Unless you’ve been living in a bubble for the past decade, you’ve probably heard a lot about search engine optimization, aka SEO. Despite how much hype it gets, most people don’t really understand what SEO is or how to really use it. If you know nothing about SEO, don’t worry. In fact, count yourself lucky that you’ve managed to avoid all the bad SEO advice thus far and can embark on the endeavor of learning SEO with a clean slate.
What is SEO? It Ain’t About Search Engines!
SEO is usually talked about as a scientific process which gets your website to the top of Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs) so you can rank in Google's organic results. They’d have you think that you can follow a bunch of steps (albeit some pretty complex ones) and your website will magically start ranking and you will suddenly have a zillion more customers overnight.
SEO is NOT about understanding search engines. Rather, SEO is about understanding how people use search engines.
As we go over the many optimization steps, methods, and strategies, you will hear one mantra being repeated: put users first. If you make a website which meets your users’ needs, then it won’t really matter what anchor text you used, or that your code is a bit sloppy, or any of the other dozens of weighty SEO factors. When you make your users happy, then chances are you are making the search engines happy too.
How Search Engines Work
Okay – you should know a bit about how search engines work if you want to excel at SEO. But, again we want to emphasize that it ultimately comes down to understanding your target audience and how you can meet their needs.
Search engines are constantly crawling the web and storing information about web pages in databases. Yes, these databases are MASSIVE. When a person types in a search query, the search engine has the incredible task of having to go through all of the stored info in order to determine which web pages are most relevant. These will appear at the top of the SERPs.
So, how do search engines decide which web pages to show?
Search engines obviously can’t read or view web pages like we humans can. Instead they use really complex algorithms to determine the relevancy of a web page. In the good ol’ days of the web, this basically meant seeing what words were on a page. If someone searched for “how to lose weight,” then the pages which had that term showed up.
It didn’t take long for the webmasters of the time to take advantage of this system. They recommended careful formulas of how to put certain keywords into your site so your site came up first. Some of the initial SEO tricks are actually pretty funny in retrospect. Like how webmasters figured out that most people were using the net to search for porn. So, you’d see a website about mortgage site with the terms “boobs xxx” in its meta description – as if the guy searching for boobs is suddenly going to change his mind and decide, “why don’t I refinance my mortgage instead!”
Search engines have gotten a lot more sophisticated over the years, and a heck of a lot harder to manipulate with what are called “black hat SEO” practices. Consider that Google makes about 500-600 search engine algorithm updates each year, and that these updates encompass thousands experiments (Source). Every single update is carried out with the intent of making results more relevant for searchers.
For example, it used to be fairly easy to manipulate search results by writing a bunch of crappy articles, putting them on article distribution sites like Ezine Articles, and having the articles link back to your website using your keyword in the anchor text (anchor text = words used in a link). You would then rank for your keyword. It obviously looks a bit fishy when you’ve got a website with 1000 backlinks and 999 of them are with the exact same anchor text! So, Google updated their algorithm. Now, if you have too many links pointing to your website with the exact same anchor text, it could actually harm your rankings!
Even if Google announced every single update (which they don’t), you wouldn’t be able to keep up with them anyway. Again, this is why it makes more sense to focus on making a website which your audience will actually find valuable rather than a bunch of SEO tricks.
Key SEO Ranking Factors
So, we should all just make awesome websites with clean design and great content and not worry about SEO? Well….there is a place for SEO – so long as you understand that it isn’t a bunch of magic tricks which can get a crappy site to rank and pull in traffic!
Remember that search engines can’t read your website like users can. By following some optimization steps, you will be able to help the search engines better understand your website so you can rank for relevant terms. There are A LOT of factors you could tweak to optimize your site for search engines. Rather than listing all the SEO ranking factors, here are the key ones and how they are divided.
On-Page SEO Factors
- Keywords (in URL, header tags, content)
- Content (length, relevancy, uniqueness, and age)
- Links (pointing to key pages using keyword anchor text)
- ALT text on images
- Duplicate content (you don’t want this!)
- H1 and subheadings
- Page speed
- Number of advertisements “above the fold”
- Speed of site
- Age of domain
- Mobile optimized
Off-Page SEO Factors
- Number of incoming links
- Authority of incoming links
- Relevancy of incoming links
- Anchor text of incoming links
- Backlink profile (diversity of linking sites and anchor text)
- Structured citations (for Local SEO)
User Metrics SEO Factors
- Time spent on page
- Bounce rate
- Click through rate of queries
- Proximity of business to searcher (for Local searches)
Social SEO Factors
- Social shares, comments, and likes
- Author rank on Google+
Bear in mind that these are only some of the many SEO ranking factors. Of them all, it is pretty much agreed-upon by top SEOs that the most important ones are Keywords and Backlinks. We will get into these and other key SEO ranking factors in later articles and what you can do to optimize them.
SEO is about the Quality of Traffic, Not Quantity!
If you were really good at SEO and had a huge budget, you theoretically could get a website to rank for dozens of competitive terms and rake in massive amounts of traffic. But good SEO isn’t just about the quantity of traffic. SEO should be about increasing quality traffic.
Let’s say you run a bakery in Dallas, Texas. You hire a SEO team who promises to get you 10,000 unique visitors daily. They proceed to fill your website (and break your budget) with amazing content about how to bake cakes, types of flour, and other baking-related articles. Low and behold! You get 10k visitors daily – but only a handful of these are from Dallas and even fewer bother to call your bakery and order a cake. Being at the top of the SERPs isn’t doing your business diddly squat!
When doing SEO, you must always start with your ultimate goal. Chances are that your goal isn’t just to get massive amounts of traffic. It is to get certain types of searchers to your website. This is what we call quality traffic.
To get quality traffic, you’ve got to understand search intent, which according to Search Engine Land is
“The goal of the user typing the search query, and it typically falls into three categories: Do something, Know something, or Go somewhere.
(See? We told you it all comes back to the user!)
Let’s take a look at how understanding search intent will help you meet your SEO goals:
- You run a local bakery in Dallas: Your goal is to get real people into your actual business. So, you would want to rank for words like “best bakery in Dallas”, “birthday cake delivery Dallas” and “order cupcakes Dallas”. People searching for these terms are looking to buy the products you offer. Unless you deliver nationwide, there is really no point in ranking for terms like “Best bakeries in the USA”.
- You have a blog about video games and make money from affiliate sales: You’d want to rank for terms like “best new Nintendo video games” and “how to choose a video game console.” The people searching for these terms are likely to buy stuff you mention or recommend. You would NOT want to rank for terms like “free video games online” because people looking for freebies aren’t likely to buy stuff!
- You have a blog which is monetized by advertisements: Here is an example where sheer amount of traffic matters. You’d find what topics people are searching for in your niche and create interesting content around them.
Do You Really Need SEO?
If you know your audience and make a website which is of value to them, then you will probably find that your website is “optimized” by default. But, your website can always be better, which is why you need SEO. By taking the time to review SEO ranking factors, you clean up your website and create a better user experience – like getting rid of all those broken links and organizing your site structure better.
More importantly, SEO forces you to think about how searchers use the web. You find yourself asking questions like “What is my target audience looking for?”, “How could my product/service solve their problem?” and “Is this something that people would share with their friends?” When you think like this and build your website accordingly, you will find your website ranking for many terms – and not just the ones you targeted. You open yourself up to a huge amount of traffic from highly-relevant leads, including leads you didn’t even realize were out there. Best of all, this traffic is essentially free and isn’t limited by geography like billboards or traditional marketing methods are. No wonder SEO is considered the best form of marketing for businesses today!