Search Engine Optimisation – What it is, and isn’t
A common enquiry we hear from new clients is “I built my site, where’s my traffic?”, “My products are great, why don’t I deserve to be on page one on Google?”.
The lack of fresh visitors can be quite a disappointment to the new site owner who has spent a lot of time and effort on producing nice imagery and styling and expects the world to notice the new kid on the block, ready to buy everything up on their brand new site.
In our opinion, the reality of building and operating a business website is no different to opening up a store in a side street. You built the store, you decorated the window and opened the doors, but where is everyone?
Unless you’re able to direct and entice potential customers to your store, you’ll be staring at the door for a long time. What should we do? Put a sign at the end of the street pointing to your new premises? an ad in the local press? Go knocking on doors and giving out flyers? The answer to all those questions is yes, everything you can do to bring people to your store is a viable method. Getting on search listings is just one of them.
What Search Engines do
A common misconception is that those clever folk at Google (let’s face it, no one really cares about any other search engines) will see your new site come online and start channelling hungry, excited visitors to you with their credit cards in hand, preselected by their interests and ready to buy. This is not the case.
Search engines are very clever beasts, the complex algorithms that rank sites could be equated to an open market, or even a networking event, where the quality of your product, your knowledge about subjects related to your products and level of confidence you give potential buyers are graded on a continuous basis. Take two marketers, both selling the same product and put them in a human scenario:
Seller number one arrives early at a sales event, she’s well dressed, has samples of her products to give away, has marketing literature to answer all the questions she’s going to be asked, her business cards match her literature, she’s friendly and knowledgeable, and she’s carrying a pen and takes credit cards. She knows her customers and she’s there to do business.
Seller number two arrives late. Her appearance is shabby, she has no marketing literature or business cards with her, she stutters and struggles when asked questions she hasn’t prepared for. She’s winging it because she’s stressed.
Which seller do you want to do business with?
Search engines perform the same assessment that you would do on these two sellers, a million times a day across millions of websites. Google’s primary, if not only, reason for living in the search engine world is to do those assessments for you and present you, the searcher, with the most authoritative and relevant sources for the information you’re looking for. In the same way that your subconscious judged those two marketers, search engines are doing this across websites using artificial Intelligence on a grand scale, every second of the day.
Google draws on many factors to assess whether you should be ranked higher or lower than the next site in the pool of candidates competing for the same search term. Those factors are applied to each and every site listed in their indexes (databases).
Different flavours of SEO
Before we look at some of those factors, let’s briefly discuss the different types of SEO available:
When visitors search for information or products, they are presented with pages containing lists of links to sites that are deemed relevant to the search terms provided. The order of these pages is determined by the search engine’s algorithms, as outlined above. This is referred to as an organic search listing.
On those same pages, usually above and beneath 10 organic links , a number of paid listings are displayed. These links are paid for by the Website owner for the privilege of appearing for search terms that they couldn’t reach organically, jumping the line and going straight to page one. This is referred to as paid search listing or PPC (pay-per-click).
Contrary to popular misconception, using organic search to compete in search listings is generally the more expensive option when considering an SEO strategy. It is also the least predictable and most competitive, with full (undocumented) control in the hands of the search engines’ owners, in most cases Google. They own the rulebook, and they know how to make sure everyone follows them.
This unknown element opens the world of SEO to many self-appointed experts and snake oil salesmen with a lot of empty and expensive promises to get you to page one for your chosen search terms in a short period of time, for a hefty monthly fee. Everyone has an approach but the good ones know there is no secret formula to ranking.
To rank successfully in organic search listings, and stay ranked, it doesn’t take much experimentation to eventually concede to Google’s rules for entry into the great search competition.
Some of these rules (no one knows all of them) are:
- A site should contain lots of relevant text related to the business / products /subject on show.
- The more text respective to the amount of software code on the site will indicate a rich user experience. Sites with lots of imagery or graphics and little meaningful text won’t rank highly.
- A site’s content should be well written, grammatically correct and provide comprehensive details about the subject, including terms that demonstrate an authority on the subject in question. Poorly written or duplicated content is not looked on favorably and will rank lower than well written, correctly spelled, articulate text.
- A site’s integrity and performance should be such that it provides the visitor with a better browsing experience than the competition – site performance is a major factor in ranking, faster sites will rank better than slower ones. This is the area we generally find the most issues and items we can fix.
- A site should be constructed to make it easy for search engines to crawl (the terms used for when a search engine visits the site and explores it to build a map of its content). This can be addressed in a number of ways but the primary one is to provide the visitor with easy ways to navigate the site and find what they’re looking for quickly. Providing an up to date sitemap on the site is an essential response to this requirement.
- A site should observe a set of rules for accessibility. This doesn’t just cover physical disabilities, visitors browsing the site who may have limited bandwidth or computing technology should not be at a disadvantage compared to visitors who are viewing a site on a large screen with a high-speed connection.
- This requires that meaningful, and relevant, keywords should be used to identify images and provide more assistance in identifying the nature of an image and its relation to the subject on a page. You may hear the term “alt text” used, which refers to a text based description provided with an image when it is embedded on a page, therefore providing the viewer (and search engines) with a clue about what the nature of an image.
- A site should contain a number of external links to other authoritative sources of information similar or related to the subject of the site. The ‘safety-in-numbers’ concept relies on the site owner demonstrating that they know their subject because they know other sites and sources of information in the same space or industry. The opposite applies for use of links to and from unrelated sites, see ‘Black Hat vs. White Hat SEO’ later in this document.
- A site’s content should have lots of backlinks. Links to the site from third parties, preferably with higher rankings in a similar industry or genre as your site. Again, this is the ‘safety-in-numbers’ approach, whereby peers are endorsing credibility by providing links from their own site.
- Similar to the use of inbound and outbound links, another key factor in ranking is the registration of your site in as many credible management and listing services as possible. The starting point being the registration and verification of ownership of your site with Google’s Webmaster and Analytics tools, as well as Alexa, Bing and DMOZ. Signaling to Search Engines that you’re on top of your site and your business is key to taking you seriously and ranking you accordingly.
“OK, THAT’S INTERESTING I GUESS, BUT HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE ME TO GET TO PAGE ONE?”
This is the most frequent question that we’re asked by new clients, and most often the first.
The simple and most honest answer to the question is, nobody really knows. Google’s search engines are a completely closed and secret entity. No one but Google understands their algorithms and they are not made public. Many people and organizations work solely in the SEO space and there is a huge amount of information available on the web. But not one SEO professional has the golden algorithm up their sleeve and even the best of them will struggle to tell you how long a change to your site will change your rankings.
In our experience, it can take anything from a couple of days to over a year for changes to a page to take effect. New sites, or sites just entering into the ranks for a new term, will not hit page one immediately even if the site’s integrity, performance and content is superior to its ranking neighbors. Furthermore, a site seen to be jumping into the top ranks from nowhere will be treated with more scrutiny and can be held back until search engines’ algorithms can be sure the site is truly worthy of the prestigious status of ranking on page one.
If you’re looking for a quick fix to get you to the top, it’s time to settle down for the long haul. An organic SEO campaign strategy should be measured in months and years, not days and weeks and should not be the only option for drawing visitors to your site.
Even if someone manages to get your site to page one in a week, there’s always the challenge of staying there. Once you are ranking, you will find yourself in a fluid, ever changing competition with all other sites in the same ranking space. The race is on!
If the stakes are high for search terms you are competing for, expect to notice fluctuations in ranking positions, which are often related to:
- Additions or changes to competing sites’ content (including increases in traffic generated via social networks or new backlinks)
- Enhancements to competing sites’ integrity or performance
- Degraded performance of your own site
- Changes to your own site’s content with negative affects due to poorly crafted content, bad optimization or perceived black hat activity (see below)
- Changes to Google’s Search algorithms – this happens up to 600 times a year and can massively effect your site’s rankings, a history of changes and impact on internet businesses can be read here -> https://moz.com/google-algorithm-change
Keeping a grasp on fluctuating rankings is the primary reason SEO specialists and marketing organizations offer paid monthly subscriptions to manage their clients’ sites. Trying to advance your rankings through the development of your own site is only a small portion of the effort required to keep on top of a highly competitive game.
Understanding this volatility is a good reason why you shouldn’t trust an SEO specialist who charges a minimal monthly fee to ‘get you to page one and keep you there’. Seasoned SEO and marketing specialists understand the amount of effort required to monitor and analyze a site, as well as the competition’s, in order to understand why positions change and what to do about it.
There are many other factors for consideration on a day to day basis when it comes to organic search, and there are no short cuts. Those serious about using search as a viable marketing channel should consider the level of effort required to react and respond on a frequent basis, alongside development upon a rigid content and digital marketing strategy. The cost to benefit ratio of using organic
search as a marketing channel should be explored to make sure it is right for the business, and worth the expense, or disappointment if the going gets tough. There are no guarantees with organic search as there are no tangible returns on the investment. It’s not gambling, but it’s not too far away from it.
“SO WHAT AM I PAYING THESE GUYS FOR?”
During development of a search-related marketing strategy you are likely to come across many SEO experts and specialists, all with their own take on the industry and their own ‘methods’ for promoting your business. When considering an approach, it’s important to take Google’s own perspective on things. After all, they own the machine that decides where a site is going to be placed:
“We’d like to say that you should base your optimization decisions first and foremost on what’s best for the visitors of your site. They’re the main consumers of your content and are using search engines to find your work.
Focusing too hard on specific tweaks to gain ranking in the organic results of search engines may not deliver the desired results. Search engine optimization is about putting your site’s best foot forward when it comes to visibility in search engines, but your ultimate consumers are your users, not search engines.”
Roughly translated, we interpret this to mean: “Run a great business, sell great products and publish great content and you’ll rank naturally”.
Which takes us on to a quick mention of Black Hat vs. White Hat SEO and why you should be wary of strangers bearing big promises.
Black Hat vs. White Hat SEO
Ever since the first commercial search engines came onto the web in the 90’s, webmasters have been trying to work the system to get their sites ranking highly.
As people learned how the system worked, techniques to fool search engines into thinking that their sites should be at the top became more and more sophisticated. In addition to the competition of site vs site, there became a competition between these ‘black hat’ marketers and the search engines, who continue to introduce ever more complex selection factors and ranking algorithms in an attempt to disqualify the unscrupulous marketer. So when we search for “medical assistance for coronary problems”, we don’t get presented with a list of pages trying to sell us Viagra.
Techniques for tuning websites to appeal to search engines are divided between:
- Doing everything you can to provide the visitor with a rich, enjoyable, relevant, authoritative and engaging experience, related to the search terms they are looking for. This is referred to as White Hat SEO.
- Doing everything to try to fool search engines that you are more relevant than you are for a given search term. This includes establishing links to a site from multiple unrelated sources (known as linkspam), keyword stuffing and repetitive use of terms to build numbers of search words in an attempt to convince a search engine that the site is an authority, when it clearly isn’t. This is referred to as Black Hat SEO.
“So these search engines can’t be that clever can they? Surely it’s worth having a go to see if you can get it to work in your favor?”
Absolutely not. The waters in Black Hat territory are choppy and unforgiving. Many sites attempting Black Hat SEO techniques are wiped off search indexes, never to be seen in search listings again. These practices should be avoided at all costs and even the slightest indicator that your site might be perceived as using such techniques should be addressed immediately.
The damage from Black Hat SEO practices can be permanent and should be disregarded as a viable marketing option. Those SEO specialists promising to get you to page one in a couple of weeks will generally be using clever but unscrupulous techniques to get your site ranked. All it takes is for Google to notice you’re involved in of one of these scams and your site (and with it your business) could be wiped off the face of the internet or banished to a lower page. Your only visitors being keen telemarketers trying to sell you SEO services because your site isn’t ranking highly.
The key message here is buyer beware! There is no quick fix for organic SEO other than by publishing meaningful, well written, relevant content on a well performing site.
An alternative, or supplementary option to organic search optimization is paid search, often referred to as ‘Pay-Per-Click (PPC)’. To buy into this service with Google requires an account with Google Adwords, whereby your website appears alongside organically listed pages for particular search terms and keywords. For a fee, of course.
This practice is much the same as if you were to purchase a classified listing in a magazine or advertising space, with a slight twist. Depending on a number of key factors, including the popularity or competitiveness of keywords you want to list, advertisers will bid the highest price they are willing to pay to get listed above the competition. You’re still in a race, as with organic search, but this time you’re paying Google directly, rather than your team of developers and content producers.
With PPC, advertisers are able to set limits on how much they want to spend on a campaign. If a particular keyword is of high value (due to lots of people are searching for the chosen term) and many advertisers are bidding to be listed against it, they may find their Site appears less often than their competitors, especially if they are prepared to pay more. The effectiveness and value of a PPC campaign therefore needs to planned for carefully.
PPC can be a very cost effective way to draw traffic to your site as well as providing a cheap way to grow your brand by exposing your business name and website to users searching for specific, related terms. However, studies have shown that visitors are more inclined to ignore paid ads in search listings, relying on Google to have scored the top sites organically based on their perceived quality rather than their owners’ ability to pay to be on page one. Google are currently changing their model for how paid listings are presented, the future effect of which we will learn in due course.
It is worth noting that PPC advertising offers zero benefit to the ranking of the same site organically. The two methods are disconnected entirely and therefore PPC should not be seen as a way to shortcut the time it takes for a site to rise through rankings.
User Experience and Conversion
One last area to discuss is user experience (UX) and conversion – the transformation of a website visitor into a paying customer.
Getting a visitor to your website, as we have discussed, is an art form in itself. While taking a warrior approach to inviting and enticing visitors to view your wares, the primary focus will be on measuring how many visitors come to your site. Following that, the important metrics will be how long they stay for, what they look at and where they’ve come from (search, referrals from social networks, links from other sites, and so on). All to empower the site owner with sufficient information to understand what they need to do to keep them there longer, and hand over their credit card details.
So what’s next? We’re getting traffic so we can sit back, relax and watch the money come in, right?
Unfortunately, this generally isn’t the case. Once visitors start coming to your site, we’ll start becoming concerned about those who came to a page, spent three seconds there and then headed back to Google, or another site. This is referred to as a bounce. Those users who ignored all your fancy calls to action and went straight to a meaningless page that you’ve spent no time on at all and then disappeared? We need to know why and make sure it doesn’t happen again. They might not be a bounce, but they didn’t convert.
These frustrating statistics could be signaling to you that you’re targeting the wrong search terms, or that the user experience you’re providing is not what it could be. In this case you’ll need to do some work to engage and direct your visitors to the areas you actually want them to see.
While you’re figuring this out, Google is way ahead of you and will be ranking you accordingly. While they won’t tell you directly why you’re not ranking higher than the next site, here are some common reasons why they might think you’re not the best site for a set of given terms:
- The site is slow, the visitor got bored and went somewhere else.
- The site doesn’t immediately answer the questions the visitor had in mind when she was searching for something specific.
- Navigation around the site doesn’t take the visitor where they want to go in quick time, they got lost.
- There isn’t enough written text to engage the visitor and keep them on the site.
- There’s too much written text. It’s confusing or overloading the visitor with (often irrelevant) information.
- There’s too much advertising in the way.
- Flow of visitor interaction drops off a cliff with nowhere obvious to go after reading a particular page or a post (or product page).
- Calls to action are too subtle or not immediately recognizable.
- The site doesn’t provide a great experience on mobile devices or tablets as it does on a desktop or laptop computer (mobile devices form a much larger proportion of visitor statistics than just a few years ago, and they’re growing rapidly).
Without a dedicated UX team at their disposal to test their site before launch, website owners usually learn about their visitors’ behavior after they’ve been to the site and disappeared, and they very seldom come back. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to socialize your site with people who can give you honest, constructive feedback, you should take it and act upon it. Friends and family don’t count though, you’re never going to get an impartial opinion from them and they will cloud issues that you may need to respond to in order to succeed.
Google looks at UX in a number of ways and there are many tools to help measure and assist website owners to assess where they may need to improve. Google Analytics provides a great deal of useful information about visitor behavior and there are a host of free and paid toolsets available on the web. A regular review of visitor flow should be part of your regular working pattern as well as keeping on top of some of the more important metrics regarding your site, including how much you’re selling.
Looking at Search Engine Optimisation as a serious marketing channel for your business?