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What exactly is SEO?

Right! This is the basics of the basics. If you have just heard the phrase 'Search Engine Optimization' or the acronym 'SEO' and thought, "What's that about?"

Chances are just after you thought that you went to an Internet Search engine like Google, Bing or Yahoo and typed in 'What exactly is SEO' and then clicked the Search button. Jargon time: That string or words - 'What exactly is SEO' - is known as the search term.

What you saw next was a list of web pages, perhaps links to some videos or other media. What you saw after you clicked search was a Search Engine Results Page, or SERP for short.

The order in which they appear from top to bottom is known as their rankings. The higher up the page a website is, the higher its rankings are.

SEO is the art and science of getting your website into the SERPs and ranking as high up as possible in the SERPs for any given search term.

A bit of background

Back in the day when the Internet was first invented it was primarily meant as a tool for academics and the military. A professor might, for example, write a paper on the results of an experiment or research into, say, battlefield hardware performance in desert conditions and publish it on the internet.

The issue was how would other academics know about it unless they were specifically told? How could another academic on the other side of the world track down all the research on a particular topic like 'battlefield hardware performance' or 'desert battlefield'?

The answer was to use 'keywords'. The publishing academic would add words that were key to his content like:

  • battlefield hardware tests
  • desert battlefield
  • battlefield hardware performance

These were added to the code of the web page with the content in a specific way that search engines could find them. It became known as the Keyword Tag.

This system worked just fine. The basic search engines of the day just used the keyword tag. If I searched for 'battlefield hardware tests' a search engine would bring up the above research as one of the results of my search because 'battlefield hardware tests' was in the keyword tag.

But as the Internet became public there was one major issue with the keyword tag approach - not all those outside academia or the military were quite so honest with their keywords.

Very quickly people started putting phrases like 'pictures of kittens' in the keyword tag even though the page itself contained nothing but advertisements for gambling ... or worse!

The search engines of the day struggled to figure out an alternative way to correctly index and sort web pages. There were too many new websites appearing every day, or changing every day, for this to be a manual operation.

This was the moment Google appeared and knocked them all for six. Its founders had invented a much better way of deciding what a page was about and whether or not it was any good. Fundamentally it worked like this:

  • If the page that claimed it had 'pictures of kittens' had links to it from other websites it was probably more legitimate than a page that didn't, especially if those other websites were cat or kitten related.
  • The whole contents of a page had to be considered, not just the keywords that the publisher claimed were a summary of the content.
  • This work of reading and understanding pages would all have to be done my machines.

From this moment Search Engine Optimization was truly born and immediately fractured into two schools:

  • Black Hat SEO - those who looked to game the search engines. For example if the search engine thought links from other websites were important they would sell schemes where webmasters could purchase tens of thousands of links from websites which were themselves created by machine.
  • White Hat SEO - those who tried to please the search engines by optimizing in the way the search engines hoped 'honest' people would.

From then on search engines have evolved and evolved as they fight a running battle with the Black Hat world. The search engines want users who carry out a search to get quality SERPs. The Black Hat SEOer wants to hijack those results with their sub standard websites by figuring out how to fool the search engine which is, after all, simply a machine following mathematical rules.

As search engines change to close off loopholes which allow Black Hat to work so White Hat techniques have to change. In some cases quite literally what were White Hat techniques recommended by the search engines themselves become Black Hat practices over night.

The most striking example of this was directory listings. Google had recommended to webmasters that if they wanted better rankings they needed to get more links from other websites and one way to do this was to get listed in directories.

An industry that created directories mushroomed and in no time there were millions of directories there for no other reason than to provide links to websites and you could buy a place on thousands of them at a time.

Google realised its mistake and announced these directories were now to be seen as link farms and anyone who had a link to their website these was likely to see their rankings drop rather than rise.

The link farm episode is a classic example of how a search engine change can provide an unexpected loophole and a graphic demonstration of how White Hat SEO is constantly changing.

This website is only about White Hat Search Engine Optimization. Black Hat approaches get rumbled by the search engines in the long term and so never lead to long term rankings.

What do you need to know about SEO?

If you have a website and you want it to rank in the SERPs then you need to understand SEO.

Understanding Search Engine Optimization does not mean you need to know how to do all of it yourself but by having a solid grasp of the concepts you will be able to:

  • Know when someone is suggesting a Black Hat approach which may ultimately damage your rankings.
  • Avoid scam SEO companies taking you for a ride.
  • Consider if it is worth learning the skills needed to do your own SEO.
  • Have meaningful and constructive discussions with SEO professionals you hire.
  • Be able to monitor the work of people that you pay to do your Search Engine Optimization if you decide to contract out.

SEO basics

So lets get started in the basic concepts.

SEO work you do is divided into two areas:

  1. On-page SEO - changes you can make to your website to improve its rankings.
  2. Off-page SEO - changes you can try and make to other websites, like getting a link to one of your pages, to improve your website's rankings.

But it is better to see it from a search engines perspective. For any search term they consider:

  1. Is a page on your website relevant to the search term? - this is part of on-page SEO.
  2. If you have a relevant page does it load fast so as to serve an audience that increasingly accesses the internet on mobile devices which may not always have high speed connections - this is also part of on-page SEO.
  3. If your page is relevant does it have authority? Do others find your content valuable - this is off-page SEO and we'll cover it in more detail shortly.

On-page SEO to make pages relevant to search engines

In the How to SEO your Website Guide I'll be taking you through every step you need to make all the pages on your website hyper-relevant to the keywords or phrases you want them to rank for.

On-page Search Engine Optimization is firstly about making your website is understandable to the robots that search engines send so they know what keywords and phrases your content is relevant to. If they don't understand you, they can't rank you.

You can outrank a lot of your competition if you get your relevancy right but don't think that because your website is clear to you it is also clear to a search engine robot following mathematical rules.

On-page SEO to make pages relevant to people

Unlike the early days of SEO you cannot please the search engines without pleasing real humans because today's search engines are able to follow a variety of user behavior patterns to verify what their algorithms think they see. Here's how it works graphically:

SEO Flow Chart

Let's break this down.

If your website is about, for example, "seafood recipes" then On-page SEO is about making sure the search engines understand this so they can rank your site when Internet users carry out searches for or related to "seafood recipes".

From there on in it's all about user behavior. Did the search engine robot guess correctly that your page was about 'seafood recipes' and is it any better (or worse) than the other websites out there which cover 'seafood recipes'? Positive user behavior will help them answer these questions.

What is positive user behavior?

There are a large number of signals search engines can watch to see if a page on your site should rank, or should rank higher, than it does at the moment. They include:

  • Do users click through to your page when it appears in the search results? (known as the Click Through Rate or CTR)
  • Do those users who click through stay on your page or click the back button? (known as Pogo sticking - not Bounce rate, I'll cover this later!)
  • For those users who click the back button how long did they stay on your site before doing this? (known as Dwell Time)
  • For those that click the back button do they then visit other websites in the SERPs (a negative signal that your website did not, or did not fully, meet their needs) or did they go on to do something else? (a positive signal that your website met their needs)
  • Do some users create links to your site from their own websites or link to you on other platforms such as forums? A positive signal that you have content of value.
  • Is your content talked about - can your brand name be found around the web.

Now I'm jumping straight into controversy here. There are many who argue that search engines don't consider signals such as Click Through Rates. Google themselves even deny it. However you don't need to think too hard to realize:

  • Any search engine would be insane not to include such obvious metrics
  • Companies like Google have been known to sow disinformation in order to throw off those who practice Black Hat SEO.

Considering user behavior means ...

On-page Search Engine Optimization is secondly about making sure the visitors that you do get stay on your site and carry out the actions needed for you to meet your goals (e.g. buy a product, sign up for a service, etc.).

Now while I'm saying this is part of SEO its also part of common sense. You want to make the most from the visitors that you do get regardless, its just nice to know that a side effect of this will be increased rankings!

On-page SEO to make pages load fast

Being relevant is vital but search engines won't rank you if your content takes all day to load, especially on mobile devices that may not have access to high speed Internet connections. They would prefer to serve up one of your competitors who might be a little less relevant but at least their content is easier to access.

So that means ...

On-page Search Engine Optimization is thirdly about making your content loads much faster than that of your competitors.

Off-page SEO to beome an authority

Theoretically search engines would like us to follow the approach "Build it and they will come" but with so much on the internet how can people discover your content when you don't have the authority needed to rank.

Its the Catch 22 most webmasters get caught up in. If people knew about your content they would link to it and you would rank higher but they don't know about your content because it doesn't have good rankings due to its lack of links.

Search engines are very specific that if they can spot you paying for links this is Black Hat SEO and your rankings will suffer so whipping out a credit card isn't the answer.

There is a middle ground and I'll cover it in the How to SEO your website guide.

Why Black Hat SEO doesn't work for long

By using a wide variety of signals - I've just mentioned a handful, search engines use hundreds - algorythms can separate the scammers from the genuine. For example let's say:

  1. Your Seafood recipe page is getting a dribble of visitors from people searching 'Seafood recipes', 90% of those who do click through to your site click the back button almost immediately and then visit another website in the search results - a signal that your page does not meet their needs.
  2. Your site suddenly gets 100 links from some other websites and then nothing again.

Well that just doesn't add up, does it? You are unlikely to get penalized unless a search engine like Google can track down the dodgy activity to your doorstep.

Instead its more likely the links will be discounted as worthless because they are defined as unnatural. This is why offers that bound endlessly around the Internet trying to sell you large numbers of links are really just money wasted in the long term.

Search engines consider all the signals it is receiving about your website holistically - if one signal looks positive (e.g. you are gaining links) - then other signals should be positive as well (e.g. visitors should be staying on your site for a reasonable amount of time and there should be other mentions of your content elsewhere on the web).

SEO Magic?

Well ... there isn't any. Just logical steps to follow. People sometimes try to shroud SEO in a mystery with the hope that their potential customers will ask no questions and just hand over the cash - avoid these companies or individuals!

Search Engine Optimization is about making your website understandable to the robots that search engines send and designing your website and its contents in a way that encourages positive user behavior.

So now you have a solid understanding of SEO the next question is a little odd. Should you do it? "Of course" is the usual reply. "How else am I going to get visitors to my website?"

Many people punt Search Engine Optimization as a free way to get those visitors but it is nothing of the sort. If you plan to do it yourself it will take time and that has a cost. If you need to hire outside help that will also have a price tag on it.

With so many people drooling over SEO other alternatives are often overlooked even though they can often offer much better value. So before you jump in lets go there first and consider SEO and Online Marketing.

Tim Hill SEO

I'm Tim Hill, a Search Engine Optimization and Online Marketing specialist. I created this site to help others understand that SEO is not a mysterious black art!.

If your a newbie try the Getting Started in SEO page, otherwise feel free to dig around and learn more.

If you need help simply get in touch.

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