In short, Search Engine Optimisation is the quest for increased visibility in the search results.
Well, that’s the short story, but there is much more to SEO than this – and it’s not all hocus pocus. We’ll take a look at the SEO basics: how SEO works, techniques and which websites may benefit from SEO.
However, in order to explain what SEO really is and does, we first need to understand how search engines work, so let’s get started.
What search engines do
The world wide web counts somewhere between 40 and 50 billion indexed web pages. Just imagine having to make sense of this clutter yourself each time you’re trying to find, well, anything! Fortunately, we have search engines such as Google and Bing to bring order to this chaos.
Every time you enter a search query they work hard to present you with the most relevant pages. However, new web pages are added daily, pages are re-designed, and new files are being uploaded. The internet is dynamic, so search engines need a tool to stay on top of things and keep their index up to date.
This tool is called a crawler. Crawlers are automated robots that scrape web pages for information, such as images, videos and other files, and they also index links. It is important to bear in mind that search engines aren’t human. They don’t see what we see when looking at web pages. They can’t enjoy the beauty of a fantastic design or appreciate entertaining flash videos (quite sad, really). Crawlers – or spiders – mostly look at text to get an idea of what a page is about. So if you have a media-heavy website, you need to tell search engines what your videos and images are about.
Let me show you how search engines create search engine results pages (or SERPs).
- The crawler discovers your website and makes its way through all the pages it can find.
- Your pages are being indexed, which means that they get stored in a giant database.
- You enter a search query and the search engine analyses its index to then show you the most relevant web pages.
The question is, how do search engines determine which pages are relevant to what you are looking for?
Well, how do they?
There are over 200 factors that are taken into consideration when search engines decide which results to present you with. These factors are built into algorithms which calculate relevancy, and they are updated periodically. These regular updates mean that you need to adapt your web pages to the latest algorithm changes if you want your website to stay on top.
The most important factors for rankings are:
- Links – Every link to a website is considered a vote for that site. Generally, the more links you get, the higher you will rank. However, this does not work like a democratic system: not every link has the same weight, since there are “good” and “bad” links. In fact, bad links may even result in the opposite of your intentions and get your rankings down instead of up.
- Keywords – Search engines check how often a keyword is mentioned on your page, for example in the URL, title, headings, content and meta data. The more often a keyword is found, the more relevant your page will be considered for a search query containing this keyword.
- Site Age – Old websites are considered to be more authoritative than new websites.
- Freshness – Regular updates on your website show search engines that your site is still alive. Implementing a blog, adding new pages and updating old pages will all work towards this.
- Other factors – Such as page load speed, site structure, social shares, accessibility, friendly URLs etc.
What does SEO have to do with this?
The ultimate goal is to show crawlers – and users! – what your web pages are all about. If you are selling Tupperware that glows in the dark, you will most likely want to rank high for specific keywords. Therefore, if someone searches for “glow-in-the-dark home products”, your aim is to rank as high as possible in the results. Why? Well, think back and try to remember the last time you actually went to page 2 of the search engine results pages after searching for something. How about page 3? The simple rule here is: the higher the ranking of a web page, the higher the click-through-rate (CTR).
This is where SEO comes in. Through SEO, you can ensure that your site is accessible to crawlers, that they understand the structure of your website, and what your website is about. SEO helps your site rank high for keywords that are most relevant and most popular to your site. After all, what good is it if you rank high for search terms that no one ever looks for? Additionally, SEO makes sure that you get relevant traffic to your site, and that your pages are as accessible and user-friendly as possible. In the end, it’s not all about search engines at all.
How does SEO improve my website then?
Traditionally, SEO is divided into on-page and off-page optimisation. On-page optimisation covers anything that will be done on the website itself, whereas off-page optimisation consists of activities that take place elsewhere, such as link development. An integrated approach where on-page content is promoted by off-page channels like social media, has proven to be the most successful and effective strategy.
On-page SEO aims to make your website appeal to both users and search engines. To do this, it looks at the website’s public facing side as well as behind the scenes.
On-page optimisation usually comprises of keyword research and mapping, usability and accessibility testing, followed by the creation of meta data, URL and image optimisation, internal linking, as well as content optimisation. It also contains more technical elements such as the creation of a relevant robots.txt file, xml and html sitemaps, fixing broken links and pages, implementing redirects and canonical tags where appropriate, improving page speed and others.
SEO does not only take place on your website. In fact, a large portion of it will consist of an off-page strategy which aims to promote your website across the web.
Off-page optimisation is an on-going process, with the goal of improving your rankings, as well as increasing brand awareness and attracting visitors from other websites. The most important parts of your off-page SEO efforts are link building and content marketing.
In order to drive more traffic to your site, you will need to reach out to other quality websites that are out there and which are relevant to your industry. Gaining links from trustworthy, authoritative and popular sites will send the right signals to search engines and humans alike.
Social media, too, play an important and vital part in your off-site strategy. You can use these channels to engage with your users and/or customers, build relationships with other industry professionals, position your brand on the market and promote content from your website.
Black-Hat & White-Hat SEO
You may have heard of black-hat and white-hat in relation to SEO, so let’s have a closer look at what these terms actually mean.
White-hat SEO refers to techniques which are recommended and approved of by search engines, and they usually produce long-term results. Black-hat techniques are disapproved of by search engines. They may achieve short-term improvements, but in the end they can get your site penalised or – in the worst case scenario – even banned from the index entirely.
Black-hat SEO can consist of keyword stuffing (long chains of keywords on your site), cloaking (showing different content to users and search engines) and hidden text (keywords are hidden in the background). In general, black-hat techniques will only bring short-term gain (if at all), and cause more problems than they’re worth in the long run. To ensure that your website stays in search engines, you should follow their rules and guidelines.
Does my website need SEO?
Any website will benefit from SEO. However, there are some web sites for which SEO may not only be beneficial but imperative. This is particularly true for businesses that make their money online, such as online shops and companies whose main presence is online. In a competitive market, the right SEO strategy can be decisive for success and failure.
Start-ups can get a head-start and ensure that their new site is found by crawlers and users, and promote their brand through the right channels to the right audience.
Local businesses may also profit greatly from SEO as they can increase their visibility for location-specific search queries and get themselves know throughout their community.
The important thing to bear in mind is that optimisation for search engines and optimisation for users are very close and not mutually exclusive. A user friendly design and quality content will usually be beneficial for SEO. If ever in doubt, visitors come first, search engines come second!
Do you have any questions or concerns about SEO? Let us know in the comments or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.