Understanding Search Engine Optimisation And Why Businesses Need It

By Christina

May 15, 2019

This article looks at the history of SEO, why Google changes their algorithms so often and whether SEO still plays an important role within Digital Marketing.

History - Why Search Engines Had To Change

History - Why Search Engines Had To Change

Search is a method for entering one or several search terms as a single string of text into a search engine.  The search results, appear as pages which list websites based on relevance to the search terms used.  Because more searchers click on the first few listings, all businesses want to appear here and not further down the page.

Webmasters, the people who created web content and looked after it, started optimising websites for search engines in the mid 1990s.  Initially all they needed to do was submit the websites address (the URL) to the various search engines who would then send a 'spider' to 'crawl' the site, extract links to other pages and websites, then return that information for indexing in the search engines. 

Small and new businesses embraced and dominated the search results.  It took some time for traditional large businesses to recognise the value of a high ranking website.  Once they did the search results became very competitive and it became harder for smaller and new businesses to get seen as quickly as before.

Originally all the search engines required were some metadata telling them exactly what the website was about, this comprised of keywords.  This was open to abuse by the Webmaster, who could be selling water, but targeted every drink to get people into their website, whether that person wanted water or not.  This had the effect of just annoying people who continuously got fooled into visiting websites that weren't selling what they wanted.

Since the success and popularity of a search engine is determined by its ability to produce the most relevant results to any given search, poor quality or irrelevant search results could lead users to find other search sources.  The search engine owners responded by developing more complex ranking algorithms, taking into account additional factors that were more difficult for Webmasters to manipulate.  The Search Engine Companies attempted to take the power out of the Webmasters hands, and use quality signals that could not be manipulated.  But the SEO Professionals started to appear and these people looked into the search engines algorithms and had a far greater understand about what would work to gain higher rankings faster.

The search engine owners (mainly Google) changed their algorithm again to combat SEO Professionals manipulating their rankings, and created guidelines that had to be followed.  But there were areas that could still be manipulated as Google relied heavily on keywords, links and the number of visitors to a website. 

Some SEO Professionals stuffed website pages full of the keyword they wanted to rank for, this word would be hidden by using the same colour text as the background.  People could not see it so the page still made sense, but Google, being a computer could see it and valued keyword density. 

Then there was the creation of hundreds of copies of the same page, but with a slightly different targeted keyword such as, red shoe, black shoe, brown shoe where the main target was shoe. 

Vast amounts of links, no matter where they came from proved a websites popularity, thus creating the birth of the link farms.  SEO Professionals could go to one website and buy thousands of links to point at their clients website.  This was easier and cheaper than doing the hard slog of connecting with people and asking for links once a relationship was formed or creating content people would want to link to.

This manipulation caused Google to move away from their heavy reliance on keyword density to a more holistic process for scoring semantic signals.  They also decided only high quality links would work, and to prove they meant it they started to hand out heavy penalties to companies who had used Black and Grey Hat techniques. 

White Grey or Black Hat Techniques

White, Grey or Black Hat Techniques

SEO Professionals started to use three terms to describe which type of methods they used.

Black Hat SEO attempted to improve rankings in ways that were disapproved of by the search engines, and usually involve deception.  SEO Professionals who used Black Hat techniques were going after fast results, but at the price of a website being banned from the search engine results.

Grey Hat SEO uses some Black Hat techniques, that can be gotten away with if the majority of the website uses White Hat techniques.  These sites ended up receiving heavy penalties and dropped down the search results.  Cleaning up the website and apologising to Google could help it to regain its position, but it was not easy.

White Hat SEO sticks to the rules of the search engines and concentrates on making search and websites accessible and an enjoyable experience.  White Hat techniques are great for long term success of the website, but it is a slow process and most businesses want to see fast returns.

The Wrath of Google

The Wrath of Google

No website is immune from a Google penalty or being un-indexed.  BMW Germany and Ricoh Germany suffered because of the methods they used to get to the top.  Even a well known American SEO Company was banned by Google along with most of their clients for using aggressive methods.

The search engines can find manipulative websites through their algorithms, or when competitors of the website decide to report it for a manual site review. 

Google does try to help SEO Professionals, they attend SEO conferences, do webchats and attend seminars where they try to educate the SEO industry about best practices.  They also have Google Search Console were SEO Professionals can find out if Google is having any problems indexing a website.

Google's war on manipulation has seen the following tactics banned, penalised or devalued:

  • Meta tag keyword stuffing
  • Keyword density
  • Paid links from link farms
  • No follow links
  • Duplicated content
  • Poor quality content

Because Google came down so hard on manipulative websites, the SEO industry cleaned up it's act and started to do real marketing using SEO to make sure a website runs correctly, can be indexed quickly, as well as making it easy for the user to get to the information they are looking for.  It's created a better experience for everyone.  But Google can't rest, because if an opportunity to cheat the system exists then Companies will jump on it.

Where SEO is Now

Where SEO is Now

Search Engine Optimisation now comes under the umbrella of Digital Marketing.

It is the process of affecting the online visibility of a website or a web page in the search engine's unpaid results.  The higher a website is ranked within the search engine results the more visitors that website will receive.  Once these visitors are on a website, using the right selling practices, they can be converted into a customer.

SEO may target different types of search including, image, video, academic, news and maps.  SEO can also be targeted towards a local area, a country or the entire world.

As a Digital Marketing strategy, SEO considers how search engines work, the computer programmed algorithms which dictate search engine behaviour, what people search for, the actual search terms (keywords) people use within the search engines and which search engines are preferred by their targeted audience.  Optimising a website may involve editing or adding content by doing HTML coding or using a content manager system.  This helps the search engines understand the website so they can index it within their search results correctly.  It also helps people understand what's on offer before they click on a link in the search results and come into a website.  SEO also includes creating great content to increase visitors numbers and encourages them to stay on a website for longer as well as helping to gain more back links.

Google Adverts and Organic Results

The search results are split between paid and non-paid areas.  The paid area is usually at the top, in the first three positions, and can also be at the bottom of the listings and sometimes in the side panel on wider displays.  Google receives payment for the paid section.  The non-paid area is where all the other websites sit.  As there is only one search result page, to define between the paid and non-paid sections, the marketing industry adopted the term paid and organic.  Google does not receive any payments from companies listed in the organic section.

The Search Engine adverts are designed to look similar to the organic search results, although Google was pressured to make it clearer to people when a listing was a paid advert.  At the time of writing, Google now shows a small box with 'ad' within it next to the URL.

Google claims that the majority of users click on organic results and not paid results.  Although there have been independent reports to show otherwise.  Whether you love or hate Google, they are a business that allow their users (the searcher) to use their search features for free, they also allow businesses to be listed within their results for free.  So you can't blame them for having advertising space to pay for the expense of data storage and the people they employ to give us the search experience we enjoy today.

Getting Indexed

The search engines send out crawlers to find new pages for indexing in their search results.  They can find these either by following a link from a website that is already indexed.  Or a website's sitemap can be submitted to Google Search Console for free.

Not all pages are considered equal in Google's eyes.  They don't index every page from a website, they look at the distance a page is from the root directory, they will also only follow so many links on a page.  If a websites pages are buried too deep, they are not likely to get indexed.

Google now loves mobile devices and are prioritising websites that can be viewed on such devices over and above standard websites which only work on desktops.  A website is only mobile friendly if a human can read the content without having to pinch, enlarge or move the page around with their fingers.

SEO Professionals can also block search engines from indexing their website or certain pages.  All websites should have a robots.txt file which is the first place the search engines crawlers go to, within this file there can be instructions not to index the entire site, several pages or just the one page.

The following are examples of pages that shouldn't be indexed:

  • login
  • search queries within the website
  • customer accounts

Improving a Websites Prominence

Improving a Websites Prominence

There are a variety of methods to improve the prominence of a website within the search results, below are some of the main ones that seem to work well at the time of writing. 

Keyword Research

Keyword Research

Keyword research is a practice SEO Professionals use to find and research alternative search terms that people enter into search engines while looking for a similar subject.  It starts with talking to the websites owner and their sales team to understand what the business is about, and the terms their customers use when they talk to anyone within the business.  From there they take the terms used and place them into a keyword research tool which will give them further ideas.  They can then check out who the competition is and how many companies are competing for those terms and how many people actually use that term.  The SEO Professional will also need to understand the psychology behind words, one word may mean a person is simply researching a subject or has the intention to buy.  There is no point bringing someone into a page full of information when they are ready to buy the product. 

It is good practice to look for keywords that have low competition but still have a high number of searches.  This isn't easy to achieve anymore.  The downside of this practice is that the website is optimised for alternative keywords instead of the main keyword, because the website can never compete with competitors with deep pockets.

Title Tags

Adding relevant keywords to the title tag will improve the relevancy of a site's search listings, thus increase traffic, but ultimately if a person can't understand what a web page is about by reading the title tag and meta description in the search results they aren't likely to click into the website anyway.

Meta Data

Meta data provides information about the web page, which can be used by search engines to help categorise the page correctly.

Some argue meta data has no value, while others think they are the only thing that matter.  But title tags and the meta description is all the searcher has to go on before they enter a website from the search listings.

According to Moz the 'title tags' are the second most important on-page factor for SEO, after content.  They tell search engines what a given page is all about.  It used to be standard practice to include the primary and secondary keywords in the title tag to gain better rankings.  But it is possible with Google leaning towards semantic search, that the importance of placing a keyword in the title is less important.

The title tags are displayed as page titles in the search results, and influence the searchers behaviour with respect to clicking on one result over another.  Titles are visible when page links are posted on social media and this conveys to the users what the link is about.  This alone makes them pretty important.

The 'description attribute' should use a concise explanation about the web pages content.  It helps the SEO Professional to give a more meaningful description for listings, although Google may choose to change it to something they feel is more relevant.

Quality Content

Not all content is deemed equal, Google want high quality content that adds value, and content that is updated or added on a regular basis.

Cross Linking

Cross Linking

Cross linking between pages on the same website to provide more links to important pages. 

Canonicals

Using the canonicalisation feature helps Google understand which of the two same pieces of content is the original.  This helps combat duplicate content issues.

Redirects

If a page is being retired, instead of deleting it, make sure the code in the original page gives instructions to the search engines to go to the new page.  If a page is deleted then all of the back links are lost.  Redirecting will help some of the links power to transfer from the original page to the new page.

Schema Markup

Schema markup is code put into a website to help the search engines return more informative results for users.

Rich Snippets

Rich snippets add structured data to a website.  Structured data is a piece of code in a specific format, written in such a way that search engines understand it.  Search engines read the code and use it to create a rich snippet of information they display within the search results.

Customer Reviews

Customer reviews within Google help to confirm the location of a business and that it is real and trading.  A website with a star rating also shows potential customers if a company is worth working with.

Back Links

A back link is a link from one website (the referrer) to another website (the referent).  Back links can also be referred to as incoming links or inbound links.  A website with one high quality link can out rank a website with thousands of poor quality links. 

A back link is comparable to a recommendation, or vote of confidence, or in America a citation.  The quantity, quality, and relevance of back links for a web page are among the factors that search engines like Google evaluate in order to estimate how important the page is.

There are several factors that determine the value of a back link.  Back links from authoritative websites on any given subject are highly valuable.  If both sites (the referrer and referred) have content geared towards the same subject, the back link is considered relevant and believed to have strong influence in the search engine rankings of the web page granted the back link.

Another important factor is the anchor text of the back link.  Anchor text is the descriptive labelling of the hyperlink as it appears on a web page.  Search engine crawlers examine the anchor text to evaluate how relevant it is to the content on a web page.

Mobile & Voice Search

Mobile search is important for the usability of mobile content for the same reasons internet search engines became important to the usability of internet content.  Mobile search has changed mobile media consumption patterns radically.

Most major search engines have implemented a mobile optimised version of their products that take into consideration bandwidth and form factor limitations of the mobile platform. 

Mobile is rapidly changing as people find new and inventive ways of using mobile devices, such as, voice activated search, this is giving the SEO Professional lots more to learn and work out how they can optimise a website so it continues to benefit and keep up with customer needs.

Local SEO

Prominence, relevance, and distance are Google's three main criteria to being listed in local search results.

  • Prominence reflects how well known a place is in the real world.  Google can gather this information from review counts, links and articles.
  • Relevance is how well a website matches the searchers query.
  • Distance refers to Google's attempt to return those listings that are the closest to the search location term used, if this is missing, then Google will workout where the searchers location is and how close the businesses location is to them.

Links and reviews seem to be more important than ever to doing well with local search.

Within the local pack, a business can have their telephone number, address, opening times, customer reviews and website address shown.  This takes up a larger space and is more eye catching than a couple of lines of text.

International Markets and SEO

International Markets and SEO

SEO is highly tuned to the dominate search engine Google.  But Google is only popular in the USA and most of Europe.  They haven't been able to dominate China, Japan, South Korea or Russia.

A knowledge of how other countries search engines work is the only way to be successful with search engine optimisation within international markets.  A professional translation of content, registration of domains and hosting that provides a local IP address is also needed.  Expertise in sales, marketing and SEO for other countries is a must.  A well known car company tried to enter a foreign market without using marketing professionals from that country, their launch fell flat on its face when they realised too late that the cars name translated to 'Won't Go'. 

SEO As A Marketing Strategy

SEO is not an appropriate strategy for every website, and other Digital Marketing methods should be considered.  If sales are needed fast then PPC would be more suitable.  If brand awareness is important then Facebook advertising and PPC would work better.  In these instances Search Engine Marketing (SEM) would be more practical as it looks at the design, running and optimising search engine ad campaigns.  SEM's purpose is to create prominence more than relevance, where SEO is about relevance. 

A successful Digital Marketing campaign may also depend upon building high quality web pages to engage and persuade visitors to stay for longer or to buy.  Also setting up analytics programs to enable site owners to measure results, to help improve a website's conversion rate.

SEO will generate a more than adequate return on investment.  However, search engines are not paid for organic search traffic, so there are no guarantees this revenue stream will continue and could be pulled out from underneath a business over night.  But the same could be said of all advertising and marketing, customers change the way they find products so a business needs to keep up with those trends or fade into a distant memory.  What you should take from this is the usual, don't put all your eggs in one basket.  Do SEO and Social Media, or SEO and PPC, try email marketing and real world Networking.  Different things work for different types of businesses, some only invest in Social Media such as Facebook and Instagram, others invest in a great website design and then get out in the real world for Networking events.

Businesses should liberate themselves and not be overly dependant on search engine traffic by having multiple revenue streams, when one ends the other revenue streams will keep a business going while they learn the next hottest marketing tactic to getting customers to part with their money.

Is SEO Dead, Or Simply Evolving

SEO has changed a lot, but that doesn't mean the practice is dead yet.  Digital Marketing, and SEO especially, encompasses much more than just links and keywords.  Building a strong brand, providing valuable, attention grabbing content, optimising a websites layout and usability and creating a strong link profile, need to work together if a website is to be successful.  Having only one of these elements in place won't help you climb the Search Engine Rankings.

If a website wants to beat the competition then it needs to consistently be doing a better job than the competitors by providing searchers with a better user experience, and that the website should be optimised correctly depending on the device a customer is using to access the internet.

People use the internet to solve their problems and they want that done fast.  People need a clear layout and appealing design that definitively points them to what they are searching for. 

Search is still changing and SEO can now enter the realms of voice search used at home with devices such as Alexa, and mobile voice search with Siri.

Conclusion

SEO is never going to be a quick fix for any business in trouble, but done right it can cement a business at the top of Google and other search engines and generate website traffic and enquiries in a way few other marketing techniques can match.  Well executed SEO campaigns transform businesses and make a massive contribution to longer term growth.

What SEO Can Do:

  • Attract searchers seeking your content
  • Control how your brand is seen in the search results
  • Nudge searchers towards queries you want them to make and results you want them to see

What SEO Can't Do:

  • Grow or create search demand (on its own)
  • Build a brand (by itself)
  • Directly convert customers
  • Wok overnight

Further Reading

How SEO Helps Online Businesses
How To Choose A Good SEO Company
Why Basic SEO Will Fail An Online Business
How To Measure A Websites Performance
10 Common Causes For Website Traffic To Drop

DRA Digital help businesses of all sizes attract new customers, with strategically designed websites.

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