Search engine optimisation (SEO) should be a simple process. Right? Hmmm... wait. As you and me and many, many others have found - SEO can be the trickiest of tricky, tricksters.
Have you, like me, felt overwhelmed by SEO rules that seem to change as soon as you feel you might have half a clue what's going on? I'll bet I'm not alone here - come on, don't leave me hanging!
I guess this feeling can make the best, most patient of us, feel like holding our SEO at arms length or even ignoring it altogether.
We know, of course, that this is not good. We know that we have to make our websites as attractive as possible to the search engines out there.
We know the importance of SEO. It is hard to ignore - take the recent report from Brightedge, for an example. It found that 51% of all website traffic comes from organic search.
In addition, according to Trond Lyngbø, head of SEO at MediaCom Norway*, ignoring SEO is like “having your best sales person (your website) crippled and hobbling around on one leg, slowing down your entire marketing process and holding your business back from achieving its true potential. You’ll take longer and spend more to reach your goals”.
So what’s the answer? Do we have to just bite the bullet and hire an SEO specialist? What happens if our business just can’t afford that expense? Do we have to spend hours learning all about the latest SEO techniques? What happens if we just don’t have the time? Do we give up?
There are no easy answers to these questions, sadly. There are no free, miracle solutions and no guarantees. SEO is as much an art as it is a science. What works one week may not work the next. You can’t simply implement one set of keywords and walk away, job done.
Just don’t give up.
The good news is that there are small things you can do, both on the pages of your website and off page, that can make a huge difference to your reach. First of all, let's take a minute to go back to basics. What is SEO and what are the search engines actually looking for?
SEO is a process - by implementing small changes to your online presence you can make your website more visible, relevant and authoritative to search engines such as Google. By making these modifications, you will see a marked improvement in organic (natural and not paid for) search results.
Search engines want you to optimise your site. They have guides and blogs ready to help you because they want to offer the most relevant results to their users.
Of course, some businesses have tried (and continue to try) to exploit any loopholes in SEO rules in order to secure the coveted top rankings. This is why SEO often feels weighted towards those companies that can afford to spend money and time tinkering away in order to influence search results. This is also why search engines such as Google have to change their SEO rules on a regular basis.
Google’s SEO Starter Guide advises us to base our “optimisation decisions first and foremost on what's best for the visitors of your site. They're the main consumers of your content and are using search engines to find your work. Focusing too hard on specific tweaks to gain ranking in the organic results of search engines may not deliver the desired results. Search engine optimisation is about putting your site's best foot forward when it comes to visibility in search engines, but your ultimate consumers are your users, not search engines.”
So what are these modifications that you need to make? Well, there are actually lots of pretty simple changes that can help boost your rankings. Search Engine Land views them in terms of a periodic table of SEO and divides them into three main areas:
- On Page Modifications: those that you have control over such as your site architecture, your content and HTML clues.
- Off Page Modifications: those factors that you cannot control as they are based around how other people rate you and your content.
- SEO Violations - if you try to manipulate the search engine’s understanding of your site’s relevance you may get a ranking penalty or even become banned from that search engine altogether.
Each of these three areas offer several ways to help you increase your visibility. These have different levels of effectiveness or weight. Search Engine Land states that, while not perfect, the table is extremely useful as a general guide.
Indeed, if you are just starting your SEO journey or if you are a small business pushed for time, ‘general’ is what you need to aim for. As Search Engine Land explains, it has avoided being ultra specific in its table “because such things often distract and pull us down the rabbit hole. Instead, we hope you gain an understanding that pages should have descriptive titles, that indicating page structure with header tags may help, and topping things off with structured data is a good idea. Do these things well and you’ve probably addressed 90% of the most important HTML factors.”
Content Is King
The cornerstone of successful SEO is content. The more relevant, quality content you produce, the more likely your site will rise in the search engine rankings. Of course, it is not as simple as that (sadly) but without great value-added content you might as well quit right now.
In the past, quality didn’t matter as much. SEO was a numbers game - how many times could you bung a keyword into a blog post or web page. The theory was that if you placed those keywords in your title tag, headlines, alt attributes of images, and scattered them throughout your text, the search engines would find you more easily. However, search engines soon cottoned on to this process of ‘keyword stuffing’ and any such content was deemed spam.
While keywords are still used at the most basic level of SEO, things have moved on.
Search engines now look for 'term frequency' and rank a word’s importance accordingly in something called term frequency–inverse document frequency (TF-IDF). In addition, search engines can now take phrases, co-ocurrence (how certain phrases often trigger the use of other phrases thereby helping the search engine decipher content that is most relevant) synonyms and close variants into consideration.
More simply, this means that you are being encouraged to use more natural 'human' language in your content.
Meanwhile, according to Cyrus Shepard, SEO consultant and contributor to SEO specialist, Moz, where you place your keywords and phrases can matter as much as the words themselves: “ Each web page is made up of different parts - headers, footers, sidebars, and more. Search engines have long worked to determine the most important part of a given page… Content located in the main body text likely holds more importance than text placed in sidebars or alternative positions.
“Page segmentation becomes significantly more important as we move toward mobile devices, which often hide portions of the page. Search engines want to serve users the portion of your pages that are visible and important, so text in these areas deserves the most focus.” (Click here for the full article on advanced SEO concepts).
In addition, structure is essential. Shepard explains that: “headers, paragraphs, lists, and tables all provide structure to content so that search engines understand your topic targeting. A clear webpage contains structure similar to a good university paper. Employ proper introductions, conclusions, topics organized into paragraphs, spelling and grammar, and cite your sources properly.”
Content has to be valuable and relevant in order to succeed and not fall foul of a SEO violation penalty. It has to answer questions and provide a good user experience. Write using language that your audience would use when they search. And finally, make sure that content is consistent - you have to keep at it in order to qualify for a good ranking.
You can make a big difference in your rankings by making small changes in your HTML. These more behind the scenes modifications to your website are key in helping your customers find your website.
According to a recent blog post on understanding the basics of SEO by Jimdo’s Jesse Modoono: “by taking just a little bit of time to implement the right behind-the-scenes tags and descriptions on your site, you’ll improve your SEO by leaps and bounds”.
Modoono suggests looking at five key factors:
- Title Tags - the actual title of your web page which is also used by search engines when displaying search results.
- Meta Descriptions - a more detailed description of your webpage. Google has stated that it won’t use these descriptions in order to calculate rankings but they can boost click-through rates and successful page engagement.
- Header Tags - these tags help search engines understand what the web page is about.
- Alt Tags - these tags are the descriptions that you create for your images. Search engines can’t crawl an image so you have to explain to them what they are missing.
- Content - as we have already discussed, content is of vital importance.
Links have long been an essential part of SEO. However, the significance of someone sharing a link back to your website has become complicated in recent years as a result of the market in paid links. Now, search engines place a quality value on links - where they have come from matters.
The actual text in a link is also analysed. This is something over which you may have little control. However, it is worth noting that Google is no fan of overly optimised links and far prefers links with more natural text.
According to Search Engine Land: “ using links as an Off The Page ranking factor was a great leap forward for search engines. But over time, links have lost some of their value for a variety of reasons. Some sites are stingy about linking out. Others block links to help fight spam. And links get bought and sold, making them less trustworthy.
“Enter social media. If links were a way for people to “vote” in favor of sites, social media sharing represents a way for that voting behaviour to continue. Social signals are emerging as ranking factors as search engines determine how to leverage our social interaction and behaviour.”
This is another reason why your content has to engage with your audience and why content marketing and SEO should really travel hand in hand. Add social media into the mix and you’ll be flying.
Of course this tip has led to the rise of false social media accounts created solely to share certain content. Search engines can often see when this is happening. The best way to benefit from social media is to build an authentic social media presence and have your content shared in a natural manner by an account that has a good reputation.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I hope that it helps you manage your SEO.
Please do feel free to leave any comments that you might have in the box below.
Take care, Jane x
* Quotation taken from his recent article: Will Your Business (And Your Website) Adapt & Evolve With Google? published by Search Engine Land
I found this resource of great help and value when writing this post: Search Engine Land’s Guide to SEO