SEARCH ENGINE OPTIMIZATION - SEO GUIDE
An Introduction to SEO
SEO may sound like a dull subject, but it's how your best prospects find your business.
In the beginning, all websites were created equal, and no one knew where anything good actually was.
You needed to know the URL of the website that you wanted to visit.
The earliest search helpers were the plethora of “directories” that popped up in the early days of the web, where a list of website links would be presented to the user.
Using a directory, a user could work their way through a hierarchy of categories in order to arrive at the “answer” (a website) they were after.
Then someone came up with the bright idea of creating a searchable index of websites that contained the best content. That fella was named Alan Emtage, and he never made a penny off of his brilliant invention, “Archie”.
From 1993-1994, Excite, WebCrawler and Yahoo quickly came on the scene, and the race was on to build and maintain the web’s #1 search engine.
What Is a Search Engine?
A search engine is a web-based tool for finding the most relevant and accurate answers from the millions of websites on the internet.
Of course, a search engine would be nearly useless if it had to re-scan the entire internet each time someone asked a question. Thus, search engines use search indexes. The index is where the discovered web page information is stored.
But how is a search index built? By using bazillions of web “crawlers“, also known as “bots” or “spiders”, which are little programs that go out and actually fetch the content of a web page and the entire website.
Next, the search engine must attempt to understand what each web page is about. This process involves more and more factors each year, as machines get “smarter”, and better at recognizing the relevancy of a particular web page to the search query that was posited.
Finally, the web pages and websites that contain them are ranked. Ranking refers to the ordering of results that happen in the Search Engine Results Pages (or SERPs) for a given query.
As with golf or hit records, a “lower” numbered ranking (e.g., 1, 2 or 3) is better than a “higher” numbered ranking (20, 46 or 1093) because a rank of 1 means the first result, a rank of 2 is the second result, etc.
A Word About Social Media
Social Media has become such a prevalent term in society, there is a temptation to think that when you have a “social media person”, you’re covering all your bases for your business.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Whereas searching on a search engine is largely a solo activity, Social Media websites attempt to foster interaction among their users.
Social media interactions are something humans are used to in “real life”, and these interactions are very often off-the-cuff, stream-of-consciousness, un-categorized and largely random.
Many Social Media interactions are the antithesis of “finding an answer” — people love to share their opinions and debate. However, certain interactions may be more valuable to the users of social media than others.
On social media, someone might post: “What’s your favorite Italian restaurant in San Ramon?”
This is different than typing “Italian restaurant San Ramon” into a search engine like Google. Google will factor in reviews, the ability of a particular website to respond, mobile-friendliness and a variety of other factors which may or may not be interesting to the user.
Showing users search results is not the raison d’être of social media.
Search engines are far better at answering direct questions.
How Search Engines Find Web Pages
Delivering the best answer for a given question — that’s Google’s (or any search engine’s) mission. Pretty much.
A “search query” is just a question, typed in by a searcher.
Search queries typically tend to go from broad to more specific. This is because a search engine will produce more generic answers, the more generic the query. A quick example will help to illustrate.
Someone searching for a good Italian restaurant might simply type “Italian” into Google.
But that query produces generic results about the country of Italy, how to speak Italian, etc.
So the searcher types the more specific “Italian restaurants”.
That search produces a list of Italian restaurants that are the highest-rated, and closest to the searcher.
This “narrowing” of the search happens naturally, as a searcher becomes more accustomed to using a search engine.
Organic Search Traffic & Relevant Results
“Organic” search traffic, is visitors coming to your website, who have been referred in the un-paid results from a search engine.
“Un-paid?”, you say? Why yes, not all search engine results are created equally.
Google learned early in their lifespan that advertisers could fund their company, and just delivering great search results was — well, not a business model.
So, paid Search Engine Marketing (SEM) was born.
Google tries to balance the results it returns between the best paid results and the best organic results. Of course, paid results are sorted to the very tippy-top of the page.
However, Google has unwittingly (well, they know it) trained searchers that the best results are actually sorted under all the paid results.
We touched on web crawlers above. Their job is to ingest all the data from a website and send it back to the search engine.
On many occasions, certain websites or even individual pages elect not to be crawled, and make this known to the crawling agent via a robots.txt file. This file can request bots to index only parts of a website, or nothing at all.
It is estimated that approximately 4.2 billion web pages exist in 2020. Even the largest crawlers from the major search engines cannot create a complete index of the entire web.
Search Engine Rankings, Ranking Factors & Page Rank
Once the data is received from the web crawler, the search engine attempts to understand what the web page is actually about, and how well it does its job of conveying useful information for a particular search query.
In the early days of Google, a ranking strategy was created called “PageRank“.
PageRank is a methodology for calculating the importance of specific website pages.
PageRank works by counting the number and “quality” of links to a page to make a rough estimate of how important the website is. The strategy is that more important websites are likely to receive more links from other websites.
In this way, a link from a website to a target website can be seen as a “vote” as to the target website’s authority.
Google no longer places as much emphasis on the number of links pointing to a particular website, as they learned that people would create lots and lots of meaningless links, simply to encourage Google to rank a particular website.
Google’s algorithm looks at a myriad of factors in order to rank pages. They do not publish any specific information regarding their algorithm, lest certain people try to “game” the system.
Instead, Google suggests that every website do very specific things right in order to rank well. Some of those things are:
- Create a secure and easily navigable website
- Make the website mobile-friendly (easily used on a smartphone or tablet) and fast to respond.
- Buy your domain a long time ago. 🙂
- Create a great user experience, with tons of helpful content.
- Get lots of citations across the web (links and mentions on other websites).
- Include detailed and consistent information as to your business or organization.
Meta tags were one of the first ways invented that gave search engines a “hint” about what the web page was about.
Meta tags are not directly visible to the user of the website. It’s sort of “insider” information.
Early on, meta tags were more heavily relied-upon, as early search engines were not nearly as good at figuring out what a website was about.
Soon people became talented at embedding misleading meta tag information in order to get more search traffic, even when the website was in no way about what the searcher had searched for.
At the time of this writing, the title tag and “meta description” are the main tags that a search engine will look at for relevance, and they’d better jibe with the rest of the content on the website, or the website will disappear from the rankings.
Search Engine Result Pages – SERPs
As I wrote above, SERP is an acronym for Search Engine Result Page, the blizzard of text, images, video and whatnot that pours forth from Google when you execute a search.
It’s just easier and faster to say SERP.
A recent Google innovation are Search Snippets, which are larger pieces of relevant content (some might call them “answers”) that address a searcher’s query immediately within the SERPs.
Search snippets attempt to directly answer questions, without the user needing to click through to the web page that provided those answers.
This zero click search has not been met with great enthusiasm by the websites providing those answers, as their businesses rely on searchers finding the website, and clicking through to learn more.
Fortunately, most of these search snippets are for very direct search queries, like “What’s the weather in San Ramon, CA?”
CTR – Click-Through Rate
When a searcher searches for “Italian restaurants San Ramon” in Google, Google will note the first search result that the searcher clicks on in the SERPs, and ascribe a small amount more of authority for that website the next time this search is performed.
More Clicks = More Relevancy
If the searcher clicks on a particular result, Google takes that to mean that result has relevancy to the search.
The act of clicking on a search result is called click-through, and the number of times a result is clicked vs. the number of times a certain search is performed, is known as the click-through rate (or CTR).
The term Conversion Rate as it applies to Google refers to the number of times a searcher found a result, then continued all the way through to complete a conversion goal.
The conversion rate is simply the percentage of times that the conversion happens vs. the search result was surfaced.
A conversion goal could mean a purchase of a product or service, or simply the filling out of a contact form, or downloading an e-book.
Conversion rates are something that can be tracked in Google Analytics, a very deep analysis tool used to track and report on all kinds of statistics associated with running a website.
PPC – Pay-Per-Click Advertising & Search Engine Marketing
PPC (Pay-Per-Click) is a common colloquialism for Google’s paid advertising platform, now called Google Ads.
Google Ads offers services using the PPC auction price model. This means that when someone clicks on your ad, Google takes a fee from your account. This is called a Cost-Per-Click, or CPC.
The fee taken on each click varies depending on what your particular market is bidding for those keywords and position. If no one else is bidding, even a small fee will suffice to put your listing at the very top of the Google SERP.
However, unless you’re in a very blue ocean, you’re likely bidding against other businesses who also want their ad to show first.
Not everyone can be #1!
Law firms have some of the highest CPCs of all Google Ads bidders. “Lawyer” and “Attorney” are in the Top 10 most expensive keywords on Google. The average CPC in the legal industry is over $6.
CPC is not the only way to pay for Google Ads. An advanced bidding strategy called Cost-Per-Acquisition can be used to automatically reach a predefined cost for a particular user action.
Google Ads is Google’s main source of revenue, earning nearly $135 billion in 2019.
It’s no wonder Google is as hot on organic search traffic as it once was.
Bing offers search advertising as well. If you’re already maxed out on your efforts on Google, in 2020, Bing is a great place to go to get that extra 9% of available search traffic.
Search Volume & Domain Authority
The Major Search Engines
How To Get Found on the Internet
What Are Searchers Looking For?
Search Snippets: Weather, Flights, Hotels
Exact Match Domains – EMD
Link Building & Internal Linking
Title Tags & Meta Descriptions
Backlinks & Nofollow
User Experience & Mobile Devices
SEO Techniques & Tools
Google Search Console
Advanced SEO Strategy & SEO Techniques
Silo Content Structure
Search Engine Optimization Authorities
Search Engine Land