‘Search engine optimization’ (SEO) is the process of optimizing online content (e.g. a web page, blog article, video) so a search engine, like Google or Bing, shows it as a top result for searches of a certain word or phrase, known as a ‘keyword.’ Appearing in top search results brings free, passive traffic to your online content which can attract more customers, generate leads, and more.
Here’s an example: let’s say that you run a food blog and you have an article about how to make keto brownies. With optimization, your article is more likely to show as a top result to anyone who searches for the keyword phrase “keto brownies.”
It’s easy to see why SEO is important, but it’s not so straight-cut when it comes to understanding the actual mechanics of it. That’s why Mavericks Marketing wants to break down SEO for you with an in-depth look at this powerful digital marketing strategy. Before we dive in, let’s first review how search engines work.
Search engines are like a digital library that stores copies of web pages. When you enter a query into a search engine, it looks through all the pages in its index and tries to return the most relevant results by using an algorithm. Here’s how Google says search works:
“To help you find what you’re looking for, we consider many factors, including the words in your question, the content of pages, the expertise of sources, and your language and location. Every day, fifteen percent of searches are ones we haven’t seen before, so we use automated systems to get you the most relevant and reliable information we can find.
To measure whether people continue to find our results relevant and reliable, we have a rigorous process that involves extensive testing and thousands of independent people around the world who rate the quality of Search.”
While there are many search engines, Google is by far the most popular which is why it’s typically the primary focus of optimization efforts. According to Statista’s search engine market share study, Google maintains 87.96% market share whereas Bing accounts for 5.27%, as of October 2019.
All search engines, however, have the same goal: to show the best, most relevant results to their users. How they try to achieve this goal varies as each search engine has its own algorithm. Given the variety of ranking factors that search engines use in their algorithms, we will only discuss Google since it’s the biggest of them all.
White Hat vs Black Hat
SEO isn’t set in stone because Google is constantly refining their algorithm. What worked yesterday might not work today which is why it’s crucial to stay on top of big updates that can impact your online content. Due to this fluidity, some people try to take advantage and game the system which is called ‘black hat SEO.’
Black hat is about optimizing content only for the search engine and doesn’t consider the user at all. This approach results in spammy content which can perform well in search results for a time until it eventually gets banned. Marketers who use this technique are more focused about making a quick buck than they are about their online content or brand’s legivitiy.
White hat focuses on the user by providing quality content and making it easily accessible by following the search engine’s rules. Mavericks Marketing only does white hate SEO because it’s a more sustainable and ethical approach.
However, not even SEO is strictly black and white – there’s also ‘gray hat SEO’ which is a bit of both. Given the evolving nature of algorithms, the rules aren’t always so clear-cut which is why gray hat SEO can happen, either intentionally or unintentionally. As long as you follow the rules to the best of your abilities, your online content should be safe from being penalized or banned.
On-Page and Off-Page SEO
Google’s algorithm uses ranking factors to index, sort, and display online content. Outside of Google, no one knows the exact number of ranking factors, but estimates go as high to 200+ ranking factors. Regardless of the exact quantity, ranking factors can be divided into two distinct categories: on-page SEO and off-page SEO.
Both are essential for SEO, but work in different ways. On-page SEO is concerned with what your online content is about so it’s able to rank in search results whereas off-page SEO looks at the content’s authority and popularity to determine how high the content ranks in search results. Let’s take a closer look at both.
On-Page SEO Factors
On-page SEO is where you optimize different parts of your online content. It ensures that your content can be read by both users and search engine robots. Here are the biggest on-page factors:
- Title Tags
- URL structure
- Alt text for images
- Fast pagespeed
- Internal Linking
With good on-page SEO, Google is able to easily index your content, understand what it’s about, and navigate to it, thereby ranking the content in search results.
Off-Page SEO Factors
Off-page SEO focuses on increasing the authority of your content by attracting ‘backlinks’ (more on that later) from other sites. Search engines give every site a ‘Domain Authority’ score which calculates how authoritative the site is compared to others. The biggest off-page SEO factor is the number and quality of backlinks to your content.
Remember, link quality is more important than link quantity. Earn valuable links by creating quality content – never buy links! It used to work back in the day but Google now penalizes link buying as it’s seen as an attempt to manipulate page rank. Even link directories can get your site in trouble which is why you should focus on link quality over quantity.
Next, we’ll discuss the essential factors that affect your content’s performance in Google’s search results.
Google needs to know that your content exists before it can rank it in search results.
It does this by ‘crawling’ which is where search engines follow links on the pages they already indexed to those they haven’t seen before. Crawling is done through a computer program known as a ‘spider.’
For example, going back to the “keto brownie” blog article, let’s say that it has a backlink from a site that’s already in Google’s index. When it crawls the site, the spider will follow that link to discover your blog article and add it to Google’s index. From there, it’ll crawl the links on your blog article to find other pages on your site.
Google’s crawlers, however, can be blocked in several ways:
- Poor internal linking
- Internal links with ‘nofollow tags’
- Pages with a ‘noindex’ meta tag or HTTP header
- Blocks in the ‘robots.txt’ text file
An SEO audit is a great way to identify and resolve crawlability issues, thereby improving your site’s SEO.
According to Google’s “Be mobile-friendly” guide, “In the USA, 94% of people with smartphones search for local information on their phones. Interestingly, 77% of mobile searches occur at home or at work, places where desktop computers are likely to be present.” Given the popularity of mobile search, it’s not surprising that in 2018, Google announced it was shifting to mobile-first indexing which means it uses the mobile version of a page for indexing and ranking.
When pages aren’t mobile-friendly (e.g. slow pagespeed, difficult to navigate), it creates a poor user experience and greatly increases the chances of a user leaving, known as a ‘bounce.’ Google offers a free mobile-friendly testing tool where you can identify mobile issues for your developer to fix.
Pagespeed is how fast your page loads and it’s used as a ranking factor for both mobile and desktop searches. Google is all about keeping users happy so if your page takes too long to load, users will be dissatisfied and bounce. According to Kissmetrics, 47% of consumers expect a page to load in two seconds or less and 40% of consumers will abandon a site that takes more than three seconds to load.
The faster your page loads, the better. Google’s Pagespeed Insights is a free tool that you can use for pagespeed, but there are other free and paid tools available.
‘Search intent’ refers to the reason behind why the user is conducting a specific search. By determining the user’s search intent, Google ranks pages that it deems to best fit the specific search query. Users don’t all have the search intent, however, here are the four most common types.
- Informational: One of the most popular types of search intent is informational. Since the internet is full of information, users turn to search engines to find an answer to a specific question or know more about a certain topic.
- Navigational: Users with navigational intent are trying to get to a specific site. For example, a user that searches “Orange county library” knows where they want to go but may not know the exact URL to get there, hence the search query. However, navigational intent is only beneficial for SEO if the page is what users are actually looking for.
- Transactional: Google is one of the first places users turn to when they want to buy a product online and find the best purchase. A transactional search intent signifies that the user is ready to buy which is particularly relevant for e-commerce sites.
- Commercial investigation: A combination of informational and transactional, consumers with this type of search intent use the internet to investigate a product or service before making a purchase (e.g. watching a video review or reading testimonials). Commercial investigation intent is when users need more time and consideration before taking further action.
When creating any online content, it’s imperative that you take into account your target audience’s search intent so the content performs well with users and search engines alike.
PageRank is Google’s calculation for ranking a web page in search results. It evaluates the quality and quantity of backlinks (also called “inbound links”) to the page to determine its importance and authority, then ranks it on a scale of 0-10. Backlinks signal to search engines that others vouch for your content. When many sites link to the same page, search engines can infer that the content is worth linking to, and therefore worth showing in search results.
According to a 2016 study from Backlinko, “Backlinks remain an extremely important Google ranking factor. We found the number of domains linking to a page correlated with rankings more than any other factor.”
Here are some examples of link building strategies:
- Creating quality, shareable content like blog articles, videos, or infographics
- Guest blogging on other sites
- Finding and fixing broken backlinks
- Partnering with relevant influencers or thought-leaders
Without backlinks, a page is much less likely to rank in top search results positions which is why link building is a cornerstone of any solid SEO plan.
Certain backlinks are more valuable than others because some domains have higher authority. Backlinks that come from trustworthy, popular sites are more desirable than backlinks from irrelevant or spammy sites. Even just being mentioned on high-authority sites can enhance your brand’s reputation as well as give your site SEO value.
In addition to your backlinks, it’s also important to be careful with the links on your page that go to an external site. Google takes into consideration both the quality and quantity of links that go to and from your site.
Without content, search engines wouldn’t have anything to display in search results which is why it’s a crucial component of SEO. To ensure users get the best, most relevant content for their search query, Google uses three signals – expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness – to determine content quality. This is known as “E-A-T” in Google’s Search Quality Rater Guidelines. Improve the perceived quality of your content by:
- Making it easy to read
- Linking to appropriate resources
- Having a visually appealing format
- Using quality imagery
- Making it easy to access
Depending on the content topic, freshness can be an important consideration, but that’s not always the case. There’s ‘evergreen content’ which refers to content that doesn’t go out-of-date and is always relevant to a specific search query. For example, a guide that ranks for the keyword phrase “how to sew a button” won’t need to change much because sewing a button will be the same days, months, and years from now.
Your page is ranked first in search results – time to celebrate, right? Before you get too excited, be aware that rankings can fluctuate at any given time because Google looks at other factors like location, search settings, and past search history to tailor search results to what is most useful and relevant for the user in that moment.
So, even if your page ranks first for a target keyword, that doesn’t mean every set of search results will be the same. Don’t stress out too much about ranking fluctuations, instead focus on consistency.
Learning the foundations of SEO is crucial for developing a successful strategy, but keep in mind that algorithms change all the time and you need to be flexible and adaptable. Regardless of SEO’s ever-evolving nature, factors like backlinks, content, authority, and others discussed in this article will always be essential considerations.
With an SEO audit, you’ll be able to discover critical opportunities and issues so your site can resonate with your audience and have better visibility in organic search results. Mavericks Marketing is a Denver-based digital marketing agency that offers SEO, content, and strategy services to help businesses disrupt their industry, drive traffic, and increase conversions. Contact us today to see how an SEO strategy can benefit your business.