SEO 101

Search Engine Optimization:
What You Need to Know

Why is a search engine optimization (SEO) strategy so important?

What’s the first thing you do when you want to learn how to get red wine out of a white shirt, find the best pizza near your hotel, choose a new dentist or narrow down the best software products to solve your organization’s needs? If you’re like most people, you start with an online search—and so does your audience.

And given that three out of every four Google users don’t scroll past the first page of search results, it’s crucial your website ranks among the first few results displayed on search engine results pages (SERPs) if you want to capture their attention and earn their clicks.

But how?

Although the practice of SEO has been around for more than two decades, there’s still a great deal of mystery surrounding what it takes for businesses to out-rank competitors and earn more organic traffic.

But while it does take time, effort, knowledge and the right tools to optimize your website and rise to the coveted top spots, it’s well worth the resources. 

To help you improve your website’s ranking, here is a comprehensive overview of what SEO means, how it works and several SEO strategy tips you can begin implementing today.

What Is SEO?

Let’s start with the basics. Search engine optimization is a set of processes, strategies and techniques that improves the quality and increases the quantity of organic traffic to a website.

When done correctly, SEO helps your website rank higher on SERPs and increases your chances of being seen by your audience when they make a search query. And the more qualified traffic you drive to your site, the more conversions you’ll enjoy.

Generally, optimizing your website for search involves editing existing content and adding new content, as well as making sure HTML follows best practices and promoting your website in a way that ensures you’re earning credible backlinks. We’ll delve into more specific SEO techniques a little later.

How Search Engines Work

Google (and other search engines like Bing, Yahoo! and DuckDuckGo) aim to provide users with the best possible experience to ensure they keep coming back. It’s in the search engine’s best interest to return the most relevant and highest quality search results for each query.

They do this by building an index of billions of webpages using “spiders,” or search bots that crawl websites looking for the latest content. The more often a site adds or updates its content, the more often these spiders will come back and crawl. When someone enters a query, the search engine uses a set of complex algorithms to quickly identify and rank results based on a variety of factors, including relevance, timeliness and popularity, within nanoseconds.

Because providing their users with the best experience is a top priority for search engines, they're attuned to any efforts organizations might employ to “trick” them. And websites that implement so-called “black hat” practices (efforts to undermine or game the system) are almost always penalized.

For many years, companies used a variety of black hat tactics to land their website in the top spots of search engine results pages. Some of the more popular practices included keyword stuffing (cramming a keyword into an article as many times as possible, even if it turned the copy into incoherent drivel) and link schemes (paying for another website to publish links back to your site). Eventually, Google cracked down on these tactics through two algorithm updates: Panda (which lowers the rank of content farms and sites that publish low-quality content) and Penguin (which penalized sites engaging in link schemes).

Instead of attempting to trick search engines, it’s better to publish high quality, interesting and useful content relevant to your audience’s needs, and to do so at a regular cadence. However, there are other “white hat” search-engine approved tactics you can take to help boost your ranking to the top of the SERPs.

Factors That Impact Search Engine Ranking

Unfortunately for us, search engines are notoriously secretive about their algorithms and how they determine which websites land in the top spots of SERPs. Search Engine Journal estimates that Google’s algorithm takes into account more than 200 factors when determining a webpage's rank. But it’s for a good reason—the more complex their secret sauce, the harder it is for dishonest organizations to find workarounds—and the better they can ensure the webpages listed among top results have rightfully earned their spots.

While no one knows for sure which factors weigh most heavily, here are 12 factors proven to impact page rank:

  1. Content quality: Given it’s a search engine’s job to provide the result most likely to fulfill a user’s request, they reward websites that publish well-written, well-produced content that addresses their audience’s needs and help them find the information they’re seeking. Content should always be clear, in-depth and error-free. Additionally, your website should be free of any duplicate content (exact wording that appears in more than one place).

  2. Content relevance: When search engines identify the most relevant web pages to serve up on SERPs, they’re often looking for content that centers around commonly searched terms and phrases (also referred to as keywords). But these keywords can’t simply be dropped within the body copy—they should be the central theme of the content.

  3. Authoritative backlinks: When other trustworthy, highly ranked sites link back to one of your webpages, it improves your site’s credibility, as well. Google considers the quality and quantity of the backlinks you both receive and give when determining how to rank your page.

  4. Content length: Longer content is usually indicative of more thorough, helpful content—exactly what search engines want to help users find. Google will likely mark any page with less than 200 words as “thin content” or a “low quality” page.

  5. Content age: If two articles rank equally in all other areas, the piece updated most recently is likely to rank highest. That’s because content published most recently is usually also more relevant to a user’s needs and contains the most timely and up-to-date information. That’s why it’s important to publish content at a regular cadence and consistently update any older or out-of-date material.

  6. Page speed: Given the ever-shrinking average attention span, it should come as no surprise that the speed at which a page loads will affect its Google ranking. According to the search giant, when page load jumps from one to five seconds, the probability of a bounce increases by 90 percent. Ensure every page loads in two seconds or less.

  7. Mobile friendliness: Much like page speed, mobile usability is critical to the user experience—especially since nearly 60 percent of online searches happen via mobile, according to data from Hitwise. Additionally, Google is beginning to use mobile versions of webpages for indexing and ranking purposes as part of their Mobile-First initiative.

  8. Social signals: High social engagement is not only an indicator of a domain’s popularity and relevance, but social shares increase the number of inbound links to your website which, in turn, increases your credibility in the eyes of search engines. Plus, when your website and social profiles all display in the top results, you can dominate the best real estate of the first SERP.

  9. Encryption (HTTPS vs. HTTP): In an age of rampant cybercrime, website security is critical. Google wants to protect its users against malicious hackers and identity thieves, which is why they’ve confirmed encryption is a core ranking factor. Websites that have been validated and earned an SSL certificate will have an “HTTPS” at the beginning of their web address rather than the standard “HTTP”.

  10. Schema markup: This is a code that tells search engines which snippet to display on SERPs through something called HTML microdata. Be sure the schema markup you use offers the best and most relevant information to your user.

  11. Image optimization: It’s no secret visuals are essential to the user experience. But if images aren’t properly optimized, they can negatively affect your page ranking. Well-optimized images don’t increase page-load time and include a relevant alt-tag and title.

  12. Domain age: Unfortunately this is one factor you can’t control. Older domains are often more likely to earn traffic than newer sites, assuming they also perform well in all other areas. However, by making sure you’re meeting all other factors, domain age won’t keep you from improving your ranking.

SEO Strategy Tips to Improve Ranking

The best thing you can do to ensure your website is appropriately optimized for all the above factors is to perform a website SEO analysis. Carefully review your site and identify any areas that could be improved. Here are several things you should include in your analysis:

  • Develop or enhance your keyword strategy.There are three steps to an effective keyword strategy:

    • Identify keywords: You want to rank for as many relevant keywords and search phrases as possible. Take time to build a comprehensive list of all the keyword phrases and combinations of keywords your audience uses to find products and services like yours. Be sure to consider the following factors:

      • Volume: There’s no use in attempting to rank for a keyword that receives too few searches (for example, under 300 per month).

      • Difficulty: Keyword difficulty is the score that shows how hard it is to rank for a given keyword. A good rule of thumb is to aim for keywords with a score of 75 or lower.

      • Competitive landscape: Take a look at the first page of results for a given keyword. It’s especially challenging to outrank .gov, .edu or .org sites, so if you see these dominating the top spots, consider aiming for a longer-tail version.

    • Perform a situational and competitor analysis: Who are your top competitors, and where do you stand against them? It’s important to determine the keywords driving traffic to their sites and to discover their best-performing pages.

    • Optimize for keywords (including keyword intent): If you’re attempting to rank for a keyword, be sure the keyword or phrase is in all of the following places:

      • Title

      • Meta description

      • URL

      • Subheads

      • Body copy

For more keyword strategy tips, be sure to check out our blog post How To Improve Your SEO Strategy by Working With an Agency.

  • Update existing high-performing pages.If you have older pieces of content that are still performing well (or performed well in the past), it’s important to give them a refresh so they’re more likely to remain highly ranked. For example, you may decide to update a report with more recent data, add a new call to action for a more recent campaign, or update the intro to be more timely.

  • Revisit “thin” pages. Make a list of all pages under 800 words and determine whether there is any way you can “thicken up” your content with more information or delve deeper into the topic. But remember: It’s never a good idea to add content just for the sake of length—especially if it compromises quality. If there’s absolutely nothing else worth adding and you’ve surpassed the critical 200-word minimum, feel free to move on.

  • Fix broken links and page errors.Make sure all internal and external links are working correctly and driving to the right places. Broken links not only negatively impact user experience, they also affect a search engine’s ability to crawl effectively and index site pages. Additionally, seek out and correct any 4XX errors:

    • 404 (Page not found)

    • 408 (Page timed out)

    • 403 (Page forbidden)

    • 429 (Too many requests)

  • Repair canonical errors. This is especially relevant if you’re re-publishing your content on other sites. For example, you may re-publish a high-performing blog post on Medium or LinkedIn Pulse. If you don’t use the correct canonical tag (the code that tells search engines which version is the “master copy”), you could be penalized for duplicate content. Using the proper tags on each version will ensure search engines know which is the original source.

  • Use expert SEO tools.There are seven SEO tools we recommend:

  • Add Proper Schema Markup. Schema markup (a.k.a. structured data) is technical code added to a webpage’s HTML code to indicate to search engines what the data it’s reading is about. This data gives context to the search engine and directs it to display the relevant information in what’s called a “featured snippet” in the search results. Obtaining one of these featured snippets in the search results can increase the click-through rate by 8 percent in some cases. You should add schema markup code to all of your articles; event, course, product and local business pages; and especially to those keywords with your pages ranking in the top six positions with snippets available. (Not sure if snippets are available? Work with your digital marketing agency for a better understanding of where you rank on Google!)

For more advice on performing an audit, check out our SEO Checklist.

SEO is a challenging beast and, to make matters more difficult, it’s always changing and evolving. However, a well-optimized website that lands at the top of search engine results pages can be one of the most valuable assets and best lead drivers your organization ever has.

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