SEO 101 should be a required course for any business owner with a website.
SEO has become a tainted term. Every other business owner has a story about how they have been fleeced by a dodgy SEO company that promised them the world for a dollar. ‘Black hat’ companies specialising in SEO specifically target business owners who don’t understand how Google’s algorithm works – they offer you a deal that sounds too good to be true and that’s because it is.
‘SEO 101’ is a simplified set of steps I have developed to help business owners understand search engine optimisation and the Google algorithm. It is not designed to be a ‘how to’ manual, but rather a quick-and-easy crash course on SEO so that you can spot a dodgy SEO practitioner from a mile away.
SEO 101: The Basics
SEO, or Search Engine Optimisation, is the process of tweaking and updating your website and content so that it performs well in Google. Google uses a complex algorithm that looks at hundreds of different factors to determine where a particular page of your website should sit in its ‘search engine results pages’ (SERPs). The ultimate goal of SEO is for your website and website pages to sit as high as possible on Google’s SERPs for as many relevant keywords or phrases as possible.
An SEO specialist understands the hundreds of different factors that Google’s algorithm considers and then makes adjustments to your website and content accordingly. Some of Google’s factors hold more weight than others and your SEO specialist will know which adjustments to make to have the biggest impact.
SEO 101: The Categories
While there are hundreds of different factors that an SEO specialist need to know about, they can all be broadly grouped into 5 different categories. These categories are the basis of SEO 101, and are all that you as a business owner need to know and remember.
One: Content and On-Page Factors
This category is all about making sure that your website contains content that is relevant to the specific search term. I touched on this in a previous article, but if you want to rank for a specific term such as ‘flower delivery in Brisbane’, then you would need to have content on your website that specifically mentions that keyword or phrase.
Other factors such as keyword density (how frequently you mention the keyword), related keywords (such as ‘florist that delivers in Brisbane’) and the quantity of content that you have devoted to this topic will also come into play.
If your ‘SEO Specialist’ does not ask for login details for your website or does not talk about adding new content or pages to your website then that should ring alarm bells.
Two: Usability and User Experience Factors
Google has started to really prioritise the user experience on websites. They favour websites that load quickly, are easy to use on both desktop and mobile devices, have a clear navigation system, incorporate a search functionality and format their content in a clear, logical manner.
One of the biggest factors that has a lot of strength is your site’s mobile performance – Google made some big changes in 2018 as to how much weight they place on this factor, and if you have a clunky mobile website, that loads slowly and doesn’t resize your images or content to suit the screen size, then you are likely going to see a pretty drastic drop in your organic website traffic (if you haven’t already).
Some of the smaller factors in this category include on-page formatting – using titles, dot points, bolding, images and other formatting tools to break up large chunks of text, making it easier to skim read and locate specific content on your website pages.
If your ‘SEO Specialist’ does not ask you questions about your server or hosting, and if they don’t log into your website to make formatting changes to your website pages then that should ring alarm bells.
Three: Security and Functionality
These factors are more technical, and you will likely require the assistance of your website developer to ensure that you are meeting the requirements. The purpose of the factors in this category are to ensure that your website is safe and doesn’t pose a security risk for your website visitors.
Some of the factors include things like have an SSL security certificate enabled, hosting your website on a safe server, encrypting any personal data that is provided on contact forms or online shopping carts and making sure that any third party app or software applications that you’ve integrated also meet these requirements.
If your website is hacked or attacked by malware, you need to address it as quickly as possible. If Google discovers that you have been attacked, they will remove your website completely from their SERPs, and if you don’t get the problem fixed quickly, you could even find your domain name is blacklisted permanently with Google – which basically means that you will need to build a new website on a new domain name, costing you time and money.
If you know that your website doesn’t have an SSL certificate and your ‘SEO Specialist’ doesn’t mention to you, then that should ring alarm bells. If they don’t ask to speak with your developer or talk about getting access to your cPanel or FTP then you should consider that a red flag.
Four: User Behaviour and Computer Learning
Google tracks user behaviour on your website – it watches how people use your site; do they spend a lot of time on the page, reading it word for word, or do they scroll through it quickly and ‘bounce’ off the page within 5 seconds? Do they read your content, watch your videos and comment on your blogs? Or do they flick through a few pages, try to search for something using your search functionality and then leave when they can’t find what they were looking for?
Obviously the longer people stay on your page and engage with your content, the better for your rankings.
In addition to looking at user behaviour data as a whole, Google has started using computer learning to individualise people’s search results. This means that if an individual tends to favour video content over text-based content, then they will be more likely to be served up results that include videos. Similarly, if they have particular websites that they frequent regularly then those websites will perform better in Google for that individual. A good example of this is Wikipedia – some people have no problem with Wikipedia as a source of information while others consider it unreliable. Someone who uses Wikipedia regularly will often see that website at the top of their search results, while someone who avoids and never accesses the site will likely not see Wikipedia on the first page of their SERPs.
This trend of providing individualized results for each user based on their preferences and past behaviour is likely to get stronger and stronger as Google and technology continue to develop.
A good SEO specialist will want to know some demographical information about your target audience – age, gender, location, interests etc.
The final category is ‘popularity’ – this looks at all of your off-site factors such as social sharing and backlinking. The theory behind this category is that if a lot of other websites are linking to your content and it is being shared on social media a lot, then it must be relevant and informative.
Unfortunately, this is the category that bad SEO companies exploit more than anything else.
Google’s popularity factors look at quality over quantity; one single link from an authoritative website is better than 200 links from dodgy directory-style websites that barely get any organic traffic themselves.
Bad SEO companies use ‘link farms’ to build large backlinking profiles for their clients. This results in a temporary spike in rankings and website traffic but once Google catches on to what is happening, they blacklist the link farm and any of the websites that are caught up in it will see drastic loss in rankings. Sometimes websites and domain names that are caught up in more than one of these link farm schemes will be blacklisted by Google making it virtually impossible to get any organic traffic to that domain name ever again.
Google is a for-profit business, and they make (majority of) their money through advertising. The reason that they are able to charge so much for their advertising is because they have strong audience numbers – people use Google over other search engines because it provides the best, fastest and most relevant search results.
In order for Google to maintain their reputation for being the best, they have to ensure that all of the search results they serve up are as relevant as possible.
If you only take one thing away from this article, let it be this: all of Google’s ranking factors are designed to ensure that their audience (the people searching) are delivered a good product. If the product that your SEO Specialist sold you only looks at external factors like backlinks and doesn’t look at making your website perform better, then you have probably been sold a lemon.