Learning is a physiological and psychological function performed by the human body and mind. Sensory learning takes place by hearing, smelling seeing, and touching, but our retention of knowledge is truly optimized kinaesthetically – by applying what we know and through teaching. The following educational series of posts will cover the core areas of digital marketing: Search Engine Optimization (SEO), conversion rate optimization (CRO), social media, content marketing, Pay Per Click (PPC), email marketing, web analytics, and mobile marketing. In sharing my knowledge on these topics in a clear and simple way, I hope to improve my own knowledge on these subjects.
What is SEO?
SEO stands for search engine optimization. It is the practice of getting your website and web pages ranked higher in the search engine results pages (SERPs). An example of a search engine is Google.com, Yahoo.com or Bing.com, and the search engine results pages appear after you search a term such as “flat screen TV”. SEO is also an acronym for a Search Engine Optimizer, someone performing the task of optimizing web pages for search engines.
How do Search Engines work?
Search engines use robots (bots) also known as crawlers to gather webpage data and links, not much different from an inspector analyzing the land and architecture of a house to determine a home’s value. Bots go from page to page across the Internet traveling through links. As they crawl webpages they gather data about a page’s layout, navigation, title tags, images, text etc.
They also collect data related to links – technically termed hyperlinks. Links are clickable elements that send you to a new webpage. Within a website, they are labeled “internal” and when connecting two different sites they are labeled “external”. External links from another site back to your site are called backlinks. These bring the most value to SEO because they serve as votes for the credibility and quality of the content to which they are linking.
Bots report their reconnaissance activities on millions of website structures, content, and backlinks to robust computer systems called algorithms who examine the captured data and in real-time determine how webpages rank when a search is performed. Websites are evaluated based on the number of backlinks it has and the credibility of those links. After reporting the data, computers ripe with Artificial Intelligence (AI), use complex algorithms with hundreds of factors to establish page rank vis a vis millions of others. One thing to note in this process is that the details seen on a search engine is a copy of your sites content collected by a search engine’s bots and may not reflect your updated site.
Why is SEO important?
The primary goal of a search engine is to help a user find what they’re looking for. Search engines only accomplish this by presenting the most relevant results in the search engine results page. If you search for “flat screen tv” and are presented with a list of trips to Mexico, you may get excited about your next beach vacation, but you most certainly would find a different website to fulfill your home entertainment system needs. Google, Yahoo (Verizon) and Bing (Microsoft) only succeed in helping its users to succeed.
It is also important to remember that a user will rarely visit the second or third page of the search engine result pages. They’re more likely to perform a new search if they don’t find what they’re looking for. This makes it vitally important for advertisers to rank on the first if not the second page of Google if they wish to connect with qualified users. So SEO is vitally important because:
- It helps users to find what they’re looking for
- It helps search engines help users accomplish their goals
- It helps relevant websites to rank higher
How do you perform SEO?
In many respects, SEO has been painted as a Wizard of Oz type function performed behind an opaque emerald curtain, but in practice SEO best practices are quite simple to grasp. Their execution, however, is inextricably nuanced. They are tied to two primary factors and two primary areas of execution. The key factors are relevancy and authority.
Search engines seeking to help users accomplish their goals are determined to present the most relevant information. The more a page can make a case for being a relevant option to a user’s search, the better that page will rank. A page with valuable information related to “flat screen TVs” will rank higher than a page about “TV stands” for a user’s “flat screen TV” search because it is more relevant.
Authority is an indication to search engines that a particular page is credible – containing valuable information to satisfy a user’s goal. Inbound links from external webpages raise a page’s authority, and the more links the better. But not all links are created equal. Links from credible, authoritative and relevant pages carry more weight than lesser known pages with limited, poor and less relevant content.
Another factor related to links is the anchor text used to link to a webpage. In the link to SEOMoz, the text “SEOMoz” is the anchor text. The URL is moz.com. The anchor text helps to build the relevancy of a webpage while the URL affects authority.
To perform SEO proficiently you should aim to affect the relevancy and the authority of a webpage. This is accomplished by performing both on-site and off-site tasks. On-site refers to activities directly affecting elements on a website and off-site refers to all activities performed without directly changing elements on a site or page.
On-site SEO tactics include optimizing the title tag, meta description, content (words, images, videos), internal links, the sitemap and site navigation. Off-site SEO tactics include external links, social media marketing, directory listings, networking, and general brand awareness. Let’s review each category in a little more detail.
The majority of the work performed on-site is done with the goal of increasing the relevancy of a page. Following this checklist will ensure that you have performed all the necessary on-site SEO tasks within your control:
☐Title Tag: The number one on-site metric is the Title Tag. The Title Tag is the first line of text that appears in bold on a search engine for a webpage. It tells search engines what a page is about. The Title Tag should include keywords for which you’d like your page to rank. The Title Tag can be added using code, in the SEO settings of your website builder account or using an SEO plug-in like Yoast.
☐Meta Description: The Meta Description does not affect the relevancy of your page but it acts as an advertisement to users on a search engine, indicating to them whether or not they want to click and visit your page. The meta description should be engaging and should compel a user that visiting your page will help them accomplish their goal.
☐Navigation: The navigation of your site should be intuitive and easy-to-follow for bots crawling your site.
☐Layout: The layout of your site should be consistent making it easier for bots to crawl the various pages of your site. The layout of your content on a page should be equally as easy to digest. H1 tags should be used to categorize your content and white space employed to make a page more readable.
☐Content: The content of your site includes your text, images, videos and other elements that a user would absorb on your page. These elements should be relevant to the primary topic of your page.
☐Images: All media on a page should support the theme of the page and should include the Alt Image Text that describes what an image is about. Wherever possible the Alt Image Text should include your primary keywords without over doing it (keyword stuffing).
☐Text: In the past SEO best practices involved content stuffed with keywords, but in more recent years and through Google’s algorithm updates, it is now a best practice to write, not for bots crawling a site, but for users engaging with your content. This means that you should write using natural language for your reading audience, not using keywords in an unnatural fashion to augment keyword usage. On that note, search engine technology is now incorporating Natural Language Processing (NLP), which means that they can now tell if a certain word is also a commonly used word in a particular category. If you’re writing about German Shepherds, then it would be natural for you to also use the words “pet” and “dog”. Lastly, on the topic of writing, longer more useful pieces of text will help a page to rank higher compared to shorter and less useful text. Seems obvious but still need to be mentioned.
☐Video: Videos, similar to images should list keywords and be relevant to the rest of the content on a page.
☐Internal Links: Connect pieces of content on your website to one another using internal links wherever it makes sense. This also makes it easier for bots to crawl your webpages.
☐External Links: The content on your site is the primary catalyst to deliver links back to your website. If you produce quality, engaging content – mavens who enjoy sharing and educating their network will link back to your webpages. The other primary back-linking factors are related to off-site activities discussed in the next section.
Once the architecture of your site has been established through a proper layout, navigation, title tag etc. the focus for SEO is on producing valuable content for users, with the ultimate goal of converting them into a customer, donor etc., and to influence the ranking of your webpage’s authority through link building.
Off-site SEO can be a little more challenging because it is out of our control. With on-site SEO, the activities and best practices are all tasks that we can personally influence and edit but off-site SEO is about building relationships with our greater Internet community but not limited to digital engagements. Off-site SEO also entails our personal network and new relationships that we build by attending industry conferences and the like. So what are some specific tasks that can be completed to improve our off-site SEO efforts? Here are a few suggestions to give you a head start:
☐Networking: Attending conferences are extremely valuable because they help us to build relationships much quicker and deeper than ones developed through the digital realm and over the phone. When you build a relationship at a conference, your digital communication gets a rocket boost whether it be an email or a retweet. There’s a special personal connection that you now share different from the other 1000s of Internet users. How does this help with SEO? Someone that you met personally, had lunch with or with whom you shared a drink is more willing to provide you with a backlink form their site to yours. And remember the goal of link-building is not to do all the heavy lifting yourself. Your content and network should empower viral sharing.
☐Blog Comments: One great way to build relationships to influence link-building is to comment on other blogs. Among best practices for relationship-building is the concept of reciprocity. It’s the “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” principle. This seems to be true of human nature also expressed studies of smiling. Studies have shown that if you smile at someone it causes a biological reaction in humans where instinctively our body desires to reciprocate the received smile. Select sites in your industry that you respect and find interesting and make it a point to engage on their blogs. Someone just might notice one of your comments and check out the rich content you’ve built on your site resulting in a new link.
☐Social Media: Like, share, retweet and mention (@) industry colleagues and influences on Linkedin, Twitter and other social platforms important to your business. I won’t say too much here because it’s no different to the concepts explained in Blog Comments. Essentially, if you share what others have produced, they will notice (over time) and perhaps one new interaction can lead to a new link for your website.
SEO is often misunderstood because details of search algorithms are not fully disclosed. Search companies such as Google only provide guidelines and best practices to help your website to rank. This leads to a lot of different interpretations of what factors influence search rank. But what is consistent as I’ve mentioned above is the relevancy and authority of your site for a given search term. If you engage in the steps outlined above, your site will improve in these two core areas and in time you’ll improve the ranking capabilities of your website.