Search engine optimization (SEO) is a broad concept that includes many factors, like the words on a page, how your site is structured and the way other sites link to yours. But it’s not just about you and making your website search engine-friendly; SEO is also about creating a positive user experience for the people who visit your website. Whether you’re revamping an existing site or launching a new one, optimizing for search engines should be a top priority. In this post we’ll provide some SEO best practices so you can increase the visibility of your site.
A Brief History of SEO
In the early days of search, it became clear to two students at Stanford that finding quality information was an issue. Websites were keyword stuffing and using spammy backlinks to improve their rankings, none of which were helpful to searchers. When Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page set out to create Google, this was one of the issues they were hoping to address.
From the early 2000s to today, search and SEO have evolved significantly. Google began developing ranking guidelines that were focused less on the advertiser and more on the searcher. In the past few years, there have been some major updates to Google’s search algorithm that have made the company’s user-centric focus even clearer. Here’s a brief timeline of some of the biggest updates:
- Panda: Launched in 2011, Panda targets duplicate, plagiarized or thin content that is not useful for the searcher. In 2016, it was added to Google’s core ranking algorithm.
- Penguin: About a year later, Penguin was released in 2012 to further address content quality. It down-ranked sites with spammy or irrelevant links and awarded quality, organic backlinks.
- Hummingbird: In 2013, Google launched Hummingbird, an update designed to make their search algorithm better at interpreting semantic search, specifically intent and context. Keywords are still important post-Hummingbird, but pages can now rank for queries even if they don’t contain the exact search phrase used.
- Mobile: Often referred to as Mobilegeddon by marketers, Mobile was launched in 2015 and significantly down-ranked websites that were not mobile-friendly (i.e. responsive and optimized for mobile). Both the Mobile update and the most recent iteration, mobile-first indexing, are responses to the increasing number of users searching on mobile devices as opposed to desktops.
- RankBrain: In 2015, Google introduced machine learning to the algorithm with RankBrain. Google has referred to RankBrain as their third most important ranking factor. We don’t know exactly how it works, but SEOs generally agree that it monitors responses to queries to ‘learn’ more about intent and the value of certain pages.
One of the biggest challenges in SEO is that Google’s search algorithm is always evolving to better understand searcher intent and provide better results on search engine result pages (SERPs). If you’re new to SEO, the first step is understanding what it is so you can begin implementing best practices to increase your page rankings.
What is SEO?
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of increasing the amount of quality organic (non-paid) traffic to your website via search engine results.
Ranking factors, the criteria search engines use to evaluate and rank pages in results, can generally be grouped into the following categories:
Optimizing individual web pages is the first step to ranking higher in search engine results and attracting relevant traffic. From the content itself to title tags and meta descriptions, there are many ways to improve your on-page SEO.
What happens outside of your website can directly influence your search engine rankings. Off-page optimization is all about improving search engine and user perception of your site's authority, trustworthiness and relevance by gaining quality inbound links.
The lesser known and often dreaded cousin of on-page and off-page, technical SEO focusses on how well search engines can crawl and index your website. Things like responsive design and page speed are major ranking factors to consider.
Why You Need an SEO Strategy
If you have a website, you need to consider SEO. If you have a blog, you need to consider SEO. Any time you are creating online content that is being indexed by a search engine, you should be optimizing that content to ensure it ranks well and attracts organic traffic. Consider this: how often do you go to the second, third or fourth page of search results to look for information?
A study by Moz shows that on average, 71% of searches result in a page one organic click (Source). New features like rich snippets will likely have an impact on page one click-through rates but generally, links on the first page of search results will get the most traffic. If your website is buried on page two, three or four, you’re missing out on potential visitors.
You need an SEO strategy to increase your page rankings, improve the visibility of your website and drive organic traffic. 62% of B2B buyers say that a web search was one of the first three resources they use to learn about a solution (Source). Search is a significant opportunity for traffic and leads, but only if your content is properly optimized for search engines.
SEO Best Practices
SEO is an enormous field and it can be overwhelming when you’re starting out. This post is by no means a comprehensive overview, but the following best practices should provide you with some first steps to optimizing your site for search:
- Conduct an SEO audit. If you’re looking to improve SEO for an existing website, the first thing you need to do is an SEO audit. Using a free tool like SEOptimer or Seomator, you can see what you’re doing well and, more importantly, identify areas for improvement. Search algorithms are always changing in response to the ever-evolving nature of search, so it’s good to conduct an SEO audit at least once every six months.
- Create a realistic SEO strategy. The first mistake people make when embarking on SEO is trying to create a monumental 50-page document that tackles every issue at once. In the time it takes you to finalize such a detailed plan, Google will likely have released a new update to their search algorithm. When drafting your first SEO strategy, you should focus on the fundamentals – what are the most immediate or important results you want to see and how will you realize them?
- Establish SEO goals. As with any strategy, you need to have success metrics in place to determine whether your plan is effective or not. And these KPIs should reflect your overall SEO objectives. If you’re looking to increase your organic traffic by 25% this year, you might want to set goals for keyword rankings as well as page and position rankings.
- Do keyword research. I can’t stress this enough. All the optimizing and planning in the world won’t make a difference if you haven’t done your homework. Understanding how and what people search for when they look for your product or service will help you choose smart keywords. Apart from searcher intent, you also have to find a balance between search volume and difficulty to ensure it’s a keyword that, if you invest time and resources in, will produce the high-quality traffic you’re looking for.
- Track keyword positions. Because Google is designed for searchers, they don’t necessarily publicize data like keyword rankings. That doesn’t mean the information isn’t available, though. You can use paid SEO tools like Moz Pro or Ahrefs to help you identify what keywords you rank for and regularly track that information.
- Adjust your SEO strategy as necessary. Once you begin conducting regular audits of your website and tracking your keyword positions, you should start to see improvements in your overall SEO performance. Some improvements, like making your pages mobile-responsive, will produce more immediate results while others, like keyword placement, will take more time. If you don’t see your website ranking higher in SERPs, you may need to go back and adjust your strategy.
One final piece of advice: think of your SEO strategy as a living document. Optimizing your website for search will be an evergreen practice because search is always changing. Right now, searcher intent informs a lot of what Google ranks for. You should be creating useful and engaging content designed for searchers and your SEO strategy should make it easy for people to find this information.
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