So you've heard search engine optimization can help your website gain traffic and achieve conversions. Maybe a friend told you to get a free site audit online, or a suit at a meet-up gave you a business card claiming he could help your business.
But what exactly is SEO, how can you tell if your site is optimized, and what can you to improve it?
WHAT IS SEO?
Search engine optimization is at term that gets thrown around, so let's start by defining it. SEO is the process of driving visitors to a webpage by ensuring the site maintains high ranking on search engine results.
Let’s look at SEO first from the user’s perspective.
I’m on a constant quest to find the best DIY rose gold hair dye online (it fades SUPER fast), so which result do I rush to after typing in “best rose gold DIY dye” for the fifth time this month? Usually the first one that isn’t an ad. If the site looks good and has pretty pictures and the dye isn’t 100% poisonous, I usually go with that one
Why? Because I believe that it is definitely THE BEST?
Nope… because it’s 9 pm, I just put my kid down, and I am trying to watch Housewives. I need to complete this task STAT. Click, click, PayPal info entered, done.
That’s SEO at work
Basically, search engines strive to deliver relevant, legible, legit results to customers, so that they will maintain an appearance of trustworthiness. So when a user types in “best DIY rose gold hair dye” they’ll be a few clicks away from getting what they actually want.
Savvy businesses optimize their sites for all search engines, but as a case study, let’s look at how Google works. Google’s automated crawler software (Googlebot) is constantly on the lookout for new pages to index, cataloging site content and location (url) info in its index. When a user searches for a product or service using keywords, Google connects the use to top ranked pages.
Keywords are words and short phrases that summarize the content of your site, also known as “search queries”. Anything you type into a Google search is considered a keyword. Your results are partially determined by the extent to which a site uses those, or similar, keywords in it’s content, particularly it its headings.
But SEO is about more that keywords. In fact, one of the biggest misconceptions about SEO, is that including popular keywords in sit content will automatically improve site traffic and increase customer conversions.
As search engines have become smarter, “black hat” SEO techniques designed to manipulate search engine algorithms work less and less. Stuffing content headlines with high performing and unrelated keywords or using invisible text to get as much traffic as possible, is not only inethical, it doesn’t really work anymore.
Follow search engine guidelines “white hat” SEO techniques on the other hand, and you'll create websites for users, not computers, and avoid tricks. When it comes down to it, ethical SEO techniques are all about making your website informative, useful, and accessible as you can for your target audience.
DOES YOUR SITE HAVE WHAT IT TAKES?
There are a few ways to find out whether your site needs work.
Pretend You're the Target Audience
For an easy site audit, imagine you're a potential customer and Google your products or services using keywords. If you run a children’s clothing business in San Francisco’s Mission District try typing “San Francisco Mission children’s clothing”, “San Francisco Valencia kids clothes”, etc. in the search line and see what comes up. If you aren’t in the top results, you probably need work.
Run a Site Audit Online
There are a ton of sites online offering free site audits. Enter you site’s address and the site will generate a quick report with an SEO score. Scores often vary by site, though most claim they emulate Google’s view of your site. SEO Reports usually give you suggestions on how to improve your site, although the free services are often limited, since they want you to pay for more info.
Look at Google's Cached Version of Your Site
So how do search engines judge your site? You can get an idea by looking at Google’s cached version of your site. Check this out, and notice your images, fonts, videos, stylistic choices, basically everything pretty, is missing from your site.
You can have the most beautiful website in the world, but without SEO, potential customers may never find it.
Text in the form of content, alternative (alt) text, metadata, and links, is your evidence your website is useful, understandable and creditable. Cached versions identify headings will still be there, which help visitors (and search engines) determine the most important information from your site. Ever seen a site with broken image links? You’ll probably see a lot of those. BUT, if you’ve included alt text with your images (ADA compliant text describing images for those who cannot see them), that will be there too.
If you were looking at your cached site for the first time, would you understand your message? Could you locate your call to action? Could you tell whether anyone else had ever heard of you? If so, you’re probably on the right track.
SO WHAT DO I DO NOW? MORE THAN JUST KEYWORDS
When I started writing this article, I asked a few people what they knew about SEO, to see what I should cover, and all of them said pretty much the same thing-- keywords.
Researching and using high performing keywords is part of SEO, but only a piece of the puzzle. Furthermore, keywords are next to useless if they are not drawing in your target audience. People have spend insane amounts of time and effort training computers to simulate users. To design an optimized website, consider the entire user experience.
- Does your site effectively offer the products or experiences described in your content?
- Does your site include links to internal and external content that could add to your user’s experience?
- Does your site use language that members of your target audience can read and understand?
In her book, Powering Content: Building a Non-Stop Content Marketing Machine, Laura Bushe point to three factors that predict search engine results: reputation, relevance and readability.
SEO is not a one size fits all solution. Businesses running successful SEO campaigns carefully consider their audience, or audiences, when implementing a plan, and consistently update their campaign as the audience, or audience’s interests change, to make sure the content remains relevant and up to date.
To get started, consider your target audience. How old are your customers? Where do they live? What are their interests? What are they searching for? What words do they use to search?
Google Keyword Planner can help you find keywords by finding keywords used by similar businesses, by entering competitors urls into their easy to use, free application. Using similar keywords as successful competitors can help drive traffic to your site, ending in more conversions
Remember search engines direct clients, not only to relevant, but to reputable websites. To prevent businesses from “keyword stuffing” (i.e.using a whole bunch of relevant keywords in one place, without any promise of reliable information), search engines require sites to showcase evidence of having a good reputation.
Search engines read sites with high traffic and visitor engagement as having a good reputation. The number of internal, and external links also help with your sites reputations. High numbers of backlinks (links from other sites to your content) are a great indicator of popularity and reputation, and will increase your SEO score, so reading up ways to acquire backlinks is a great idea.
If you’re site reads like a Ph.D thesis, you might want to rethink your copy. The average U.S. resident reads at a 7-8 grade level, so unless you are marketing exclusively to your peers, use simple, easy to understand language. Remember, each time a customer leaves your site to search for a definition there's a chance for them to get distracted and disappear all together.
Have a really complicated product you want to sell to the masses? That’s ok! Good writers can convey complex ideas in simple language to reach your target audience. If you struggle to do this yourself, hire a copywriter trained in SEO or follow these guidelines:
- Keep sentence length to a minimum
- Use shorter words
- Minimize the number of multiple syllable words per sentence.
So those are the basics. One of the things I love about SEO is that it is quantifiable. Apps like Google Analytics help you keep track of your visitors, so you can see which changes generate the best results. When numbers begin to slide, you'll know it's time to rethink your SEO strategy again. Since SEO is based on trends, it can seem like a never ending quest. But, if you play your cards right, they'll be rewards along the way.