Introduction to Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)
This post was prompted by a number of conversations I have had lately with business owners who believe that Search Engine Optimisation is one or more of:
- Really hard
- Really expensive
- Not needed anyway
The truth is that SEO is needed most of the time and it can be very effective without the need to spend a lot of money. In fact, there’s a lot you can do without the need for any external help at all.
If you haven’t got the time (or inclination) to read the rest of this post, then here is the summary.
The best thing you can do to improve the position of your web pages in the search results is to have good quality content on your pages and blog posts. Good, in this context, means that it is informative, interesting and easy to read. That’s it.
Is it worth putting time & effort into SEO?
Google reckons there are 100 billion online searches every month – that’s a mind-boggling number. Some of the people who are searching are looking for the products and services you offer so why not make sure those people can find your website? Maximising the visibility of your site surely makes excellent business sense.
It’s likely that your site gets at least 50% of its visitors via the search engines so you may think that you are doing OK here but many of the searches will be on your business name or your own name. That’s all well and good but what about all the people out there who are searching for what you offer but who don’t know about you and your business? If you can improve the SEO of your site so these people can find you, then you are likely to acquire more customers and grow your business more rapidly.
Also, the chances are that your competitors are not investing in SEO so changes that you make that will improve your search engine visibility are likely to have a significant impact on your business.
What Google wants
This post is about Google but the same principles apply to the other search engines. Search is central to Google and their reputation depends on delivering great quality results whenever anyone carries out a search. If they don’t do that consistently, then people will look for a different search provider and the whole Google behemoth will start to decline. So Google is constantly striving to find ways of getting better results to searchers faster and more effectively and this is why they frequently release updates to the way they calculate search results. Some of these are defensive to eliminate poor quality web pages and to prevent people manipulating the results.
Nobody can ever promise to ‘get your site to #1 in Google’ and achieve that consistently as no one knows all the factors Google uses to rank web pages in its results. Even if a web page is #1 in Google for a certain search phrase one month, there’s no guarantee it will be in the same position next month. So SEO is not a one-off activity, it needs some on-going work (although usually not very much).
What you must do
The best course of action for business owners is to create pages that conform to Google’s objectives. This means, basically, create good quality content. But, of course, it’s not just what Google wants, it’s what your customers and potential customers want too.
Let’s look in more detail what this means and I’ll split it into two sections – what you can do on your site and actions you can take off-site.
On your web pages
As I said at the beginning, the best thing you can do to help your search engine position is to write informative, interesting content that is engaging. To help your content be more engaging, structure it and make it easier to scan by adding headings and sub-headings. Break the text up into plenty of paragraphs. It often useful to add images and to pick out your main points in some way (in bold, in a callout box or otherwise highlighted).
However, you can give your content more influence in the search engines if you do some research beforehand and decide on the words or phrases your target audience are likely to use to find the products and service you offer. This is the area where you might need some expert assistance as it is important to choose phrases that people actually use and where that there aren't a prohibitive number of other sites that are already ranking well for that phrase. So in an ideal world you should be looking for phrases that have plenty of search volume but where there isn't too much competition. Of course, that ideal rarely happens so a careful consideration of alternative options is needed which is why some expertise and experience in this area is helpful. (Also see Tips to get more interested visitors to your website)
Once you have a set of keywords or phrases, please don’t stuff your web pages with these as this is likely to have the opposite effect from the one you want. So use the phrases naturally and write primarily for your human readers and not the search engines. Use simple, straightforward language and for most sites, a natural, informal style is the most appropriate.
The aim is to offer valuable information so, always link to other articles and web sites which can support your viewpoint or offer further relevant information.
Google also cares deeply about whether your site is mobile friendly and whether the pages load quickly. Google cares because people who use websites care. As I wrote about recently, when a search is done on a mobile device, Google now indicates in its search results if the pages it references are mobile friendly. Google has a set of criteria it applies to sites to determine their mobile friendliness and if your site doesn't pass this test then it would be well worth you making the necessary changes. Similarly, if your page load speeds are poor, work is needed to improve matters and this will have an effect on your search engine rankings. This is another area when some expert assistance may be needed.
There are also actions you can take away from your own web pages that can improve your search engine position.
Perhaps the main one is in acquiring links that point to web pages on your site. While I appreciate this may not be easy, it can have a large influence on your ranking in the search results so it is something worth pursuing. However, not all links are equally valuable – the best links are from relevant sites, e.g. if a website for an accountancy company has a link from a site that sells accountancy software that is much more valuable from an SEO perspective than a link from the local pub. Relevance matters. The authority of a site also matters so a link to the accountants’ site from a national online magazine like The Accountant carries more weight than a link from a link from a local networking group.
Tempting though it might be, the idea of two companies linking to each other simply to acquire more links is not viewed well by Google and is unlikely to add anything to your search rankings.
Getting links from directories (national and local) can help and can be straightforward. If you are a local business then links from local networking groups can be useful despite not carrying the authority of larger national organisations.
Please do not be persuaded to buy links in bulk. Google is wise to this and regards it as an attempt to distort its search results which could lead to them banning your site altogether.
Links from social media sites also count but Google treats these differently to ‘normal’ links and it is likely (Google have not been clear about this) that social links do not carry the same significance. Nonetheless, they do have some effect so worth continuing with social media campaigns.
If you pay for advertising on Google, this does not affect your standard search engine rankings (despite persistent rumours to the contrary).
I’ll say it again…the best thing you can do to improve your search engine rankings is to write high quality content that is relevant to your business. To help your readers:
- Structure the content using headings, sub headings and plenty of paragraph breaks
- Highlight the most important content
- Add suitable images
- Link out to other relevant resources
- Keep the language you use straightforward and write in a natural style
If you want to go one step further and make an even bigger difference:
- Get some help with the best phrases to use on your website
- Make sure your site works well on mobiles (and passes Google’s test)
- Make sure your page load times are less than 3 seconds (even on slower 3G mobile connections).
I hope I have been able to show you that the basics of search engine optimisation are not that hard and you don't have to spend a fortune (or anything at all apart from some time) to be able to make a difference. Some simple actions can improve the position your web pages occupy in the search engine results and that is likely to generate more leads for your business.
If you would like to go into much more detail about SEO, there's this Beginner's Guide to SEO. However, if you would like some assistance in any area of search engine visibility, please contact us for a chat.