If you spend any time considering how to market your business online you will almost certainly come across the term “Search Engine Optimisation”, or SEO.
SEO refers to the process of optimising your site to ensure that it ranks well on search engines like Google and Bing. It’s part of the wider marketing process and, as such, it needs to be solidly founded on a good understanding of your customers and how you can solve their problems.
Your customers are also the customers of the search engines, and the goal of the search engines is to provide their customers with the best experience they can, which is defined by the results they return for any given query. The search engines are trying to optimise those results to make them as relevant as possible to the user; to interpret the underlying meaning of a search term so that they can intuit what the user really wants to know. This is good news. It means that the SEO performance of a website is still fundamentally driven by human concerns which we can all understand. The search engines use algorithms to approximate those concerns, so it is useful to have some technical knowledge if you are working in a sector that is highly competitive online, but for most websites what really matters is that you ensure that your site is relevant to your users.
Being relevant means ensuring that the content on your page is something that your users want to see when they search for a solution to a problem you can solve, and that the content is clearly laid out and articulated. Fundamentally it really is as simple as that.
“But wait,”, I hear you say, “surely there’s got to be more to SEO than just making sure I have a page with clear content in it, even if I do not have to worry too much about fierce competition?!”. OK, yes, there is a little more, but it isn’t hard to understand. Let’s go through it, starting with the search engines themselves.
A search engine sees the web like a gigantic library. Its goal is to find all the documents that are in the library, remember them all, and then decide which ones are the most relevant to any given search term. A search engine goes through two stages when it collects web pages: Crawling and indexing, and a third: ranking when it responds to a query.
Let’s imagine that we are creating a search engine from scratch. The first thing we have to do is to start finding out what is out there on the internet. In order to do this we would write a program that goes onto the internet and discovers websites. Such a program is referred to as a crawler, a bot, or a spider. The process is referred to as crawling, and what this means is that the bot visits a webpage, reads it, and follows any links on that page to other pages within the same site or out to other sites so that it can crawl them too.
As the crawler crawls the internet it builds up a list of all the pages it has seen and their content. This information is stored in the index, which, like the index of a library, stores the location of the page and also associates it with data about the site which the search engine uses in the final step.
When a user sends a search engine a query, the search engine trawls through its index and ranks the pages within it according to their relevancy to the search. These results are then returned in the form of a ranked list, which is what the user sees when a search engine responds to a query. Pause and marvel for a second: When you put a query into Google it examines its gargantuan index of all web pages, ranks them according to the content of your specific query, and then sends the top 10 hits back, all within less than a second. For instance, if I type the query “digital marketing Glasgow” into Google it ranks and returns 192,000,000 results in 1.00 seconds. That’s mind-bogglingly fast!
To do SEO well, you really need to make sure you understand your customers and what they are trying to achieve. If you haven’t already, try creating some customer profiles and customer journeys so that you have a solid foundation for understanding their behaviour.
If you know what your customers’ priorities are at the different stages they go through in the buying process, then you can create content that matches up with their needs and should therefore be highly relevant.
If you haven’t done this yet, that’s fine, because the other dimension you can work on is understanding what makes your business different from the competition and make sure this is properly represented in your content. For instance, if you sell freshly baked twinkies, and your competition only sells pre-packaged ones, then you can focus your content on the freshness of your twinkies, and why that makes them special.
Nonetheless, the medium you use, a webpage, is structured in such a way that the search engine bots will look in certain places to try and understand the page’s content and so a short technical exposition of an HTML page is in order.
If you look at a page from the perspective of a web browser you will see a document similar to the following:
<html> <head> <title>Page Title</title> <meta name=”description” content=”Brief description of page content”> </head> <body> <h1>Heading</h1> <img src=https://website/image /> <p>Body content</p> </body> </html>
This is, obviously, a very simple page, but it highlights the way that a search engine sees your webpage – very differently from a human!
There are a few key elements in the above which are considered by search engines when they rank your page.
First of all, a search engine looks at the <title> tag. The title of a page tells the search engine what the page’s content is about and should be informative but concise. Long title tags are taken by search engines to be less informative than short ones, albeit very short titles are seen as not being informative either.
If you have published a blog post then the correct title should be fairly easy to discern, but what about pages which may not be intended to be engaged with in the same way. How, for instance, should you title your home page?
The best advice seems to be to focus your titles on the where or the how of your company in order to differentiate it from the competition. If your twinkie company is based in Glasgow and sells fresh twinkies then it makes sense to emphasise both of these points as well as identifying your business.
For example, the following homepage title is not very competitive, because it doesn’t tell the users anything about your business other than you sell twinkies like every other twinkie company:
James and Kenny’s Twinkie Company
These ones are better:
James & Kenny’s Freshly Baked Twinkies For Delivery
James & Kenny | Freshly baked twinkies in Glasgow
In both cases the title gives a concise picture of what makes your company different from the competition and provides the search engine with a reason to award your site a higher ranking for search terms such as “Twinkies in Glasgow”, or “twinkie bakery Glasgow”, or even “fresh twinkies delivered”.
Conversely, other sites which may rank well for the generic “twinkies” search term will not compete so well with yours for these longer terms, which provides you with a competitive advantage for attracting users who want exactly what you provide – fresh twinkies delivered in Glasgow.
The meta description is a brief introduction to the page. Google does not use the meta-description for ranking purposes, it reads the page content instead, but it is still very important since Google displays it to its users in the search engine results. Users will often use it to decide if they want to click on a link in the search rankings so it can affect your click through rate. And, as it happens, Google uses a page’s click through rate from its search results to rank the page.
A good meta description is like advertising copy. It should engage and charm its reader into taking the next step and clicking on your link.
Use heading tags such as h1, h2 to organise your content. It tells the search engine which topics you are discussing and gives it a shortcut to trying to work out what the page is about. As with page titles, these should be concise but informative.
Search bots don’t have eyes, so they can’t view images. If you use an image, do so for the benefit of your readers and not for SEO purposes.
However, images should still be given descriptive names and have good alt_text that describes what is in the image. This is not only important for search engines, but also important for people who are visually impaired and use a screen-reader.
This is where you talk about the subject of the page, and it is here that search engines make their mind up about the relevancy of the page. Make sure your copy is clear, concise, and if your aim is to promote your website for a particular set of keywords then try and sensibly include those keywords in the text. But above all, write the copy with the user of the site in mind and let the search engine work out what you meant from that. As I say above, search engines are trying to link a search term input by a human to a set of results that a human wants to read and so identifying the optimum content for human beings is what a search engine ultimately tries to do. When you optimise for search engines, you are more often than not optimising for its users.
Next time, we’ll look at how links affect the way a search engine, particularly Google, views your site.