually have anyone searching for it.

They’ll show you that you rank number one which is cool but at the end of the day you spent a bunch of money and didn’t get any website traffic.

Step two: after you’ve determined what keywords you want to rank for you need to create pages of content around them.

For each keyword you’ll want a page on your website with minimum 1,000 words of quality content but the more the better.

Step three is to build links back to this content using the strategies I mentioned earlier.

If an SEO company isn’t using a strategy like this please do not work with them.

 

The Best Bang-For-Your Buck Strategy

If you have an existing website and want the best bang-for-your-buck SEO strategy this is what you should do.

Pull a report on what keywords the pages on your website already rank for and what position you’re in. There’s a bunch of third-party SEO tools you can sign up for that can help with this.

Look for keywords where you have a page that ranks something like #11. That’s the top of page two.

Then with a very small amount of effort you should be able to boost that up to #10 or even a bit higher.

Now you’re on page one of the search results and now you’re hopefully starting to get some traffic from that keyword while you weren’t before (no one goes to page two).

This is a way faster and better use of your money that doing the full strategy I outlined in the previous section.

It’s not as fast as just paying for Google Ads though which is still what I’d recommend you do.

Potemkin Village

In Conclusion: Google is Completely Broken and Everything is Fake

I’m sure you’ve noticed how difficult it’s getting to find actual things on Google.

Say you’re looking for a recipe, every single result has thousands of words of content talking about where they learned the recipe, how to pick the best ingredients, what tools to use, etc. and you have to scroll past all that nonsense just to see the recipe.

Or the results are full of fake articles often written by people who can’t speak English that are full of affiliate links to products.

People figured out what Google rewards and they’ve filled the search results with nonsense so they can make money from the Internet.

And this results in people getting frustrated every time they try to use Google to find something.

We’re in an awkward transition phase where we’re probably coming to the end of using traditional search engines.

In the not-too-distant future we’re probably going to see some kind of A.I. powered search alternative that’s a lot more useful but we’re not quite there yet.

So for now, the most cost-effective way to get additional traffic to your website from search is to just buy Google Ads.

I really can’t recommend you spend any time or money worrying about SEO anymore. It’s just not worth it.

 

Google is a Potemkin Village

I’ll show you one last fun thing about Google.

Go and do a search for literally anything, for example, “kittens.”

 

Google search screenshot

 

Here Google is saying there’s 429,000,000 results which sounds like it’s probably correct. I can believe there’s that many results about kittens on the whole Internet.

But I don’t want to see the results from page 1. I want the more obscure results from further back that don’t rank as high.

So I’m going to click through the different pages. Remember that there’s 10 results per page.

I get to page 32 and suddenly I’m down to only 312 results. What happened to the hundreds of millions of Internet kittens?

 

Google search screenshot

 

If I scroll down to the bottom of the page it says this:

In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 312 already displayed.

If you like, you can repeat the search with the omitted results included.

 

Google search screenshot

 

That’s kind of odd that they’d remove hundreds of millions of results but yes, I want to repeat the search with the omitted results included.

Let’s try that.

Now I’ve made it to page 33 and that’s it.

 

Google search screenshot

Where are all the rest of those 429,000,000 results?

Who knows!?

You can do this with literally any search term and you’ll only make it to somewhere around page 30 to 40 before you run out of results. Try it yourself.