SEO has undergone profound changes over the past couple of years as Google tightens up its algorithms, slapping down sites with unnatural backlink profiles and sub-standard content.
SEO isn’t about buying or otherwise ‘acquiring’ backlinks and stuffing content with key terms any more, although there was nothing wrong with these techniques – they worked perfectly well in the olden days when Google’s algorithms weren’t anywhere near as intelligent and subtle. But what does SEO actually mean these days?
Much more than the techie side of life
Contemporary SEO encompasses much more than the technical aspects of website implementation. It’s vital stuff because when you pay attention to all the factors it involves, more visitors will find your site and be engaged by it when they get there. OK, they might not make an immediate purchase. But the site will have grabbed their attention, fuelled their interest and raised their awareness, all of which are crucial steps in the customer journey.
A definition of SEO
Rand Fishkin at SEOMoz.org recently described SEO as: “The combination of tactics and strategies, including, but not limited to, optimization of information architecture, usability, content focus, audience targeting, design, development, keyword research, keyword placement, link building, social media marketing and any other online or offline branding/marketing elements that support the goal of receiving more traffic from search engines.”
Cool. But let’s look at the on-site side of SEO life first.
Search engines – Pretty damn clever but still intrinsically dumb
Search engine optimisation pays attention to an incredible variety of nitty-gritty detail that make it easy for visitors and search engines to interpret and understand web pages. Although search engine technology has become very sophisticated, it’s still impossible for them to experience and evaluate web pages in the same way a human visitor would.
I’m shocked by the number of web designers who still don’t bother with on-site SEO. The resulting sites often can’t be indexed by Google and co, full stop, which is just crazy. And although they’re top quality eye candy, the owners face huge problems achieving organic visibility because of poor site structure, silly page titles and meta data, no thought given to key terms, canonical issues and so on. In other words, the basics.
Whether you like it or not, you still need to ‘tell’ search engines what every page is about. And on-site optimisation – AKA common sense – is still the only way to do it. Whatever route you take to site visibility you really can’t avoid on-site optimisation. And you need to take it into consideration at the very beginning of the design process. It’s no good going back later and trying to fix it.
Paid or organic visibility?
There are variations in the percentages of folk who click on the paid listings and organic search results, depending on the search query and other factors. But research indicate around 20% of search users click on a paid advert and 80% on the organic listings.
How come? Perhaps counter-intuitively, people tend to trust the organic search results because they know prominent sites deliver the best results for their search queries. Whereas sites in the paid section of the SERPs are there because site owners have paid to be there, not through merit.
Even if you’re planning to use AdWords to win search visibility, paying good money to appeal to the 20% or so who’ll click on the paid results, it’s obvious SEO is enormously important if you want to hook the other 80%.
Traditional marketing comes to the fore
As writer with a strong direct marketing background it’s lovely to see SEO growing up, so much so that some industry luminaries believe it’s on the brink of changing its name to the much more accurate ‘digital marketing’.
The first step in any marketing activity is to define the target audience. It’s also useful, in the context of search marketing, to define a handful of example search queries that potential customers might use. Why bother defining your audience? There are two main reasons:
- Keyword research: Having a good understanding of who the website is intended for informs keyword research. Rather than focus solely on terms that relate to the products or services sold through a site, it’s much better to identify key terms that relate directly to the needs of the people it’s aimed at.
- Content creation: It is important to provide content and resources that are as relevant and useful to site visitors as possible. An appreciation of the specific needs and concerns of the target audience, along with what influences their buying decisions, is enormously beneficial in developing content they’ll love.
Getting your key terms act together
Key term research is fundamental to internet marketing success. Why? A thorough and accurate understanding of the queries people enter into search engines lets you develop relevant site content that’ll potentially rank for their search queries, engaging visitors when they land on pages because the content fulfils their intent.
The most important SEO advice on the planet!
Google’s webmaster guidelines confirm the importance of understanding the terms people use when searching, and how they should be included in the website for pages to be listed in the organic search results. This is what they say:
“Think about the words users would type to find your pages, and make sure that your site actually includes those words within it.”
They provide an excellent example:
If your web page is about the height of Mount Everest it’s no good calling it ‘everest-info.htm’ or ‘mountain-stuff.htm’ or ‘page-one.htm’. Call it ‘how-high-is-mount-everest.htm’. Use the H1 header ‘How high is Mount Everest?’, use relevant related phrases within your copy, create the right meta data and so on, and you stand a decent chance of being found when people type ‘how high is Mount Everest’ into Google, Bing or Yahoo.
Simple. Elegant. Logical. You’re not playing the system, you’re abiding by it.
Put it all together and you get…
Audience insight plus key term research gives you the knowledge you need to get cracking and pin down your site architecture and page focus and create content prospects are likely to look for. Then you can go forth and have fun engaging with off-site SEO, knowing your site is tailored directly to the needs of visitors and search engines. In an online world that’s more competitive and crowded by the day, where perfection isn’t an option but a must-have, you’d be mad not to.
What about off-site SEO? I’ll cover that next.
(Thanks to PacificRim at www.sxc.hu for the fab cat image)
A quickie for today – just released – here’s a cool video in which Google’s Matt Cutts reveals the top 5 SEO mistakes made by website owners.
Good question. Here are some thoughts.
What is SEO?
Search engines need to ‘know’ what your site is all about so they can deliver the most relevant search results to users. That’s what on-site SEO is all about. Search engines also look at the number and quality of back-links, using a site’s apparent popularity to help rate and rank it fairly in the search results. That’s where off-site SEO comes in.
On-site SEO involves creating your website with SEO in mind from the bottom up, looking at things like site architecture, the terms people typically type into the search box to find products and services like yours and the priority you give information. Plus basic common sense stuff like a sensible page naming protocol and carefully crafted meta data. It’s as important as ever when you’re building a site – the marketing logic behind on-site SEO still applies.
Off-site SEO often used to involve automated link building but these days, because search engine algorithms are more sophisticated and sensitive, it focuses on natural link acquisition through quality content. Which is where content marketing comes in.
What is content marketing?
Content marketing involves using various types of content – for example articles, blog posts, email campaigns, newsletters and video – to reach, communicate and interact with your target audience.
Hit the right note and you’ll attract attention, inspiring people to strike up conversations about your content and share it with others. Which means extra site traffic, better brand equity, better search positions, more visitors and extra sales.
Content marketing as a subset of SEO?
Google has made it very clear that it’s determined to provide users with the best possible search results, surfacing well written, relevant, unique, interesting and informative stuff that’s a pleasure to read and burying the crappy stuff. You could see content marketing as a subset of SEO, in that it still involves giving search engines what they want. They just want different things.
I’ve already mentioned Google’s Panda algorithm update, which prioritises detailed, meaningful online content over the crappy stuff. And I’ve also talked about how important it is to create content that’s 100% unique.
But what, exactly, is unique? It’s subtler than you might think.
‘Unique’ includes obvious things like not duplicating, copying or stealing content. But it also covers less obvious sins like repetitive content, where you convey much the same information multiple times, each time in a slightly different way.
I’m woman enough to admit this is what I did on my .co.uk site, which I’m on the verge of re-designing and rewriting.
I created the site pre-Panda, covering the same SEO-led information across multiple pages. I didn’t do anything dodgy. Countless millions of us did the same because it worked, and nobody could have predicted the wide-ranging effects of Panda. But in retrospect, now we know what we know, it was ill-advised. While I haven’t been ‘Panda-slapped’, and it hasn’t done my dotcodotuk site any obvious harm, it also hasn’t done the site’s search positions any good.
SEO lesson learned…
What works perfectly well today might not work as well tomorrow. It’s really important to stay on top of changes in the way search engines rate and rank website content and adjust things accordingly.
I really can’t express it better than this.
Here’s a post that puts the concerns of many British and overseas SEO experts’ elegantly and clearly, without resorting to ranting. It’s long… but it’s worth taking time over if you’re engaged with search engine optimisation in any way, shape or form. If nothing else, it’s wise to be prepared for the coming shit storm. Pardon my French!
Annoyingly the letter starts half way down the page, the top of which is full of guff, so you’ll need to scroll down a bit.