Ask most enterprises about their preferred way (channel) to obtain website visitors and the answer will almost always be that of search engines.
Not that other channels such as advertising, referrals, email or social media aren't effective, they most certainly are, but nothing compares in terms of driving the quantity of visits or the degree of awareness (and furthermore, conversions) required to achieve 'Net success than what is possible from search engines like Google, Bing and others.
The problem is that not only are enterprises competing against thousands of others for every particular keyword and interest of consumers, but they also don't often have the resources to develop and maintain experiences that resonate with their prospective and existing audience. Furthermore, they are doing so in a rapidly evolving landscape. The result? Search engine optimization (SEO) is a practice that many avoid entirely.
The Web.com "Small Business Digital Trends" report, for example, created in collaboration with an Innovation Fellow in the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, Dr. David Ricketts, reveals that only 17 percent of small business owners are willing to invest in SEO in 2017.
The reason is likely that the practice of SEO itself is simply too confusing. Fortunately, there is an approach to the practice of search engine optimization that, while certainly not guaranteeing a high placement on the results pages of popular search engines, does provide one of the best opportunities available today (as it nearly always has) to make good, productive and profitable use of the efforts put forth by enterprises (and the search marketers they employ) in this regard.
First, however, let's take a closer look at the SEO landscape, and the challenges every enterprise competing for top positions face today. Redefining SEO When 'Net professionals and digital Web workers think about search engine optimization it is safe to say that opinions, well, vary.
It has been seen as somewhat of a dark art by some, and by others as a shining virtual beacon on the Internet business landscape - the salvation for the woes of poor-performing digital properties. As in most things, the truth lay somewhere in between.
At its purest and most simple, search engine optimization can be defined as both a creative and often highly technical practice in which a website's placement on popular search engines is intentionally influenced by the quality and quantity of a number of key factors. It's these "factors" and elements that are "optimized" (developed, adjusted, improved, removed, modified and analyzed), and which ultimately determine the digital success of enterprise brands and individual products at popular search engines including Google and Bing (among others).
SEO is about optimizing websites, but far more importantly, it is about enhancing and improving the broader Web presence and the user experience itself so that enterprises (businesses like yours) are seen as relevant to, and favorable for, a prospective audience/user's query (the terms and phrases they use) when using one of the popular search engines. That was somewhat of a long-winded definition of search engine optimization, so let's simplify and in the process clarify what those responsible for the practice of SEO engage in and the type of initiatives they routinely embark upon.
SEO is about building a website presence and maintaining an online reputation that results in being awarded or assigned a position on the search results pages that is favorable to brand objectives.
As previously mentioned, search engine optimization requires a balance between the technical and the creative (with a virtual eye toward the quality of the user experience of course). Enterprises that understand this fundamental realization are those which, on the whole, experience the greatest level of success.
In nearly 20 years of being involved with the practice of SEO, I've never seen a website rank in a competitive position without a strict adherence to this essential digital philosophy (or at least not for long).
Successful search engine optimization campaigns are most often achieved with a focus on and dedication to developing content, connections and the continuity of experience.
Let's take a closer look at this approach to search engine optimization, a method addressed in greater detail in Website Magazine's upcoming book "SEO 360: The Fundamentals of Search Engine Optimization," scheduled for release summer 2017.
The aim of "SEO 360" is to provide a reliable, knowledge-based, experience-driven foundation for the search engine optimization campaigns of brands both large and small; from massive ecommerce merchants, to mid-range publishers as well as the virtual "mom-and-pop" service providers with or without an offline (brick and mortar or physical world) presence.
If a company has struggled with search engine optimization in the past, stakeholders should consider how they currently approach the three fundamental elements of successful brand marketing campaigns using SEO: relevance, popularity and accessibility. For those just getting started, these three factors should be the guide to ranking well on the search engines immediately and in the future and they play directly to those two essentials of success with SEO: content and connections.
Let's take a closer look at what relevance (and the impact of content), popularity (and the role of connections) and accessibility (and how it influences the continuity of experience) actually mean in relation to SEO and what they ultimately have to do with ranking (and being positioned competitively) on the search engine results pages.
Search engines analyze a number of factors and elements to determine relevance (how closely a particular object - a file, Web page, database record, image, video or other asset - matches the user's intent as they search for information), but they all primarily have to do with discovering how that content is aligned with the expectations, needs and behavior of users.
For example, the search results for a baseball team such as "Chicago Cubs" in the month of January will yield a far different result set than the same query in September or October (an end-user may see news items about off-season trades versus scores or highlights during the season).
If search engines can determine what the end-user is actually after (something they are becoming increasingly sophisticated at thanks to artificial intelligence, machine learning, personalization and an abundance of data), they can present a better set of results for the search. Digital assets that are not deemed "relevant" to the user's query will likely never appear in the search engines at all (which is why optimizing the relevancy of each and every page - as well as the broader virtual experience - is so important).
Fortunately for search marketers, there is an abundance of opportunities to improve relevance through content.
To be popular in the digital landscape means a company's asset (again, that could a website page, an image, a video) is regarded with favor, approval or affection by others (this often comes in the form of other websites providing a "link" to a site or landing page).
Increasing the volume of popularity (the quantity of sites providing citations) as well as by influencing which sites deem a brand or content noteworthy in the digital sense (the quality and authority of those sites), is the single best way to optimize an asset for search engine placement.
The issue (really, the problem) with using inbound links as a means to determine search result position is that there are very often attempts by search marketing professionals to manipulate the quantity and quality of digital citations. These individuals engage in a number of practices to artificially inflate the quantity of inbound links - from purchasing links from authoritative sites to cross linking from their collection of digital properties.
Search engines have, of course, become much better at identifying the traditional approaches to artificial link building although it has not seemed to lessen the number of attempts. Search marketers with even a basic understanding of the current digital landscape, however, understand that the more reputable the source of the link and the greater the usefulness a link for the intended audience on another website, are those capable of moving up the search results pages with greater ease and staying there for longer periods of time.
The secret, if there is one, is in identifying potential inbound link targets, or those websites from whom a link would be beneficial.
The more challenging it is for search engines and their users to access and interact with a website and its pages, the more unsuccessful a brand will be at their search engine optimization initiatives.
Make a digital presence easy to access and interact with, however, and enterprises will have successfully mastered another crucial component of SEO. While the software that powers the digital presence of many Web destinations do an exceptional job of fostering an accessible environment, success in this realm requires far more than clean code and the avoidance of well-known roadblocks and barriers.
Speed and security are two of the latest factors that influence search rankings, but to what degree is still somewhat unknown. While it would certainly make sense that websites that prioritize the user experience, offering a safe destination as well as one which loads efficiently, should be rewarded with higher rankings, it has not been proven that either consistently improve rankings associated with SEO initiatives.
That being said, when enterprises focus on ensuring their content is accessible, and provide an experience that at least meets (hopefully exceeds) the expectation of users (particularly in relation to how quickly a website takes to fully load) - they will find they are on the right digital track. Improving page load times is no easy feat of course but the rewards, at least as it relates to conversion, can be immense.
Take a moment to consider the factors and elements of accessibility, popularity and relevance. Is there one particular area where your website presence could be improved? Likely so, and "SEO 360" due out this summer is going to show readers exactly how to make that happen.