A week ago I knew nothing about SEO… here’s what I’ve learned.

About twelve years ago I built a few websites; mostly for myself, but also a few for small businesses and family friends. These were the days when the search market was split between sites like Yahoo!, AltaVista, WebCrawler, Ask Jeeves, Excite, Lycos and of course Google; when dial-up connections ruled the world and marquee text and frames were (almost) acceptable parts of website design. After a few years my interests changed and I didn’t have as much time to spend on developing websites.

Recently I was given the opportunity to start in the role of SEO Assistant at VroomVroomVroom. It’s been a long time since I was au fait with the world of website development and search engines, but my love of technology and background in marketing meant that I wasn’t going to turn this exciting opportunity down. The task given to me for the first week was to research SEO and learn as much as possible… and boy, was I in for a shock!

I thought I knew the basics of SEO. I was wrong. The landscape of search has changed so much in the last ten or so years. Even my Luddite mother knows that Google has a tight grip on the search market these days, however what I didn’t realise was how much SEO has changed in that time. Apparently keywords in meta tags no longer matter, and submitting your website to be added to search engines is a thing of the past. Content is king now, and the search engines focus on the end-user, not on the webmaster. This was a whole new world for me to discover, and here’s what I found:

    • SEO is hugely important to the success of a website. The top three results on the search engine results page (SERP) attract nearly 60% of the clicks. If you can manage to get your website to rank in the top results for your desired keywords, it will mean a huge increase in the number of visitors (potential customers).
    • Search indexing and ranking is a lot smarter than it used to be. Search engines like Google display sites they believe are authoritative and relevant, higher up in the search results. They measure relevance by analysing page content, and they measure authority (mostly) based on the number and quality of other pages linking to the pages they show. Links are like votes.
    • Instead of using the old <META> keywords tags in the code of websites, search engines send out “crawlers” (also known as “spiders” or “robots”) that read the content on web pages, and scour the content of each page for keywords. Search engines like Google actually use machine learning, and these crawlers can even tell the difference between content that is relevant and has been written by a human, and a page simply stuffed full of keywords to try and rank higher in search results. They also pay attention to the layout of the page, and will rank keywords depending on where they appear on the page. Certain things like number of links can also affect results.
    • Whilst the technical side of SEO is very important (after all, if the search engines can’t read your site, then nothing else matters), content is king when it comes to search engine rankings. Search engines these days are geared towards the end user and what they want, rather than just organising websites by keywords.
    • Content needs to be well written and contain keywords and phrases that users will search for. However, due to recent Google updates (Panda and Penguin), rankings are penalised for anything that looks like it was written specifically to improve search rankings (i.e. link spamming). At the end of the day, content should be useful and relevant, and something that keeps users coming back. Regular updates are important for SEO as well. Search algorithms like “FreshRank” test to see how recent/up-to-date the contents of the page are, and will rank more recently updated pages higher (depending on the topic). Blog posts are a good way to keep content updated on a regular basis.
  • In addition to content (which provides the keywords for search), the ranking of pages can be affected by links to and from external websites. Google terms this “PageRank”. Each time your website is linked to by an external site, your PageRank increases. The more trust or respect a website has, the more weight their links will hold (e.g. if your website is linked to by Wikipedia or the New York Times, those links will increase your PageRank a lot more than a link from someone’s personal blog). Building links is an important part of SEO, however building the wrong links can be detrimental to your website’s ranking. If the links coming to or from your website are low-ranking or untrustworthy sites (e.g. known for spam) then your ranking on the SERP will decrease.

So really at the end of the day, modern SEO is all about creating your website with the end-user in mind. You need to provide content that is fresh and relevant, and provides value to the user. Not only will it help you rank better in search results, but it will keep the users coming back! Search engines are getting a lot smarter, and with machine learning they’re becoming more “human-like” in their assessment of websites. Page layout should also be built with the customer in mind, not aimed specifically at trying to rank higher in search engines. Panda and Penguin could spell the beginning of the end in terms of black-hat SEO techniques, which can only be a good thing for both the customer and the legitimate business website.

What I’ve learned about SEO in the last week could really be boiled down into two important points:

  1. Build your website with the customer in mind.
  2. SEO is a constantly changing field. If you’re out of the loop, then you’ll quickly fall behind. Keep up to date by reading industry websites and blogs. A few of my favourites are:

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