What does SEO mean in today's context?

SEO has undergone profound changes over the past couple of years as Google tightens up its algorithms, slapping down sites with unnatural backlink profiles and sub-standard content.

What is SEO in May 2013?

SEO isn’t about buying or otherwise ‘acquiring’ backlinks and stuffing content with key terms any more, although there was nothing wrong with these techniques – they worked perfectly well in the olden days when Google’s algorithms weren’t anywhere near as intelligent and subtle. But what does SEO actually mean these days?

Much more than the techie side of life

Contemporary SEO encompasses much more than the technical aspects of website implementation. It’s vital stuff because when you pay attention to all the factors it involves, more visitors will find your site and be engaged by it when they get there. OK, they might not make an immediate purchase. But the site will have grabbed their attention, fuelled their interest and raised their awareness, all of which are crucial steps in the customer journey.

A definition of SEO

Rand Fishkin at SEOMoz.org recently described SEO as: “The combination of tactics and strategies, including, but not limited to, optimization of information architecture, usability, content focus, audience targeting, design, development, keyword research, keyword placement, link building, social media marketing and any other online or offline branding/marketing elements that support the goal of receiving more traffic from search engines.”

Search engines – Pretty damn clever but still intrinsically dumb

Search engine optimisation pays attention to an incredible variety of nitty-gritty detail that make it easy for visitors and search engines to interpret and understand web pages. Although search engine technology has become very sophisticated, it’s still impossible for them to experience and evaluate web pages in the same way a human visitor would.

I’m shocked by the number of web designers who still don’t bother with on-site SEO. The resulting sites often can’t be indexed by Google and co, full stop, which is just crazy. And although they’re  top quality eye candy, the owners face huge problems achieving organic visibility because of poor site structure, silly page titles and meta data, no thought given to key terms, canonical issues and so on. In other words, the basics.

Whether you like it or not, you still need to ‘tell’ search engines what every page is about. And on-site optimisation – AKA common sense – is still the only way to do it. Whatever route you take to site visibility you really can’t avoid on-site optimisation. And you need to take it into consideration at the very beginning of the design process. It’s no good going back later and trying to fix it.

Paid or organic visibility?

There are variations in the percentages of folk who click on the paid listings and organic search results, depending on the search query and other factors. But research indicate around 20% of search users click on a paid advert and 80% on the organic listings.
How come? Perhaps counter-intuitively, people tend to trust the organic search results because they know prominent sites deliver the best results for their search queries. Whereas sites in the paid section of the SERPs are there because site owners have paid to be there, not through merit.
Even if you’re planning to use AdWords to win search visibility, paying good money to appeal to the 20% or so who’ll click on the paid results, it’s obvious SEO is enormously important if you want to hook the other 80%.

Traditional marketing comes to the fore

As  writer with a strong direct marketing background it’s lovely to see SEO growing up, so much so that some industry luminaries believe it’s on the brink of changing its name to the much more accurate ‘digital marketing’.
The first step in any marketing activity is to define the target audience. It’s also useful, in the context of search marketing, to define a handful of example search queries that potential customers might use. Why bother defining your audience? There are two main reasons:

  1. Keyword research: Having a good understanding of who the website is intended for informs keyword research. Rather than focus solely on terms that relate to the products or services sold through a site, it’s much better to identify key terms that relate directly to the needs of the people it’s aimed at.
  2. Content creation: It is important to provide content and resources that are as relevant and useful to site visitors as possible. An appreciation of the specific needs and concerns of the target audience, along with what influences their buying decisions, is enormously beneficial in developing content they’ll love.

Getting your key terms act together

Key term research is fundamental to internet marketing success. Why? A thorough and accurate understanding of the queries people enter into search engines lets you develop relevant site content that’ll potentially rank for their search queries, engaging visitors when they land on pages because the content fulfils their intent.

The most important SEO advice on the planet!

Google’s webmaster guidelines confirm the importance of understanding the terms people use when searching, and how they should be included in the website for pages to be listed in the organic search results. This is what they say:
“Think about the words users would type to find your pages, and make sure that your site actually includes those words within it.”
They provide an excellent example:
If your web page is about the height of Mount Everest it’s no good calling it ‘everest-info.htm’ or ‘mountain-stuff.htm’ or ‘page-one.htm’. Call it ‘how-high-is-mount-everest.htm’. Use the H1 header ‘How high is Mount Everest?’, use relevant related phrases within your copy, create the right meta data and so on, and you stand a decent chance of being found when people type ‘how high is Mount Everest’ into Google, Bing or Yahoo.
Simple. Elegant. Logical. You’re not playing the system, you’re abiding by it.

Put it all together and you get…

Audience insight plus key term research gives you the knowledge you need to get cracking and pin down your site architecture and page focus and create content prospects are likely to look for. Then you can go forth and have fun engaging with off-site SEO, knowing your site is tailored directly to the needs of visitors and search engines. In an online world that’s more competitive and crowded by the day, where perfection isn’t an option but a must-have, you’d be mad not to.

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