87% of U.S. adults use the Internet, according to Pew Research. Roughly, 70% of those users turn to search engines to find the products and services they seek. Couple that with the explosion in mobile usage and local New Jersey businesses have much to consider when it comes to marketing online. Local search has become the primary area where businesses need to shine to bring in prospective customers. That means search engine optimization.
It’s hard to know where to start when it comes to SEO. After all, you’re focused on your business. We prepared this step-by-step guide as a roadmap to show where to begin and what you should be focused on, in what order. We also provide some useful tools you can use to make your site prevalent on the first page of Google search results.
Step 1: Keyword Research
The foundation of any SEO campaign starts with the terms and phrases your audience is using to find your services. Begin with a seed list that you can use to generate more ideas on what keywords you should be using on pages of your site.
You won’t be adding these phrases until later, so for now, focus on coming up with a good list, along with the search volume for those phrases. Generally, you will want keyword phrases that fit into the following categories:
- They are relevant to your business (i.e. related to your products or your services)
- They have decent search volume (We’ll talk more about that in a moment)
- They aren’t too broad
- They can be worked in naturally to your web content
Use a tool like Google’s Keyword Planner to get search volume for phrases as well as to generate more ideas. If you plug your list into Google’s planner, it will show you the search volume for those terms and give you alternatives that people are actually using on the search engine. Since the tool is used to work with Google AdWords, you will notice cost per click data associated with keywords as well. Just ignore the estimated cost per click and other advertising information that accompanies your results.
Relevance to Your Business
Use keywords relevant to your business, because that’s what you want to show up for. It’s also what the content on your pages should be all about. This is how search engines determine what is relevant for their users.
Remember that you are looking for terms that have a good business purpose. For example, if you sell blue widgets, look for terms related to those. You probably don’t need to focus much on your brand name in the beginning.
Look for terms that have at least a couple hundred searches per month. However, it’s ok to go lower, too. If your service area is geographically confined, (i.e. you only serve customers in your local town or county) be sure to filter in the keyword planner for geographic location.
Try to find terms that people would naturally use when looking to purchase your products or services. Obviously, the more search volume the better but again, you want to keep geographic location in mind. If you sell all over the country, then you have more flexibility than someone who only deals with a local market. Keep that in mind when looking at keyword data so you can make the right decisions.
Terms That Are Too Broad
When looking for phrases, find ones where searcher intent is clear. For example, the term “headphones” is much less descriptive of searcher intent than the phrase “buy headphones”. In the first term, the searcher could be looking for pictures of headphones, how to spell headphones, or what headphones are. In the second phrase, the searcher is clearly looking to purchase a pair of headphones.
Broad keyword phrases and terms tend to have a lot of search volume but they are incredibly difficult to rank for because searcher intent is not clear. Look for less broad terms (known as “long tail” keywords) for your campaigns.
Avoid trying to rank for terms that cannot be used in regular web copy, such as misspellings or grammatically awkward phrases. Though they may have good search volume, it generally is not necessary to work them in the exact way they appear.
Search engines also look for similar spellings of words in web copy. For instance, plural spellings, misspellings, and even synonyms can be picked up on in search.
Step 2: On-page Optimization
On-page (also known as on-site) optimization is simply things done to your actual website for SEO purposes. It includes tasks like keyword placement, configuring title tags and Meta descriptions, and formatting URLs to be search friendly, among other tasks. By contrast, things like link building or citation building are considered “off-site” SEO tasks.
Elements of On-page Optimization
The following are some core elements of on-page optimization. We will go over each one in detail:
- Keyword placement
- Content siloing
- Meta data
- Title tags
- Technical tasks
Just like your keyword research is the foundation of your SEO campaign, it is also the foundation of your on-page SEO. There are a few key areas to place your keyword phrases to make the page more relevant to a searcher. These include:
- The title of the webpage
- Headers of copy
- The content of the web page
- Image file names
- Image alt attributes (where appropriate)
- The meta description
Please note that each page of your site should be about one topic only. It should be all about the keyword phrase you are trying to rank for (We’ll address that in greater detail in a moment).
Every page has a title tag where you can enter a description of the page. This is a perfect place to add a keyword phrase. A user will often scan search results pages for visual patterns of their keyword phrase. By having the phrase as the first term in your title, you make your search result more appealing.
As a best practice, title tags should be, at most, 45-50 characters (including spaces). At that point, a search engine will truncate the title on a search results page. Try to get your whole message for the title, along with the keyword phrase, into that constraint.
Your page should be structured as header -> copy, header-> copy. Have your keyword phrase in the first heading (in HTML it is written as <h1>Your Header</h1>). This lets a search engine spider (software that search engines use to crawl your web page) know that the copy underneath your header is about that keyword.
Make sure you only have the one H1 header tag per page. Subsequent (less important) headers should use higher numbers (H2, H3, etc) so that search engines know which one is the most important.
Your web page content (as mentioned earlier) should be about your keyword phrase and nothing else. Have your keyword phrase sprinkled in at least a few times, along with variations (i.e. plural versions or synonyms). There are a lot of articles floating around the web on keyword density and for the most part, there is no set rule on how many mentions of your keyword there needs to be.
Always approach this with the user in mind. If you add a phrase so many times that the whole blog post, web copy or other text reads funny, that is not going to do you any good. Having a keyword phrase just a few times in a 500-700-word piece of content is plenty.
Image File Names
This is another good place to put keywords. The more you can make the content on the page about the keyword phrase, the better. The image should still enhance the copy of the web page and be related to it. When you go to save your images, simply name them after the keyword on the page they are being displayed on. This also helps images show up in Google image search.
Image Alt Attributes
Alt attributes (also known as alt tags) are an attribute of the image HTML element. Search engines cannot determine what an image is about, so they use other available information to figure out what it is. The alt attribute serves this purpose. You don’t want to stuff a bunch of keywords into these attributes as this can work against you.
Instead, find a clever way to use your phrase in describing the image to a search engine. For example, if your page is targeting the phrase ‘self-serve car washes New Jersey’ and you have an image of a car wash on the page, the alt attribute could read something like this <img src=”/your-carwash-pic.jpg” alt=”A picture of a car wash in New Jersey”/>.
The Meta Description
The Meta description is a snippet of text that search engines use to tell people what a page is about in a search results page. They may choose to ignore it, but often they do not. You have about 150 to 160 characters to tell people about the page and get them to click. Place your keyword toward the beginning of your Meta description so that people scanning from left to right in search pages will see it.
After you have found the keyword phrase you want to rank for, each one should have its own page on your website. Search engines crawl, scan and index documents (pages) and return those to users who are searching for something. In other words, a search engine does not look for the most relevant “website” but the most relevant “page” in its index.
For that reason, each page on your site should be about a specific topic. This makes it simpler for search engines to understand and determine relevance. The process of laying all this out is called content siloing. Follow these basic guidelines to create a content silo out of your website.
- Your website should have an overall theme
- Break down your pages into sub-categories of the overall theme
- Each page should be about a specific topic
For example, a personal injury lawyer in New Jersey would have the main theme of personal injury law. They would then break down their pages into car accidents, slip and fall, accidental drowning, motorcycle accidents, etc. Each page would have a specific phrase/topic that it would be about.
It is extremely important to organize content in this way so that search engines can easily understand your pages. If your pages are about multiple topics, a search engine may not find them relevant to a user’s query.
Meta Data (or tags)
Meta tags are HTML tags most often known for the snippets of text interpreted by search engines (the meta “descriptions” we talked about earlier). In fact, there are many different kinds of Meta tags with the description attribute being just one of many different attributes applied to a Meta tag. There are many different Meta tags that Google and other search engines can understand.
For instance, there are tags to tell search engines to not index content on a page. There are tags that define a page’s content type and those that tell Google to put a search box in search results pages for your site. Business owners do not need to add every single Meta tag there is, but it helps to have an understanding of what kinds of tags are available, and how they can be useful.
Schema is code that people can add to their site to make the information machine-understandable. Schema.org, for example, has information on a lot of different types of schema that can be used to mark up content.
Here are some common types of information that local New Jersey businesses would be wise to add markup to:
- Business name
- Phone number
- Geographic location
The reason schema is important (and why leading search engines support its development) is because it helps improve the delivery of relevant information to users of search. Search engines can read text but they do not always understand context. For example, a search engine might read 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as an address but it might not know the significance of that address as being that of the White House. Schema markup helps fill in the gap to put that information into context.
By marking up content with schema, business owners can help search engines serve content relevant to their business in searches where they may not have shown up before. They can also use it to help certain search engine results stand out among others.
We went over title and heading in the keyword placement section so we’ll skip to technical tasks. This is labeled technical because it refers to things that are still on-site but are not often seen by visitors. These are also more advanced aspects of on-page optimization and include:
- Making sure any redirects are properly configured as 301 (permanent)
- Making sure you have an XML sitemap
- Configuring your site with Google Search Console
- Being certain you have canonicalization deployed on your site
- Using absolute URLs when it comes to internal linking rather than relative URLs
- Making sure your pages load fast (Google has a good tool to check this and recommend fixes)
- Being sure your site has a properly configured robots file
This refers traffic sent from one page to another. For the most part, you might not need to redirect pages. Some common reasons for redirecting pages include changing a URL, moving a website, or changing a domain name. There are other kinds of redirects but a 301 permanent redirect is typically best for SEO.
XML is a type of language (like HTML) and a site map is just what it sounds like, a map of all your website’s pages. Site maps can help search engines find and index content on your site. As a best practice, you should generate a site map and submit it to search engines. This can help them discover pages and alert you to errors on your site (like broken links). You can generate a sitemap free at xml-sitemaps.com.
Set Up Search Console (Formerly Webmaster Tools)
Google provides a free service called Search Console. It is a web-based interface where business owners can submit their site and get all kinds of information related to search. For example, you can see what keywords people are using to find your site. You can get warnings if there is malware detected on your site or if there are errors with titles or Meta descriptions. The search analytics interface can show you where your pages rank for specific keyword phrases.
To set up a Search Console account, just visit google.com/webmasters/tools. You need to have a Google account (like a Gmail account) and you will already have the service. Then, all you must do is submit your site and verify it using one of several methods. It takes about a week or two to see good information in the account.
This refers to the preferred URL you would like for a search engine to index. Duplicate content can be an issue for search engines because they don’t always know which version of a page is the most recent or best version (because they look the same). This is often not malicious in nature. For example, many web pages have printer friendly or mobile versions. Using the canonical Meta tag alerts search engines to the right version of a page that should be indexed.
The main reason you should use absolute URLs for internal linking is another strategy for minimizing duplicate content. An absolute URL is simply the entire web address (with the http://www… Everything). Using absolute URLs for internal links helps Google understand what URLs should be in its index.
The time it takes for your pages to load is incredibly important for SEO. Think about the last time you spent sitting at a red light for more than a few seconds. It doesn’t seem like that long but in the context of waiting to get going at an intersection, it feels like an eternity. Web page load times are the same way. When people have to wait too long, they are likely to click the back button and start their search over.
Google keeps track of this information and adjusts its results based on what people found useful and what they didn’t. If your site is consistently slow, people are less likely to spend time there after clicking through from a search results page. The more that happens, the more Google thinks that this result may not be relevant to a query.
You can test your page load times with Google’s Page Speed Insights tool. Just paste your URL into the tool and Google will scan it. They will give you a percentage score on how fast that particular page loads (both on desktop and mobile). They even give you a roadmap on exactly what is causing things to be slow.
A robots file is a text file that instructs search engines (and other software programs) on how you want your site to be crawled and/or accessed. Software programs called bots used by Google, Bing and other engines will obey this file if it is present. Even if you do not limit areas of your site to search, it is still a best practice to have a robots file in place. Search engines will still crawl your site if there is no robots file present.
Here are some examples of areas on a website that you may want to exclude from search:
- Password protected areas
- Development or test areas where you don’t want people to see what you’re working on
- Campaign pages (because this can mess with tracking)
Here is a great post on how to set up a robots file for use on your site.
Step 3: Optimize for Local Searches
Why is Local Search Different?
There is SEO and then there is local SEO. For businesses in New Jersey (or anywhere for that matter), optimizing for local searchers is important for ranking well. For the most part, the steps you would take to optimize your site in general are similar to those for local optimization. However, you shouldn’t miss a few important things when you’re specifically targeting a local audience.
Ways to Impact Local Search
Here are some elements of local search that need special attention:
- Using localized keyword phrases
- Using Schema
- Getting local links
- NAP and citations
For the most part, Google has location nailed down. Users will pretty much see results relevant to their local area when they search for businesses. It helps, though, to use location terms in your pages. This is especially true if you find that searchers are also using those city or state names in their queries.
Some common examples are state + keyword phrase, city +keyword phrase, county + keyword phrase and variations of those. For instance, a business could target the phrase carpet cleaners New Jersey or New Jersey chiropractors. A city example might be Dentists in Newark.
We talked about schema and it is even more important for local businesses to use it. Many local businesses will also find that there are specific kinds of schema for their business type. Using that helps search engines identify relevant information based on user searches.
Getting Local Links
We will talk about link building in more depth, but for local businesses, getting links from local entities can be a powerful signal to Google about the relevance of the business to a searcher. For example, local chambers of commerce, other local businesses, local directories and other sources are all good places to get links to your site.
NAP and Citations
NAP is an acronym that stands for name, address and phone number. Citations are simply mentions of your business name on some other website. For local search, it is important to build up as many citations as you can and make sure that your name, address, and phone number are consistent across all of them.
Some popular services that will do this for you include Yext, Moz Local and UBL (Universal Business Listing).
Step 4: Mobile Friendly Design
Google has placed on emphasis on mobile friendly design for websites. In fact, they have openly disclosed that it is a ranking factor in search. New Jersey businesses need to make sure their sites are set up to work well for users on mobile devices. You can use Google’s mobile friendly test to see where your site stands.
Here are core things to keep in mind regarding your mobile site:
- Users should not have to pinch, zoom or swipe side to side and diagonal to see content.
- Users should not have to squint to see text. It should be large enough to read on a small screen.
- Menus should be responsive and work on mobile phones.
- In most cases, people should not have to use more than one finger to navigate your site.
The overall idea is that business owners should be providing a good user-friendly experience on their site, no matter what device it is being viewed on. The user experience changes quite a bit from desktop to mobile. The content and function of your site should be tailored for a mobile experience.
Step 5: Usability
The usability of a website is not often thought of when talking about SEO, but it is quite relevant. Usability refers to the way people use your website and their success (or lack thereof) with that task. The type of site you have and your goals for your visitors will determine what good usability means for you but in general, there are some common conventions all websites should follow.
- The actions you want users to perform should be obvious and easy to do
- Paths to content should be well defined and logical
- The site should follow a logical information hierarchy
- Links should lead to landing pages that users are expecting
- Make sure all pages and links work
- Make sure you aren’t using outdated or proprietary software that would make the site hard to use (such as Flash)
This is by no means a complete list, but the idea is that people should be able to easily accomplish what they came to your site to do. If you are looking to learn more about usability on web pages, there is a great book on the topic called Don’t Make Me Think.
It is a quick read and full of useful information. The signal bad usability sends to Google is that if people visit your site from a search results page and frequently bounce, that is not a good sign.
Step 6: Link Building
It has long been known that Google uses linking signals as a factor in its search algorithm. By linking we mean a website that has a hyperlink back to your site and is known as a backlink.
Linking works like a voting system with the underlying theory being that a link from one website is rather like an endorsement of the site to which it is linking. Think of an academic paper that has citations to other sources. These are meant to strengthen the content of the paper, give it authority, and support whatever argument is being made.
Links to web pages have been applied in the same way (although over the years Google’s algorithm for determining the importance of a web page based on links has grown to be extremely sophisticated). For the most part, the more links a site has, the more votes it has as to its credibility and authority. The quantity of links is not the only important factor though. The quality of those links or votes is also extremely important.
For example, in politics, when a candidate gets an endorsement from a famous person, that vote is powerful and carries a lot of weight (as far as public relations goes – obviously in real elections each vote counts the same). Conversely, if an average person were to endorse a candidate, no one would really care.
A detailed discussion of link building and its many intricacies and history would fill a whole textbook. There are some basic ideas though, that businesses can follow to make sure they do it right.
- Avoid getting “easy” links such as forum commenting
- Never buy links
- Don’t engage in link trading schemes
- Acquire links through content and collaboration with other businesses on promotional activities
Where to Start
You can start acquiring links from the organizations you already have relationships with. For example, a local New Jersey independent insurance agent could get links from the carriers that it represents. A deli in Newark could get links to their website from local food bloggers or the Better Business Bureau.
A car dealership in Trenton could get links from the radio station where they are already buying advertising and a grocery store in Camden could get links from the city’s directory. The trick is to look for where there are already established channels to ask for links then branch out to other areas that might take more time and effort.
Whenever possible, links should be contextually relevant, meaning there should be a logical reason it is linking to you. It’s not bad if you get links from sites that are not relevant but generating a pattern of weird sites that have no business linking to you naturally makes you look bad to search engines. Moz has an excellent guide for beginners on building links.
Step 7: Blogging
Blogging may not be good for all businesses but for the vast majority, it can be a great tool on many levels. It can help add pages to your site to get fresh content out there for search. Blogging can also provide you more pages to target other keyword phrases. It can establish your business as an authority in its market and it can help you acquire organic links (links that people build to your site because you have good content).
Businesses that start a blog should follow these best practices:
- Blog about things your audience cares about (not about yourself!)
- Contribute on a consistent and routine basis (twice a week is ideal but once works)
- Link out to other authoritative sources in your posts
- Link to internal pages of your site where applicable to enhance reader value
- Use lots of imagery and video if possible
Overall, your blog content should be useful and tailored to your audience. Make it something that people look forward to reading, or that they can actually use.
Step 8: Google My Business
Google My Business would technically fall under the business listing and citation portion of this guide, however, Google is in a class of its own. Google provides the opportunity for local New Jersey businesses to claim their business profile on the platform. This has a number of great benefits.
First page Rankings
For many businesses, first page rankings will take months to achieve, but claiming a Google business listing can put them on the front page much faster. That isn’t to say businesses shouldn’t continue their other SEO work, but the listing on Google is a good way to get there fast and have an enhanced presence.
Google business listings are often the first thing to pop up anyway for local searches. They are prevalent on mobile searches and claiming a listing can help New Jersey businesses show up in other applications like maps.
After you have claimed your Google Business listing, you should do the following to make your listing perform well and stand out from others:
Fill out your profile completely
Business owners should fill in all available fields in their Google business listing. This means adding basic information like name, address, phone number, hours of operation, business categories, images, and other available fields. The more content your listing has, the more valuable it will be to people looking for information about your business.
Verify the account
You will still be able to fill in information without verifying your listing but you will want to verify it as soon as possible. Verification can either be done by phone or through the mail however Google will choose how it gets done. Mail verification takes a little longer but it’s only about a week to receive a postcard with a pin to enter for verifying your account.
This can take some time, but work on getting as many reviews on your Google business listing as you can. You can try review campaigns through email if you have an email list. You can also set up something at your store point of sale where people can take instructions on how to leave a review. Reviews help a listing stand out and positive reviews also help people make purchase decisions.
With reviews, you want to be cautious with how you approach your campaign. If your internal business practices make it difficult to get positive reviews, you may want to think about changing those first before launching a campaign.
This guide is, by no means, an all-encompassing SEO strategy. There is much more detail involved, but this basic outline can help you gain a solid foundation for your website in search. Taking care of all these tasks will get a new site off the ground or refresh an existing site. As you move forward, you will gather more experience and ideas on how you can improve upon, and add to, your SEO strategy.