March 31, 2016

My First Date With SEO

Published: 31 March 2016 

As a writer, I was expecting to spend the rest of my life living on scraps, but low and behold the other day I actually managed to land a job! Shock horror right? This was pretty awesome, but like all new jobs it meant learning a few new skills. I’m an adventurous soul, so this isn’t the end of the world. So with that said, let’s get learning.

Basic SEO tips for beginners

The fine establishment where I now work is a digital marketing agency. What does that mean? In a nutshell, we help businesses, perhaps just like yours, increase their online exposure. One of the ways that we do this is through a process known as Search Engine Optimisation, or as it's colloquially known in the industry, SEO.

Now this is where the learning comes in. Over the last few days, I’ve learnt what SEO is, how it works, and how important it really is. I’m not quite sure how I made it 25 years without realising just how much of an effect SEO can have on the way we use the net, but now that I do I want to help others like me understand as well. So let’s get stuck in. What is SEO? How do you go about getting your head around it as a complete newbie? And if you’re looking to get SEO working for your business, how exactly will it help?

On my first day I was asked if I knew of or had any understanding of what SEO was. Erring on the side of caution, I humbly admitted I had heard of the term, but putting all things on the table, I had little to no idea. Fortunately, this confession didn’t lead to any frowns or worse, my immediate termination. I was instead asked to employ my writing skills and go on a journey of exploration. So I did, and this is what I discovered.

What is SEO?

Search Engine Optimisation is another aspect of marketing in general. Who better to ask, for a basic definition of what SEO is, than Rand Fishkin, founder of legendary Web Consultancy Company, Moz? According to Rand, SEO is “the practice of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic that you can earn through the organic results in search engines”.

Even for a rookie, that’s pretty easy to digest. Maybe so, but how do you actually do it? With skill and dexterity, and a healthy understanding of how Google, Yahoo, Bing and the rest decide their rankings. To do this job properly, you have to understand how they do theirs.

Search Engines

One might think of a search engine as a website where you type in a question and get a reply.
Which isn’t entirely untrue. However, there is a lot more to those lists than meets the eye. Here’s how that search actually works. Yahoo, Bing, Google or whoever have thousands of little robots that they call crawlers. No, not the one you might have in your pool, they’re a bit more complex than that. What these little guys do is head out, muster information about all the content they can find on the web, which Google then uses to determine its rankings. The crawler then brings the info back and builds an index, this index is then passed through an algorithm that tries to match all the information with your query.

Phew, confused yet? That’s okay, now that we have a basic idea of what a search engine is doing in order to work out its rankings, we can focus on making our website conform to what they want.

One of the first things I learnt about SEO is that it is split into two camps, on-site and off-site. The difference, even for a rookie like me, is pretty self explanatory. In a nutshell, on-site is all about making the website itself as good as it can possibly be in the eyes of Google’s crawlers. This includes making sure you’ve nailed your keyword density, that the site is fast and easy to navigate and that the user experience is in general as good as it can be for the average user.

Offsite optimisation on the other hand has little to do with physical site. It all about the wheeling and dealing away from the website to help increase your website's rankings and authority. Through building a link back profile you can increase the authority of your site and subsequently give yourself a measure of control over how Google decides to rank you. Rankings are no accident - put the work in on and off the site and you’ll be rewarded.

Link Building

The easiest way to understand the importance of link building is to understand this simple mantra: It’s more important what others say about you than what you say about yourself. Google takes that saying to heart when it’s working out rankings - the sites which have a good reputation within the web are favoured in the rankings. Google works out this reputation by looking at a site’s back link profile.Link Building is a super simple term that is actually pretty tough to wrap your head around. Essentially, search engines like it when sites have lots of other sites linking back to them. Why? The reasoning goes like this: a site that has many others linking back to it must have lots of relevant information on it that other people are finding useful. If other sites like the information, then it must be good stuff and therefore worthwhile showing to users. It’s all about providing users with the most relevant information. Therefore it follows that if your info is relevant, then boom, you’ll be pushed up the rankings.

I’ve only been here a few days, yet I’ve managed to do a bit of historical research, and this is what I’ve found. In the early days of link-building websites worked out a loophole; they would simply develop something known as a ‘link farm’ and would cultivate thousands of linkbacks to their site from illegitimate sources. It didn’t matter where these links were coming from, as long as they were links.

Of course, the brains trust at Google headquarters cottoned on to this strategy, updated their algorithms and these sites were gone overnight. Today, Google's algorithms are far more advanced than in the early days of link building. They can recognise these dodgy, illegitimate links in a heartbeat. Not only will they not help your rankings anymore, they will actually hurt them.

Link building today requires something known as outreach. The site looking for a link produces some sort of content that it believes other sites will find useful. It approaches these sites with said content asking if it is something they would be interested in sharing and subsequently linking back to the original site. If successful, the site gains one valuable link, and a relationship is formed which can provide more benefits to both parties down the track.

The strategy is pretty simple, but the SEO game can be a bit unfair: it isn’t a democracy. How so? Well, the biggest and baddest companies and websites out there pretty much don’t have to worry about their SEO strategy. This is because since they’re already known, sites will link to their content without them having to ask. Time Magazine, Apple and many others are always having their content linked to, so their linkback profile is always expanding without them even trying.

Smaller companies however, don’t have that brand awareness. No-one is going to them for information, so no one links to their sites without being asked. These smaller sites have to go on a treasure hunt for their links.

What this all means is that link building a process you can’t automate, it requires a human touch.

Other Factors

It’s easy for the bigger sites to get ranked - Google recognises their authority and hikes them up the rankings. Some of the more recent algorithms changes have made it harder for smaller sites to compete with these larger monoliths, in the more traditional sense at least. However, something I learnt early on, because it’s intrinsically connected to link building, is that there are still ways for pages with less authority to get ranked. They can achieve this by creating awesome, top quality, original content that the larger sites don’t have the initiative to create. Since they’re filling a vacuum, users are drawn to the smaller sites.

Take Amazon for example. This enormous site will be front and centre of almost every Google search thanks to its online presence. However, while Amazon sells practically everything, it doesn’t provide worthwhile content explaining those products. That’s where smaller sites come in. A site that not only sells vacuum cleaners, but has an entire page dedicated to maintenance tips or other useful content, is providing a service that Google recognises as valuable to consumers. Rankings are therefore boosted.

Content is easily overlooked is easily overlooked in SEO, but’s importance can’t be understated. Content can be used for outreach to build a linkback profile and increase a website’s authority. With Google’s constant algorithm updates, content is king.

Why SEO is Vital

Something I never realised during all those years of Google searches was just how much work had gone into providing me with that top ten. Most of those little blue links had done a lot of work to end up in the position they were in. But, by doing that work and ending up on the front page, they were ensuring that I saw them, and that everyone else who made a similar search did as well. All that work meant that they were getting exposure. And that, at its root, is what SEO is all about.

Research is the key to understanding, so when I was asked to find out about SEO, I got Googling, and this is what I found. Statistics released by Google indicate that the majority of search engine users are more likely to choose one of the top 5 suggestions on the first page of search results. According to Reliable Soft, a company that began operating SEO in the early stages of search engines (just like Matter Solutions did!), employing fundamental SEO practice not only improves traffic to your page, but can also help improve your website usability. Furthermore, Reliable Soft points out that users trust search engines and that having a presence in the top positions for the keywords the user is searching increases the web site’s trust. Lastly, SEO puts you ahead of competition. If two websites are selling the same thing, the better optimised webpage is in the box seat to get more customers and more sales.

So Where Are We At?

Hopefully, my own journey out of the darkness of SEO ignorance has helped you to understand a bit more about the practice yourself. SEO is a complex beast that requires an experienced hand to do correctly. If employed well the benefits can be phenomenal, but when done poorly, they can be equally damaging. If you want to find out everything there is to know about SEO and how it can be channeled into making your brand great, check out our services over on our SEO page. Happy searching!

Ben Maden

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