Learning SEO: An Introduction for Beginners
According to a recent study by Conductor research, 8 out of 10 businesses see more ROI out of unpaid search traffic than email, pay-per-click advertising, or social media. On top of that, search engines send more customers than any of those channels.
Unfortunately, very few businesses see this as an opportunity, due to a perception that unpaid search traffic is completely out of their control.
While it’s certainly true that a business model is flawed if it relies exclusively on search engine traffic to exist, this isn’t how intelligent SEO (search engine optimization) works. Smart SEO strategies are designed to influence visibility in search engines (such as Google) through the use of tactics that are also beneficial for your business and your marketing strategy as a whole.
Understanding the Search Engines
While Google and other search engines do not publicly share in full how their algorithms work, careful experimentation with websites, as well as discerning interpretation of public announcements made by search engines, allow us to understand important things about how search engines work.
Here are some of the most important things to understand about search engines as they work today, Google in particular.
- Links from other websites are interpreted as citations. When another page links to one of your pages, your page is more likely to show up in search results.
- When another page links to your page, that link is more valuable if it also has links pointing to it.
- Google currently employs manual reviewers as well as computer programs to identify links which are built specifically to manipulate search results, and to either disregard those links, or penalize sites that use them.
- If the content on a page that links to you relates to the subject of your page, this may indicate what your page is about. Google is especially interested in the content near or within the text of the link, although abuse has made this information less valuable.
Google is using at least some of the following types of user behavior as an indicator of whether its search results are appropriate:
- The percentage of unique users who click on the result after it is shown to them.
- Users who click away from a search result and view others are more likely to be unsatisfied with that page, and this may influence search results. (This is called pogo sticking and sometimes, incorrectly, bounce rate.)
- If a user searches for a specific site, especially if they search for specific topics along with that site, this can be an indicator that the site is authoritative, especially when it comes to that specific topic.
- Ex Google employees have leaked that Google can track every click within the Chrome browser. It is unclear if this information is being used to rank websites, but sites that receive relevant referral traffic may rank better than sites which do not.
- The title tag, URL, and H1 heading of a page are seen as the most important on-site indicators of what the page is about.
- Modern search engines make at least some effort to discern the meaning of a user’s search query. While it still helps to use specific words or phrases, exact matches are unnecessary and even counterproductive (since they are less enticing for users). Synonyms often work just as well, and in some cases sites will show up in search results as long as the meaning is a good match, even if the words used are quite different.
- Content that is not helpful for users is, to an extent, discounted by search engines. It is unclear at this point whether this is the result of analyzing user behavior, the content itself, or more likely, both.
- There is no need to use a specific “keyword density” and this is, in fact, usually counterproductive. It is more important that the content is on-topic and satisfying to users.
SEO Tactics & Strategies
An understanding of how search engines work is vital to SEO, but it’s not enough in and of itself. SEO tactics and strategies must be designed not just to improve search engine visibility, but to benefit the business and its marketing strategy as a whole. This is true not only because the ROI is higher, but because the tactics are more likely to work for SEO in the long term.
Here are a few important SEO strategies to be aware of. This list should not be considered exhaustive:
- Keyword/Topic research: Keyword research allows you to identify what topics users are interested in, how valuable those users may be, and how competitive the search results for these and similar keywords are. It is important to understand that the specific wording of keywords is not nearly as important as it once was. An obscure re-wording of a popular keyword phrase is often just as competitive, and will return similar or identical search results. This will only become more common with time.
- Link building: It is important to earn, attract, and build hyperlinks to your site from other sites in order to get your site indexed and ranking. Too much emphasis on this, especially in the quantity of links, has led some websites to penalties. This is why it is important to approach building, earning, and attracting links in a way that is also beneficial for your marketing strategy, in that it sends relevant referral traffic.
- Content marketing: Content marketing can be viewed as an SEO tactic and as a broader inbound marketing tactic. Legitimate content marketing aims to not only attract, but keep an audience. Smart content marketing is beneficial for SEO because it creates positive user behavior that the search engines interpret as a sign of authority.
- General promotion: Promotion through all available, relevant channels is beneficial for SEO and digital marketing in general. Examples of channels include social networks, message boards, press releases, YouTube, podcasts, and advertisements. While links from these sources are often ignored by search engines due to the use of a tag called the “nofollow” attribute, promotion of this kind causes users to search for your site, link to it, and take other actions which can improve your visibility in search results.
- Markup: Implementation of semantic markup such as schema.org can help search engines better understand your site as well as make your search results stand out more with rich snippets. HTML markup is still very important, especially the title tag, meta description, and heading tags. Misuse of these tags can dramatically hurt your search engine visibility or click through rate.