SEO is a field where it is generally accepted that there is a vast lack of understanding. Most business-people know it has to do with search engine rankings but don’t understand much beyond that. But don’t think this knowledge gap is only a problem for non-technical or not very computer savvy people. The majority of people within IT, marketing and website design don’t have a grasp of it either. Most marketing or design professionals outsource this work to a person who specialises in SEO or they don’t offer it as a service at all.
In this special two-part blog series I strip SEO down to the basics. It is my goal to empower you and fill you with a new sense of confidence through giving you a simple no jargon overview of Search Engine Optimisation.
What we will cover:
Part One: What is SEO and how does it work?
Part Two: How to avoid SEO cowboys
Part One: What is SEO and how does it work?
As most of you know SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation. For most business owners, this is typically understood to mean – how do I get my blooming website to rank better on Google. As stated above, SEO is a vastly misunderstood subject where there are far too many misnomers, red herrings and complete falsehoods when it comes to what will have a positive impact on your website and what won’t.
In the following paragraphs I am going to strip SEO down to its fundamental principles and address some of the major misunderstandings around SEO, then move on to how SEO works in practice. As I said above, they’ll be no hard to follow jargon here, just a straight forward guide to the main components of what makes your webpage rank.
What does SEO mean in practice?
To break down what SEO is all about I feel it is really useful to remember that when we use Google Search or Bing that we are using a free service provided at a vast cost to that business. At the time of writing it is estimated that both Google and Microsoft (Bing’s owners) have around 1 million servers each. You can imagine the cost of offering this service for free when you take into account the cost of buying the servers, staff to maintain them, software to run them, buildings to house them and electricity to power them.
These businesses are only able to offer us this free service because of the large userbase of people that use the service. Both Google Search and Bing make most of their money selling advertising space to businesses. This business model works the same as newspapers who sell their papers at a loss, breakeven or a tiny profit margin to sell more newspapers so they can then sell advertising space to businesses.
The Motive of Search Engines
Once we understand the huge costs involved in offering us a free search service we can start to work out the motives behind Google and Bing and therefore work out at a fundamental level how SEO works.
So, we now know it costs a lot to run search engines and that cost is absorbed by the profits the search engine makes through selling advertising. So, for these businesses to become more profitable they either need to reduce the number of servers they need or increase advertising spend.
The main way search engines achieve both of these things is through making the results of a search more relevant to the person searching.
The new normal: The age of instant answers
When a person uses Google to find an answer to a search query it is now expected that they will find that answer straight away or within a few seconds. We have come to accept this as normal. This is because Google spends a lot of money making its algorithm so good that in 99.9% of cases it displays the most relevant pages for you.
Google does this because it is cheaper for it to give you the answer with as little searches as possible due to the cost of each search on its business (remember the server costs).
By also providing a superior customer experience (i.e. the convenience of finding what you are looking for quickly), more people will use the search engine and therefore Google and Bing have more people to make advertising dollars off of.
For these reasons, it is logical to conclude that what search engines want to do is provide their users with the best answers to their search query in the quickest time.
What search engines want
By understanding the intent of Google and Bing we can begin to understand the fundamentals of what drives their algorithm. No one apart from a few select people at each company knows what ‘secret sauce’ goes into their algorithms or exactly how a website ranks but what we can say for sure is that both Google and Bing want to display web pages that answer the questions that a user types into their search bars, and that this should be done most efficient way possible.
What these search engines don’t want
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a website would rank as long it was stuffed full of the right keywords. This means if you wanted to rank for ‘gas fireplaces’ you would simply have that keyword splattered around the page at various intervals and you were more or less guaranteed to rank. Those days are gone, way gone. In part two of this blog series, I talk about keyword stuffing and how this practice is only still used by SEO conmen and cowboys. The reason this practice doesn’t work anymore is the algorithms that the search engines use are so much more sophisticated now. We are living in the age of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, and Google has gotten wise to this trick. A keyword-stuffed web page will usually read poorly and may not even answer the user’s query. Here’s an example:
You search for – Is a gas fireplace safe for my home?
In 2001 you would have found results like this:
“We sell gas fireplaces. Gas fireplaces are a great addition to the home. Visit our gas fireplace showroom to see our Gas Fireplaces.”
Search engines don’t want you as a user to see such a page as it doesn’t provide a good user experience and doesn’t answer your question so the page won’t rank highly. This is very different from the SEO landscape twenty years ago where keyword stuffing was commonplace and would typically provide a poor user experience.
What does this tell us about how to rank?
We know that Google and Bing want to provide the user with relevant web pages that give them the answers they want. Therefore, we can begin to understand why terms such as relevancy, domain authority and search intent are very important in SEO.
Search Intent & Relevancy
Relevancy is the term used in SEO to describe how good of a match a web page is to the user’s search query. Think of it as a matchmaking service. The better the match, the better score you’ll give the service. So, if someone types ‘Stoves in York’ they’ll expect to see exactly that. For the reasons I have given around cost implications and user experience, relevancy is the most important ranking factor to search algorithms e.g. if you sell plumbing in York then you aren’t going to rank for ‘Stoves in York’.
Search intent describes the thinking behind why a person makes a specific search query i.e. what did they intend to find by searching those words? Without this thought process, it would be impossible to create good matches / relevant result pages and therefore Google prioritises web pages that match this intent of the user. Search intent can be split into 4 common categories:
- Navigational – When a user is looking to simply navigate to a specific website e.g. someone types Amazon or Upspark Digital into Google.
- Informational – When someone is looking for answers to a specific question. For example “What are ten pounds in KG”
- Commercial – When a user is looking for a product or service but isn’t ready to buy yet and is looking for further information to help their decision e.g. “The best eco stoves UK 2020” or “top five electric fires”
- Transactional – When a user is showing the intent to buy. For example, searching for specific product names e.g. “DG Ivar 5”
Factoring search intent into the content you create on your website will be a decisive factor on whether your website ranks or not for that search term. Google knows when the user types “The best eco stoves UK 2020” that the user is looking for more information. Therefore, it will display blog posts or videos that match the search term. Trying to get a product page to rank for this search term would be a fool’s errand.
Simply put, always factor in what the intent of the user is going to be for specific search terms and then create content that they will find highly valuable and relevant.
Domain Authority is the SEO term used to describe how likely a website is to rank on search engine results pages (SERPs). Although the scoring isn’t directly used by Google, it does do a good job of predicting what websites will and won’t rank highly.
Search engines don’t want users to fall victim of fraud, scams or simply false or misleading information. Therefore, it is probable that built into their algorithm is a weighting/scoring system that they use to score the credibility of a website. Many criteria are likely to impact such a system but of course, the exact details are a closely guarded secret. However, from large SEO data firms seeing the results of trial and error over millions of websites worldwide, it is believed that the number of quality external links to a website is a major ranking factor.
Quality External Links
One way search engines assess the credibility and importance of a website is through the number of links that point to the website and where these links come from. For example, if MoneySavingExpert had several links on their website that when clicked went to your website, search engines would look at this as a positive signal about your website and all other things being equal, would potentially help your ranking. This is because Google and Bing know that moneysavingexpert.com is a website that people respect and get a lot of value from. Therefore, Google and Bing reward moneysavingexpert.com with good rankings and high domain authority. They then also reward websites who are associated with them as an association with a highly credible website is likely to mean that your website is also highly credible. Just like knowing and associating with highly sought after people in social circles would do wonders for your credibility and awareness.
Remember, search engines want you to find the information you need as quickly as possible and a more credible source is more likely to be able to provide this.
So that’s the first part of this SEO Made Simple guide finished. I hope you found it interesting and it helped you understand the basic principles of SEO. Once, you know these guiding principles, all the technical stuff seems much easier as you understand the reasons why it’s being done. In part two we talk about how to avoid the SEO cowboys who are ripping off business owners all around the world.
Till then, all the best.