Have you ever searched Google for something and just couldn't find what you wanted? Ever wondered why?
SEO is a hot topic in web design. It's probably the second biggest thing my clients ask me about while discussing a project.
What the heck is SEO, anyway?
SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, is a branch of marketing that works on increasing organic (non-paid) search engine results. In a nutshell, is it structuring your website in a way that search engines can understand.
(note: I'm going to say Google a lot here, because it's such an important search tool that it has even become a verb. But this generally applies to all search engines).
When someone searches Google for something, it looks in a humongous database of websites to see which ones are relevant to that search. This database is built based on Google's previous visits to all the various websites out there. If a page is relevant, it will appear in the results.
Of course, this is a very simplified view of SEO, but it illustrates the basics. If you apply SEO principles to your site, it helps search engines find you and figure out what your site is all about.
But here's the problem: this system used to allow for a lot of abuse.
As search engines 'crawl' the web, they apply a ranking to each page based on a number of SEO-related factors. So as I'm sure you all know, one website might come up on page one of the search results, while another might come up on page twenty. But why does this happen? How does Google 'decide' which website is more relevant?
Back in the bad ol' days
Ten years ago, the factors determining SEO were quite different.
Keywords were a big part of SEO. Websites would set a special tag, visible to search engines (and tech-savvy humans), giving words that were relevant to the site. For example, let's say a yoga studio named 'Candice's Yoga' was setting up their keywords. They would set a list such as: yoga, yoga studio, candice's yoga, ashtanga, hatha, toronto yoga (and so on).
The problem with this is sites could set whatever keywords they wanted, regardless of whether they were truly relevant to the website. So if a competing studio wanted to steal some search results away from Candice's yoga, they could set their keywords to say 'Candice's yoga'. Or studios that didn't offer Ashtanga classes (and didn't mention them anywhere on the site) could still use that keyword, just because they knew people were searching for it.
Obviously, this became a big problem.
And then we have the issue of backlinks. The idea here was that if a website is linked to by other websites, the content must be good, right? And if lots of websites link to it, then it must be even better! Backlinks would increase the search engine rankings of that site, making it appear more often in Google searches.
If this is done honestly, it is a good thing! Content that is well written and relevant should appear higher in a Google search and very likely will be linked by other websites.
But here's the thing: have you ever read the comments on a blog you like, only to come across what looks like a spam comment, linking to some completely irrelevant content? The reason why this happens is the commenter (or someone they have hired) is trying to create lots of backlinks to their site, in the hopes that search engines will see that lots of places have linked to their content. The more often this happens, the higher up the rankings a website will go, even if the content isn't actually good, relevant content at all.
And then we have the press release issue. At one point, search engines favoured sites that were affiliated with respected, known publications. This made sense, because if a respected site is publishing content from another site, it should increase its search engine ranking.
But here's the problem: website owners (or people they hired to do their marketing) would publish press releases for anything and everything they could think of. Instead of being interesting bits of news, such as announcements of new products, research breakthroughs, and so on, they became pure marketing spam. And people started to ignore them!
Just plain spam!
Speaking of marketing spam, the last major way folks would abuse the system was content spinning. In brief, this is taking some content you've already written, rewording it a little bit, and republishing it. It's the exact same content, but with a new title and a few different sentences here and there, in an attempt to hit different keywords people might be searching for.
The issue with this is probably obvious: you end up with a bunch of pages that say the same darn thing and don't add any value to the website (or web searches, for that matter).
Search engines caught on!
Have you ever searched Google for something and just couldn't find what you wanted? The first page or two of results was all just junk? Frustrating, right?
Now if you were Google, what would you do? Your results are less useful and people are annoyed that they can't find what they want. Do you just leave the system in place as is?
Google certainly didn't. Neither did the other search engines.
Over the last few years, Google has been shifting focus to the quality of the content of a website, rather than "traditional SEO". In other words, focusing on what is actually on the website and not in some coded keywords, a press release, or other such things. Is it useful, authoritative content? Is the website user-friendly? Is it easy to view on mobile devices?
SEO is dead, long live authoritative content!
Well... not exactly. But the system has changed so much that the old ways of gaming the SEO system are dead. In fact, using those old methods is much more likely to hurt your Google ranking, not help it.
So what SEO do you need these days? And what do you focus on instead of SEO to get people to your website? How does Google rank websites now?
I've got two posts on this topic: How can my site be found by search engines? and What is content marketing and why should I care?. Read on!