What you NEED to know about SEO – Mark Traphagen

SEO 101 Mark Traphagen


S-E-O.  the most famous acronym online…

It can be a pretty intimidating and it’s one of the most misunderstood, misrepresented and misused online terms.

Several On Track Tips subscribers have said they struggle with SEO, so I went out and found you the expert.

Mark Traphagen is the Sr Director of Online Marketing for Stone Temple Consulting and a highly respected authority on SEO, authorship, and Google.  He’s currently working on contributions to the third edition of the book The Art of SEO.

Mark’s been involved with social media since the mid-nineties, and has spoken at major conferences – such as SMX, SearchExchange, Pubcon New Orleans, and will be speaking at MozCon and Pubcon Las Vegas later this year.

He understands there are a lot of folks online who panic when they hear about SEO. It can be real overwhelming and intimidating. But according to Mark, “SEO doesn’t need to be a scary topic” just get these basics and you are off to a great start.

What is SEO

SEO or Search Engine Optimization means “doing whatever you can to help the search engines do their job” to return the most relevant result to a search query.

Note that the key word here is HELP.  There’s no guarantee that your site will achieve a high SERP ranking (Search Engine Results Page).

In the past, there were several ways to manipulate or “fool” the search engines.  Today, Google and others are getting much smarter at detecting such trickery and schemes, making it increasingly more difficult for black hat tactics.

Key Takeaway:  Treat SEO like any other business investment.  It takes time and resources to do it right, but the return-on-investment or ROI will be well worth it as your company grows.

Watch “What you NEED to know about SEO” on Youtube

On Site SEO vs. Off Site SEO


On-site SEO is more generally called the ‘technical SEO’, and refers to “doing things on your site that make it easy for search engines to find your content and understand your site”. Having an organized Site Map is a good example of on-site SEO.

Although on-site SEO requires some technical expertise, there are several basic things you can do to get started.  The most general rule is that if your audience can find things easily on your site, so can the search engines.

Be sure that every page has clear and detailed content to help the search engine ‘spiders’ understand what your page is about.  Things like good title, good use of header and paragraph tags, and good use of alt tags for images.

The good news is that upcoming advances in search engine technology will reward diligence and depth of content.


Off-site SEO is “everything that happens outside your site that helps point the search engine towards your site”.

Traditionally, search engine optimization has been based on links from other sites.  These external ‘signals’ are counted as positive votes or recommendations for your site.  Every website is given a complex ranking score called PageRank, which determines the authority, trust and relevancy from the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages).

With the prevalence of social media networks, social signals are becoming more and more important.  Hence, authoritative and influential content has become more and more crucial.

Local Search

Another area of off-site SEO is local search.

One of the services that we provide here at On Track Tips is “Your Social Grid”. We help you find and claim your listing, and get you positioned for citations in directories like Yelp, YellowPages, Manta, and Merchant Circle. It’s virtually impossible to out-rank Yelp, but it’s relatively easy to get ranked locally within Yelp.

Mark clarified that local search is a whole world of its own, and is increasingly important for local business.  Google, in particular, has a strong local presence – think Google Plus Local –  and search is getting more and more personalized.  One of the ways this mammoth search engine personalizes search results is by utilizing location based search data.  Like he said, “Google KNOWS WHERE you are”.  With the explosion of mobile-usage growth, location-based SEO becomes all the more ‘real’ and powerful.

One of the pertinent types of local signals  is citation. Good reviews and recommendations from not just Google Plus Local, but from other reputable and relevant review sites are extremely critical to ranking better with search engines.

Such positive testimonials on reputable local directories confirms the name, address and phone number or NAP of your company, making Google more confident that ‘you are who you say you are’.

Expanding beyond local search, we touched on Search Marketing Optimization or SMO, which is one step beyond SEO and includes ‘real marketing’.

Real marketing refers to going beyond such technical SEO methods and actually engaging with your audience to build ‘REAL’ followers, fans or evangelists – people who will act as your brand advocates by sharing and promoting your business.

This is where social signals really come into play.  More buzz and more shares are confirmatory signals to the search engines.

How Important is Social Media to SEO?

Several small business owners are resistant to social media because of time, resources, interest or expertise.  And the one question I hear over and again is: “Can’t I exist or survive if I just focus on doing really good on-site SEO and forget about Social Media?”

Proper on-site SEO will definitely get a business ahead, but “real marketing” has become almost mandatory today with social media being at the core of real marketing. Every statistic indicates that more and more consumers are looking to social to make purchasing decisions.

If companies aren’t active or present on social media  – engaging and interacting with their audience – chances are they won’t be ‘top of the mind’ when a consumer decides to make a purchase.

Let’s get one thing clear here though.  Contrary to popular opinion, social media is NOT free.  Yes, it is certainly cost-effective, but it also requires a lot of investment in terms of time, effort and resources in order to do it right.  The more you partake in social media, the more it will payoff.  The trick is learning to do it ‘strategically’.

The good news is there is no dearth of resources that will help you learn more about optimizing your social media channels in an efficient and effective manner.  Mark mentioned that he knows lots of business that spend about an hour a day every day and get great results.  The key here is consistency;  Consistently educating, entertaining, exciting and engaging your audience through social media channels.

Case Studies:  Is SEO Even Required

My friend Doug is the owner of blindsbeautiful.net. He’s a successful brick-and-mortar entrepreneur for over 25 years and is just now stepping into the online world.  SEO is difficult for him to grasp because he doesn’t understand the way the web really works. He understands traditional print marketing with flyers, business cards, and Yellow Page ads. He has no interest to learn SEO. He has asked me several times, “Do I really even need SEO and if I do, can I just do it myself?”

According to Traphagen,  there’s “no right answer”.  There’s a lot that you can do on your own.  But, at the end of the day, you have to make a decision as to whether it’s worth spending time learning something new or is it worth hiring a professional.

Here, Mark Traphagen wryly referred to one of our mutual friends on Google Plus, Randy Brown. Rand is a master content marketer and has created a successful online business.  He likes to rib Mark and other SEO experts about the fact that he gets tremendous traffic from organic search and doesn’t listen to the experts.

Mark elaborated that while it does take initial investment and certain amount of groundwork, the good news is that after getting to a certain level – and you have enough audience and buzz – an authoritative site can run itself so long as you continue producing terrific content.  Search engines were created to lead users to the ‘best’ sites.

Key Takeaway:  Focusing on high-quality content is paramount to succeeding online, regardless of what you do about SEO

SEO Audit

Addressing the cost issue for small business owners, Mark stated that IF you decide to spend money on anything – irrespective of whether your site is new or has been around for a while – it will be worthwhile to get a SEO audit, especially if you’re wondering why your site is not ranking high.

The caveat, however, is that you have to make sure to find a highly-recommended and reputable SEO expert for this audit.  The barriers of entry are very low in the field. Anybody can put up a website and falsely claim that they do SEO.   Such people will either take your money and do a poor job or – WORSE – resort to spammy and manipulative techniques.  While you might be delighted with the immediate high-ranking results, it could very likely earn you a penalty from Google in the long run.  And no business owner wants to get on the bad side of the largest search engine company.

Therefore, you should shop around a bit, talk to trusted friends and get high-quality recommendations before hiring an SEO agency.  To start off, you can hire them for a one time project, so they can look at your site and give you a list of problems to work on, sorted by priority.  Then you can check away each point on that list at your own leisure.

That said, if you want to move the ‘needle faster’ in the sense that you seek faster progress in terms of search results and SERP ranking, Mark emphasized that it becomes more important to think about hiring a professional – someone who knows what they are doing and can help you reach your goals faster.

Key Takeaway:Get recommendations. Get an audit. Get a plan.

When Should You Invest in an SEO Audit

Traphagen mentioned that the cost of an SEO audit varies depending on how big the site is and what you want out of it, but you should be able to get one done in the $150-$500 range.  Disclaimer: These are just rough estimates that will definitely vary depending on the SEO agency.

This investment should be made very early on – that is, during the site creation process itself.  Too often, he noticed that mistakes are made ‘right out of the box’ because the site builder is clueless about SEO.  These mistakes could prove very messy and are expensive to fix later.

Hire a site designer with a good grasp of search engine optimization or have a professional SEO expert offer advice during the initial site construction stages.

After this initial investment, keep going back and taking a second look, and a third.  When you start to see your traffic plateau, go back and get someone to take another look, get a new strategy, and keep going forward.

But How Do You Determine if an SEO Expert or Company is legit?

Ask for referrals.

Get recommendations from your trusted connections.  Find somebody who is happy with their own SEO expert, and utilize that person for your own site.

Look, don’t believe just any advertisement on websites of self-proclaimed SEO professionals.  Specifically if any website uses the word ‘guarantee’ and says something like, “We guarantee you Page 1 result in two weeks”, you should RUN AWAY.

Anybody who is ‘guaranteeing’ you ‘quick results’ is either going to disappoint you or do something shady and manipulative that can get you into a lot of trouble.

What are Some Reasonable SEO Goals that a Small Business Might Want to Make?

This is a great area to talk about metrics and analytics.

At this point, we’re trying to answer the following question:  “I know that my site is running faster and is mobile friendly due to my phenomenal SEO efforts, but is it really doing anything?”

This is where analytics and Key Performance Indicators (KPI) can help.  The KPI of any site varies depending on the goal, scope and audience of that site.  For instance, an e-commerce site would have conversion or sales as its KPI.  Content marketers might want their audience to download a free E-book or sign up for an email list and one of their KPIs could be the number of unique leads.

Bottom line, determine which metrics are important to YOU and build a strategy around them.

A new website or a novice blogger might have metrics as simple as more organic traffic, which is defined as traffic solely from search engines and not from paid or referral links.   You might want to know where you’re showing up in Search.   While this traffic might not lead to conversions, you have still taken that first step to get people to your site.

Once you’ve achieved this initial goal, you can then move on to search marketing techniques, such as landing pages and optimizing for conversion.

Again, remember to focus on not just the technical SEO, but also utilizing social signals and interaction to do ‘real marketing’

Key Takeaways:  Make SEO a priority, and not an afterthought, by utilizing SEO experts from the initial stages of site creation.  Exercise caution while choosing the right professional.  Constantly analyze your site goals via metrics and other analytics to ensure that you are on the right track.

Seven “MUST DO” SEO Tips

Before the HOA, I had asked Mark Traphagen to make a list of seven basic SEO tips that everyone must follow.  Here’s what he had to say:

  1. Get a professional SEO audit: If you’re not going to pay for anything else, an SEO audit conducted by a reputed expert can give you a valuable ‘punch list’.A good SEO can uncover problems that you would have never know about and likely it can uncover the mystery about why your site is not generating more organic traffic.
  2. Take an objective look at your site:  Look at your site from the eyes of your user.  Get an impartial opinion from your friends, family or professional peers – just make it clear that you value their site without a bias.Ask them to test every link and let you know if anything is broken or unclear.  In effect, request them to take a good, hard look at your site with detached eyes and get back to you with any and all (navigational and/or content) issues.As Mark mentioned in the beginning, a site that’s good for users is a site that’s good for search engines.
  3. Get a mobile friendly version of your website:  While you might need to hire a professional to do this, the importance of having a responsive site is increasing every day, thanks to the ubiquitous presence of mobile technology.In fact, Google has made it clear that “they are going to devalue sites on mobile searches if they don’t respond well and/or look good”.A hard-to-read and confusing-to-navigate website will lose mobile search rankings.If you need a mobile site, Contact me for a review and quote
  4. Get a verified Google Plus brand or local page for your site:  This is growing in significance since Google wants to easily identify which brands can be trusted.By creating a two-way link between your official website and G+ brand page, you get your website verified by Google, thereby enabling the company to “trace social signals to your site and build trust and authority around your brand”.
  5. Take advantage of Google Authorship: If you produce content on your site or elsewhere related to your business or site, you should take advantage of Google Authorship.Right now, Google is using the Authorship program only to identify photos on search results for these authors.However, in the coming years, Google plans to evaluate signals around authors and brands, specifically looking for trusted and authoritative names.  Get a head start by using Google Authorship today.
  6. Regularly update your site: Mark made a fantastic point about learning to think like your customers.  No amount of SEO can be a substitute for fresh, in-depth and relevant content.  Pay careful attention to the commonly asked questions regarding your brand.What do your customers wonder about when they think of your product or company?  Create content that they connect with since ‘engagement’ is the key to success in this social media world.Aim to resonate with your consumers through high-quality information that gets them to your site.If you are constantly producing helpful content, more search results will point to you.  Consequently, your current and potential clients will have an increasingly favorable perception of you as a brand.
  7. Get SOCIAL: Social signals are becoming increasingly more significant.  The Hummingbird update has helped Google get better with parsing natural language, which will – consequently – allow them to make better use of your social signals by understanding what is being said about you on various social media platforms (especially on Google Plus).Mark quoted Matt Cutts, who said, “Social signals are a long term play”.  In other words, Google wants to see that people are having a positive opinion of you over a long haul.  This consistency will get you labeled as a trusted site that will then be ranked higher.

Rapid Fire Round

Q.1:  Do exact match URLs matter?

Mark:  Not as much as they used to

Q.2:  How important is (having) a thumbnail or profile picture on social media networks?

Mark:  Very important, especially for Google Authorship.  Google uses facial recognition software, and hence a clear, front profile of your face is vital to being identified by the search engine company.  There are some exceptions in that some popular personalities, bloggers or experts can get away with unclear profile pictures because Google has already built trust around them through other techniques.

And of course, people’s eyes are drawn to a face.  People like seeing your face because it makes a connection, which builds trust.

Most importantly, use a consistent image across social media to become more memorable because people get used to seeing you

Q.3:  What is the most overlooked or overrated part of SEO?

Mark:  The most over-rated part of SEO is getting so bogged down in technical stuff that you forget to do real marketing

So, friends, to paraphrase Mark, create appealing, informative and well-optimized content and engage in ways that build trust and authority around your brand so that your customers will become your fans or – better yet – advocates who will share and recommend your products and/or services.

The most successful businesses grow because of the voluntary participation of their customers.

Start following Mark Traphagen and become a powerful company that any search engine will LOVE!


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Host of "Get on Track, Stay on Track" weekly interview series, helping your small business one expert at a time.And CEO of Wiser Sites, a general contractor and marketing agency - connecting your customers with your products.

2 Comments on “What you NEED to know about SEO – Mark Traphagen

    • Glad you enjoyed this Barry.
      It is one of those evergreen discussions because it is all about concepts and less about mechanics and tactics.

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