Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
SEO is fundamentally about making sure your website provides information people need. For most businesses, this means information about the problems they solve. Search engine optimization, or SEO, is the process of increasing your site position and page rank organically through quality backlinks and effective keywords. SEO is the most effective way to increase traffic to your website.
The purpose of SEO is to increase the quantity and quality of inbound traffic to your website. It is beneficial to both the consumer and business because it connects searchers with content that is most relevant to them. This means that consumers get the information they are looking for, while the business gets direct exposure to their desired target audience because they are providing useful information that helps the searcher make an informed decision during their consumer engagement cycle.
How it Works
What are search engines looking for?
Search engines try to provide the most relevant results to a searcher’s query, whether it’s a simple answer to the question “how old is Ryan Gosling?” (the answer of which Google will likely provide without you having to leave the SERP) to more complicated queries such as “what is the best steak restaurant nearest to me?”
How search engines provide these results is down to their own internal algorithms, which we’ll probably never truly determine, but there are factors that you can be certain will influence these results and they’re all based around relevancy… For instance: a searcher’s location, their search history, time of day/year, etc.
2) The quality of your content
Do you regularly publish helpful, useful articles, videos or other types of media that are popular and well produced? Do you write for actual human beings rather than the search engine itself? Well, you should. Latest research from Search metrics on ranking factors indicates that Google is moving further towards longer-form content that understands a visitor’s intention as a whole, instead of using keywords based on popular search queries to create content.
Basically, stop worrying about keywords and focus on the user experience.
3) User experience
There are many SEO benefits for providing the best possible user experience. You need an easily navigable, clearly searchable site with relevant internal linking and related content. All the stuff that keeps visitors on your webpage and hungry to explore further.
4) Site speed
How quickly your webpages load is increasingly becoming a differentiator for search engines. Google may soon start labelling results that are hosted on Accelerated Mobile Page (AMP) so this may possibly be the ‘mobile geddon’ of 2016. Speaking of which…
5) Cross-device compatibility
Is your website and its content equally optimized for any given screen size or device? Bear in mind that Google has stated that responsive design is its preferred method of mobile optimization.
6) Internal linking
We’ve talked about the benefits of ensuring your site has clear and easy-to-use navigation, but there’s also a practice that editors and writers can carry out when publishing articles to help push traffic around the site and that may lead to higher trust signals for Google: internal linking. (See what we did there.)
Internal linking has many advantages:
It provides your audience with further reading options. As long as they’re relevant and you use clear anchor text (the clickable highlighted words in any give link). This can help reduce your bounce rates.
It helps to improve your ranking for certain keywords. If we want this article to rank for the term ’SEO basics’ then we can begin linking to it from other posts using variations of similar anchor text. This tells Google that this post is relevant to people searching for ‘SEO basics’. Some experts recommend varying your anchor text pointing to the same page as Google may see multiple identical uses as ‘suspicious’.
It helps Google crawl and index your site. Those little Google bots that are sent out to fetch new information on your site will have a better idea of how useful and trustworthy your content is, the more they crawl your internal links.
An authority website is a site that is trusted by its users, the industry it operates in, other websites and search engines. Traditionally a link from an authority website is very valuable, as it’s seen as a vote of confidence. The more of these you have, and the higher quality content you produce, the more likely your own site will become an authority too.
However as the aforementioned Search metrics research suggests, year-on-year correlations between backlinks and rankings are decreasing, so perhaps over time ‘links’ may not be as important to SEO as we once thought.
There’s a good argument raging in the comments to this recent piece on links as a marketing KPI, which offers some diverse views on the subject.
8) Meta descriptions and title tags
Having a meta description won’t necessarily improve your ranking on the SERP, but it is something you should definitely use before publishing an article as it can help increase your chances of a searcher clicking on your result.
The meta description is the short paragraph of text that appears under your page’s URL in the search results, it’s also something you should have complete control of in your CMS.
Here it is in WordPress:
Write succinctly (under 156 characters is good), clearly and make sure it’s relevant to your headline and the content of the article itself.
There is more guidance found here: how to write meta descriptions for SEO.
Title tags are used to tell search engines and visitors what your site is about in the most concise and accurate way possible. The keywords in your title tag show up highlighted in search engine results (if the query uses those keywords), as well as in your browser tab and when sharing your site externally.
You can write your own title tag inside the <head> area of your site’s HTML:
You should use a few accurate keywords describing the page as well as your own brand name. Only use relevant keywords though, and the most important thing to consider is that although you are formatting for search engines, you should write for humans.
There is a lot more practical guidance to be found in our complete guide to title tags.
9) Schema markup
You can make your search results appear more attractive by adding Schema markup to the HTML of your pages. This can help turn your search results into a rich media playground, adding star-ratings, customer ratings, images, and various other bits of helpful info…
Schema is also the preferred method of markup by most search engines including Google, and it’s fairly straightforward to use. For more information, check out our handy guide to Schema.
10) Properly tagged images
Many people forget to include the alt attribute when they upload images to their content, but this is definitely something you shouldn’t overlook because Google cannot ‘see’ your images, but can ‘read’ the alt text.
By describing your image in the alt text as accurately as possible it will increase the chances of your images appearing in Google Image search.
It will also improve the accessibility of your site for people using ‘screen reader’ software.
11) Evergreen content
Instead of peppering the internet with a rash of ‘quick win’ news stories with little insight, why not publish more evergreen content.
More thoughtful, helpful and practical-advice based articles can lead to huge long-term wins in terms of driving traffic and occupying highly visible positions in the SERPs.
Here’s a guide to planning and creating evergreen content.
12) Domain names
You should use sub-directory root domains (searchenginewatch.com/category/seo) instead of sub-domains (searchenginewatch.category.seo.com) as this is better for your overall site architecture.
You should also stay away from hyphens (search-engine-watch.com) and alternative Top-level domain names (.biz .name .info) as these are considered spammy.
Having a ‘keyword rich’ domain name may lead to closer scrutiny from Google. According to Moz, Google has “de-prioritized sites with keyword-rich domains that aren’t otherwise high-quality. Having a keyword in your domain can still be beneficial, but it can also lead to closer scrutiny and a possible negative ranking effect from search engines—so tread carefully.”
Also you should make sure that if you operate a site without the www. prefix, someone who types in www.example.com will still be redirected to your site. If this isn’t happening, Google may assume these are two different sites and your visibility could be compromised.
13) Headlines and permalinks
The headlines for your articles should be under 55 characters to ensure their complete visibility in SERPs. Make sure they’re snappy, attractive and as descriptive as possible (this is often an impossible balance). Just stay away from clickbait headlines, do not promise something that the content doesn’t deliver.
The permalink (or URL), which you can normally alter in your CMS even after it’s been set automatically, doesn’t necessarily have to match the headline exactly. Google has stated that you can use three to four key words that you should put the most important keywords first.
Do not turn off your comments system. Having a thriving community of regular commenters engaging in dialogue under your posts shows that visitors care enough about your content to either make their own relevant points or to praise it or to ruthlessly eviscerate it. Either way, at least people are reading it.
Just be super-mindful about filtering out spam comments, or immediately removing any that slip through. It’s also worth adding the no follow value to your comments section so Google ignores any erroneous links that may appear.
15) Local SEO
Increasingly Google is serving results to users based on their location. This is particularly important to businesses out there in the real world who need to catch a searcher’s attention just at the right moment, i.e. while walking down the street, on their mobile and looking for somewhere to eat.
You should register with Google My Business and ensure that all of your information is accurate and up-to-date, such as opening times, contact information, customer reviews and that your categorised correctly.
The most obvious way that you can raise your site’s visibility through non-technical SEO means is of course through social media marketing.
You need to make sure you’re present on all relevant social channels (wherever your audience may be), and not just broadcasting your content in a faceless manner, but by using it as a customer service channel and genuinely interacting with people in a friendly, helpful and entertaining manner.
The actual correlation between social signals and search rankings is a much argued over subject, but here’s a good overview of the subject.
What does SEO stand for?
The acronym SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation.
What is SEO?
Put simply, SEO is a process that forms part of a digital marketing strategy that focuses on optimising a website to make it more visible in search engine results pages (i.e. in Google search results) with the goal of driving organic traffic to the website. Organic traffic is driven to a website from clicks on these search results.
Why is SEO important?
Organic traffic is natural in the sense that it is earned rather than paid for, but to be successful, you still need to invest a lot of time and resource in SEO. Search engines have got better at identifying the intent of search queries which makes choosing the right keywords to drive traffic even more important.
Why does SEO take time before you see the benefits?
SEO takes time because there is no longer an easy way to game the system. Search engine algorithms have become more and more advanced with an emphasis on delivering users the most relevant, and highest quality results based on their search query.
What are the most important Google ranking factors?
People often ask ‘how do I rank higher on Google?’ or ‘what affects SEO rankings?’
But only Google algorithms know exactly what factors determine how well a page ranks (how visible it is and what determines its position) in search results – in fact, there are reportedly over 200 ranking factors!
Because the way people search has changed, so has SEO. Search results are influenced by things like device, location, and a user’s search history, so what one user sees ranking in position one (the very first search result), another may see in position 5, and another may not see it on the first page at all! While rankings are a good barometer for how well a keyword is performing, it’s important to take these considerations into account.
So, with so many ranking factors, how do you prioritise what your SEO strategy should focus on? Luckily, there are some tried and tested best practices that are proven to influence rankings.
What are SEO best practices?
In general, there are a few important best practices to follow to be in with a chance of ranking well for your chosen keywords.
You might have heard people say ‘content is king’ when they talk about SEO, and in some respects, they are right. Quality content which contains your target keyword (and variations of it) and satisfies user intent is strongly correlated with better rankings.
But content alone won’t cut it. Backlinks (links that point from third-party domains back to your domain) are also an important ranking factor, but it’s the quality and relevancy of the link and the domain it’s linking from that counts, rather than number alone.
For example, if you sell seeds, one link from BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine in an in-depth article about the best tulip seeds would be more valuable than thousands of links published in the comments on low-quality blogs that have nothing to do with gardening.
Another big factor to consider is on-page optimisation. This involves making your website search engine friendly by using optimised meta content (title tags, meta descriptions) heading tags, and images.
Then there are technical considerations. Making sure a site has good architecture, through clear navigation and internal linking is important, not just for search engines, but for users, too.
What is on page SEO?
On-page SEO relates to any action taken on the website itself to improve performance. This includes:
Using optimised content that contains target keywords (including meta, headers, images)
Making sure that the site is accessible (can be crawled and indexed by search engines) and can be easily navigated by users
Using internal links (in menus, body copy, and breadcrumbs to aid navigation)
Ensuring that a website loads quickly
Keeping crawl errors to a minimum
Having a site that is optimized for mobile
Not having duplicate (same content on more than one page), or thin content (low word count), or making sure these pages cannot be accessed and indexed by search engines
Using clean, descriptive, static URLs with a structure that follows the same structure as the site (for example, if you have an online bookstore, www.bookzaregreat.com/ficton/horror/stephen-king would be a better URL than www.bookzaregreat.com/page21/.html
Why are keywords important?
Without the right keywords, you’ll really struggle to drive valuable traffic to a website!
However, choosing the right keywords can be difficult, especially if your business operates in a competitive niche. This is why keyword research is so important. Any SEO agency worth its salt will use multiple tools to identify target keywords, assess how competitive they are, and make suggestions of which pages target keywords should appear on.
Not all keywords are created equal. While a high volume, generic term like ‘books’ might seem like a good keyword if you sell books, realistically, it’s going to be very difficult to rank for a keyword like that, especially when you’re up against e-commerce giants like Amazon. ‘Buy books online’ might have lower search volume, but it’s far more relevant to your offering.
Now, ‘buy books online’ would be one of your ‘money’ terms (the search intent of the user is to purchase a book), but consider how many other searches users might make when researching what kind of book they want to buy.
This is where ‘long tail’ keywords come in. Made up of a number of keywords, often in a phrase or question, these keywords can be useful in driving traffic to deeper pages of your site, including FAQ pages, or a blog post. A good example of this would be ‘best selling horror books for 2019’ with all of your recommended books from this genre on a landing page, or a blog post ‘top 10 horror books’.
Why is site speed important?
How long would you wait for a website to load? 5 seconds? 3 seconds? Less?
When it comes to expectations for site speed, did you know that:
47% of people expect your site to load in less than 2 seconds
40% will abandon it entirely if it takes longer than 3 seconds
Most people have short attention spans when searching online, so it’s important to deliver the information they are looking for quickly. Not only is it important for users, but it’s also important to search engines, because they want to deliver high-quality search results – fast.
There is no point in ranking a site highly if users are clicking the result, waiting for 5 seconds for the page to load, and when it doesn’t, clicking straight back to search results. Low time on site and high bounce rates (when a user visits a site and leaves without visiting any other pages) sends signals that user experience is poor.
Plus, if your page load speed is really slow, search engines might not bother crawling and indexing some pages at all.
According to Google:
“Google will reduce the amount of crawlers it sends to your site if your server is slower than two seconds.”
This means that search engines are less likely to discover your latest landing pages, blog posts or other updates.
While shaving a few milliseconds off page load time isn’t going to make a huge amount of difference on a site that already loads quickly, doing what you can to make search engines increase crawl activity is always going to be positive.
Why is site structure important?
Websites should be designed in a way that has a clear hierarchy, both across the whole site and on individual landing pages. The most important page (usually the homepage) sits at the very top, followed by sub-pages (usually categories or service pages that can be navigated from the main menu) which may then have further sub-pages sat underneath also (product pages or sub-service pages).
A product page URL on a site with good structure might look like this:
The further away a page is in terms of clicks a user has to make to navigate to it from the homepage, the weaker these pages will be in terms of authority. This is why important pages should sit higher in the hierarchy and be easily navigated to via both the menu and internal linking.
By providing a clear path to navigate through a website, you’ll please both search engines and users.
Landing pages should also follow a structure. The heading structure can be used to highlight the most important keywords on your landing page. These headers should be nested semantically (h1, h2, h3, etc.) with only one h1 on the landing page. Headings should be used for this purpose and not styling fonts on a web page.
h1 h2 h3 markup in content
semantic heading markup in document outline
What is off page SEO?
Off page SEO primarily focuses on links.
Links are important for SEO, and probably always will be as they act as a signal that people are finding content interesting enough to vouch for by linking to it.
Amplifying content also falls under off page SEO. This means promoting content through other channels to encourage influencers, peers, publishers, or customers to share your content, or write about your content, with a link back to your site.
All links are not created equal. And good links are not easy to come by.
What is linkbuilding?
Linkbuilding is the process of actively seeking opportunities where a link back to your website could be placed. This could be:
A directory website (192.com, for example)
Local business directories (if you have a physical location)
An association you or your staff are members of (CIMA, if you are an accountant, for example)
Companies that you partner with (as a supplier or reseller, for example)
A blog post or guest article on a site in your niche
Press coverage on an industry news site
Coverage of research that your business has conducted on publisher sites in your niche
Local press coverage
Forums and Q&A sites
Linkbuilding used to be about quantity over quality – now the opposite is true. Linkbuilding takes a lot of time and planning to be done properly, and has become PR focused as more emphasis is now placed on creating high-quality content and sharing it with those who will find it interesting or noteworthy enough to link to.
Why are backlinks important?
Backlinks effectively pass authority from one website to another.
Page rank is a long-dead metric that used to indicate how ‘powerful’ a page or domain was, and therefore, how valuable a link would be. Since that’s been scrapped, many people now use Domain Authority as a guide. Domain Authority is a ‘search engine ranking score’ which is a ‘best guess’ number out of 100 calculated by Moz and is used to determine the quality of a website based on a huge number of signals including the number of links, and the quality of links that point to the domain.
The BBC News website is very authoritative. It is part of a well-known brand, uses trusted sources, is updated frequently, and has lots of visitors who engage with, and share their content on a daily basis.
With all of this in mind, a link back from the BBC News website would be considered a fantastic link. However, the chance of getting a link from the BBC News website is pretty slim!
The good news is it’s not just about the authority of the sites linking to you. Relevancy is also an incredibly important factor.
Using our totally made up online bookstore, www.bookzaregreat.com as an example, let’s imagine that they create a really good piece of content that helps people find out which Hairy Plopper squad they belong to. This ties in with the release of the complete box set.
This content could appeal to:
Media and entertainment publishers
Sites that review books
Sites that cover fantasy fiction
Hairy Plopper fan sites
Blogs about books
Websites within these niches will vary in terms of authority – but they are all relevant.
These sites will be more likely to cover the content www.bookzaregreat.com has created as it will appeal to their audience – they are not interested in the fact that your site will be stocking the box set (so will thousands of others). As your content is covered and then shared, it starts being picked up by people you haven’t even contacted generating natural links back to your site.
While all of this might sound easy, it isn’t. These types of links require a huge amount of effort to acquire – which is why good backlinks are so valuable – and so important.
What is a technical audit?
A technical SEO audit identifies issues with a website from a search engine perspective and provides recommendations on how to implement fixes that improve performance. The audit will look for any issues with the website itself (both on page and in regards to external factors, such as hosting), and also assess whether links could be the reason that a site’s performance is being hindered (off page).
There are many, many elements to check when conducting a technical review of a site, as data is compiled from multiple sources, including paid SEO tools, to ensure that nothing is missed.
Will Google Ads (PPC) help my SEO?
Directly – no. Sadly, paying money to Google doesn’t do you any favors in terms of getting in their good books, or access to any of their secrets.
However, one thing that PPC can be handy for is finding new keywords, and testing out which keywords work best in terms of driving traffic and conversions.
Which is better, SEO or PPC?
PPC is a great way of delivering traffic to a website instantly, and it can be turned on and off. The downside is that it costs money. Sometimes, lots of money, making it difficult for smaller businesses to compete. That being said, as long as the ad spend is still generating a return on investment (ROI), it can work well as a stop gap while waiting for longer-term marketing strategies take effect.
On the other hand, SEO takes a long time, but the rewards are greater as the more visible a website becomes organically, the less they may have to spend on paid search activity.
Does social media affect SEO?
There is some debate about how much social signals influence search results. But even if social media doesn’t directly affect rankings, this doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be considered an important part of an SEO strategy.
Social media can be an effective way of promoting content, engaging with your audience and customers, strengthening your brand, while also providing users with more channels to find you online.
Think about social media platforms suggesting ‘people you may know’ or ‘pages you might like’. Then think about how you could steal customers from one of your competitors by popping up as a suggested account to follow in a user’s feed.
Do redirects affect SEO?
When implemented correctly, redirects are good for SEO. They tell search engines that as page A no longer exists, go to page B instead. If you have a lot of good links to a URL and then you remove it without putting a redirect in place, you’ll lose all of the authority being passed to your domain via those links!
That being said, there are times when redirects can go wrong. Redirect chains occur when there is more than one redirect between the original URL and the destination URL.
http://bookzaregreat.com.html > 301 redirect > http://www.bookzaregreat.com.html > 301 redirect > http://www.bookzaregreat.com > 301 redirect > https://www.bookzaregreat.com
A redirect loop occurs when URL A points to URL B, and URL B points back to URL A. This means that the page will never be able to load as it is stuck in a continuous cycle of trying to load two pages that redirect to each other.
Is HTTPS good for SEO?
HTTPS is the secure version of HTTP – the ‘s’ stands for ‘secure’.
Google announced that HTTPS was going to be included as a ranking factor as it wants to ‘reward’ sites that take user data seriously but how heavily weighted this is as a signal as part of the wider algorithm is unknown.
Providing the migration from HTTP to HTTPS is done correctly, it certainly won’t hinder your SEO efforts.
Why isn’t my site being indexed?
There are a number of reasons a website might not be indexed.
The entire site has been blocked via the robots.txt file – this is a file that sits on your server where webmasters can create rules that instruct search engines on how to crawl and index a website.
This means that web crawlers are not allowed to access the site to crawl and index it. If the pages can’t be crawled and indexed, they won’t show up in search results.
No index tag has been applied to specific URLs – this tells search engines not to index a page
Crawlers are blocked via the .htacessfile
Your website has been penalized, and fully or partially removed from search results as a result of unnatural link building
Search engine crawlers haven’t yet found your site/URL and so it has not been indexed
You have Malware on your site, or other security issues that have resulted in your site being removed from search results
What is a Google Penalty?
Google will penalise sites for violating its Webmaster Guidelines. This basically means purposefully engaging in tactics to manipulate search engines into ranking sites high in search results.
These techniques are often referred to as ‘black hat SEO’.
This can include:
Spammy link building tactics
Exact match domains (i.e. www.buydoctormartenbootsonline.com)
Once a site is penalised, it can be difficult to recover. Backlink analysis and clean up (AKA link detox) can take hours to complete, and even then, if a penalty is removed it can take some time to bounce back.
Is SEO dead?
We certainly don’t think so. SEO has certainly evolved, and continues to do so. Providing the Internet doesn’t become irrelevant, SEO will be around for a long time.