Search Engine Optimization (SEO): A Fundamental Knowledge
Firms looking to compete in today’s global economy must have more than just a website. They must develop and implement a digital strategy – one that both supports their overall strategic business goals, and that allows each strategic business unit to leverage the tools and technologies available in today’s digital world.
In the very early days of the Internet, the phrase “digital strategy” was almost synonymous with both the flashiness of one’s website, and the amount of banner advertising driving traffic to it. However, as search engines quickly grew in algorithmic sophistication and popular usage, search – and search engine optimization (SEO), rapidly became fundamental to digital strategy for many firms (making search engine company owners billionaires, and search consultancies viable businesses in the process).
Today, even with the proliferation of digital advertising opportunities, social media, mobile advertising and apps, primarily, firms must acquire visitors and channel them to a specific webpage in order to perform (or to convince them to perform) a certain task (most often, completing a purchase). This necessitates search engine optimization (SEO), which is the process by which businesses and individuals manipulate websites and webpages to increase their visibility in search engine results.
In this article, we will cover 1) what is SEO, 2) a brief history of SEO, 3) the benefits of SEO, 4) the challenges of SEO, and 5) a brief overview of common SEO methods.
WHAT IS SEO?
SEO defines the ever-evolving set of tools and techniques used to increase the position of a website or webpage in search results. Firms use SEO to ensure that consumers, especially those the firm has targeted, can find the firm’s website, microsite, and/or a specific landing page; once consumers are on the page, firms can sell product, serve marketing messages, obtain login information, or perform other actions that help the firm achieve its strategic goals.
To understand SEO, it is important to understand how search engines work. Search engines use webcrawlers – software application that performs tasks over the Internet to automatically index and rank websites and pages. Webcrawlers are also known as spiders or robots and use information found on the website (in the HTML code itself), and on external pages, to rank websites and webpages according to certain criteria. The exact set of criteria used by each search engine is a different proprietary algorithm, each unknown to the public. However, search firms have a stake in ensuring that websites are ranked and index correctly. After all, the core value they provide is in helping individuals find what they need. For this reason, they publicly disclose certain general information about what search engines look for, so that webmasters and web developers may properly code their sites, and that marketing departments may implement off-page SEO strategies. Further, much of what is known about how search engines rank webpages is learned through experimentation, by individuals, firms and SEO experts, all looking to determine what works and what doesn’t in context to their own site.
It is important to note that as the volume and variety of data online increases each second, search engines continually, automatically evaluate, and reevaluate the rankings of each website and webpage. Therefore, changes one makes to a website or webpage (or lack thereof) can have a rapid effect on their website’s search engine rank position (SERP). Further, the engineers at search firms are continually intent on improving the relevance of their rankings to users. They study how users respond to search results and frequently adjust their algorithm to make their results more useful. Due to the dynamism of SERP, firms must ensure that their web services staff, and/or dedicated SEO professionals are employing SEO best practices, monitoring SERP, and learning about changes to search engine ranking criteria through trade publications and experimentation.
HISTORY OF SEO
Even though, the Web itself has been around for a relatively short period, its rapid evolution makes encapsulating its history in a few words a difficult task. So too it is with SEO, whose history parallels that of the Web. However, particular developments shed significant insight into the workings of search engines and the importance of SEO. To begin with, it is important to understand that humans initially and painstakingly, edited search engines. In 1994, a University of Washington student named Brian Pinkerton created the first publicly usable search engine that used a Web crawler to index webpages; it is called WebCrawler, and is still in operation today. Other notable search engines at the time include Excite (which purchased WebCrawler in 1996), Lycos, Yahoo, HotBot, AskJeeves, LookSmart, and AltaVista, all of which are still in operation today; many others have since closed down. Today, the four most common search engines: Google, Yahoo, Bing and Baidu hold approximately 97% of worldwide market share, led by Google with nearly 90%, which is why Google’s search evolution has driven the history of SEO.
In 1998, Google launched and introduced PageRank, an aspect of its criteria that assessed webpages linking to a specific webpage in its evaluation of where a webpage should be ranked. In 2002, it further developed PageRank by introducing a PageRank toolbar for webmasters and SEO professionals to determine the best sites from which to obtain incoming links. The introduction of PageRank informed the development of many of the most popular and commonly used link-based SEO strategies still in use today. It also inspired many entrepreneurs and webmasters to look for opportunities to exploit the connection between SERP and incoming links. For example, in August of 2002, a firm known as SearchKing attempted to serve as a broker between webmasters to buy and sell links for SEO purposes. Google subsequently penalized SearchKing by reducing its PageRank dramatically.
Page links were also often embedded in blog comments. In 2005, Google introduced a nofollow tag that allows blog administrators to ensure that blog spammers do not get credit in search. The tag is not only supported by Google search but MSN and Yahoo as well. Initially SEO professionals used this to try to emphasize certain pages over others, a practice that Google effectively stopped by adjusting their algorithm in 2008. Also in 2005, Google launched Google Analytics, which provided web professionals a wealth of information about the performance of their pages and content.
The following year, SEO gained mainstream attention when Google banned BMW for cloaking – a practice in which users are served one set of content, and search engines are served another. And in 2009, Google acceded to the demands of the social media crowd by providing real-time search results. In 2010, Google and Bing confirmed that social media profiles, especially Twitter and Facebook, do influence SERP. 2011 saw the launch of Google Panda, designed to decrease the SERP of websites with low-quality content, as content mills – websites publishing low-quality content against which to sell ads had proliferated. Further, Google began to encrypt keyword data to emphasize that webmasters and web developers should develop websites with an emphasis on high quality, relevant and consistent content. This was largely in response to SEO tactics like keyword stuffing – when webpage content is stuffed full of the keywords webmasters want associated with their site, whether or not the resulting content makes grammatical, syntactical, or logical sense or not.
BENEFITS OF SEO
SEO has numerous benefits, perhaps the most significant among them being the ability to increase traffic. It also allows a firm to drive qualified traffic to a website at lower costs than traditional (print, broadcast or outdoor) advertising. In addition, due to the low cost of many common search techniques, SEO initiatives often have an overall higher return on investment than many marketing initiatives. And unlike many offline marketing initiatives, SEO, through web analytics programs, provides quantifiable and trackable results, allowing firms to test, learn what works, and focus their efforts and time on effective strategies.
Engagement rates are much higher with search than other forms of digital advertising and digital marketing, such as social media marketing. This is because the consumer has performed an action indicating an interest in a brand, product, or service, and is looking to be engaged, rather than passively receiving a marketing message, which may or may not resonate. Further, less than ten percent of visitors look past the second page of search results. As a result, consumers have been conditioned to imbue firms with top SERPs with more trust than others. High SERP often increases brand awareness, brand engagement, and purchasing likelihood are far higher.
As search firms are ranking websites based on their ultimate usefulness to users, following proper SEO best practices forces you to create a more usable and useful site. For example, many small business owners create a static page with basic contact information, some direct marketing copy and a list of products/services, and then neglect their site. The resulting website, then, is useful only to consumers who are looking for that exact firm in that exact location. Search frowns on sites without a steady stream of regularly updated content. Firms with high SERPS often have regularly updated branded social media channels and blogs integrated into their website, regularly issue press releases about new products/services and industry developments, and consistently publish content about promotions and discounts. This creates content the consumer finds useful and induces repeat visits.
Keywords still play a significant role in SEO, though a lesser one than in the early 2000s when keyword stuffing artificially inflated the SERP of many a website. The keywords consumers use to find a website can yield insights into how the brand or firm is perceived, and what marketing messages a consumer might respond to (based on what she/he has responded to). Keyword research, which stems from SEO, allows a firm to ensure that brand/firm perception is aligned with marketing messages and develop stronger integrated marketing communications plans.
SEO helps firms stand out from the hundreds of millions of other active websites, and billions of individual webpages online. Industry has long realized the potential and necessity of SEO, and the many firms have either personnel in place to handle SEO responsibilities or contract for SEO services. Firms that fail to do so are not only losing an opportunity, but may be outflanked by competitors who use SEO successfully as part of their sales strategy.
CHALLENGES OF SEO
While general strategies for achieving a high Search Engine Rank Position (SERP) are available on the webpages of search engines designed for webmasters, the exact mix of factors that search firms use to rank sites are trade secrets. This results in much guesswork and experimentation on behalf of webmasters and SEO professionals to achieve specific results.
Further, generally speaking, search firms want their search engines to provide end-users with what they are looking for. This means indexing websites and webpages according to relevance (to the search query) and popularity (that determines inclusion and ranking in the search results). Because their goal is providing the most useful search results, they are vigilant against efforts to game the system. When search engines realize that an SEO method or methods are being used to artificially inflate website SERPs, they alter their algorithms to penalize the offenders. Case in point: SearchKing. And while it is well-known that publishing compelling and fresh content consistently is a fundamental driver of SEO, many web developers, webmasters, search consultants, and digital marketers still try to “game the system” through SEO methods known as black hat strategies. These bad actors can be blacklisted, but search firm responses cannot only affect those bad actors, but good actors (though usually to a lesser effect) as well.
Other challenges on the business side include limited organizational understanding of, and resources dedicated to, SEO. This includes insufficient training of existing personnel, inadequate in-house staffing to implement SEO/no funding for external professionals, deficient integration with the firm’s marketing department, poor content strategy, and overestimation of SEO results. Any of these alone can derail SEO implementation; often firms with SEO exhibit a combination of the above challenges.
Of particular importance is proper alignment with the firm’s marketing department. The web department will likely lack the expertise and time to handle both the technical aspects of optimization, and provide a steady stream of high quality (interesting, current, and well-written) content that is aligned with consumer interests, as well as both the firm’s branding standards, and its strategic marketing objectives. Too often, SEO is thought of in terms of purely technical criteria, but if a firm’s marketing department and web services department are not working together, then no amount of coding will help it achieve its desired search engine rank.
COMMON SEO METHODS
There are too many SEO strategies to name, but some of the most popular, effective, and long-lasting ones include:
- Content marketing: publishing and distributing online content to promote and brand and acquire customers
- Inbound marketing: content marketing designed to funnel traffic to a website/page
- Social media marketing (SMM): inbound website/page marketing and promotion through social media networks/channels
- Link building (also known as backlinking): the process of obtaining more inbound links to a website/page to increase its search visibility
- Search engine marketing (SEM): the promotion of a website/page’s visibility through both SEO tactics and paid search advertising
- White hat SEO strategies: the collection of SEO strategies that follow best practices as outlined by search engines. This includes publishing quality content, properly using metadata and keywords, and developing quality inbound links.
- Black hat SEO strategies: the collection of SEO strategies that are the opposite of best practices as outlined by search engines. This includes previously aforementioned techniques such as keyword stuffing, blog spamming, and cloaking.
- Grey hat SEO strategies: the collection of SEO strategies that are not explicitly to be avoided as per search engines but may still result in some penalty. This often includes new methods that have not yet seen widespread overuse meriting a global response from search engines.
In Palo Alto, we interviewed entrepreneur Amr Awadallah from Cloudera. Amr shares his learnings …