I believe SEO (search engine optimization) is a very challenging term to define. It can be complex and confusing. SEO can be defined and thought of in a number of ways, especially depending on whom one asks.
Regardless of how one defines SEO, these two aspects are clear:
- One cannot optimize a search engine.
- Search engines return relevant pages & content (but, websites’ authority & popularity matter).
When discussing SEO, it’s often centered around, ‘How does my business get ranked #1 in search results so I can get more traffic?’ We’ll revisit this below. For now, a basic definition of SEO is: improving one’s site & content to help users find relevant answers* to their questions.
“Improving one’s website & content to help users find relevant answers* to their questions.”
SEO involves all of these crucial elements, which impact search rankings & traffic:
- Search Engines
- Your Actions (on-site & off-site)
*Unpaid vs. paid answers is relative when we are taking about SEO because a lot of resources are devoted to your website, content, and SEO.
“Unpaid” in the context of SEO often means, you did not pay a search engine company to display a search result page from your site (which can lead to organic traffic to your site).
In contrast, “paid” can be thought of as paying money to a search engine company so a search result appears (which can result in paid click traffic to your site).
Users + Search Engines + Your Actions = SEO
Users: All search queries involve a user’s intent, a user’s language, a user’s location, and their device. Queries can be broken down even further into various user needs.
Search Engines: Search engines crawl a website (its sitemap, pages, & links) to discover content. Next, they index these pages or file this content. Lastly, search engines rank the relevancy of web pages in the context of a user’s intent, a user’s language, a user’s location, and the device used.
Relevancy is determined by algorithms, very complex mathematical formulas that utilize data to learn and adapt. We don’t know the exact way search engines accomplish this. This is one example of why you should be leery of anyone guaranteeing your site to rank #1 for _____ (keyword).
Your Actions: While we don’t the exact secret sauce of search engines, we do know they account for page quality and how user’s needs are being met (aka relevance to the user). Users’ needs and users’ experiences (UX) also matter. A website’s content and overall credibility must reflect this. Thus, one way to view SEO is optimizing your site’s pages (on-site) and improving aspects off-site so they better align with users’ queries within a search engine.
This is a continuous process since search engines are never static and more importantly, as you know, neither are users.
What’s in it for Users?
User Experience needs to be the first consideration with SEO. SEO should go beyond just factoring in marketing principles and may even require not implementing some technical adjustments.
- Is this beneficial to my customers?
- What value is it providing them?
- Would they click on this, contact us, share this, purchase, etc.?
All of those questions go far beyond just making technical SEO changes. If you’re ignoring these considerations, you’re likely going to be wasting a lot resources on vanity metrics, such as clicks & pageviews, that don’t lead to happy repeat customers. SEO should utilize technical aspects to help achieve broader business goals.
Smashing Magazine defines user experience (UX) as “…how a person feels when interacting with a system.” In the context of SEO, this falls under human-computer interaction (HCI).
Source: Smashing Magazine
What’s the deal with search engine rankings?
As mentioned above, search engines use algorithms (very complex mathematical formulas that utilize data to learn and adapt), to determine how to rank web pages in their results. As one can imagine, this is a very complex process. If you’re seeking additional information, Google has a great overview of how search works and they also recently updated their more in-depth Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines.
How complex is the process of ranking pages? According to Backlinko.com, it’s suspected there are some 200 ranking factors involved with Google’s algorithm. We know RankBrain (Google’s algorithm), quality links (off-site SEO), and relevant content (on-site SEO) are three significant ranking factors. Then, numerous other factors include: user satisfaction, user experience (UX), click-through-rate, page authority, and domain authority.
While Google constantly refines their algorithm, we do know that page quality matters. Specifically, quality content that is relevant, satisfies users’ needs, is from a credible source, and from a site that provides a good user experience for visitors. One can see how it’s not simply about stuffing a bunch of keywords on a page and calling it a day.
In the past, some websites utilized unethical and scammy tactics to trick the algorithms into thinking pages were relevant, when often, they were not. Countless people associate SEO with this type of approach. Fortunately, not everyone takes this very short-sighted approach of trying to trick others. In addition, search engines are continuously cracking down on those attempting to trick others by, not only improving their algorithms, but also, penalizing sites that continue to use these tactics.
Redefinition of SEO?
Search engine marketing (SEM) is a term that numerous people use instead of SEO. Some people have shifted their approach towards paid advertising, paid promotion on social networks, and content marketing given how valuable content is and its relevance to search queries. SEO and SEM can complement each other. This can be a very blurred line depending on who you ask.
Sean Jackson, CFO of Rainmaker Digital, has even proposed a new definition for SEO. He feels one should think about SEO in terms of “…optimizing content for discovery and conversion (“OC/DC”) across a wide spectrum of the web…,” rather than focusing solely on optimization for organic traffic from search engines to a website.
“…optimizing content for discovery and conversion (OC/DC) across a wide spectrum of the web…not just search engines.” – Sean Jackson
The world’s largest bookstore (an imperfect analogy of SEO)
If you’re looking for a basic explanation of SEO (with less technical jargon), here’s an imperfect analogy of SEO in terms of a search engine, users, & your website/digital property.
A Search Engine = A Bookstore
- A search engine is a bookstore with employees. Their rules and guidelines apply.
- They’re never closed & they’re continuously adapting throughout the year.
- Their employees and fancy software have a significant say regarding the operations of the store and the placement of books.
- They’re constantly receiving both new books & older books, which have been updated.
- They need to figure out how to best display each book in order to provide the most relevant & helpful answers for visitors.
- They also have a significant financial incentive to sell books and not just provide answers for free.
- There’s more than 1 bookstore, but Google dominates (and Amazon is extremely powerful).
Users = Bookstore’s Readers & Customers
- Users are a bookstore’s readers & customers.
- They visit the store in search of answers and solutions to their needs.
- Sometimes they need the entire book (they buy), other times, just a chapter or paragraph will suffice (they browse).
Your Website = A Book
- Your site is a book within the bookstore, whether you’re a business, organization, a blogger, etc.
- As a website owner, you’re the author & editor (with an abundance of editing options for this analogy).
- Your book can assist a search engine (the bookstore) with how it categorizes and markets your book in its store. (It’s up to you to determine how valuable this is & what resources should be allocated to help).
- Regardless of the bookstore, your book needs relevant content and compelling calls to action to help stand out to visitors. It has to be a quality book that’s valuable to readers.
- All books are not equal (similar to all websites are not equal). Classic books that have withstood the test of time & proven valuable to countless readers, tend to be displayed more prominently, but not always, before brand new books. (These types of books have consistent high-quality pages & content that’s been of interest to readers).
- However, sometimes new books gain traction & prove to be more popular than older ones. Quality & relevance still matter.
- You can choose to pay additional $ to have your book more prominently displayed in the bookstore. But just because you pay extra $, that doesn’t alway mean you’ll sell more books.
Your Site’s Pages & Content = Chapters
- Your site’s pages & content are the chapters in the book.
- Your pages should have a table of contents section, chapters, aids to help users read, navigate around, and understand your book.
- Your pages & content must be clear in how they benefits both visitors & readers, otherwise the search engine will have a more challenging time knowing where to place your book in the store & this will impact how visitors are able to find the book.
On-Site vs. Off-Site
You have more control over your book and its chapters (on-site).
You have limited control & less input on the bookstore and their partners/vendors (off-site).
We know visitors and customers are both complex & dynamic so attention to both on-site & off-site elements matter.
Again, far from perfect, but that’s a basic overview of SEO.
Understanding On-Page & Off-Page SEO
On-page SEO Elements
On-page SEO (also referred to as on-site SEO) can be thought of as the elements involved with relevancy to users’ queries. For example, is the type of service a business provides relevant to a user’s location and their need for a solution? This typically involves improving web pages so they rank higher in search engine results, are clicked on more frequently, resulting in more traffic to your site (and hopefully, sales).
Some main elements (often referred to as meta tags) include: keywords, URL structure, page titles, meta descriptions, H1-H3 tags, alt text (for images), internal links, removing duplicate content, addressing the speed and display of pages, structured data, site architecture, and site navigation. Essentially, making search engine results more relevant to the user, more clickable, and then keeping the user on the page so they’re more likely to take action. On-site SEO overlaps with usability, content, copywriting, analytics, design, web development, and conversion optimization to name a few areas.
Title Tag/Page Title – The title tag is a significant factor for both ranking and being clicked on.
- Relevant to users’ queries
- Avoid duplicate page titles; keep them unique for each page.
- Include the primary keyword phrase towards the front.
- On 5/11/16, Google made a significant change for the length of title tags, increasing them to about 600 pixels or around 70 characters.
- Google decides what it wants to display so just because you have a 70 character title tag, doesn’t mean all of it will be displayed. Moz’s research has found it’s often best to keep one’s titles to under 60 characters.
URL – The structure and content of your URLs are important.
- It’s best if they are static.
- Stick to lower case letters & numbers.
- Avoid duplicate URLs and avoid underscores or logic that would apply for a strong password such as special characters.
- Place more valuable keywords towards the front.
- Use hyphens to separate keywords.
- Ideally, < 115 characters in length.
- Be consistent in one’s structure & think intuitively of how a customer would be searching.
- Be aware that editing a URL, can impact your site’s health and your users. For example, they might have bookmarked a URL which is no longer valid or have a piece of content with a broken link because the URL has been changed and not redirected.
Meta Description – This is not a ranking factor in search results, but it’s an important factor in click-through-rate (CTR).
- Relevant to users’ queries.
- Clickable: Similar to writing page titles, elements of good copywriting apply here with a human voice and feel.
- Unique for each page.
- Contain important keywords.
- Descriptions have also increased by about 16-20 characters per line. The new description length per line is 100 characters. So one now has close to 200 characters vs. 155 -160 from before.
- However, descriptions that exceed 160 characters often are truncated.
- If this field is blank, search engines create a description based on the page’s content.
Keywords – Search engines are powered by users’ keyword searches therefore, SEO must account for keyword usage.
- However, keywords are not the only factor in search engine rankings. As mentioned above, it’s suspected there are 200+ factors involved with Google search rankings.
- Focus on the user’s intent and creating content that meets their needs.
- Search engines continue to shift towards semantic search results so it’s not simply about having the perfect keyword(s) or an exact ratio.
- Avoid stuffing keywords on a page, because it provides for a bad user experience and you risk being penalized by search engines.
- Keyword research is an area one should spend considerable time on. As you can see in the example, their meta descriptions includes other relevant keywords that one would associate mountain biking with.
H1 (Header One) Tag – The H1 main heading tag involves the HTML markup in the page’s code and how headings are displayed to the user when they’re viewing a page. (H2 – H6 can be considered sub-headings.) They’re important coding because they demonstrate the relationship between your headings and your page content (i.e. they help with semantics), which then helps search engines better understand your pages. Also, and arguably more importantly, they’re beneficial for the user because they assist with understanding and navigating the content on the page. I feel it’s best to think in terms of how heading tags can help your users and get them more engaged with your content.
<h1>Main Title</h1> Main Title/Headline of the Page
<p>Text text text</p> Text…
<h2>Sub Title 2</h2> Sub Title/Section Heading of the Page
<p>Text text text</p> Text…
What the user sees on the page:
Sub Title 2
Sub Title 3
Sub Title 4
Sub Title 5
Sub Title 6
Alt Tag (Alternative Text)
Alt-text can be a way to rank higher for some keywords. Does everyone review and click on images? No, of course, but it’s a potential source of traffic to evaluate.
- Alt-text should describe the image & include an important keyword.
- Use a good file name structure, similar structure to URLs. (e.g. Good = sunrise-eiffel-tower.jpg vs Bad = DSC4536.jpg)
- Tags should use descriptive keywords, but don’t keyword stuff or duplicate. (e.g. “Female model wearing Levi’s 501 Skinny Jean in black coast wash size 26×28”)
- Yoast SEO recommends including, “the full product name and the products product ID in the alt tag” if the image contains a specific product.
- Try to compress images as much as possible without detracting from UX & branding of your site.
- One also has the option to specify specific images that should not be indexed by search engines.
Some of the facets of on-site SEO don’t directly impact your rankings in search engine results. However, improvements to your pages can indirectly affect rankings. For instance, we know Google values click-through-rate (CTR). While one shouldn’t be focused solely on CTR, if one makes their pages more relevant to user’s queries, they’ll be better positioned to improve click-through-rate & increase user engagement, all of which in-turn, can help with your page rankings in search engines.
Off-page SEO Factors
Off-page SEO (also known as off-site SEO) is often associated with the popularity, trustworthiness, and authority of pages and sites in relation to other competitors. The two most significant factors involved with off-site SEO are backlinks and social signals, such as brand mentions, news, reviews, and social media engagement, at least indirectly. Backlinks are when another website links to a page or pages on your site. Opinions vary on the impact of social media on SEO (which regardless, active engagement on social media is certainly very important). Differences aside concerning social media and SEO, any knowledgeable SEO professional will attest to the significance of backlinks.
Backlinks are extremely important in SEO because they can help improve your organic search rankings, thus, potentially impacting traffic to your site over time. Similar to other aspects of SEO, the quality and authority of backlinks matter. For instance, if your business is a restaurant and you had a backlink from The New York Times because they wrote a story about your restaurant, this backlink would be significantly more valuable than if 14 different food blogs, that had been created in the past three months, all linked to your site. If your site has numerous low-quality backlinks that are not relevant, your site runs the risk of being penalized by search engines, which will negatively impact search rankings.
As you can imagine, off-site SEO typically involves coordinated efforts with PR, branding, advertising, social media, & outreach. Likewise, because high quality authoritative links are so important and bad links are potentially destructive, there are numerous SEO professionals that only focus on building and monitoring links. This is also why these types of services can be one of the costliest aspects of SEO.
Aspects like keywords, links, and content all pertain to both on-page and off-page SEO. There’s a symbiotic relationship amongst all of these elements that go far beyond just SEO and website optimization.
Keywords & Queries
Keywords are words and phrases (i.e. the queries) users are searching for. Why are they searching? Because they want answers to their questions and solutions for their needs. As you know, users are willing to pay for answers and solutions. Hence why relevant keywords are so competitive and why sites target keywords in both advertising and in SEO.
Based on their research, Google has classified user queries into 4 key moments. (Think about how location, navigation, information, purchase intent as well as the type of device all impact queries).
Search engines, such as Google, continue to adapt to semantic searches, factoring in for example, synonyms, common misspellings, various tenses, different phrases that mean the same thing, etc. In some instances, the exact keyword doesn’t always have to match the exact query for relevant search results to appear.
Types of Keywords
The 3 main types of keywords are short-tail or head terms, medium-tail keywords, and long-tail keywords. However, because users’ intent varies so does the significance and value of keywords for one’s audience.
Short-tail /head terms are typically searches for 1 or 2 words.
Medium-tail keywords are usually > 2 words.
Long-tail keywords involve phrases > 4 words and often are unique.
Here’s one graph from Moz depicting the number of monthly searches relative to the number of keywords used in a query.
Generally, short-tail/head terms are often harder to rank for and, especially with adverting, usually cost more $. Medium-tail keywords have more variance in costs and search volume, but can be very valuable. Long-tail keywords often have the lowest search volume, but at times, they can have a higher conversion rate and lower costs. However, long-tail keywords are significantly more challenging to predict (and incorporate into content) because they involve unique phrases, often ones that have never been searched for before.
There are certainly exceptions to this classification of keywords, because in certain industries, such as law and insurance, both medium-tail and long-tail keywords can be highly competitive. Also, one can also see there can be overlap between medium and long-tail keywords.
Some of the same keywords you are targeting on your website for SEO are likely some of the same keywords someone else is paying for in advertising. There’s a lot of strategy behind keyword research, knowing which keywords to target, and then which keywords to utilize on and off your site. Keywords off-site also pertain to links, which we mention next.
The three most common types of links are: internal links, external links, and backlinks. Quality and authority are very important. You want to be internally linking from one quality page to another. In your content, you want to be outlinking to quality and authoritative sites and pages. Then, to get the most out of off-page SEO, you want to have numerous quality and authoritative pages linking to your pages.
Each of these common types of links are worthy of a much longer discussion and have additional technical aspects, but a healthy website has all of these types of links.
Internal links – Internal links are links to other relevant internal pages within one’s own site, such as this post about The Marketing Strategy Board. It’s advisable to create internal links within your site as part of your on-page SEO strategy. Internal links should logically flow together for a user so they can benefit from your content. This helps users locate relevant information more easily and it also helps search engines better understand your site’s architecture. Of note, keep in mind, excessive cross-linking of keyword focused anchor text (clickable text appearing in a hyperlink), between pages, can negatively impact your site’s rankings.
External links – External links are links that link from your pages to other external website pages. Your content should have external links to quality authoritative sites. This is another part of sound on-page SEO strategy. Similar to internal links, external inks should be intuitive for the user and relevant to your content. When using external links, you want to be cautious of how frequently you use generic anchor text. You also never want to use only anchor text keywords either. It’s often best to use a brand/person’s name, a brand/person’s name + a keyword, or the brand/person’s URL for external links.
Backlinks – Backlinks are links received from other external website pages that are linking to pages on your site. When people are discussing link building this is what it typically entails. Because earning high quality and authoritative links can provide a consistent, sometimes high, volume of traffic to your site and can improve your search rankings, this a very important part of (off-page) SEO. Conversely, if your site has numerous low-quality backlinks that are not relevant, this often results in penalties for you site and search rankings. These factors are also why those involved with link building and monitoring charge higher rates. Likewise, it’s also a reason why you should be very cautious of who assists your business with link building.
Earning backlinks to your homepage is great, but ideally you want to have backlinks going to multiple internal pages as well. As you can imagine, this is another reason why creating quality content and then promoting it, is so important. This leads us to our next topic.
Relevant Content is Constant
We have limited information about search engines’ algorithms. Even though they’re constantly changing, we do know they always value quality content on a high quality page. We also know users are always seeking answers and solutions. Finally, we know content can help differentiate you from your competitors. These are just a few reasons why it’s so important to devote resources for creating relevant content.
Your content shouldn’t be solely focused on SEO, but one cannot ignore its significant relationship to search results and traffic. The short answer is to create content that answers questions and offers solutions better than others do and then actively promote it. Simple, but not easy.
Also, there’s a lot of overlap with applying on-page SEO principles to one’s content. Consistency matters, otherwise, you’re likely not getting the most out SEO if you only focus on one area and neglect other aspects of your site.
How can I write an SEO rich blog post?
As we’ve mentioned above, users are seeking answers to their questions and solutions for their needs. Instead of asking, ‘How can I write an SEO rich blog post?‘ or ‘How can I rank #1?‘, think about how your content can help answer questions and provide solutions.
Content guidelines (not absolute rules) to consider:
- HQUC – “High quality, unique, and compelling.”
- Some noteworthy thought leaders like Rand Fishkin feel high quality content alone is no longer enough in 2017. He believes 10x content is the new bar.
- Focus on quality over quantity rather than a specific word count or an exact number of pages.
- Create uniquely valuable content for your target audience; help solve their problems and answer their questions.
- Use keywords and phrases that your target audience use, are interested in, and are searching for. Think less about rankings and don’t stuff keywords into your content.
- Ensure content is not duplicated!
- Edit your content. Avoid spelling and grammar mistakes.
- Make it highly readable.
Sharing is caring
It’s not solely about publishing quality content. You need to promote it. This is an important aspect of SEO and specifically, link building. Likewise, SEO also involves building and maintaining relationships because it’s not just about expecting others to share your content. Please don’t ignore the importance of these factors.
While you should share, one needs to be aware of duplicate content and avoid it on your site.
Duping with content…is just duplicate content
Search engines continue to become more adapt at recognizing duplicate content and they hate duplicate content. In the past, some people would try to trick search engines into thinking the same piece of content, just slightly modified a few ways were all unique pieces of content. This sometimes was accomplished by optimizing around a specific anchor text keyword and then, slightly tweaking versions so each piece of content would appear as being unique. Search engines can now detect subtle differences in content and one risks being penalized for such trickery.
This is why it’s problematic if you attempt to over optimize around specific anchor text keywords and then create multiple variations of an article were all optimized around a specific anchor text keyword
- SEO can be thought of as, improving one’s site & content to help users find relevant answers to their questions.
- SEO involves: Users + Search Engines + Your Actions
- Hundreds of factors are involved with ranking results in search engines.
- User experience (UX) should be the top consideration.
- SEO can be broken down into on-page SEO and off-page SEO elements.
- Keywords, links, and content are all related and don’t only pertain to SEO.
- Users are seeking answers for their questions and solutions for their needs. (Please assist them).
The search continues
There are numerous terminology, factors, considerations, and technical aspects involved with SEO. It takes time and patience to understand and see results from SEO. There are countless helpful tools available as well to assist one’s business. Be cautious of anyone promising guaranteed results for rankings and utilize the experiences of a trustworthy partner for SEO.
SEO beyond 2017…
This is purely speculation, but given the increased usage of mobile devices, Google’s preference for their Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) initiative, & their shift to a mobile-first index for search rankings, there’s a strong possibility future search results might rely more on swiping left/right, incorporate more visual imagery, and have fewer search results pages to advance through.
Or perhaps, voice searches will continue to increase while returning specific results that bypass the traditional search engine UI.
Time will tell, but search and SEO will certainly remain competitive.
What are your thoughts on SEO? Is it a priority for your business?