We build sites from the ground up to be SEO optimized, but there are many other techniques to getting to the top of Google and Bing.
What Is SEO?
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is an area of study dealing with how and why some websites rank higher than others on search engines throughout the internet. Essentially, there are certain things that can be done by any website to ensure that it ranks above the competition.
Why Is This Important?
The short answer is that SEO is all about customer acquisition. Think of it as advertising. You can either use Adwords to pay Google to display a link to your business at the top of it’s search engine results page (SERP) or you can optimize your business and website in an effort to convince Google and other search engines that they should place your website at the top.
How To “Optimize” For Search Engines?
Each search engine has it’s own ranking algorithm, but they all generally follow the same guiding principles. For this reason, we prefer to simply focus on Google’s algorithm. Simply put, following best practices to rank well on Google will also cause your website to rank well on all other search engines. Google looks at many factors when considering how to rank a website. For discussion purposes, these factors can roughly be broken into two categories, On-Site and Off-Site SEO. To help illustrate the difference between the two terms, below are a few representative examples of optimizations that would fall into each category.
- Is your site fast?
- Is it readable to a google bot, i.e. structured well, correct headers, schema, image metadata, etc?
- Is your navigation clear and the site easy to use?
- Is the content on your site relevant to the current search query?
- Is your site mobile friendly?
- Do other websites link back to your website?
- Has your business received positive reviews on local review sites?
- Is your Name, Address, and Phone Number (NAP) consistent across the internet?
- Do customers and other websites trust you and your business?
There are a couple of guiding principles that Google uses to rank a website. When working on SEO I always attempt to keep two of these principles in mind: Trust and User Experience. But, wait, how can you optimize for those? In many ways, read on.
Google uses machine learning to evaluate if, in its opinion, you, your website, or your business are trustworthy. If you are, then it will rank your website higher. If you are not… you get the idea. But how can a machine understand trust? That’s a good question and one that I will not even attempt to dive into in this post. What I can say is it looks at what people say and do in regard to your business. The most obvious example is the testimonials. Each time someone leaves a positive review on Google Maps or Yelp about your business, they are giving you a vote of confidence (and vice versa for a negative review). If you can provide 10 people with a positive experience, then Google is more likely to trust that you will provide that eleventh person the same experience.
Another example of trust is whether other websites link back to your website. If your website was a scam, would a reputable business link back to your website? No, probably not. Each link back is like another vote of confidence. One last, slightly cooler, example would be a customer walking into your store, purchasing a t-shirt and posting a picture of themselves in that shirt on social media where it gets lots of likes. I won’t go into all of the ways that Google is tracking those interactions, but rest assured it is.
Simply put, Google wants to give its users a good user experience. It knows that if it directs someone to your website and they have a bad experience, it reflects poorly on the search engine that took them there. We’ve actually written a whole article about this topic because of how important it is – User Experience (UX) Driven Website Design. The gist is if Google determines that users have a poor experience when they interact with your website, it will stop directing people to it.
As stated earlier, on-site SEO is everything that can be done to your website to cause it to rank well on online search engines. “Everything” is a very long list to go over, but below are some of the areas that will provide the most bang for your buck in terms of on-site optimization.
“Content is King” is a common phrase in the search engine optimization world. Essentially, Google wants to see websites that are constantly being developed and increasing in usefulness for its potential users. Adding quality content to your website on a consistent basis is one of the top areas that will increase your visibility online. We work with each of our clients to ensure that their content is relevant, attractive and the quality that Google wants to see.
How your website functions is a core piece of the SEO process. Below are several ways we ensure every site is built optimized and ready to rock search engine result pages (SERP).
- WordPress – We build all of our sites on a Content Management System called WordPress (https://wordpress.org/) and use the Yoast WordPress Plugin to ensure that sites have all of the technical information needed to be readable by Google. These include things like ensuring that the header information is accurate, social profiles are linked, meta descriptions and titles are in place, and so on.
- Hosting Optimizations – We host all of my websites at WP Engine (https://wpengine.com/). They are a high-end WordPress hosting platform. Their focus (and main selling points):
- Speed – Their hosting environment is such that website loads very fast – remember that user experience piece that I was talking about earlier. As an example, 53% of mobile users will abandon a site if it takes more than 3 seconds to load (https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/data-gallery/detail/mobile-site-abandonment-three-second-load/).
- Security and Backups – WP Engine has software and hardware that ensures each website and all information on it is secure. This plays into if Google will trust your website or not.
- Uptime – Sites should never go down because of hosting issues (in all of my time with WP Engine, not one of our client’s sites has just “gone down” without notice). If Google directs someone to a site that is down, it will reflect poorly on that site’s future search results.
- Design – Sites are always designed with the user experience as the number one priority. This essentially means that the site is very clear in its navigation and design so the user can quickly find exactly what they need. It also means the site is fast, smooth and enjoyable to use whether the user is on an old computer, in another country or on a mobile phone or tablet.
- Image optimization – This category could actually be split under design and accessibility. The imagery on a site must be designed to help the user along as they navigate your website. Google loves images and other media on your website. Not only should images be visually appealing but they also must be optimized so that they are accessible for anyone who might be viewing them, even with a screen reader.
- Accessibility – This is fairly straight forward from a technical aspect, but it is still amazing how often it is overlooked. Google wants us, for good reason, to build an internet that is accessible to everyone, including those individuals with disabilities. Think of the user experience of a visually impaired user entering a website on which their screen readers do not work. It would be the same as a person who is not impaired clicking a link and arriving at a blank page.
- SSL – This is the green lock in the URL bar you see when visiting sites that secure transmitted user data through the use of https. The additional security of adding an SSL is a sign of trust to the end-users and to Google.
- Mobile-Friendly – Think of the last time you viewed a website that was not mobile optimized on your smartphone. Difficult to read, right? Again, Google is attempting to give the users what they want, and a responsive web design or mobile framework is just that.
Tracking and Understanding On-Site SEO User Signals
Google is constantly collecting and analyzing data on how users interact with a website. A good way to view some of the data that is being collected is by using a tool such as Google Analytics. When viewing Google Analytics it is easy to see the plethora of information that Google collects and evaluates. And this tool just displays the information that Google chooses to share with us. Just try to imagine what other metrics they are collecting and not sharing. A quick example of how Google uses this data to determine if it wants to direct more or less traffic to your site would be your website’s “bounce rate.” This is the rate at which users click on to your website and immediately click the back button without interacting with the website. Odds are they didn’t find what they were looking for. Google will certainly weigh their use of the back button when it is determining whether to send someone else searching for the same thing to that same search result.
Initial SEO audit
If you are not building an entirely new website we certainly recommend performing an SEO Audit of your site. There are many sites out there that provide free Local, On-Site, and Off-site SEO audits. We subscribe to an audit tool provided by Bright Local to provide a free Local SEO Audit to anyone who would like one.
Ok, your website is up and running. It is fast, mobile-friendly, and SEO optimized in all of the ways that it needs to be. Now the real work begins. At this point, and honestly, even before this point, we need to start looking at all of the factors that are not on your website that will affect your search rankings.
Google counts each link to your website as a vote of confidence. The more votes you receive, the higher you will rank in local and organic searches. But, not all links are rated equally. The more reputable the site that links to your’s the more helpful the link will be. Google believes that a highly reputable company, which it sends lots of traffic to, would not intentionally link to bad businesses. In other words, if the reputable business trusts you and links to your website, then Google trust you (well, a little more than they did before the link existed). We work with each of our clients to develop a strategy to obtain high-quality links back to their website. This strategy will include elements such as reaching out to other local businesses, guest blog posts, news stories, directory sites and more.
Citations and NAP Consistency
Google tracks citations, which is any listing of your business, and check to see if your NAP (Name, Address, Phone Number) is accurate and consistent across those citations. The number of citations you have and the accuracy of your NAP has an impact on your local and organic search rankings. For example, say you are trying to rank well on Google Maps, but you haven’t cleaned up your citations and you have incorrect NAP across the internet. Google sees that you have many different addresses listed. It will rank you lower on Google Maps because it does not trust that it is giving whoever is performing the search accurate information as to your location. As your business grows many online directories will begin to list your business. Unfortunately, many times these directories will get your information wrong. Instead of waiting for these listing to populate slowly (and sometimes inaccurately) it is a good idea to push the correct information out to the most helpful directories, both internet-wide and in your specific and local industry directories.
As described above, reviews are a cornerstone of Google’s Local ranking factors. It is one of the few times that individual users are clearly telling Google about your business. It is important to manage your reviews in a smart way. Focus on the good, but do not ignore the bad, Google definitely won’t. In some cases, just reaching out is enough to convince someone who wrote a negative review to change it. This is a major SEO signal and should not be overlooked if you would like to rank well.
An increase in real, organic traffic will, of course, have a positive effect on your rankings. If Google sees that people are coming to your site, then it will determine that you are someone who people want to see, hang out with, and trust. Are you starting to see the trend yet in regard to how important trust is? Years ago, people tried to game the system by having many people search for their site and go to it in an effort to trick Google into listing them higher. Google is smart enough now that it can tell who, and often why, users are visiting your site.
This sounds like a funny metric, but it does matter. Untrustworthy companies, scammers and businesses that treat their customers poorly all eventually fall by the wayside. For companies who are doing things right, Google will see natural growth, albeit sometimes slowly, in almost all of the indicators listed in the article. That growth and the longevity of the business demonstrate to Google that your company is legitimate.
If Google sees that people are engaging with you, it is more likely to rank your website higher. Google’s entire goal is to give people what they want. If Google sees that people are interacting with you or your business in a positive way on social platforms then it will feel more comfortable sending others to your website. There are many social media platforms that you can use, and regardless of which ones you use, the engagement is what matters most. What it comes down to is this – not only does Google uses these platforms to validate your business, but it values positive user engagement.
Wait, another type of SEO?
In the last couple of years, Google (and many other search engines) have begun to segment their search results in multiple areas. Two of these segments are Organic i.e. Google’s main search page (www.google.com) and Local i.e. Google Maps (maps.google.com). The simplest way to think of Local is it typically deals with finding local businesses in your area. For example, if someone searches “Mechanic near me” Google will display local automotive repair shops. This is different than someone searching “mechanic,” in which case, Google will display some of the local results, but it will also show results pertaining to the mechanic profession in general and other sites dealing with mechanics because it is not sure if you are looking for a local mechanic or not. Local businesses will show up on Google’s main search page, but the primary areas where people perform these “local searches” in on a maps website or app (i.e. Google Maps or Apple Maps). Google uses similar factors to rank businesses on these map platforms as it does on its primary search page, but weights the factors slightly differently. For example, it gives greater priority to the searcher’s proximity to the business and local business reviews and citations.
SEO Is Not As Complicated As It Seems
As a business owner, you want customers to trust your business, and you want those customers who enter your store to have a good experience. Google believes that those two things should not only be true in your brick and mortar establishment, but also in regard to your online space. If implemented, the above information will help your website rank well, but don’t get too far in the weeds. As long as you value building trust in your interactions with customers and focus on providing them with a positive user experience online, Google will recognize it, and you will move up in online searches.