SEO. Search engine optimization. The thing that everyone talks about but hardly anyone can explain.
One the one hand, SEO is as complicated as everyone says—it’s got a lot of moving parts. On the other hand, SEO is pretty simple—you can boil it down to core principles.
First, a Crucial Point on SEO
The essence of SEO marketing is getting your business to show up high in the search rankings. What does that mean?
Search engines need a way to rank websites so that people don’t have to sift through thousands or millions of search results to find the ones they’re looking for (i.e., the good ones).
But how do search engines distinguish between good websites and bad ones? Blatantly oversimplified, they do it by throwing a bunch of factors into algorithms that churn all the data up and spit out the rankings.
(Again, a blatant oversimplification. Google’s algorithms, for example, are some of the most sophisticated on the planet.)
Otherwise it would be the Yellow Pages of yesteryear. Basically, we’d look under tax attorney and find a list of names. Except instead of there being 10 or 20 or 200, depending on where we were, there’d be millions, regardless of where we were.
When search engine algorithms were simpler, they used fewer determining factors and it was possible to game SEO marketing to get good search rankings. (For more on this, here’s a brief tutorial on Google, SEO and today’s marketing.)
Over the years, however, search engine algorithms have gotten increasingly complex and nuanced, as Google et al. have worked to make search as effective and real as possible.
Every day, search results get more and more accurate, with the end goal of having experts in a given field to show up at the top of the rankings in searches within that field. Where they belong. Which means it’s not really possible to game the system anymore in SEO marketing.
The crucial point:
Given the sophistication of search engines today, companies can’t pretend to be something they’re not and have their websites rank well. It means you have to actually be the thing you’re trying to be, as illustrated through your company’s SEO marketing.
(A note on search engines. Google accounts for about 90% of all search traffic, while Bing and Yahoo! account for another 5% or so combined. While good SEO will help any search engine, it’s important to note that Google is still the only search engine that matters in the real world.)
Principle 1—Search Engines Need To Be Able to Read Your Site
This is a technical one. While search engines are more human every day, they’re still not humans and don’t see websites quite the same as humans do.
There’s a lot to this one—keywords, metadata, alt text for images, yada yada—but it still comes down to a few main things.
You need to make sure the structure of your website enables the spiders (the probes that search engines use) to crawl it (read all the pages). Basically, all the pages on the site need to connect to each other in a well-organized way.
While a Flash- and image-filled page may look fantastic to the human eye, full of wonderful copy, it might look like a blank page to a spider. And if the spiders can’t read your SEO marketing content, it doesn’t exist.
Keywords, Keywords, Keywords
It’s the first thing out of anyone’s mouth when they start talking about SEO. Why all the hullabaloo?
Keywords are the search terms people use to find things on the web. For example, if you’re looking for a tax attorney, you search for ‘tax attorney’ or something similar.
Keywords are also a big part of how search engines group websites. And it’s important to know what search terms your potential customers are using to look for you.
However, it’s also common sense. If you were having a conversation with someone and wanted to talk about tires, you’d probably say ‘tire’ to get the conversation turned in that direction and then naturally repeat the word tire during the conversation.
Principle 2—Search Engines Need to Want to Read Your Site
Why would search engines want to read your site? For the same reason humans would want to read your site. Because it has information they’re looking for. Valuable information.
You can’t fake this one. You used to be able to, but you can’t anymore. These days, it takes a lot of work based on legitimate expertise in your field.
Let’s say someone is looking for an article on widgets. They Google ‘widgets’ and get a bunch of websites for supposed experts on widgets. If they have to choose between two supposed experts, would they choose the one that’s published one article on widgets or the one that’s published 100 on widgets?
Or let’s say two supposed experts have articles on the same topic, and one article is 1,000 words long, informative and useful while the other is 200 words long and a bunch of gobbledygook. Who will they choose the next time?
Search engines work along the same lines. They assume websites with 100 articles are more expert than websites with 1 and will rank them accordingly. They also assume websites with excellent articles are more expert than websites with bunk articles and will rank them accordingly.
(Note: Yes, search engine algorithms have gotten sophisticated enough to tell the difference between well-written expert articles and poorly written inexpert articles.)
Search engines rank sites that continuously publish new content (active) over sites that don’t (passive). Basically, the frequency spiders crawl websites depends on how frequently the websites have new information.
Again, it’s common sense. If you don’t publish new information on your site, the spiders will only crawl it once in a blue moon. If you publish new content on your site all the time, they’ll crawl it more frequently (e.g., big media sites that publish new content multiple times a day get crawled the most frequently).
SEO is both very complicated and also very simple at the same time. There are lots of moving parts, but there are also underlying principles.
Your website needs to be something that search engine spiders can crawl effectively, and it needs to be something that they want to crawl repeatedly.
In other words:
You need to distill your expertise into valuable content on your website. And you need to do it frequently.
(For more information on the technical aspects of SEO and SEO in general, here’s a great article from Moz.)