If you run a website for a residential solar installer or any kind of solar company that does business with homeowners or other consumers directly, then you know you have to be creative to reach your customer.
You have to show how solar is affordable while keeping the options for PPAs, leasing or other no-money-down financing plans simple. You have to make home PV sound reliable while not killing solar’s sex appeal (er, I mean eco-appeal). And you have to make yourself stand out from other residential solar installers or providers in a crowded market.
That’s why it’s natural for solar marketers to put these messages online and then to try to build more traffic to their websites so more people can get those messages.
Too much bad SEO
And that’s when search engine optimization comes in. I’m sure you’ve heard that some SEO works these days and some SEO doesn’t. You’ve probably also heard that the SEO tactics that don’t work may be more than just a waste of time. They may be worse than doing nothing at all.
“Black hat” SEO tricks such as stuffing pages with keywords or creating extra menu items to try to rank well in Google for every city in which you do installations certainly annoy your human visitors. But they also annoy Google. Even though some black-hat tricks may work temporarily, over the long term they’re sure to fail. And doing them may even get your website punished by Google.
Even though everyone’s been told not to do them, stupid SEO tricks remain surprisingly common these days. Perhaps human impatience combined with the desire to get something for nothing create a natural market for misinformation about what will make you a star in keyword searches.
So it’s easy to put your website at risk with SEO tricks that won’t increase your traffic over the long term but could instead earn you a penalty from Google.
From the mouth of the Googlebot to the ear of the solar marketer
Fortunately, defying the laws of physics and biology, the Googlebot itself — Google’s own search algorithm in sentient form — has offered a handy list of SEO pet peeves in an open letter at patrickcoombe.com. I’ve adapted the Googlebot’s list below for marketers who run solar company websites:
1. I have very simple rules
“Please stop trying to get around these very simple guidelines...Please do not be surprised if I decide to apply some sort of action based on your failure to adhere to these basic guidelines. Doorway pages people? Hidden text? Come on now.”
So, just because you want to do more residential PV installs around Southern California doesn’t mean you should create a whole bunch of duplicate pages whose only difference is the name of a city: “Home Solar Santa Monica | Home Solar Malibu | Home Solar Rancho Palos Verdes…”
2. Help make my life easier
“I am Googlebot. I work hard 24/7 365 days a year including Christmas and Ramadan. I don’t ever take vacations and I never sleep. Many of you that call yourselves SEO’s spend your days crafting elaborate plans to make me think you are better than you actually are. Please stop doing this and make my life easier by making your websites better.”
That means you shouldn’t make your website too complicated. No 5000-pixel-wide images of ranch house roofs covered in gleaming PV panels. No lists of 45 active plugins on your WordPress site. No themes with ten color options and three different page builders. And never ever any hidden content, like a list of 90 keywords in white text on a white background.
3. Because ethics
“Just because I am owned by a big corporation does not mean your ethics do not apply. Please stop violating my boundaries…I cannot feel pain or emotion but I have sensors to detect when my physical limitations have been violated. Please do not be surprised when I react or lash out at your attempts at violating my boundaries in a negative way. Or when I wait 18 months to respond to your penalty review.”
You’ve been warned. Trying to get away with tricky SEO now can cost you big later.
4. A note to black hat SEOs
“Chances are if you have obtained rankings as a result of blackhat SEO those rankings are not going to last long…In your mind you are sliding by and getting away with it but just remember I probably just haven’t gotten around to even looking at you yet.”
I’ll assume that marketers for solar companies, whose mission to make the world a better place is more upfront than in other industries, won’t intentionally use black-hat SEO. But who’s to say that the SEO guy you hired has the same high standards? Be sure to properly supervise any outside SEO jockey. And if he promises quick results (for example, “join this link-sharing network from Ukraine for $29.95 a month and you’ll start to see your rank rise next week”) then be worried. Good SEO takes months or years to build.
5. I’m not perfect
“You do realize I’m trying to parse and sort through 60 trillion websites, don’t you? Sometimes I make mistakes. Sometimes it takes me a few days or weeks to make an adjustment, so bear with me.”
Just because you know your main competitor only has a single location in Van Nuys but they come up first in a search for “Solar Panels Bakersfield” doesn’t mean it’s safe for you to use the same stuffed keywords that they have. That competitor may not have been punished yet, but just be patient. Chances are, sooner or later, they’ll pay.
6. But I’m not a moron
“I will notice when you put something like “Denver Plumbers | Denver Plumbing Company” in every HTML tag and piece of content on your website (and I don’t think it’s cute.)”
Ditto, of course, if you pepper your website with stuffed keywords like “Denver Solar Lease | Denver Solar PPA.”
7. I have very little patience
“I was programmed to give second chances. If you do clean your site up and ask nicely, I just might give you another shot. But know this: if I do give you a second chance you are still on my list. Do not think for a second that I won’t permanently banish your site from my index.”
If you’ve already been burned once by a Google penalty, then you’re probably still twice shy about trying any more black-hat SEO. But make sure your SEO guy feels the same way.
8. I’m more than just a bot
“Don’t forget I have a dedicated team of engineers constantly feeding me with information. Sometimes they make manual adjustments, tweaks, or add-ons to my base algorithm…I also accept feedback from the general public.”
It can be hard to get through to Google sometimes, but with enough persistence, you can get a human for a live chat for a thornier issue, such as correcting the name of your CEO in a Knowledge Graph box.
The best way to profit from a competitor doing black-hat SEO is not to copy their bad behavior, but instead to report them to Google so that they’ll get punished and learn to change their evil ways. That in turn will help make the Web a better place for everybody.
9. Stop trying to figure me out
“SEO’s are constantly trying to figure out a way around doing hard work. Don’t forget, not only am I one of the most advanced algorithms in the world, but 1000’s of the brightest minds in the world spend every waking moment of their day to make me better, faster, and stronger. Think of the most complicated boyfriend you’ve ever had. Multiply that by infinity and you have a starting point of my intelligence.”
Solar marketers should forget about technical SEO tricks with stuffed keywords in metatags and focus on just writing content that humans want to read. Write for the homeowner who wants solar on her roof. After that, optimize your text for a single keyword and add that keyword to a few places where it sounds natural. But don’t over-optimize.
10. Stop pinging, poking and scraping me
“You do realize most of these “pings” and weird indexing programs I completely ignore, right? The moment I recognize any of these tools I have a built-in function to ignore them. Stop wasting your time trying to index your website. I index most pages on active sites within a few hours. If you can’t wait that long then you are in the wrong business.”
If your SEO guy says that he’s got a neato program that is set to re-submit your page on net metering rates every 72 hours to Google, then that SEO guy is taking you for a ride.
The real trick to SEO
Actually, there’s no real trick.
The Googlebot is just trying to give web searching humans the best experience possible when they search for solar companies.
To help, you should create the best web experience you can for those solar-interested humans. Make sure your website is mobile responsive. Pretty is nice, but easy to use is better. Publish content about the costs and benefits of residential solar that homeowners want to see. And keep putting up new content, because Google likes fresh websites better than stale ones.
And when you’re annoyed that a more established competitor’s website is coming up higher than yours in a search for “No Money Down Solar Panels” even though for the last three months your company has been putting lots of SEO love into this particular keyword phrase, have patience, resist the temptation to take short-cuts and remember what the Googlebot says:
I favor larger websites because they are better than yours. They are far more optimized, more comprehensive, and have been around way longer than yours. They also have a ton of awesome backlinks that weren’t bought or created with a tool.
— Erik Curren, Curren Media Group