WHAT IS SEO?
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. It is the process of acquiring traffic from the free or organic search results on search engines (eg. Google) through a mixture of strategic web design and external factors.
How do search engines work?
Search engines are basically answer machines. When a user types a query, the search engine crawls out through a massive network and retrieves relevant results. The results are then displayed to the searcher in order of best match to worst.
There are three basic stages for a search engine:
- Crawling: or the acquisition of website data. The search engine sends out automated bots (called spiders) to scan each page of a website and record all site details. At the bare minimum, it records the page title, images, keywords and any links contained on the site. Sophisticated crawlers can determine exactly where the links are located (eg. are they hidden in the footer, or in a predominant part of the main text?), where the advertising units are located and even the page layout. Any site that is linked to another indexed site will eventually be crawled, though it is possible to manually request a site to be indexed. The closer a site is to the homepage, the more likely it is to be indexed, and in greater depth.
- Indexing: the process of recording all the data accumulated in a crawl to a database. The collected information is stored in vast data centres consisting of thousands of servers located across the world.
- Retrieval: the search engine uses complicated algorithms to scroll through the stored data and determine which page is most relevant to the query. Different search engines use different algorithms to define which results are the most important using data from keywords, date published, number of links and other factors. These algorithms are regularly updated in a race to prevent web designers and companies from fooling the search engine.
Basics of SERPS
SERP stands for Search Engine Results Page, and is the page displayed by a search engine in response to a search query. Due to the vast number of pages available online, there are usually numerous SERPs for a single query.
Almost every SERP is unique, even for results returned for the same queries or keywords. This is because most search engines take into account the user’s location, search history and social factors in order to determine the most relevant results. The SERP will show a mixture of both organic (ie. listings that appear as a result of the search engine’s algorithm) and paid results (ie. where the advertiser has paid to have their result listed).
The types of results displayed on a SERP will vary depending on whether the search is transactional, navigational or informational. A transactional search such as “Buy Birkenstocks” will usually return predominantly paid results, whereas an informational search such as “Miranda Kerr birthday” is more likely to return sites such as Wikipedia or fan sites.
Core elements of SEO
Whilst the basics of SEO may seem not so simple at first, there is a science to it, and following the correct steps will help you ensure that your page is discoverable by search engines and ranks well. The core elements of SEO can be broken down into on-page, off-page and technical, each of which is explained in detail below.
On-page elements: Tell the search engine the contents of your page, and refer to the sections of your page that can be easily accessed and archived by a crawler, such as page content, URL, title tags and image alternative text.
Off-page elements: tell the search engine what others think of your site, and include factors such as perceived relevance, trustworthiness and authority. Off-page elements are most commonly links from external sites, but also include internal site links and site or keyword mentions by authoritative sources.
Technical elements: ensure that the webpage is created and maintained in a way that is discoverable by the search engine’s bots, and are the principal elements of any SEO strategy. Most importantly, the HTML code must be clean, and ideally HTML/XML sitemaps will be available in the footer of each page. This gives the search bots the ability to enter your site from any page and subsequently discover all linked sites through the map. Further technical elements include site speed and great user experience, including mobile optimization.
A title tag is displayed on a SERP as the clickable headline for a search result, and they are derived from an element of HTML that specifies the title of the webpage. In HTML code, a title tag would look like:
<title> What is SEO </title>
Title tags are the first impression many people have of your page, and play a major factor in helping the search engine determine what your page is about. Aside from search engine results, title tags are also used when your site is linked in social networks and as the tab title in your browser. In order to optimize your search engine results, every page must contain a relevant and unique title tag.
A good title tag will be short and sweet, containing the exact keywords that describe your page succinctly. Currently, Google limits the title display to 600 pixels, so ideally you will be able to fit your keywords into this limit. It is important to list the keywords in order from most to least important, but be careful not to stuff the title with too many keywords as Google may interpret this as spam and ignore the page completely.
If this chapter were a webpage, a good title tag could be:
<title> SEO on-page tips and tricks </title>
This title clearly identifies the subject (SEO), the secondary subject (on-page SEO) and exactly what the page is about (on-page tips and tricks).
A meta description is an HTML tag that provides a concise summary of the web page. This is usually the text that displays under the search result titles retrieved by the search engine. As a general rule, the meta description should be a compelling description that entices the viewer to click on the link with no more than 160 characters.
Meta descriptions are not used in Google’s ranking algorithm, however they are still an important factor to attract traffic to your website. More clicks lead to a higher page ranking!
Heading tags are another element of HTML code which tell the search engine which parts of your text are important. They help structure the page and have a hierarchy from 1 to 6 (in HTML this is <h1> to <h6>), with the first three tags carrying the highest SEO value.
The h1 tag should contain the most important keywords and relate closely to the page title. The h2 tag should be a subtitle of h1, the h3 tag should be a subtitle of h2, and so on. One very common mistake of new web designers is to use a heading tag to make text big or bold, however this is completely incorrect! Formatting should be directed through CSS tags so as not to confuse the search engines, and heading tags should only be used to highlight the important structural sections of the page.
Internal links are a type of hyperlink that connect one page of a website to another page on the same website. They need to be structured carefully to ensure that each page is discoverable by the search engine, and so that the search engine and the user can determine the relationship between the links. A pyramid page structure is the most useful strategy to ensure that search engines can reach and rank your content.
Anchor text is the clickable text in a hyperlink, and should be succinct and relevant to the target page. SEO friendly anchor text is succinct, relevant to the linked page, has low keyword density and is unique and descriptive. It can be anything from a brand name, direct URL, short description, keyword or image, but should not be anything too generic, such as “click here”.
Whilst you generally don’t have control over how external sites link to you, it is important to understand the fundamentals and apply them wherever possible, including internal links.
The URL specifies to the browser how to access that particular website. Ideally, a URL is in plain English and readable to both humans and search bots.
A URL is made up of the protocol, domain name, subfolders and the TLD. Originally, the TLDs (top level domain) were designed for specific purposes, however more recently the number of available TLDs has increased, and the chosen TLD has minimal impact except where referring to a location (eg. .com.au) or a verified TLD (eg. .gov or .edu).
A well-designed URL gives the user and search bot a general idea of the website topic, so where possible should contain keywords and brand names. For example, the URL https://www.blogname.com/why-I-dont-eat-meat tells the reader who has published the blog (in this case the blog is the brand) and exactly what the page is about.
Link building strategy
Link building is the most important factor in SEO as it helps the search engine calculate the popularity of the page and the relationship between that page and others. To assign a value to links, the search engine first determines how globally popular and trusted the linking site is, and then applies that information to the algorithm for your page. For example, a link from the New York Times website would be vastly more valuable than a link from your cousin Jane’s blog. Topic specific links also hold higher value, for example if your site sells car parts, a link from a petrol station would be more valuable than a link from a dog walking company.
Anchor text from external links is one of the main factors that enables a search engine to determine the importance of a webpage. If ten pages link back to another page using the keyword frog, the search engine can easily determine that the site topic is frogs and the page is more likely to rank well for that search term. However, links from identified spam pages are likely to reverse this effect, so be wary of the origin of your links.
Finally, freshness is a factor used to determine whether a page is still relevant. Google and other search engines are able to determine when a link was made, so it is important to continually gain new links to your page to stay relevant.
Guest blogging is an effective way to drive traffic to your website through clicks whilst increasing SEO through backlinks. However, the quality of the blog sites and your featured posts is extremely important to ensure that your guest post is not flagged as spam by search engine bots.
A quality guest post will contain original, well-written content and links to resources that give readers further insights on the blog topic. To avoid the post being flagged as spam, links back to your own website should be limited and only used where their inclusion flows naturally. Other anchor-rich links can be used to different websites to increase the trustworthiness of your post.
Once your guest post is published, it is important to remain engaged on the guest blog and respond to any comments. Not only does this give you further exposure, it also helps in developing long term-relationships and establishing yourself as an authority on the topic.
Participation in social media is crucial in developing an effective SEO strategy. Quality social media posts not only increase brand awareness, but can also increase site traffic, which in turn boosts your site’s SEO value. Search engines generally do not regard social media links in their algorithms, however the more shares, likes and followers you can gain in your social media posts, the more brand influence you will have and the higher the chance of page visits.
Research has shown that social media users are more likely to like or share a post rather than click through to the content, so your challenge is to create engaging posts that leave the reader wanting more. The most effective posts are targeted to a defined audience and contain high quality content snippets with an image and a call to action to encourage site visits.
Site speed is the time it takes for pages to load, calculated across a sample of pages from your site. Page speed is a known factor in Google’s algorithm, as a faster site speed leads to better user experience.
One way to easily increase site speed is by optimizing the code and removing any unnecessary characters (eg. spaces and commas) and formatting instructions. The use of CSS rather than HTML formatting dramatically reduces the amount of text and also makes it easier for the search engine bots to read and index the site.
Image optimization can also reduce load time significantly, so images used in your website should be the most appropriate file type and no larger than necessary. You may also consider using CSS sprites to create a template for images that are used frequently on the page, such as buttons or icons. The CSS sprites allow them to load as a single image, thus reducing overall load time.
In 2016, mobile overtook desktop as the primary device used to access websites, so it makes sense that search engines value mobile-friendly websites. As user experience is such an important factor in search engine algorithms, it is imperative to ensure that your site is optimized for mobile.
A common issue that reduces the user experience of mobile sites is Flash usage. Most mobile browsers are unable to read Flash, so it’s safest to avoid using it altogether. Font size and page layout may also impact user experience, so you want to ensure that the text can be read without having to zoom, and buttons and links are spaced appropriately for a touch screen.
Due to hardware connectivity issues, site speed on a mobile device is even more important than for desktop users. Site caching, limiting browser redirects and avoiding pop-ups can all increase mobile site speed, leading to a better user experience and subsequently better SEO.
Sitemaps are used to show the relationships between pages on your site, and to direct users or search bots to the most salient content. HTML site maps are designed for human use and signify to the search bot that the site is user friendly, whereas XML sitemaps are designed for search bots to efficiently extract the important information about a site.
A well-designed HTML sitemap should have an anchor link pointing to every page on your website, which ensures the entire site is crawlable. In theory, an accurate HTML sitemap mitigates the need for an XML sitemap, however it is advisable to use both to increase the likelihood that all your pages will be crawled.
A further benefit of XML sitemaps is that it signifies to the search engine the date that your content was published. Site content is often copied and you may find your own content duplicated on lower quality sites, which could resemble spam if picked up by search engine bots. The XML sitemap indicates that you are the content creator and may assist in avoiding a drop in SERP rankings.
The long-tailed keyword
Long-tailed keywords are highly specific search terms that consist of 3 or more words, and tend to have a relatively high conversion rate. For example, think of a website that sells life coaching for female executives with a family. A search for “Life coach” may return hundreds of thousands of results, whereas a search for “Life coach executive women” would narrow that search significantly.
Investing in long-tail keywords can be a great strategy for websites with a defined niche, or those who want to attract a customer close to the point of purchase. For paid campaigns, long-tail keywords may pull in less traffic, however the cost per click will inevitably be lower and the return on equity higher as potential customers are directed to exactly what they are searching for.
Tools for keyword research
There are multiple tools available online for keyword research, both paid and free services. Using these resources can benefit your business by showing hypothetical keyword data and allowing you to test keywords before you make any investment. The below tools are perhaps the top three most popular tools available for keyword planning, all easily accessible and user friendly:
Google Keyword Planner: requests you to enter your seed keywords (such as the topic of your website or items you are selling), your site URL, the category of the website and your target market details. With this information, the tool generates a list of related keywords along with important data such as the number of average monthly searches and how much competition there is for that keyword.
KWFinder: a long-tail keyword research tool that provides data about entered keywords, including cost per click, search volume, competition level, details of domains targeting the keyword and traffic to those domains.
Moz Pro Keyword Explorer: draws on data from Google Keyword Planner and Google Keyword Assist to offer detailed keyword insights. It can help with SEO strategy planning as the information details link and social data, and can demonstrate why certain pages rank better on SERPs.
How to find great keywords
To identify great keywords, you first must define a list of what you would like to rank for on the SERP. Create a list of topics related to your business, then, use each of these topics to brainstorm specific keywords and phrases. For example, if you write a food blog, you may list “cooking” as a topic, then specific keywords could be “healthy dinners for kids” or “one-pot meals”. Don’t forget to use location as a key word if this is important to your business, for example “vegetarian cooking classes Chicago”.
Once you have a list of keywords, search the terms using Google and scroll to the bottom of the SERP, where you will find a list of related searches. You can add these terms to your keywords, or repeat the process with one of the related searches to generate even more keyword ideas.
Measuring keyword rankings
Once keywords have been selected, their rankings must be tracked to measure performance and allow you to re-define keywords if necessary. You can do this manually, by searching for the keyword and counting how far down the SERP your site is listed, or there are a number of free tools online which will perform the task for you.
Now that you have an overview of the importance of SEO and how it works to bring viewers to your page, it’s time to put it into action! There are plenty of free tutorials and YouTube courses online to help consolidate your knowledge, but if you’re looking for something more you can contact the-oop.com for expert advice and strategy.
It’s important to remember that SEO is only one aspect of digital marketing, and an effective digital marketing strategy co-ordinates multiple platforms and systems to drive business success. Take a look at the free information at the-oop.com for further insights, or contact us for expert advice.