SEO stands for search engine optimisation and is the name given to work that makes sure more customers find your website in Google™ and the other major search engines.
This page will describe what SEO is and how it works using simple language and a simple explanation. This will help you make a more informed decision about hiring an SEO specialist or help you if doing your own search marketing.
SEO is actually quite simple. That doesn't mean understanding it doesn't take some effort, but it's way simpler than most people think, and nothing like as complicated as some people want you to believe.
If you invest just 5 minutes reading this page, you'll be 99% of the way towards understanding SEO. From there, you can use one of the amazing SEO tutorial resources out there to get into the weeds, but for now, this article will give you the plain English overview you've been looking for so please read on.
It's Not Black Magic
For some reason, the subject of SEO is shrouded in mystery, not helped by many of the people who work in the industry who talk in riddles. However, when you boil it right down, it's neither mysterious nor particularly intellectually challenging, and it's definitely not black magic.
Despite not being hard to understand, SEO is hard work, especially when you want people to find your website when your business operates in a competitive niche. This aspect causes confusion, so let's go back to basics and understand how search works.
How Search Works
Google™ exists and makes money by being most people's go-to website when they are looking for information and solutions to problems. Whatever your challenge or question, Google will signpost you to the information you're looking for.
Although Google is continually trying to provide answers on Google itself, i.e. you get the information you're looking for without leaving Google, it usually lists web pages that give you what you need.
This list of web pages or Search Engine Results Pages, often referred to as a SERP, is why SEO exists.
In essence, as Google grew in popularity, business owners realised if their web page appeared in a SERP, people would visit their website and potentially buy something. SEO was born, and hopefully the pieces of the jigsaw are starting to come together in your understanding, so let's press on and better understand how Google ranks pages.
How Does Google™ Rank Pages?
Google™ promotes trustworthy authoritative pages to the top of its rankings and measures authority by analysing, amongst other things, popularity. Here's how Google itself explains how that works.
This means creating fantastic content improves your search rankings, but how? Well in two ways.
Great content will, by default, use the words and phrases people use in searches. This increases the likelihood of your pages being listed in a SERP.
Other websites will potentially link to your content just like we're linking to other people's content on this page. Google uses those links as trust signals and this in turn, improves your rankings.
Over time Google™ picks up on these trust or popularity signals and rewards popular pages with better rankings. The more popular your content becomes, the more authority your website receives and the better your rankings become. Search rankings compound like money in a savings account.
Authority Is Confusing
It's impossible for Google or any of the search engines to manually check and investigate websites to establish their credibility and decide which should rank higher. Because of this, search engines like Google developed a way of automatically assigning trust or authority, and we'll explain that below in the section called What Are Links & Authority?
For now, the important thing to remember is that sites with authority rank better than those without, and content is at the heart of all successful websites, but what do we mean when we say "content"?
What Is Content?
Regarding SEO, your content should help people solve their business challenges and use the same language they use. Types of content include blogs, videos, case studies and opinion pieces.
Your content should be focused on customers' needs, answering their questions in a way that instils trust. For example, we created this page because we know people are confused about SEO and search in Google for answers. But how did we know this, or did we just guess?
Well, we certainly didn't guess; we used several research tools to help us understand what people search for when they want to know more about search engines. This is often called keyword research because it involves looking for the important or KEY words people type into Google when looking for answers.
Optimising a website involves using relevant keywords - the words and phrases your ideal customers are typing into Google - so your content is aligned with their needs. Armed with that information, a successful SEO strategy will establish how much content is required to stand a chance of ranking. Yes, size matters, so read on to find out why.
Content Type & Length
When optimising a website, people commonly think their content must simply contain keywords to rank on a Google search results page. This is wrong.
To stand any chance of ranking for a keyword, you must develop a thorough understanding of the length and types of content currently ranking, along with an understanding of the authority of the other sites. So there it is again, that word authority. Let's explore it.
A Simple 1-2-3 Guide to Getting Better Search Results
1 Write fantastic, useful content that people need and will share.
2 Make it easy for people to share it.
3 Keep doing it!
For businesses, Search Engine Optimisation or SEO is about making sure a website gets found in the search engines by the right people, your potential customers. In some respects, it's quality control for websites. By understanding your customers and the problems they need to solve, you create the content they are looking for in Google™, and, all things being equal, they find your website, generating enquiries. If this doesn't generate enquiries, you need to consider conversion optimisation.
Ask some SEO companies about SEO, and they'll try and blind you with science and confuse you into thinking it's black art. Say what is SEO to some companies, and two hours later, you'll be none the wiser. Not so here at Red Evolution. We use plain English, and we get results.
What Are Links & Authority?
Links to pages on your website from pages on other websites are important, but don't confuse quality with quantity and don't think about links in isolation from your content. It's vital to understand that having great content massively increases your chances of securing natural links from other trustworthy websites. These links will help you the most.
In simple language, if you have something worth referencing you might secure links worth having. Great sites don't link to poor-quality content, why would they?
That said, getting links, especially links that help to improve your website's organic search rankings, are hard to secure and because of this a whole industry has developed to address the problem. Before we explore the world of links here's Google's stance.
Google's Take On Links
Google uses links to rank websites and in an ideal world, they would like all links to be earned. By that we mean they would prefer it if all links were created passively by other website owners linking to pages based on their merit. For example, a web page about say, tax codes, might link to a government website that adds some value to readers. That link would be effectively endorsing the government web page.
The obvious problem with a link-based search algorithm is it's open to abuse, and here's how.
It's possible, rather than trying to earn links, to simply buy them. Done well, this approach can be very effective and can propel a web page up the search rankings very quickly. In theory, doing this can be risky because in the past search engines were known to penalise website owners who were clearly trying to manipulate search engine rankings. But is this still the case today?
The answer is, possibly, but probably not because we've seen plenty of sites rank well on the back of links that have clearly been bought rather than earned. In effect buying links has become mainstream and here's why.
Buying Links Is Mainstream & Widespread
When it comes to acquiring links to improve search performance the simple truth is if you're not doing it, you're probably going to lose out. But there's a right and wrong way to go about it.
The wrong way to buy links is to use a cheap link farm - an intricate network of sites owned by an organisation solely to seed links for money. This approach is risky, and the links are unlikely to work. The best case is the search engines will ignore them, and the worst case is your website will be penalised for using them although this is unlikely.
More commonly, ethical link building involves building relationships with organisations that need valuable content for their online publications, and they will, for a fee, publish your content, including a link.
To be honest, it's still seedy, but if all your competition is doing it and you're not, well you're going to be outranked by them unless Google improves the way it weeds out the links that have been procured.
Getting Links Using Outreach
Other than buying links, the main technique used by businesses to get more links and build authority includes:
Adding your site to credible directories
Pitching ideas and content to relevant publications
Pitching ideas for content to high-quality blogs - guest blogging
Building link magnets like calculators and useful widgets
In essence, because links are so important because they build your site's authority, you need to invest some time into this activity and be creative. Like ranking itself, getting good, valuable links is hard, but the rewards are high. The good news is there are agencies who specialise in securing links that are likely to help you rank, but beware; they are not cheap. Typically a package of, say ten good links will cost you between £1500 and £2000!
This is because these high-value links must be earned by providing value to the site owners. This aspect of SEO is the most controversial and confusing, but for now, we'll finish off this page by reviewing one of the less challenging SEO topics, on-page optimisation.
We didn't intend this page to go into a whole lot of detail about how to optimise a web page, it's more about helping you understand the steps you need to take if you've been tasked with optimizing a website. However, the information below lists the key parts of a web page that need special attention from an SEO perspective.
Title Tag Or Title Element
A page's title tag or element is the single most important part of a web page when it comes to letting the search engines know what the page is about. This, despite the fact that it doesn't actually appear in the page content but instead lives almost out of site in the web browser toolbar.
A well-written title tag serves two purposes.
It lets Google know what the page is about and contains the page's most important keywords.
It encourages people to click it as it's used as the text that appears in search engine results pages or SERPs.
So effectively, a well-written title element can be a thing of beauty that helps secure the right search ranking whilst being easy to read and enticing. Easy eh!
The ideal length of a tag is circa 65 characters, but that depends on the actual characters used as Google, for example, only allows a certain number of pixels for the display. If your tag is too long, it will be cut off in the SERP, so it's worth using a tool like this title tag tester to get it just right.
Don't be one of them; site owners often miss this crucial aspect of optimising a website. This tag is an important ranking factor.
A web page's meta description is a couple of sentences about the page's content. It's not a ranking factor but can be a valuable click-through factor, as in if it reads well, it will encourage people to click through to your website from the SERPs. That's because, in theory, the meta description is used as the small snippet of text under the link.
If you either don't include this element or if the words you use are at odds with the actual page content, search engines will take content from your page and create their own. This is far from ideal, although, to be fair, we've seen well-crafted, and highly relevant descriptions get ignored by search engines in favour of some random gibberish scraped from the page. Go figure!
Just like a word-processed document is ordered with a BIG title at the top and useful page section titles throughout, so should your web pages. This is achieved using header elements, the most important one being Header 1 or H1.
In simple terms the more logical your page layout, including the correct use of the page headers hierarchy, the easier it will be for the search engines to index it. And if you consider the significant effort you're putting into your page content, it doesn't make any sense to ignore the tools provided to make your work as effective as possible.
We're not going to go into too much detail here about technical SEO, but it's important. It should be pretty obvious that if Google and the other search engines can't index your site (understand it) because of some technical issues, including poor page load times, then all the other work you do will be for nothing.
Equally, having the slickest, fastest, technically most perfect website won't guarantee good rankings.
A good first step is to enter your website homepage address into this page speed tool provided by Google. If your site's score is really poor and "in the red", you need to work on it.
The tool will provide all the information your web development company need to improve your site's technical performance but be warned, it can be an expensive endeavour.
Google On Hiring An SEO
If you're thinking of hiring an SEO specialist, don't do it until you've watched this great video from Google's Maile Ohye. It's the best 11 minutes you'll ever spend and will save you a lot of heartache.
Do You Now Understand SEO?
SEO isn't as complex as you might think. In essence, your web pages should contain the content your ideal customers are looking for and should be the best content you can produce; you need to care about it.
Then, your website needs authority, so the search engines trust it and authority is built up through a healthy link profile, other sites linking to pages on your site.
Technically your website should be as good as you can make it, and it's essential the search engines can index it; we have seen websites that have accidentally excluded themselves from the search engine indexes!