Things are constantly changing in the SEO industry. The changes of late have been more fundamental than usual. We’ve come to ask the question – what does SEO actually mean today?
What does SEO mean today?
The notion people usually have about SEO is that it will help their site rank higher in search engines by either using some secret code or by buying more links pointing to their site. Well, there is no secret code nor do we buy links.
In order to understand what SEO means, it’s necessary to understand what Google’s goals as a search engine are. Google’s main goal is looking to provide the best possible search result that reflects the searchers query as closely as possible. This means that they are aiming to return the most useful and impartial search result possible. This is a tough task on its own which requires constant updates to the algorithm since the web and technology around it constantly grows and develops. This task becomes even more challenging as SEO black hats, (SEO black hats = people trying to trick search engines to rank their site higher than others), are constantly trying to game the way the search algorithm work.
I’ve been in SEO since 2007 and it has been clear from the start that Google doesn’t recommend, promote or allow any shortcuts to rank well. To be honest, I don’t think anyone would want Google to do this either. Not even SEOs! Who would prefer a search engine that comes back with results that aren’t exactly or very close to what you are searching for? A search engine that could be gamed and/or allowed some results to show higher than others through unfair methods is in no one’s interest.
There are over 200 variables or “questions” that Google asks of every page it has indexed. Note that Google only search the websites and pages it has in its index, not the entire web. Depending on the answers to those 200+ questions, Google then ranks pages in order of relevance to you. But how do you know what Google like or don’t like? Roughly put, SEO can be divided into three main categories, content, links and technology.
Content: the keywords you use, the content you create (text, images, videos, tools etc.).
The importance of content cannot be underestimated. Content is the main glue between a search query and a website. Google understands websites by its content. You will have a hard time ranking for keywords or phrases that you don’t mention in the copy of your website. In the eyes of Google, a keyword or keyword phrase is the most frequently used word or phrase in your website copy – not the list of keywords you scribbled down on a piece of papers or in a spreadsheet somewhere on your intranet.
Links: number of quality links to your site, how well linked your pages are with each other, the relevance and amount of links from your site to other sites.
SEOs spend a lot of time trying to get more links to their sites. In the early history of SEO this meant asking other websites to link to yours, or if you wore a black hat, it meant participating in link farms. As time evolved we learned that appealing, useful, well written, unique content drives links to your site. This insight is one of the reasons the web was recently clogged with infographics – because we thought infographics would make everyone link to our site.
Technology: How well built, structured and fast your site is.
The technology bit is fairly easy to fix. Cleaning up your code might or might not rank your site higher though. If your content is brilliant but your site is painfully slow, then your site is likely to rank higher by improving the speed. But if you make a useless website with no quality content load quickly, a speed improvement might make no difference at all. Put yourself in Google’s shoes. Should a technically sound website rank higher than a less technically sound website with more relevant and interesting content?
If SEO isn’t about secret sauce then what’s it all about?
SEO has come to include so many different factors that it’s actually hard to say what’s included in SEO and what isn’t. There are some clear cut cases like keyword research, keyword optimising text, Meta tags, canonicalization. 301 redirects etc. that are still on the SEOs table. There are however many other factors that will improve search results that’s outside of the more traditional SEOs role. These roles can either be orchestrated by the SEO or done by the SEOs themselves. Here are some examples:
Content marketing: Content is the Alpha and Omega in SEO. The only reason people visit your website is because you offer them something that they need. This could be information, a tool, an image, a product etc. The best content is typically created by someone who knows the topic area, can write well, and understands what the target audience is looking for.
PR: In many ways SEO is digital PR. PR is however better at building relationships with media and journalists. Quality links from established blogs or digital newspapers will get you a huge boost in SEO. Read this blog for more ideas on why SEO needs PR.
Copy writers: SEOs aren’t necessarily gifted copy writers.Yet, great copy is crucial to drive visitors and ensure that they come back. An SEO is good at finding the right keywords but the copy has to be well written as well.
UX: UX includes information architecture, interaction design, structuring and organising the content of a website. The way it’s structured, the ease of finding information and performing the necessary tasks on your site is crucial. If visitors cannot find the right products on your site, they are likely to click away. More visitors to your site won’t help you sell more products in this case. Read this blog (one of my favourite SEO blogs) for more information on why SEO and UX need each other.
Brand: It takes years to build up a brand. The Brand Managers knows what their brand is all about and how it’s communicated. Again, a SEO knows the keywords but not necessarily what the brand stands for or how it should be communicated. Read this blog to learn more about how branding and SEO can work together.
Content: Content is not restricted to copy. Content includes photos, videos, illustrations, copy and even useful tools e.g. calculators and interactive maps. A SEO can define the need to create a useful FAQ list, calculator or a series of how-to videos. SEOs are rarely video producers or developers though.
Social: It’s been debated in the SEO community whether social media and so called social signals add any value to their SEO efforts. Google says that Facebook and Twitter pages are treated like any other pages in their index. The number of followers or likes has no value as such. However, if your site creates blog post that are likely to be shared in social media, it will help your content get more eye balls i.e. more people will see your latest blog post. Likewise, if you share your latest blog post in your social channels you increase the likelihood of getting more visitors to your site. Again, a SEO can point out the importance of a social media presence and the types of content you should share but a SEO isn’t necessarily a Social Media Manager as well. Read this blog to learn more about the relationship of social media and SEO.
Conversion rate optimisation (CRO): Small changes can make a huge difference to your conversion. CRO uses mainly analytics and other forms of feedback to improve the performance of a site. Based on your KPIs a CRO Manager analyses your site, does A/B testing, Multivariate testing, and sets up conversion funnels in order to figure out the most optimal way of increasing your call to actions. SEOs do go deep into analytics but has traditionally worked more on driving visitors to the site, not necessarily improving the elements that drives actions on your site. Read this to learn more about conversion rate optimisation and SEO
Inbound marketing: Inbound marketers will probably argue that SEO is part of the inbound marketing umbrella whereas an SEO might argue that inbound marketing is part of the SEO umbrella. To be honest, I think they are, to a large degree, the same thing. SEOs do focus more on technical solutions whereas inbound marketers focus more on content ideation and creation. It’s at least safe to say that the roles overlap to a huge degree. Read this blog to learn more about the relationship between SEO and inbound marketing.
Working with SEO is a process, not a one-time fix. The process involves work in different areas which might or might not be within whatever the concept of SEO is.
Why rank higher?
It should now be clear that SEO requires much more than adding some secret sauce and magically creating hundreds of links to appear from nowhere to your site. Now let’s look at the question of why you want to rank higher. It’s quite obvious that you want to be number one in search engines for your main keywords. But did you ever think about what the increased number of people will do once they’re on your site? Let’s say you manage to go from spot 23 in the search result page on Google to spot 1. You’ve increased the amount of visitors by 2000 a month. Well done! What is the metric by which you measure website success? Is the goal simply to rank higher or is the real goal to increase sales of your products? Once you get the extra 2000 people to your site, does this automatically improve your conversion rate? Maybe the reason you didn’t rank well in the first place was because it’s hard to find products on your site? Or maybe it’s because the query the visitors used to reach your site doesn’t match up with what your site is all about? Maybe the extra 2000 visitors you’ve gained will simply click away because your site looks like it was made in the late 90s and doesn’t appeal to your target audience? Back to square one (read: spot 23). All these elements affects your ranking. Again, there is no secret sauce or silver bullet. All poor elements of your site have to be improved.
Is SEO really SEO anymore?
SEO now involves skills which are outside of the traditional SEO box or at least outside of what many have come to define SEO by. The metrics of success that SEO historically has been stuck with are not necessarily the main or most important metrics to measure your success by e.g. search engine rank position. This has left, I believe, both SEOs and companies buying SEO a bit confused. In a recent video with Google’sMatt Cutts, he said that a better name for SEO might be Search Experience Optimisation instead of Search Engine Optimisation. It’s the total experience of the site that is important i.e. do visitors like the site, do they convert well, do they share it with friends and do they come back to the site?
Whatever we call it it’s clear that we need to communicate more clearly what’s included and why we recommend what we do. Bottom line is that the goals are reached, not the name of the service provided to achieve that goal. At LogicSpot we listen to the main goals of our customers, figure out the most important improvements, measure those and improve. We’ve found this a successful way to approach SEO and digital marketing in general.
So before you ask an agency for some SEO work, ask yourself why. What is it that you want to achieve? Be clear with what you want and then ask your web agency how that can be achieved. SEO for SEO sake is not a good idea.
SEOs work both in agencies and in-house. I’ve worked on both sides of the fence and what I’ve come to learn is that the roles and possibilities differ between the two.
You’re in a good place. You have access to Copy Writers, PR, Brand, topic experts etc. Your job is more likely to focus on the big picture, orchestrate the efforts of the various departments and educate your colleagues – making the machinery work. The whole experience of your organisations digital eco-system has to work towards the same goal and you are the glue, the facilitator of it. You might even find yourself in the weird position of hiring a SEO agency!
You’re in a good but different place. We don’t have access to the topic experts, we don’t experience the brand every day, we don’t have the insights and access to content that in-house SEOs do. Since each client is different e.g. different industry, different size, different organisations and different capabilities, agency SEOs tend to focus more on the hands-on stuff; keyword research, keyword optimisation, code to content ratio, speed improvements, 301 redirects, canonicalization etc. There is still a lot of room for consultancy for agency SEOs though. We educate and create strategies, we analyse and stay on top of everything new in the field. We’re constantly on our toes.
Remember that your potential visitors use other websites than Google. They’re in social media, use RSS feeds to navigate the web, content curated sites, blogs and so forth. Google is not the only way to find a site! A rough industry average of organic search traffic to a website is 45-65%, the rest of the traffic is direct, referral, from social channels or other.