The Introduction to the Introduction
This post explores the elements of executing effective Search Engine Optimization. This series doesn’t aim to provide you with any “secrets” to ranking high in the search results, nor will executing every step contained herein guarantee you’ll rank above your competitors.
Think of this as a reference guide, not a manual. It’s a conversation with a chef, not a cook book.
Ask 20 Search Marketers to define SEO and you’ll get 20 different answers.
Search Engine Optimization is the process of creating or updating a website to improve the site’s ranking in organic search results, with the objective of increasing the volume of quality traffic. This must be done on-page (site architecture, link structure, content, keywords, title tags, etc.) and off page (link building.)
The most important word in that definition is “process.” SEO is an evolving marketing school of thought; a science and an art. SEO isn’t something you do once, it’s an ongoing series of small adjustments that don’t amount to much individually, but when combined with other optimizations can have a marked impact on both user experience and performance in organic search results.
SEO requires Time + Education + Resources
A Necessary Clarification between SEO and SEM
Be careful not to confuse Search Engine Optimization (SEO) with Search Engine Marketing (SEM.) Search Engine Marketing is an umbrella term that encompasses both SEO and Paid Search Advertising.
SEM = A form of internet marketing that seeks to promote websites in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) via both non-paid/natural methods (Search Engine Optimization) and paid methods (paid placement, contextual advertising and paid inclusion.) SEM can also be an acronym for Search Engine Marketer, or someone who performs SEM.
SEO = The branch of SEM that deals only with non-paid/organic/natural/algorithmic search rankings. Again, SEO is the process of creating or updating a website to improve the site’s ranking in organic search results, with the objective of increasing the volume of quality traffic. This must be done on-page (site architecture, link structure, content, keywords, title tags, etc.) and off page (link building.) SEO can also be an acronym for Search Engine Optimizer, or someone who performs SEO. While SEO is more time consuming and requires more upfront effort, it’s the most cost-effective method of SEM.
Paid Search Advertising = The branch of SEM that deals only with paid advertising, also known as Pay Per Click advertising. Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) display these relevant text ads that link to a company page when a search engine user types in a specific word or phrase. A fee is charged every time a link is clicked, with the bid price, Click Through Rate (CTR) and Quality Score mainly determining its position. Paid Search Advertising may involve advertising through a content network of third-party sites. Google generates about $5 billion in paid search advertising revenue every quarter.
The following image of a Search Engine Results Page (SERP) highlights the difference between SEO and SEM. The Yellow zone displays the free/organic/natural/algorithmic listings from SEO, and the Green zone displays the sponsored/paid listings from SEM.
While SEO is an art and a science, paid advertising is much like an eBay auction. With paid advertising, the higher your budget the more keywords you can target and the higher they’ll rank. With SEO, quality content and links win, not budget. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a mom and pop hardware store or a conglomerate with a $1 Million advertising budget; you can level the playing field if you execute effective SEO.
Now look at this next image. 86% of the clicks on a Search Engine Results Page are made on the organic listings produced by SEO, and only 14% of the clicks are made on paid search listings produced by SEM (Source: Beussery.) The top 2 organic search listings get 60% of the traffic. If you aren’t engaging in SEO or aren’t ranking highly in the SERPs, how much traffic are you missing out on?
The Value of Search Engine Optimization
Searchers are active shoppers:
37% of people have an incentive to buy when they search online. Of those people, 56% are conducting a local search; they’re looking to physically go to a local business. 80% of those people are going to call that resource, and 60% of those people are actually going to purchase that product online or in a store. (Source: Network Solutions)
These “active shoppers” come at a very low Cost Per Lead:
Search Engine Market Share:
Google has dominated the search engine market for the past decade, but now that Microsoft has relaunched and retooled MSN / Live Search as Bing, we may see the balance shift in the coming years. I may eat my words in the future, but I see Bing building most of it’s traffic from the Yahoo! market (Yahoo! is now powered by Bing) and I see it helping to euthanize Ask.com without taking much traffic away from Google.
Note: I’ll often use “Google” to refer to all search engines, but the vast majority of everything I say will hold true to the other major search engines as well. It’s like calling all soda “Coke” if you live in Mississippi. No, I’m not from Mississippi. I just drank a Coke there once. Or was it a Coke?
Here’s a snapshot of Search Engine market share as of August 2009:
To broaden the context, here’s a look at the Search Engine market share over the past 3 years:
So what do all these numbers and pretty pictures mean?
Okay, those last 3 pictures weren’t very pretty, but the point is this: if you engage in effective Search Engine Optimization and get your website ranking in the top few search results for certain targeted keywords (more on keywords in Step 3,) then you create the potential to drive a higher volume of highly qualified visitors to your site. What happens when they get to your site depends on your service offerings, content quality, call to action, and web design more than anything else, but you’ve tackled the first step: getting your product/service in front prospects.
Despite the seemingly obvious benefits of SEO, only 17% of small businesses have an articulated online marketing plan, and 83% of website owners have the mentality “if I build it, they will come.” (Source: Network Solutions.) Wake up. If you market it, they will come.
Not engaging in SEO? Let’s put down some real numbers and calculate your missed opportunity for not ranking well in SERPs for your products and services:
We’ll calculate the # of people searching for your targeted keyword X that search engine’s market share X expected Click-Through-Rate (CTR) X average conversion rate X average transaction amount…
E.g.: 10,000 searches/day X 70% Google market share X 10% CTR X 5% conversion rate X $100 transaction amount = $3,500/day or around $1,280,000/year. Get it now?
Assuming you now have a basic understanding of what Search Engine Optimization is and why there’s huge value in it, let’s dig deeper…
How does Google Decide What Web Pages Rank the Highest?
The basic formula for search algorithms is this:
Relevance + Popularity + Trust = Healthy Search Engine Rankings
If your content (words on a web page) is relevant to a keyword (a word or phrase someone is searching for) and Google considers your web page to be popular (measured by inbound links to that page) and Google trusts your website (link weight, domain age, etc.) then you’re on the right track.
Relevance (aka Document Analysis) = The degree to which the content of a web page (document) returned in a search match the user’s search terms. Relevance increases if the search term appears multiple times on a page, particularly if it appears in the title of the page or heading tags (H1, H2, H3.)
Popularity (aka Link Analysis) = The relative importance of a web page determined by the number of links to that page from elsewhere on the web. Popularity increases with every new link. Search Engines measure not only who is linking to a certain site or page and how many links exist, but what the referring web pages say about that page (anchor text.)
Trust = The relative value of links and content. As we discussed with Popularity, the more websites that link to your content the more popular your content is determined to be. Well, if those links come from web sites that are popular themselves, then that “link juice” is more highly concentrated. E.g. just because I say you’re a rockstar employee doesn’t mean squat. If your CEO mentions it in a press release, it holds a little more weight, right? Links from trusted institutions a la education sites (.edu) or government sites (.gov) hold very high weight, as well as links from well-respected sites like NYTimes.com or WSJ.com. On the opposite side of the spectrum, if most of your inbound links come from 1-to-1 link exchanges, affiliate links, or sites that can’t be trusted (link farms and spam sites,) those links can hurt your trust factor.
All of this information is weighted in search engine algorithms that determine the positioning of every result in the SERPs. We’ll dig deeper into the weight and value of links (and things like PageRank) in Step 6: Link Building.
Content is King
I’m going to try to drill this into your head. Content is King. Quality content. I don’t care how high you want to rank in the SERPs, you should only rank as high as you deserve to rank. This can be a hard pill to swallow for people and companies new to SEO who just want to get to the top of the SERPs as quickly as possible without spending the time and effort to get there. If you want to take the easy route, forget SEO and go run an AdWords campaign. But remember, with a sponsored ad you’ll only be getting 14% of the traffic on any given Search Engine Results Page and you’ll be paying for every click. Trust me, SEO is worth the time and effort, you just have to be patient and play by the rules.
Nothing matters more, and nothing will affect your ranking more, than the quality of content on your website. Even if you have a staggering amount of links to a given page on your site, that page won’t rank high in search results unless the content on that page is 1) original 2) desirable and most importantly 3) contains keywords a consumer would enter in a related search.
Ignore Everything I say, Because Everything Changes
Well, kind of. Everything I say is relevant as of right now. Will it be relevant next month? Who knows. Algorithms change, keywords change, customers change, search behavior changes and strategies change. Many of the SEO principles that held true 10 years ago still hold true today, but MUCH has changed over the years, and things continue to change every few weeks and months.
Google updates its search algorithm more often than we know – every few months? – but this month Google gave us a rare glimpse to explore the latest release of their search algorithm (project name Caffeine) using a sandbox developer preview. The User Interface (UI) remains the same, but Google has done some work under the hood. You can try out Caffeine here, go to FaceSaerch.com/caffeine to see side-by-side results between the new and old Google, or just look at the image below to see how changing the search algorithm affects the SERPs. It’s nothing HUGE, but it would appear most sites ranked outside of the top 2 or 3 will experience a slight shift in ranking once Caffeine goes live, even if only by a ranking or two. My point? You can spend a year busting your butt and get the #1 ranking for a keyword, only to have the algorithm change and have Google bump you down a notch or two, event if nothing changes on your site. Again, SEO is a process. Keep on truckin’.
Note: Don’t ask me why the first thing I thought to Google was “Eggnog”… in August. I have no idea.
Search Engine Spiders
Search engines view web pages very differently than you or I do. The best way to describe it is to think of how a visually impaired person would process a website. They wouldn’t see your design or logo or branding or images, they’d only be able to read the copy on your website via screen-reading software. Search engine spiders/robots are computer programs (e.g. “GoogleBot”) that methodically browse/crawl/spider the internet. The spiders start with a seed list of URLs to visit, identify all the hyperlinks on those pages, and then add those links to a list of URLs to visit next. The information is then indexed into the search engines, and after running through the search engine algorithms, the links are displayed and ranked accordingly in relevant search results. Every search engine has its own spider.
If you want to play around with how search engine spiders view web pages, then use Yellowpipe’s LynxViewer tool and check it out for yourself.
Knowing how spiders process the information on a web page is exceedingly important to SEO. E.g. spiders can’t view images, so we use “alt tags” to describe what an image depicts. More on that later.
For now, just be aware of the major things that can confuse or kill a spider when it crawls your website. I’ll explore each of these further in later sessions, but this should help you get an idea of how spiders relate to SEO and help to raise any red flags for problems that will need to be addressed.
Things that will confuse a spider:
- URLs with 2+ dynamic parameters; e.g. http://www.thedailyanchor.com/page.php?id=4&CK=34rr&User=%Tom% (complex URLs like these often result in errors with non-human visitors, so spiders may be reluctant to crawl them.)
- Pages with more than 100 unique links to other pages on the site (spiders may not follow each link.)
- Pages buried more than 3 clicks/links from the home page of a website (spiders will often ignore deep pages unless there are many other external links pointing to the site.)
- Pages requiring a “Session ID” or Cookie to enable navigation (spiders may not be able to retain these elements as a browser user can.)
- Pages that are split into “frames” can hinder crawling and cause confusion about which pages to rank in the results.
Things that will kill a spider:
- Pages accessible only via a select form and submit button (spiders can’t exactly enter their contact info + click enter.)
- Documents accessible only via a search box (spiders aren’t omniscient.)
- Documents blocked purposefully (via a robots meta tag or robots.txt file – we’ll discuss these later.)
- Pages requiring a login.
- Pages that re-direct before showing content (search engines call this cloaking or bait-and-switch and may actually ban sites that use this tactic.)
- Having an excessively slow page load time. A few seconds won’t make a difference, but if it takes 20 seconds for your site to load the spider may bounce. They’re kind of a big deal.
The best way to ensure your content is fully crawlable is to provide direct HTML links to every page you want the spiders to index. In general, if a page can’t be accessed within a few clicks of the home page, it likely won’t be accessed by the search engines. Later on we’ll discuss site maps and how they can be a lifesaver in this area.
Don’t be Evil
This is Google’s self-professed mantra. In general, if you aren’t trying to pull a fast one on the search engine spiders and are offering relevant, high-quality content, you won’t have to worry about being penalized or blacklisted by a search engine.
- Avoid duplicate content. If you have a product page that can be accessed by multiple URLs, you’re in for it. Spiders interpret this as you having the same content in multiple places. When spiders start seeing duplicate content, they’ll bounce.
- Don’t copy content from other websites. If search engines don’t like finding your own duplicate content on your site, how do you think they feel about you plagiarizing other people’s content?
- Don’t link to “bad neighborhoods.” If you’re sending traffic to known spam sites, Google might take that association a step further than you’d like. You are the company you keep.
- Don’t try to hide images (tiny 1 x 1 pixel images) or text (making words the same color as the background) on your site. Doing things like hiding paragraphs of keywords in your footer that are the same color as your background – essentially making them invisible – was huge (and often successful) pre 1998. It’s 2009. Don’t do it.
Don’t be Stupid
- Before you go changing your URLs, learn about 301 redirects. You’ll need to create a redirect any time you kill a URL.
- Don’t confuse 301 redirects with 302 redirects. Matt Cutts – the head of Google’s webspam team – can bring you up to speed.
- Don’t build your site entirely in Flash. While engines are now able to index Flash, Flash sites contain no architectural framework and no individual pages can rank for keywords, only the site as a whole. Flash can work when embedded in small doses, but sites made entirely in Flash are to SEO what oil is to water.
- Don’t use the same Title tags for every page on your site.
- Frames (displaying multiple small pages on a single page.) There is absolutely no legitimate reason to use frames on your website, and since it makes it hard to deep link to content and can only hurt you, don’t do it.
- Plan on going out of business in the next 12 months? Didn’t think so. Register your domain for 5+ years. Google may penalize sites if they’re set to expire in the near future. This applies mostly to newly registered sites (Spammers like to register a domain, launch barrages of spam from it, and ditch it.)
Don’t be a Sucker
Any “Search Marketer” who promises to get your site to such-and-such a rank on a Search Engine Results Page is trying to pull one over on you. So is anyone who guarantees they can get you ranking well within a certain time frame. Even if they were able to follow through on their promise, your website would be on a fast-track toward getting penalized by the search engines. If you’re lucky the search engines will dish out a simple ranking penalty for a certain period of time that will knock all of your links down 30 or 50 results, but what do you think the Click Through Rate is on the 4th result on the THIRD page of the SERPs? Not very high. If you’ve been really really bad, then Google may remove all your web pages from their index, and it can take over 1 year + a confession + an apology (no kidding) to get re-listed.
Remember the most important word in the definition of SEO? Process. SEO is a process. Try to cut corners and you’ll get burned.
The Conclusion to the Introduction
There you have it folks. A high-level introduction to Search Engine Optimization. In the next installment we’ll discuss how to perform The Ultimate SEO Audit. Look for it next week. From there we’ll dig into Keyword Research, Site Architecture, Content Writing, Link Building, Measuring Success, Generating Buzz, and SEO Maintenance.
Questions? Care to add your own 2 cents? Leave a comment below and impart your wisdom.
Have a rocking weekend, all, and remember: Don’t be Evil.
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