Back in the early days of the Internet, a website amounted to little more than an electronic calling card you could offer to those few customers with personal computers and enough knowledge to look you up online. The Internet was by no means a marketing tool enabling customers to find you without having any prior knowledge of your existence. Things are just the opposite now, thanks to something known as search engine optimisation (SEO).
By employing good SEO techniques, a website builder can reach a wide audience of prospective customers by putting the right information in front of them at just the right time. In so doing, the web developer drives traffic to client websites and, hopefully, transforms casual visitors into paying customers. As a small business owner, this is exactly what you want.
The thing to understand is that SEO has evolved over the years. The SEO of today is nothing like it was just five or 10 years ago. This is primarily due to the natural evolution of the Internet and its dominant search engines. And quite frankly, that evolution is being driven primarily by Google. Google sets the standards that webmasters follow because it is the dominant search engine by far.
In this guide, we will introduce you to search engine optimisation. We will explain the basics of how it works, discuss some of the more common SEO components, and help you to understand how SEO benefits your business. Suffice to say the time and financial resources put into developing a website are wasted if proper SEO strategies are not utilised.
The Basics of SEO
The foundation of SEO is the search engine itself. In the world of online marketing, a search engine is the equivalent of the old telephone directory of days gone by. Internet users search for someone to provide a specific service or product they are after by using search engines such as Google, Yahoo!, and Bing. So far, so good. The difficulty for the small business owner is one of making sure his or her website appears near the top of the list when a potential customer does a search. That is the purpose of SEO.
As the name implies, search engine optimisation is a set of tools and strategies used by web developers to make sure a website appears near the top of search engine results as often as possible. Considering a list of alphabetical names provides a great illustration of this concept.
Let’s say you had a list of 25 companies all providing identical products and services. Then let us say all 25 companies are listed in a printed directory according to alphabetical order. Finally, let’s say 10,000 copies of the directory were printed and distributed. The first four or five companies on the list would get the most exposure because human nature is to start at the top of the list and work down. The unfortunate business with a name beginning with the letter ‘Z’ would barely get a look in. This is exactly how Internet search engines work.
The point of SEO is to anticipate how your customers will search for the products and services you provide so that your site can be developed and tweaked in ways that ensure it appear at the top of the search engine list. The more often this can be accomplished, the greater your website traffic will be.
The Elements of SEO
Search engine optimisation is a simple concept in principle. It becomes complicated in the implementation. Today’s best practices focus on a core set of elements that search engines such as Google look for. These elements may change from time to time, either in function or practice, so the successful web developer has to keep up on them at all times. The core elements are:
- Page Titles – A search engine relies on programmed artificial intelligence to make decisions. In order to determine what the topic of a web page is, a search engine starts by analysing the page title so it can be compared to the text of the content that follows. Therefore, page titles must be well thought out if these are to be helpful to optimisation.
- Page Descriptions – A page description acts almost as a bridge between the title and content. It can provide that missing link to help a search engine algorithm determine what a page is talking about. Many web developers ignore descriptions to their own detriment.
- Keywords – The chosen keywords for a particular page are essentially the digital anchors of page ranking. Keywords tell a search engine what specific topic a web page is dealing with and how it is doing so. This means that keywords have to be well thought out, relevant to the topic at hand, and easily integrated with page titles and descriptions.
- Content – The content on a web page is nothing more than information the website owner is attempting to present to customers. From the search engine’s standpoint, content determines the quality of a website and its relevance to chosen keywords.
- Site Structure – Site structure involves two sub elements: URL structure and navigation. The URL structure directly impacts search engine rankings by telling search engines how to index all the pages on a given site. Navigation has less of an impact by way of creating a more usable website that your customers will be more likely to return to.
- Social Media – Making the most of online marketing requires linking your website to social media outlets and then engaging your followers accordingly. The successful use of social media tells search engines your site is relevant.
- Mobility – Mobility has only recently become part of search engine optimisation thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and tablets. The idea behind mobility is to create websites that work properly regardless of the device being used to access it. The site should work equally well on a smart phone and laptop computer.
- Analytics – The last SEO element is analytics. Analytics tools allow webmasters to measure the performance of websites according to variable parameters. Adjustments can then be made to improve performance as needed.
As we continue through this guide, we will discuss these elements in more detail. Keep in mind that all of the information we offer is subject to change as Google and the other search engines mollify their algorithms. For this reason, we will deal more in general concepts rather than specific details.
Page Titles and Descriptions
A search engine crawler spends 24 hours a day, every day, moving across the Internet from one website to the next. The first thing the crawler sees when viewing a page is the page title. The crawler analyses the text in that title in order to begin trying to understand the topic at hand.
Google recommends using titles that are both unique and accurate. They should be unique in the sense that you are not copying another title that appears on thousands of other pages. They should be accurate in that they correctly state what the page is about. For example, a title such as ‘The Best Football Boots for Kids’ would be appropriate for a page discussing the different kinds of shoes for young football players. On the other hand, it would not be an appropriate title to describe what happened during a match between two local football teams.
As far as descriptions are concerned, they should also accurately describe a web page’s content. The best way to explain this is to think about the page title and then expand on it. It is best to keep descriptions to just a few sentences.
Keywords and Phrases
Up until about two years ago, keywords were considered the holy grail of SEO. Why? Because web developers discovered a flaw in Google’s algorithm that allowed them to stuff pages with keywords in order to achieve a high ranking without actually creating content with any tangible meaning. You know what we are talking about if you have spent any time doing in-depth searches over the last five years. Thankfully, Google has introduced a number of updated algorithms that now make keyword stuffing unprofitable.
Best practices today involves choosing two or three keywords and phrases that will be selectively used within a page’s content. There is no hard and fast rule, but a 1-2% density is the norm. Here is an example:
- You are creating a piece of content that should be about 1,000 words.
- You have chosen ‘football boots’ and ‘shoes for football kids’ as your keywords.
- Google ignores the word ‘for’, so you are left with two phrases totalling five words.
- At 1% density, those five words would appear 10 times in various combinations. Simply by using both phrases twice you would achieve a 1% density.
For maximum SEO benefits, you would also include one of those keyword phrases in your title. Lastly, you could help search engines better understand your content by making sure one of the keywords appears in both the first and last paragraphs. When keywords are properly placed, these explain what your content is about and, as a result, improve your page ranking.
The last thing to know about keywords is that they need to be in some way associated with how your customers will search for your company. The idea is to think about keywords and phrases your customers might use to search. Building productive keyword lists involves anticipating how your customers think and how they will use search engines.
Content and Site Structure
There is an adage in the web development world that says ‘content is king’. Indeed, it is for two reasons. First, content is the information you are trying to present to your customers. If you do not give them information they find valuable, there is no reason for them to visit your website. Moreover, they will not purchase if they do not visit.
Second, content tells the search engines what the quality of your website is. Modern search algorithms are very good at analysing content to determine whether it is legitimate or not. Therefore, content must be developed with quality in mind.
Where site structure is concerned, the biggest emphasis is on creating a site that is fast loading and easy to use. High load speeds tell Google your site is a high quality site, while easy navigation makes for a positive user experience. In addition, do not discount the positive user experience. When users enjoy your site, they will return. The more return traffic you generate, the higher your search engine ranking will be.
Social Media and Mobility
Finally, social media and mobility are two of the most important SEO components right now. The power of social media lies in the old principle of word-of-mouth advertising. Simply put, a potential customer is more willing to look at your business if a social media friend recommends you. If you know anything about the size of social media, it should be easy to see why it is so important from an SEO standpoint. Likewise with mobility.
More people are using mobile devices to access the Internet than ever before. Best practices for SEO now require web developers to create sites that are as beautiful and functional on mobile devices as they are on laptop and desktop computers. If you can reach a mobile audience, you are several steps ahead of competitors who cannot.
We have just scratched the surface in this introductory guide to search engine optimisation. Perhaps the most important thing to understand is that SEO is an essential part of doing business online. If you are a small business owner handling your website on your own, it is a good idea to learn the basics of SEO so that you can implement them. Otherwise, you might be better off hiring an SEO company or web developer to handle your site.
As long as search engines exist, there will be need for SEO. It is the backbone of online marketing you cannot afford to do without.