SEO is Guesswork
The makers of search engines do not tell you how to rank higher in their databases. If they did, people would "game" the system, meaning people would take advantage of this information to rank higher, and inevitably determine ways to manipulate that information for their benefit.
To make SEO even more complicated, the search engine algorithms (the mathematical weights they give factors that determine a page's rank in their database) are constantly changing. Google has stated that they change their algorithms daily. Therefore, practitioners of search engine optimization strategies must make their best guess as to how to optimize the ranking of pages on which they work or consult. Therefore, search engine optimization is an on-going activity.
SearchMetrics is a respected company that determines what factors search engines use to rank pages. Here are the SearchMetrics Search Engine Ranking factors -- they produce an annual report.
Search Engine Land, another well-respected search engine researching company, created this infographic to define the factors that help determine how a page ranks:
- Note that in the infographic above, items that are in red can hurt your SEO, while items in gray and green can help your SEO.
User signals are significantly more important than they used to be. User signals are a way to measure user engagement -- in other words, how many visitors a page gets and how long visitors stay on that page.
In the very beginning of web search (the '90s), the amount of clicks to the site were the key ranking measurement of web pages in search engine results pages (SERPs). That ended because they were easy to manipulate and difficult for search engines to verify. That has changed since 2014 as search engines like Google have become more sophisticated.
User signals include:
- Click through rates -- when someone gets to your website from clicking a link to you from a SERP
- Bounce rates -- when someone clicks through to your site, then leaves immediately -- obviously, lower bounce rates are preferable
- Time-On-Site -- the amount of time a visitor stays on your website -- obviously, the higher amount of time-on-site, the better
Nobody can guarantee you a top spot in a search engine. There are too many variables involved and the variables are constantly changing. If you go on to do SEO, don't promise anyone a higher ranking and don't believe anyone who can promise others a favorable ranking. The best you can do is follow the best practices and strategies laid out in this course and text, so you can increase the chance your ranking will improve.
SEO Site Assessment
Before you can create an SEO plan, you must first assess the site with which you will be working. Ideally, planning for SEO will start during the planning phase of your site before the site is created. It is definitely easier to build a site with SEO in mind than it is to redesign a site to meet SEO standards. A likely situation you may find yourself in, however, is working with an existing site to make it SEO compliant. The Site Assessment will help you determine where your site meets standards and where it needs help. The assessment will help you create a formal SEO Plan.
You can use an SEO Site Assessment Report to perform a preliminary assessment of website to determine its SEO needs. Let's look at each category in the report:
This is the state you find the site in when you assess it. It is a subjective evaluation of the site in an overall sense, taking into account such elements as content freshness, quality of URL, maturity of the site, and any search engine ranking the site may currently have. How does the site appear when you first look at it? Up-to-date or out-of-date? Is the URL easy to remember and associate with the site? Search engines factor in how difficult it is to enter a URL. Is this a new site or has it been around for a while? Site maturity is definitely an element of ranking; newer sites are usually ranked lower than those which have been around a while. Where does it currently fall in search engine rankings before starting your SEO efforts? You need to know where you are starting in your SEO efforts in order to evaluate if you are making any progress in improving rankings.
Are there keywords for the site and do they represent broad head and long tail queries? Do you know which keywords your competitors are using? Do you know which keywords your visitors are using? It is important to know how to position your site against competitors, especially if you are in a category that has easily recognizable and highly sought after keywords, like "online shopping".
Is the site aesthetically pleasing? Is it clear what the site is about? How do you enter the site? Are there site maps, both X/HTML and XML, available? A site's design will influence how long a visitor stays and one criteria search engines consider is the bounce rate (how long a visitor stays on a page) of the pages in a site. Splash pages are a waste of website real estate. They cannot be indexed and provide very little to no information about the content of the site. Site maps help robots crawl through your site and index it more efficiently.
Tags and Attributes
There are some critical tags and attributes to use when making a site SEO-compatible. Is the <title> tag used on all pages? Is the <meta> tag and its keywords and description attributes populated on each page? Does the <img> tag use the alt attribute? All of these tags and attributes are used by search engines to index sites.
Have keywords been overused in the content? Keyword density on a page should be between 6-10% of the content of the page. Is the content of the site differentiated from competitors or is the site so similar that it would be difficult to tell the difference? Are there hidden fields of keyword designed to fool a search engine? That trick is a sure ticket out of a search engine's ranking.
Is there a clear system of navigation? Is the navigation image-based or text-based or both? Are all the links functional? Are there incoming and outgoing links? Links provide an easy way for a robot to index a site. If they are broken, the indexing process stops. Incoming links can be an indicator of a site's popularity. Outgoing links that are relevant to the site can increase a site's ranking if the outgoing links are also highly ranked.
Marketing Issues and the Target Audience
The whole point of search engine optimization is to rank higher in search engines so customers find your website -- your business' products and services -- faster and more easily. Ultimately, this is the point of effective promotion, so, in this way, SEO is a cornerstone of your marketing efforts.
Understanding effective marketing techniques is the topic of another class -- in fact, whole degrees are devoted to this issue -- but there are a few general marketing issues that you should know about:
Who the target audience is for a site will likely be the most important marketing issue. You should be able to describe your audience by age, gender, socio-economic characteristics, their similar interests, and so on. Bear in mind, the website target audience isn't your client (the person/business that hires you to do their SEO or Web design); it's their customers. You should get to know their customers well enough that you can create a customer profile or "customer story" (i.e., a fictional customer case study). Consider this example of a fictional customer story for a Honda car -- in this case, both the customer and vehicle are fictional.
The 4 P's, Product (what your selling), Price (how much it costs), Place (where the customer can go to get it) and Promotion (how you let customers know about the others 3 P's), has long been a marketing framework for organizations. Other approaches, like the 7 P's build on the 4 P's concept. This Wikipedia article: Marketing Mix, describes the differences between the 4 P's and other approaches. The process of re-evaluating your 4 P's is on-going. Consider this Business Feedback loop diagram from Wikipedia.
The project triangle is a method of understanding how you plan to position your company's products/services. The triangle consists of, naturally, three parts: fast, good, cheap. "Fast" refers to how quickly you can provide a service or get a product to a customer. "Good" refers to the quality of the product or service you give to a client. "Cheap" refers to the cost of (or how much you charge for) your products or services. In this model, it is not possible to focus on all three areas and excel at them all. You need to "pick two", or focus on two of these areas in which you plan to excel. There are numerous examples of the project triangle on the Web. This Wikipedia article: Project management triangle is one good example.
SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis is an important part of your company's business and marketing plans. Doing an effective SWOT analysis of your business requires that you look at what the strengths and weaknesses of your company are (internal factors of your business that are both positive and negative) and consider the company's opportunities and threats (external factors whether they be in the marketplace or versus competitors). When doing a SWOT analysis of your company, it's important to be realistic and, to a certain extent, conservative with your assessment. More information about SWOT is described in the textbook.