SEO (search engine optimization) can be easily confused with the “black arts.” Even those who work in the industry struggle to explain to their friends and family what exactly it is that they do, or more specifically, how they do what they do.
So the question is, if those who perform the function of SEO cannot explain it, how can someone possibly learn enough about SEO to trust that they are hiring the best company when in the market for improved search rankings?
The good news is that you do not need to understand the inner workings of SEO to make it work for you. You should, however, have a basic understanding of what search optimization is and how it can drive your business before you invest.
Search engine optimization is a set of techniques that when applied correctly can assure a website of a higher ranking than it may normally receive, or that it will achieve a higher standing in the Google search engine results pages, faster.
What makes SEO difficult to describe is that the techniques deployed can include everything from modifying the code of the website, to changing the navigational structure, modifying the text and specific words, or even creating new textual and video content for the sole focus of improving the ranking results of relevant keywords.
SEO vs. Paid Advertising
Some people who do not fully understand the power of free traffic from Google suggest that SEO is expensive with an unknown outcome. The rationale to this sentiment is that there is no guarantee that a company’s website can be in the first position on page one, and this is true. There are some niches that even to place on page two may require significant time and investment. So if SEO is not guaranteed, why are so many businesses investing in SEO over pay-per-click (PPC) advertising?
Though Google has built a company worth multiple hundreds of billions of dollars selling advertising, consumers are becoming conditioned to look past ads since by definition they are “biased.” Furthermore, as Google has considerably improved their search algorithms, the quality of results is now sufficiently high that for many consumers they would rather curate the results themselves. But this isn’t the real reason to skip paid advertising.
The reason you do not want to build your business on paid advertising is that even if you see a nice response from ads, your sales pipeline will lack natural momentum. With a finely tuned ad campaign, you may find yourself swimming in more leads than you can reasonably handle. But if you find for any reason that you cannot sustain the same level of advertising investment you will find your leads stop. In short just as you don’t want to beholden to one or two single customers, you should not build your business on a single traffic source.
How Search Engines Analyze Websites
To determine rankings, search engines deploy software spiders, otherwise known as robots or “bots.” These bots crawl websites using proprietary algorithms. When a bot visits a site, it reads the text (that is visible) on the page, as well as various tags in the source code (title tag, meta tags, comments, alt tags, attributes, etc.). Bots also read the text within the hyperlinks (anchor text), and from all this data the search engine decides what the website and each specific web page are about.
Many factors are used to determine what is of value and what matters most on the site and individual webpage(s). Every search engine has its unique set of rules, and algorithms, which is what sets Google apart from Bing and apart from Yahoo! Try running the same search on each of the three fore mentioned search engines, and you will see they return three different results. Based on how the bot was configured by the search engine, various pieces of data will be gathered, weighed, indexed and added to the database. Manipulation of the elements that a search engine collects such as keywords, metadata, URL names and links what comprises SEO or search engine optimization.
Search engines update their databases at un-deterministic times. Once a website is indexed and registered in the search engines database, bots will visit it regularly to pick up changes to ensure they always have the most updated data. This is why a more active site with natural traffic and regular content updates, can be seen to move up the rankings sometimes rather quickly. Though Google does pace ranking updates, it should not be surprising in some niches for movement onto page one to take six months or more.
Remember, Google is demoting a site to promote (upgrade) your site. So they must be confident that you are providing more valuable or useful information than the site you are overtaking before they allow you to advance in the search ranking results. SERPs = search engine results pages.
Factors for Website Ranking
There is a tremendous number of factors that contribute to a website’s overall success. But the fact is that no single expert outside of Google can definitively tell you that they know the secret ranking. Search engines change their algorithms multiple times a year to continuously upgrade the quality of search results they deliver, and for obvious reasons they do not publish documentation of what factors and weightings they use.
However, as the difference between ranking on page one or not can be worth millions of dollars, the area of SEO is becoming quite developed with the emergence of the title, expert SEO consultant. Though a guidebook for guaranteed ranking on Google does not exist, there is a set of SEO standard best practices which if followed will deliver a reasonable expectation for ranking improvements.
Some factors that SEO best practices address include increasing the amount of inbound links to the website with an emphasis on links from powerful high-quality sites. Ensuring that complete metadata is added to give the search engine as much information as possible on what the site is about. The inclusion of Title and Alt tags on all images, and constructing the navigational structure, so it is accessible and cross-linked.
There are many more things to consider which can also affect website ranking, but first and foremost should be delivering information to the world that is useful and informative. In the hands of a knowledgeable SEO consultant or agency, a website that delivers value to the user is more likely to rank over a site which may have more traffic or been established longer.
Give me a #1 Ranking
Any SEO consultant or company who guarantees rankings should be avoided. As stated earlier, there is no one with control of the search engines. Since Google will never risk compromising their unbiased results, it is safe to say that never will there be anyone who can say with 100% certainty that they can control rankings. However, this doesn’t mean that SEO is a random effort hardly worth the time and expense. Instead, SEO today is now more scientific than ever, which means a well-trained search marketing agency or consultant can still propel you up the rankings in a way that isn’t possible with a “wait and see” approach.
One of the ways that you will be able to tell immediately if you are dealing with a professional or not is whether they speak candidly about the time it can take to rank. Changes made to your site today will not bring instant results. It can take months for Google to index and register changes.
Many SEO consultants will dedicate 80% of their efforts to building high-quality content and release it on a regular basis while spending just 20% of their time on specific SEO efforts. With SEO, you are playing a long game. Check out this article on “proving” the value of SEO.
Though the immediate rewards may not seem significant, the residual effect of ranking on page one can propel a website for years to come after the initial optimization work has been completed. It’s not that you can ever stop optimizing your site, rather, once you have optimized the site and Google places you in a top ranking position, it’s much harder for a newer site to replace you. This is why a powerful site that has been ranking number one for some time can be incredibly difficult to knock off.
Remember, SEO is more akin to a marathon than a sprint. Don’t give up, stick with your SEO investment, and the results will come.
Gaming the Search Engines – Don’t do it!
Search engines are regularly changing their algorithms to bring users the most relevant website listings. Google is thought to make as many as 500 or more updates each year with seven major algorithmic changes happening in 2016 alone. The reason for so many changes is two-fold. First, they are always striving to upgrade the way they analyze websites to upgrade the experience and quality of search results. Second, all search engines desire to fight spam and dishonest companies who learn how to manipulate search results.
Though the practice of SEO could be called “manipulation,” it is better described as optimization, since the intent is to make a website as easy for Google to understand as possible so they can rank the site appropriately. Remember how we said a good SEO consultant might spend as much as 80% of their time on content and only 20% on SEO specific activities. Someone trying to game the search engines will flip this and likely spend 80% or more of their time on activities that are intended to trick Google or the other search engines into ranking them higher than the quality of their site or content warrants.
Each time the search engines modify how they index and list websites, there are people who work to figure out how best to cheat the algorithm. The techniques they employ are referred to as Black Hat SEO. If you operate a legitimate website, stay away from SEO tricksters as they can show impressive short term results (in some cases) but the long term damage to your website and it’s reputation with the search engines is not worth it.
All search engines have a penalty process whereby a website can be “penalized.” This can be a minor penalty, which in a small or uncompetitive niche may not appear to affect rankings. Or it can be much more severe even to the point of having your website banned from Google. Being banned from Google doesn’t mean your website ceases to exist, Google doesn’t have the power to pull the plug of your site. But with 80% of local business search coming from the Google search engine, if you are banned by Google, you may as well not have a website because it means even a search for your brand name will not turn up your website in the SERPs.
Using black hat techniques can get you a quick boost, but as soon as the search engines figure this out, they will ban your website from their listings forever. The sophistication deployed with machine learning by Google and others is beyond breathtaking, which means sooner or later they will figure out that you are gaming them. Don’t fall for a slick talking techie who tells you they can guarantee you immediate results.
Importance of SERPs vs. Page Rank
There has been some debate about which factors are most important when it comes to SEO. Some suggest that Page Rank (or Google PR) is one of the most important things, but I would argue it’s not the case. Google no longer factors in Page Rank to their algorithm so debating this further is unnecessary. Let’s look at why SERPs (Search Engine Results Page) are most meaningful.
Page Rank (PR) was Google’s way of assigning a numerical value to the authority of a site. If Google felt your site was important, they would assign a higher PR. But even with a high PR, it never was the case that authority of a site would get it indexed and ranked for the main keywords.
This is easy to see as there were millions of websites with low page rank, but still being listed on the first page of the major search engines for top keywords. In comparison, there are just as many high PR ranking web pages that are buried. For this reason, and because other major search engines like Yahoo!, Bing, and hundreds of smaller search engines don’t care about “Google Page Rank,” Google has moved away from PR and abandoned it. Besides, would you rather have a low PR of 1 or 2, yet be listed on the first page? Or have a high PR, but languish on page ten?
For both the website owner and the search engine user, the desired results are in alignment. The user wants the highest quality most relevant search results, and the website owner wants to know that their site is being shown every time a closely related search is performed. It should not matter if a website was created last week or fifteen years ago if the information is relevant it should be shown. For this reason, Google has rejected PR as a ranking factor.
Alexa Rank is a measurement of the traffic a website gets ranked by the most visited site (number 1) to the least visited. If your website has an Alexa rank of 1,000,000, it means your site is the 1,000,000th most popular website on the Internet. But the truth is, Alexa ranking is not an accurate measure since it only registers website’s visited by users who have the Alexa toolbar installed in their browsers.
As proof, one webmaster decided to analyze a few sites that he operates and found one had an impressive Alexa ranking of 171,246. When you consider the billions of web pages that are published on the Internet, being in the 171,246 place is impressive. In contrast, another site this webmaster operates only had a Alexa rank of 4,276,996. Amazingly, the site with the better Alexa rank only receives 40 to 50 visits per day while the site with the lower ranking gets more than 400 visitors as verified by Google Analytics.
This demonstrates that the website with the better Alexa ranking is being visited by a higher number of users who have the Alexa toolbar installed, while the site with more traffic is being visited by real users. (Generally, it’s only webmasters, developers and SEO consultants who will have the Alexa toolbar installed)
Some SEO companies will attempt to use the Alexa rank as “proof” that they’re delivering results. Remember this; Alexa ranking is not an indication of how well a website is performing.
Importance of Content
Relevant content is the closest thing to a ranking “silver bullet.” Search engines are focused mainly on showing the most relevant search results for every “keyword search query.” There are numerous reasons why this is important. First, search engines monetize with advertising and having the most relevant search results is the surest way to drive traffic (searches) on the ad platform.
While there are several important techniques that you can use for a higher search listing such as backlinks, internal linking, meta-tags and keywords, relevant content is king. As the search engines become increasingly sophisticated, over time, the importance of relevant content will only grow further.
There are many other factors to getting your website listed at the top of the search engines and it takes consistent effort and continual learning to stay abreast of the ever-changing algorithms. A premier SEO company will ensure that your site starts ranking and keeps ranking, even as search engine companies like Google modify their algorithms and listing routines.
SEO can be DIY. But for most business owners there are better activities at the core of their businesses where they should be investing time. When you hire an SEO company, they will bring knowledge and practical experience that would take years to emulate and equal.
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