A Simplified Explanation of Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Every week I talk to small businesses about digital marketing, lead and traffic generation to their websites and search engine optimization, and how each apply to their organizations. Many business owners aren’t marketing experts, juggling responsibilities from finances, to operations, to sales and marketing, so they often only have a basic understanding of site optimization and how it works. During those discussions, I often try to give a quick overview of what SEO is and how to think about it. Today, I’ll provide a very high level, simplified explanation of search engine optimization and some of the main factors that can positively impact an organization’s SEO results.
What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?
In its simplest form, search engine optimization is anything done to improve the ranking of a website on search engine results pages (SERPs). The goal for most businesses is to increase their website visibility or traffic and ranking high for targeted search terms or phrases on search engines like Google and Bing will do just that.
For a slightly more thorough definition, Webopedia defines SEO as “a methodology of strategies, techniques and tactics used to increase the amount of visitors to a website by obtaining a high ranking placement in the search results page of a search engine (SERP) – including Google, Bing, Yahoo and other search engines.”
Regardless of the exact definition you prefer, if you have a website and want people to find and see it, you should care about optimizing your site. Which leads me to the next basic question I usually discuss with business owners.
What factors impact where my website will show up in search engine results (how well my site is optimized)?
A detailed or long answer to this question could take hours to answer, as there are literally hundreds of factors that impact search results. Google’s search algorithm is very complex, changes frequently, and is not completely known to the public. In future posts, I will delve deeper into some of the main factors that impact search optimization, but for now I’ll just start with my simplistic overview of the key components of SEO success.
In the strictest sense, keyword or key phrase research isn’t a success factor as much as it is a prerequisite. Before you worry about whether your website is optimized, you first need to know what you’d like it to be optimized for. The initial step in ranking or prioritizing keywords or phrases is to understand how your target audience searches for your products or services. Once you do some basic research related to how and how often your audience uses various search terms, you can then prioritize terms you’d like your website to show up for in search engine results. Once you know what you are targeting, you can then start to worry about how to optimize your site for those terms.
A simple way to understand factors that impact how well your website is optimized, is to consider tactics that are done on or are a part of your website vs. tactics that occur somewhere else (off-site optimization). In my opinion, on-site or on-page SEO factors can have the greatest impact for most small organizations, and should be your first priority. If you haven’t done the basic on-site tactics well, off-site strategies will have less impact. While there are many, many components to successful on-site optimization, I’ll break them down into four main success factors:
- Content and Content Architecture – Everything starts with content when it comes to website effectiveness, and that includes SEO. Does your site provide relevant, useful content related to the search terms you are targeting? Is your sitemap structured to easily find content and does it include pages/content related to all your prioritized keywords and phrases? Those are the basics and where you should start. Remember, the objective of the search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc.) is to provide the most relevant websites (with the best content) for what people are searching for. That is how they make their money.
- Foundational Elements & Best Practices – This area is critical for any organization designing and developing a new website, as you’ll need to make sure your digital marketing agency or website development firm understands website optimization and includes SEO implementation in your budget. Unfortunately, I’ve reviewed many a website that looks nice, but was designed without any consideration of driving traffic and leads.
Foundational elements are what I considered the blocking and tackling of proper site optimization and include items such as website architecture, URL structure, website speed and page load time, ability for search engines to crawl your website, HTML and Metadata including page title tags, headers (H1, H2, etc.), meta descriptions, and blog structure. It is also important that you select a content management system (CMS) that was designed with SEO in mind, so managing foundational elements is easy after go-live.
- Mobile-friendly (Responsive) Website Development – This could have been included under foundational elements, but in my opinion is important enough to list as a separate success factor. Roughly 50% of website browsing is now done on mobile devices (phones, watches, tablets, etc.), so it is critical for usability, engagement, and conversions, as well as website optimization that your site is mobile-friendly. In early 2015, Google officially started penalizing non-mobile sites in their ranking algorithm, pushing web browsers towards sites that are easier to navigate and engage with.
- Content Marketing (ongoing updates) – The first three components of on-site optimization listed above are directly related to designing and developing your website the right way. But that is just the start. As you develop your website and digital marketing strategy, you should also focus on your long-term content marketing plan, thinking through how your website can become your marketing engine and also determining what type of content works best for you (blogs, videos, white papers, case studies, etc.). Websites that are updated frequently and provide new, relevant content will be viewed as experts in their field by both site visitors and search engines alike. The message should always be that strong content adds credibility to your organization and also drives enhanced search results – they go hand in hand. And as I mentioned above, make sure you have a content management solution that is both functional and easy to use, so that non-technical business people can easily market and update your site.
Off-site (or off-page) optimization refers to all the strategies or tactics that are executed somewhere besides your own website, but that positively impact your website’s search engine rankings. As I mentioned above, I’d suggest first getting your on-site ducks in a row, as that foundation will support better results for your off-page efforts. Once you have that baseline established off-site tactics can help take your site to the next level.
- Links to Your Website – A simple way to think about links to your website is that each link from a reputable and relevant (for your keyword targets) site is like a vote for your site to show up higher on search results pages. But in this case, all votes are not equal. A link from a higher authority, trusted website is worth more than a link from a site that only has a few followers. So if my website sells Indianapolis Colts t-shirts, I’d much rather have NFL.com link to my site than FredsFootballMania.com. It is also beneficial that links or anchor text to your site include keywords you are targeting, as those keywords in the anchor text are an indicator to search engines as to the topic of the page being linked to. See below for examples of good and bad anchor text links.
Bad Anchor Text Example: Indianapolis website design: click here!
Good Anchor Text Example: Indianapolis website design or responsive website design in Indianapolis
- Social Marketing – Social Marketing initiatives support search engine optimization objectives in a number of ways. First, social sites provide relevant, although not always reputable and authoritative, links to your website, which as I mentioned above is beneficial. Second, social sites are a perfect place to post content from your website or new content that relates to your site. Your followers can then share that content, creating greater visibility and additional links back to your site. Finally, search engines are now tracking social influence for its own sake, not just for the link value. Organizations with significant social followings, social shares, likes, etc. will positively impact SEO results. Additionally, if respected influencers on social media (with a solid reputation) share your content, it will also benefit your site optimization.
But if you think about it, your success on social marketing, will most likely tie directly back to your content. Strong content will be consumed and shared socially, adding value via links, shares, credibility and visibility!
Keep an eye out for future blog posts, diving deeper into specific SEO topics. And if you have questions, please contact me and let me know how I can help.