The One Thing You Need to Consider Before You Implement All That SEO Advice

by | Mar 21, 2016 | Search

Too often, I think online marketing advice leaves out some important details. Details that make all the difference in the performance of your marketing efforts.

Take SEO, for example. Many articles that share ways to improve your website’s SEO (how high you rank in search for specific queries) are a perfect example of this.

Typical articles about SEO are usually titled something like this:

  • Top Tips for Mastering SEO
  • Boost Your SEO with These 9 Action Steps
  • 4 Ways to Maximize SEO for Your Website

Inevitably, the recommendations are almost always extremely tactical — “Here are specific things you can do to improve your SEO.” I’m guilty of it, too … I’ve written posts like that before. Advice that usually goes something like this:

  • Update your title tags and alt text on your images
  • Make sure your site is mobile-responsive
  • Use https to make your site more secure
  • Make sure you have 200-300 words of copy, and use your focus keyword in the first paragraph
  • Incorporate video
  • Add Schema markup
  • Make sure your site loads super fast.

None of these recommendations are wrong or bad advice. They’re all things you *should* be doing on your website.

Except these types of recommendations tend to forget the most important part: the context of the searcher’s query. And they completely ignore whether or not your content is addressing that context in the best way possible.

This has to come first.

If it didn’t, we all would have stopped using Google a long time ago, because the answers wouldn’t have been relevant enough for us to trust Google the next time we needed something.

Google is really, really good at understanding this context.

Google’s job is to serve the searcher — your potential prospect — with the best answer to their search query.

Which means that, as the marketer, it’s your job to understand the context of the question being asked, and determine if you can be the best answer for that for search.

Put another way, just because you’ve done everything right tactically on your site — video, mobile-friendly, title tags, all of it — that by itself won’t help you rank better if other sites are doing a better job of delivering content that actually answers the search.

If you want to rank higher in search, your content needs to be the best answer.

Want to rank higher in search? Be the best answer.

Let me show you what I mean.

Let’s look at three examples of apartment-related searches, along with the search results that most effectively address the context of the query.

“DC Apartments”

This is a really broad “short tail” search. Anyone searching for this term is probably at the very beginning of their search process, and they’re probably not from the area (because they haven’t tried to narrow down their search to specific neighborhoods yet).

Here’s a look at the organic search results for this phrase (taken from Google Chrome, desktop, Incognito mode, from Columbus, Ohio):

If that’s the context of the search, then what kind of results would best answer this query? Pages that show lots of options. “Here’s an idea of apartments that are available in the city.”

This is why the listings sites (ILSs) almost always win here. They are, by far, the sites that have the most content for searches like this.

How can you compete against the ILSs here?

1) Think like an ILS.

Use your corporate search site to consolidate and share information about all of your properties in one place. Make sure it’s easy to search, and that you have the functionality you need to optimize the pages that have the best opportunity to rank for unbranded regional and neighborhood searches.

Wherever possible, show the prospect that you have lots of options that they should explore. Notice that the one management company that appears on the first page — WC Smith — uses the page title and meta description to highlight that they have a lot of properties in many different areas of the cities. Lots of options … exactly what Google thinks the searcher wants to see here.

2) Build a recognizable regional brand for your property management.

And by that, I mean a brand that consumers see and associate some kind of emotional connection. It doesn’t have to be high luxury … it just needs to mean something.

If you can start to build name recognition for your management company across an entire market or sub-market, you’ll reach way more people than by trying to build disparate brands for each of your individual properties.

Imagine if every Starbucks had a different name on the door. Would you trust the experience as much before walking in? Of course not. But we see management companies that intentionally do this all the time in their key markets.

When you build a brand people recognize and associate value with, you’ll be among the first to come to mind when they’re ready to start their apartment search, and those prospects will (subconsciously or otherwise) lean toward your name first when they see it pop up in their searches.

Context Impacts SEM, Too

If you’re investing in Google AdWords (PPC), this same context affects the performance of your ads, too.

As tempting as it might be to buy traffic by bidding on these short tail terms (“Boss, look! We’re at the top of page 1!”), take the time to look at your conversion rates on the clicks from these terms. My hunch is that conversions here will be comparatively low, because you’re not delivering an relevant answer to the question.

As the searcher, I want to get a general idea of what might be available; there’s no way I’m ready to start an application for any one specific property yet. (There might be some value in creating some high-level brand awareness here, but you better have the measurement tools in place to be able to prove this out down the funnel.)

“Apartments in Lakeview Chicago”

This next term is getting more specific (looking at one neighborhood in the city), but it’s still a search that probably occurs early in the search process.

Take a look at the results for this search:

These types of searches represent the greatest opportunities for property management companies’ corporate portfolio search sites.

Think about it this way: If your company has five or six properties in a neighborhood like Lakeview, the typical SEO strategy might be to optimize all the individual property websites for the desired term — “apartments in lakeview.”

Except there are two huge flaws with this strategy:

1) Optimizing your individual property sites for broader neighborhood terms like this doesn’t match the intended context of the searcher. Again, it’s very likely that this person wants to see an objective overview of the best options in the neighborhood … not content solely focused on only one of those options.

2) If you optimize six different property websites for the same “apartments in lakeview” phrase, how does Google know which one should rank highest? In effect, you’re diluting your ranking opportunity across six sites.

Instead, use your corporate site here to deliver a better answer.

Create one focused page that talks about apartments in Lakeview, share some unique aspects about living in the neighborhood, and show all six of your local properties on that page. Now you’re providing content that matches the context of the search. And you can really work on building authority for this one page across the rest of your marketing (including backlinks from each of the individual property websites).

Then seal the deal by using other marketing channels like email marketing and remarketing to reinforce your message and work these visitors deeper down the funnel to the properties that are ultimately the best fit for their needs.

“One Southdale Reviews”

Now we’re getting further down the funnel … this prospect has done some homework, and now they want to narrow down their options. This search is brand-specific and is very focused on learning more about what other customers have said about this particular community, One Southdale in Edina.

Take a look at the results:

Here, you can see that Google connects the searcher directly to the brand, showing the property website first. This is followed by the most prominent ratings sites that you might expect to see — Facebook, Yelp, and Apartments.com, in this case. This is a fairly new property, but I’d expect to see Google reviews and ApartmentRatings.com enter the mix if we revisited these search results in another 6-12 months.

This is also the first result where we see Google displaying information in the right sidebar, in the area called the Knowledge Panel.

The One Southdale team is doing exactly what they should be doing here: optimize for the property website, but also make sure that you have a presence on the other third-party sites where prospects may want to read more customers’ opinions. They’ve also claimed their listing through Google My Business to make sure their Knowledge Panel gets populated with information they want prospects to see.

Be the Best Answer

The bottom line? If you want to rank better in search, you need to be the best answer. And that starts by understand the context of each search query, the needs of that searcher, and the types of content you can deliver to best match their question.

Yes, you need to do all the tactical things right to make sure the search engines can properly read and index your website. But you’ll see your results improve to a whole new level once you create content that is truly the best answer for your prospect’s search. When you do that, Google will figure out very quickly that you’re the result they should be showing first.

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