Search engine optimization requires a unique blend of relevance and authority. Relevance is more easily mastered, but authority requires the community of people that is interested in the things you sell to take action.
While search engines use hundreds of signals to determine rankings, relevance and authority are dominant factors. Because your company controls the content on its own pages, relevance is theoretically the easier to achieve of the two. It’s just a matter of understanding the concepts your prospects care about and search for, and including those on your pages.
Authority requires your community — customers, shoppers, and people who write about the types of things you sell — to talk about your site or your products. To do this, your community needs motivation.
The art of increasing your authority by increasing links and mentions online is commonly called link building. But there are so many negative connotations around link building that I prefer to call it “link earning” instead.
More Value, More Links
The most natural and search-engine-approved method of increasing authority is offering something of value. The higher the value you’re offering, and the more people it’s valuable to, the higher the potential return on earned links.
For instance, one method of earning links is scouting out blogs that list your type of products, and then requesting that the blogger add your company — with a link to your home page — to the list. Presuming the lists are legitimate resources for a community of readers, this is a perfectly ethical and useful way to earn a link.
But because the value offered to the shopper — another link in an extended list of products — is relatively low, the likelihood that it will result in stirring the community to link to your site is also low.
If you’re a major company, part of the value you bring is your brand. But a lot of big companies stop there and rely on their brand to drive all of the value and to magically result in the highest amount of potential earned links.
If you’re not a major brand, one way to compete is to offer something of value — lower prices, faster shipping, useful information. Of those, useful information is most likely to earn links, which will in turn improve your rankings and drive more sales.
…useful information is most likely to earn links, which will in turn improve your rankings and drive more sales.
So what is useful information? It’s whatever your community really wants, not what you want them to want.
How is your company focused? Companies that focus purely on themselves can turn off shoppers. They’re perceived as arrogant and unfeeling.
Many companies are company-centric. It’s only natural. We are employed to sell products on our sites. That’s why the site exists. Shoppers want to buy products. That’s why we sell them. So naturally, since it’s the focus of our own lives during the week and we want them to purchase from our site, it’s easy to forget that shoppers have choices and goals that don’t always align with our own.
A company-centric message, it seems, is “Trust us! You may not know us, or even that you want to buy this, but you’ll love it and you’ll be so happy you did!”
A company wants its shoppers to take acton — purchase something, sign up for email, like a social profile, use a hashtag, sign up for rewards programs. Companies spent so much time marketing to customers that they tend to forget that customers don’t think like the companies — customers don’t spend their day pondering the great information they’re going to get from your email newsletter.
Company-centric sites tend to have little content besides the bare minimum. They offer products without information on how to choose, or without how-to guides that explain how to use or care for the product, or without FAQs explaining the properties of the products.
There’s little in a company-centric site to earn links, unless the linker is already planning it. That requires brand awareness and preference — or a strong negative emotion. Link earning transcends this company-centric mindset.
If there’s a rallying cry around offering more content, it’s usually in a customer-centric manner. These companies offer useful information, but it’s only valuable to people who are purchasing their products.
For example, IKEA offers detailed buying guides. However, they’re only useful if you already know you want a specific line of furniture. Ikea’s Godmorgon bathroom furniture buying guide contains information about that line of furniture, from dimensions of every piece and spare parts to care and how to choose individual pieces.
This customer-centric approach helps people feel good about their purchase, or how to use it after they’ve purchased, or confirms to a shopper that it’s the right product when that shopper is largely sure he wants to buy it anyway.
From a link-earning standpoint, though, it won’t inspire others in great numbers. Only people interested in IKEA products would link to these buying guides.
True community-centric content is rare because it requires companies to focus on the benefit of the entire community as opposed to shoppers specifically. Community-centric content understands what the customer wants and offers attributes of products that would serve those needs. Because we also have to sell, a little light merchandising in a sidebar is to be expected, such as links to product categories that would meet shoppers’ needs. But the focus of the content is education rather than sales.
True community-centric content is rare because it requires companies to focus on the benefit of the entire community as opposed to shoppers specifically.
REI does an excellent job of generating true community-centric content in its “Expert Advice” section. REI’s sleeping bag buyer’s guide covers everything from temperature ratings and insulation type to shape and specialty bags for women and children. It also includes a video. No surprise, REI ranks extremely well for searches on how to buy a sleeping bag as well as product-based sleeping bag searches.
The difficult thing about true community-centric content is that you have to accept that it will be used by people who are not and may never be your customers. From an SEO standpoint, that’s perfectly fine.
The more useful the content is, the more widely read and shared and linked to it will be. Regardless of whether consumers end up buying from the site or not, the content will have higher authority. High authority translates to higher rankings, creating a virtuous cycle of increased authority and improved rankings that will result in higher sales from natural search, and direct channels too.