SEO for martial arts gyms

In my previous article, I covered the main acquisition channels for new members at martial arts gyms. It may or may not surprise you that search engines accounted for a whopping 46% of new gym members. If you add map services such as Google Maps to it, which is another form of search, that comes to a staggering 63%. That means that on average, almost 2 / 3 of your member acquisition will arrive via online search.

Considering those numbers, it’s impossible to ignore how important it is for your gym to appear in those online searches. In this article I’ll explore everything you should know to make sure you have the search angle covered, and help you perform better than the average gym.

As much as I tried to simplify the topic and reduce the technical explanations to a minimum, this article is pretty hefty at 3500+ words, so you might want to bookmark it for future reading. Here’s the unabridged summary, for your convenience –

  1. Do you need to do SEO?
  2. Overview of what is SEO
  3. How search engines work
  4. Improving your site structure for search engines
  5. Creating quality and unique content
  6. Promoting your site and content
  7. Managing your business listings

Do you need to do SEO?

Perhaps you don’t even need to read this article. Open an incognito browser window, go to Google search, and search for your martial art in the city you are in, and see what the results are (for example, search for “BJJ San Diego”).

If you are in the top-3 results and the information that appears looks correct, there’s probably not much you need to do much right now. It never hurts to be aware of how SEO works, in case you ever drop in the rankings, but you can rest easy for now. If you are below the top 3 results or don’t appear at all, I suggest you keep reading.


What is SEO

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. It is the process of growing the traffic you receive from search engines. This includes optimizing the structure of the site so that it’s easier for search engines to read and understand, and increasing the authority of the site in the eyes of search engines.

The process of optimizing sites for search engines has changed much over the years. When search engines were much newer, people constantly found ways to “game” the system using shady tactics such as spam, content farms, hidden text on pages and others, that try to manipulate how search engines rank sites.

As search engines grew more and more sophisticated, they adapted to deal with attempts to manipulate them and some (most notably, Google) even penalize you for doing so, dropping your site in the rankings or even removing it completely from search results.

Similarly, companies that claim to do SEO, can do more harm than good if they have not kept up with the times. They also will likely not understand your target audience as well as you do. For those reasons, I’d advise to try and handle SEO as much as you can on your own, at least initially. That way, if you do decide to hire an outside firm later, you’ll at least have a basic grasp on what they should be doing.

How Search Engines Work

In order to understand how to improve our site and content for search engines, it’s helpful to understand on how they work. Search engines do primarily 2 things –

  1. Find and index online content
  2. Answer search queries from users

Search engines traverse the Internet looking for new content, and once they find it they analyze it and add it to their index. This process is called crawling, and is performed by an automated computer process (also called a “bot” or a “spider”).

Search engines find new content by following website links. Links are what tie the readable part of the Internet together (also referred to as the web).

For your site to appear on search engines, they would need to find it through a link pointing at it. In fact, the more links pointing at your site, the higher its perceived importance (authority) will be in the eyes of search engines.

In order to improve your site’s ranking in search engines, you will need to address two concerns – that the content on your site appears relevant to the search queries you want to appear for, and that search engines regard your site as an authority for those queries.

Local SEO

Everything we covered so far is true in general for every site on the Internet. Sites that represent businesses that operate from a physical location, have additional considerations that are commonly grouped together as “local SEO”. Martial arts gyms fall in that category.

We already mentioned inbound links (links from other sites pointing to your site) as a criterion that search engines use to determine the authority of a site. Let’s quickly go over all the major criteria influencing your search rankings as a local business:

  1. Inbound links – number, quality and the text linking to your page / site
  2. Site / content structure (explained below)
  3. My Business details (Google specific) – such as description, title and location
  4. Business citations – a mention of your business name with another piece of business information, such as your phone number, address or website
  5. User reviews on business listing sites (such as Yelp and Yellow Pages)
  6. Personalization – Search engines personalize the results using information they know about the user – such as his current location, language, search history and more.
  7. Social signals – Facebook likes, Twitter followers, etc.

I’ve listed them approximately by order of importance (from most to least). For a more in-depth look of how those factors influence your rankings, check out this recent study on local search ranking factors.

In this article I’ll focus on the most important factors that can make the biggest impact to your search rankings. We’ll start with site structure, as it relates to other parts as well.

Improving the structure of your site

Behind the scenes, your site is written in a language called HTML (HyperText Markup Language), which provides structure to the content you have on any page on the site. This includes identifying interface elements, such as the header, footer and menu, marking up headings, paragraphs and lists and other elements that make up your content.

When search engines visit your site, they see it as it appears behind the scenes and not as you see it in the browser. The way the HTML of your site is structured can make a difference in how search engines understand your content.

Without getting too technical, there are a couple of specific points you should consider –

The title element of a page

The title element (or “tag” – <title></title> in HTML) controls the title of the page as it appears in your browser tab. This will almost always be used by search engines as the title of the page in search results. It also has a considerable impact on the relevancy of a page to a search query.

  • Make sure every page has title text (you can see it in the browser tab).
  • Try to have the title text be as relevant as possible to the content on the page.
  • Try to avoid having pages with duplicate title text

Image alt-text

Images can have an “alt” attribute with text describing the image. This helps search engines greatly to understand what the image shows. Good alt text can improve the ranking of your images in Google image search, which can provide an additional source of traffic. The alt-text is also counted as additional content on the page, which can trigger additional search queries from potential visitors.

Semantic structure

Formatting the HTML structure of the page in a way that it reflects the content helps search engines understand it better. At the most basic level, it means assigning the correct element for each piece of content (headings should be <h1><h2>… elements, paragraphs should be in <p> elements, and so forth).

At a more advanced level, it means using special formats for specific information type, such as address and phone number. Those formats are referred to as the Semantic Web, and you should pay heed to it if you have someone technical enough to make it work.

Local business information

Search engines recognize specific types of information as relating to a specific location – phone numbers and addresses. In conjunction with the business name, those are often abbreviated as NAP (Name, Address, Phone).

It’s important to have this information on your site in a way that makes it clear to search engines that those identify your business. For example, putting it in the footer or header of the site, so that they appear in every page on the site, or using the special formats mentioned above (this is what we use on the gym website we provide to users).

User experience

The experience of visitors to your site is another important factor search engines use to rank the quality of your site. Aside from content itself, considerations such as easy-to-use navigation, site load times and more are considered to determine how user-friendly your site is.

Search engines use a combination of signals to quantify the user experience on your site, by measuring engagement (how much time visitors spend on your site, how many pages they visit, etc), page load speed, and by comparing to previous data collected on sites similar to yours.

Another important factor that became more important in recent years, is compatibility with mobile devices. Search engines can tell if your site has been adapted for multiple screen sizes – what is commonly termed as a “responsive site”. Sites that have been adapted for mobile will rank higher on searches performed on mobile devices.

(All of the factors mentioned above are handled for you in the website we provide for gyms through our platform.)

Creating quality content

“Content is king” is one of the most common phrases in SEO circles. The content of your page is the text you can read, the images you can view, the videos you can watch and everything else you present to site visitors.

Let’s identify what good content is:

Good content is relevant to your target audience

The content on your site should answer some need or question your target audience has. Being a gym website, your site should include all the information prospective members would want to know:

  • The type of training at your gym – arts, styles and so forth
  • Who are the instructors / staff – Bio and images
  • What is the schedule
  • Where is the location
  • How can you be reached
  • How are the facilities like (text description, high-quality photos)

All of this is information that prospective members would be looking for when visiting your site. If someone searches for the schedule of your gym on Google, it should trigger the schedule you have on your site in the search results. If it doesn’t, or if you don’t have a schedule on your site, you just lost a potential new member.

Good content should be interesting

We listed above the basic information a gym website should provide to visitors. However, that information is not very interesting or appealing to people not currently researching your gym. The likelihood of people linking to a page with just the boring facts about the gym, is not high.

As we mentioned earlier, inbound links to your site is the main factor search engines consider when ranking it. It is therefor in our interest to create interesting content that not only answers the immediate questions a potential member might have, but also appeals to the target audience in general.

For martial arts gyms, such content would include:

  • Instructional or promotional videos
  • Opinion and technical articles
  • News about the sport or industry

Any one of those, if done right, can generate attention, increase brand and name recognition, and hopefully get people to link to it.

You might be asking yourself, how does generating additional content such as videos or articles can help my main gym website? The answer is that search engines assign ranking to specific pages as well as sites as a whole (by the domain name). Every link pointing at your unique content adds credibility to it, as well as to the site it is hosted on, in the eyes of search engines.

The process of generating content and marketing it with the goal of generating traffic and links, is called content marketing, a very wide topic in itself, which we may cover in future articles.

Good content is readable and linkable

Search engines can only find content that is linkable. Regular site pages are linkable. Images are linkable. Even PDF documents are linkable, though search engines regard them as a lesser form of content compared to regular text pages.

What is not linkable?

  • Content that is behind a log-in
  • Content that is loaded dynamically into the page without refresh (a technique called AJAX – though there are ways to get search engines to find and index it).
  • Content inside of specialized technologies, such as Flash and Silverlight (there are workarounds, but in the general case you should avoid it).

Any content that cannot be reach directly via a link, will not be found by search engines. Content that can be reached, but cannot be read by search engines, will also not be indexed by it. This also means that all the pages on the site must have some link pointing at it, even if it’s a link coming from the same site (those are referred to as “internal links”). If a page on your site does not have a links pointing at it, search engines will not find it.

Videos are special

Videos are not directly readable by search engines. Even using modern technologies (HTML5 videos), search engines can’t understand the content inside a video directly. However, videos hosted on one of the major video sites, such as Youtube or Vimeo, still have relevance. Search engines will find the original hosted version, and provided you have added a relevant title and description (as well as tags and other categorization features), they will understand what the video is about.

Hence, videos are a somewhat of a special case, and have several other benefits such as that they are easy to consume for users, and can provide support for other content which search engines can read directly (such as text).

Own your content

One of the most common mistakes I see gym owners make when they create content, is not actually owning the content on their main online presence. If you create content and put on websites you don’t own, you lose almost all of the SEO benefits that content might produce.

For example, if you host your blog on wordpress.com or blogger.com, all of the incoming links to your content benefit those sites and your own gym site. Similarly, if you create video content and only post it on Youtube and share that link directly, you receive none of the SEO benefits that video will generate.

There are still other benefits for creating content even if it’s not posted on your site, such as brand and name awareness. When possible, however, it is in your best interest to also reap the SEO benefits of creating good content, instead of transferring it to other sites.

For the purpose of SEO, it’s enough that your content resides under the same domain name as your gym website domain. Some services, like wordpress.com, allow you to connect your own domain to the content you post on it, so you can go that route if you wish to keep using those services.

Promoting your site and content

The general approach in SEO currently, is that you start by creating quality content and then people link to it because find it valuable / useful / entertaining or noteworthy.

In order for that to happen, people need to find your site and content in the first place. We’re going to approach this on 2 separate planes – promoting your gym website as a whole, and promoting specific content pieces you create over time (articles, videos and so forth).

Our goal in promoting our content is to generate more traffic to our site, and hopefully to receive new inbound links from other sites, which would raise our authority in the eyes of search engines.

Not all links are created equal

Before we discuss what we can actually do to promote our content, let’s understand what kind of links are desirable for us.

Links should be permanently accessible to search engines. Search engines can’t access links that are behind a log-in. For example, if you post a link on your personal Facebook profile, and it has a sharing setting that only shows that post to your Facebook friends, a search engine would not be able to find it.

Similarly, link sharing / voting sites such as Reddit, where posted links disappear quickly over time (or move deeper and deeper into the site’s history), do not provide much value as sources for links to your site. (They do have value as places to get exposure, and we’ll cover that topic in a bit)

Social media is a different beast. On the topic of social media, we should note that some of it is never found by search engines. It differs from service to service, for example Twitter and Instagram are much more public than Facebook, however, in general you should consider those as channels to promote your content rather than a direct source for more links to your site.

The quality of the link is important. As mentioned earlier, search engines rank sites by authority. Google specifically, has a numeric metric called PageRank which is calculated using a multitude of factors. Links from sites with higher authority are worth more than links from sites with lower authority. A link from a big news site, like the New York Times is worth many times more than a link from a small blog. Appropriately, higher quality links are harder to get than lower quality ones.

Some links have negative value. I’ve mentioned briefly above that search engines penalize sites they suspect are using shady tactics in their rankings. The most common reason for such a penalty is detecting links to your site that may not have been earned legitimately.

Google, for instance, forbids paying for links – if they suspect you paid for links pointing at your site, you will most likely receive a penalty. Recently, sites identified as content farms (sites that generate a ton of low quality content) have been hit by Google penalties, as well as the sites they link to.

In a similar fashion, comments on blogs and news articles have been abused with spam links (also known as Social Spam), and thus links inside such comments are mostly ignored by search engines (but not completely).

In summary, don’t try to game the system. Try to acquire links organically from people who appreciate your content, or via acceptable channels, such as submitting a news story for publication (as we’ll see below).

Promoting your gym site

As mentioned before, your gym’s website is likely not very interesting in and of itself. It provides useful information for people researching places to train at, but there’s no real reason for other sites to link to it, for the most part.

There are exceptions to this, however. There are a few types of sites that are relevant for promoting your gym’s website:

Local news sites

If your gym is involved in the local community in some fashion, or is hosting a noteworthy event (for example, an MMA figher pre-fight workout), a local news site might be interested in covering it. If you do manage to get a news item published about your gym, make sure to ask for a link back to your gym website. Those links can be extremely valuable, as local news sites are considered more relevant for the specific locale they cover.

Local business listing sites

Local business listing and review sites are created specifically for the purpose of listing businesses online. Listing sites allow you to create a business profile, and commonly include a link to your business website as well. Aside from linking directly to your site, those sites also have importance when citing your business information (name, address, phone). I expand on this topic in the next section.

Promoting your content

Unique content you create on your site is much easier to promote, as it has standalone value, regardless of your gym of location. Such content may include instructional videos or articles about training, and appeals to a much wider audience then people looking to join your gym at this current time.

There are many ways to promote content online, but specifically for martial arts content the following are the most effective:

  • Social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram)
  • Online communities (forums, reddit)
  • Online video sites (Youtube, Vimeo, Periscope, Ustream).

Those channels help you spread the word and get exposure to new content you create. Using those channels effectively is a pretty wide topic in itself, which I will cover more in-depth in future articles.

In a nutshell, you want to create a reputation and a following over time to be effective. Especially on social media and online communities, if you just post your content without actually being involved in the community or being helpful or useful in some way, you will receive negative backlash and your content will be viewed as spam even if it’s actually of good quality.

You should use common sense when using those channels, and try to understand how they work. Observe what successful content has in common, and how its creators handle themselves, and try to mimic what they do. Ideally, become a contributing member of the community, and not just view it as a marketing tool.

Managing your business listings

You can list and manage your business information on a variety of sites, and that information can have a significant effect on your ranking in search results. Those include –

To see if your business is listed properly on the main sites and search engines, you can use a tool such as Moz Local.

Even if some of those sites do not allow you to place a link to your site (at least, without paying), just getting your business listed there with the correct business information, can help you with your search rankings. (Those are the “citations” I mentioned at the list of search ranking criteria at the beginning of the article).

This activity has diminishing returns, however. Since it’s important to keep your business details up to date across all of those listings, listing it on too many sites will be a chore to handle if you ever need to update it. I’d suggest sticking to the big sites mentioned here, and industry specific sites (the few mentioned above, and others if you can find it).

Final words

The topic of SEO is wider and more technical than I can cover in a single article. I tried as much as I could to focus on the most relevant aspects and simplify it as much as I could. I hope you found the information useful, and feel free to ask questions in the comments below.

Next up

My next article will address using social media for marketing and for building gym culture. It’s a channel with a ton of potential that is often missed or misused by martial arts schools, and one that can also support other marketing efforts (such as SEO, as mentioned in this article).

Published by

Eran Galperin

Eran has been developing software for close to 15 years, and training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for almost a decade. After starting and running web ventures in various industries, Eran has decided to combine his passion for the martial arts with his technical skills to create MA on Rails, a service for managing martial arts academies.