Search engine optimization (SEO) is complex and potentially confusing -- especially because of its ever-changing nature. Today's relevant strategy or tactic could slip into obscurity next month. The good news is that understanding and staying up-to-date with SEO can be done.
Many SEO principles are easy to understand, and once you have good foundation, you'll find that keeping up with current developments is actually quite manageable.
This guide will help you understand the big picture of SEO, its basic strategies, and how essential staying up-to-date with the latest industry news is to your success.
First, what is SEO?
SEO is a methodology that includes strategies, techniques, and tactics focused on improving a website's worth or value in the eyes of search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing. Aspects of SEO include the site architecture, offsite promotional efforts, and onsite factors such as content and meta data (a set of HTML tags that provide information about a web page, e.g. who created the page and how often it's updated.) Sometimes an SEO project is simply a matter of ensuring that a site is structured in a way that allows search engines to crawl and index its pages.
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.