What do you think about when you hear the term “search engine optimization” or its abbreviation “SEO”?
For many people, SEO is a series of actions taken with the intention improving your rankings in the major search engines (Google, Yahoo and Bing).
Or maybe you have a negative view of SEO. Perhaps you’ve gotten boatloads of email solicitations claiming they can get you guaranteed rankings or asking if you’d be interested in exchanging website links.
Just now, I received an email from an “online marketing consultant” writing in broken English about how his “dedicated team of 120 professional’s (sic) who are backed by experience and expertise” could improve my website traffic. I just need to reply and they will send me a full SEO proposal. And, of course, they are “looking forward to a long and fruitful business relationship” with me and my company.
The email author wrote from a generic Gmail address with no Google+ profile set up, no company website URL included, and a generic profile picture. The offer sounds completely legitimate, right?
With constant solicitations like this, it’s no surprise that the SEO industry has a reputation for spam, manipulation and unethical behavior.
What Is SEO?
For people who aren’t trying to scam others out of their money, what does SEO really involve? An old school SEO from a few years ago would tell you they research relevant keywords for your business, optimize and/or create content around those keywords, and modify your website’s HTML code (title and meta tags) so search engines know to associate your website with those keywords.
Today, SEO is much more complex.
As spammers have improved their techniques to manipulate search results, the search engines have cracked down. Now, instead of taking just a few ranking factors into consideration, search engines look at hundreds of signals. It’s no longer just about having a few pages of specific content with the right keywords and a few links to those pages.
Now, SEO is just one channel of online marketing that complements and integrates with your entire web marketing campaign.
- Links are still important, but the source and quality matters much more than quantity.
- Keywords are still important, but how well website visitors convert into leads and sales matters much more than total web traffic.
- Having relevant content is still important, but branding and being perceived as an authority in your niche matter much more than having a few pages of relevant content.
- Social signals like tweets, likes and +1s factor are becoming more influential.
People don’t share or link to crummy, spammy-looking websites. And search engines have no incentive to rank poor, mediocre, or even “good” sites. Their financial incentive lies in providing their users with the best, most relevant content. If they don’t recognize your site as “the best” for a particular keyword or search result, it’s on you to make your site better. They have plenty of other sites to choose from.
Why Is SEO Necessary?
Despite their advances, search engines still have limitations that make SEO a necessary requirement for any website that wants to rank well. Search rankings are a zero sum gain. The first three search results for any query get far more search traffic than any other results, so these three positions are extremely competitive and lucrative. Every day, new competitors enter the game, looking to beat out everyone else and become #1. If you hope to compete in this environment, you need good SEO to:
- Make content indexable – Search engines can only index and rank content they find, so if you have pages without any links, deep content that is difficult to get to, or content hidden behind search boxes or submission forms, search engines can’t access that. SEO helps search engines determine which of your site’s content is most relevant and should be indexed – or alternatively, tells search engines which pages not to index.
- Improve user experience – If searchers click onto your website from search results, and immediately click the back button, search engines interpret this as a poor user experience. They want to deliver results that help searchers find what they are looking for. If a searcher returns to the search results page, they didn’t find what they are looking for, and therefore, search engines conclude that your site must not be relevant for that search query. By optimizing your website, you can provide a great user experience for the keywords you want to be found for – making both users and search engines happy.
- Demonstrate your authority – Search engines use social factors to determine what is “great content.” Search engines don’t employ human editors to read every page and make a judgment call. That’s much too time-consuming. Instead, search engines use mathematical formulas called “algorithms” to rank websites based on what other sites link to yours, how many social shares you receive, how strong your brand is, and hundreds of other factors. If no one is linking to or sharing your website, search engines think your site probably isn’t all that relevant or important.
- Eliminate duplicate content – If you use a content management system, chances are, you have duplicate content. Since 2011, Google has cracked down on “thin,” duplicate, and poor content with its ongoing Panda updates. By using SEO practices, you can improve or eliminate these pages.
- Determine context – Despite all the progress made with semantics, search engines still have issues with relevancy and determining meaning. Often, people type in keywords that aren’t commonly used in everyday vocabulary or that may have several meanings. Search engines have to essentially guess what that searcher is looking for. If you search for “mouse,” are you looking for information about a computer device or the rodent? If you search for “foot,” are you looking for information about your body part or the measuring unit? It’s much easier when searchers type in phrases instead of single words – but returning a completely relevant and accurate search result for every query is virtually impossible. When you optimize your website for specific keywords, you add relevancy and contextual meaning to help search engines better categorize your site.
SEO isn’t dead. But it has evolved. Now, before you embark on an SEO campaign, it’s essential to determine your marketing goals. Is it to build your brand through content marketing? To establish your credibility and expertise? To generate leads and clients? To get press mentions? Don’t just shoot for traffic and high rankings – because that probably isn’t enough to achieve your targets.