SEO 101: The Basics and Beyond
This SEO 101 blog has been updated in 2014 with the most recent relevant information for the basic building blocks of SEO (and beyond). Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or just starting out in SEO, the basic core principles of SEO are always important.
Search engine optimization (or search experience optimization, as we like to call it) may feel like a mystery to people just starting out. As such, it may also be a bit intimidating. However, like so many other worthwhile endeavors, if you roll up your sleeves and dig in, things start to get clearer the more you learn.
If you have a business, and you want to market it online, SEO isn’t an option you have the luxury of putting off “until next year.” The Web is crucial to nearly every business on some level. Ignoring how to leverage it is not only costing you money, but making your ability to keep up with, or surpass, your competition a heck of a lot more difficult.
SEO is constantly changing. That’s partly what makes it so interesting, but also a source of frustration if you don’t keep up with the industry. If you’re not changing with it, you will be left behind.
Before we dive into all the exciting core principles of SEO, I think it’s important to fully understand how search engines work.
How Search Engines Work
Search engines in their simplest form have three main jobs. Crawling and indexing the world’s information, providing answers/results to users’ questions, and fighting spam.
Crawl and Index
A search engine uses a computer program called a “bot” or “spider” that scours the web downloading information from websites. The main way the bot finds new websites is by the links from one website to another. Links provide the connection for the spider to crawl across to the new site where it can download and categorize that information into Google’s index.
The key component of what Google delivers to its end users is relevant and useful answers to their queries. This can come in the form of search results that include links to websites, images, videos, local business listings, ads, as well as direct answers to search queries. For instance, if you use voice search with Google on your phone and just say “weather,” it will give you an audio response letting you know what the weather is for your current area (if it can be determined).
Because the buying decisions influenced by Google represent the largest economy in the world, there are a lot of people trying to take advantage of that. Some that do this do so in a way that is against Google’s guidelines.
Google is very focused on fighting spam. They have taken a proactive approach to “scare people straight,” and it’s working. As you can see above Google is publicly shaming websites that don’t meet their guidelines. Can they do this? Of course they can and should (within reason, of course). Here are a couple examples of things that are against Google’s guidelines and could get you penalized and/or removed from Google’s index.
Search Engine Results Page
You can break up the search engine results into two main categories, paid and organic. It is in the organic section that SEO will help you gain more exposure. In the image to the right the yellow part is the paid section and the rest is organic.
Local Search and Google Maps
The local section of a search engine adds an additional algorithm that takes into account a whole different set of factors in addition to the standard algorithm. Your physical address, choosing the proper category when creating your Google+ page, and the number and consistency of citations for your business (your name, address and phone number on third party websites) are just a few factors that play a big role in placing you in the local search results.
7 Key Elements of Effective SEO
1. Design and User Experience
Your Website Design
What does design have to do with SEO? The first thing visitors see on your website is your design. Based on the colors of your site, the images, the layout, fonts, your logo and branding they immediately get a feeling about your business. A well-designed website makes your visitors feel that your company is an authority in your industry. Design can make the difference between a visitor leaving your site immediately or deciding to purchase from you.
In 2010, Google announced that it was adding site load time to its already long list of over 200 ranking factors. Search engines want to provide users the best user experience possible, which includes the quality of the sites it sends them to.
Google and other search engines don’t want their users to wait eight seconds for your website to load. Now, obviously this is just one of hundreds of ranking factors and it’s not as heavily weighted as many of the other signals they look at. Regardless, if your site is slow you’re not only potentially hurting your rankings, you’re also hurting your conversions (the number of people who take a desired action on your website).
2. On-Page SEO Factors, Crawlability and Site Structure
Title Tag and Meta Description
Though its importance has decreased somewhat in the last couple years, the title tag of your web page is still a heavily weighted ranking factor to Google. When people are searching for books, the title of the book should be descriptive of the content someone might expect to read, right? If you opened a book in the library about cooking secrets and found content on plumbing that would frustrate (and confuse) a reader.
The title tag used on a page is just as important as a title of a book. It needs to be descriptive of what the page is about, and if possible, include relevant keywords to inform the user and the search engines of what the page is about. A recent change Google made has shortened the number of characters they display in search results. Currently they displays around 50-60 characters of your title tag in search results. This depends on whether keywords are bolded and capitalization is used. This doesn’t mean you need to go out and change all your title tags to fit this new length.
Pete Meyers (Dr. Pete), of Moz had this to say in relation to the recent change by Google (in a comment on Google+), “ Google does read past the cut-off. The cut-off is via CSS – some additional characters are even present right in the HTML source. So, it’s mainly a CTR/usability calculation (and CTR could impact ranking, to some degree). If titles get very long, we sometimes see Google rewrite them entirely. If they’re very long AND keyword-loaded, then you could even be looking at devaluation.
“All that said, I wouldn’t just go hacking at titles to get them under the new limits. I’d preview and track major pages, like your home-page, and make sure those display titles look good. Some of them might be worth updating.”
Another important element to be aware of is when a user searches for something, let’s say a new baseball helmet. Google automatically bolds keywords in your title tag and meta description that match that keyword closely. This is another reason it’s important to have keywords in your title tag as well as your meta description. You can go overboard, of course. Don’t stuff keywords in there, since search engines may perceive that as “spammy,” which will have a negative impact on that page.
Your meta description, while it doesn’t directly affect search engine rankings, does have a ton of value for influencing the user to take action. This is where you get to give your best sales pitch as to why they should visit your website over other options listed. The optimal length of your meta description for search engines is roughly 150-155 characters.
Robots Meta Tag
The robots tag is a crucial meta tag to understand. If this is done incorrectly, you can accidentally remove your website from Google, Bing and Yahoo. A website owner has the option to not have their website indexed in Google if they so choose. They can also choose not to have specific pages indexed. If you are new to SEO, you should probably just always set this to “index, follow.” If you set it to noindex that means you don’t want Google to index your site and they will remove your website from the index.
I met with a business once that had their website for 10 years, and for the life of them, they couldn’t figure out why they wouldn’t show up in Google search. Not even when they typed their own name. They had a noindex tag on their website for 10 years. 10 YEARS! How much revenue was lost from that one little word? It’s inconceivable.
The “follow” part of the robots tag tells Google whether their “bot” should crawl those links to other websites. There are times when it’s appropriate to use “nofollow,” but as a general rule of thumb if you’re linking to a website that you have to use the nofollow attribute on you probably shouldn’t be linking to them. If you don’t want Google to know about them then you shouldn’t be sharing it with your users (IMHO).
Body Text, H1 Headings, Internal Links, Alt Tags… Oh My!
Just as the aforementioned title tag is important for users and search engines alike, your main headline and body text need to be structured in such a way to optimize it for search.
Mix it up. Start with your main keyword phrase in the headline, but be sure to not over optimize the body text with one or two keywords. Think about synonyms that tell your story effectively and naturally.
While external links to your website are important, it’s also important to link internally where it’s appropriate. Doing so builds authority to the page you’re linking to.
Lastly, image alt tags (text) tell search engines what the image is (and for those very few people who browse websites with images switched off). While not a huge factor, it’s important enough to do, particularly since it can help ranking in Google image search.
User/Search Friendly Navigation
The url of a web page is another heavily weighted factor for SEO. A well structured url uses descriptive terms and is short and to the point. Long urls with strange url parameters like in the example below make it hard for search engines to decipher the meaning of the page.
Can you imagine if a user saw that url and needed to type it in somewhere or even worse remember it? Not going to happen.
Keywords in URLs
Appropriate keyword usage in your urls is also vital. A url about “baseball helmets” shouldn’t just read “.com/helmets”, but should be “.com/baseball-helmets.” This allows the search engine and user to know that these aren’t football helmets or bicycle helmets, but the baseball helmet I want to buy for my son.
Crawlability is the ability of search engines to crawl your website and all its content, without running into roadblocks that prevent it from crawling the pages.
The robots.txt file is the name for a text file a person uploads to their website that provides instructions to search engine bots/spiders. This is a publicly accessible file and can be used to block bots from the website, a directory of the website, or a specific page.
3. Quality Content
Why is quality content so important?
“Content is King” is probably the single most overused cliche in the Internet marketing world. However, there’s good reason we’ve all been beaten over the head with that phrase: It’s vital to any and all Internet marketing efforts.
But first, what is content exactly? Content is what users view, read, and consume on your website. While words are what most people generally think of as content, it goes much deeper than that.
Content is also those beautiful pictures that illustrate your message. It may be an instructional video you embed on your website. Maybe you do a regular podcast. That audio is also content. Regardless of what content you’re talking about, they all share one important goal: to influence your website’s visitors to take a desired action (buy a product, sign up for your services, etc.).
It’s also important to note that it’s not just for web users. Search engines are thirsty for great content as well. Why? Because it allows them to derive meaning from a webpage. Google, on a rudimentary level, is a matchmaker. They want to deliver the precise information their users are searching for. The only way they can do so with any certainty is when they find web pages with clear and thorough content. It’s up to you to meet those needs.
Google depends on content, but quality content it where it’s at. Google’s algorithm can determine the reading level of your content, the topic, the depth and its freshness (how new it is). If nightmares of English class are running through your mind, that’s understandable.
Think in terms of topics more than keywords. Gone are the days of stuffing keywords into a web page with some poorly written content and getting it to rank (Thank God!). Google and other search engines like Bing use semantic search methodologies and Natural Language Processing (NLP) to gain a much deeper understanding of content as well as the intent behind a user’s search.
Google is much more interested in user intent when they type a search rather than coming to a premature conclusion solely based on the typed words. With semantic search, Google can now provide personalized results based on previous searches.
So, when content is created, say a blog post, and you want to target a certain keyword, go beyond a single keyword or phrase. What is the user’s intent? If you have blinders on and only focus on a particular search phrase, you’re likely missing out on related phrases that fall under the same topic that can bring you high quality traffic.
4. Endorsements (Links, Citations, Press, Reviews, Mentions, etc.)
What are endorsements? Glad you asked. Search engines use things like links, citations, press, reviews and mentions as votes (endorsements) to determine the trust and popularity of a website. Different votes carry different weight. Getting a link from the New York Times could be compared to having a high ranking official endorse your campaign (sticking with the voting analogy).
External links are those on other domains that point to your website. They’ve always been the centerpiece of an SEO strategy, but as Google evolves, the importance given to the volume of those links has been put into question. That said, attaining external links still holds value, though if they come from low quality sites, or if your link profile looks unnatural, they can have the opposite effect.
The term citation refers to your business name, address and phone number (NAP) being listed on other sites. Google crawls all of these sites and they cross reference the data looking for trust factors. If your business listings are accurate with the same information (NAP, business categories, etc.) across hundreds of websites, Google is going to trust your business more than one that it identifies as having multiple business names for the same phone number or there are discrepancies in the address.
Remember, they want to provide the best user experience possible for their customers, so they’re not going to send them to your business unless you have your NAP in order. The quantity and quality of citations that a business has is also a big determining factor. This graphic below was done by David Mihm with Moz and is a great depiction of the local search ecosystem.
For local SEO (ranking high for searches by people in your area), reviews are a very important factor. Not only do they help with conversion (assuming you have positive reviews), they can positively impact your rankings. Once your Google listing has five reviews, that’s when the stars come out, which helps you stand out from the crowd. People give heavy consideration to reviews.
5. Social Media
Social media and SEO go together like peanut butter and jelly (delicious with milk!). While Google doesn’t currently use social signals for ranking (Besides from Google+ when a user is logged in), the links from social media sites (that can be accessed by Google) as well as the citations do have value.
Besides the fact that Google crawls these sites for mentions and links, social media offers an opportunity to gain indirect SEO benefits. For instance, if you are building a community through Facebook, Twitter, and other sites, it amplifies the reach of your content, giving you a higher chance to gain mentions and links. Of course, there are the direct business-building benefits of growing a social audience as well!
When I was at SMX West about a month ago, Matt Cutts said (and I’m paraphrasing) that mobile sites impact mobile search results. He was pretty clear that having a mobile site would affect rankings when users are searching on their mobile phones.
It would make sense that Google would want to provide the best user experience and send someone on a mobile device to a website that catered to those users. Now, they’re not going to serve up every mobile site just because it’s mobile. They’re also looking at over 200 other factors.
If you take this along with Matt’s opening statement that 2014 is the year that mobile traffic will surpass desktop traffic, you can see why mobile is an important part of your SEO strategy.
7. Measure (Analytics)
If you’re not measuring the performance of your efforts, you’re missing the boat. Google Analytics is free and you can install it on your site with ease.
One of the most amazing things about marketing on the Web is that very specific and powerful data related to your efforts can be seen and monitored, often in real time. You can then not only see if what you’re doing is working, but you can test alternative methods for areas that need improvement.
Going over Google analytics can be a blog post on its own, so let’s just take a look at a few of the basic metrics in its arsenal.
Google Analytics shows you how many visits a given web page receives. You can also see the number of unique visits to determine more precisely how many people are coming to your site.
Want to know where your visitors are coming from? Google Analytics can tell you what websites are referring traffic to your site. You can also see what keywords or phrases are being used in search engines that bring visitors to your website. While this is valuable for finding out how you rank for key search terms, you can also see if people are typing your company name in directly, a key indicator of how recognized your brand has become.t
This refers to the rate at which visitors leave your site after only viewing one page of your website versus travelling to a different page on your website. Why is this important? If you have a high bounce rate, it may be an indication that your content isn’t “closing the deal” or providing pertinent information to the user (there are exceptions to the rule).
While this is a fairly lengthy introduction to the world of SEO, it’s still just the tip of the iceberg. However, you should now have an understanding of how search engines work, along with a number of the key components in a solid SEO strategy.
Now that you have a solid foundation to start from, I would like to urge you to set a goal for yourself or your business and start taking action right away. You can do anything you want to do if you put your mind and your heart fully into it.
Also, here is the slidedeck for the presentation I gave on SEO 101 at SEMpdx.