At its core, SEO is the practice of increasing a website’s ability to rank at the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs) for a set of target keywords, also known as ‘search terms’. In turn, this results in increased traffic to a website from search engines.
There are no underhand tricks, it does not involve arcane magic or entry into a cult. Sure, granular details can get a little heavy, especially on the technical side, but we believe the core theories of search engine optimisation are easy to understand. If you only remember two words from this article, remember these:
Relevance & Value.
Almost everything that we do as SEOs should be aligned with these two words, and most often directly related to the user. If what you are doing does not offer real value to the user, or is irrelevant to them, it probably won’t work.
Remember that Google is a business. Sure they may have ridiculously cool offices and have amusing Google Doodles everyday, but make no mistake, they don’t offer their free search engine for shits and giggles. The popularity of Google’s search engine allows them to make over $36 billion a year from search ads. That’s rather a lot of Benjamins. Therefore, as you can imagine, Google takes the popularity of their free search engine very very seriously indeed.
Google’s main priority is to deliver the most relevant and valuable results for any given search term, so that the user keeps coming back to their search engine and the money machine keeps turning. This underpins what we do as SEOs. We need to make sure that Google regards our website as the most relevant and valuable result for our target search terms.
Indexes and Robots
It’s important to clarify something before we dive into the main segments of SEO. It’s a common misconception that when you type a query into a search engine that the search engine then goes and searches the web for your results there and then.
That isn’t actually the case. Most search engines are constantly ‘crawling’ the internet using things called bots. These bots are finding web pages, reading them and indexing them. Think of it as a librarian that reads every page of a book, understands the content as best they can and then places it in their library in what they deem to be the most appropriate place, ready to be retrieved for a relevant query.
Search engines are essentially downloading the latest version of the internet as a constant updating process of their index, which makes it much quicker for them to deliver results to you and I.
The Essentials of SEO
Using broad strokes you can split search engine optimisation into three categories: Research & Onsite Optimisation, Content Creation and Link Building. No idea what any of those three categories involve? You’re about to get an overview:
Research & Onsite Optimisation
At the start of any campaign you want to build a strategy. What are you trying to achieve? Who are you trying to target? What keywords would they use to search for your business? Once you have this strategy confirmed you are going to want to set the foundations – and this is where onsite optimisation comes in.
Onsite optimisation (also known as onsite SEO) is all the work that you do on your website. Our onsite SEO usually involves a mix of technical SEO and addressing the current content on the website. For the purpose of this article you don’t need to know the items that make up onsite SEO but if you’re interested it is worth starting with the information architecture, metadata, heading tags and duplicate content (including canonical URLs).
Remember that we should be user focussed. We should be addressing user related issues as well as search engine bot related issues. What you are trying to achieve with your onsite optimisation is a website that is as clear as possible to both users and the search engine bots. Search engines like Google are incredibly clever, but just like the fact that we have not reached the god point with AI, these bots have their own limitations. As such, through the process of onsite SEO we are trying to make it clear to these bots which pages should be returned for which query, of course based on its relevance and value to the user. At the same time we need to ensure that the user experience is top notch and key information is quick and easy to find.
Thorough onsite will also address any user related items such as ensuring that the user flow and call-to-actions help funnel the user to key information quickly. Everything we do as SEOs should be user centric but rest assured that if you make it clear to the user, you are most likely also making it clear for the search engines!
Without great onsite optimisation, the website will never perform as well as it could in the SERPs or will have a lower conversion rate of users. The parable of the man who built his house on sand comes to mind.
Content is King. A favourite (and overused) saying within the SEO industry. Overused or not, content is critically important if you want your campaigns to deliver results and is the second of the three categories.
We’ll say it again: relevance and value.
Your content should be relevant to the user and offer real value. Awesome content can fulfil a number of goals but they always come back to those two factors.
Look at it this way. If you are constantly creating content that users want to read and provides the answers to the queries they are typing into Google, why wouldn’t Google take notice. That’s what they need to keep their own users happy! Content is one of the best opportunities to increase your authority on a subject for both the user and the search engine, also helping to maintain your website as a contemporary (and therefore highly relevant) source of information.
If you write your content to be as valuable to the user as possible, not only will the search engines take notice, but so will the users. Conversion rates increase, your collateral for other marketing channels increases and your rankings increase. Without such great content, you run the risk of the opposite happening. That’s why content is king.
Think of links to your website (from other websites) as a ‘like’ or a vote. It’s a public thumbs up from another website. The more of these endorsements you have, the more authoritative your website can appear. This is the third part of the puzzle.
The theory is that if another website wants to link to your website, then your website must be good. It’s a little more complicated than that so if you want to read more you can here.
There are some rules to these votes because not all links are equal. It is also a practice that has been abused over the years so search engines are careful about how they take these links into account when ranking a website.
What you want are links from highly relevant and authoritative (*read valuable) websites. These are the ones that will have the most impact. Think of it like this. You’re applying for a job that will involve maths or physics. What would be more valuable on your CV, a reference from your flat mate with a third class degree in media studies, or a hand written reference letter from Stephen Hawking? Do we have to go on?
There are other factors
As we mentioned earlier, these descriptions are broad strokes but hopefully useful in getting an overarching view of SEO. There are a lot of other factors that go into it and for continuous campaigns you could rightly argue that analytics provides a fourth pillar that facilitates constant improvement. However, as a basic overview onsite optimisation, content creation and link building will account for a lot of the work that goes into a campaign.
Avoiding Black Hat SEO
Finally, it is important to address the elephant in the room. The SEO industry has been plagued by what is known as ‘Black Hat SEO’. Conversely, above board SEO is known as ‘White Hat SEO’.
Essentially Black Hat SEOs use manipulative techniques that are either frowned upon or outright banned by Google. More often than not these techniques do not factor in relevance or value. Instead, they find a loophole and exploit it. They are doing it purely to manipulate the search results, rather than earning the top spots by focussing on value for the user.
Google and other search engines hate Black Hat (a.k.a spammy) SEO. After all, if their websites get to the top they are likely to offer a worse user experience for searchers which then reflects badly on said search engine. As such, search engines actively penalise these spammers by either demoting them in the SERPS or, if they have been really bad, removing them entirely from their index (it’s called being de-indexed) so that their website does not appear anywhere in the results pages.
We would strongly advise against embarking upon this manipulative and spammy road.
Well that’s a bit of a pessimistic end – but hopefully this gives you an easy to understand overview of search engine optimisation!