SEO: A web phenomenon whose only constant is change.
Those three letters refer to the practice of tweaking your site so as to make it more visible and have it rank well for certain keywords. They also refer to a steady cause of anxiety and hair-tearing-out: just as you’ve figured it out, or thought you have, it changes, leaving everything you once knew turned on its head. Then, like a wisp of smoke, your SEO mastery dissipates and you’re left looking at your computer screen and shaking both fists at the internet deities.
Do you know what you’re doing? I mean, do you … really?
True SEO has a million components, from the giant (“let’s buy an established domain and use its credibility to boost our relevance”) to the tiny (“Google Plus, guys”). You could write a book on it. But that’s not what this post is. This is a quick and dirty guide to getting your SEO ducks in a row. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive guide (if that’s what you’re looking for, two great ones are this one from Moz and this one from Neil Patel). Rather, this is meant as a Sparknotes version of the “Complete SEO Guide.” I’ve done the reading, so why should you do it all over again? Yes, SEO is complicated, but it’s not so difficult that you need to read a textbook to get its gist. I’ve done the research, cut out the fluff and exposed the enigma that is SEO at its core.
Here’s what you need to know.
Knowing the game
When you’re trying to understand something, the best way to start is to learn about its evolution. SEO is no different: to truly understand it, you’ve got to know how search developed. Luckily search engines aren’t that old, so you don’t have to go back too far to get a feel for the field.
The beginning was the early ‘90s. There were many search engines, all trying to organize the internet’s information and help the neon-windbreaker-wearing population find what they were looking for. And not unlike neon windbreakers, it was a mess. The mid-’90s saw some strong search engines emerge, among them Yahoo!, Google and Ask Jeeves. In the past decade, the number of search engines we use has dwindled–and today, we’re pretty much all about a couple, with Google leading the pack.
It’s simple enough: as the internet blew up, search engines sought to make sense of it. They did this with simple algorithms that counted keywords and links. It follows then that SEO, in its infancy, was not much more than keyword stuffing–the practice of cramming a keyword into a page as much as possible so as to appear relevant and come up high in search results.
As the years went by and the web got more sophisticated, so did the algorithms. Each search engine evolved differently, but the gist is about the same: they work today as a result of changes that began with ensuring relevant and satisfactory searches for users, and more recently has turned into more policing those who try to fool the system.
In April, Google revealed that there are 100 billion Google searches per month–that averages out to 3.3 billion searches per day. That’s a lot of questions people are asking, and a lot of demand for answers. To this end, Google’s algorithm is designed to find, first and foremost, what people are looking for. If you want to truly shine at SEO, keep this one rule in mind.
Making your website look good (to everyone)
The internet is, above all, a way for people to connect.
It may be “curated” by web crawlers, but they only serve the purpose of making sense of data for us humans. When you type a question into the search bar, you’re expecting content to appear in 0.03 seconds, solving all your woes. You as a content creator write for your audience, but how do you make sure that your words get in front of them? How do you design for people in a way that will also make the bots happy?
Solid content and good headlines.
This is an obvious one, but one that should be mentioned regardless. If you’re trying to optimize your website, you must put out solid content. Doing so will make your job a hundred times easier, because the people you reach and interest will help you do your job.
This is most helpful on the social side. Google has been integrating real-time search into its algorithm since 2009, so social traffic to your site will strengthen your SEO. Any solid SEO strategy must have a prong for social media, too, and any respectable digital marketing plan must have a strong focus on compelling content and social media.
Social traffic is important for the crawlers too, because it creates social links into your site. Because of virality’s real-time and social nature, Google’s current algorithm is set to see social traffic as a good thing. Think of social links as the new backlinks–the more point to your site, the better off you are. To search engines, social traffic means popularity and relevance for internet users, which means higher relevance and better SEO for your site.
Take advantage of this by adding social sharing buttons to your site if you don’t have any. This facilitates sharing and creates those good links at a click. If you use WordPress, a good button plugin to check out is Filament.io’s Flare.
Before moving on from social, here’s a quick Google tip: Did you know that Google+ likes are actually more relevant to Google’s algorithm than any other social media activity? Yes, it is a lowly way for Google to push their social media, but it’s also a sneaky way to get a small boost up the relevance queue.
Keywords, keywords, keywords.
I’m sure you know what these are and how they work, so I won’t go into too much detail. They are, however, so important that I feel I must emphasize their relevance (briefly).
Your keyword strategy is your playbook–it’ll make or break you. You’ve got to know what your target audience is looking for. Use keyword tools, like Google AdWords’ Keyword Planner, to pick your target keywords. It is very basic SEO, but don’t overlook it. Keywords are not the super hacks they once were, but without them you might as well not be doing SEO at all.
Backlinks are other websites linking to your content. They boost you up and give your site credibility. Backlink creation and management (or link building) is another elementary SEO tip, because algorithms give authority to sites that other sites link to. And of course, the higher authority of the linking sites, the better for your site’s SEO.
Because it’s so basic, link stuffing is one of the most common black hat SEO practices. However, backlinks are one of the ways algorithms will always gauge site relevance, so they are quite beneficial when done right.
The easiest and most legal way to generate organic backlinks is by being social. Yes, again, back to social media. But aside from the above-mentioned ways to get organic links and clicks to your content, don’t forget about forums and blogs. Your customers are out there, talking about problems you can solve. Communicating with them is good for both your business and your online presence.
Cater to the crawlers
You can’t win a game without knowing how your opponents work and how to use this against them. The SEO game is similar–crawlers are what you’re up against, and what you must understand to come out on top.
For a website, this is simple. It comprises good, clean, on-site SEO. Having an optimized site will strengthen your site in and of itself, making it look legitimate to web crawlers. Akin to something like “internet etiquette,” on-site SEO is what makes a truly great user experience and is rewarded by web crawlers.
Let crawlers easily find your site and deliver it quickly to searchers by integrating what they speak (URL address) and what you speak (English). As a part of your marketing strategy, you should have a few keywords you’re always targeting for–putting these in your page titles and URLs is a good way to make your keyword-relevant content easily findable.
Be straight and to the point in site design, so users can spend less time clicking around and more time taking in your content. A good goal for site navigation is three clicks: it shouldn’t take more than three clicks to get anywhere on a site. No matter how big your site is, the quicker it is to navigate, the more likely users are to come back to it. The same works inversely: if your website is like a maze, people will leave. Quick navigation is also good for SEO–it keeps your sites clean, thus helping crawlers (and people!) seamlessly get through your content.
Play by code’s rules.
Remember: even though Google wants to create a strong experience for people, their crawlers and algorithms are not people. To this end, you as a web marketer must play by the crawlers’ rules. When approaching SEO from the back end, the important thing to keep in mind is that everything should be fast and efficient. Do things like use Google Tag Manager to keep your site’s code clean. It’ll run faster, and up your SEO. Similarly, doing things like using header and title tags on your pages organizes the content for the crawlers, helping them organize your content efficiently.
Make SEO work for you
SEO is a long game, and quick fixes are often tricks that Google is quick to find out and punish (Rap Genius, anyone?). These are ways to have your site run clean, quick and smart so you can run your site like an SEO boss.
SEO is always changing because search engines are constantly evolving, and winning at SEO is a marathon, not a race. However, keep these tips in mind and you’ll know how to manage SEO and plan an effective strategy. Know the field, the rules and what you’re up against, and there’s nothing you can’t handle, you SEO whiz!
Did these make any sense to you? Have you tried any of these, did they work? Did I miss anything? Were my nineties references too much? Leave a comment below, we’d love to hear from you!