Despite the abbreviation, SEO is as much about people as it is about search engines. It all comes down to finding out what people want on the internet, what answers they want, what words they use, and what kind of content they want to consume. Knowing the answers to these questions will help you interact with people who are looking for the solutions you have on the internet.
If interpreting the audience’s context is one side of the SEO coin, the other is expressing it in a way that search engine crawlers can find and understand. Expect to learn how to do both in this guide.
Search engine basics
Search engines are automated response systems. They sift through billions of pieces of content and weigh thousands of factors to see which ones are most likely to answer your question.
All of this is accomplished by search engines finding and cataloging all available content on the Internet (web pages, PDFs, photographs, videos, and so on) through a method known as “crawling and indexing,” and then rating it based on how well it fits the query.
Which search results are “organic”?
As previously mentioned, organic search results are those that are earned by successful SEO rather than those that are purchased (i.e. not advertising). This used to be easy to spot since the advertisements were clearly labelled as such, and the remaining results were usually identified below them as “10 blue links.” But, given how search has evolved, how do we now identify organic results?
Today’s search engine results pages (also known as “SERPs”) are jam-packed with more ads and dynamic organic results formats (referred to as “SERP features”) than ever before. It’s important to note that search engines rely on ads to make money. Their aim is to better answer searchers’ questions (within SERPs), keep them coming back, and keep them on the SERPs for longer.
Some Google SERP features are organic and can be influenced by SEO. Featured snippets (an organic outcome that shows an answer inside a box) and related questions are examples (a.k.a. “People Also Ask” boxes).
It’s worth noting that there are many other search features that, even though they aren’t paid advertising, can’t typically be influenced by SEO.
Why SEO is important
Paid advertisements, social media, and other online platforms can all help drive traffic to websites, but search engines still account for the vast majority of online traffic. Organic search results take up more digital real estate, seem more trustworthy to savvy searchers, and receive significantly more clicks than paid advertisements. Just 2.8 percent of people in the United States click on paid ads, for example.
In a nutshell, on both mobile and desktop, SEO has a 20X higher traffic potential than PPC.
SEO is also one of the few online marketing platforms that, when done correctly, will pay off in the long run. Your traffic will snowball over time if you provide quality content that deserves to rank for the right keywords, while advertising requires ongoing funding to send traffic to your site.
Search engines still need our help
Optimizing your site will help deliver better information to search engines, allowing your content to be adequately indexed and displayed within search results.
Should I hire an SEO professional, consultant, or agency?
Depending on your bandwidth, willingness to learn, and the complexity of your website(s), you could perform some basic SEO yourself. Alternatively, you can discover that you prefer the assistance of a professional.
If you do decide to seek professional assistance, keep in mind that while many companies and consultants claim to provide SEO services, the quality of these services will vary greatly. Knowing how to pick a good SEO company will save you a lot of time and money, as using the wrong SEO methods will do more damage than good to your website.
White hat vs black hat SEO
“White hat SEO” refers to search engine optimization techniques, best practices, and tactics that follow search engine guidelines with the aim of providing more value to users.
“Black hat SEO” refers to search engine spamming and deception tactics and methods. Although black hat SEO can be efficient, it exposes websites to the risk of being penalized and/or de-indexed (being excluded from search results), as well as having ethical implications.
As a result of being penalized, businesses have gone bankrupt. It’s just another justification to choose an SEO expert or agency with caution.
Search engines share similar goals with the SEO industry
Search engines want to help you succeed. In fact, Google even has a Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide. They’re also quite supportive of efforts by the SEO community.
Google assists webmasters and SEOs through their Webmaster Central Help Forum and by hosting live office hour hangouts. While webmaster guidelines vary from search engine to search engine, the underlying principles stay the same: Don’t try to trick search engines. Instead, provide your visitors with a great online experience. To do that, follow search engine guidelines and fulfill user intent.
Google Webmaster Guidelines
- Make pages primarily for users, not search engines.
- Don’t deceive your users.
- Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
- Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging.
Things to avoid:
- Automatically generated content
- Participating in link schemes
- Creating pages with little or no original content (i.e. copied from somewhere else)
- Cloaking — the practice of showing search engine crawlers different content than visitors.
- Hidden text and links
- Doorway pages — pages created to rank well for specific searches to funnel traffic to your website.
Know your website/client’s goals
Every website is unique, so take the time to learn about the business goals of each one. This will not only assist you in determining which aspects of SEO to concentrate on, where to monitor conversions, and how to set benchmarks, but it will also assist you in developing talking points for negotiating SEO ventures with customers, bosses, and other stakeholders.
What will your KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) be to measure the return on SEO investment? More simply, what is your barometer to measure the success of your organic search efforts? You’ll want to have it documented, even if it’s this simple:
For the website ____________, my primary SEO KPI is ____________.
Here are a few common KPIs to get you started:
- Email signups
- Contact form submissions
- Phone calls
You may have noticed that terms like “ranking” and “traffic” were not included in the KPIs list, and this was done on purpose. SEO will help your website rank higher in search results, resulting in more traffic; however, ranking and traffic are merely a means to an end. There’s no point in ranking if no one visits your site, and there’s no point in the traffic if that traffic isn’t helping you achieve a greater business goal.
Before embarking on SEO, make sure you’ve laid out your business goals, then use SEO to help you accomplish them — not the other way around. SEO accomplishes so much more than vanity metrics. When done well, it helps real businesses achieve real goals for their success.
Image from Canva.