Search engine results are like a game where the winner takes all. It has usually been seen that the click-through rates of the top 3 results on the SERPs (search engine results pages) is around 10 to 30 percent. By the 9th result, this drops to just 2 percent. If your website is not there on the first page for search terms that are relevant to your business your website is failing at fulfilling its potential. This is where SEO (Search Engine Optimization) can and does play such a major role. SEO can be described as a blanket term that covers each and everything that a brand does to get organic traffic to its website from the search engines.
It has technical parts such as site architecture and elements that are more on the imaginative side such as user experience and content creation. It may sound to be fairly simple. But, SEO is like a moving target and this is applicable even for digital marketers who happen to be experienced in this particular regard. There are lots of myths and the algorithms are always changing. All this means that SEO tactics that worked once could now draw a penalty.
If you wish to make sure that your site is optimized you need to have in-depth knowledge of the way the search engines think. Much in the same vein, you need similar knowledge of the way in which real people think and react to the content that you have put up on the web. It is because you have so many different factors such as usability, content creation, and site architecture that SEO feels like a hybrid discipline. There can be points in time where you may have to stop and think what SEO is and how it works.
How do search engines work?
There are many search engines in the world and Google is perhaps the most prominent one of them. It takes care of more than 3.5 billion searches on a daily basis. There are around 1.9 billion websites in the world and this search engine browses through them on a daily basis and provides people the most relevant search result within a span of 0.5 seconds. So, one may be wondering what happens behind the scenes over here. There are three things that a search engine has to do to come up with the most relevant search results.
It has to come up with an index or a list of pages on the web, it has to access that list in an instant, and it also needs to decide the pages that would be the most relevant for the particular search query. As far as the world of SEO is concerned this is referred to as indexing and crawling.
Crawling and indexing
The internet comprises many pages that are connected to each other by way of links. This number is always increasing. Search engines have to find these pages, understand the content over there, and store them in a database, which is referred to as an index.
They also get information on the number of pages. Lastly, they use code tags such as SRC and HREF to find out if they are linked to other pages. They then add these to the list of sites that they have already crawled. This way, the spiders are able to weave a web of indexed pages that is even bigger. They basically hop from one page to another and add them to their index. There are massive physical databases where all this information is stored.
Whenever someone searches anything they get information from this database. The data centers of Google are spread all around the world. In fact, one of the biggest such data centers is at the Pryor Creek in Oklahoma, which takes up an area of around 980,000 sq ft. It is such a massive network that lets Google store billions of pages over so many machines. The search engines are always indexing and crawling pages. This way, they are able to keep track of pages that have been deleted or created newly as well as fresh content and new links.
Whenever one is searching for anything on Google it uses an index that is fully updated and contains billions of answers that could be possibly delivered to the searcher. After this, comes the process of ranking these results with regards to factors such as quality and relevance.
How do search engines rank the relevant results?
This particular work is not done by humans who are sitting at the head offices of a search engine. Rather, the search engines use systems such as algorithms, which can be described as mathematical rules and equations, for such purposes. They help in areas such as understanding searcher intent, finding the relevant results, and then ranking the results on the basis of popularity and authority.
Search engines would never tell you how the algorithms work and all this is done to stop black hat SEO, which is basically the manipulation of SEO to gain an undue advantage in SERPs. But, people who are in the world of search marketing know that these decisions take into account more than 200 factors. The most important among them may be enumerated over here:
- content type
- website quality
- content quality
- content freshness
- page popularity
These days, there are so many different kinds of content that one could be looking for the likes of videos, news, and images. Search engines normally rank various kinds of content on the basis of the searchers’ intent.
Search engines always provide high ranking to content that is informative and useful. These measures may be subjective as such. SEO professionals normally opine that this means qualities such as thoroughness, objectivity, originality, and an orientation towards providing solutions being faced by the searchers.
Search engines always focus on showing the users the newest results balancing it out against other such factors.
This means that if two pieces are regarded by the algorithm to be of the same quality the search engine will always show the searcher the one that has been created the latest.
It was in the 1990s that Google used the PageRank algorithm. It nowadays uses variations of the same to determine how popular a particular page is. PageRank basically judges the popularity of a page by looking at the number of links that point to the same and the quality of the same.
If your site is of poor quality and full of spam content you can be sure it would rank lower on SERP rankings.
Language is also a major factor in this regard. This is because not everybody out there would be looking for a search result in English.
The search engines always provide the highest priority to results that are in the same language as the search term.
These days, a lot of people do local searches on search engines as well. For example, they may be looking for restaurants in their vicinity. Search engines understand this and they always attach top priority to such search results as and when may be needed.
If you – the search marketers – are able to keep these factors in mind they should be able to create content that has a greater chance of being found and ranked by the search engines.
What are the different kinds of features of SERPs?
In the days gone by SERPs were simpler in the sense that they only contained simple lists of links and descriptive snippets. But, in the last few years, SERPs have been equipped with new features and the results are a lot more enriched now. They contain the likes of supplementary information as well as images. As a digital marketer, there is no way that you can guarantee that your site would have extra SERP features. But, there are always a few steps that you can take in this regard to improve your chances.
You can structure your site in such a way that it is a sensible option for users as well as search engines. You can make your one-page content easy to scan for both users and search engines. You can use tools such as structured codes and schema markup, which could help the crawlers understand your site a lot better. The commonest features of the SERPs may be enumerated as below:
- rich snippet
- featured snippet
- people also ask
- knowledge cards
- image packs or carousels
- instant answers
A rich snippet can be described as an extra visual component in a conventional result. For example, the review stars for a restaurant are rich snippets.
A featured snippet is a highlighted block that is located right at the top of the SERP. Quite often searchers get a summarized answer to their search query as well as a link to the source URL (Universal Resource Locator).
People also ask
At times people also ask related questions. This is why in the people also ask section you get a block of related questions that can be expanded.
Knowledge cards are the right aligned panels that provide important information on a search term.
Image packs, also known as carousels, are basically horizontal rows of image links. They appear in searches where visual content would be useful for the users.
The instant answers normally come up whenever Google is able to provide a quick answer to a particular search query. An example of such a feature would be the answer to your questions on the weather of your locality. But, as opposed to featured snippets they do not have any link to a source site.
What is a technical SEO?
Technical SEO can be described as the art of optimizing a website that it can be indexed and crawled.
As far as getting proper ranking for your site is concerned this is a vital step indeed. If your site has been built on the wrong technical foundations it is unlikely that you would see results anytime soon. In this case, the quality of your on-page content would not really matter a lot. This is because you have to build your website in such a way that crawlers are able to access the content and understand it properly as well. You need to know that there is no link between content creation and technical SEO.
Neither is technical SEO related to content promotion or strategies for link building. Rather, it emphasizes more on factors such as the infrastructure and architecture of the site. Search engines these days are becoming more intelligent. This means that the best practices of technical SEO need to adapt to the same as well. They have to become more sophisticated to adapt to these demands. Following are the most important factors in this particular regard:
- URL hierarchy and structure
- page speed
- XML sitemap
- HTTP or HTTPS
URL hierarchy and structure
It is very important to have the same URL structure all throughout your site. This would be useful for the users and the crawlers would find it easy to access them as well. This does not mean that you need to map out each page that is there on your website. That would be an impossible task for sure. But, you need to have a definite logic to the flow of the URLs. It should ideally flow from domain to category to subcategory. This way, you can easily slot the pages into a hierarchy as and when they are created.
If you skip this particular step you can be sure that you would have to deal with plenty of sub-domains that are counterintuitive. You would also have to contend with orphan pages that do not have any internal link. Users find such experience to be nightmarish. Apart from that, this confuses the crawlers as well and this means that there is a high chance that they stop indexing your pages altogether. At a very basic level, you need to structure your URLs in such a way that they are SEO friendly. It should be done in such a way that both users and crawlers are able to understand what the page contains.
For this, you need to incorporate important search terms that are as close to the root domain as may be possible. The ideal length for URL is 60 characters or 512 pixels. If you can optimize them the right way the URLs would play the role of a positive ranking factor for the crawlers and encourage the users to click through as well.
Page speed is also an important factor in this particular regard. The time taken by a web page to load is indirectly proportional to its ranking in the SERPs.
The quicker it is the better it is. Users normally prefer a site to load at the speed of lightning. It has been seen that in 40 percent of the cases users leave a page where they take more than 3 seconds to load. Technical SEO focuses a lot on minimizing the number of elements that can reduce the speed at which your page loads. It keeps the number of plug-ins, widgets, and tracking codes to the least. At the same time, it compresses the weight and size of videos and images on the page.
This is where designers and online marketers have to cooperate and come up with pages that load in less than 3 seconds and yet have all the necessary design related features.
The XML sitemap is basically the file that has the list of all the pages that are there on the website. This includes the likes of blog posts as well. Search engines normally use the file when they are crawling the content of a website. This is the reason why it is very important to make sure that the sitemap does not have pages that you would not rank on the SERPs.
Examples of such pages would include author pages. Whenever you are doing anything on the net such as surfing the web, entering personal details, or paying online you are basically sending information through the internet.
HTTP or HTTPS
In days gone by, servers used a technology named HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) for this purpose. HTTP is indeed a quick way to send across data. But, it is not a secure process and this is because your connection with the site is not an encrypted one. This also means that third parties would be able to get hold of your data.
This is the reason why in 2014 Google came up with the announcement that sites that were running on HTTPS (Secure Hypertext Transfer Protocol) would get some boost in rankings. HTTPS transfers data the same way as HTTP does but it has an extra protocol named SSL (Secure Sockets Layer). It is this SSL that encrypts the data and transports it across the web safely.
AMP stands for Accelerated Mobile Pages. It is an open source platform that has been sponsored by Google. It allows website content to be rendered straightaway on mobile devices.
Thanks to AMP content now loads in a flash irrespective of the device that the user may be using. This means that gone are the days when content such as videos, animations, and ads took forever to load on mobile devices. This has a twofold impact on SEO. It is common knowledge that users leave sites that are slow to load. Even among them, mobile users have the least patience in these matters. If your site is taking to load on mobile devices you can be sure that it would increase the bounce rate and it would have a bad effect on rankings.
Secondly, there is enough proof that at least Google’s search engineers provide high priority to results that are optimized by AMP in their rankings.
What is on page SEO?
On-page SEO is also referred to as onsite SEO. It is a process where you optimize everything that is there on the website to get high rankings on the SERPs. While technical SEO is like the backend on page SEO happens to be the front end. It focuses on areas such as content formatting, basic HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) code, image optimization, and internal linking practices.
The good thing about on-page SEO is that there are no external factors that are important over here. You have complete control over how good it can be. Following are the most important links in this regard:
- meta tags
- page titles and meta descriptions
- image optimization
- outbound and internal links
Meta tags can be described as small elements that are located within the code of a webpage. They help define the structure of the content of a page. An H1 tag informs the crawler the title of the webpage or blog post.
The H2 and H3 tags provide information on the hierarchy of the information contained in the page. This is a lot like having subheads of different sizes in an analog document. The crawlers would then compare the text that is under each title tag with the words that are there in the title. This would be done to make sure that the content is a relevant one. When your meta tags are done the right way they can help the search engine find out about the content on the webpage. This way, it would also have a good idea about where it would show the same in the SERPs.
Page titles and meta descriptions
It is a mistake to think that only people read page titles. The search spiders also read them when they are crawling a page. This means that if you want to optimize your pages for SEO you should include key terms in the on-page title. It should not be longer than 70 characters. If it is any longer the SERPs will simply shorten the title and it would look bad for the users for sure. Meta descriptions can be described as short text snippets that basically summarize the content of a web page.
They normally appear below the page title in the SERP results. When your meta descriptions are optimized for SEO your pages would get more visitors from the SERP pages. This is because people searching for them would surely read them. This would also provide positive signals to the search engines about the site in question. But, you would have to resist the temptation to stuff these sections with as many keywords as you can. These practices are known as keyword stuffing and they have a really bad effect on search engine rankings. Rather, you need to be concise and clear, and this is how you should let the search engines what a particular page is all about.
It is also important to make sure that the crawlers are able to read the images on your page. If they are unable to do so the search engines would not be able to include them in cases where visual results are needed. Search engine marketers normally use an attribute of HTML named ALT text. This is used to describe the images to the crawlers. If you wish to optimize your ALT text it should have search terms that are relevant to the query.
But, they need to make sense to the human users as well.
Outbound and internal links
It is common knowledge that crawlers use links when they are moving from one web page to the next. If your page does not have links search engines would not be able to access the same. This makes linking such an important part of SEO. This includes establishing outbound links to high-class sites and internal links with the other pages in the website. The outbound links would take the visitors from your website to the external sites. These links basically pass a value to external sites.
This is because search engines normally consider links to be like stamps of approval. This implies that every time you are linking to an external site you are basically giving it a sort of thumbs up in the context of the search engines. The users also get a much better navigating experience as well. Internal linking makes it easier for spiders to crawl a website. This also sends signals to the search engines about the most important keywords in the page. It also means that people navigating your site stay for a longer period of time over there.
This, in turn, tells positive things about the quality of the site to the search engines.
What is offsite SEO?
The term offsite SEO basically includes factors that are happening outside your website. But, they still have a role to play with regards to the ranking of your team. This includes the number of backlinks that your site has as well as the quality of sites that are linking to you. With the help of offsite SEO, you would be able to show the search engines that your site has plenty of authority and value, and should be ranked highly in the SERPs.
As opposed to onsite SEO you do not have complete control over offsite SEO. But, there are two factors that you can focus on to improve the off page SEO of your website – building reputation and building links.
As far as offsite SEO is concerned the process of link building can be defined as the practice of getting external sites of a high-quality to link back to your website. You would often hear SEO professionals talk about link juice flowing between websites. This basically means on each occasion that a reputed site links to your search engines think of it as a sign that your site has a good reputation.
This, in turn, improves your chances of ranking high on the SERPs. But, you need to keep in mind that not all backlinks are equal. There are several factors that search engines take into account when determining the value of a backlink. They may be enumerated as below:
- The authority of linking site
- number of links that the backlinking site possesses
- The relevance of the content from which the link has come
- if the link is not followed or followed
- the relevance of the anchor text of the backlink
In most cases, search engine marketers actively look for links from external sites that are good enough. If you too are looking for sites that can provide you high-quality backlinks you have to check out the Alexa Rank. The lower the figure the better would be the quality of backlinks that come from that site. Once you get a list of top-class sites from which you can get backlinks you can easily start working on off page SEO techniques such as guest blogging, broken link building, and brand mention link acquisition.
How to look up keywords for SEO?
Search engines use keywords and other subtle elements such as word order, tense, and spelling to figure out the intent of the searcher. By doing keyword research you as a search marketer would be able to understand the words that they are using to do such work, the keywords that would bring business and traffic to your website. There are three kinds of keywords – short tail keywords, long tail keywords, and latent semantic indexing keywords. The short tail keywords are ones where you have only a couple of words.
Short tail keywords
They may have high search value as such but it is pretty hard to figure out what the users want in actuality from these keywords. This is why you should not base your keyword strategy entirely on these. This is because that could lead to a higher bounce rate and this would lower your SERP rankings in the long term as well.
Long tail keywords
In long tail keywords, you have at least 3 words. They are a lot less competitive and more specific than the short tail keywords. They have good enough search volumes and the intent of users is pretty specific in these cases as well.
The LSI (latent semantic indexing) keywords are ones that offer context-based information for the search engines. Let us say a page ranks high for a word like Titanic. Now, this is an ambiguous term and could be about anything – the movie, the dictionary definition of the word, and the historical event as well. Now Google would use LSI keywords such as Kate Winslet to determine whether you are looking for the James Cameron movie or not.
If you want to make your keyword research strategy and project to be an effective one it would have to use all these 3 kinds of keywords. You need to have them in the content and structure of the website to make sure that the site can rank high on SERPs. But, you need to know the keywords that would be right for this purpose. This is where keyword research can and does come in so handy for you.
Fundamentals of keyword research
Keyword research is a massive topic but it does have a few critical aspects that you would do well to keep in mind. They may be enumerated as below:
- You can use Google Autofill and Related Searches to generate a probable list of keywords
- You can use the Keyword Research feature of Alexa so that you are able to find new keywords that you may not have thought of earlier
- With the help of the Competitive Analysis Tools of Alexa, you can check out the keywords being targeted by your opponents
- You can define a list of keywords for which your site could rank high – in this case, you can balance short tail keywords that are highly competitive with long tail keywords that are focused and have lower competition
- You can categorize search intent and align various such intents with various stages in your sales funnel
- You can choose a group of terms from your list of keywords and create content that would answer search questions related to such terms
- You should have a basic skeleton in these cases as it is this skeleton on which your keyword strategy would be based
The relationship between SERP rankings and content
If you want your SEO to be effective your content – or rather its quality – would play a big role in the same.
You need to make sure that your content is of high-quality and provides useful information. It should be created in such a way that it is able to attract traffic and take users through a specific desirable direction. If your website does not have the content it has very little chance of appearing on SERP rankings. You can have any kind of content such as blog posts, images, videos, and product pages, to name a few. Search engine marketers normally create SEO content that can please the crawlers as well as the users. To create content that meets the needs of the users you need to understand their intent.
There could be countless reasons why people search for things on the internet. It could be to find or buy a product, look up particular websites, or for solutions to certain problems. Normally searcher intent on the internet can be categorized into informational intent, navigational intent, and transactional intent. 80 percent of the searches done on the web is said to be informational. Informational intent is when people are looking for information on the net. Navigational intent is when people are looking to surf particular websites as such. Transactional intent is when people are looking to avail a product or service on the internet. Normally, various kinds of content would match different kinds of intent. If your content matches searcher intent it would lead to better engagement, the search engines would get better signals, and you would rank high in the long term.
The relation between SERP rankings and usability
UX (user experience) does not have a direct effect on the search engine rankings of a page. It has a secondary impact in technical terms. But, it still plays an important role in defining the authority and relevance of the site in question. Not much is known clearly about the exact factors that are used in this regard by the search engines. But, you would be able to use the engagement statistics of your website to determine if they are meeting the standards set in this regard by the likes of Google.
Some of the important factors, in this case, are CTR (Click through Rate), session frequency, session length, and bounce rate. They are a good sign of the way people are reacting to your site and if they are getting what they need in terms of information or not. Google recommends that you make pages for the users rather than the search engines. In this case, there are a few factors that you can keep in mind such as formatting content, making navigation simpler, and avoiding duplicate content.
With regards to formatting content, you need to remember that most people never read a site in depth. You need to make the content easier to scan for them by using the likes of headings and subheadings. You need to keep the paragraphs as short as possible and use images as and when you can in the text. Using bullet points is helpful in this regard as well.
Avoiding duplicate content
You need to make sure that you do not repeat content in various locations as that would be bad for the users. At the same time, this way search engines would also find it harder to show relevant results.
Making navigation simpler
You need to use UI (User Interface) elements such as breadcrumbs to make sure that users never run into dead ends when they are navigating your site.
When the users have a positive experience on your site they would visit it a lot more frequently. They would stay longer over there as well, share it on their networks, and link back to the same as well. All of these would have a positive impact on your search engine rankings.
The thing with SEO is that it is always changing and evolving. With every update in the algorithm of a search engine, you are provided a fresh opportunity to provide better content to your users and get better traffic to your website. The strategies may always keep changing but the mission never changes. You need to create content as well as websites that would be liked by the people and the web crawlers. It is indeed tough to stay on top of all this. However, if you use the right tool kit, tactics, and techniques you can be sure you would be able to create a strategy that would help you in the long term.