Search engine optimization, or SEO, gets a lot of attention. While everyone knows it’s important, not everyone knows how to do it. You can get a lot of surface-level advice on SEO, but today we’re going to dig a little deeper by talking to a true expert in the field.
Lydia Gilbertson is from Distilled in Seattle, Washington, She has a lot of knowledge and experience working with large clients where organic rankings are important to the bottom line. We’re going to talk about how to write content with SEO in mind, how to structure a sitemap, and some ideas for increasing site speed.
Some of the highlights of the show include:
- What Lydia does at Distilled and what types of problems she helps solve.
- Searcher intent: What it is and why it’s important for SEO.
- Where marketers should start if they want to optimize their current content.
- What sitemaps are and why they’re important, as well as where many sitemaps go wrong.
- The importance of site speed for SEO and why it matters. Lydia also shares her best tips for improving site speed.
- Lydia’s top advice for increasing your organic search rankings.
Jordan: Search Engine Optimization gets a lot of press, and for good reason. Increasing your rank on search engines like Google is important for every marketer with an online presence which should mean every marketer in the world. But, the million-dollar question is how to actually do it? In today’s episode, I talk with SEO expert Lydia Gilbertson from Distilled in Seattle, Washington. Lydia has deep knowledge and experience working with large clients where organic rankings are mission critical to the bottom line.
Because I wanted to go deeper than service level advice on SEO, I knew Lydia was the person to talk to. In our conversation today, we tackle how the best content is written with SEO in mind. Things like when to revisit that magical yet often forgotten sitemap and how to structure it well and then some tactics on increasing site speed for a friendlier experience all with the goal of better SEO in mind. I’m Jordan from CoSchedule, here is my fascinating conversation with Lydia.
Hey, Lydia! Thank you so much for being on the show today.
Lydia: Thanks, I’m excited to be here.
Jordan: Can you kick us off by telling us a bit more about what you do at Distilled and anything else you may be up to?
Lydia: My name is Lydia Gilbertson. I live in Seattle, Washington. I’m an analyst at Distilled in Seattle where I spend a lot of time going through large data sets and trying to figure out how to better optimize our client’s websites for organic search.
Jordan: What are some of the most interesting things you get to see, the problems that you get to solve and you run into?
Lydia: I run into a long range of different kinds of problems, mostly related to technical SEO which is extremely interesting because it changes all the time and it’s completely different for each website in terms of the things that they’re doing incorrectly or things that they could be doing better. I get to work with a lot of larger clients whereas in the beginning of my career, I mostly worked with smaller companies, so it’s interesting to see what a large ecommerce client would be as opposed to a smaller publishing site.
Jordan: That’s awesome and that’s one of the biggest reasons why we’re excited to talk you, because of your breadth of experience and how far you’ve gotten to go down the SEO rabbit hole. Today, I wanted to just start asking you some questions so that we can start upping our SEO game in ways that maybe a lot of us haven’t been familiar with or have been a bit of a black box. Can we start with talking about that all important idea of content and how that pairs with searcher intent? Can you just tell us a little bit more about searcher intent and how to take your content and really make sure that it marries well with what people are looking for?
Lydia: Searcher intent is why a user would be searching for something. The pages usually fall under three different kinds of intent which is informational, as if they’re looking to know something, transactional, if they are looking to buy something or navigational, if they’re looking to go to a site. If you were to search for facts about bugs, then you would be able to find that out. That would be information or so on, kind of like that. It could be applied to almost any aspect of digital marketing. However, in the context and scope of my usual work, I’m referring to keyword research for organic search.
Jordan: Can you tell me more about why it matters for SEO, specifically with organic search in mind?
Lydia: User intent matters for SEO because Google favors pages that users interact with more and it wants to give them what they’re searching for. If you’re targeting a keyword and the page does not match what the user’s actually looking to buy, if you’re targeting a keyword that’s like rock bands and you’re trying to sell a product but you’re trying to target that keyword and you look at the search engine results page and you notice that none of those pages are for product pages, then you wouldn’t want to optimize for that keyword no matter how big the volume is.
Jordan: That’s fascinating, especially when you start bringing keyword volume into it. Can you talk a little bit about that? And what kind of volume is good to look for with keywords and then thinking about searcher intent and kind of balancing those two things?
Lydia: I spend a lot of time doing keyword research at Distilled. For example, when I’m doing this research, usually for pages that already exist I will target keywords that I believe are the exact intent of the page as opposed to how high a volume it has. A lot of the keywords I’ll be targeting will have a volume of zero but that would be mainly to match the intent of the page as opposed to just optimizing based on volume because you won’t necessarily rank for a keyword if the intent of the page doesn’t match that keyword.
Jordan: Can you talk a little bit more about your process then to get into the nitty-gritty of what searchers are looking for? How do you actually get into their minds and figure that out?
Lydia: A good portion of that is just basic empathy towards trying to put yourself in the user’s situation, however, a lot of the times, I’ll just look at the current standing SERP using a tool like Moz or HREFS or even an incognito search of Google just to look and see what already exists in the page and try to match the intent of that keyword with whatever page I’m optimizing.
Jordan: How do you recommend that marketers start optimizing current content or current pages that they have now if they haven’t looked at doing this before? Where should they start?
Lydia: You should optimize your intent through your content by looking through the perspective of the user and not just necessarily keyword volume. If your content doesn’t match the intent of the keyword, you will generally not rank for that term. Trying to make a piece of content informational if the SERP shows that most content that’s informational exists already for that term.
Jordan: You’re saying if the high ranking search engine ranking position, that’s the SERP, if the highest ranking ones are informational in nature, that’s kind of a cue to say, “Hey, people are looking for information on this as opposed to a transaction or navigation idea.”
Lydia: Yeah, absolutely. Try to tailor your content to the intent of the pages as opposed to just the term. Don’t just put the term all over the page and expect to rank. You should match the intent of that page more so.
Jordan: One question that I’ve heard a lot is what kind of timelines have you seen in terms of ranking for keywords as you’re optimizing for them. I know it’s contextual, but can you talk a little about your experience of how quickly or how long it’s taken to rank for terms?
Lydia: It really depends on how often Google is crawling the site. It’s hard to say exactly how long it would take. It’s extremely contextual but I’ve seen results in my past jobs. I’ve seen pages change their ranks vary drastically, even as quickly as overnight, but it definitely varies from site to site and it’s extremely contextual.
Jordan: I’ve heard you talked about cleaning up your sitemaps as an SEO ranking factor. Can you define sitemap for us and then talk a little bit about what that looks like?
Lydia: I wouldn’t necessarily call sitemaps a ranking factor but it’s a good way to communicate to Google which pages you view on your site is important. A sitemap is an .xml file that’s attached to your website. It’s used to communicate which pages are healthy or important on your website as well as it’s easier to figure out the actual structure of your site in its initial development. It’s often overlooked during SEO efforts.
Jordan: It’s almost like a signpost for a search engine to say, “Hey, this is what’s important and this is the structure of this website.”
Lydia: Totally. It’s like a map of your website.
Jordan: Like a sitemap. What should an ideal sitemap look like? What’s the anatomy? Can you break that down for us?
Lydia: There are a lot of automatic generators to create .xml sitemaps. My favorite is Screaming Frog. Sitemaps should only include 200 status code pages. No pages that are redirecting or broken pages like 404s and 500s. You only want to include pages that you want to include in the Google index. I wouldn’t put in pages that are canonicalized and not the canonical or end state URL.
Jordan: Can you define canonical real quick for us?
Lydia: A canonical page is a page that has multiple pages that have the same content but a canonical is the one that you want indexed in Google and the other pages, if they were duplicates for some reason in your site structure or your navigation, then you would point them to the canonical version or the true page that you want indexed.
Jordan: Where do many sitemaps go wrong?
Lydia: Most sitemaps that I encounter during technical audits are a little bit messy. They may not have been updated for a long time which will make the URLs either out of date or broken. I’ll often also see sites that have their .xml sitemap attached to their website but not uploaded to their Google Search Console account as well which is the easiest way to communicate to Google how you want your sitemap to be viewed.
Jordan: As marketers notice some of these issues on their sitemap, how can they start fixing them, either tools or principles and strategies that you use on a day to day basis? How can they get them fixed up?
Lydia: A good way to keep your sitemap organized is to just remember that it’s there. I feel like that’s a major issue that people have, being cognizant and checking your sitemap for errors every couple of months or even once a year but preferably more than once a year. I realize that most web developers and SEOs and small content websites are really busy. It’s just good to remind you to check your sitemap. You can easily crawl it with tools like Screaming Frog or even Google Search Console will also tell you if your sitemap has very specific errors when you just look at the sitemap page.
Jordan: Final follow-up question here on sitemaps. What if an organization has been blogging, for instance, for four or five years and they have a lot of content on their blog that they are counting on ranking, all this content. How should they handle blog posts and pages and sort of prioritize and organize their sitemap to reflect the content they also want to rank?
Lydia: I would suggest, for sites with a large amount of content, to have a sitemap index which will be a group of sitemaps attached to your .xml file that is organized based on the portion of the site that it’s associated with. All of your blog posts could be its own sitemap. Or if there’s a lot more content than just one site map’s worth of blog posts, then I would suggest breaking them into categories or so on just to better organize the sitemap and make it easier for you to make edits and changes if you find that some pages are returning error codes.
Jordan: Can we pivot here and talk about site speed? What is the importance of site speed for SEO and why does it matter?
Lydia: Site speed is how fast your website loads upon launching. The ideal speed for a website to load in 2017 is under five seconds, if not faster. The longer the website takes to load, the more likely it is for a user, especially one on a mobile device, to abandon it and then no longer even access your content at all.
Jordan: How does that apply to SEO then?
Lydia: Site speed is almost certainly a ranking factor for Google or at least it will be as it correlates with the positive user experience. This factor will only become more and more important as mobile users become even more common and as Google rules out its mobile first indexing that the SEO blogs reference all the time. It will totally start to favor websites with a better mobile experience which directly correlates with a faster page load time. Fun fact, site speed also plays a factor in how Facebook chooses which articles to spread more thoroughly in its algorithm now. A lot of other platforms are following suit with this.
Jordan: This totally goes beyond Google as a search engine. We start bringing Facebook as a search engine for instance. I know that they give more referral traffic on average than a lot of other networks. That’s really important. How can marketers measure their own site speed right now?
Lydia: A good way to find out how fast your page is loading is by using Google’s free site speed testing tool called PageSpeed Insights. It’s not always perfect at identifying the exact reasons why a site is slow but it’s a very good way to measure it, especially if you’re just looking at it initially.
Jordan: So should they measure just their home page or do you recommend people measure the most important pages on their site, the most important content? How much should be tested?
Lydia: I usually test sites based on a template level, you would look at the home page and the category page or a product page after that, just the different type of pages that you have because each one will hold different elements. If you test them by template level, you’ll get the most accurate reading of which portions of your sites are falling short in terms of site speed.
Jordan: How can they optimize for site speed?
Jordan: Any last recommendations on site speed?
Lydia: I would just stress that most of the time, people put this aspect off. I feel like a lot of people don’t want to tackle it because it requires a fair amount of research and technical work. A lot of the time, web developers won’t look at this as a really important thing for them but it’s important for the user experience, from a marketing standpoint. It’s just good to push this issue as something that does matter for your site and not put it off until site speed becomes so important that your website is extremely far behind.
Jordan: Okay Lydia, we talked about creating content that pairs well with searcher intent and cleaning up your sitemap, increasing site speed, all important things for SEO. Are there any final recommendations you would have for increasing your organic search rankings for marketers?
Lydia: Just a general thought, I would make sure to try to optimize your website for just being a good user-friendly website. It’s generally the most important thing that you could focus on for your organic search efforts, it’s just making a website that functions well, is well-organized and gives users content they actually want to read.
Jordan: That’s lovely. Thanks so much, Lydia, for your SEO insight and for being on the show today.
Lydia: No problem. Thank you so much, Jordan.