SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization and refers to the component of business marketing that focuses on a brand's visibility to those who look for products and services using internet search engines like Google, Yahoo or Bing. Most SEO techniques address a search engine's goal of selecting and placing the most relevant links in the organic (non-paid) list of entries on a SERP (search engine returns page). Internet content publishers can increase their chances of being found by searchers by meeting certain criteria for quality, relevance and authority.
What is SEO?
How a Google Search Works
The Problem of Relevance
Indexing Web Pages
How to do SEO
SEO-ing your website
Site Architecture SEO
Keeping track of Algorithm changes
SEO and your total marketing package
Some SEO best practices you can do right now
Searching for information on the internet has proven to be the one its most magical tricks (for now)."Googling" something is seen as a supremely useful and powerful reason for having access to a search engine. Judging by the success of Google and others, it's the killer app that makes it worth spending significant money on devices that allow us to interact at near light speed with enormous databases to navigate to an address, settle a bet, find a restroom, research humpback whale behavior… the outer boundaries of what you can ask the internet are receding rapidly.
Commercial transactions have largely moved to the internet. Even if buyers don't actually order and pay for an item online, they get most of their questions about features, price, user reviews and availability answered there. What does this mean for your website's content in terms of standing out from the crowd?
As search technologies develop, there has been a steady convergence between what a robot or algorithm deems relevant and what computer-using humans also judge as a quality match to their search query. The growing sophistication of search engine intelligence has resulted in higher rankings for online content that is authentically helpful to the consumer, and lower rankings for merely attempting to spoof an indexing robot. This intelligence reaches down to the level of plain readability; is the page well written with no grammatical errors or typos? Is it understandable by a reader of average ability? Are there graphics that add to the message?
Standing out in the crowd of competing websites means that you need to pay attention to what words and phrases people are typing or speaking into their phones in addition to impressing Google's page indexing algorithms. That's actually more tricky than you might think when it comes to matching your site to a query from a searcher, and search engines MUST get it right.
Relevance doesn't come from a technical trick hidden out of sight in obscure computer code; it’s established primarily by what the eye can see on the screen. The first step is understanding what a searcher is actually looking for. Sounds easy, right? For a artificial intelligence, it's still difficult most of the time. Example: let's say you're trying to find a filter for your home's HVAC unit.
Typing the word "filter" into the Google search box may not get you much closer to your goal of researching and pricing the filters you need. You might see links to websites featuring coffee filters, oil filters, water filters, camera lens filters- and any other kind of filter out there. Understanding what you want with little or no context to narrow it down is a challenge Google has taken on and so far they have remained ahead of their competition.
This is why "big data" is so important to companies who want shoppers to find them first when they need a filter, frame, pitcher, iron, shoe, light- or any other possibly ambiguous item. Unless you type in details like a model number or brand name, search robots must rely on all the many, many other things they know about you to narrow it down.
If you have ever bought HVAC filters online before, Google remembers that. It helps if Google knows you are a homeowner, and may even know what type of air conditioner you have in the attic. If you've never asked Google to find you coffee filters, they won't appear at the top of the list in the search returns.
Google already knows where you live. Like an ace detective, it can sniff out the possibility that you need HVAC filters because you live in a geographic area where people buy them. And that's not all. Google is aware of:
And much, much more…
Search engines have gotten very good at their role of go-between. Like a librarian with vast and detailed knowledge about you, and an astronomical array of choices that might possibly be relevant to you, Google shows you a list of the top ten items that are mostly spot-on with your initial query.
So much for the searcher side. What about the business websites that sell the filters, frames and irons? And how do the connections between buyer and product options happen so FAST?
It starts with a web browser or app that has the ability to accept a typed or spoken phrase about a specific topic. Searchers are usually looking for information, to buy or sell something, download or upload items, store or retrieve documents, communicate with people, and a few other activities that can be handled digitally. In order to quickly get you where you need to go, Google takes your search phrase, interprets it and then scans its huge index of possible matching web pages. It’s important to know that Google doesn't actually scan the entire 180 quadrillion individual pages every time you enter a query.
What actually happens is a much faster dig through Google’s pre-existing index of websites and individual pages that it has already cataloged and stored. Google is continuously updating its index building up a library of possible results so that once it understands your question, it then shows you a list of what it thinks are the best possible answers. This is where algorithms come in. It's how Google makes decisions about what pages show at the top of the list.
What you actually see in a search return is a list of unique URL’s (Universal Resource Locators) which are coded “coordinates” for each page also known as web addresses or links. Because URLs don't carry a lot of information with them, certainly not enough to tell if the page is relevant to your search or not, Google has already snooped around on the page to find out more and added it to the index entry represented by the URL. In addition to a URL there’s usually a very brief summary of 110 to 120 characters added by the page author to help someone know what’s on the page.
Google’s spiders, or crawlers as they are known, roam the internet and visit every link they can find. Using a few confidential heuristics or shortcuts (see algorithms below) they scan the page looking through the HTML language for titles, headings subheadings and bolded text. Then it looks at data like word count, past visitors, how fast it loads on a screen, what links are present and where they take the reader, if there are labeled images pertinent to the content and a number of other data points. Of course it also “reads” the page to see if it addresses possible queries from searchers. Understanding what the text is really saying is one area where the algorithms have advanced tremendously, and we’ll get to that later when we discuss RankBrain and other updates to the Google system.
Once the search robot has had a good look at a page (in fractions of seconds, of course- they’re blindingly fast), it uses the links it finds to explore the page’s connections to other pages both within the same domain and outside of it. The result is a comprehensive snapshot of a web page and all its connections to everything else.
Algorithms are simply the set of rules that must be followed in order to return a desired result. For example, if I want to have pie for dessert, there are a couple of rule-governed processes I could follow. I could a) get in my car, drive to the store, walk to the bakery section, choose a pie, carry it to the store checkout area, trade some of my money for it, drive home with it, and so on. Or b) I could look in my kitchen for pie ingredients, pull out a recipe, turn on the oven, etc. You get the idea. If I fail to follow the rules exactly, I won't get what I want for dessert. If I follow the rules for either algorithm, the result must be pie.
A search algorithm is actually a massive compilation of sub-algorithms that combine to give the user a desired result; in this case, a list of highly relevant, clickable addresses on the internet. The moment you begin to type in a query, the search engine asks, "What websites are the MOST relevant to what I think the query is asking for?"
Some rule sets answer part of the question by remembering something about a site's content: word count, grammar, date published, similarity to other pages, designated key words and phrases, and so on. Other algorithms look at a website for clues about:
Links into and out of a web page
The presence of keywords and how many times they appear
How many times and when the page was updated or edited
Popularity (how many other people have clicked on the same link)
Geographic location and domain name
…and many, many more ranking factors that help return a list of links that Google can confidently say meets the expectations of the searcher.
In the beginning, algorithms weren't all that bright. If you stuffed your website with a key phrase like "Best Filters," Google gave it a high ranking because the algorithm simply upvoted pages that contained the most instances of a keyword. It made some sense, based on the assumption that if a web page used the word a lot, it must be relevant. The problem was that bad apples started cramming their pages with key phrases- sometimes in white text on a white background so it didn't look so horrible to the viewer.
Google's Larry Page came up with PageRank (named for him, not for a web page), which took into account some knowns about realistic human behavior. He figured that if people found a relevant page, they would create links or share them with others. That helped, but soon some of those same bad apples figured out a way to game the algorithm by creating dozens of new web pages for the sole purpose of installing links to the page they wanted to rank higher.
Since the web's Wild West period, law and order have come to town and things have settled down. Algorithms have improved immensely, and continue to add intelligence to the process of returning relevant content. This is good news for searchers and for content producers, and it has created an entire industry out of thin air: SEO.
What does that mean for business websites? It means that if yours is not put together with search engines in mind, it won't get found and you'll lose business to competitors whose marketing plan includes search engine optimization.
United WebWorks offers search engine optimization for our business clients. What does that mean exactly? What are you paying for when you hire us to help you with SEO as a part of your overall marketing strategy? Here's a peek behind the curtain.
When we produce a site for a client, we build it with the current best practices that will get that site noticed when people search for your product or service. After zooming in on your unique value proposition (what you bring to the table in your industry that's unique and powerful), we look at key words and phrases that people commonly use to find what you offer.
Let's say we're upgrading a website for an orthodontist's office. After settling on the business goals they want for the site, we research key words and phrases that people use to find braces for their kids. We then make a few main pages that cover those topics, like "braces for kids," "Orthodontist in Savannah, GA, or "How much do braces cost?" There's also an increasing market for adult orthodontia that could be addressed as well.
After careful study, we arrive at the optimum set of pages that will, over time, cause the site to rise in the rankings and appear at or near the top of search returns. This is only one part of a combination of techniques we use to get a site found by searchers, because there are multiple ways to optimize a site for search returns. As much as you may want to publish content about the history of orthodontia or details about your favorite orthodontic implement, if people aren't searching for those topics in their quest to find an orthodontist for their kids, don't lead with those pages. By all means, publish that content- later. If you want to get found, major in concepts that busy moms and dads use to find orthodontists.
On each page we include a key phrase in the page title, URL, in the body text a few times, at once in a heading or subheading and in the metadata for any graphics. Metadata refers to any behind-the-scenes information that search robots can access and learn from, including labels on pictures. Indexing robots are smart but not quite up to recognizing what's in a picture, so we help them out by labeling it with the same words as the page's key phrase.
The way your site is arranged as also important. New algorithms include this as a ranking factor, so if your website is not mapped out and internally linked correctly, it won't appear quite as relevant to a searcher than one that is well organized, with the most-asked questions answered with one click.
At this point, you are likely thinking that there's a lot to SEO that you don't have time for! Most business owners are like you- they want to continue to do what they do really well, so they hire an expert firm with the staff to do the time-consuming work of making their site visible to searchers. Outsourcing your online marketing will ultimately cost less over time than doing it in-house, precisely because there is a lot to keep on top of!
SEO companies also keep current with changes that roll out every so often, like Mobilegeddon, a change that saw many sites plummet in relevance and therefore drop off the first page of search returns. What caused it?
After repeated bulletins, messages, press releases and emails in the months leading up to the change, on April 21, 2015 Google activated a new rule: if a website is not adaptive to the smaller screens of mobile devices, it's relevance would decrease. If you had not taken the simple steps toward making your business website look good on a phone screen, your site was classified as less relevant because it was less helpful to a searcher.
There have been quite a few other algorithm updates, like Fred, RankBrain, Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird, and a slew of minor updates Google didn't feel the need to disclose. RankBrain is an example of an ever-evolving algorithm that applies machine learning or artificial intelligence to get closer to Natural Language Processing, a move toward making robots capable of reading a page exactly like a human being would, and ranking relevance based on readable writing that is authentic, appealing and helpful. https://www.searchenginejournal.com/google-algorithm-history/rankbrain/
Search engines —all of them— are paying more attention to the exact location of the searcher in relation to the physical location of your business. You've seen it in search results; links that appear based on your immediate vicinity. It's obvious that this makes sense in terms of relevance. If you're looking for an orthodontist, choices located in your town are much more relevant than one that is a state away.
Local SEO means you need to give some thought to how you want to tell customers about where you do business. One way is to reference on your website all the nearby municipalities or neighborhoods from which you hope to draw customers.
Other suggestions include a consistent NAP (Name, Address and Phone) across all your online properties and channels including social media and listings in business directories. Online reviews affect your appearance on search returns as well. Companies like yours that keep scoring one or two stars with customers are logically not as relevant to a search as those with three stars and up.
Photos and videos featuring your location also bring you some local SEO love. Label all images with location names and other pertinent metadata. Over time, you'll create a mix of old and new material that shows both a long term commitment to your community and demonstrate that you are paying attention to potential customers.
SEO is just one element in a larger marketing picture. All the elements matter, and if one isn't done well it sabotages overall long term results in sales and revenue. Key phrases, for example, can be turned into hashtags on your social media channels. Blogs can be linked to emails or tweeted, and the reader can be directed to a next step right in your blog entry. If your mobile-friendly site has phone numbers, you'll get calls from searchers. You get the idea— SEO is intrinsic to a well-orchestrated online marketing strategy.
Many SEO firms use Google Analytics (GA) to watch what's happening as people interact with your website. In brief, GA gathers data about every possible event that numbers can describe, and makes it accessible to the user through reports, charts and graphs that show trends, behaviors, information about who's visiting, which pages they read and what offers they click on.
Optimizing for search can attract people to your website, and GA can tell you what works and what doesn't in terms of what people click on. It can also indicate that more SEO needs to be done on certain parts of your site. So does SEO work? The answer is yes, and it so happens that you can measure and test the results. It's not simply a matter of SEO-ing and hoping for success.
If you have access to your website content in WordPress or other content management system (CMS), get in under the hood and look at each page. Here's a primer on the basics you need to get started.
What two or three questions does a site visitor want answered? Put it right up front, visible as soon as the page loads. Frame your unique value proposition, or why your business exists and why anyone should patronize your company and not someone else's.
These pages are the real guts behind your website's existence. Cornerstone content refers to a handful of pages that are no more than one click away from your home page, each one providing a survey of helpful information about a topic you sell or provide. Taking into consideration what their customers use as search terms, and what two or three questions a visitor wants your website to answer quickly, publish a few pages that address the concerns of a researching shopper. One caveat- don't use topics YOU think are important. Stick to what's being actually entered into search engines.
Once you have a home page, "Contact Us" page and a few cornerstone pages, start adding blogs and articles that go into greater detail. Let people know that you are the local expert in your industry. A caution we give our clients is this: a high-ranking website doesn't happen overnight. It will take time to establish an online reputation, just like it does IRL (that's social media-ese for "in real life").
For example, a coffee shop owner who is passionate about their craft can definitely produce content on their site that deals with exotic and esoteric facts about coffee… just make it a blog entry that links to a more general cornerstone page focused on a common search term like "best kind of coffee."
Each page of your business website should get a periodic once-over. Follow a quick checklist like this one to get the basic SEO in order:
That will get you started, but there's oh, so much more you can do to improve your ranking and visibility in online searches!
Of course we didn't cover all the details of SEO here; you'd have keep reading for an hour or two. If you are similar to most of our clients who are interested in how internet marketing works, they appreciate the opportunity to outsource their SEO and other facets of their marketing to us! We hope this introduction was helpful in giving you some familiarity with what we do. Thanks for reading!
Savannah Rae's Gourmet Popcorn has been working with United WebWorks for almost a year now and it was one of the best decisions this new business has made!
Our [former] web designer left the site 3/4 of the way finished and I had no idea what SEO even meant. United Webworks finished out the website and explained how everything functioned. About 6 months later we had them work on the SEO and our website traffic has increased by almost 40%.
Anything technology-related used to be very intimidating to me but everyone at United Webworks was as patient as they are knowledgeable. Now I feel much more comfortable making small changes to the site on my own. A small business is always changing and with web presence being such an important factor, I know that we will have a long and profitable relationship with United Webworks.