By Wendy Gittleson for Galvanize
If you build a website but Google doesn’t see it, does it really exist?
While our reinterpretation of the age-old thought experiment about trees and forests might prompt a few eye rolls from the philosophers among us, when it comes to SEO, it’s a legitimate question.
SEO is an acronym that stands for Search Engine Optimization, which is the science of getting your website noticed by Google and other search engines in hopes of placing near the top of search results. To answer the question above, yes, if you build a website it will exist, but without SEO, it will be nearly impossible to find in organic (non-paid) searches. That’s okay if the site is for friends or family, but it defeats the purpose if it’s for a business.
Every few days to every couple of weeks, Google’s bots, called “spiders,” comb through each website looking for changes since the last time the spider looked. The spider looks for new content and a few other metrics we’ll get into below.
The reason I specifically mentioned Google is that for the most part, SEO is designed around Google’s algorithms because they control about 92 percent of the search engine market. Google goes through minor updates to its SEO software as often as twice a day, and major updates a few times a year. For SEO professionals, keeping up with Google might feel like a game of whack-a-mole. By the time they figure out how to play the game, Google changes the rules.
If you were to randomly ask SEO professionals whether coding was a necessary part of their job, there’s a good chance the answer would be no with the exception of HTML. The truth is that SEO isn’t all that technical and the bulk of the job is performed by content writers and members of the marketing team. Still, coders have their place in the SEO process.
What are the key elements to a good SEO campaign?
Several years ago, nearly everything you heard about SEO revolved around keywords. A keyword is a search term. For example, if someone wanted to hire a car mechanic, they might enter the words “car mechanic,” or “mechanic for 2012 Honda Accord.” Those are keywords. If you were a mechanic, your site would have had to have those keywords appear at least once on your site, but usually far more often than once, for Google to recognize that your site might be what the customer is looking for.
Often, content writers would practice “keyword stuffing,” which is a way of saying they tried gaming the system by almost randomly inserting keywords throughout the site. One way they may have done it, for example, is using fonts in the same color as the site’s background, effectively making the keywords disappear for the customer, but easy for Google to see. Some companies didn’t even bother with that tactic. They simply stuffed their sites with keywords, not really caring whether the content made sense.
Things have changed a lot since those early days of SEO. Google is much more about customer experience than the mere existence of keywords. They want content that is readable and they want keywords. They’ve also caught on to all those old tricks and they will penalize sites for using tricky tactics.
Because Google changes the rules so regularly and because the goal is to stay ahead of competitors, constant keyword research is critical. According to David Victor with Boomcycle Digital Marketing, “A good technique is to take your ideal keyword and look at the top 10 links on the first page of Google search results and see who your visibility competition is.” Then, Victor recommends, see what keywords those competitors are using. Include those keywords in the site’s main pages and blog posts.
The meta title is not necessarily the title of a page, but it’s the title that you want Google to see. Google gives you 55 characters to include in their SERP (search engine results page). You should always include the business name, but you might also include a tagline, such as, “rated best auto mechanic in Denver.” Ideally, your meta title should contain at least three keywords.
The meta description appears in the SERP after the meta title. It is the little snippet of information that appears after the business name in Google search results. You have 150 characters to reveal as much searchable information about your business as you can. You should include at least three keywords. According to Victor, “roughly 30 percent (up to 84 percent) of the time, Google will pull a meta description from your site, but if Google feels your meta description is a good description of the content on the page, it might use your meta description. That’s your little ad in that search result.” It’s always good to include a call to action in your meta description, such as “call for a free quote,” or “say you found us on Google for a free oil change with tuneup.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of SEO is creating engaging, sharable content. Part of the job of an SEO professional is to research the keywords needed and the writer’s job is to insert the keywords in a way that flows and makes sense to the reader. In small companies, the writer and SEO person might be one and the same. Sometimes, the webmaster performs keyword research. In larger companies, the three disciplines are usually separate, but they collaborate.
“The on-page factors, such as content writing, and some clever strategies for making sure you put your keywords in the right places, for making sure you use the right H tags (title tags) in the right places. You want to have it hierarchically arranged.” said Victor. “People with screen readers rely on that. If you’re (sight impaired and) using a screen reader, if you are trying to read a web page that skips from H1 to H3, you might ask, ‘what did I miss?’”
“Google places a lot of value on accessibility factors,” added Victor. “Is this page accessible? Does it load quickly? There are a lot of on-page, meaning on the website, factors, probably more so now than there ever was before.”
Programmers and coders aren’t typically responsible for maintaining an SEO campaign, but an effective campaign starts at the site’s inception. According to Thomas Petty with Thomas Petty’s Digital Marketing Solutions, “So many of my clients think that SEO is magic fairy dust that you sprinkle on a website after the site is live, to please the Google gods. It has to be intentional, planned out, and baked into the structure of the site from the get go. I recently launched a corporate site replacing a very old flat html site. We spent a lot of time during the build out structuring the content, menu links, URLs, image metadata, and so on to make sure it was telling a cohesive story.”
“SEO has evolved a lot over the last 20 years. It’s no longer about a couple meta tags,” added Petty. “You have to update the underlying structure as times change to make sure you’re using structured data, open graph tags and so on, to maximize the effectiveness of your SEO strategies.”
Python can automate tasks such as speeding up the website (important for accessibility), keyword research, link analysis, user intent analysis, mapping and migration and image optimization. Python’s machine learning capabilities can help improve content quality, user engagement, transcription of audio content (good for accessibility), metadata optimization and keyword opportunities. In short, Python can help a site pass the Touring test.
The Turing Test, devised by computing genius Alan Turing in 1950 (which he called ‘the Imitation Game’), is a measure of the sophistication of AI-based on a computer’s ability to hold a convincing conversation in natural human-like language. While most website chatbots still have a way to go to come close to passing that test, capabilities like machine learning and NLP are bringing it closer with every passing day, and Python is unlocking the creative potential of people who might not normally take the time to learn a programming language.–Salt Agency
Think of a backlink as a referral, or link to your site from another (relevant) website. Great content is one way to get backlinks. Another is to ask. You can offer to exchange links. The higher ranked the site that’s talking about your business is, the better the backlink.
“If you get a backlink from a very authoritative site, like Google, or Microsoft, or Dell or any huge brand name, that would be a really valuable link. All links are not created equal.”
Backlinks are not the most important aspect of an SEO campaign, according to Victor, but they account for about 17 percent of the ranking factor, which can mean the difference between page one and page two.
Social media isn’t the domain of SEO professionals or coders, at least not specifically, however, a smart social media campaign can improve page ranking.
Google My Business
Not surprisingly, Google places a lot of value on their own business listings. Businesses should encourage customers to post reviews and photos on their Google My Business listings. A proactive social media campaign doesn’t leave that all up to customers, though. A complete profile with regular updates, pictures – including 360 degree photos of the facility – will help boost the page rank.
Yelp, which is a hybrid between social media and search engine, may or may not directly boost your Google page rank, but their algorithms work similarly to Google. An optimized Yelp campaign, which includes responding to reviews, using keywords in the business information, lots of photos, and even backlinks, will help boost your Yelp page rank. Yelp is not the internet powerhouse Google is, but it’s arguably even more important than Google for those in a service industry. Also, Yelp has their own powerful Google SEO campaign. Highly ranked companies within Yelp can appear under Yelp’s listing, which generally appears near the top of the first page.
Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit
Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter and Reddit are all important for a comprehensive social media campaign. Similarly to how your Yelp listing might rank high on Google, each of the social media sites has their own SEO strategy. Smart use of keyword hashtags in social media posts can help Google take notice. Widely shared content, especially content that demonstrates expertise, will also help improve your ranking.