Do you really need SEO?
SEO sort of snuck up on me. With a background in paid and performance media – first display, affiliate and then paid search & programmatic; it took a while for me to feel comfortable with the often unpredictable effects of SEO activities.
With performance media, you have an obvious cause and effect. Pay for the media, it’s shown to targeted users (or self selecting in the case of PPC) and they respond, or not – based on the offer, the competitive market and how well your site and product mix satisfies their information or purchase needs. You can then judge the efficacy of each part, and choose to do more or less of certain elements of your campaign.
SEO seems to be the discipline most shrouded in secrecy – at least for those whose background didn’t start there. It reminds me of the accepted stereotype in 90s IT publishing years, where the clever, geeky (well before geeky became cool) slightly socially inept bloke from ‘systems’ would come down the corridor bearing a stack of green & white striped listing paper with reams of data on it, to confuse the sales, marketing and financial management with acronyms and talk in seemingly an entirely different language.
Things have moved on, not just because of ITs ubiquity and accessibility on the desktop but I still suspect that many people, wittingly or not, over complicate technology in order to maintain an air of superiority (and possibly also their high consultancy fees). SEO seems a lot like this as words like “robots” “metadescriptions” and “algorithm” get bandied around and confuse the marketing team into paying for some magic fairy dust that will convince the mighty Google to bend over and put your site where you think it ought to be.
The reality is that many marketers pay large amounts of their budget on SEO but the results are not immediately obvious. Sometimes work can take weeks or months to make an impact, and sometimes is justified in terms of the opportunity cost of not doing it “your rankings could have slipped to here if we hadn’t been doing x or y”.
In an increasingly KPI driven world, it’s hard to compare the cost of driving/maintaining traffic from a fee-based SEO service with the cost of incremental campaign traffic from your performance campaigns. Often it’s run by different teams in a client company, and definitely by different operational teams in an agency, which means that too often the integration benefits are overlooked in favour of a competitive us-and-them attitude.
There are of course core fundamentals to good SEO, at which point I humbly refer to the bible of search, Search Engine Land, who have a fantastic infographic showing the factors that influence a site’s ranking, that any SEO worth their salt will live and breathe.
The Periodic Table Of SEO Ranking Factors - (tm) SearchEngineLand/Third Door Media - for the full detailed version do go and get your own free copy.)
Content - Have plenty of relevant, in depth, unique and fresh content, in image, text and also video formats. Research keywords that people use to look for something, and keep an eye out for new & growing areas of interest.
Architecture - Think mobile first - get information to people easily and within very few clicks. small file sizes that download quickly. Think about the structure of the site, and the logic of where information lives. If you had this information in your PC folders, how would you structure it to make it easy to find, how would you label it so it was obvious what it contains.
HTML - Label titles, images, media & links descriptively and logically. It helps search engine spiders find you and distinguish how each page is different
TRUST - Don't pretend to be what you're not, say honestly what the site is about, don’t pretend to be something you’re not (even if that subject is more popular than you). Allow and encourage sharing to give the search engines confidence that your content is valuable to more than just you.
LINKS - Try to link to and from other good relevant sites that will help people to find more useful information. Industry bodies, official recognised sites, national news media sites carry much more weight than your friends' pages.
USER - Put yourself in the user's place. Can they find what they want easily? Do they get lost, what reason do they have for the search - are you giving them that or some superfluous sales information.
Clue: if a user would like it, Google probably will too.
This will also mean that the user will share it which will give Google the social signals that are increasingly impacting how pages are ranked (in both natural and paid search).
As all of the above things are what your website team should be doing anyway, then doesn’t that mean that there’s no need for SEO at all?
The answer sadly, is no.
Website design and development is a long, iterative process, and it’s rarely possible or even advisable to throw an entire site away and start from scratch in an SEO friendly way. Apart from anything else, even if your site isn’t the best one, the length of time it’s been there will give it some authority so there is always a risk with changes even on a long standing domain.
The way that the Google algorithm ranks pages is also constantly updated, so what works well at one time may be less relevant in a few months time, or you may find there’s something new that is being taken into account. For years using a flash site was the coolest thing for creativity, but was seen as SEO hell, and many new gizmos can be a bit glitchy and hard to read at first, but then someone develops ways to ensure that the text content can be read and Hey Presto, users like it, and so does Google.
Many many moons ago I was lucky enough to attend presentations at the shiny Google London offices from Amit Singhal (@theamitsinghal), one of the original architects of the Google algorithm. I was impressed by his passion that users should be able to find the most relevant content, quickly and efficiently (with seemingly no care for whether Google could monetise it). True to this belief, despite the fact that Google/Alphabet makes a phenomenal amount of money from paid search, the updates that happen to the Google algorithm are always meant to improve the quality of the overall search results, rather than make it harder so that you’ll pay for ads (despite protestations to the contrary).
Quick wins in SEO
The best way to maximise your chances of appearing in the search results page is to apply best practise SEO principles for the site structure, linking architecture and labelling conventions in the first place. If you haven’t done this already then any good SEO can tell you which are the key things to edit that will make a difference.
One the structural issues are dealt with, the best way to build and maintain rankings is to continually improve your site, and make the content deeper and richer – thereby more valuable to users who will visit it, share it and link to it more, which will all help you too.
And a final reminder to avoid any of the “get high quick” schemes. Any SEO that guarantees rankings or makes an unexpected big jump in a short space of time is probably doing something that Google will find out about and penalise. Global brands like BMW and Interflora have been de-listed entirely in the past from Google before for violating their policies (which impacts the majority of their web traffic), so it is just NOT worth thinking you can swerve the big G.