Recently, I put up a big “Ultimate Guide” post about local SEO. I talked about what SEO agencies like mine actually do for our clients, and what strategies work today.
With this article, I’m doing something similar, but this time, I want to talk about national SEO.
In a lot of ways, national SEO is more like what you’d consider to be “classic” SEO. It’s what we do for a brand that may be based in the UK, but that doesn’t only serve one geographic area.
For example, a SaaS company or an e-commerce store would focus more on national SEO, while a brick and mortar boutique would do much better with local SEO.
If your customers are spread throughout the UK, the tools and strategies you use will differ from those used by a local business.
Just like local SEO, national SEO has seen quite a few changes over the last few years. Techniques that worked beautifully just three or four years ago often don’t cut it today.
I’m going to talk about all of the basics you need to know, but I focus mostly on actionable tactics and strategies. My goal is for you to finish this article with a few “Aha!” moments, and be excited to take the next step.
Note: If you’re brand new to SEO, and you want to learn a little bit about the theory behind this stuff — that is, how search engines work — I’d recommend checking out the Moz Guide to SEO.
It’s super concise, and a surprisingly easy read.
Although they might seem remarkably similar at first glance, they’re actually very different beats. As I mentioned above, the search engine optimisation required to rank a local business is very different to what’s required to achieve national rankings.
With local SEO the focus is on local citations, optimizing your Google Business listing, and targeting keywords specific to both your business and a town or city e.g. “pet supplies in Bournemouth”.
Your focus is on ranking for the geo-targeted keywords your potential customers are using.
When it comes to running a national SEO campaign the focus is on:
#1 Your Brand
Your decision to go national might involve setting up shop in a few new locations, but you’re instantly competing against other national brands by doing that.
So it’s important to start focusing on your brand name and/or business name as a keyword to rank for. If you’ve already done a good job with your local SEO then this makes this process a little easier.
If not, then you’ll need to take this into consideration when putting together your marketing budget.
#2 Broad Keywords
Instead of trying to get your business on page one of Google for a geographically specific term, you now need to change your mindset towards ranking for more general terms.
So, if we take our earlier example of the keyword “pet supplies in Bournemouth”, this is a perfect keyword for a local business to rank for. This is what is often referred to as a long-tail keyword.
But as a national business you now need to rank for far more general terms such as “pet supplies”.
Now, as you’ve probably guessed, ranking for broad keywords is more difficult, requires more time, and also costs more.
National SEO means facing stiff competition from big brand names, and other companies of your size who all want the same customers.
This means that your national SEO marketing plan needs to be robust, methodical and very strategic.
But the good news is that, almost without exception, small companies can compete with far bigger ones when it comes to national search engine optimisation.
Let me explain how that works.
If you’re handling SEO for your website, I’m going to assume you already have a website.
If not, it’s surprisingly simple to create one with WordPress.org (which is not the same as the WordPress.com blogging platform), plus inexpensive hosting from a company like Tsohost.
WordPress is very user-friendly, despite its robustness, and you can find all kinds of gorgeous themes that are free or inexpensive.
You can also pay an agency or freelancer to put together a WordPress site for your business.
Just as a quick aside for anyone making a new website for their business, I do not recommend going with one of the “drag and drop” site builders like Squarespace or Wix.
While there are use cases for these services, they’re not nearly as SEO-friendly as they’d like you to think they are.
Sure, they’re incredibly easy for non-technical users, which is one of their biggest selling points.
But that lack of direct control can be bad for your ability to make sure each page and post is well optimised. You could also find yourself in a bit of bother if the “drag and drop” company went out of business without warning.
So once you’ve got a website, there are some technical things it will need so that Google can crawl it and index it. Indexing simply means that Google will include your website in their search results pages (SERPs).
Search engine “crawlers” use the Internet’s link structure to do this, which is part of why both internal links and external links are so important to your overall SEO success, especially when it comes to nationwide SEO.
Google and Bing use algorithms to determine how relevant a page is for a particular search query.
It’s really quite amazing — you type in “waste removal services in London,” and a split second later, you’re presented with pages upon pages of results.
We take Google for granted more than we know.
The computing power involved is massive, and the algorithms needed for accurate results are so complex that even people who work for Google don’t know everything about them.
So you need to make sure that Google can index your site, that it loads quickly and it’s mobile friendly. There’s a great article on WordStream on the topic of site speed and mobile ranking.
In April 2015 Google released a new algorithm update that essentially penalised websites that aren’t set up to display correctly on mobile devices – something SEOs referred to as Mobilegeddon.
Mobile friendly websites are essential, not only for SEO, but for a positive user experience in general. You can actually increase your search engine rankings in Google by providing web searchers with a positive experience – this is all part of the new Google RankBrain update.
Fortunately, this is an easy issue to fix.
Most WordPress themes are already set up to be mobile friendly, and if you’re not sure, Google has a Mobile-Friendly Testing tool you can use to test your site.
Sometimes it makes sense to have an SEO agency perform a thorough audit on your site to ensure that there are no technical errors present that might be causing you problems in either mobile or desktop search.
Now that you have a sleek, well-designed, mobile-friendly website, it’s time to start creating content as part of your national SEO strategy.
This starts with keyword research.
Today, the whole notion of “ranking for a keyword” is outdated.
Google’s search results have become increasingly personalised, to the point where two people can get two different sets of results from the same query. The results you see can be influenced by not only your physical location, but your previous web search “behaviour.”
But at the same time, keywords are important.
They give you a glimpse into the mind of your audience, what types of questions they’re asking, and how you can reach them with your solutions for their problems.
To do keyword research, you can use any of a number of free online tools.
The easiest solution is to use a paid service like SEMRush or Ahrefs, but this simply not something many solopreneurs or small businesses can afford. With that said, it could be a good idea to take advantage of a free trial for a couple of weeks.
But which keywords should you focus on?
There are two types of keywords:
Broad (also called head) keywords get lots of organic searches, but they’re very competitive
Long-tail keywords get fewer searches, but have very little competition.
Here’s an example: “bookkeeping” versus “bookkeeping software for freelance designers.”
When someone searches for “bookkeeping,” they could be looking for tons of different things.
They might just want to know exactly what bookkeeping is, and how it’s different from accounting.
They might be looking for an agency that offers outsourced bookkeeping services, or for affordable software services for their business, but there’s no way of knowing for sure.
“Bookkeeping” is what we call a “head keyword.” It’s quite broad, and it’s also highly competitive.
“Bookkeeping software for freelance designers” is a long-tail keyword.
Not only is it quite specific, but it indicates that the searcher is interested in making a purchase in the near future.
You can tell from the query that they’re looking for bookkeeping software that works well for a particular industry, in this case freelance graphic design or web design.
That’s the kind of keyword you want to target, especially if it gets a decent amount of traffic.
If you’re a small SaaS company offering an affordable bookkeeping software suite designed with freelance professionals in mind, you have the solution to our hypothetical searcher’s problem.
Gauging User Intent
The most important factor in keyword research from a business perspective is user intent, or what’s also referred to as “commercial intent.”
Ranking in Google is about giving the best answer to a question or a query.
In most cases, the most profitable approach is to focus on keywords that suggest a “buyer mentality.”
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t create content that’s purely informational in nature. But you do want to attract people who are ready to make a purchase decision.
To return to our keyword example, “bookkeeping” is almost certainly going to be dominated by big authority sites.
You’ll find Wikipedia in the results, along with big companies like Quickbooks and Freshbooks.
But “bookkeeping software for freelance designers” is more niche. That might be a keyword where you can compete with more established websites.
Gauging your competition is the kind of thing you may find yourself doing manually, by searching and seeing what comes up on the first page of Google results.
This is a situation where common sense comes into play, though you can also use tools to check other websites’ backlinks, along with metrics like “domain authority” and “page authority.”
Google has gotten much better at understanding search intent, context, and topics.
A few years ago, if you wanted to rank for both “cosmetic surgeons in London” and “London cosmetic surgeons,” you’d create a separate page or blog post for each of those two terms.
It would generally be around 500 words long, and you’d want the specific keyword in the text a certain number of times.
But today, this approach isn’t as effective. It’s not as important to focus on keyword density — that’s the percentage of the total word count that’s occupied by your keyword.
This is a good thing. It means you don’t have to awkwardly shoehorn keywords into your writing.
You can write naturally, for humans, without compromising your ability to rank.
The same long, in-depth page could easily rank for both “cosmetic surgeons in London” and “London cosmetic surgeons,” along with dozens of similar keywords.
If you want to dig into keyword research in tons more detail, you can find my article on keyword research for 2018, and beyond, here.
Google Trends – Your SEO Crystal Ball
Most businesses don’t realize just how much free statistical data Google provides, and how useful it can be in gauging not just immediate user intent, but intent over an entire year.
One of my favourite ways of checking this is using a tool called Google Trends.
This fantastic resource allows you to not only see keywords trending in Google right now, but you can also search for trends based on the keywords you want to rank for.
So, if we take our earlier example of the keyword pet supplies, we see this:
What this graph tells you is that the ‘Search interest’ in the keyword “pet supplies” is consistent throughout the entire year in the United Kingdom.
You don’t have to play any guessing games here because you have actual Google data showing you that there’s a demand for your pet-related products.
This commercial intelligence is potentially worth millions of pounds to your business.
I’ve already touched briefly on the value of content that covers a topic in detail, rather than a higher quantity of shorter posts that target one specific keyword phrase.
Back in 2016, SEO guru Brian Dean published a seminal blog post on the matter.
After analysing over a million search results, he found that Google prefers more in-depth content, and that the average length of a page in Google’s top ten results is around 1800 words.
Around this time, we made some major changes in our SEO content strategy. Instead of creating a lot of short 500-word blog posts for clients, we focused on longer content that covers a particular topic in as much depth as possible.
It turns out this really does work.
Look at it from Google’s perspective, and you’ll get a better idea of why long, in-depth content is so valuable.
Google is neutral toward your business and its success. They’re neither for you nor against you. But, they have their own agenda, and that’s to provide the best possible search results for any query.
They want to rank the best content, regardless of whom the publisher is i.e. it’s a level playing field between you and multinationals.
So, the best way to create content that can rank nationally is to create the best possible content on a give keyword or subject.
You can do this using the “Skyscraper technique,” pioneered by Brian Dean. (As you can tell, he’s quite influential in the SEO community.)
This means looking at what content is already out there, and then creating something far better.
Let’s go back to our “bookkeeping software” example.
Skyscraper content might mean creating an in-depth 3,000 word post about bookkeeping best practices for freelancers when your competitors only have a couple of surface-level posts that are less than 1,000 words.
Longer doesn’t always mean better, of course, but it’s often a factor.
You want “10x content” — content that’s ten times better than anything that’s already out there. That’s the kind of content that attracts backlinks, social shares, and attention from the right audience.
Of course, everyone talks the talk when it comes to the skyscraper technique and 10x content.
But then, there’s walking the walk. It’s not necessarily super-easy and straightforward to create content that offers genuine value to the reader.
If you’re writing it yourself, it can take hours of research, writing, and editing.
If you outsource it to a professional writer, it’s not cheap.
But that 10x content pays off in the long run, in the form of natural editorial backlinks, website traffic, social shares, and other things that will help your business succeed in ranking at a national level.
Content marketing is an investment in your business, and not an expense. Not ever.
Having great content is, at most, around 20% of the SEO battle. The other 80% is promotion — getting your ideas out there and getting an audience of potential customers.
That’s where off-page SEO comes in – you need to build links to your own website from other people’s websites. In an ideal world, tons of people will link to your pages without being asked, because it really is the best out there.
But unfortunately, there’s a “chicken and egg” problem there. If your content isn’t being promoted, no one will see it. And if no one sees it and reads it, no one’s going to link to it in their own articles or share it on Twitter.
You could have an absolute content masterpiece on your site, but it might never see a single reader.
So, white hat link building involves a lot of active outreach to journalists, digital publishers, bloggers, and other people who might be interested in linking to your site. This takes a lot of time, but can pay off in a really big way.
Before I continue, I want to point out that in this post, I’m only going to talk about SEO tactics that could reasonably be referred to as white hat. That means they’re in line with Google’s guidelines.
“Black hat” techniques are “against the rules,” and Google attempts to penalise them. They’re basically a way of “cheating the system.”
If you want to experiment with black hat SEO, go ahead, but don’t expect the results you were promised.
I strongly recommend doing everything you can to play by Google’s rules.
Technically, Google doesn’t really want you to ask anyone for a link. They’d prefer that links were created because the author or publisher genuinely wanted to link to a particular piece of content.
But as I said, in the real world, you do have to reach out and ask.
If you’re new to SEO, you might be thinking, “Well, if I optimise my content the right way, can I rank without needing to actively seek out backlinks?”
Technically, yes. But in practice, no, probably not.
Unless there’s almost no competition, you generally can’t expect to rank without any links.
Links have always been central to how Google assesses a search result’s relevance and authority, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.
Guest blogs and outreach
At Finetune Digital, we spend a lot of our time on white hat outreach for backlinks from other sites.
Not only is it part of our link building strategy, but it’s also a great PR opportunity, too.
Guest posting on someone else’s blog is a great way to get your content in front of a whole new audience.
This is all a little abstract, so here’s an example.
Let’s say you have a small SaaS start-up that provides bookkeeping software that’s designed specifically for freelance professionals.
One way you could get a backlink would be to publish a guest post on a lifestyle blog that centres around freelancing.
You could create an article about “How to Handle Bookkeeping For Your Freelance Business,” that explains the basics about how to keep track of financial information if you’re working as a freelance contractor for multiple clients.
That’s something the freelance lifestyle blog’s audience would be interested in reading about.
It’s relevant, and it provides a lot of value for them.
Someone who’s new to freelance work could definitely benefit from reading a guide about how to handle bookkeeping, as this style of work is quite different from traditional employment.
So you’re adding value for the blog where you’re guest posting, and you’re putting your brand in front of a brand new audience.
And, most importantly for SEO, you can include a backlink to your site.
As you can probably imagine, there are some types of content that tend to be particularly good at attracting backlinks.
Interestingly, the kind of content that gets these links isn’t always the same kind of content that performs well in other areas, like social media shares.
Here are some other types of content that do attract links from other sites, when used in the right way.
An inforgraphic is a visual representation of a set of data or information on a specific topic. So, instead of putting together a 3,000 word article on search engine algorithms you might just create an infopgraphic like this from SearchEngineLand:
There was a time when you could throw together an infographic and you’d get free backlinks without really trying. You’d just submit your image to a few select directories, and the then the lovely people of the Internet took over from there.
That particular fad has died down quite a bit – thanks in no small part to a huge amount of infographic spam – but people still love infographics. They’re a simple way of presenting information in a way that appeals to just about everybody.
Another bonus is that the cost involved in getting a freelancer to design an infographic for your business is minimal.
Publish Expert Roundups
This content marketing technique has been around forever, and it’s still as popular. The reason why is that people love hearing a number of different experts chime in on a subject- it’s kind of like getting a crash course on something from people who do it professionally.
So, to create an expert roundup, you come up with the idea for your blog post. You then approach 10 – 20 different experts in that field, asking them if they’re interested in contributing one or two paragraphs of content.
Roughly 50% of them won’t respond, but the ones that do have given you enough content for an in-depth, comprehensive “expert guide” to whatever you had in mind.
You really only need to create an introduction and conclusion for it, and maybe a handful of comments on the experts contributions.
Lo and behold, you have an expert roundup that people will quite happily link to – often without being asked.
Offer Interactive Content
This one’s a little bit off the beaten path, but it can be a surprisingly effective source of backlinks for a business website.
Examples of this type of content include interactive maps, calculators, and quizzes. They can do very well if they’re fun, novel, and interesting. It should also be on-brand, of course – there’s no point in creating something that is of no use or interest to your audience.
Along with specific content types, there are also certain qualities that can make a piece of content into “link bait.”
Content that tends to attract a ton of backlinks will also have some or all of these features:
Add Genuine Value
You really do need great content for this kind of outreach to work for national SEO. No one’s going to want to link to something that’s poorly written, or that doesn’t cover its topic with enough depth and clarity.
Above all, it needs to appeal to your target audience, whoever they may be. The easiest way to do that is by mapping your audience’s profile. I cover that in a bit more detail in my keyword research guide.
This isn’t always a factor, but it helps.
It’s not even so much about being funny, as it is about evoking some kind of emotion in the reader.
Whether it’s surprise (“10 Weird Widgets You’ve Never Heard Of”), anger, excitement, or laughter, content that makes people feel something tends to be more powerful than emotionally neutral content.
You have a whole world of memes and Gifs to choose from, with the added benefit that using these makes your site more visually appealing. Which leads me nicely to the next section.
Be Visually Appealing
I mentioned that infographics tend to attract links, and the reason for that is people love images.
They say a picture speaks a thousand words, and that’s entirely relevant when it comes to creating content that will keep people on your site.
There’s nothing worse than forcing a web visitor to have to read through 3,000 words of text without a single image to break it up.
Adding images not only gives their eyes time to rest, but using images in the right way can have some pretty significant SEO benefits, according to Neil Patel. I agree with him.
As you can see, for national SEO campaigns, high-quality content is of the utmost importance.
Whether it’s a blog post on your site, a product description for your online store, or a guest post on a relevant industry blog, national SEO intersects with content marketing in a big way.
It’s also quite different in many ways from local SEO, which has its own somewhat separate set of concerns, goals, and best practices.
The tactics we use to rank a local business are far from identical to the approach we take for a company with a nationwide customer base.
Whether you’re running a SaaS company, an online store, or even a blog monetized with affiliate links, content is going to play a central role in your ability to rank nationally throughout the UK.
If you’re still not quite sure where to start with national SEO, feel free to reach out to me anytime.