Search Engine Optimization: What it is and How it Works
Why don’t we start with the definition of SEO? Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of affecting search engine rankings by improving the visibility of a website or web page in search results on major search engines like Google, Yahoo, Bing, and even Pinterest or YouTube. SEO encompasses a broad range of activities, including: technical search engine optimization (TSEO), search engine marketing (SEM), search analytics, and social media advertising.
For our purposes, we group them all together in less technical names…well, except for the one actually called “technical SEO”…and just call them on-page SEO, off-page SEO, and technical SEO.
But rather than jumping straight into the deep end, let’s take a look at some basics. In this post, we are going to answer some of the questions we hear most often about SEO and business websites.
What is SEO?
As we covered above, SEO stands for “search engine optimization” and is a set of best practices that helps Google and other search engines find web pages on the Internet.
On-page SEO is the most controllable element. It’s all about what’s actually visible on a web page. This includes meta tags, the content of a page, and whether or not search engine crawlers can find it. When you are creating content for your website, the way you format elements like paragraph text, headings, subheadings, and images are all SEO factors that can help your website appear on a search results page higher than your competitors!
- Meta Tags: Meta tags are code snippets that tell search engines what the contents of a web page are about. They should be descriptive but brief so they don’t take up too much space on a search result’s snippet. Visitors can see your meta tags and snippets right on the Google Search results page, so you also want them to make sense.
- Meta description: This is the information engines see and display on the search results panels. There are best practices that focus on how many words long it should be, how it should be structured, and more. In general, they look something like this:
- Content: Search engines will rank web pages higher than other websites if the content is informative and has a good readability level. Keep in mind that search engine crawlers can’t “read” images, so make sure you optimize your text version of any image with descriptive alt tags!
- Images: In most website design platforms like WordPress (the platform we host all of our sites on), you can add an image title, description, and alt tag from the media library or by clicking on the image to edit it directly from the page. This practice started as an ADA compliance measure, but Google and other search engines also read that information. Site owners: don’t miss this low-hanging SEO fruit!
- Headings & Subheadings: Heading and subheadings tell Google exactly what is most important on your page or post. So be sure to use title tags, H or headings tags, and sound content structure so that Google and other crawlers know what’s important on your page. Don’t forget to include keywords in this content, too!
- Relevant Keywords: A big mistake companies make with optimization is not using keywords that searchers actually use. We once worked with an interior designer who called herself a home interiors architect on every page of her website. While the title sounds wonderful and makes her sound like some kind of house fairy godmother, she was missing out on TONS of wins in search engine land because nobody was searching for a home interiors architect. The best way to find the right words and phrases is by doing keyword research based on what people are actually looking for. There are places to be creative on your site and in your content, but describing your basic function is not really one of them.
Off-page SEO refers to techniques that are not focused on the search engines’ web crawlers and instead focus on aspects of a site’s social media presence, natural links, citations, search engine mentions, etc.
Other off-page factors are more closely aligned with public relations practices and digital marketing efforts than search engine optimization itself. It can be thought of as any technique designed to promote a website on search engines through other websites.
Here are some examples of off-page optimization:
- Social Media Presence – The number of followers, likes, shares and comments on a company’s social media sites and pages. Click through rates are also important here. If people are visiting your website from social media platforms, they are driving up your traffic, which signals to Google that your website is relevant and authoritative.
- Natural Links – These are unpaid search engine listings obtained through other sites linking to the site in question. Natural links can come from press releases, guest blog posts you write for other websites, and even social media links to an extent.
- Citations – Citations are listings of your website or blog post URL along with related keywords on search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc. They can also appear on directory listings like Angie’s List, Yelp, Foursquare, Apple Maps, City Search, and more.
- Branding – This relates to how search engines identify a company based on the information it offers up. It’s important that your on-page branding and NAP (name, address, phone number) match what you have on your Google Business Profile EXACTLY! It proves to Google and the rest that you are who you say you are and do what you say you do where you say you do it. This also plays into the citations mentioned above.
Technical SEO is the practice of search engine optimization from the perspective of how search engines work. Unlike traditional SEO, which is focused on what users want to find, technical SEO focuses on algorithms and code that search engines use when crawling websites.
One of the biggest issues we see in technical SEO is that the coding for a site is not compatible with one or more search engine’s robot (crawler). All search engines do not use the same search crawler, so some search engine robots will be able to access your site, while others won’t. We see this the most on websites made on certain platforms. While we don’t want to speak badly of ANY platform, we will, once again, hype WordPress, which is the most SEO-friendly website platform out of the box.
- Site Architecture or Internal Link Structure – This element focuses on how well-structured your site is and whether or not there are internal links from one page of content to another. Link building isn’t just about external links, although those are also incredibly important. Internal linking helps Google and other engines see that you are really an authority on the topic you’re discussing. Your link structure also affects user experience (UX). If visitors can’t find information they’re looking for (like how you solve their problem and how to pay you to do so), they will leave your site. When people “bounce” from your site too quickly, it tells Google your site doesn’t have the relevant content people are looking for in the search results, and your site comes up less often for that specific term.
- URL structure – This is one of the easier elements to control in the jungle of terms that is technical SEO. It also hugely affects search engine results. Most website building platforms allow designers and developers to create their own slugs, the end parts of the URL or site address that shows up in the address bar. The clearer the structure, the better the results. Just make sure the slug is short, relevant (contains keywords), and to the point. Avoid stop words like “a, the, and,” etc., and don’t keyword stuff the URL. That means don’t add more than one keyword. Google will see what you are doing and may penalize your site!
- XML sitemaps – In addition to being great organizational tools for your own use in creating your website, MXL sitemaps are also vital for your organic search results. Google and other engines use sitemaps to see what content you, the builder or owner, think is important. Also, most crawlers find relevant sites based on links. If your site is new or doesn’t have many links from other sites leading to it, the sitemap helps make you site more visible.
Technical SEO is a highly specialized field that requires an expert to get the most out of it. Technical experts can help you diagnose problems, fix issues, and provide ongoing support for search rankings. They can also help to translate all of the information in Google Search Console, which is one of the best places to see how your site is doing in search results and WHY!
What's the difference between Organic and Local SEO?
Most people don’t realize there’s a difference between what comes up on the “list” part of a Google search and what comes up on the maps section.
What is Organic SEO?
Organic search traffic is the first ten search pages that show up when you search for something on Google or Bing, and it’s what most people think of as “search.” This is where businesses want to appear for topic searches, like “what is SEO?” When web designers and developers and SEO strategists talk about being on the first page of Google, they’re talking about organic SEO.
What is Local SEO?
Local search traffic comes from maps-related searches like places to eat in your neighborhood or phrases like “clothing stores near me” or “lawn care Lawrenceville, GA.” When SEO experts talk about getting into the “maps pack,” they talking local SEO.
Local search typically generates the most revenue for location or service area-based businesses. In order to rank higher in local search results, you’ll need a Google Business Profile with contact info, location, and hours entered into it. You also want lots of geotagged photos, great reviews, and more.
Local and organic SEO best practices are broad enough topics that we will have separate posts for those soon!
Why should my business care about SEO?
SEO is what makes a website appear on search engine results pages. If your business isn’t appearing, you are missing out on who knows how many potential customers and clients! The SEO industry has a joke:
Where’s the best place to hide a dead body?
On the second page of Google because nobody is looking there.
And all jokes aside, let’s think about this for a moment. What’s easier: cold calling or answering calls from someone who found your business online?
Some final thoughts on SEO, Keyword Research, and Link Building, oh my!
Website optimization is the process of making a search engine happy by following search engine guidelines, right? And it should be easy (ish) to get on the first page of Google now that you know so much, right? Well, maybe not.
Producing quality content that search engines discover on a regular basis can be difficult for even the best of us. And staying on the front line of SEO efforts really is a full-time job. If you have questions or feel more overwhelmed now than you did before reading this article, that’s OK. Reach out to us here at MCS, and let’s talk about how we can help your business get found online!