Search Engine Optimization is something that we talk a lot about with our customers.
Through these conversations, we find that, in a lot of cases, their mental models of SEO (what ideas and beliefs they have in their heads around SEO) are old.
Now that Google is over 20 years old, it’s helpful for us to sit down and really rethink some of our expectations.
First, let’s look at how extreme that growth has been.
Google started in 1998…in a garage. It’s 20 years old. (Do you feel old now?)
The internet has grown, too.
In the year 2000, there were around 17 million websites.
According to the most recent data, today there’s something like one and a half billion or 1.9 billion websites.
It’s gone from 17 million to 1.8 billion this year. That’s an increase of 525%. Whoa.
Needless to say, the internet is very different than even ten years ago. Competition is very different.
It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s exploded.
It’s important to understand this growth when thinking about SEO. Given these changes, when we start asking what’s important when it comes to SEO, it’s probably time to unlearn stuff about the web that we’ve heard in the past. Our conceptions might have been true in 2010 when the internet was 10% of the size it is today, but they’re probably not so true today.
So, where do we start?
Let’s start with two hard truths about SEO.
SEO Hard Truth #1
No one really knows all the factors that impact SEO.
We’re going to talk about some factors that impact SEO (different factors than 20 years ago) but the reality is that nobody knows what all of the factors are that affect your search engine optimization, not even Google.
So, anybody that says to you, “these are the three or four things that you absolutely have to do and then you will rank with a 100% guarantee,” is full of it. That’s complete malarkey.
There are things that we know that can help improve your rankings because they are public components of the algorithm, but most of the algorithm is not public.
It is being implemented by machines.
SEO Hard Truth #2
SEO is HARD and Expensive.
Real SEO results aren’t cheap.
If you read the information below and think, “Man, that all sounds really hard,” You’re right.
It IS really hard, and that is why real SEO isn’t cheap.
So if anyone comes to you saying, “This is really easy and we’re gonna rank you for cents on the dollar,” start asking a lot of questions because real SEO isn’t cheap or easy.
- You have to work at it.
- You have to produce the content.
- You have to get the engagement.
- You have to make sure that the stuff you’re writing or producing is being shared and that it’s stuff people are actually searching for.
And it’s getting more and more competitive. By the way, those websites we mentioned? Those are just sites not pages, meaning that there are 1.8. billion websites, but each of those sites has some number of pages.
So there are hundreds of billions of pages out there that you’re actually competing against, not just a few billion websites. These numbers are going to depend on your business. If you’re a local business, you’re probably only competing seriously against maybe dozens of competitors.
The point is that online SEO really does require a commitment to technical optimizations, on-page optimizations, and off-page optimizations such as promoting your content, getting good backlinks doing a good Google business profile, and so on and so forth.
With all that said, let’s get into the nitty-gritty. Here are some new truths about SEO.
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On-Page SEO is Now the Bare Minimum
The on-page SEO stuff that everybody talks about is now table stakes, the minimum amount of effort you need to be putting into SEO.
Putting keywords in the right places is something we hear about all the time but at this point, is pretty foundational.
If the only thing that mattered was putting keywords in the right places on pages then everybody would rank in the top 10…so this is not the most important thing anymore. It’s certainly not the only thing by a long shot. But, you’ll see a lot of marketing agencies and marketing companies and even software, talking about getting your site “SEO-Ready”…in most cases what they’re really talking about is just this basic stuff; it’s making sure that there is an ability for meta-information or alt tag information to be entered on a web page–table stakes. Not that important.
So be aware of that.
Content Matters (But Not the Way It Used To)
The second thing we’re going to talk about has been true since the dawn of the internet and is still true; content matters. A lot.
But we don’t mean content stuffed with the keywords you want to rank for. We mean content that serves a purpose and is useful.
You might not think so, but your customers don’t know as much about your business as you do and so being able to provide a wealth of information about your services, what they mean, how they should make decisions about choosing this one over that one, and why they matter, is actually really important. And not just for your customers.
Search engines love useful content.
Business blogging is a really great way to build your content profile. Search engines love useful content and it’s a really great way to provide great service and extra value to your customers, so it’s a win-win. You offer better value for your customers and better information for search engines. These two things are not only are not mutually exclusive they’re actually both necessary.
Tip: Content is more than just text, more than just blogging. Content includes Tweets, videos, Instagram posts, and more. Content is anything that you publish that people can access on the internet.
By the way, blogging can be really intimidating for a lot of people. So one of the things that we suggest is to go and check out our post on 10 types of blog posts that you can use to improve your business SEO. That post should help you come up with good content ideas for your business blog and for search engine optimization.
So, on-page SEP is foundational, and content matters but we can’t forget about conversions. Conversion is recognizing that everything online is measured and that engagement also improves your SEO ranking.
When we talk about engagement, we’re talking about things like;
- How many people are coming to your site?
- How many come and then leave (that’s called bounce rate)?
- How much time are they spending on your site?
- Are they completing goals?
- Are they purchasing, signing up in lead forms, starting live chats…
The sky is really the limit and it’s up to you and your development team to define what those conversion events are.
In order to make sure that you are improving your engagement online, because this does matter, it’s not enough to have good content on your site, that content has to convert in some way.
We’re throwing a lot at you right now. If you’re overwhelmed, check out our primer on web analytics for small businesses. It can help you understand which metrics matter most for what types of businesses and what and where somebody is in the buyer’s journey.
The Internet = Data
The fourth thing you need to relearn is that we aren’t just talking about the internet, we’re talking about data; content, videos, all these things are just data. It’s important to recognize that there’s not a switchboard operator on Google who’s trying to figure out where to put things…all this stuff is automated and it’s all being consumed, indexed, and transformed by machines.
You’ve probably had an encounter either on Facebook or on Google where you didn’t understand why you were seeing a particular piece of information or why an update wasn’t showing up right away. It’s because all this stuff is being done by machines so recognizing that making your data structured (so it’s easier for machines to process) really helps with search engine optimization.
If you’ve been on the internet, you’ve already seen this before.
Example of Structured Data:
Let’s say you love Black Panther, the Marvel movies (who doesn’t?) and Chadwick Boseman (rest in peace).
You want to learn more about him so you search for his name on Google.
Looking at this search result page you’re going to see a ton of data—images (those are data), where he went to school, when he died, his movies, and more. All of these things are structured data that are being returned by a website in a data-driven way so that when Google is organizing this information, it’s organized in a really easy to digest perspective for the user. This is possible because, under the hood, these websites are serving up data in a really friendly way.
Also, keep in mind that your blog posts and your Frequently Asked Questions can also show up here in the little snippets where different questions are asked and answered online, again, based on how the structure of your website is put together (it’s not surprising that Reuters has a website structured enough to return this answer).
So content matters, conversions matter, but making sure your website is offering structured data is really important.
Now, there are lots of templates and themes that try to help with this but, in many cases, if you really want to make sure you’re returning good structured data, you need the help of somebody who knows how to create your structured data profile on each individual page. You need someone who understands when it matters and when it doesn’t matter. And, if you’re really publishing a lot, you might need to look into a publishing tool like Sanity or Contentful.
User Experience is extremely important.
As mentioned earlier, providing great information for your customers and the search engines are not mutually exclusive, they go together. Google’s goal, and the reason that they make billions and billions of dollars a year, is to return the best results to answer a customer’s given question and the best result is more than just information. It’s the best presentation of that information for a given customer or audience.
For example, if I’m asking how to do something, a help guide, an infographic, or a video would be more helpful than just a blog post. Or, you might find step-by-step instructions helpful. It really depends.
But in order for the answer to show up like this on Google, it has to be structured a certain way on your website.
So what you want to be thinking about when you’re thinking about user experience is, ‘how do I create the best possible way for someone to get the information that they’re looking for when they’re asking this particular question?’
In addition to that, there are some technical factors that contribute to the user experience that are beyond just whether or not you’re creating great content.
These technical factors include things like;
- How quickly does the website load?
- How long before we see what’s “above the fold” (The first thing that you see on a website)?
- How long before the whole page loads?
- How long before the website is usable?
If I have a form on the top of my page, but users have to wait for the rest of the page to load before that form loads, that delays the usability of the page. That counts against user experience (which will hurt SEO).
Does the page shift up or down? If you’ve ever been on a website, news websites are the worst about this, where you’re reading something and it keeps moving up and down because something somewhere keeps loading, that’s a really obnoxious, and bad, customer experience.
And then, finally, is your website accessible for everyone? Remember that there are a significant number of people on the internet who are visually impaired or have another type of disability that impacts the way they use the internet. Making sure that your website is accessible to their screen readers is another factor that contributes to user experience, and then to search engine optimization.
How Is Your Site Performing?
If you’re not really sure how your site, the best way to find out is with a site speed audit. Ours are $199 and they’ll give you insight into a lot of the metrics we’ve mentioned in order to see how well your website is doing from a user experience standpoint. They’re primarily focused on speed because speed is probably one of the most important, if not the most important, user experience metric, but it’s definitely worth checking out.
Could your website be working harder for you?
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External signals are the factors outside of your website that have a significant impact on your ranking, and they’re really important.
External rankings include things like social shares (yes your social media). If you have a page on your website that is shared on Facebook or Twitter and goes viral for whatever reason that does improve your search engine optimization.
Your search engine optimization is not limited to just what goes on inside of your domain. Google is indexing the entire website and one of the main things they look at are called backlinks…how many people around the web are talking about your website?
In some cases it’s really really competitive. In other cases, though, especially for local businesses, it might not be that competitive and really a handful of good press releases and backlinks might be all you need in order to rank.
But it’s important to know that a significant portion of your SEO is really dictated by external signals and by how much people outside of your organization and outside of your website are interacting with your content.
Even More SEO Factors
And then, of course, there’s always a mix of other factors that impact SEO.
- How long your website has been around
- How much competition there is for a given term
- What kinds of competition there are
And then, like mentioned above, there’s all the stuff nobody knows about because it’s an AI making all the decisions, including the people at Google, who are, you know, sometimes just are making best guesses.
And this isn’t me just saying this, you can Google this and look at quotes by Matt Cutts, a Google SEO guru, and he’ll say it directly. We don’t know all the factors, it’s an AI that’s learning all of these things.
All this is to say that yes it’s possible to compete in SEO, but it does require investment and it requires really rethinking what SEO is and knowing that it’s more than just words on a page. If that’s all it was then everybody would rank and clearly that’s not the case.
Getting Started With SEO
So, what do you do if you’re just starting out?
Focus on Landing Pages
In most cases, we suggest advertising to a small set of well-optimized landing pages. In general, it’s going to be less expensive than really trying to start an SEO campaign. And frankly, it’ll pay off sooner.
Have A Good Foundation
A good foundation means investing in a website with decent structured content. This might mean working with a developer or development team that knows what the path needs to look like so that they can work with you given your budget. Then, they can grow with you and help you find the thing that is important today but can also be important in six months, a year, or two years.
Build an Email List
You should start by building an email list. Your email list is hugely important because you own that channel (no, you do not own your social media channels). If you’re just starting out, spend some time trying to figure out how to build your email list.
SEO Shouldn’t Be First
My general advice is to focus on SEO, after you’ve gotten at least one other sales channel up and profitable. You should be paying for SEO as an investment in long-term customer acquisition. It’s not going to be something that’s going to pay off immediately or quickly.
There are better, faster, and cheaper ways to get customers in the door. It’s probably not going to be SEO.
That said if you need help with your website or you’re not sure if your website is even set up for the kind of success that you can build on, check out our Unlimited Web Design Plan.
Our plan is designed to scale with your business and your budget and to help you stay aligned with everything you need at the different stages of your business and your budget. Because the internet is constantly changing. Get a partner that can keep up.
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