SEO isn’t what you think it is (but it’s still important)

So you keep hearing about this “SEO Thing” and how it’s important to your website (at least that’s what the 23 unsolicited emails you’ve received this week so far claim). Trouble is, you don’t quite know what it is or why it matters.

The fast answer there lies in what the acronym itself stands for Search Engine Optimization. What that simply means is that your website is set up and structured in a way to be friendly to search engine crawlers & provides those crawlers with information to help them figure out what your website is relevant to. Simple as that.

However, folks have taken the SEO acronym and expanded it to mean “how to rank on the first page of Google for your targeted keyword.” And this is an entirely different creature that has a whole host of other factors in play.

To give you a quick preview of what this article is about, here are the points I’ll be touching on:

  • It’s not as simple as having the right keywords on the site
  • Link building still matters
  • Value-adding content is king (but something is better than nothing)
  • What is Google looking for? (brand-awareness/chatter & relevancy)

I won’t delve too deeply into what matters to rank well on Google for your targeted keywords. Instead, I want to touch on why SEO isn’t exactly as straightforward as it once was (and as some agencies try to sell it as) but also why you need to keep it in mind for your website.

But first, a quick quiz for you!

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Why does SEO matter?

A quick qualifier as to why organic search traffic (a.k.a. Traffic your website gets from search engines that you didn’t have to pay for) is important to you and your website. The main value here is that it’s free traffic. By that, I mean traffic that has a marginal cost of $0 to you. That’s huge once you consider that over 1.17 BILLION people use Google every month and your website could be the one served to them for the query they need answering. It’s pretty much free targeted advertising. Some of the most successful websites have at least 50% of all traffic coming from search engines (Google being the by far dominant there).

How do you rank on Google?

It used to be that in order to rank well on Google, you just had to stuff your web page with the right targeted metadata (“Best place to buy a computer in ‘X’ city”) and get a couple of links from other relevant websites to prove to Google that your web page would be relevant to their user. That worked fairly well right up to about February of 2011.

Why is February 2011 important to SEO? Well, I’m glad you asked!

This is when Google rolled out the first of their new aggressive algorithms. This one was given the cutesy nickname of “Panda” that had some devastating effects on rankings and affected up to 12% of search results (it might not sound like a large number but that’s about 4 times the amount of change that occurs with a typical algorithm update or rollout).

Panda was all about punishing websites that had thin content (typically, web pages with less than 150 words of unique content are considered “thin”) and that had seemingly spammy link profiles (ie inbound links from websites that don’t seem like they would have naturally linked to your site). With this major rollout, it became imperative to work on the content and value of your website first and then getting high-quality links second. The days of link & content farms were numbered.

Google also brought into play a new algorithm called Penguin in April 2012 that continues to cause headaches and panic in the SEO realm. Penguin’s main goal was to punish what Google considered “Webspam.” What that typically means is keyword stuffing. In other words, if Google thinks you’re unnaturally targeting a certain keyword by overusing it on your website or web page, you’re going to get punished with worse search rankings.

No, seriously, how do I rank better on Google? 

I’ll be honest with you: there is no surefire method to ranking well on Google. If you set up your website to be search engine friendly (please, for the love of All-That-Is-Good, have your robot.txt file set up correctly), create great value-adding content and cultivate relationships with websites that you want linking to you (give them reasons to link to you!). If you get these three items inline, then you’re on the right track!

Get people talking about your brand
Google is also looking for “brand awareness” for a company. This part of “SEO” gets a little murky because no one really knows all the parameters of what Google is using to decide if a website is relevant to a user or not. For now, it seems that Google is looking in a number of places in order to determine if a brand is relevant. Some of those places are forums (are users chatting about your company? They don’t necessarily have to always link to you but are they mentioning your organization as a solution to a common issue in their community?), Facebook (are your posts being shared?, LinkedIn (are your article being shared? is the company being called out in hashtags?) and Reddit (what relevant subreddits are talking about your organization?).

It takes a heck of a concentrated plan to get Google to recognize your organization as a brand, but that’s sort of the point. To Google, if your company can generate enough natural chatter among relevant communities, then it must be relevant to their users.

It takes time and vigilance

One last thing to bear in mind, with the dramatic increase in competition to rank well in search engines, getting to (and staying on) the first page of Google for your desired keywords is not an overnight thing. If anyone tells you differently, they’re trying to sell you something and steal your money. For the most part, you won’t notice a change in your rankings for at least 6 weeks after you roll out an SEO strategy and sometimes it can take years (depending on the level of already established competition you’re up against).