Search engine optimization SEO is a complex subject, especially when you consider all the information and misinformation readily available online. Unfortunately, it’s often hard to tell which is which. Does the latest tactic you’re reading about work? Does it work for all sites? Only some sites? Or is just another crackpot theory that sounds reasonable, but will never help to improve search traffic to your site?
What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO) & Why is It Important?
SEO is a marketing discipline focused on growing visibility in organic (non-paid) search engine results. SEO encompasses both the technical and creative elements required to improve rankings, drive traffic, and increase awareness in search engines. There are many aspects to SEO, from the words on your page to the way other sites link to you on the web. Sometimes SEO is simply a matter of making sure your site is structured in a way that search engines understand.
This guide is designed to describe all areas of SEO—from finding the terms and phrases (keywords) that generate traffic to your website, to making your site friendly to search engines, to building links and marketing the unique value of your site. If you are confused about this stuff, you are not alone, and we’re here to help.
You’ve likely heard of SEO, and if you haven’t already, you could obtain a quick Wikipedia definition of the term, but understanding that SEO is “the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine’s unpaid results” doesn’t really help you answer important questions for your business and your website, such as:
- How do you, for your site or your company’s site, “optimize” for search engines?
- How do you know how much time to spend on SEO?
- How can you differentiate “good” SEO advice from “bad” or harmful SEO advice?
What’s likely interesting to you as a business owner or employee is how you can actually leverage SEO to help drive more relevant traffic, leads, sales, and ultimately revenue and profit for your business. That’s what we’ll focus on in this guide.
Why can’t the search engines figure out my site without SEO?
Search engines are smart, but they still need help. The major engines are always working to improve their technology to crawl the web more deeply and return better results to users. However, there is a limit to how search engines can operate. Whereas the right SEO can net you thousands of visitors and increased attention, the wrong moves can hide or bury your site deep in the search results where visibility is minimal.
In addition to making content available to search engines, SEO also helps boost rankings so that content will be placed where searchers will more readily find it. The Internet is becoming increasingly competitive, and those companies who perform SEO will have a decided advantage in visitors and customers.
How the search engines work
How are the pages indexed? How do the search routines really work? Only the operators of the search engines know for sure, and this is generally very closely held proprietary information. The process is continually improved, as all useful computer software is.
The information that the operators of the search engines will release, combined with the results of research into why certain pages are at the top of the list of results of certain searches, help us in our process.
Using this information, we can make a reasonable determination of what techniques can be used to enhance a web site’s visibility and effectiveness in the search engines.
Through an analysis of your existing or proposed website, we can recommend and implement changes that can dramatically improve your site’s chances of being found.
Some of these changes may alter the actual content of what is displayed on a page. Many of these changes, however, have no effect on what a user sees when visiting your site.
So SEO can really help you. Why not take it a little further and get your site listed for all kinds of searches. that should really bring the traffic in, right? It just might, but probably not for very long.
When using various search engines, you may have noticed that some search results have little, if anything, to do with what you were looking for. Some of these pages may even redirect you to another website altogether.
The owners of these pages have one goal: to get you in the door (so to speak), no matter what lies or cheats they have to use to do it.
What Actually Works for Driving Traffic from Search Engines?
First it’s important to note that Google is responsible for most of the search engine traffic in the world (though there is always some flux in the actual numbers). This may vary from niche to niche, but it’s likely that Google is the dominant player in the search results that your business or website would want to show up in, and the best practices outlined in this guide will help position your site and its content to rank in other search engines, as well.
Regardless of what search engine you use, search results are constantly changing. Google particularly has updated lots of things surrounding how they rank websites by way of lots of different animal names recently, and a lot of the easiest and cheapest ways to get your pages to rank in search results have become extremely risky in recent years.
So what works? How does Google determine which pages to return in response to what people search for? How do you get all of this valuable traffic to your site?
Google’s algorithm is extremely complex, and I’ll share some links for anyone looking to dive deeper into how Google ranks sites at the end of this section, but at an extremely high level:
- Google is looking for pages that contain high-quality, relevant information about the searcher’s query.
- They determine relevance by “crawling” (or reading) your website’s content and evaluating (algorithmically) whether that content is relevant to what the searcher is looking for, mostly based on the keywords it contains.
- They determine “quality” by a number of means, but prominent among those is still the number and quality of other websites that link to your page and your site as a whole. To put it extremely simply: If the only sites that link to your blue widget site are blogs that no one else on the Web has linked to, and my blue widget site gets links from trusted places that are linked to frequently, like CNN.com, my site will be more trusted (and assumed to be higher quality) than yours.
Increasingly, additional elements are being weighed by Google’s algorithm to determine where your site will rank, such as:
- How people engage with your site (Do they find the information they need and stay on your site, or bounce back to the search page and click on another link? Or do they just ignore your listing in search results altogether and never click-through?)
- Your site’s loading speed and “mobile friendliness”
- How much unique content you have (versus very “thin” or duplicated, low-value content)
There are hundreds of ranking factors Google’s algorithm considers in response to searches, and they are constantly updating and refining their process.
The good news is, you don’t have to be a search engine scholar to rank for valuable terms in search results. You Should walk through proven, repeatable best practices for optimizing websites for the search that can help you drive targeted traffic through search without having to reverse-engineer the core competency of one of the world’s most valuable companies.
If you’re interested in learning more about how search engines work, there are a ton of great resources available, including:
Can I do SEO for myself?
The world of SEO is complex, but most people can easily understand the basics. Even a small amount of knowledge can make a big difference. Free SEO education is widely available on the web, including in guides like this. Combine this with a little practice and you are well on your way to becoming an expert.
Depending on your time commitment, your willingness to learn, and the complexity of your website(s), you may decide you need an expert to handle things for you. Firms that practice SEO can vary; some have a highly specialized focus while others take a broader and more general approach.
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