Despite being so well used that you could probably get away with playing it in Scrabble, “SEO” is still a term that strikes fear in many a heart. What is search engine optimization, and what does it want from us? This was (loosely) the subject of our ninth class in Digital Marketing at BrainStation.
The short answer is that SEO is how you get Google to notice you. This is important because when Google notices you, the world notices you.
The hard part is that Google is trying to be a meritocracy. It wants the best to rise so that we (the searchers) can find what we’re looking for. It does this by looking at a number of indicators of a page’s relevance – indicators that are constantly evolving.
Through the years, waves of “SEO experts” have tried to one up Google by zeroing in on these indicators. For example: Google likes keywords, so we’ll string a bunch of these together, creating paragraphs of gobbledygook that we’ll call a blog post. Or: Google likes seeing other sites link to our site, so we’ll pay a bunch of dubious sites to link to us.
There are two fundamental problems with this approach. Firstly, Google is difficult to outsmart. Google is, after all, a sizeable organization run by some reasonably smart people. Secondly, Google does not take well to cheaters. So even if you do manage to outfox it for a while, don’t get too comfortable at the top of the search results. Google will likely have the last laugh.
One of the most interesting parts of week nine’s class, in my opinion– and please forgive me if this betrays a shocking degree of obliviousness to the world around me– was learning about what I’ll call Google’s spirit animals. These are the (mostly) animaltitled updates that Google has run to outsmart its would-be ousmarters.
Hummingbird (2003), brought the replacement of Google’s search engine, the speedier parsing of information, and the scrutiny of not just keywords themselves but the semantics of keywords, to find out what searchers are intending to look for. Pigeon (2004) brought an emphasis on local searches; Panda (2011) brought less tolerance for “thin,” sparse or shallow content; and Penguin (2012) was designed to catch “spammy” link practices.
More recently there has been “Mobilegeddon” (2015), which has prioritized mobile optimized (responsive) design. There has also been “Rank Brain” (in the last few weeks), with which Google is going beyond using keywords and semantics to figure out what you want; bringing years of artificial intelligence research to bear, it is now predicting what you might want– even if you don’t yet know that you want it.
So what’s the best way to get Google to notice you, if not by trying to game the system? In the same way that the earnest hero ultimately captures the object of his/her desire’s attention in all of the best romantic comedies: through humanity, integrity and persistence.
Not concrete enough? Here are a few tips I picked up in class nine:
– Employ empathy when structuring your URLs. Make them readable and understandable by humans.
– Avoid duplicate content (i.e. two pages that look exactly the same, even if one is the printer friendly version) because they’ll compete for rank, which confuses matters. You can stop two pages from competing for rank by combining them into one page, or dropping a canonical tag on one of the pages to tell Google which one you’d like it to consider more important.
– Optimize your images by labeling the files descriptively, and compressing them to reduce file size where necessary. (The time it takes for a page to load is very important for SEO, and the heavier your images the more lethargic your pages.)
– Improve user experience (UX) by making your site as easy to navigate as possible. Strive for high quality, useful content.
– Get other sites to link to yours. But not spammy sites, and not by paying for it.
– If you’re trying to improve a local business’s SEO, make sure your Google Business page is optimized and properly linked to your site, and build and standardize your listings on other business directories (i.e. Yelp).
– Blog! Make it valuable and entertaining. This is very important. Google wants it, and recommends it.
As search engines become increasingly sophisticated, optimizing your website for them increasingly resembles optimizing your website for humans – which you’re presumably doing anyway, so SEO is really a win-win. Except when it comes Scrabble. Let’s be honest with ourselves: not only are the letter scores pitiful, but there’s no way you’ll get away with using an acronym. Especially if you’re playing against a computer. They’re sticklers for rules.