Here are my 5 easy steps to becoming extremely frustrated and confused about search engine optimization:
- Step 1: Start a business.
- Step 2: Build a website.
- Step 3: Google “how to get my website to show up in Google searches”.
- Step 4: Follow someone’s “5 Easy Steps” guide.
- Step 5: Sit back and see absolutely no improvement in search ranking whatsoever.
It’s a simple process backed by our 100% Satisfaction Guarantee. If you successfully come away jaded and bewildered, congratulations, you’ve just joined the millions of other website owners who are in the exact same predicament.
Welcome to the puzzling world of search engine optimization, or SEO. It’s a world filled with oversimplifications, overcomplications, misinformation, and about a billion “SEO gurus” who claim to possess exclusive secrets unbeknownst to anybody else in the industry. Nothing is more disheartening than searching for keywords relevant to your company and having to click through 16 pages of search results before seeing your website. A real user searching for the products or services you provide will never get to the 16th page of results. He won’t get to the third page of results. In fact, he likely won’t even get to the last half of the very first page. When was the last time you clicked the “Next” button? That’s what I thought.
“If you build it, they will come.”-Darth Vader from that baseball movie
If only that were true.
What SEO isn’t
There’s no shortage of people, agencies and web articles willing to provide their take on SEO, most of whom stand to profit in one fashion or another. The muddled morass of “information” on the topic has lead to some common misconceptions about what SEO actually is. Here are a few things you need be clear about before we go any further.
SEO isn’t a set of secrets
There are no industry secret weapons, no tricks, no esoteric hacks to outsmart Google. Everything there is to know about how Google ranks pages is publicly available knowledge. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying we know everything about how Google calculates page ranking. Just the opposite, in fact. Google remains tight-lipped about a large portion of its ranking procedures, and the company modifies and fine tunes them regularly. But my point here is that those of us who don’t work at Google are all on a level playing field knowledge-wise. That means web developers, website operators, and even SEO experts are all working with the same exact set of facts about how SEO works. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.
Speaking of trying to outsmart Google, don’t. Don’t ever let anyone try to convince you they’ve found a trick. There were times, many years ago, when keyword stuffing, blog spamming and other SEO hacks might have boosted you up the page a little bit. Those days are over. Google’s algorithms grow smarter everyday. Not only do hacks not work, they will actually hurt your page ranking. There are people working at Google who get paid a lot of money (a lot) to make sure your little link sharing scam isn’t going to fly. Google is smarter than you, I promise. Being on the up and up is the only correct way to approach SEO.
SEO isn’t a simple one-off fix
Improving your site’s SEO isn’t like pushing the Start button on your microwave. It’s not a “set it and forget it” deal. Rather, it’s an ongoing strategic action plan. I’ve heard of small business owners who hire an SEO company based on their promise to boost a website to the top spot for one low price. Regardless of whether or not this method initially works (hint: it probably doesn’t), there’s an inherent flaw in this type of strategy. Google is always changing the way it ranks pages, so only an ongoing, future-driven plan can truly succeed at it. For example, five years ago how well your site performed on a mobile device didn’t factor into Google’s algorithms. But today with the web being the mobile-first landscape that it is, Google takes the mobile-friendliness of your website into consideration. The SEO work you paid for in 2010 is simply out of date.
SEO isn’t its own service
I subscribe to the idea that good, effective, real SEO is a fundamental part of good web development. The things that make a website more appealing to Google on a technical level are intrinsically tied with the development process, and not something that should be thought of as a separate service. Disconnecting the development of a website from its SEO is like disconnecting the manufacturing of an automobile from its fuel efficiency. You’d never buy a family sedan that only gets 10 miles per gallon with the intention of hiring another company to bump it up to 26. A well-built car gets good gas mileage off the lot, and a well-crafted website comes with good SEO built in.
With that said, SEO isn’t just about the technical coding practices. Much of the responsibility lies with you, the owner and content writer. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
I also want to add one more point to prevent any confusion. There are, in fact, some legitimate companies that provide SEO-related services. They’re the minority, but they exist. These aren’t the guys touting their ability to shoot your site to #1 in one week, or guaranteeing 10,000 page views per day. The people offering these too-good-to-be-true deals aren’t going to satisfy your needs, plain and simple, and will likely take your money and then leave you high and dry. The only type of companies you should be considering are the ones that advertise themselves more as marketing and content strategy professionals. Quality content is vital to SEO (as I’ll talk about in a moment), so there’s a real need for skilled content writers. Just remember, before you hire a separate SEO company, do your research. Read testimonials, read reviews, and ask lots of questions.
Wait, why are you only talking about Google?
I’ll answer that with my own question: when was the last time you used a search engine other than Google? That’s what I thought. There’s a reason “google” is a verb. Take a look at these statistics and you’ll see why Google is, for all intents and purposes, the only search engine that matters.
The truth about SEO
I’ve told you what SEO isn’t, now let’s get into what SEO actually is. As far as I’m concerned, SEO is comprised of only three things: technical practices, site content, and all the stuff Google won’t tell us about. Obviously, we can only act confidently on the first two. Anything from the third group is guesswork. Let’s dive into each of these.
Google loves well-structured HTML documents that conform to modern web standards and follow best coding practices. It also prefers pages that load quickly and display nicely on mobile devices like smart phones and tablets. We know all of this because Google has told us. This is the “easy” part, especially for you, the site owner. The responsibility of this stuff lies with the web developer, and it’s the reason you should hire a web design company that knows their stuff.
There are no SEO secret weapons, I’ve said this repeatedly and I stand by it. With that said, now let me say this: content is the secret weapon of SEO. Okay maybe not quite, but it’s definitely the most often overlooked facet. Think about the websites you visit the most. What do you value most about them? Is it the logo? The images? How smoothly the page scrolls? Not likely. Those things are important, but what keeps you coming back is probably the content. Useful, fresh, unique content is the most important part of a small business’s website. It’s why the web exists, and it’s what users expect. Google knows this, and it favors websites that know it too.
This is where the content writer comes in. This may be a hired third party company, but in all likelihood it’s you. The information your website presents to the world should be all of the following things:
- Useful – It’s absolutely essential that your site provides information that’s relevant to what the user searched for. For example, if your business is a restaurant, your visitors expect to see an online menu, contact information, location, and hours of operation. If you’re a veterinarian, your website should provide medical facts about animals. A law firm’s website should list and describe the firm’s practice areas. You get the idea.
- Fresh – Google likes content that’s up-to-date. Stale content that hasn’t been updated in years is likely (albeit not necessarily guaranteed) to lose its search ranking. This applies especially to fields that change rapidly, such as technology. Your Google search for “best web browser” will likely only return pages written or updated in the last year. Users want fresh content, thus so does Google.
- Unique – There are a bunch of websites on the internet (like, hundreds, maybe even more). Yours only stands a chance at being seen if it provides information that none of the rest do. This doesn’t necessarily mean every idea your site conveys must be 100% original, it just means your words should be your own. A blog post that’s merely a copy and paste of a Wikipedia article isn’t going to fare well when Google gets its hands on it.
And all the other stuff
And now we get to the really hard part, the aspect that has given SEO its reputation as a mysterious, impenetrable black box. Google has a complex, highly sophisticated algorithm to determine page rank. There’s a reason Google shot to popularity and remains one of the largest corporations on the planet. No, it’s not its colorful logo, it’s its uncanny ability to return near-perfect search results. Unfortunately for website owners and developers, Google won’t tell us exactly how they do it. They’ve told us a few things, but it’s up to good old fashioned trial and error to nail down the rest. But the fact that Google changes its process so frequently makes this a pretty difficult task.
But in my opinion there’s a straight forward solution, and I also believe it correlates to the reason Google has chosen to remain mute about most of their techniques: better-quality websites deserve to have better search rankings. Google wants it this way, and so do users. Obfuscating the exact technical methods of page rank forces website creators to just make as good a website as they can and hope for the best. And believe it or not, that tends to work. If I had to summarize SEO in a single phrase, it’d be, “Just make a good website”.
That’s all great, now just tell me exactly what to do!
Here’s my nebulous SEO theorizing distilled down to some specific suggestions.
First off, hire a developer who focuses on SEO all the way through his or her development process. Be sure to ask questions to the company you’re considering. A good question to ask is, “How will you make my website perform well in search engines?”. They may give you an answer filled with technical jargon, or, hopefully, they’ll give you an answer you can understand. You’re just looking for some semblance of a knowledgeable response; if they sit there with a blank look on their face, or worse, they state that they don’t do SEO, run away. Fast.
Secondly, think really, REALLY hard about your site’s content. Does it follow the three guidelines I mentioned above (useful, fresh, unique)? Does it read easily and clearly communicate its point? If you’re not good at this sort of thing you may want to consider hiring a content writer or strategist. If you’re ever tempted to become lazy by ignoring content and focusing on something easier, just repeat this to yourself: Content is king. Content is king. Content is king…
In the same vein, consider putting a blog on your site. Nothing helps a site’s content remain fresh better than a regularly updated blog. Post about anything that’s on your mind. If it’s helpful to your visitors and relevant to your business, it’s only going to help out. The more frequently you post, the more content Google has to latch onto.
As I mentioned before, having a mobile-friendly website is huge. The trend these days is to use responsive web design – the use of some special coding techniques to make your site adapt to devices of varying sizes, speeds and abilities. But regardless of how it’s implemented, Google just likes seeing your site perform well on all devices. Keep that in mind when you’re choosing a web design company.
One final tactic is to get your website linked up with social media. Set up Facebook and LinkedIn pages for your business and point your website to them. Google returns results from social media sites more and more these days. It may not be a surefire solution, but it definitely can’t hurt. Plus, getting your face out there in as many places as possible is just good business anyway.
Wrapping things up
Hopefully now you understand that SEO isn’t something that can be tackled with a quick 5 step guide. Nobody fully grasps it, yet many people like to pretend they do. There’s no quick fix and no secret weapon. We can only act on the information Google has given us, along with the practices that seem to garner the best results. What seems to work best is to have your website built by someone who knows the ins and outs of technical SEO practices, and to fill it with useful, fresh, unique content. If you do these things you’ll hopefully, over time, begin to notice an exponential snowball effect; as your website begins to get more hits, your company will grow; and as your company grows it’ll gain more exposure and its search ranking will improve. A great website with great content will get the recognition it deserves. That’s just how the web works these days.
“If you build it (properly), they will come.” -Me