John McDougall Site

Writing a Blog and Optimizing it for SEO

Below is part five of a podcast series that we recorded in order to create our book, Talk Marketing – How to Gain Authority and Expert Status, Even If No One Has Ever Heard of You. In this episode, John McDougall and John Maher talk about how to start a blog and optimize it for SEO so that your blog posts rank in Google.

Following the audio file is the transcript of the podcast, which we would normally simply edit and add sub-headings to in order to create a simple blog post from a podcast. However, here we’re presenting the fully edited, prose-version of the transcript that we used in the book.

In this chapter, I will explain how to start a blog and optimize it for SEO. I’ll cover the quick wins you need for a good blog foundation, plus essentials such as the optimal site architecture, layout, and headlines for blog posts. Then, I’ll explain how to identify your competition and how to get keyword ideas from their sites.

Subfolder Versus Subdomain for Your Blog

Your blog is where much of your talk marketing will be archived, so it pays to set it up right. You can choose between a subdomain and a subfolder or directory in terms of site architecture. A subdomain is set up as blog.yoursite.com, while a subfolder is set up as yoursite.com/blog.

In the last fifteen-plus years, we’ve discovered that search engines prefer subfolders. With a subfolder, you get more domain authority from the links pointing to your main folder structures, and it’s more integrated. A subdomain, in contrast, can be seen as a separate site.

If you like, even though you have your main blog page at yoursite.com/blog, you could have your blog posts on the root level of your website like yoursite.com/postname. Some site owners prefer that setup because it keeps their URLs shorter, and there are big blog sites that successfully take that approach. However, we don’t recommend that. We recommend having all of your blog posts in the slash blog directory, set up as yoursite.com/blog/postname.

That’s for a couple of reasons. For analytics especially, it’s nice to be able to separate your blog posts from the rest of your site when you’re looking at the traffic to your pages and your other metrics. Then, if you go into analytics and filter for the word “blog” or “/blog”, you can see all of your blog posts listed and generate reports that show you things like the top blog posts on your site.

It’s easy to do that because you can filter out the rest of your content and just look at everything in the /blog subfolder. In contrast, if you have everything in the root directory, where you have all the rest of the pages on your website, it’s harder to filter out blogs in your analytics. The /blog format also keeps your content tidy and organized, which helps significantly if you decide to move the site.

Blog Layout

Regarding blog layout, you can put your blog body text on the left and set up a right column with calls to action or blog links in various categories. Or you can create a clean layout with a single main column.

A single column often feels more like reading a Word document. Then, as you read and scroll down, you see banner ads, links to download eBooks, or other calls to action that relate directly to the blog post.

These are the main options, but there are also a few different ways to do this. It ultimately boils down to personal preference regarding how you want the blog to look.

Tips for Blog Headlines and Title Tags

The title tag is an HTML code tag that allows you to give a web page a title. This title can be found in the browser title bar, as well as in the search engine results pages (SERP). It’s crucial to add and optimize your website’s title tags, as they play an essential role in terms of organic ranking (SEO).

Ideally, you don’t want to use crazy, long titles for the headlines of your blog posts, but sometimes, that can work. There have even been some famous ones. John Morrow, for example, had something about saving the world and making millions. The title of the post went on and on, and it got millions of views even though it had a super long blog post title.

You can use long blog post headlines sometimes, but if you do, you don’t want to use those long headlines for your title tags. Instead, you should craft a title tag specific to each post, rather than blindly replicating your headlines. Your title tag should be fifty-five to sixty characters.

If you just hand a Word document to your site developer, they’ll usually use the headline as the title tag if you haven’t provided a specific title tag. Then, the next thing you know, your title tag ends up being 150 characters — that’s three times longer than the optimal length. Similarly, if you don’t enter a specific title tag, Google just takes the long title and truncates it to the first fifty-five or sixty characters, and that might not make sense as a title.

You’re better off taking the time to craft a title tag that’s fifty-five or sixty characters. It only takes a few seconds or a minute or two. Then, you can ensure that it makes sense and has the keywords that you want in it. Don’t compromise your blog by letting Google or a developer decide the title tag.

Best Plug-ins for Blogs

Plug-ins can be useful when you’re setting up your site. Yoast, for example, is a good plug-in that helps you do some basic stuff with your SEO, but you can’t just install plug-ins like a kid in a candy store.

If you keep adding a bunch of plugins, you will have to keep it up and ensure that those aren’t getting outdated, so you don’t have a security issue. Too many plug-ins can also increase load time, so you must be careful.

Ideal Length for Blog Posts

According to most SEO professionals, 1,500 to 1,800 words is a good length for ranking purposes, but it really depends on what people are doing in your niche. For example, if you’re a plumber and you’re blogging about local plumbing services and your competitors are all writing 300 to 500-word blog posts, you could probably beat them with 500 to 700-word blog posts.

The ideal length for effective blog posts varies, but as a general rule of thumb, you want your word count to go above your competitors. This is also assuming that you’re writing good quality content. You can’t write fluff.

How to Learn About Your Competitor’s Blogging Efforts

So, how do you know what your competitors are doing? To get to the heart of this issue, I want to share a story of something I worked on. I had a guy who owns a rug and carpet cleaning company contact me; his SEO was terrible. When we looked at SEMRush, it was like a roller coaster, going wildly up and down and really never accomplishing more than 100 or so keywords ranking.

He’d been paying for SEO for years and said he recently added pay-per-click with Google ads, yet he still didn’t get consistent leads. As I talked with him about what he was doing, I realized that he wasn’t really looking at his competitors or thinking about the big picture.

So, I asked him about his competition. He gave me a list of the competitors in his exact town, and the problem is that they have very small, crappy websites with few pages. Because of that, he was setting his sights too low. The competitors that he thinks of as direct competitors aren’t what he needs to compare himself to.

He can’t just look in his own town because, like most service providers, he’s not only trying to rank in his own town. He needs to target a thirty- to fifty-mile radius or maybe even his whole state or a region of states at least to get visibility. He needs to keep that in mind when defining his competitors if he wants to DOMINATE his town/keywords in Google.

When I searched his exact surrounding towns, I quickly found two green carpet cleaning companies with horrible reviews on Yelp. They had one or one-and-a-half-star reviews across the board on Yelp, but their sites were outranking his. One was ranking for about 800 keywords, while the other was ranking for 700. They were coming up in all kinds of searches.

This guy had five-star reviews, yet, his competitors, with the poor reviews, were outranking him because they were optimizing the crap out of their sites. They had huge amounts of pages and lots of content.

Then, he told me about a competitor on the South Shore of Boston, and I saw that they had 2,300 keywords ranking in Google. I told him, “Look, they have a 500-page website. You have a seventy-page website. You should eventually try and have 500 pages like they do with good in-depth content and not a bunch of crap.” At that point, he had some town pages that were really thin with a lot of duplicate content. This company also had some town pages that weren’t great, but at least they were unique.

As I kept searching for carpet cleaning in all of his surrounding towns, I noticed a trend that these crappy sites were ranking in his town, but when I searched the surrounding towns, the same four or five sites kept coming up. The common thread was that they had more pages and longer in-depth content.

Here’s what I’m saying with this story. To find your competitors, you have to search on Google. You can’t just name who’s important to you or the guy down the street who’s a direct competitor. It’s good to look at what your direct competitors are doing, but you still need to do the Google searches and stretch outside of your exact town. And in some cases, you’ll find national sites ranking in your area.

You can’t just try to beat the people in your local area. You need to expand your competitor list and find those sites that are really kicking ass. Then, once you find a great competitor, you can put their URL into a tool like SEMRush, and you’ll get all of the keywords they’re ranking for as ideas.

Because, if you just compare yourself to the lowest bar, you’re not really setting your goals very high. The sites that are getting the most traffic (even if you don’t feel like they’re a direct competitor) will show you what you can aspire to be, and your blog will be a big part of the way you get there.

Blog Posts vs. Resource Pages

In addition to blog posts, you can also opt to put your content on resource pages. Sometimes, we see better results when we have evergreen content on pages in the resource area or learning center versus blog posts with dates.

For your most important topics, it can be worth experimenting with where to put your content. Again, check out what the competition is doing. If you search Google for a keyword and all services or product pages are ranking, then some of your content also has to live on those pages, or it may not rank well. But if it’s all on blogs, you can take that approach.

Using Topic Clusters to Improve Search Rankings

As you create content, you should generate topic clusters. A topic cluster is a way of showing Google that you have a lot of related pages on a topic. The pillar page is the longest, and it is where you cover the various subtopics with a couple of paragraphs each and links to subpages with additional content. Those pages usually need to be about 1,500 words or longer. I know some people who are doing pillar pages that are 10,000 words.

We have a client who took our advice and wrote a general page about automatic water shutoff valves that linked out to subpages. They were in the top 10 for these keywords within a few months. Then within six months, they were number one in Google for their very best search term.

If you’re working with an agency or a freelancer who’s just pumping out short blog posts on miscellaneous topics, you need to know that it won’t be as effective as deep strategic content done with advanced SEO mechanisms. If you want to be seen as an authority on a topic, it’s critical to rank consistently and be at the top of the results page, and topic clusters can help you get there.

How to Track the Results of Talk Marketing

But how do you know if it’s all working? How do you track the results of your talk marketing strategy? First, at the very least, make sure you set up Google Analytics. Then, you can track how many people come to your resource pages, blogs, podcasts, and videos.

If you set up goal conversions, you can also track users who hit a thank you page after filling out a form, signing up for your newsletter, downloading an eBook, starting a live chat, or making a call. That allows you to get real data on how many new customers you generate from your efforts. Try CallRail for call tracking and Ngage Live Chat or HubSpot for attribution tracking to go beyond the basics.

SEMRush is also great for looking back in time at all the keywords you were ranking for so that you can see what’s working or failing now. Keep an ongoing spreadsheet of your ranking keywords each month and highlight ones in striking distance — usually from position six to thirty. Focus content efforts there for quicker wins. If you’re not top five, you’re not truly alive. Almost 70% of clicks are to the top five Google results.

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