Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of understanding how search engines work and creating web content to maximize your visibility within them. When done well, SEO creates a steady flow of traffic to your website from folks interested in the problems you can solve for them.
Search engines (particularly Google) have evolved significantly over the years. The science that powers them has become incredibly sophisticated and therefore harder to fully understand.
Today, marketers spend a lot of time researching, experimenting, and sharing their findings about what’s working and what isn’t. The complexity and fast-moving nature of search has created a growing community of marketers committed to chasing after the algorithms that decide what goes where. They’re constantly testing ideas to understand where to turn the dials to get the best results.
At the same time, new tools for searching, such as in-home voice assistants and mobile devices, as well as the daily avalanche of new content being published and optimized, makes SEO ever more challenging.
All of this has prompted major changes in “how we SEO.” What used to work reliably well eight to ten years ago has a very small chance of achieving the same level of success today. Simple keyword placement and link building, for example, are still important foundations, but they’re only a start.
Today, your entire website must be optimized for a network of keywords and phrases bound together through context and meaning.
Before we get any further, let’s get this question out of the way. Yes, SEO is important and three statistics are all I need to explain why:
Crawling & indexing
Search engines constantly scour billions of pieces of content, building an index and evaluating thousands of factors to determine which content is most likely to answer your query.
When someone searches something, the search engine sorts through its index and returns results it deems most relevant and useful to the searcher's query. Those results are ranked according to the relevance and popularity of the websites serving the information.
PageRank was a breakthrough system for grading websites developed by the founders of Google in the 1990s. It was the “engine” in Google’s search engine for years.
Here’s how it worked in a nutshell: The system graded the quality of a webpage or website by the number of links to it from authoritative, relevant websites. Think of these “backlinks” as votes. If an authoritative website links to you, it’s essentially a “vote” for you. The more votes you get, the higher you rank (Moz). When PageRank ruled, backlinks ruled SEO. Backlinks are still an important ranking factor, but there’s much more to it today.
RankBrain is PageRank’s bigger, smarter sibling. It’s the engine fueling search today. According to Google engineer Greg Corrado, “RankBrain has become the third-most signal contributing to the result of a search query.”
RankBrain was developed to handle today’s massive search volume by harnessing all that data and learning from it using artificial intelligence.
While this algorithm uses up to 10,000 sub-signals, the two most important ranking factors are links and words. Specifically, RankBrain identifies the connections between links and words so it can understand the context of what’s being asked or searched for and deliver smarter results.
In essence, RankBrain, along with everything else factoring into Google’s algorithm, is trying to think like a human to deliver the answers and results humans want.
This is the lens we’ll look through to understand how to improve SEO yourself. We’ll examine four key areas:
These six elements are the foundation for SEO success. They’re must-haves for most websites to rank well in search. They get most of their power from being combined with each other, so think of these as pieces to a whole rather than separate entities.
Following the best practices for page structure helps ensure your content can be better understood and displayed in search results. Page appearance and page layout are similar to page structure, and both are confirmed Google ranking factors. Having a clean, modern design with clear navigation and site elements can lead to better engagement, more shares and links, and increased conversions.
Page layout and design
The words you choose and how they’re strung together is at the core of SEO. To target users searching for specific words and phrases, you absolutely need to include those words, phrases, and topics in key sections of your pages. Years ago, you could get by with “keyword stuffing” as the beginning and end of your entire SEO strategy. Today, that’s not the case—Google’s hip to the game. Search engines are analyzing semantic clues like synonyms, variations, topics, and sentence sequencing to understand the meaning and context of your content. That said, you should still include keywords while creating these semantic signals in key areas such as the page title, meta description, URL, page headings, body text, image alt attributes (when appropriate), and metadata.
SEOs often debate whether or not content length (word count) is a direct ranking factor. In general, most agree that instead of worrying about length across the board, you should focus on how much depth is appropriate for the question or topic you’re addressing. Still, longer content does tend to rank better as it lends itself to more satisfying user experiences and more links from other websites.
It’s hard (and getting harder) to rank for a competitive keyword or phrase with a single web page—or even a few. Those who consistently see success in search regularly publish content covering topics from every angle. This process lends itself to links and, what some believe to be an “authority” score passed within Google. What’s more, success in search for a specific topic typically makes it easier to rank for other keywords with new content in the future, so it’s important to create a content strategy that naturally makes you an authority in your space.
Structured data is your content’s content. In eCommerce, it’s the aspects of an online product, like price and availability, that are set up for Google to read and serve in search. While not a primary ranking factor itself, testing has shown that adding structured data can help some in situations and some types of search results. It can also trigger Google to pull a featured snippet—the info boxes that take information from websites and serve them directly within search results.
As security concerns heighten online, browsers are increasingly warning users when they’re on a site that isn’t secured through HTTPS. Chrome, Google’s browser, is particularly aggressive with this. It’s a good bet that non-HTTPS sites are and will continue to lose out in rank when more secure competitors are available.
These nine elements are critical factors that must be built on the foundation we just established. Top-performing pages and sites typically score well in most, if not all, of these SEO essentials.
This is the core of SEO. It should be the goal and guiding principle of your work. SEO gives you the unique opportunity to deliver exactly what prospects are looking for, when they go looking for it. In order to target a question, you need to know what people are searching for. This is done through keyword research—a whole area of search marketing onto itself. In general, there are three types of data you should use keyword research to uncover: the query (what people search for), search volume (how many times people search for it), and difficulty (how competitive it is to rank for that query). By comparing these factors, you can understand which keywords and phrases you should pursue based on relative interest and difficulty.
Like we said before, search engines do two basic things: crawl and index the internet, and decide which parts of it should get served back to searchers. No matter how much work you put into SEO, none of it matters unless search engines can crawl and index your site.
While SEOs speculate on the declining power of links, Google’s own statements and many outside experiments demonstrate their continued value as one of the strongest SEO signals used today. Again, think of links to your site (from reputable sites) as votes for you and your content. Depending on the context of a link (who is doing the linking and what’s being linked to), search engines determine the authority, trust, and relevance of that link.
When creating something for your prospects and customers, you need to ask whether what you’re doing actually satisfies their intent. Don’t let keywords and all the other “best practices” become the driving force behind what you create. Your work has to provide an answer or solution that people are looking for.
SEOs use a few different terms to refer to this and the way it’s measured: time-on-page, dwell time, return-to-SERP, etc. They’re all trying to get at the same question: do users find this page to be the most satisfying answer to their question or best solution to their problem?
When search engines notice people clicking on your pages only to quickly click back, it’s a clear signal that the answer is no. While this is very important, it’s also frustratingly hard to measure. However, there are a few ways to optimize accordingly.
If your content offers the same thing as other content on the web, Google has no reason to award it with a better position. Your work needs to rise to the top by being both original and high-quality. Original content also means not duplicating your own work. I sound like a broken record, but it’s really that important.
These three factors have become major measures of trust, both for users and search engines. When Google was easy to game, the internet was flooded with low-quality pages. Eventually, Google combated this with its “Panda” algorithm update, which used machine learning to separate high and low-quality pages. Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines define “high-quality” as, in part, demonstrating the “EAT” traits. Other qualities include a satisfying amount of high-quality content, a clear indication of who’s responsible for it, and a positive reputation.
Search results page CTR is another hotly-debated Google ranking factor. Whether or not Google uses it as a signal, however, misses the point. Research has shown that improved CTR typically brings more traffic and other benefits such as links and opportunities for engagement. Many of these benefits influence rankings to varying degrees.
Page and site speed have been confirmed ranking factors since 2010. Your site, and its pages, have to be fast. That’s all there is to say.
Just about everything built for the web these days should be accessible on any device. Mobile-friendliness is a ranking factor and much more. It influences engagement, satisfaction, quality metrics, and general useability. In addition, Google rolled out Mobile First Indexing in 2018, meaning the mobile “version” of your website is the one it will be paying attention to most.
So far, we’ve covered the well-established pillars of SEO. Before you go, though, we’ve laid out some important “forward-thinking” parts of SEO. These concepts are on the frontline of research and experimentation. They’ll likely expand and become more significant as time goes on.
User experience signals—what people click on, how long they stay on a page, and what they do on that page, have become Google’s new focus. (They’ve previously announced that RankBrain was their third most important ranking factor.) We described RankBrain earlier, but a major part of it is the way it measures user behavior and factors it into ranking. Dwell Time (how long you stay on a page), and click through rate (the percentage of people clicking on a result), are the two biggest factors here. You want people not only clicking on your pages, but staying there. For example, if a #1 result gets a lot of clicks, but people leave the page right away, and instead head to the #4 result, which keeps people there for quite a while comparatively, chances are #4 will become the new #1 sooner or later.
A recent industry study by SearchMetrics found that the average Dwell Time for a top 10 Google result is 3 minutes and 10 seconds. No matter where your pages are ranking for valuable search terms, getting a long Dwell Time (making people stay on your page) is key. Here are three ways to do it:
Featured snippets are Google’s attempt to answer a searcher’s question without needing to leave the search result page. They come in many forms, but most look something like this:
The way these work is simple: Google scrapes a snippet of information it deems relevant to the query and displays it in a box toward the top of the results. This way, users get their answers without needing to head to another website. Some SEOs lament featured snippets since they may hurt their prized clickthrough rates. But, if you’ve ever come across these snippets yourself, you may have realized they’re far from perfect. Unless your query has a simple answer, they don’t provide enough real estate to go in-depth. That’s why others consider these coveted spots as an opportunity to intrigue users with a nugget that leads to more.
Years ago, search engines would analyze your pages to see how many times you used a keyword and whether it was in certain places (title tag, URL, image ALT text, meta description tag, H1 tag, etc.) While they’re still looking at content, they’re also focusing on context. It’s very rare that keyword-stuffed content is the best content. Instead, #1 results are increasingly being awarded to pages that cover a question or topic from top to bottom. This way, users get everything they need in one place and everyone wins. Backlinko’s ranking factors research pictured below shows that long, in-depth content covering multiple topics tends to rank best.
Users are spending less time on desktops and more time on mobile devices. As a result, Google announced its Mobile-First Index in 2018. There’s a lot to it, but the important point is simple: Google is now considering the mobile version of your site the “real” version. As this new index rolls out, there are a few things to do to ensure nothing falls between the cracks.
A guide to SEO could go on forever. The more granular you get, the more complex and expansive it becomes. In our experience, however, success in search is less about checking the boxes on an endless list of “best practices” and more about creating quality content that abides by the fundamentals we touched on here.
If you think about it, focusing first and foremost on quality aligns perfectly with Google’s goal: giving users the best possible search experience—as well as the user’s goal: getting the very best answers and information. In short, if your content doesn’t closely align with what the user is looking for, you’re missing the point. It’s not about ranking first, it’s about getting people to your website to take action.
Here at Madison Marketing Group, search engine optimization is baked into our broader content strategy. We spend hours conducting in-depth keyword research, competitor analyses, and editorial planning to ensure our efforts are spent creating and optimizing content that moves your prospects to act. More and more in search, success begets success. Small wins in ranking more general, search-heavy content give you a platform for ranking the niche, original content that differentiates you from competitors and fills your sales pipeline with qualified leads.
Talk to us today about putting these concepts to work for you. We’d love to learn more about your company, where you stand in search, and what kind of SEO program fits your goals for growth.