The following article is an excerpt from the book “Ecommerce Uncovered” by Nathan & Tessa Hartnett.
While it is estimated that Google uses over 200 different signals to determine where to rank your site, it would be fair to say that you will find over 2,000,000 different opinions about what those signals our, and how you should best use them to get ranked. The biggest problem we’ve ever had with trying to get rankings is trying to sort through those millions of different opinions to find out what would actually work.
It would be naive to believe that anybody truly knows exactly what to do, and I think the best place to start this chapter is to try to help you sort through the nonsense, and start developing your personal “SEO filter”.
Problem 1 – Correlation vs Causation
This is the single biggest issue we see in SEO today. This is where someone does an SEO experiment, by placing an egg on their head on a Tuesday (when there is a full moon), and noticed that their rankings went up the day that they did it. All of a sudden, they go write very well laid out and written articles about how they have proven that if you want better rankings in Google, all you have to do is place an egg on your head on a Tuesday when there is a full moon. All of a sudden, everyone is doing it.
But not you of course, because that would be silly. But what if they said it happened after they got a lot of Facebook likes? Or it happened because of writing articles on their site using Google Authorship? All of a sudden, it might sound quite plausible, when in fact in might be about as plausible as the egg-head scenario.
Problem 2 – “But Google Said…”
What if Google themselves said it through a spokesperson like Matt Cutts? Now it sounds really plausible!
This is where another problem starts to creep in. Always remember that Google doesn’t want you to know how to rank sites, because if you did, you would be able to manipulate the rankings, and that is the last thing they want. They also use public videos to help manipulate their audience just like a good politician will as well.
Problem 3 – What Are They Trying To Rank?
You have to be really careful when trying to rank an ecommerce site in Google, while using techniques given to you by someone who ranks information sites for a living. They are very different beasts.
Have you ever noticed that when you search for a product, you get a lot of ecommerce sites in the results, yet when you search for information topics, you get information sites? This is because Google knows the difference between an ecommerce site and an information site, and ranks them according to what the searcher is actually looking for. This is Google’s job!
Information site SEO’s will often talk about keeping your keyword density really low as to avoid spamming Google (eg. if the keyword you’re trying to rank for is “how to make a vase”, you want to avoid having this phrase too many times throughout your copy). Sometimes they’ll even say you should keep it as low as less than 1-2%. If you do a keyword density check on most ecommerce sites though, you’ll find that many ecommerce pages that rank have keyword densities of over 30%! Why is this? Because ecommerce sites list lots of products, and the product titles are often very similar (eg. if you’re trying to rank for “vase” there’s a good chance that the word “vase” will be in every single one of your titles), and Google knows this. This is just one example of why Google might penalise a particular type of site for one element, while not penalise another type of site for the same problem.
This is just one more example of why you have to be very careful of where you get your SEO information from.
Why Start The Chapter About SEO So Negatively?
The reason we started the chapter this way is because it doesn’t really matter what we say about how to rank your site, at some point you’re going to get impatient and start looking for ways to speed up the process. I can’t stop you from doing that, and I’m not sure I would want to. It’s important that you don’t just follow everything we say to the letter. Jim Rohn says, “be a student, not a follower”. What I would love for you is to help you filter out the nonsense, and start becoming someone who can recognise what is sound advice, and what isn’t. So let’s go ahead and give you some sound advice.
White Hat vs Black Hat
When it comes to trying to rank your site in Google, you can go down two paths. These are called White Hat and Black Hat. The idea being that Black Hat SEO is where you try to fool Google into giving you higher rankings, and White Hat SEO is where you try to work according to Google’s guidelines to rank your site.
The danger with Black Hat is that Google will figure out what you’re doing, and then penalise your site into oblivion. The benefit is that you might be able to rank your site quicker than using White Hat techniques, and perhaps even outrank for reasonably competitive keywords, where your competition is trying to use White Hat only.
The danger with White Hat is that you can spend weeks, months, and years trying to rank your site in the way Google wants you to, only to find out that the niche you entered just isn’t that profitable. The benefit is that you don’t risk Google penalties, which can wipe out your business overnight.
We’ve used both Black Hat and White Hat techniques over the years, and have seen the benefits and drawbacks of both. My impatience led us to use a lot of Black Hat ideas early on (and so did some of the SEO companies that we hired – although we didn’t know the difference at that time), and that resulted in several Google “spankings”.
These days we are totally focused on White Hat, but I don’t regret learning a lot of Black Hat techniques, as they allowed us to find out exactly what Google is looking for in a backlink, which means we don’t waste time and money trying to get links that are of little to no value.
What’s A Backlink?
Whenever another site links to your site, it’s known as a backlink. It’s one of the main ways Google can tell whether or not to trust your site, and what your site might be about. If a spammy adult site links to your ecommerce site, Google might think twice about whether it can trust your site to rank it for “vases”, and even whether or not your site is about “vases” at all.
We look specifically for two kinds of links, based on what we believe are the only two factors that Google really cares about. Authority (trust) and relevance. In other words, can Google trust your site, and what is your site actually about.
Just because a website might not be totally relevant to our ecommerce niche, doesn’t mean we’ll ignore it completely. Some sites (like major newspaper websites) are very trusted by Google, but aren’t related to vases or even home décor. If we get a link on a site like this, it may not increase our relevancy, but it will definitely tell Google that we are a real, trustworthy site, because a major news site is unlikely to link to a site that can’t be trusted.
With a site like this, we would want it to have a Domain Authority of at least 35-40.
These are the ones that matter most. If you can get home décor blogs to link to your site in one of their articles about “Choosing the right vase for your entryway” or something similar, and it has a Domain Authority of at least 20, then that is really good. Obviously, if you can get a link that is both relevant and highly authoritative (eg. A home décor blog with a DA of 40+), then one or two great links like that in a low competition niche can be all you need. The other factor though, and the one that just might drive you insane, is time or age, which will discuss later in this chapter.
How To Approach Sites To Get A Backlink
Many of us who start online businesses do so because we don’t want to have to deal with people. Unfortunately, businesses are all about people, and this is also true for getting great backlinks for your sites. Looking back, I have to admit that I probably leaned more towards Black Hat link building techniques because I didn’t have to deal with other website owners. Once I started doing so however, and started getting results, then I kicked myself for not doing it sooner.
Let’s say (using our “vase” example) you find a great home décor niche. You find out that the site has a DA of 25, so it’s meets our relevant site criteria. Your next step is to look at their site, and see if you might be able to get a permanent, in-content link to your site (etch those words into your brain – permanent, in-content link). We immediately look for a blog or news feed, as these are almost always permanent articles that will get archived, which means you will always have a link to your site from this one. Have a look at their articles and see if they ever link to other sites, and what kind of articles they seem to prefer. Do they like helpful “how to” or “tips”? Do they like doing gift guides or product reviews? Knowing a bit about what they like to provide to their audience will give you the best idea of how to approach the site owner.
When you ask the site owner if you are able to offer your product for review/how-to/tips/gift guide, it’s often best to not discuss a link right away. Just open the conversation and ask them if there is any way that you can provide value to their audience. If there is, they’ll often come back with what they can offer you. Sometimes there is a cost involved (eg. Sponsored posts), or they may just want you to send them a product to look at. Sometimes you can offer a product as a prize that they can give away to their audience, or a discount for their readers. For the most part, you rarely actually ever need to ask for a link, although once a “deal” is close to being struck, it’s always best to confirm in an email that you will get a link to your site.
A quick word on sponsored posts. Paying for an article is not really what Google wants you to do to get a link. We are still okay with doing this though, so long as the article doesn’t have “Sponsored Post” plastered all over the article. If a site wants you to pay for the post, always ask for a sample sponsored post that they have done previously. If it just looks like every other article, then that’s fine, but if it mentions “Sponsored Post” or something similar, we’ll avoid it like the plague.
Getting More “Backlink For Your Buck”
If you have found a great backlink opportunity, that has high authority, or a great relevant backlink opportunity and you have multiple niche sites in the same broad category, it makes sense to try to get more than one link from the same site. Instead of scaring away the site owner with a barrage of sites, we prefer to negotiate for the one site first, and then once that is confirmed, we’ll let them know about the other sites we have, and try to negotiate a cheaper price per link (if there is money involved). This has worked quite well in the past for us, and has reduced the cost of link building.
Guest posting is where you find a site that will let you write an article and submit it, with a link back to your site. We’re not a big fan of this, and Google has publicly stated that they aren’t either (although I’m not sure we can always trust what Google says). We don’t guest post, and whenever we secure a post on someone else’s blog, it’s always written by them, in their voice, for their audience.
Time / Age
This factor seems to have changed and then changed again over all of the years that we have been ranking ecommerce websites, but over the last year or two, it seems to be back with a vengeance. It basically means that no matter what amazing links you get to your site early on, you may find it difficult to rank your site to a high position quickly, or it may rank quickly, but then drop again just as quickly.
We’ve had test sites that we have left with just one or two backlinks, and have been amazed when a year or two later they are ranking really well, with no content added or anything else changed. Some people call it the “Sandbox”, where a brand new site might start with some kind of “low trust” penalty, which Google gradually scales back over time, but it’s really hard to know the truth of the matter. I know some of you may be thinking that news articles and other forms of information can rank very quickly, but we are talking specifically about niche ecommerce stores here.
Where’s The Secret Sauce?
Whenever someone has trouble ranking in Google for something, there is a tendency to look for the secret magic pill that will help them rank above their competition. Partially because in the past there really were some fairly simple and easy strategies to do so. Even now, there are still a few black hat ways to get your site moving, but compared to even just a couple of years ago, those ways are few and far between. Even for those that actually do still work, many will ultimately result in your site getting spanked.
Before you accuse me of being a Google “shill”, please understand that I used and had no problem using black hat techniques in the past, but you end up constantly chasing the new “strategy”, and it just gets tiring after a while. We now take a much longer view of our businesses, and there’s no place for black hat. We still have a couple of old black hat links to some of our earlier sites, but as we get more and more white hat links, we take down the old black hat links. If you must go down the black hat path, then at least make sure you control every black hat link, so that you can remove them easily in future.
More and more, SEO is becoming more about Public Relations (PR) than trying to game Google. I still occasionally look for SEO companies that might be able to help us, but it’s very rare to find one that actually knows what they’re doing (particularly when it comes to offsite SEO like getting useful backlinks), and we’ve found it’s best that you take control of it yourself. Learn how to get those white hat links (keeping DA, relevance and permanence in mind), and then systemise and outsource it to someone that you’ve trained. It’s cheaper, and you’ll be far more successful.
Remember too that getting great rankings and traffic from Google is a combination of a great many factors, right down to your choice of product. If a new marketing company wants to be successful, they don’t try to start taking on Coca Cola. They want instead to find small companies in niche markets that don’t have ridiculous competition that they can help. In many ways, you are that new marketing company, and much of your success will be determined by where you start. If you start with a medium or high competition keyword to rank for, you will almost certainly fail to rank, and potentially burn out along the way. By starting with a low competition niche, and learning and honing your skills along the way, you will start gaining not only the skills to take on harder projects, but also the confidence, and the ability to work on a project for a long time before needing to see any results.
Tess and I always plan about two years in advance for our businesses. Even if we are busy with current niches, we’ll occasionally try to picture where we might be in a couple of years, and if we think we’ll have the “brain space” free in two years time, then we’ll start a few niches now, get one or two backlinks, and then essentially forget about them for eighteen months. Then, when we’re ready, we’ll focus on those sites, and they tend to be a lot easier to start ranking. SEO is about the long term, which is why so many people give up on it, and why there is still so much opportunity.