S.E.O. Is An Acronym For ‘Search Engine Optimisation’
SEO is essentially a constantly evolving study of what factors the search engines take into account when they ‘rank’ you in their natural search listings.
‘Natural’ search listings are the main lists of results that come up when you search for something. These do not include the paid listings. In a typical Google or Bing search, you can see the paid listings in the right column and in the yellow box at the top. The ‘natural’ listings are straight from the main index, and show sites listed in the order of importance and relevance – according to their algorithm.
Obviously, we want to be as high up the page(s) as possible. If we’re the 7th listing on page 9 then we’re hardly going to get prospects beating our door down!
No-one knows all the factors that Search Engines (SE’s) use to determine your rank. The SE’s really don’t want anyone to know – so you can’t manipulate or ‘game’ their system. So, over the years a complete industry has grown up around this; on the one side you have SE’s like Google deliberately filing multiple technology patents across many different areas – and causing mass confusion and disinformation over which methods they use for ratings, and on the other side an SEO industry which uses empirical testing and measuring of various factors to try and determine which ones are the most important.
There are essentially two sides to SEO: ‘On-Page‘ factors & ‘Off-Page‘ factors. There are also ‘off-web’ factors such as demographic and geographic information – but we have no control over this area.
…is all about changes you can make directly to a site to make it more Search Engine ‘friendly’. This is the easy part and involves correctly setting up internal-linking, using appropriate Page Titles & ‘Header’ tags, including your keywords in the right places, and to some lesser degree, using meta-tags. If all that is complete double-dutch to you, then don’t worry – you’re not alone!
The bottom-line though, is that while it is the easiest to control, it has the LEAST affect on your ranking. (At least, not until the ‘Off-Page’ factors have been addressed properly.) Originally, you used to be able to dupe the SE’s with lots of on-page ‘cheating’ – but those methods ceased working many years ago.
‘On-page’ factors become important when you have taken care of ‘off-page’ and have a lot of inbound ‘back-links’ to create some authority and ranking value. At that point, careful tweaking of on-page factors and internal linking can yield some excellent results.
IMPORTANT NOTE: It should really be pointed out that the term ‘SEO’ came about in those early days, when it really was ‘optimisation’ of sites to increase your ranking. Nowadays, the SEO term is basically out-dated, and somewhat misleading. It really should be something more accurate like SERM, or Search Engine Ranking Manipulation, as this is the honest truth of what happens now. Since the vast majority of what needs to be done to obtain rankings has very little to do with your site, it’s really about manipulating and creating external factors to affect the SE’s ranking algorithms. But everyone chooses to stick to the more ‘palatable’ SEO phrase; as it sounds much less invasive!
Off-Page SEO: (Which is mostly link-building)…
…is what’s really important. Imagine it as a ‘voting’ system. If another site places a link to your site then that site has given you a vote of confidence. They’re saying, “Look at them – they’ve got something interesting to say…”
The link to your site has two main parts – the actual URL or web address of the page they are pointing someone to, and the ‘anchor text‘ or ‘keyword phrase’ that is highlighted on the web-page for you to click. (You often see this as the underlined and clickable ‘hyperlink’ on a web page.) This generates one ‘vote’ for a particular page on a web site based on that anchor text phrase, i.e. one vote towards this site appearing higher up in the natural listings when we type that phrase in the search box.
And doesn’t that make sense? Google wants to emulate what a real human being is looking for and would like to find. In a lot of ways it doesn’t matter what your page is ‘about’, if all the anchor text phrases that point to you say ‘yellow balloons’, then that’s often what you’ll rank for! That is the vote that is cast.
Now it’s not quite as simple as that (of course…) because the SE’s also use the page title and wording of the page being pointed at to correlate the results, (plus a whole bunch of other complex factors as well.)
But the essence of this shows that the single most important factor in SEO is lots of back-links from as many different sites as possible – with the ‘correct’ phrases used as anchor text (although there is a distinct need for variety and diversity, to avoid over-optimisation and incurring penalties.)
Picking the keyword phrases that you want to rate for is an art in itself, (and you should perform a lot of keyword and competitor research before putting any strategy into place), but the basic question is this:
What would a customer type in the search box in order to find your product or service?
…The answers to this question supply your anchor text keywords/phrases!
And these keyword phrases can’t be just randomly chosen without thought, investigation and testing. It’s so often the case that the phrase people expect is NOT what produces the most results.
Human beings are odd creatures and we all have our own ideas of how to find what we want. One person looking for a good night’s sleep might type in “Orthopaedic beds” or “New Mattress”, whereas another person may type in “I can’t sleep”.
Would you really want to trust your marketing to vague ideas and feelings about what ‘might’ be typed in?
The importance of the investigation, testing and measuring of these phrases cannot be underestimated – they are absolutely key to the volume of enquiries and sales you can make via the web. An analogy could be drawn with a listing in the Yellow Pages. If you are a Plumber and you’re listed under Stationary Providers, you won’t get very much business!
So Where Do We Start?
First, we don’t use phrases that yield millions and millions of results – and which are highly competitive.
In a search for ‘Car Insurance’ on Google in the UK, you would find around 500 million results. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to try and compete with 500 million other pages when I’m just starting out!
But… If I typed in “Southampton Car Insurance” (assuming I was a car insurance provider in/for Southampton) – then there are only around 2 million results. A big number still it seems – but actually a much more reasonable number when it comes to web searches.
I would have a far better chance of getting ranked for that phrase quickly than I would for just ‘car insurance’. In fact, if I wanted to rate for phrases like ‘Car Insurance’ it would probably take years and some seriously deep pockets, as I would be competing with the insurance giants – not a wise choice at all!
Therefore, we’re ideally looking for phrases that yield less overall results – but quite accurately sum up what we do or the product/service we offer…
…In the industry, we often call these ‘long-tail’ searches – they contain multiple keywords and return less competitive results than primary keyword searches. Depending on how competitive your market is, the phrases could be from 2 to 7 words long. Typically they will be 3 or 4 words long. But, the term ‘long tail’ has nothing really to do with the length of the keyword phrase; it relates purely to it’s search competitiveness.
We normally recommend performing SEO on phrases that return no more than 100,000 to 1 million results at the start. And ideally we should be doing in-depth research on the 1st 10 Google results for this search, (the first page,) to ensure that we’re not competing with other sites/pages that are going to be impossible to out-rank in the early stages (like a large insurance company for example!)
We look at factors like Google PageRank, site age and size, the number of back-links built to that specific page and the entire domain, on-page keyword optimisation for your phrase, and the list goes on... But there are plenty of sites that will teach you the rudimentaries of keyword research and market analysis.
Then, as we build back-links, we will automatically start to gain some ground on the ‘bigger/primary’ search phrases. And if we put in enough effort, we can go after those phrases in 6-12 months. But often, the ‘bigger’ phrases are not particularly focused, because…
We’re Also Looking For Phrases That Demonstrate ‘Commercial Intent’
We don’t usually want search phrases that are purely for research or information gathering purposes. ‘Commercial Intent’ means they are phrases that indicate someone is looking to make a purchase or request further information; i.e. generate a lead, enquiry or sale for us.
If you compare the searches: “golf clubs” and “buy wilson golf clubs in southampton”, you can clearly see that the first will be much harder to rank for, has multiple meanings (‘clubs’ could mean the place where you play – as well as what you whack the ball with!) and is probably more research oriented. The second phrase is clearly someone looking to purchase locally, and will be much easier to rank for – and more likely to yield some kind of profit.
The Current ‘State’ Of SEO
These are the fundamentals of what we’re trying to achieve when we say ‘SEO’. The actual techniques we use and the application of those techniques is a constantly changing game of ‘cat & mouse’ with the SE’s. And every month/year that passes, they move the goal-posts and change the details of the rules. The fundamentals essentially stay the same, but every change generally requires a finer and finer distinction of how you apply your techniques.
SEO used to be quite a ‘simple’ thing to grasp and apply, probably up until 2009/2010. Now, the major SE’s like Google are spending many millions of dollars to disinform, confuse and mess with the natural search results, as they obviously want businesses to use PPC so they can earn their billions of dollars of annual advertising revenue.
Many people now feel that the quality of the returned results has been adversely affected, as Google in particular continues to try and stop what it considers to be ‘spam’. A situation that they have effectively brought about upon themselves, due to their continual updates that require businesses to produce more and more superfluous content – just to satisfy the SE’s needs. Without fresh and continually updated content, Google’s algorithm doesn’t always recognise a sites ‘value’; and so as business people we’re required to add more and more, even though we’re essentially adding no extra value to our sites or the web as a whole.
Link-building is the same… They’ve created a commercial situation where businesses have no choice but to build and disseminate more and more content and links, so that they can be found in the natural results. But all the while, their Terms of Service (TOS) advises us that any links we build for the purposes of increased rankings are not allowed.
As business people, we’re therefore in the ridiculous situation whereby we have to break Google’s TOS just to market our companies in any kind of commercial way. Google claims that ‘white-hat’ link-building is allowed; but by definition this only allows the creation of links that are created as a side-effect of disseminating content for entirely altruistic and non-commercial purposes. Or links that are attained by some other site placing a completely spontaneous and non-commercially agreed link back to one of our sites. You can imagine how long it would take for a business to ‘rank’ using these methods!
This leaves us with only one commercial option, and I personally don’t subscribe to the whole white/grey/black ‘hat’ classification system…
Our SEO needs to be as aggressive as our market-place and keywords dictate.
…If your market is an ultra-competitive one, then the only way you’ll ever rank is through aggressive ‘black-hat’ style link-spamming techniques. But for most of us, we can comfortably sit in the middle-ground of ‘commercial grey-hat’ link-building. We can and should do this ethically of course; the only ‘rules’ we’re breaking are Google’s TOS; which I personally don’t feel any qualms about!
But you should be under NO illusions, that whatever route you take with any kind of scaled ‘commercial’ link-building and SEO, you’re outside of Google’s rule-book. This requires that we take responsibility for our on-line ‘assets’ and protect ourselves with as much diversity and tiered ‘web-estate’ as possible.
See you inside…