SEO for Non-Experts: What is it, how does it work, is it dead, and why or why not?

What is SEO anyway?

SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” It is the process of getting traffic from the “free,” “organic,” “editorial” or “natural” search results on search engines.

Major search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo constantly crawl the web, indexing content into massive databases of billions of documents, which are searched with the aim to deliver instant search results that are most relevant and popular. Ranking of results is driven by sophisticated algorithms using hundreds of variables that “sort the wheat from the chaff” (relevance), and then to rank the “wheat” in order of quality (popularity).

See 2015 survey results of top search-engine ranking factors (here).

What good SEO will do for your business?

Websites compete for attention and placement in the search engines, and those with the knowledge and experience to improve their website’s ranking will receive the benefits of increased traffic and visibility, which drives sales.

On average, 71.33% of searches resulted in a page one Google organic click. Page two and three get only 5.59% of the clicks. On the first page alone, the first 5 results account for 67.60% of all the clicks and the results from 6 to 10 account for only 3.73%.

Some Tips from Google and Microsoft

  • Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines. Don’t attempt to deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users, a practice commonly referred to as “cloaking.”
  • Make a site with a clear hierarchy and text links. Every page should be reachable from at least one static text link
  • Create a useful, keyword and information-rich site, with pages that clearly and accurately describe your content
  • Create clean, keyword-rich, human-friendly URLs

One of the most important elements to building an online marketing strategy around SEO is empathy for your audience. Once you grasp what your target market is looking for, you can more effectively reach and keep those users.

When considering SEO strategy, keep in mind that most searches fall into one of three buckets:

  1. “DO” – Transactional: “I want to buy a plane ticket”
  2. “KNOW” – Informational: “I’m looking for the name of a music group”
  3. “GO” – Navigational: “I’m looking for a web site”

Allowing this to inform content-strategy will result in the search engine serving up your property as a relevant and popular result. Additionally, the following fundamentals continue to benefit search engine rankings.

  • Accessibility
  • Quality Content
  • Quality Design
  • Keyword and Key Phrase Targeting (but don’t overdo it – more on that below)
  • Social Media Integration
  • Link Building

About Link Building (The Light and Dark sides of the Force)

There are a lot of ways to build a catalog of backlinks that impact your SEO performance. However, there is a light side and a dark side to link-building. While there are methods to build a large volume of back-links in a short time, they can actually hurt your performance as they could result in getting downgraded by an updated Google algorithm.

Cultivate backlinks from these sources to strengthen SEO

  • Business Contacts
  • Forums, social media and websites that are related to yours
  • High Quality Resource Lists
  • News Media and Blogs
  • Social Media Link Acquisition
  • Content Marketing

Distance yourself from these sources which can actually hurt your rankings

  • Reciprocal Link Pages
  • Low Quality Directories
  • Article Marketing
  • Paid Links
  • Forum Spam
  • Link Farms

Remember, you want to stay away from “black hat” SEO tactics that focus only on search engines and not a human audience, and often violate search engine guidelines. While they may have been effective a few years ago, they are likely to incur penalties that punish web site rankings. For a rundown on current dangerous practices, I highly recommend reading Bobby McGill’s “Does My Site Have A Penalty? 27 Risks to Check”. In addition to the previous list, dangerous practices include:

  • Over-optimised anchor text
  • Unnatural guest posting
  • Thin or “scraped” content
  • Keyword stuffing
  • Poor mobile experience

That last one isn’t really a penalty from Google but is imposed by failing to recognize that nearly half of all web interactions are coming from mobile devices. Ensuring a solid user experience on mobile is crucial to maintaining engagement with an audience increasingly on the go.

The REALLY Dark Side (Negative SEO)

The worst kind of black hat SEO isn’t even something you can do, but is something that is done to you by someone else. Also known as ‘Google Bowling’, Negative SEO is the practice of spamming competitive websites with backlinks to devalue them in the search engines. Read an account on a real-life neg-SEO attack on WP Bacon here.

This is a scary practice as there is little the site operator can do to protect the property, other than vigilantly monitor site ranking, immediately investigating sudden drops,  and submitting a disavow file with the offending links to Google.

But, I heard SEO was “Dead”. Is it even still a thing?

Search engine optimization has changed a lot over the years.

When search marketing began in the mid-1990s, manual submission, the meta keywords tag, and keyword stuffing were all regular parts of the tactics necessary to rank well. In 2004, link bombing with anchor text, buying hordes of links from automated blog comment spam injectors, and the construction of inter-linking farms of websites could all be leveraged for traffic.

Today, social media and content marketing are mainstream methods for driving search engine optimization, and search engines have refined their algorithms along with this evolution. Many of the tactics that worked a few years ago can hurt your SEO today.

In fact, there is something of an internet tradition of annually claiming that SEO is dead. A Google search I just performed for “SEO is Dead” returned over 11.5 Million results indicating it remains a lively debate. Driving factors include the increasing role of social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter) in generating inbound referrals, and increasingly sophisticated search engine algorithms shutting the door on SEO manipulation tactics.

At the end of the day, it seems to come down to one’s ultimate purpose, and definition for SEO.

Search engine providers want to meet user needs through quality search results that are relevant and authentic. To do so, they are driving an evolution of algorithms that are better and better at giving rank to sites with quality content, over those attempting to game the idiosyncrasies of system.

Does this mean that SEO is really dead, or is it finally getting back to the roots of what quality digital marketing has always been about?

Clearly it’s not SEO that is dead but rather the outdated tactics and strategies. More than ever, SEO is about building a quality website with relevant information and adding to it consistently over time. Of the many things written on the subject, I’m going to quote liberally from Razvan Gavrilas‘ outstanding article, “The Many ‘Deaths’ of #SEO Before 2015”, which you can read in full (here).

Before we decide whether SEO is dead or not, we need to clarify what SEO really means. There are a lot of misunderstandings surrounding what SEO is about, which leads people on the wrong track. If for instance, you think SEO is about tricking search engines, linking schemes, and web spam then yes, SEO is dead.

Since 2011, the Panda algorithm targets websites with too much keyword stuffing, advertising, duplicate content or those that didn’t have quality signals pointing to their sites … and a lot of people believed optimization was no longer possible.

In 2012, it introduced the Penguin algorithms, which focused mainly on web spam updates. Penguin checks the links on a website and if it doesn’t like the links pointing to that website, it “demotes” the site’s ranking significantly.

[And] just like anything else, guest blogging has been abused, so Google began to devalue the links from guest blogging.

Last year, Google rolled out two new updates: Penguin 3.0, which focuses on link building strategies (less quantity, more quality), and Panda 4.0, which prevent sites with poor quality content from reaching Google’s top search results.

Diversify your traffic! Write for humans not for search engine bots! Stay away from link building schemes, they might work on short-term but will surely get you penalized heavily in the long-term. Make your content sharable and interesting. Follow people who have sites similar to yours and create connections with them.

As long as search engines exist and are trying to provide users with the most relevant results, the ability to make your site the most relevant will exist. If Google and every other search engine along with it collapse and die, then SEO will probably die along with it. But until that happens, until the system breaks or it is replaced by another one, we are going to have SEO.

SEO is always a challenging field, but it doesn’t change all that much. If you’ve been doing the right things, none of these algorithms should be ruining your businesses.

In conclusion, you are always better off optimizing your website content for search engines than ignoring them. They are simply getting better at detecting quality. The attentive SEO manager will embrace the trend and use it to drive continuous improvement of the online property itself, which is really the entire point of it all.

Stick to the fundamentals, and most importantly, produce quality and engaging content. If your audience responds to your website, Google likely will as well.

As with many disciplines, fundamentals never get old.

Source: Search Engine Land (Download Periodic Table of SEO here)

And many thanks to these excellent sources on the state of SEO:

Search Engine Land “What Is SEO / Search Engine Optimization?”

MOZ “The Beginners Guide to SEO”

B2C “Forget Everything You Know About SEO”

Click Z “Is SEO Dead?”

Search Engine Journal “The Many Deaths of #SEO Before 2015”


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