SEO, or search engine optimization, is the process of adjusting the content on your web page and your website so that search engines better understand what your content is about.
SEO can be divided into two parts:
- On-Page SEO: adjustments you make to the content and formatting of a web page that help search engines understand what your content is about
- Off-Page SEO: signals you obtain from other websites that help search engines understand how authoritative your content is.
What is SEO?
SEO is an acronym that stands for Search Engine Optimization.
Search engine optimization is the process of optimizing your website to get organic traffic from the search engines. You do this by ensuring that your content can be found in the search engines for words and phrases that are relevant to what your website offers.
Benefits of SEO
The benefits of SEO are:
- it produces free traffic
- it brings highly targeted traffic to your website
- the traffic you get from SEO is more or less permanent
Let’s look at these three benefits more closely.
Any online business needs traffic to survive.
You can either pay for your traffic (e.g. Facebook Ads, Google Ads, Twitter Ads) or you can get it for free.
There are many ways of getting free traffic, but the biggest source of free traffic on the internet is organic search. A whopping 51% of all internet traffic comes from organic search.
When people use a search engine such as Google, they usually have a specific problem they want to solve.
Search engines like Google are getting very good at matching search queries to search results. That means that when someone finds your web page in the search results, they are looking for exactly what you’re offering. And that’s why organic traffic, or unpaid search engine traffic is highly targeted.
Finally, the traffic you get from SEO is permanent.
I have articles that ranked No #1 on Google 18 months ago.
Those articles haven’t moved in all that time. They’re still in the top position and they’re still delivering traffic to my website. Compare this with social media:
- the lifespan of a Tweet is 18 to 20 minutes
- the lifespan of a Facebook post is 2.5 to 5 hours
- the lifespan of an Instagram post is 19 hours
By comparison with the search engines, social media is like quicksand – each new piece of content sits there for a short time, and then disappears beneath the surface never to be seen again.
How Search Engines Work
Search engines do two main things:
Crawling and indexing
Search engines use robots, called ‘bots’ or spiders, that are constantly crawling the internet, following the links on web pages.
When a spider finds a page, it adds the page to a vast index. It also records information about that page: its content, how many milliseconds the page takes to load, how many links it has to other pages, and many other factors.
One important thing to understand about search engine spiders is that they can only find a page if it is linked to from another page. A web page that has no links to it from any other page would be undiscoverable by the search engine spiders. It would never be indexed and so it would never appear in the search results.
And that’s why site architecture is an important aspect of SEO. Site architecture refers to the way your pages are linked to each other. The best, and most widely used, architecture for a website is a three-tier structure:
- Tier 1 = the home page
- Tier 2 = category pages
- Tier 3 = content pages
A three-tier structure is good for SEO for three reasons:
- Every page is discoverable by the spiders (as long as your home page is indexed)
- The search engines understand how your content is organized.
- The search engines know when you have topical authority for a particular topic.
Let me clarify the last point a bit better.
In a three-tier structure, you have category pages, and content pages that link to those category pages.
Let’s say you run a website about pet care. And let’s say you have a category page titled ‘Looking after Budgerigars’. You might have 10 separate blog posts on that topic (budgie diet, budgie space requirements, budgie diseases, budge breeding etc.).
Because you have a three-tier structure (10 related blog posts clustered around a category page), the Google algorithm is immediately going to see that your website has high topical authority for the topic of looking after budgies. And that’s going to give you higher rankings in the search engine results.
Search queries and search results
To do well in SEO you have to understand that the search engines are trying to provide the best possible match between what people search for and what they find in the search results.
Google’s mission is to deliver the most relevant and reliable information available.
Is this because Google just wants to help people find information?
Yes, to a certain extent.
But more importantly, Google wants to be the most useful search engine on the Internet.
Google owns over 200 companies, including YouTube, Android, Gmail, Google Analytics, Chromecast, and Google Pixel.
But do you know where most of Google’s profit comes from?
In the third quarter of 2017 a massive $24.1 billion of Google's $27.77 billion revenue came from advertising. That’s 86.78% of all Google profits.
And where do those ads appear?
On the first page of the search results.
And that’s why Google is committed to improving the match between what people search for and what they find in the search results.
Because the more people who use Google search, the more revenue they get from advertising.
Factors That Affect SEO
The factors that affect SEO are called 'ranking factors' and there are over 200 of them. Here are six most important ranking factors:
The biggest factor affecting the optimization of your page for SEO is keyword research.
This means that any piece of content you publish must be targeting a particular keyword. And that keyword should be a word that you know, through keyword research, that you have a reasonable chance of ranking for in the search results.
A keyword can be a single word, such as ‘cars’. And in that case, it’s called a ‘head keyword’. These are keywords that are impossible to rank for due to the level of competition.
The kind of keywords you can rank for have at least two words, such as ‘vintage cars’. Keywords containing two words are called ‘middle keywords’. But even middle keywords are hard to rank for.
The keywords that you can rank for usually contain at least three words, such as ‘Italian vintage cars’.
Keyword research is the process of finding keywords where the competition to get on Page #1 is relatively low, while the monthly search volume is enough to justify the effort.
Here are some of the factors you need to look at when doing keyword research:
- the number of results that appear in Google search for that keyword (for most keywords, less than 20 million results indicates relatively low competition)
- the domain authority (DA) of the websites that rank on Page #1 for that keyword (if the results on Page #1 are all websites that have DA of 50 and above and you have domain authority of 27, you probably can’t rank on Page #1 for that keyword)
- do the results on Page #1 have topical authority? If the top ranking pages are “thin” (less than 1000 words) or slightly off-topic, then you could probably outrank them by writing content that covers the topic better.
Keyword research is vital for SEO. But content outguns every other SEO factor you can think of.
Topical authority is now a major SEO ranking factor. Time after time I have managed to outrank websites with much higher domain authority simply by writing content that covers the topic better.
Longer content ranks better than shorter content.
Brian Dean of backlinko studied over one million search results and discovered that the average word count of a Google first page result is 1,890 words.
But sheer number of words is not the relevant factor. It’s how well you cover the topic. The reason longer content ranks better is that the more words in your article, the more likely it is that you covered the topic well.
On Page SEO refers to SEO factors that you control directly. This includes:
As I mentioned earlier, site architecture is an SEO factor because it helps the search engines find and index your content and it helps The search engines understand how your content is organized.
Good site architecture also helps your human visitors navigate around your site. That translates into more time on site. And that’s a user experience metric that the search engines record. The more time your visitors spend on your site, the higher you will rank in the search results.
Over 50% of all searches are now performed on mobile devices. This means the search engines want pages that have lightning-fast load times.
Because mobile devices are typically connected to the Internet with poorer connections than desktop devices. The search engines are worried that if people on mobile devices can’t access their search results within a few seconds, they’ll go somewhere else.
And that’s why Google, for example, has made Page Speed a major ranking factor. Google is giving preference in the search results to pages that load in less than 2 seconds.
SEO Is Constantly Changing
SEO is constantly changing, as search engines develop new technologies for understanding search queries and returning search results that match those those queries.
In the last eight years there have been thirteen major Google algorithm updates:
- Google Panda Update - 2011
- Google Penguin Update - 2012
- Google Hummingbird Update - 2013
- Google Mobile Update - 2015
- Google Quality Update - 2015
- Google RankBrain Update - 2015
- Google AdWords SERP Update - 2016
- Interstitial Penalty - 2017
- Google "Fred" - 2017
- "Medic" Core Update - 2018
- Site Diversity June - 2019
- September Core - 2019
- BERT - October - 2019
But every year there are hundreds, if not thousands, of minor Google algorithm updates. In 2010 there were 450 minor Google algorithm updates and in 2018 there were 3,200!
With AI and machine learning, the search engines get better and better at understanding the intent behind search queries and the meaning and context of online content.
And so SEO is always changing.
Does this mean you have to keep adjusting your content to keep up with the algorithm changes?
Not at all. Most algorithm updates are aimed at websites that are over-optimizing their content in some way or other.
Just focus on writing for your human audience and you’ll be fine. As a rule of thumb, if humans like your content, the search engines will also.
This introduction to what is SEO has covered the benefits of SREO, how search engines, and some of the factors that affect how content is ranked in search engines.
SEO is a powerful skill to develop. But it's not a quick fix – it can take months to see the benefits of our work.
However, if you want free, highly targeted traffic, there’s no substitute for getting your content ranked in the search engines.
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