It's been interesting to see and feel the growing awareness of clients to not just the importance of SEO but also the requirement for them to engage in order to achieve good results. The importance for them to not just understand but also for them to do.
The doing of course can be quite a task - establishing an SEO strategy and implementing it is no small task - but there is no magic bullet than guarantees you good results and high SEO rankings.
Anyone who tells you otherwise is wearing a hat of the cowboy variety. Cowboy hats are nice but they can be expensive and if ill-fitting can make you look and feel a tad silly.
That said SEO (and we're talking about SEO in the context of natural organic results) is still a field in which a good understanding and following of the basic principles (even with limited resources) will go a long way in achieving good results. In broad terms you'll get out what you put in as long as you put in the right effort :-)
In simple terms Search Engine Optimisation is the process of improving the volume and quality of traffic to a website from search engines. For the purposes of this post, we're NOT talking about Search Engine Marketing (SEM). SEM is the process of marketing a website via Internet search engines whether by improving rank in organic or natural listings, paid or sponsored listings or a combination of them. As such SEO is actually a component of SEM. SEO is arguably the most cost-effective function in a SEM campaign.
Generally speaking, each search engine uses its own index (or other indexes with its own flavour on top) to score pages and then provide a basis for ranking that page against a user search on a specific term or phrase. Before moving on and just to emphasise the point: it's BOTH volume AND quality of traffic we're talking about. Whilst improving (or increasing) the volume of traffic for a website is a relatively simple concept to understand, improving the quality of traffic is a little more complex.
There is no one-size-fits-all magic formula for SEO but if there were it would value a smaller increase of visitors who actually wanted to visit your site over a bigger increase of visitors who didn't. That may seem common sense but the point is that whilst it is partly about numbers (and basically increasing them) it's not ALL about numbers. Your strategy has to be built on targeting relevant and interested users - those who want to be on your site, have an interest in what your offering and who you will hopefully build a relationship with.
Why is it important?
The majority of web traffic is driven by the major commercial search engines - Google, Bing and Yahoo!. If your site cannot be found by search engines or your content cannot be put into their databases, you miss out on the incredible opportunities available to websites provided via search - people who want what you have visiting your site and potentially establishing a relationship with each other.
"The Link is King. All Hail the Link." Russell Jones
So what are the basic factors used by the big engines in indexing a site and in them establish its ranking. In short they use a wide range and combination of factors. The full list of factors is a long one, but a summary of the most important (in order) would be:
- Keyword-Focused Anchor Text from External Links: Having lots and lots of (relevant, high value, quality) links from other sites where the link includes keywords relevant to your target page
- External Link Popularity: The quantity and quality of external links to your website
- Diversity of Link Sources: Links from as many unique root domains the better
- Keyword Use in Title Tag: Placing the targeted search term or phrase in the title tag of the web page's HTML header and so displays in the browser title bar
- Trustworthiness of the Domain: Based on the Link Distance from the Trusted Domains (eg. using TrustRank, Domain mozTrust etc)
- Topical Relevance of Inbound Links: The subject-specific relationship between the sites/pages linking to the target page and the target keyword
- Substantive and Unique Content: Existence of Substantive, Unique Content on your Page
- Global Link Popularity of your Domain Based on an Iterative Link Algorithm (e.g. PageRank on the domain graph, Domain mozRank, etc.)
"Sub-optimized pages with many incoming links outrank easily their well optimized but poorly linked counterparts." Hamlet Batista
There's a common thread through most of the above factors - the quantity and quality of external links. SEO experts put it succintly:
"Links are to SEO's what Snowflakes are to Eskimos. Off page factors were the most significant change in search relevancy that lead Google to become the 800 lbs. gorilla that they are." Todd Malicoat
There are a HOST of other High and Moderate Importance factors - too many to list. They will in any case have decreasing value in terms of return on investment (of time, effort and any budget you put into them). If you ensure you're following the above list well, you're doing well and you'll do well.
On the flipside, the most Negative factors - these are the ones which will most likely adversely affect your ranking and potentially get in you junked altogether.
- Domain Banned from Google’s Index for Web Spam
- Domain’s Rankings Penalized in Google for Web Spam
- Link is Determined to be “Paid” Rather than Editorially Given
- Domain Contains Links to a Significant Amount of Web Spam
- Domain Has Not Earned Trusted Links
- Overuse of Targeted Keywords (Stuffing/Spamming)
How your web agency and CMS ought to be helping you
As a web agency we're in no small part about publishing solutions and whatever publishing solution (or CMS) you use it ought to be helping your SEO strategy as much as possible and preferably automagically in the background. Working for you, not against you. In-built features which help out with some of the above include:
- Page Titles in Browser bar: Ensure the Page title is auto-inserted into the browser title bar. If your handcoding (old skool HTML'ing) your website then your fully in control of this but if your using a CMS make sure it has this feature
- Ordering in the Browser title bar: There is a widely held view that having the page title first provides better SE value (especially for Google) as search engines prioritise words they find in the title tag from left to right, so the most important word should appear first, with additional relvant keywords depending on the context of the page
- URLs can be more engine friendly: there are two pieces to this:
- URL Shortcuts: The ability for Editors to create URL shortcuts - eg. www.sitename.co.uk/whatson
- Search Engine Friendly URLs: It's not that Search Engines don't like obscure, database URLs with lots of numbers and odd characters (eg.www.sitename.org.uk/?lid=23), it's just that they can't really score them as the URL tells them nothing additional to what might be on that page. On the other hand page Search Engines can and will score URL's that contain the page title, possibly even the section title in them - eg. http://www.sitename.org.uk/51779/events/pains-of-youth.html
- Autogeneration of a Sitemap: If Google can't crawl your site it probably won't index it. It's worth noting that whilst XML sitemaps arent a scoring factor per se, they can help especially with large and fast growing sites.
There are other factors your web agency can (and ought) to be able to support and include in their offering, including:
Domain/ DNS Configuration - Canonicalization 301 Redirects: Where multiple versions of the same page exist, search engines may choose not to add the page to its database, or rank the page lower than if there was a unique page. In addition the amount of links to any page is divided by the number of versions, effectively diluting their value and their contribution to natural rankings. The recommendation is to configure your Domain and CMS to create only one version of page ideally the http://www version and ensure all non http:// versions are redirected to their www equivalents using a 301 redirect instruction. This will create a single accessible URL for each page minimising duplicate content, and ensuring pages get indexed properly. In practice this means that whilst all of the following URLs work, they all point to the first (http://www) address:
Correct use of Tags in CSS/ Templates - Semantic use of tags in CSS (stylesheets) can affect ranking. For example H tags (H1-H6) are used as headings (to denote content relevancy and importance). H1 is the most prominent heading, H2 less important, and so on. They should be used in a contextual hierarchy, i.e. the content in H2 is related to but less important than H1. Used in this fashion they are treated with particular importance by search engines to help them determine what the page is meant to be about. Typically on websites, the name of the product or the category appears in the H1 tag. This is an important part of the CSS/ templating process carried out in the early part of each project.
The benefit is that this removes any confusion about which phrase is the most important on the page, and together with the correct optimisation of page titles and meta descriptions will help the website rank for natural searches.
Whoah! What about ... ?
It's still surprising how regularly Keyword Meta Data is cited by clients as surely being of high importance but which in fact isn't. Keyword Use in Meta Description Tag is considered of Minimal Importance and Keyword Use in Meta Keywords Tag is considered of Very Minimal Importance.
"Keyword Use in the Meta Keywords Tag – ignore them unless using a blogging platform which can use the same keywords as tags. Google ignores them." Andy Beard
So Shirely, a long long time ago they were and they don't do any (real) harm but Keyword Meta-Data for SEO is not important.
Additionally - for those about to pipe up with more recent web phenomena - the Social Graph, Twitter and Facebook Data About the Domain or Page are all considered to be of Very Minimal Importance.
That's in no way to say don't invest time and effort in these activities, just don't expect to see much in the way of any return in terms of SEO. Also who knows what the future holds for these factors - they could in time come to represent much higher importance.
There's no (single) silver bullet - SEO is not necessarily easy to tackle, largely because so many pieces of a site factor into the final results and also because the factors (and their importance) change over time. It's lots of work - mostly about consistency, tracking and refinement - and if you going to take it seriously you really ought to strategise (agree a policy and strategy and implement it - for a simple start use eConsultancy's Best Practice Guide). The return on all your hard honest work though will be rewarding - you'll improve your ranking, improve the relevancy of your site to your audience(s) and above all you'll ultimately improve your return on investment.
Sources, References and Further Reading:
- SEO Beginner's Guide: http://guides.seomoz.org/beginners-guide-to-search-engine-optimization
- SEO Best Practice Guide: http://econsultancy.com/reports/search-engine-optimization-seo-best-practice-guide
- SEO Quiz: http://www.seomoz.org/quizzes/take/1
- PageRank Calculator: http://www.page-rank-calculator.com/
- TrustRank: http://www.trustrank.org/
- SEO Toolbar: http://www.seomoz.org/seo-toolbar/
- Market Share graph data: http://www.impactmedia.co.uk/blog/search-engine-news/search-engine-market-share-statistics-february-2010-283798/
- Similar Page Checker: http://www.webconfs.com/similar-page-checker.php