What is SEO?
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation. It's the process of increasing the quality and quantity of "organic" (or free) traffic to your website from major search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo; their search results rank web pages based on an assessment of many quality factors, including their relevance to a user's query.
Let's explain how that works in practice...
Welcome to the exciting world of SEO and digital marketing!
So you’ve got a website – you and a billion others! The problem facing most website owners is being discovered, standing out from the crowd.
- What makes your website the “go to” place?
- How do you persuade Google to show your site in their search results?
- How do you target the visitors that are right for your business?
- Do users have a satisfying experience when they visit your website?
- How can you improve a website that isn’t ranking well?
So many questions! By understanding a little about SEO, you can find the answers so you can make changes to improve your website’s performance. If that seems like something you’re just not interested in, think again. Latest figures (from 2016) showed that globally, 3.4 billion people have access to the internet. More than ever, users are looking for products and services online, so it's essential they can find your business.
This beginner’s guide will help you understand the principles of SEO and how it can help your website. To understand it a little better, first we need to take a very quick look at where it came from.
The bad 'ole days
Back at the dawn of time – around 1994 – the early search engines were born. In those days, some search listings were compiled and edited by humans, but this quickly became too much to handle and automated search bots took over. It wasn’t an ideal situation; activity on the internet rapidly exploded as savvy marketers saw the opportunities and jumped on board, but search engines struggled to tell the difference between a good website and a bad one back then.
With little regulation and almost unlimited opportunity for evil-doers to manipulate and dominate search results, the internet quickly became rife with poor quality, spam-riddled websites. Many of these did little or nothing to provide visitors with the information they were looking for.
Can you guess what these black-hatted, evil-doing webmasters called their manipulating methods?
Search Engine Optimisation. Yep, SEO had a pretty bad rep in those days.
Google – the gun-slinging sheriff of search
But that was then and this is now and to cut a long story short, along came Google.
Google got smart pretty quickly. It realised early on that the most popular search engine in the world would be the one that gave users the most relevant, informative and trusted search results. At which point Google strapped on its six-shooters and began to run those black-hatted SEO varmints right outta Dodge.
And that’s about the time SEO had to change. Drastically.
SEO in the 21st Century
Today, website owners ignore Google’s guidelines at their peril. Google’s stated mission is
"…to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful."
That’s a pretty tall order, but Google is delivering on that promise, using complex algorithms and over 200 ranking signals to find the best possible web pages to match a user’s search query. Along the way, it’s penalising those sites, stuck in the bad 'ole days, which are still using “black hat” tactics to cheat their way to the top.
So how does SEO work today?
Google isn’t giving away all its secrets, but we know some of the strong influences they use to rank websites from their webmaster guidelines. Here are some of the major elements you'll need to pay attention to if you want your website to perform well in search results.
Are your web pages a good match to users' search queries? Sounds obvious, but here's a basic example: you don't want search results to show your website in response to a query for "divorce solicitor" if you're a solicitor who specialises in property disputes.
Before you write a single line of text on your site, a thorough understanding of your targeted visitors is needed.
- What language do they use when searching?
- What questions do they have?
- What are their problems?
- What are their interests?
- If you sell a product, what’s trending right now?
- Can you spot an emerging trend?
Keyword research is the cornerstone of good SEO. It provides many of the answers to these questions and can help you create a website that will be a better match for many users’ searches.
Here's the thing about human nature: we just can’t resist sharing things we find useful, interesting or funny. That’s particularly true since we all got online. The diverse culture of websites, social media and blogging makes sharing so easy.
The links that result from all this sharing – links to the content on your website, perhaps – are very important because search engines view them as endorsements.
Logically then, plenty of endorsements (links) must mean that your website is pretty darn good. Your site has what's known as “authority”. So links are an important factor when search engines rank your site.
I’m going to add an important qualifier to this: quality beats quantity. These days, sheer volume of links is not the path to an authoritative website. There are good quality links and low quality links and I don’t need to spell out which ones are going to do you the most good. A link from a website which itself has trust and authority is worth more to you.
That said, we don't always have control over who is linking to our websites (unless you're engaging in shady link-building schemes, in which case expect your website to be penalised). But that's natural - Google expects to see a diverse profile of links and would be just as suspicious of a site that only had top quality links as it would of a site where all the links were of dubious origin.
Freshness and uniqueness
Just like people, search engines quickly learn not to bother re-visiting websites if they always see the same thing. And given Google’s commitment to provide the most useful search results to users, a stale website is less likely to rank well than a site which is constantly updated to satisfy its visitors. So find some way to add fresh content to your site on a regular basis. Blogs and news updates are good for this, but it could be new products, customer reviews, product reviews, videos, image galleries, tutorials or discussion forums...your imagination is your only limit.
Uniqueness is another factor that matters to Google. Making the effort to create original, useful content for your website will pay dividends, so find a fresh angle for a topic that’s been covered to death already.
Conversely, Google is as sick as everyone else of seeing the same old articles re-hashed in a hundred different places. Websites that constantly re-spin or blatantly copy other sites' content may find themselves penalised.
Search engines are scarily observant about what a person does when they visit your site; they use this information to decide how useful visitors find your website and work this into their ranking algorithm. Luckily, we can also analyse this information to make your website a better place.
- Does a person arrive on your site but leave quickly without looking at any other pages?
- How long do they stay?
- How many pages do they visit? And how long do they spend on each page?
- How much do they engage with the site (clicking links, leaving comments on posts, reviews on products, filling out forms, etc)?
All this and lots more tells Google if your website is really giving visitors a good time. If you're focusing on good design and layout, user-friendly navigation to help people find what they’re looking for and unique, targeted content that answers your visitors’ needs, the signals are all good.
There’s stuff going on behind the scenes of your website. Codey, techie stuff in strange, alien languages. Search engines and techie bods here at Kontrolit care passionately about it, but I’ll spare you the details. Suffice to say, it’s the building blocks of your website and if it’s not working properly, it could spell bad news.
Broken links, incorrect mark-up, canonical errors and more…it hinders a search engine from crawling your site and often affects your visitors’ experience too. There are SEO tools which can analyse sites for these problems.
You can never rest on your laurels, no matter how hard you work on your site. SEO involves paying attention to your web stats to make sure things are going in the right direction. Detect potential problems before they become a more serious issue.
Sometimes it’s not so much that you’re doing anything wrong; your online competitors might just start to do more things right and you need to up your own game. Or Google tweaks an algorithm which has a detrimental effect and you need to identify the problem and address that.
Search engine optimisation is a hugely rewarding process when you see a website performing better. If you follow Google’s guiding principles you won’t go far wrong. But it has to be stressed:
It takes time
SEO often takes months to see any noticeable return on your hard work and investment, especially if there's been a period of neglect or unapproved SEO activity to overcome. Don’t be disheartened. Keep improving your website and it will pay off over time.
White hat will win the day
Black hat operators are still out there, but they are gradually being smacked down by search engines. Sites which have previously prospered using shady methods are finding their rankings slashed and visitor numbers decimated. Don’t be tempted to use such methods yourself for short-term gains – it’s honestly not worth the risk.
It’s not an exact science
As mentioned earlier, whilst Google issues plenty of guidelines for webmasters, it plays its cards close to its chest about exactly how its algorithms work to avoid manipulation. Always follow “best practice” in your SEO campaigns, but be prepared to learn from experience and adapt to change because SEO doesn’t stand still for long.
It’s an ongoing effort
I sometimes hear people say things like, "We just need a quick bit of SEO on our website". That steam you see coming out of my ears? Just ignore it. But I can't emphasise enough that your website needs regular attention if you want it to perform well.
- Creating fresh content and link building should be an ongoing effort
- It’s worth doing fresh keyword research every now and again in case trends change over time
- Check your site regularly for technical problems which might affect visitors or search engines
- Analyse statistical reports to glean information about your rankings and your visitors.
You don't have to outsource all these tasks to an SEO professional if you have a little knowledge yourself - in fact, if you can write well you are in the best position to create fresh content for your site. All Kontrolit sites give owners access to their web stats, too, so you can learn to interpret the data yourself.
Kontrolit and SEO
Some elements of SEO can be technical and are best left to experts. Others you might be quite capable of managing and you’ll even enjoy being part of the process. If you have any doubts about handling things yourself, Kontrolit can offer the following SEO support:
- Technical assistance
- Keyword research
- On-site optimisation
- Link building
- Social media
- Report analysis
- SEO training