WTF is SEO?
Recently website guru Jonny Wills talked about the myths of search engine optimization, defining the things we actually need from it for our enterprises online. Here are some of the main points in more detail
Obviously the controversial title WTF is SEO? is a play on how abbreviations make things more mysterious or exclusive than they are. But is SEO (search engine optimization) a phrase to make us who use it more clever and charge more for knowing about it? And really is it just a useful shorthand for a long, specific phrase?
What does Google et al really want? What does optimizing mean in practice? Essentially if you're looking to maximise the potential of anything it's an endless quest. If Mo Farrah now wants to run faster marathons or Elon Musk wanted a rocket ship to fly further there is no limit on what they could do to improve their abilities. And so it goes with your website and therefore business – for the two are inextricably interlinked – there is no limit on how good your marketing can be or how much 'SEO' you can do.
A useful definition for you is this:
SEO is the practice of making something online more relatable to search engines. So probably we might say: "But isn't SEO about getting you up higher in Google?" From which we can infer that you are looking for a definition that talks about rankings.
This is also true, but what if one day the rankings model was changed? If this was the case our definition above still applies. But this is not the most important reason why defining SEO is not necessarily about rankings. Because...?
Thinking about what people search for is essentially second guessing.
A ranking can depend on a search criteria of the writer of the search. And again, permutations are endless. It means when we are inserting keywords across our web page text we are trying to second guess hundreds of thousands of people: Potential customers in the area and what they actually want/write that alerts Google et al (and by et al I mean all the other search engines like Bing or Ask) to match a link to your website. So apart from second guessing the local population, web developers – in tandem with their clients – have to ensure Google et al have all the right information to index you efficiently, then ensure it displays the correct and eye-catching blurb as part of the display link.
Of course, when we all write into a search box, we as product or service searchers don't know how the engine we are using prefers to read our query: So user fallibility, ignorance and innocence is a player in searches. You only have to think about some of the spelling and grammar use you've seen on social media to tell you this. You can counter this in your meta data, but there's only so much time in the day. And here's the rub: No one outside of Google et al knows how search engine algorithms operate, and they change and are fine-tuned often.
The best way to define a search then...
...and turn a user into a visitor and customer is to focus all your website and online language on your niche and keep all the criteria tight on always presenting what your business offers... over time, updating regularly to show aliveness.
Your website has to thus reflect your business...
... and be ongoing and open. Just like it's another branch or reception area that happens to be open 24/7 and globally. For example, one of my recent app projects although appearing modest in installs still has a mindblowing reach – 35 countries across the globe. At the very least the potential for our endeavours is fascinating, and it proves I got the marketing right, but perhaps not the product.
It's important therefore that your business model is serious.
So if you're a Free hunter looking for a Free website and you want Free consultation don't be surprised if I see that your business marketing is not working and so say: "You're business model needs work. And when you're ready to pay I'll be happy to take you on as a client." Investment is key, and you can't expect another company to create or promote your company if it has no real world actuality.
We then need to look at our business with a common sense overview
When I think about building businesses online and ultimately making its presence more searchable it won't work if when a potential customer or client gets to the real world venue to find: poor customer service, slapdash presentation, amateur support or their expectations let down when the website promised them quality.
No decent consulting firm 'represents' half-baked practices, so all my clients have to have a fair reputation or an eagerness for the business to work. It's the job of business owners and decision makers to get their infrastrucure right ("their business"), it's my job to help translate all the outer workings to the general public ("my business"). I personally can usually tell in ten minutes when a business has integrity. If it doesn't then I have to weigh up whether the owner already knows and where I can politely provide suggestions if not.
So once we know the original state of a business is good to go
... we've answered one half of what SEO really is: Being worthwhile enough to be sought after and found. How is this realised? Well, to understand this we need to answer a question that is about our business associations with 'Search Engine Inc':
What does Google et al really want?
What does any business want?
People buying products using the services? Yes.
What, once or all the time? How do they or we achieve this?
Well, we let people know we are good at what we do, we build a reputation, not just for immediate interest but for return interest.
Apologies if this all sounds a bit like Business School Day One.
But to be the best like Mo Farrah or Elan Musk (Paypal) or Google, Apple or Amazon you have to be prepared to remove the ceiling of limitations and be in the present of the practice of being the best on a daily basis for the rest of your quest. I suppose its obvious, but there will always be days when we lose sight of this motivational overview.
Knowing this, and to go deeper, what do Google et al want?
Search engines want you to know they are the best.
They want return custom.
So they want to know you have a great reputation and return interest in order to sell you to their searchers, as they indexing the best and most popular to present them to their searchers.
It thus stands to reason that if more people see your business as the 'go to', then your search ranking will naturally rise.
So make sure you are optimizing your business reputation online.
And remember to do this in tandem with enhancing your business reputation in the real world: Otherwise this lack of synchronicity will affect your name long-term.
So how do we out this into tangible practice for our website?
First we need to understand what not to do with our online presentation, for knowing this and not making the following mistakes will encourage search engines to index you as a more trustworthy operation. Here's a list of five practices that not only turn Google off but actually turn off savvy web-users (you and me) too, so by not doing them you're improving your SEO:
Don't be desperate and repeat advert-like phrases and don't bombard the reader of your website with the same keyword search phrases in every sentence. Place keywords across articles and pages and write from a passion for what you do.
Looking cheap while pricing high and vice versa might work but remember customers have an internet of other sites to choose from. Stay relevant and consistent and they will come back to your site knowing you're not trying to deceive. Likewise with assuming you know them, or feel you should sell to everybody: Just target your language to the types of people that will buy your stuff.
Having muddled web pages might result from a confused marketing message, trying too hard, too many services and bad site development. This could be the same in the back-end coding as well which might be a problem for search engine bots crawling through code and your meta data. So you're turning off the customer (with a poor user experience or UX) and Google at the same time! The best way to end this is to focus your marketing from the ground up, and this may mean taking a look at your initial offering.
4. Fake copywriting
When I'm commissioned to write for websites I have a checklist of at least 25 things I incorporate. Basics like good and captivating English (so don't outsource abroad!), excellent marketing, keywording, CTAs (calls to action) and a balance between sector vocabulary and language a visitor to your site finds that will invoke trust. There are many others of course. Copywriters are ten-a-penny so hire somebody you get on with, understands your business and can be transparent with what they do for you – by explaining why they did it – and make sure they include amendments time in their invoice.
5. Believing a 'Get you to the top of Google' firm
As we have shown, SEO is endless and major companies have entire dedicated in-house departments or agencies working on keywording, analytics and online marketing campaigns. For your SMS or one-person operation it's only a promise a local firm or internet agency could back up if they said they could get you top of the ranking for a phrase (supposing you owned an Italian restaurant) 'best Italian restaurant in Hove'. But what about another phrase with 'Brighton and Hove', 'East Sussex', 'pasta', 'pizza' and the hundreds of other second guess permutations? Ultimately, if they're also doing the bad practices above too, it's not going to be helpful to you long term. How many they can guarantee is up to you and they may do it by price per amount of phrases, but this is the reality.
Case study of nightmare 'runaway fees' scenario
A recent client of mine came to me asking to spruce up their copywriting. He had hired an agency to handle his food nutrition website. And even when I simply communicated with them (or sen them emails) the agencystill billed him for every new change I suggested, this being on top of an initial outlay. This was because they were still holding the reins of the CMS (content management system) – in other words they were doing all the uploading and updates.
Worse still, there was no synergy or overview through the marketing>writing>keywording>design>UX>back-end coding>meta data that makes a website better search engine optimized. I let him know I couldn't step on the toes of his developer and start uploading content because I couldn't be held responsible for errors on an unfamiliar system (not to mention their way of doing things or coding). One fear of mine was also some unseen hand fiddling with my work.
Unfortunately my clients marketing message was still stuck and no one had pointed out that his offering was confusing to customers. Of course I managed to help and avail options quickly. But it would have needed a complete overhaul, it was that bad. A dodgy developer greedy for money and not really caring or understanding about clients' 360 degree needs, but just wanting to lock someone into a long-term deal and keep someone paying, by stringing them along is something that makes me madder that Dr David Banner. Especially as they could deny culpability by saying: "Well, it's your business, I'm just the developer!"
Their fee? £6,000 and growing. Plus VAT.
Mine: a one-off fee of £200 for two pages (half a day plus consultation including the money-saving bad news delivered politely).
What would I have done?
Well, if it had been our website development I first would explained everything I was due to do – agreeing on the selected options – and get a sign off on it. At the same time I would have capped the fees at £2,000 and bespoke packaged the annual fees and updates to budget too. Basically a third of the price with a professional marketing set-up in place and with transparency and customer support. Perhaps I'm blowing my own bugle but the thing is, isn't this what we should expect?
This process of good practice, is in effect what SEO is:
It's not just in the copy: It's in the marketing from the ground up, it's in the user experience, the content, the files you upload, the clarity of the words, the appropriate language, the ongoing aliveness of the website and yes an abundant but astutely positioned set of keyword phrases.
There are more strategies of course beyond the casino of keyword listing, but they have to be bespoke to manageable budget, and unless you are a major corporation where it matters to your shareholders where you are online, this might prove a wild goose chase for you. It's enough to tick-box a common sense criteria above and include things that search engines like, for instance: well-ordered web pages, a good address, a map, contact details, associations with directories and clean back-end coding.
I have a list of more which I do as standard. Yet none of us have access to search engine algorithms and what they are doing week by week, so we can only do our best. But I will leave you with this:
*Remember Google isn't the only search engine
All those sites with a search box? They are effectively search engines. Not just Google, Bing, Yahoo, MSN and DickDuckGo. If you can be found on their site (Facebook? YouTube? Amazon? See pic above) then optimize the page you are on or have created.
And the most important thing for the big picture?
To sum up, the word is integrity. And no I'm not sorry if this points back to you and a bit more work for your enterprise, because I know you'll trust in me saying it to you. Plus it's logical: If Google et al are looking for the best – to be the best at search – then you too have to be the experts in your field and keep proving it for them to index you higher.
The good news is that it makes an even playing field for business and online projects. Steve Martin said: "Be so good they can't ignore you." And so it is when you optimize your website: Make yourself the best you can be then make sure your online presentation doesn't get in the way. Because another definition for SEO is: a set of criteria that inherently shows to searchers and search engines you know what you're doing and you care about your business.