Most people who approach me with SEO related questions usually want to know why their web site isn’t showing up on the first page of search returns when others search for the sort of services they provide (and what can be done about it). The easy answer of course is that their site and its content haven’t been optimized to do so yet. While that’s true in many cases, the real answer is somewhat more complicated than that.
Search Engine Optimization, or SEO as it’s commonly known, is that area of web site development that allows search engines to not only properly index a web site’s content, but also gauge how useful that web site’s content is to viewers in comparison to other sites with similar content. These comparisons are done using what are known as search engine algorithms (complex mathematical equations). After as much data is collected about a web page’s content, these algorithms are used in conjunction with other applications to collate and process that data into the statistical results that determine search engine ranking placement. These results in-turn dictate where a listing for a web page is placed in the order of things (a search engine’s output), whether on the first page of (e.g.) Google’s SERP (Search Engine Results Page), or on the 47th.
Unless the listing is a paid ad of course (which I discuss briefly toward the end of this post).
A little SEO history
Though named otherwise during the span of its existence, SEO has more or less been around for about two decades now, since the advent of the first popular browsers. It has evolved to what it is today since the introduction of the first “WebCrawler” back in 1994. It is also constantly evolving as major players like Google continuously update search engine algorithms and SEO requirements in an ongoing quest to reward companies who focus less on gaming these algorithms and more on creating value for their leads and customers.
The following two images sum up the major events that occurred with respect to SEO these past two decades (clicking on either opens them in a lightbox):
Today, with respect to internet marketing as a whole, we’re moving away from relying solely on what we’ve traditionally been calling SEO, and more toward inbound marketing (or simply Inbound, of which SEO is but one facet). “Inbound methodologies” require strict and continuous review of a site’s analytics, as well as the vigilant use of social media and various “promotional” offerings to draw visitors into a web site, keep them there, convert them to customers, and have them coming back for more. Doing so comes with its own special set of required skills and tools, of course; and yes, it can cost more to implement and manage it in comparison to On-Page SEO (from hundreds to thousands of dollars monthly, depending on who does this work and its scope), but its rewards can be vast, regardless of the size of a business. It can also be done for less money than many full-blown marketing agencies are charging for it; and to varying extents, many site owners are already adhering to at least some of its principles as part of their Internet Marketing strategies (it’s actually been discussed quite extensively since 2006).
The following images provide a high level overview of Inbound:
Traditionally, when referring to SEO, we think of it in terms of the On- and Off-Page work web site owners do or have done for them to draw prospects into their sites. Having already discussed that off-page work somewhat in the section above (reference In-bound Marketing, of which drawing potential customers into a site is one aspect), I’ll limit my focus here to On-Page work.
Since I’m usually not sure just how much a client knows about SEO when they approach me for help with it, after hearing them out about what they’ve done thus far and the sort of issues they’ve been faced with, one of the first questions I might ask is whether they’re looking for first page search engine rankings at the local level (e.g., for searches run for someone specializing in what they do or sell, let’s say in the State of New York; or even more localized like a county, city, or town), or anywhere (e.g., nation- or worldwide). This allows me to determine the extent of targeting that will be required from a marketing perspective.
I’ll also need to know what they’re specifically trying to sell, whether a service, subscription, or other tangible product, and exactly who they’re trying to sell such to. Knowing this will help ensure that any existing or new copy used in their web site is written with SEO in mind.
The next question I might ask would be geared toward understanding what a client knows about how SEO works, especially with respect to what needs to be done both onsite (on their web site), as well as offsite (e.g., the use of social media to bolster SEO). Once I have an idea of how SEO aware a client is, I’d point out a number of things SEO related with respect to what they’re doing (or planning to do) on the site itself, all of which impact search engine rankings. Among others, these include the use of:
- A focus keyword/keyphrase in subheadings (such as an H2 or H3) in their copy (in each page and post);
- Sufficient keyword/keyphrase density in their copy;
- Readability, as gauged by their copy score with respect to the Flesch–Kincaid readability tests;
- Image alt tags in their pages/posts containing their keyword/keyphrase (as well as the use of images);
- Page/post titles containing their keyword/keyphrase, which should also occur toward the beginning of their copy;
- Internal and external URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) containing the keyword/keyphrase they are using for a specific page/post;
- At least 40 characters and less than 70 characters in a page/post title;
- Sufficient outbound link(s) in their copy;
- The keyword/keyphrase in the meta description for each page/post (also, In the specified meta description, consider: How does it compare to the competition? Could it be made more appealing?);
- A minimum of 300 words in the body copy;
- Unique use of the keyword/keyphrase from page-to-page/post-to-post;
- XML sitemaps;
- Effective usability practices tailored to the specific page and web site it is found in.
The list goes on somewhat, but the points I mention above are the most important ones.
Once I’m fairly sure a potential or existing client understands all of this, work can begin, whether I do it for them, or they do it themselves. For those interested in what others might be charging for such work, $76 – $200/hr is most common. My rates come in well under that.
Other factors that impact SEO today
In practice today, a web page’s search engine ranking is not only impacted by that page’s content in terms of how well it’s been optimized with respect to traditional SEO On-Page practices (see above), but also by a number of additional inbound factors which proper planning and strategy will allow you to implement, including:
- The use of keywords that are relevant to your buyer personas: When thinking about the keywords that would best attract the type of clients you want (e.g., buyer personas) to your web site, think about the language they might use to search for information that’s relevant to what you’re offering, then use that language in your website copy and blog posts. Buyer personas themselves define a certain group of people, people who have shared goals, similar issues and challenges. Such people are looking for content in the right place at the right time, content that’s helpful and relevant, without distractions;
- Knowing exactly who you want to draw into your site: Knowing exactly who you want as a client will help you create an enjoyable user experience. You should spend time looking at areas of your site that perform poorly with respect to what’s called a bounce rate. Look for things you can do to improve performance here that will help keep your visitors on your site without looking elsewhere for what they want. Also, mobile device traffic has and continues to grow at an almost exponential rate. You should check your Google (or other web) analytics to find out how much traffic you’re getting from mobile devices. If it’s significant, you’ll need to consider the user experience on these devices as well;
- Developing your content with the ideal customer in mind: With respect to SEO, the content you use in your web pages and posts is critical. Using the right content helps solve problems for people, and provides them with something of real value. Doing things properly here will help ensure your content propagates beyond your website. Others will share it with their social networks, bookmark it and refer it to friends and associates. Your content should help you attract links to your site, make sales (conversions), and reduce your overall business costs;
- Ensuring your marketing strategy includes the development of relationships with external influencers (targeted outreach toward search engine companies themselves): The PR (Public Relations) industry has known this for years, but search engine companies are more than capable of developing such relationships in a completely different way. Using the proper targeted outreach process for your content can result in a lot of quality linkbacks to your site, social shares, and referrals;
- Understanding that marketing today is ALL about communication: If you’re really after optimal SEO, you should be using social media and other value-added content effectively to help bolster your customers’ satisfaction. Doing so is an important part of developing yourself into a real brand, one your customers will truly remember. To do that though, you obviously need the right tools, tools which will help you gauge the return on the investment you have in this area. I can help you with that of course.
As for the sort of social media SEO strategy that might be used to achieve what I mentioned above, have a look at the following image:
Web savvy users already know that those paid ads that they see in a page of search engine results are there, well, because they’re premium listings that their owners paid the search engine company to list for them. There are still some folks who approach me though who have little knowledge of things like Yahoo Search Marketing, Google AdWords, Ask.com Sponsored Listings, and MSN adCenter, wondering why such listings show up in the first pages of those returned search engines results.Though their placement in such listings has less to do with SEO than it does to do with revenue streams for search engine owners, to get listed using a paid ad, they usually do have to abide by some general guidelines that are SEO-centric.
Anyway, an example of this follows:
Some other relevant terms that might crop up
SMM (Social Media Marketing): This describes the approach used when adding those paid advertisements that are often seen in social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, My Space, Youtube, etc. Please note that though the link I added here to the Wikipedia site about Social Media Marketing contains content that is currently in dispute, the general definitions are more or less somewhat in order. There is an ongoing discussion about the issues with this linked page’s content and what should be done about it, which you can read more about here;
SMO (Social Media Optimization): What you’re doing when promoting your services or products on social media sites in the posts, tweets, etc, you add to them. The popularity of such content dictates how well you’re applying the practices associated with Social Media Optimization.
SEM (Search Engine Marketing): This is the practice of placing paid ads on Google, Bing, MSN, etc., using specific keywords. It is also known as Non-Organic Search.