With approximately 90% of Web traffic starting from the search engine results and three quarters of that from the first page of the results alone, it should be obvious why SEO must become a major part of your digital marketing strategy. SEO has been around since the dawn of the Internet, and although the industry has changed enormously over the years, the goal to increase a website’s standing in the search engines has never changed.
SEO has long been considered by many to be somewhat of a black art, largely because of its association with spam and other black-hat marketing tactics. Still today, numerous companies promise to get your website to appear in the first page of the search results for a monthly fee, but in reality, this can never be guaranteed, and such companies are not likely to achieve anything other than the opposite effect in the longer term.
The major search engines are committed to creating a user-driven experience for the masses, and ranking websites highly when they have used manipulative tactics to artificially increase their standing in the search engines is not one of their aims. Google proved their point in 2011 by releasing the Panda algorithm update, the result being that numerous websites, namely those with poor content created for the sole reason of ranking highly in the search engines, folded almost immediately.
While the numerous article directories, content mills and online magazines which often placed an emphasis on quantity over quality, with content written for the search engine robots rather than people, vanished from the search results, there were other websites which profited from the changes. The websites which came out on top after the wrath of Google Panda was unleased were those which focused on their human readers by creating an excellent, content-driven user experience.
Today, the power of the search engines and the websites which do well in the results pages (SERPs) is largely in the hands of consumers, and SEO has changed dramatically as a consequence. While they were once primarily link- and keyword-driven in terms of ranking factors, the search engines are now better than ever at determining what kind of user experience that your website delivers. In conclusion, the line between impressing the search engines and your visitors is getting ever smaller.
How Does SEO Work?
Given that there are many millions of websites out there, getting noticed on the Internet can be tough. While a great website delivering quality content on a regular basis will get noticed all by itself to a greater extent than before, it will likely still attract fewer visitors than it would if SEO were taken into consideration during website and content creation. However, SEO is about more than just adapting your website based on analysis of search engine technology and the way that the search engine crawlers read, index and rank your content.
Search engines are getting smarter every year as they improve the way in which their algorithms work in order to find and reward websites which show strong signals of providing a good user experience. There are many legitimate ways to increase a website’s ranking in the search engines, but quality and relevancy are by far the most important factors which come into play. According to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, a website should be clearly laid out in a fashion which is easy to navigate with links to relevant pages and external websites. Content should be relevant to the key words and phrases that it is trying to target, and all visual content should ideally be accompanied by captions and other textual content so that the search engines can better identify the subject matter concerned.
The structure of your website plays an important part in SEO as well. Not only should the website be easily navigable to your human readers – it should also be clearly viewable by the search engine crawlers. Web designers should stick to conventional practices, making sure that their HTML code is clean and error-free.
Know What You Shouldn’t Do
Given that black-hat SEO tactics are still very widespread, the first step of formulating any SEO strategy should be to familiarize yourself with what not to do. If you plan to hire an SEO agency to take charge of your search engine marketing efforts on your behalf, then it is particularly important that you know what to look out for when choosing a suitable and reputable company. If your website ends up getting penalized by the search engines for using shady SEO tactics, you’ll experience a sharp drop in traffic ultimately leading to a drop in sales, and instead of raising brand awareness, you’ll end up having to start from scratch. Whatever you or your SEO agency does, make sure that it does not involve the following:
- Never buy backlinks to your website, and if an agency promises a guaranteed number of links for either a one-time fee or a subscription, stay well clear of them. Google has stated time and again that it does not tolerating link buying schemes, largely due to the fact that your links will end up on irrelevant and/or low quality websites and directories.
- Don’t expect to reach a certain PageRank within a specific timeframe, and stay clear of any SEO agency which makes such promises.
- Avoid reliance on low quality content and artificially inflated social bookmarking shares, article marketing and spinning and guest posting on irrelevant forums and social media groups. Some of the more unscrupulous SEO agencies and marketers even go so far as to open fake social media profiles to create large numbers of followers which don’t actually exist.
- Do not pay attention to keyword density – it is a complete myth. Targeted keywords should never stand out, and should fit in naturally with your content. Content creation firms, SEO agencies and freelancers who create Web content should know better.
- Never attempt to manipulate the search engines by showing them different content to that which your readers can see. Common cloaking tactics to avoid include doorway pages and hidden text containing keywords.
If you have made the mistake of hiring a black-hat SEO company or using shady tactics yourself in the past, you will likely have a lot of work to do to reverse any damage which has been done. Firstly, you’ll need to put together a list of inbound links from low quality or irrelevant sites and get them removed, or if this is not possible, you can use the Google Disavow tool. Secondly, you’ll need to put together a sound content and social media marketing schedule and get rid of or disassociate yourself from any poor practices you have used before. In the event that your website has already been penalized, you’ll have to work hard to change your image and correct your mistakes before submitting a reconsideration request to Google via the Google Webmaster Tools.
The Key Elements of Good SEO
You probably already know by now that SEO is largely keyword-driven. After all, people enter keywords into the search engine and hope to be rewarded with relevant results, and your ultimate goal is to have your website appear in results when someone enters a query pertaining to your industry.
Due to the fact that the Internet is absolutely vast, Google largely relies on its algorithmic evaluation of online content, but this is not to say that it does nothing more than judge a website’s worth by how well its content targets a certain set of key words and phrases. Today’s search engine algorithms are getting closer and closer to working in the same way that people do, and they place a greater emphasis than ever on human factors which determine quality and user experience level.
With website evaluation methods constantly evolving, the emphasis on quality and relevancy becomes ever greater, as Google’s series of Panda and Penguin updates have proven. However, the mistake that many less experienced online marketers make is paying too much attention to these algorithms to the extent that they almost try to reverse engineer them in order to better understand how to manipulate them. Instead, however, what you should be focusing on is content and design elements which influence user experience. The following takes a look at the key factors for successful on-page SEO:
- Quality content which helps, educates or entertains.
- Contains relevant key words and phrases without overusing them.
- High engagement whereby visitors spend more time on the website.
- Fresh content following trends related to the niche.
- HTML title tags containing relevant keywords.
- Meta descriptions which clearly describe the page content.
- Headings and subheadings which are descriptive and make use of keywords.
- Structured data for greater machine readability.
A great deal of SEO actually takes place off the website itself, and these are usually referred to as off-page SEO factors:
- Backlinks from trusted websites containing related content.
- Links containing relevant anchor text which helps to guide users.
- The number of quality and relevant external links to your website.
- Domain age and authority.
- The number of people who share your content on social networks.
- The reputation of your website on social networks and other websites.
All of the above factors are important when trying to increase your exposure in the search engines, and while nothing guarantees top rankings, Internet marketers should work on making sure that these factors all work together to complement one another.
The Sitemaps protocol provides a way to tell the search engines about the structure of your website, and every website should have one, particularly larger websites and those which contain pages which are harder to find. A sitemap is typically an XML document listing all of the pages on your website, along with their titles and URLs, and you can create one automatically by using a suitable plug-in for your content management system or by using any Sitemap generation tool. You can then submit your Sitemap to Google using the Webmaster Tools. Sitemaps basically make it easier for the search engines to crawl your website, making them particularly valuable for websites with dynamic content.
A large part of the battle with SEO is choosing the best keywords to target. Obviously, they should be relevant to your niche and include terms which your potential customers are most likely to search for. However, you’ll also need to take other important factors such as competition and value (in the case of pay-per-click advertising) into consideration.
If you are running a location-based business with a specific service area or any traditional bricks-and-mortar business, choosing the right keywords to target will be significantly easier, since you’ll primarily be using one or two words combined with the name of your town, city or other geographic area. These markets tent to be significantly less competitive than those with a global reach.
Raising brand awareness through SEO is rather more complicated for businesses with a national or global reach. However, there are a number of tools which can make your keyword research a great deal easier:
- The Google AdWords Keyword Tool is a free online tool which provides useful keyword suggestions including information such as monthly global and local search volumes and the level of competition.
- Google Autocomplete automatically suggests search terms as soon as you start entering a query into the search box, and this can give you a good idea of which terms are most popular.
- Google Trends displays hot topics and related keywords to give you an idea of which subject matter is currently drawing the most attention in the online world. You can specify a category to help narrow down your search.
Many marketers prefer to target long-tail keywords consisting of three to five or more words, since they are less competitive and tend to be more effective at drawing in quality, relevant traffic. However, it is also wise to target shorter keywords consisting of no more than three words at the same time.
SEO and user experience should always work together as one, and marketers should focus on raising brand awareness in the search engines by offering an excellent user experience combined with quality, useful content backed up by a strong value proposition. SEOs should also remember that driving traffic to a website is only part of the greater goal – the quality and relevance of the traffic is the most important factor.
Finally, and although this guide largely refers to Google, be sure not to neglect Microsoft Bing. Although it has a far smaller market share than Google, Bing is still the world’s second-largest search engine, and it is growing. Fortunately, the same SEO strategy you’ll use for Google also applies to Bing for the most part, since both providers share much the same goal to provide a solid user experience. When it comes to auditing your website’s performance, be sure to use Bing’s Webmaster Tools as well as Google’s.