SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation. It ensures that your content, website architecture and UX adhere to best practice for grabbing great rankings in organic search results of sites like Google, making you more visible to customers online and driving traffic to your website.
But there’s more to SEO services than that (otherwise this would be the shortest blog ever!) In this article, we’ll take a look at how SEO actually works, how it has evolved, what it can and can’t do for your business, and exactly how brilliant it can be if used appropriately – translating jargon and jibberish to straightforward language along the way.
Still with us? Let’s dive in!
How does SEO actually work?
Some SEO specialists would have you believe that this digital marketing discipline is as mysterious an esoteric a skill as water dowsing, tuning base metal into gold or pulling off the perfect shuffle dance.
But in essence, the way it works is much more accessible and straightforward than any of these rare skills – here are the three basic stages:
- Crawling comes first – the search engine spider shuffles its way through every nook and cranny of your website, taking note of everything from the relevance of your content to whether your website is straightforward for users to navigate. It hops through URLs via links, which is why it’s important that your User Experience (UX) and content are aligned properly and organised logically to help smooth pathways for spiders and human users.
- Indexing is the next stage – the information is analysed, collated and stored on the search engine’s server database.
- Ranking is the final stage – the spider scores your site against relevant criteria (ranking factors) to decide its quality, and places it in a search engine ranking position accordingly.
As you can see, if you have a website that isn’t optimised for SEO, it’s a waste of time and money, because it offers the search engine spider nothing that it’s looking for (or even worse, confuse it completely), your rank will be rock bottom and customers won’t even know you exist online.
Robust SEO provides customers with what they want and need while offering them a positive experience, but simultaneously satisfies search engine spiders. Simple (kind of).
How Has SEO Changed Over The Years?
Search engines like Google work by applying various algorithms to content they encounter online – think of those spiders carrying a series of itemised checklists that they zip through at startling speed while surveying your site.
These days, the algorithms are very sophisticated, so most of the search results we get when we type a question into Google (or ask Google voice) are relevant and of a reasonably high quality.
But that wasn’t the case 10 or 15 years ago – cynical ‘Black Hat’ SEO exponents realised that by ramming your website content full of the most popular words (keyword stuffing), your website could end up at number one in the SERP results.
But the problem was that quality didn’t come into the equation at all – with the result that the most prominent sites often contained content that was garbled, painful to read and often irrelevant to what the customer was searching for. This was counterproductive for companies, damaged the reputations of search engines as it impeded their core function and drove customers up the wall.
So search engine giant Google decided to get serious and started regularly changing their algorithms to better understand what people actually wanted and deliver results with a laser-like focus on relevance and quality.
A series of algorithm changes have been applied over the years and this means that SEO best practice has had to adapt in order to maintain rankings. However, websites that have been acting honestly and authentically all along and producing content aimed at satisfying their customers’ needs and answering their most pertinent questions tend to perform well and weather most storms.
These days, the way Google crawls, indexes and ranks sites is more nuanced than ever, which means that results are better too. One acronym to remember when planning SEO-friendly content is EAT (Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness). If all of these qualities are reflected in your content, you’re looking good in Google’s eyes.
Furthermore, with the (fairly) recent introduction of the BERT algorithm, Google’s understanding of natural language is more adept than ever, which means that it doesn’t just understand your central query precisely, but it can also make an educated guess about related questions you might need answers to.
BERT lets Google understand what customers are implying, not just what they’re typing or saying, which is pretty clever. It is constantly learning about synonyms and context in order to iron out linguistic ambiguities and mirror the way humans think. So how do you cater for BERT? By producing comprehensive content that answers every logical question a customer might ask about your products or services, that’s how!
This means no more ‘thin content’ – pages where there’s a low volume and quality of information. Your service pages should be formatted and designed beautifully and accessibly, but it’s vital that they answer the relevant questions. At the research stage, a good place to start is a site like AnswerThePublic, which listens to what people are saying about the most popular topics concerned with your business and produces the questions you should be answering. It looks pretty cool too – you’ll start typing in queries quickly under the intimidating gaze of that slightly sinister guy!
What types of SEO can you use?
In basic terms, all SEO works in the ways we’ve already described.
But depending on the nature of your business and the rate at which you require results, SEO can also be applied in the following clever and diverse ways:
- A technical SEO audit is a great first step for your website – it analyses every nook and cranny of your site to identify everything from keyword and phrase relevance and presence, internal link structure, quality of title tags and descriptions and website architecture issues.
- International SEO can help you do business across borders – as well as identifying the right keywords in the relevant language, this specialism adapts other elements of SEO to fit different search engines. This is important because Google dominates in most places but there are a few exceptions.
- Blogger outreach is a brilliant way of increasing the ‘link juice’ of your site by writing blogs featuring links to your business which are placed on high-traffic, high-trust websites. It can turbocharge your SEO results because you’re piggybacking on the power of an established site.
What SEO can and can’t do
As you can see, there’s a lot SEO can do – your website is worthless without it and when it’s applied according to simple best practice, it can deliver solid results after a couple of months, and good, sustainable results in around 6 months to a year.
But even sustaining solid results requires ongoing SEO tweaks to ride the algorithms and emerge unscathed on the other side, as well as fresh content to stay relevant for humans and spiders.
What SEO can’t do on its own is deliver guaranteed conversions. Websites that are high in the rankings might have a greater CTR, but once you get people onsite a lot of other factors contribute to them sticking around, exploring other parts of your site, signing up to a mailing list, making a request for information or even buying a product or service. This requires a combination of persuasive copywriting, UX and CRO elements like clever CTRs (Calls-to-Action), heatmapping (analysing which areas of a webpage/site get most attention) and attractive but straightforward web design that feels accessible and steers users towards the areas likely to make them convert.
SEO alone also can’t build a genuine brand – almost all brands have a digital presence, but the best are so distinctive and powerful that they’re not reliant on any one type of marketing, never mind a particular niche. Branding can include SEO and digital marketing in general, but there’s much more to it.
What is SEO? Key Takeaways
So there you have it – a quick trip through SEO history, a few useful tips about how it can help your business and some straightforward information on managing expectations if you’re starting your SEO journey. We’ve covered:
- How search spiders actually crawl your site.
- How SEO has changed over the years.
- The different types of SEO.
- What SEO can and can’t do.
In conclusion, if you have a website, it won’t work properly without SEO, but it’ll take more than just SEO for your site to become the engine of your online business, and more than a website and any type of digital marketing to build a brand that lasts.
But your journey towards establishing a terrific digital presence has to start somewhere – and SEO is as good a place as any.