Yes, I know Valentine’s Day was yesterday but search love should be occurring throughout the year. Besides, right about now, you might be looking at last night’s dinner check and wondering how the chicken French dish you love so much went from being a $20 plate to an integral part of a $200 six-course meal.
It’s easy to understand isn’t it? You simply can’t leave your valentine hanging on the most sacred of all romantic holidays … and the popular holiday people know that. That's why the invariable Valentine's day price gouging festivities always come at the expense of poor romantic saps like me who, despite the knowledge of receiving the shaft, can't resist an over-commercialized night out.
For a lot of us, search engine marketing is a labor of love, yet many of the old timers in search are wondering how the search entrée has become so complicated and so despicably mainstream. As usual, I am on the other side, so while I am checking the tab on my one-day-only "new and improved" $150 roses (up from the day's before $19.99) I thought I’d wax poetic with the top ten things I love about search (not necessarily in order of importance).
1) The future of search
Everyone’s wondering what will happen with search, and even the prognosticators are having a difficult time with this one. No one’s really sure about the entire package (where to buy, what to buy, how to buy) yet they are pretty sure search is important. I am, however, looking forward to the coming search shake-out (12 to 18 months) when the search budget explosion dies down and only the strongest will be left doing business in the space.
2) Search blogs
Even yours truly gets shocked from time to time when I read one of my columns translated into some foreign language that I can’t understand and even the Google translator won’t help me. Some of them have accurate information, some of them don’t, but if you really want the low down on search from every disgruntled search site employee or dissatisfied entrepreneur from a search industry organization, head on out and check the millions of search engine blogs.
3) The eBay and Amazon paid search phenomenon
Try and search for anything and you will find a way to buy it on eBay or Amazon. The great part is, you will probably find it for sale on one of these two sites. Well apparently, I am for sale on eBay. Check out the search result listings for “Kevin Ryan” and “Rubber Chicken.”
Kevin Ryan Sale
New & used Kevin Ryan.
Check out the deals now!
Rubber Chicken at AmazonI was actually pretty surprised at how much the "used" version of me was going for and if you are ordering more than $25 worth of rubber chickens you probably shouldn’t have a credit card in your possession.
Low prices on rubber chicken.
Qualified orders over $25 ship free
4) Natural search
A reader once quipped in an email response to an optimization column, “Organic search listings are about as natural as Pamela Lee’s chest.” I would argue that Pam has many great organically grown attributes. Of course, the really entertaining portion of natural search and the optimization game are the handy dandy tricks people engineer to try and cheat the search sites -- I love them, it’s called spamming folks, stop screwing around and get down to business.
5) Special Interest Groups
Anyone who wants to can form a committee about anything and decide they are after the best interests of all of us. I am a consumer advocate, hear me roar. Okay, and every celebrity wants our nation’s disadvantaged to start getting really high paying jobs. In the online world, while the special interest groups should be cracking down on no-good affiliates and the cheats selling fake watches on auction sites they are going after paid listings and their “sponsored” labels. There’s a whole lotta people out there with far too much time on their hands.
6) Danny Sullivan
It’s time to give this man a lifetime achievement award. Since he has been championing the cause of search long before there was a cause to champion, you simply can’t be talking about search unless you reference something Danny has looked upon or talked about. The founder of SearchEngineWatch.com, and the successful search engine marketing conferences, Search Engine Strategies, Danny has been doing the search thing since long before search became cool. Search is still cool, isn’t it?
7) Search engine marketing guides
They purport to offer you unbiased “research” on the best search engine marketing companies the world has to offer. The problem is, most of them haven’t done any search engine marketing since Alta Vista was “the site” to be listed on. To make a long story endless, it’s ok to read the “guides” but do your own research to find the right fit for your organization.
8) The search mêlée
This is not what you think. The search mêlée is not occurring between websites for audience mindshare. Oh, no! The big search scuffle occurs with marketers, their respective advisory (e.g. agencies) firms, industry organizations, and the search sites themselves. The space has become so complicated that everyone is reaching to almost anyone for search advice. A close cousin to number one on this list and the bastard child of number nine, the search mêlée promises to make every day in a search marketer’s life an interesting one -- whichever side of the budget they happen to be sitting on.
God bless them, every one. Without clients I would have very little to write about each week. The beneficiaries of the search mêlée, clients are often confused about what to do with whom and what to make of search. Every day another big business CEO discovers how to “Google” his own company and picks up the phone to yell at someone for the listing not being number one. Hat’s off to the precious few who realize that simple and easy to use doesn’t necessarily mean better, as well as those who realize that search is more than a box to check on the marketing “to do” list.
10) Mainstream press
Can the founders of Google possibly be placed on any more magazine covers? How about newspapers? They are not on the cover of the yellow pages yet, and the last time I checked it’s still Gray’s Anatomy, not Google’s. We love mainstream press writers and editors when they bring search to top of mind, and we hate them when they encapsulate search engine marketing into a 50-word sidebar on the last page of a weekly. Some of them actually tell the story of our search lives beside advertorials for over-merchandized holidays, of course.
Two more for the road
The moral of the story is there are lots of reasons to love this business. To date, I have learned at least two things from a career in advertising. One, a little levity goes a long way. Two, taking yourself or what happens between the four walls of any firm too seriously in no way makes life come up roses -- even the rare $150 per dozen variety.
iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.
Ryan serves as Executive Vice President at the search engine marketing specialist agency, Did-it.Com.
SEO plays to search engines' two major functions
Search engines have two major functions:
Crawling and indexing
In order to access the 14 billion pages on the web, search engines need a path to "crawl." Links provide a structure for search engines to reach the billions of interconnected documents that make up the world wide web. Through links, search engines' automated robots, called "crawlers" or "spiders," decipher the code of web pages and index selected pieces of that code for later use.
Sorting results and providing answers
When users enter search queries they expect that search engines will return results that are relevant and useful and that those results will be properly ranked (ordered) by their usefulness.
In the early days of the internet, search engine result pages (SERPs) provided "relevant" results that were simply pages with the right words, and results weren't always very useful to users. Today, hundreds of factors influence this all-important relevance.
Search engines employ teams of highly intelligent and talented engineers that carefully craft algorithms (mathematical equations) to sort, index, and assign value to pages. The process of SEO is meant to influence and enhance the perceived relevance of your site by search engines' algorithms.
Getting started in SEO
The goal of search engines is to provide users with the best possible search experience. As a result, Google, Bing, and many of the other search engines provide webmaster guidelines that outline the best practices necessary to help ensure they can find, crawl, and index your site. Below are examples of just some of those guidelines from the search engines themselves that give site owners and publishers SEO best practices:
Google Webmaster Guidelines
Google recommends that site owners/publishers:
- Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines. Don't deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users, which is commonly referred to as cloaking.
- Make a site with a clear hierarchy and text links. Every page should be reachable from at least one static text link.
- Create a useful, information-rich site, and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content. Make sure that your
elements and ALT attributes are descriptive and accurate.
element defines a title in the browser toolbar, provides a title for the page when it is added to favorites, and displays a title for the page in search engine results.
- The ALT attribute is a recommended HTML element that provides text for an image if the image cannot be displayed by the browser.
- Use keywords to create descriptive, human-friendly URLs. Provide one version of a URL to reach a document, using 301 redirects or the rel="canonical" element to address duplicate content.
- 301 redirects are a method of communicating to web browsers and search engines that a web page or site has been permanently moved to a new location.
- rel="canonical" is a tag used to communicate to search engines the preferred version of a set of pages with highly similar content.
Bing Webmaster Guidelines
Bing recommends that site owners/publishers:
- Ensure a clean, keyword rich URL structure is in place.
- Create keyword-rich content based on research to match what users are searching for. Produce fresh content regularly.
- Refrain from putting the text that you want indexed inside images. For example, if you want your company name or address to be indexed, make sure it is not displayed inside a company logo.
Fact vs. fiction
One of the most common misconceptions about search engine optimization is that it's just about search engines. In truth, a large part of SEO is making sure that your site is user friendly. Successful SEO campaigns are focused on improving the search experience for both users and search engines.
A lot of so-called SEO professionals will try to "trick" or "game" Google by exploiting loopholes in the search engines' algorithms. While some of these efforts can be successful for a time, Google and the other search engines are smart. They have teams of people dedicated to identifying these tactics and penalizing the parties guilty of violating their guidelines.
The search engines themselves provide very limited information on how to achieve better results or increase traffic to your site. And their algorithms are very complex, making them difficult to decipher. However there is no need to panic. For more than 15 years, the search industry has been growing and evolving, and search marketers have developed a variety of constantly evolving methods to identify factors that impact how search engines rank pages.
How search engines are a moving target
Google and the other search engines are continuously refining and updating their algorithms to provide users with the best possible search experience. In a typical year, Google will update their algorithm between 500 to 600 times. The majority of these changes are minor, but every few months Google implements a "major" update that can significantly impact search results. For an overview of the major algorithmic changes check out Moz's "Google Algorithm Change History."
An increasingly important part of Google's algorithm is personalized search. In 2005, Google released a new version of its personalized search service that was linked to "My Search History" data to provide users with results based on their past search habits. However, it wasn't until 2012 that personalization started to become a predominant factor. That year Google launched "Search, plus Your World," implemented the Venice update, and introduced Google Now.
In addition to these services there have been a number of advancements in Knowledge Graph, structured data, and social media that have greatly increased the way personalization affects a user's search experience. Personalized search allows Google to tailor search results to the individual user. As search engines develop a better understanding of a user's unique search tendencies, the potential for different search results between users increases.
Search history personalization occurs both when a user is signed in to a Google account and when they are not. When signed in to a Google account, search engine results are personalized based off the user's Google Web History. When signed out, search results are personalized based off information stored on the Google servers, which is linked to an anonymous browser cookie.
This increase in personalized search has shown us that SEO is no longer a standalone solution; digital marketing initiatives don't obtain real, complete success without using a combination of strategies, techniques, and tactics. To promote the best possible search experience and improve your visibility within search engines you have to take a comprehensive, holistic approach.
Search history is the most important factor in personalization, but localization is becoming an increasingly important factor as well. Again, the goal is for SERPs to provide the most relevant, useful results possible.
Try searching for the term "pizza" in Google. You will notice that the results Google provides you are for pizza restaurants near your location.
Results for "pizza" queried on a computer based in Traverse City, Michigan:
Search engines rely on several signals to determine how a site appears in search results depending on geographic location. These signals include IP address, location information on the page, links on the page, on-page elements like schema.org tagging, relevant information from Google Places, and more.
All the crawling and indexing that the search engine robots do is done for one main purpose: to understand and ultimately store entities. These entities are the people, places, and concepts that make up the underlying meaning of a page. The first iteration of entity-based search results in Google has been through Knowledge Graph results. It is becoming more common to see Google searches for people, places, and media object results that look like this:
In the above example, Google's Knowledge Graph is able to identify that the user is interested in "Steven Spielberg" and movies that Steven Spielberg has directed. Google is able to understand these entities and provide additional information, like when/where he was born and his upcoming movies, directly within the search results of the original query because it knows that users who search for "Steven Spielberg movies" frequently search for this information as well.
This functionality reduces the need for users to visit additional web pages altogether. Instead of being offered sites that are likely to have the answers users seek, users are presented with the answers to their query directly in the search results. The driving force behind this evolution in search is the ever-increasing use of mobile devices. And as the number of users using search engines via mobile devices continues to grow, search engines have an increasing incentive to provide mobile users with a better user experience, including delivering them answers instead of a list of potential resources.
The world of SEO is constantly evolving, but there are many active communities and free online resources out there to help you better understand and stay current with the search industry. Below is a list of additional resources that are great for both individuals new to SEO and those looking to keep up with the latest industry news and updates.
- Moz's "The Beginners Guide to SEO"
- Google Webmaster Guidelines
- Bing Webmaster Guidelines
- Search Engine Land
"Human resources, CRM, data mining" image via Shutterstock.