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How Does SEO Work? How To Hack The Search Results

It's every niche site owner's dream. Every business craves it, every SEO marketing company promises it.

Ranking at the top of Google's can change your life.

Getting the #1 spot can generate residual income, passive leads, more email subscribers, and enormous numbers of viewers. It can give you the ability to leap ahead of the competition and allow you to accomplish your dreams with your website.

So how do you get there?

It's called search engine optimization. Read on to learn what it is and how you can use it to rank #1 on Google.

What Is SEO?

SEO stands for “search engine optimization”. Search engine optimization is the act of aligning your website's content or design with user interest and marketing your website in order to appear higher in search results. SEO results in more traffic, better user metrics on page, and a more authoritative website.

That's what SEO is, but how does it work? More important, how can we turn our websites into optimized, well-marketed machines that generate residual income?

To understand how to hack the search results, we first must understand how search engines work.

How Do Search Engines Work?

Search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo, Amazon, Ebay, and Youtube work by providing users with results that the user is looking for. These results can be different on different search engines: if I type “camel” into Amazon, I get results for a bunch of plush toys and a very strange mug.

If I type “camel” into Youtube, I get Camel concerts, a training video, and a video of camels racing (that's a thing?).

In both of these situations, the search results have different solutions to my problem, but both solutions solve my problem.

In the end, search engines are problem solving machines. They give searchers the information, video, or product that the searcher wants. At the top of search engine results pages (SERPs), you always get the best of the best.

But how do search engines determine who is best? If I go to Google and search for “protein”, I get 731,000,000 results.

google protein serp

There's no way that Google can determine the best out of 731,000,000 results, right? 

It's pretty wild to believe, but Google is very, very good at determining the best out of millions of options. There are over 200 ways that they look at each website and rank them. But instead of giving you 200 things you need to fix on your site, we're going to narrow it down to the top 3. If you can get these 3 right, then everything else will fall in to line.

The 3 most important things for your SEO are:

If you optimize your content, have quality inbound links, and make RankBrain happy, then your site will do well. These 3 factors are each so important that when you get them right, all of the other 197+ ranking factors fall in to line.

Let's take a look at each of these in depth. I'll show you what Google is looking for and how you can optimize your content.

How Does SEO Work? A Step By Step Guide To Hacking Search Results

Content

Content is the holy grail of websites. Without good content, it doesn't matter how you perform with RankBrain and it doesn't matter how many links you have.

(But with bad content, you ain't getting links at all)

What Google Is Looking For:

Google wants to see that your content solves people's needs and answers the search intent of the user. If someone searches a question, Google wants to see an answer. If a person is looking for the best product, Google wants to see reviews.

This doesn't just mean that Google wants to see content that's good. They want to see content that looks good. Try this: open a new tab and search for the phrase “benefits of eating avocado”.

Here's what I get:

featured snippets

Those are called featured snippets. And there aren't just one, but two of them. Notice any similarities?

Both of these featured snippets include information laid out in bullet points. When you go into the page itself, the information isn't clunky, doesn't stretch across the screen, and isn't a burden to read. Here's an example of the Healthline page: 

healthline avocados

It's got short paragraphs (1 sentence each) , cited sources, and internal links. If you don't want to read all of the information, they have a summary box down below.

Long gone are the days when content is stuffed with keywords and overrun with ads, affiliate links, or other distracting content. Content today needs to be two things:

  1. Digestible in bite sized-chunks
  2. Comprehensive enough to answer any questions that users have

Your website now has to compete with the likes of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, and Youtube. You have to grab a user's attention and keep it. So let's talk about how you can do that and optimize your content for SEO.

Optimizing Your Content

Solve A Need – Do Your Keyword Research

The first step towards optimizing your content is to make sure that you are solving someone's need. In other words, you want to be sure that someone is searching for what you're writing about.

This was the problem with the first niche site I ever made. Instead of writing stuff that people wanted to read, I wrote about whatever I felt like. Stuff that I thought would rank well. So I ended up with multiple 7000+ word articles about… nothing.

Want to guess what the traffic was on those monster articles?

0.

So how can you make sure that your content is something that others want to read? You have to do keyword research. We already have an article about how to do keyword research, so I won't get too detailed here. But just a quick glance.

long tail pro volume

In the red box, I've highlighted the volume of each keyword. That's how many people are searching for the keyword every month. And don't be afraid of small numbers; the keywords with small search volumes are called long tail keywords.

Spencer has written a lot about why they're the keywords you should target. He's writing almost all of the long tail keywords he can find for Niche Site Project 4, even if the keyword has just 10 searches per month.

These volume numbers are proof that someone in the world who wants to read your article. If there are just a few searches per month, you can be confident that there isn't much competition around that keyword. You stand all the better chance of showing up in search engines for it.

Give Your Article A Face Lift

Once you've got yourself a written article, you'll need to make it look good. Remember that now you are having to compete with social media. You're competing with videos, snippets, and an average attention span of 8 seconds.

A good rule of thumb is that you want to vary your content as users go down the page. Give information in bite sized chunks by keeping your sentences and paragraphs short. It's tough to give an exact standard for how short your content should be, but keep it tweetable.

Here are some other things I do to try and make my content look good and stay easy to read:

When your content is optimized for the reader, it is optimized for SEO. 

Cover Everything That Needs To Be Said, But No More

There is a massive opportunity in the modern landscape of websites to write big content. And I don't just mean big in terms of word count (though most of my articles somehow end up being 4k+ words). I mean big in terms of scope.

But what's the difference between word count and scope?

It's possible to have a big word count without having a lot of scope to your content. This is called keyword stuffing. In the olden days, you could rank pretty well with some grade-A keyword stuffing. Toss in “best protein shake” into your article enough times and Google believed that you were an authority on it.

That's not the case any more.

We discuss this more in depth later when we get to RankBrain, but Google wants to see that you know what you're talking about. They want to see your post answer the search query of users and other search queries the user may have.

This article is an easy example. The main keyword is “how does SEO work” and I could answer that in a sentence: “SEO is when you optimize your content for search engines”. But then you would still have to look elsewhere to learn how to make SEO work.

So I increase the scope. I explain the most important things in SEO (content, links, and RankBrain), then explain how you can optimize for those things.

In your site, it's important that you write about everything that needs to be said. Make your content so comprehensive that viewers don't have to look elsewhere for an answer to their questions. Answer the questions that your viewers don't even know that they have yet.

The goal here is not to increase your word count by tossing in useless facts and information. Keep it relevant. And when everything has been said, that's the end.

There's no need to be the longest article on the internet. Just be the best article on the internet. And sometimes that leads to a high word count.

One way to do this well is to include longer tail keywords in your articles. You'll need a keyword research tool for this, but even one of the free ones can help you out. Here is a list of keywords for “best protein shake” on Ubersuggest.

ubersuggest best protein shakes keyword

If you are writing about the “best protein shake”, you could write about “best protein shakes for vegans”, “best protein shakes for pregnant women”, and “best protein shakes for weight loss”.

These keywords that are longer tail than your main topic help your article to be comprehensive. It depends on the competition for the longer tail keywords, but you might even end up ranking for those as well as your main keyword.

My rule is that I will write about anything that adds value to the reader, but I have to keep my articles as short as possible. If a sentence doesn't add value, I cut it out. This rule helps me to broaden scope while not fluffing word count. My rule is yours if you want it 😉

How To Optimize Your Content For SEO Summary

  • Write what others are looking for. Use keyword research, target long tails, and don't be afraid of low search volumes
  • Make your content look good. Vary your content's appearance by adding pictures, videos, tables, charts, boxes, bullet points, and headers
  • Go big on scope, but not word count. Don't stuff your article with fluff, but make sure it covers everything the reader could need

Backlinks

A backlink is when other websites link to your page. Backlinks boost the “authority” of the page that gets the link and the authority of your site in general. 

What Google Is Looking For:

Backlinks count as a sort of “vote” for your website. Links tell Google and other search engines that people aren't afraid to mention and promote your content. You can think of backlinks as a sort of vote that your site is pretty great.

As with any good system, plenty of people have found ways to game it. Private blogger networks ( PBNs) were all the rage just a few years back. You could buy a few domain names, stuff them with a little bit of content, and link back to your main site. Google thought it was the real deal and your site got a ranking boost.

But Google ended up cracking down on PBNs. Spencer swore them off forever. And unless you're willing to risk a Google penalty, it's best to color between the lines. That means no private blogger networks. No paying for links.

How To Build Links

There are a ton of ways to build links to your site. I'm just going to cover a couple that I think could have a massive impact on your business. 

HARO Link Building

HARO stands for Help A Reporter Out. If you are on their email list, you get requests from journalists who want sources. The goal is to find a request that looks like something relevant to your site. Answer the journalist's questions, include a link to your site, and hope that it gets published.

It's not a surefire way to get inbound links and you may fill out dozens of requests before being listed as a source. But these links are from reputable news organizations with monster domain authorities. To give you an idea, here are the domain authorities of some of the news organizations that get sources from HARO.

Organization Name

Reuters

New York Times Fox News The Globe And Mail Wall Street Journal Mashable
Domain Authority (Ahrefs) 92 94 91 91 93 92

 

Imagine the impact that a domain authority 90+ link would have on your site. And unlike skyscraper links, your competitors can never take a link from a news organization away from you. This link is stuck on your site until the end of time.

HARO link building makes a ton of sense no matter what niche you're in.

Guest Posting

Oh, the good old bread and butter of link building. This can be used in pretty much every niche to varying degrees of effectiveness. The easiest way to find guest post prospects is to use a special search query in Google. Something like this:

[keyword] intitle: write for us

[keyword] intitle: write

[keyword] intitle: contribute

[keyword] “guest post by”

Here's what I got when I typed in “protein intitle: write for us”

[keyword] intitle: write for us

Look at all of those opportunities. But I'd bet my bottom dollar that every one of these sites gets flooded with guest post requests. For my guest post queries, I like to use [keyword] “guest post by”. This gives domains with a smaller domain authority, but they are much more willing to accept pitches.

[keyword] "guest post by"

I doubt you've ever heard of Protein Pow. But they're a sweet domain authority 50 site. Landing a guest post there would be a super helpful for your site. I used my Ahrefs bar to check the domain authority of all the sites on page 1. Some are low (NergFitness is 2), but the average is in the 40-50 range.

The beauty of this query is that you can be certain all of these websites accepted guest posts in the past. I doubt they're being pitched all the time since they're smaller, but in this case the size works in our favor. You won't get as much link juice per link as you would from a domain 70 site, but you are much more likely to get links.

And in the end, the medium-sized link you do get is a lot stronger than the big one you don't.

When you're outreaching for guest posts, you'll notice that everyone says the same thing: No duplicate content, no plagiarism. And they don't care if it's your own writing that you're duplicating. They don't want it.

Google only ranks one version of duplicate content, so I can relate to their concerns. But as guest posters, it puts us in a weird position. We have to come up with new topics for every single guest post? How in the world can we do that at scale?

Fear not, my little niche site builder. I wouldn't ask you the question if I didn't know the answer. Yes, you do need a new topic for every single guest post. But this scales a lot easier than you would think. Here's how to find new topics with ease.

First, I recommend opening a Google Sheet. Column A is going to be Guest Post Ideas. Column B will be Completed. Column C will be Guest Post Location.

google sheets guest post

It's super simple, but you can take mine if you want. Click File ==> Make A Copy

.All of your guest post ideas are going to go here. When you find an idea, you put it in the Guest Post Ideas. When you turn the guest post in, change the topic from column A to column B. When the guest post is published, put the url in column C.

To find ideas for your guest posts, you're going to want to find skyscraper articles that are already published. These articles always have multiple thousand words, often in the 3k+ range. Good skyscrapers are broken into subtopics. You are going to use each of these subtopics for a guest post idea.

Let's say you hate yourself and are in the health niche. To get some guest post ideas, you can search “eating healthy”. I clicked on the first few results in Google.

And ideas are everywhere.

guest post ideas from google guest post ideas

Everywhere you see a red box is somewhere that you could take an idea from. I only took ideas from one of the pages in Google because it loaded first. Here's what my spreadsheet looks like now: 

guest post ideas in google sheets

And all of that took about 3 minutes. The longest part was typing the ideas in.

In the span of minutes, I have 12 guest post ideas. And as said before, this was only using the first page of search results and the first page that loaded on Google. I didn't search multiple pages and only grabbed a fraction of the ideas possible in the page that I opened.

When you get a guest post published, don't forget to move the topic to the Completed section. You don't have to link to it in the Guest Post Location section, but I like to see where my articles are at 😉

It'll look like this: completed article and url in sheets

You can make this spreadsheet a bit more complex if you're using a mass email tool with merge fields. But I wanted to keep it as simple as possible. If you don't know what a mass email tool or a merge field is, no worries. When you're at the point where you're making a significant chunk of change from your site, you can worry about it then.

For now, the most important thing is that you do not let inaction stop you. You now have the knowledge you need to build high quality backlinks at scale using HARO linking and guest posting at scale.

A Note About Skyscraper Link Building

If you've ever learned about link building, you've heard about skyscraper. In essence, you create a piece of content that's better than your competitors. You then outreach to everyone who has linked to your competitor's article and ask them to link to you instead.

I'm going to say it, and the internet marketing community is going to crucify me for it.

Skyscraper is dead for the small website owner.

I was very careful about how I constructed that statement. I'm not saying that no one can do skyscraper. There are people who have massive heights of success with it. I'm not saying that it doesn't work. It does.

But the biggest problem with skyscraper is that it's famous.

Everyone does it. Whoever you're emailing has gotten that email before and I'd bet they got it in the exact same template that you used. Site owners see the skyscraper emails and they don't see an opportunity to help you out. They see an opportunity to benefit for themselves.

Send out skyscraper emails and you're going to be ignored. When you aren't ignored, they're going to ask for money, for backlinks, or for social shares. And you're going to be asked for those things in that order. But most of the time, site owners just want money.

Big sites can weather this storm. They can negotiate.

“I won't pay for links, but I'll share four of your articles on my three social media platforms to a total of 120,000 followers.”

“I can't pay for a link, but I'll sponsor your product for free to my email list of 50k.”

Or, since they're a big site, they might just pay for the link.

Little sites don't have the same resources as big sites. And even for big sites, the conversion rate for these types of campaigns is low. You'd be doing well to get even a handful of links for every 100 prospects you emailed.

But if you're a small site and still want to give skyscraper a go, you'll need a few things:

  1. A system to find prospects at scale (you'll need a lot – thousands if possible)
  2. Incredible content that's better than the competition
  3. A great pitch
    • Have a unique headline
    • Make it clear what the site owner gets out of this
    • Don't use a template you found online
  4. Lots of persistence

For small sites, I don't recommend skyscraper. You can get a better return on your time, money, and energy with other link building tactics.

How To Optimize Your Backlinks For SEO Summary

  • Use HARO to get unique, powerful, unreplicatable links
  • Guest posting is super powerful when you do it right
  • If you're having to read an article about how SEO works, you're better off avoiding skyscraper link building

RankBrain

And we arrive. RankBrain is a new-ish part of Google's algorithm. RankBrain's whole purpose is to make sure that search results are relevant to what each searcher is looking for. RankBrain gives users “things not strings“.

What Google Is Looking For With RankBrain

RankBrain is all about adding context to search results. Let's say that you search for the word “hurricane” because you want to learn more about weather cycles. But Google's pretty clever. They know that some people want the news about hurricanes in the world. So they add both contexts. You can learn about hurricanes or view the news.

google hurricane results

But if there's been a massive hurricane that hit the Caribbean and is moving up the Florida coastline, Google changes their search results. They know that now, people want to hear about this massive hurricane that's doing so much damage.

Google applies context to the search results. That's RankBrain. 

Here's another example. You type “horse” into Google and you get info about horses. You type “saw horse” into Google, and you get info about a carpenter's tool. RankBrain is filtering through millions of search results and finding the ones most likely to answer your query.

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It recognizes that “horse” is the same thing as “horses” and that “running shoes” means both “sneakers” and “tennis shoes”.

So how can you optimize your site for contextWell, it's easier than you'd think. 😉

How To Optimize Your Site For RankBrain

RankBrain optimization is all about showing Google that you are relevant to search results. There are a 3 primary ways that you can do this:

Establish Topical Authority

Topical authority is a rough measurement of how much you know about a given subject. You could think of this as a measure of expertise in Google's eyes. 

Establishing an expertise on a topic involves making a section of your site revolve around that topic. In WordPress, these are your categories. If you're in the paintball niche, you might have a category on paintball gear, another on paintball tactics, and a third section about training beginners.

These categories can be anything as long as they are relevant to your niche. And when you stuff these categories full of high quality, good looking content, Google listens. They begin to see you as an expert in your niche. Your topical authority increases.

To increase your topical authority, try to write content that fits within certain categories. You'll want to know these categories before you start your site. It's a little extra work, but I promise that it pays off.

All other things being equal, it's best to start small. Niche Pursuits has 9 categories, but we get a lot of visitors and have a lot of content. My personal niche site has just 3. Spencer's Niche Site Project 4 also has 3 categories. 

As your site grows and you can expand, then feel free to open new doors for yourself. If you're just starting out, it's best to collect all of your stuff in as few categories as possible.

There are some people who think that when you do internal linking, you should only link inside of each category. They say that if you have a category about paintball gear and another category about tactics, you shouldn't have internal links from one to the other. This is called the silo technique. And all of your internal links stay in their silo, their category.

Spencer doesn't put a lot of stock into that. Just look at Wikipedia; they have internal links going everywhere. There are no strong, clear categories and they do more than fine. I'm undecided, but I try not to have internal links across categories unless it's very relevant.

There's no need to get too technical here. The big thing is that you should restrict your content to as few categories as possible. Grow the content in these categories and show Google that you're an expert in that area of your niche. 

Google comes to trust that you have topical authority. They rank you higher, since experts in a niche are always more relevant than newcomers.

Include Similar & Longer Tail Keywords In Your Content

We covered this a bit in the Content section. I said that you should have articles with big scope. You want to be able to answer all of a reader's questions without the reader having to go to another page. To do this, you can include similar and longer tail keywords in your content.

If you're writing about the best protein shake, you could mention the best protein shakes for women, vegans, and for weight loss. These longer tail keywords add scope, and show Google that you have topical authority. You're an expert in your niche.

This helps your article rank for more queries since you are relevant to more searches.

But again, don't stuff keywords in your article. There's no need for keywords to be in every header or every paragraph. Google is pretty clever; they can tell when you're trying to pull one over on them. It's much better to talk like a regular person and let your keywords be natural. 

Instead of stuffing your keywords, allow your keywords to determine the direction that your article will take. Once you know your direction, just write. If you're doing a good job, the keywords will insert themselves on their own.

Use Relevant Internal Links

Once you've got your categories established and your content brimming with a healthy number of keywords, it's time to show Google what's important. It's time to add some internal links.

Internal links are links from your content to your content. I've added a lot of links to Niche Pursuits pages in this post; those are internal links.

When you use internal links, you are telling Google what pages are important on your site. These pages share “link juice” so when one of them gets a backlink, they all get a portion of that backlink's authority. 

It's important to be responsible with internal links. You want to have internal links where they are relevant, not just whenever you can apply them.

Let's say you have a post on protein. It's an awesome post; it's got 10k words, lots of backlinks, it's massive in scope, and it's super relevant to your reader. On your site, you also have a post about fruit smoothie recipes. If you talk about protein in your fruit smoothie article, then by all means have an internal link to your protein article.

If you don't talk about protein, then these two posts aren't good candidates for internal linking. They aren't relevant to each other.

Before adding an internal link, ask yourself if the two posts are relevant to one another. If someone goes from one post to the next, are they going to be confused? Or will the second post help the reader even more? Use your judgment here since there are no hard and fast rules. 

It's best not to add irrelevant internal links. This doesn't paint a clear picture for Google of what you want to succeed in each category you have. But within relevant posts, internal link away. It helps your reader, spreads authority, and shows Google your top content (which will then rank all the better).

How To Optimize Your Site For RankBrain Summary

  • Establish topical authority through categories
  • Include similar keywords and longer tail keywords – use in-depth content to create more topical authority
  • Use relevant internal links within your content

You can imagine that internal linking is a pain. In order to show Google what's important, you shouldn't just internal link to everything, but should link to what's relevant. Finding relevant links and then pasting them into your anchor text can be a pretty mind-numbing (and time-consuming) task.

This is a problem that Spencer himself struggled with for a long time. Solutions involved long hours or VAs (but even at a few dollars per hour, that expense added up). So to scratch his own itch, Spencer created a software called Link Whisper.

Link Whisper uses AI to locate all of the relevant anchor texts on your site and uses that anchor text to internal link. It's never out of your control and you can change the anchor texts if you want. Link Whisper provides the easiest way to add internal links to new and existing content.

Link Whisper

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Spencer made Link Whisper to solve his own need. You can use it to:

  • Make internal linking faster and easier
  • Show Google your most valuable content with relevant internal links
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Find smart, easy internal links with Link Whisper

SEO & Your Site

Thanks for reading my post about how SEO works. If it was helpful, please let me know in the comments below. If it wasn't, what do you wish I would have covered? Give me a shout in the comments.

SEO basics aren't complicated, but SEO is a field that many people never spend time learning about. Even the experts aren't sure about everything, so don't be afraid to ask if you have any questions. 

If I could make one improvement to any site's SEO, I would tell them to do excellent keyword research. You can read my article about the best keyword research tools here (and don't worry, tons of them are free).




Search Engine Optimization

By Brady Cargle
July 12, 2019 | 6 Comments

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Sebastian Hovv

Nice post

Brady Cargle

Thanks Sebastian!

Thanks

Fantastic post – although I know a lot of it already, it is good to have a good compilation like this.
bookmarked – printed as PDF – and now working with Ubersuggest to get a few ideas on how my competitors did it 🙂
Thanks a lot for the good post, Brady.

Brady Cargle

It’s nice to have everything in one place 🙂 Thank you!

Steve Turner

Hi Brady,

This is a great resource.

I think you are right and I for one neglected SEO and have been trying to to go back and learn from my mistakes. Like most things, in hindsight would have been much easier to do correctly in the first place.

I would like to know how you think the best way to deal with the changes to Google now not honouring – NO INDEX and NO FOLLOW in robots.txt file?

I have used this on affiliate links etc and pages I don’t want indexed. Will this mean I have to go and fix all these to prevent them being crawled as part of my site and causing problems?

Regards
Steve Turner

Brady Cargle

I haven’t heard of that. Can you send me a resource? I’ll take a look

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