The Secret of SEO
By Peter Prestipino, Editor-In-Chief
The practice of search engine optimization (SEO) today is not completely unlike that of years past.
In order to rank in a competitive position for a variety of keywords relevant to the products and services (or information) being sold, enterprises need to create a digital presence that is fast, accessible and secure, as well as produce an information experience that is in demand by the target audience and one worthy of sharing and distribution by influencers. With the appeal of other Internet channels (social, email, advertising) competing for enterprise attention and resources (both the time and financial investment required), however, today's brands must be willing to change with the times if the aim is to top the search results pages - and there is plenty of work to be done within every business.
A study recently released by Conductor revealed that the amount of inbound marketing jobs is actually expected to drop for the first time in four years. Conductor's report indicated, however, that the decline actually means that SEO is on the rise. How could that possibly be?
Instead of existing as a siloed function, SEO has expanded into a common skill universally featured among different roles. That means that while there are fewer SEO-specific jobs (which tend to be entry level - with corresponding salaries), businesses are integrating the skills of SEOs (and the practices they employ) into broader positions within their company.
It should be clear, that SEO as a practice, a skill and a profession, is changing. That, in essence, is the secret of search engine optimization: change is simply inherent in this digital practice; it's dynamic and evolving (never, ever the same from day to day).
As search engines like Google and Bing are becoming increasingly sophisticated in how they crawl, process, index and rank websites and roll out new and more useful features for consumers (e.g., the Knowledge Graph in the case of Google), enterprises that keep pace, that change their outlook, as well as the processes and practices they use to capitalize on the new demands, are those that stand to gain the most. Essentially, SEO has become so important, and so fundamental to the success of enterprises, that now everyone in the organization is responsible (at least in some regard) for the practice - from the content development and public relations team, to the customer service and IT staff. As a result, SEO jobs and salaries might be in decline, but the required skills most certainly are not. In many ways, this indicates (and quite clearly) that the practice of SEO is maturing and if an enterprise isn't keeping pace with the trends, the numerous opportunities available for the optimization of a digital presence will simply evaporate.
Enterprises looking to be discovered (or rediscovered) by their audience - prospects and existing customers - must meet or exceed the demands of the Web experience today. Fortunately, the opportunity is immense.
In this month's feature article from Website Magazine, discover not only the elements that for years have served as the foundation of SEO success, but also how they have changed over time and for the benefit of users and the companies that want to serve them.
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Visit Website Magazine's Mastering Search channel for timely updates and best practice guidance on search engine optimization every day on the 'Net at wsm.co/mastersearch.
Foundations of SEO Success
Often those responsible for the success of their enterprise get bogged down in the intricacies of the practice, concerned more with the science of the details rather than the art of the experience. From a high level, however, the foundation of SEO success relies on three pillars: content, links and experience. Let's explore each of these (in particular what we mean by "experience").
For many just starting on their search engine optimization initiatives, the following guidance will prove invaluable, and those individuals and enterprises that adhere to the principles outlined herein are those that can best position their website for success immediately and in the future. Those with some or a vast amount of experience with SEO, however, might think the information provided is too basic. They can rest assure it most certainly is not as a majority of websites still create digital experiences that come up woefully short, which negatively impacts their success with SEO initiatives. Take these proven insights seriously and any company - large or small, novice or experienced - will see (or continue to see) positive results.
The On-Site SEO Basics
While emphasis is typically placed on content and links (more on both in the following sections), the methods that are used to design and structure specific elements on Web pages also carry some weight in the virtual eyes of search engines. Website Magazine routinely covers these topics, but below readers will find some general guidance about on-site optimization fundamentals to ensure the experience they are creating resonates not just with users, but search engines as well. If you start anywhere, let it be here:
Consistent, readable URLs are preferred by both search engines and website visitors. Some best practices include using keywords, keeping the length at modest levels and avoiding special symbols.
See how top ranking sites construct their URLs at wsm.co/righturls.
Search engines and users look to page titles to determine relevance, which means SEO professionals must consider how they appear on the site itself and in the search results. Some best practices to consider include using keywords early on in the title and using symbols to save space/characters.
Looking for some inspiration? Review the listings at popular search engines for keywords an enterprise is optimizing for.
HTML heading tags (e.g., H1-H6) are used to indicate to users what section of the content is being shown within the context of the whole page; and they also provide search engines other important relevancy signals as to what content is about. Make sure not to overuse them or employ them out of order (H3 before H1).
While not necessarily a ranking factor (yet), rich snippets do provide an opportunity to help a listing stand out on the results pages, which increases the click-through rate, and, in turn, is likely to provide a ranking improvement.
Keywords in Content:
The importance of content and specifically the mechanics of its development, is of immense importance in SEO. Best practices include using keywords (and related terms and phrases) at the beginning of any content item and using synonyms and related words (liberally).
Numerous studies have been conducted which indicate that the longer the content, the higher it ranks on search engines (perceived authority being the reason). While there is no ideal content length per say, content items with roughly 1,000 to 2,000 words regularly outperform those with fewer.
Non-Text (Multimedia) Content:
The presence of images, videos and dynamic charts and graphics on pages can dramatically improve the user experience, and can also be used for the benefit of search engine optimization campaigns.
Learn how to optimize multimedia content at wsm.co/mediaseo.
Providing links to internal and external pages also provide search engines with additional relevancy signals. While having an excessive number of links can be overwhelming, presenting a few (perhaps 2-4 for every 1,000 words) indicates a page may be a hub of quality information.
SEO BASICS IN DETAIL
Much more could be said about each of these on-site optimization opportunities, so Website Magazine has put together a quick guide to on-site SEO basics at wsm.co/pageseo, which details how high-ranking websites are using these elements to achieve better position on the search results pages.
If an enterprise were to engage in only one SEO practice, it should be, without question, the development of content as there is no more valuable means to acquire customers and help existing audiences fully utilize what's being offered by brands. Content attracts and educates, informs and entertains and those brands that recognize its importance are those best positioned for 'Net success.
Content development of course can be quite time consuming - who wants to constantly come up with new, unique and creative ideas over and over and do so day after day (besides traditional publishers, of course)?
Fortunately, with a little digital elbow grease and a commitment to the practice, developing content can result in significant dividends - and in more ways than just achieving higher ranking on the search results.
The "State of Inbound" report from HubSpot last year, in fact, revealed that by 2020, 85 percent of customers will manage their relationships with brands before ever speaking to anyone from the company. As consumers' online habits change, an effective content development initiative will help position brands in front of their audience as they seek out information on products and services.
While there aren't any shortcuts per say, conducting keyword research (which reveals the queries used by consumers), getting creative with the theme and angle and testing out different formats are just some of the best practices today's digital enterprises should consider.
CONTENT DEVELOPMENT IN ACTION
Content comes in many different forms, but the best method is perhaps the traditional "article" format. Discover a formulaic approach to creating article content that not only resonates with end-users, but appeals to search engines too at wsm.co/writeformula.
Web professionals know they need content, and content that inspires consumption and action (as well as shares and links) but it is an immense burden to produce at a high level and to do so consistently. Is there a better way? Yes, of course.
Brands that are struggling with the pace of content production required today should consider repackaging and repurposing what has already been done (by their own company or by other brands). What that ultimately means is simply putting it into a new format (adding something custom or from a unique point of view) and there are plenty of ways to get that done. Some possible ideas include turning long-form content articles into a SlideShare presentation, an Animoto video, a drip email course, an infographic or an eBook.
The list of content opportunities is really endless; what is really important to remember is that the content being repurposed is the company's and different enough in the new format to provide users with something of genuine value (be it the manner in which it is consumed or the method used to convey the information it contains). What's more, the benefit of engaging in this practice also carries with it a chance to promote content and acquire the inbound links necessary to achieve a top position on the search results pages for competitive keywords and phrases.
With an understanding of what search engines require in terms of on-site optimization, and a few ideas to develop content that appeals to both end-users and search engines, it's essential to turn attention toward perhaps what always has been and always will be the single most influential factor in ranking: links.
In the 2016 State of Link Building Survey from Moz, the very first sentence of the report confirms that the practice of search engine optimization is changing.
"SEO futurists have predicted the death of links as a ranking signal for years on end. That hasn't happened yet, and I'm happy to say that link building as a practice has greatly evolved."
Link building was once a rather sloppy collection of tactics that for some produced results, and for others simply wasted valuable time and resources. The practice, at least for the savviest enterprises, has changed dramatically over the years of course in parallel with the rise of other digital promotion tactics such as content marketing and the shifting responsibility of link building to others not designated purely as an SEO (for example, public relations departments). The means by which today's enterprises acquire or build links to their websites isn't really all that different than it was 10 or 15 years ago.
The Moz report indicated that content publication and promotion was used by 90 percent of respondents, while resource pages and link list pages (a rather old-school tactic if ever there was one) was used by 56 percent. That alone shows how significantly the practice of search engine optimization has changed - today's enterprises are taking control of their digital destiny by being the change they want to see in the virtual world and producing content that not only attracts links, but consumers too.
SEO used to be a rather manual undertaking, but thanks to some rather powerful solutions, it's more accessible than ever and when done right, more effective as well. Some of the most popular offerings on the market today include Moz, BuzzStream, Ahrefs, SEMrush, BuzzSumo and Majestic.
For some emerging alternatives, check out "Search Tools Every SEO Should Try" at wsm.co/shinyseo.
Despite knowing full well that some link building tactics are, if not less effective, more time consuming than others to engage in (e.g., sending out direct link requests or reviewing other websites for broken links and suggesting your own), it is quite common to engage in these practices.
SEO gets its often well-deserved poor reputation when money (direct payment for links) comes into play. Despite search engine's technical sophistication, it is still nearly impossible for search engines to control incentivized/paid links. Google, for example, published a notice on its Webmasters blog stating that bloggers who received free or gifted products from brands or manufacturers should follow some "best practices" so they don't get penalized. That might be an empty threat, digital posturing perhaps, as they don't necessarily have any method to differentiate sponsored content from that of the organic variety. Regardless, Google is advising that bloggers who write about products and link to the provider of the product in exchange for the free product, should "no-follow" link, disclose that the writing is a result of the free product, and create compelling, unique content so that it adds value beyond what's already available on the Web.
When enterprises put themselves in the place of a consumer, a great deal is revealed about the optimal experience; in fact, it is proving increasingly impossible to serve an audience (at least well) without such an understanding. What that ultimately means is that today's 'Net professional must focus on optimizing those elements that convey to the user that they are respected and the experience that has been developed has been done so for their value and benefit.
A good example of this came in the form of an announcement from Google about its refusal to display app interstitials to mobile users - those pop-ups that encourage users to download a mobile application (when a user is on a mobile device) instead of viewing the regular website. Imagine how annoying it would be if a shopper wanted to walk in a store, but had to go across the street to another destination first. Doesn't make much sense offline, and it doesn't on the Web either. There are plenty of methods to optimize the experience and increasingly, these elements are being used as ranking factors as well, which makes them quite important in the practice of SEO.
Speed: If customers are waiting (which no one appreciates) in the brick-and-mortar world, retailers can use additional staff to handle the influx. It's the exact same in the digital realm, but few websites actually take steps to speed up their 'Net presence even though there are myriad ways to do so - from leveraging content delivery networks to lazy loading images below the visual fold. Speed is a key component of optimizing the user experience; discover several ways to accelerate page load times at wsm.co/webspeedy.
Security: Google's made it clear that secure websites will rank (marginally) higher; basically, websites that have "https://" are favored in SERPs over sites with "http://" but the difference is fairy minuscule. The search engine explained that encryption is only a very lightweight signal, impacting less than one percent of global queries, and carrying less weight than other signals such as high-quality content. At the same time, that's not to say that Web masters should discount the factor as insignificant to SEO outcomes. Eventually, Google's likely to accord more weight to encryption as a ranking determinant because, quite simply, they want to make the Internet a safer place for users. Moving a site to HTTPS can be complicated; access a quick guide to ensuring a seamless transition at wsm.co/securemove.
Mobility: One of the most significant developments to emerge in 2016 has been the introduction of Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP). While it has long been postulated that websites that are mobile rank higher, Google indicated in no uncertain terms that websites producing AMP-compliant pages would receive a ranking boost - and that alone should be motivation to consider using the HTML framework.
Website Magazine is continuously covering the roll out of AMP and has put together a round-up of resources to help ensure every digital presence is mobile and presenting the optimal experience to their users at wsm.co/quickamp.
The Secret of SEO is Change
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Just like it was many years ago, what's important to end-users is still going to be important to search engines. Today's brands need to create compelling and useful on-site experiences, develop content that satisfies the needs of their audience, and craft an experience where users know and can feel that they are respected and valued. That in itself won't change. The opportunities that those responsible for search engine optimization have to influence their enterprise's success are immense, which is why staying ahead of the game and on top of key developments is such a powerful place to start.