SEO for Beginners, in Plain English
Quick question: What is SEO? If you answered “keywords and links,” you were about 30% right. There’s a lot more to SEO than keywords and links these days. Here is an explanation, in plain English, about SEO, what it involves, and why it matters.
What is Search?
When you do a search on Google, Bing, or Yahoo, are you searching the web?
What you are actually searching is Google’s (or Bing’s, or Yahoo’s) INDEX of the web. But mostly, you’re worried about Google. Why? Because Google represents 80% of all search engine traffic. Next comes Yahoo with 9.5% of search traffic, Bing with 8.5% of search traffic, and everyone else makes up the final 2%.
Google, Bing, Yahoo etc. Only Care About Being the Best Search Engine
When visitors type a query into a search box and land on your site, will they be satisfied with what they find? This is what SEO is all about. The search engines are each competing to be the best search engine, and that means if they send someone to your site, that someone better be happy with the results!
Did you know that the search engines measure the amount of time you spend at each link? They call this engagement metrics. Imagine you conduct a search for “cotton kid’s pajamas.” In less than a second, Google et al. return pages of links. You click the first link on the page. Instead of cotton, you see ugly polyester pajamas. You immediately hit the back button . . . and Google et al. track that. The search engines are looking for the long click, which tends to indicate you found what you wanted and you stayed there. That’s why it’s so important that you have the right words, phrases, and headlines on each page of your website. Because the search engines are tracking how happy customers are when they get to your page relative to their search inquiry.
How Indexes Are Built – It’s About Links
The search engines send their little indexing robots all over the web, looking for content. Once they find your site, they start following the links in your site, indexing each page as they go. Imagine that they land on the home page and index all the content on that page, then follow a link in the main menu to a new page. On the new page they create a new index, then find a submenu with links to more pages, index those pages then follow links to even more pages, and so on.
What are they indexing when they stop on each page? Your words! Your copy, headlines, product descriptions, and meta descriptions.
Throughout this process, these digital robots are creating a diagram of your website. It looks like a mind-map, with each little “stop” along way containing information (the index) that someone, somewhere may search for. All the connections from all the links show how each page links to each other. The search robots also show where the links pointing to other sites go, and they track the links coming into your site from other websites! As you can imagine, there are millions and millions of links to map and maintain, and the search engine companies deploy thousands of computers in locations all around the world to manage these indexes.
We See Pictures and Videos. Search Engines Don’t
Of course, websites don’t “look” the same to the search engines as they do to you and me. For example, you can see a company logo that’s part of a picture – an image file. But the search engine can only “see” the name of the image file! If that file is named PIC0105.jpg, it means nothing to the search engine. So if your company name and/or logo are buried in a picture file, the search engines can’t “see” them and won’t index them. If you’ve ever entered a picture into a website and you’ve seen the line for “alt text” or “description,” that’s what it’s about! The “alt text/description” enables the search engines to “see” the picture. So if you’re one of those people who thought the “alt text” was just there for people whose pictures wouldn’t load, well, now you know the real reason why. Bet you’ll never skip an “alt text” again!
What are These Key Words and Key Phrases
To understand key words and key phrases, you have to think about how people search the internet. There are a lot of different ways. The owner of SupportWerx (Andrea Hill) always says, “You don’t need all the customers, you just need the right customers.” And this is true in search as well. You don’t need everybody searching for everything. If you’re a jewelry store, you don’t even need everybody searching for jewelry. Why attract a person looking for copper skull pendants if you don’t sell them?
In order to get the right customers to your site, you have to think about who your customers are, and what they are searching for. If you have a physical retail store, start writing down everything people come in the store asking for, because they’re “searching!”
- Do you have jewelry to celebrate a baptism?
- Do you have rings for small children?
- Do you have natural colored diamonds?
- Do you carry anything with alexandrite?
If your customers ask you questions like that, and you have products that meet those needs, those would be excellent search terms on your website as well.
Another way to find good search words and search terms is to look at your pages, articles, and products and ask yourself, “if I was looking for this item, what words would I use to search for it?”
There are also terrific tools for looking up search terms. Not surprisingly, they’re all by Google.
- Google’s Keyword Planner: https://adwords.google.com/KeywordPlanner
- Google Trends: https://www.google.com/trends/
Entire books have been written on search terms, so we’re not going to go into this any deeper here.
Except for this.
Styles change, consumers evolve, demand shifts . . . why would your key words and key phrases remain the same? Key words and key phrases — and therefore, your copy, headlines, and product descriptions — should be reviewed over time to make sure your website is still presenting its best face to the public — and the search engines. If you have a key word or phrase that is bringing you lots of traffic, obviously don’t change it! But you will always have the opportunity to highlight other key words and phrases on your website, and some of those could become hot performers too.
Keep it up-to-date
It’s not news that technology evolves very quickly on the internet. But did you know that this evolution has a direct impact on the perceived quality of your site? If you created your site in WordPress version 1.0, and you haven’t updated it since, then you’re missing out on much of the SEO benefit that has been built into WordPress with every subsequent release — and this is true for every website platform. Worse yet, if you’re still using a custom website built in 2005, your code is still in the dark ages. When sites get outdated due to failure to develop new content, failure to keep up with technology (or both), the search engines devalue the site, and eventually you disappear from results.
The other problem with operating on outdated code, or even being behind just two or three releases, is that hackers keep finding ways to hack sites. All the website platforms respond to new threats by releasing updates. If your website gets hacked — which is really easy to do if your code is outdated — the search engines will flag your site as dangerous and will act quickly to stop showing it in search results. You definitely don’t want that.
The Rest is for Your Website Developer
There is a laundry-list of things your website developer can do to help . . . or hurt! . . . your website’s SEO performance. Your website developer isn’t just responsible for making your website work for the users; she’s also responsible for making your website work for the search engines. Everything from the way your menus are constructed to submitting your site maps (what?) to the search engines (and a lot of other things too) matter if you want to achieve first-page search results.
When you work with your website developer, or when you’re interviewing a new website developer, ask them what they are doing or will do to maximize your search engine visibility. Their list should include things like:
- Ensuring all content is indexable content or has provisions for making the content indexable (i.e., “alt text” for images, and a place for transcripts for audio and video).
- Crawlable link structures
- No frames or iframes, or at least the programming necessary to make frames and iframes indexable
- Places for title tags
- Well constructed URL structures
- Controls for duplicate content (if they use the word canonical, they’re probably handling duplicate content correctly)
- Rich snippets
- Page feeds (RSS and XML)
Did that all look like Russian to you? You’re not alone. But those things are very important to SEO, so it’s important that your web designer be able to talk with you about them and assure you that she is using the best SEO techniques in constructing your site.
So. That’s enough for today about SEO. If you understand what we shared in this article, you will understand more about SEO than almost everyone except SEO professionals. And you’ll be more prepared to manage your website – and your support professionals – to achieve better search engine rankings.