What Is Search Engine Optimization?

Any site owner can confirm that getting people to visit a website can often be much harder than actually building one, especially with all the specialized tools available on the modern Web. And for many webmasters, organic search traffic (i.e. visitors that come naturally from Google’s search results pages) is considered something akin to a holy grail, for two important reasons.

Firstly, you don’t have to pay for every click, and secondly – such users come to your website after explicitly searching for a specific word or phrase, which uncovers their current intent. The latter is a very strong factor determining how actively your visitors can be expected to engage with your page, performing the actions you want them to perform, from reading and sharing your content to following your recommendations and buying your products.

However, for all its advantages, organic traffic can be notoriously hard to obtain – and even harder to retain – in a consistent fashion. This is where SEO comes in, as a set of strategies intended to improve a webpage’s search positions for specific keywords.

Does SEO Still Work?

Successful search engine optimization used to be quite different (and arguably much less complicated) back in the day – there was a time when it was sufficient to repeat the necessary word as many times as possible on a page for higher rankings – or leave several hundred comments on various forums linking to your website.

Google’s algorithms have been evolving constantly, though, and most of the techniques that virtually guaranteed a ranking boost ten years ago not only stopped working, but can actually hurt your organic traffic in the long term.

A logical question arises in this respect: do any of the optimization techniques still bring positive results at all?

While Google is becoming more and more “intelligent”, it still remains an algorithm, which means it needs some parameters to use in its ranking decisions – it can’t just rank search results randomly in hopes of staving off any manipulation.

What this means is that SEO will always remain relevant, by its definition as “optimization for the factors that are used for search results rankings” – what has changed is the actions that constitute such “optimization”. In order to determine which tactics might be called modern-day SEO, we’ll need to understand the search engines’ point of view first.

In Google’s Shoes

Before we begin, one quick side note: you’ve probably noticed that we are using “Google” as a synonym for “search engines” at large in this guide. This is not a coincidence: according to various sources like Statista and NetMarketShare, Google accounts for more than 80% of the global search market, and up to 95% of the entire desktop search traffic in such major countries as Brazil and India.

Such near-monopolistic position forces other competitors like Yahoo and Bing to emulate the leader, effectively giving Google the power to drive the entire search engine market, which is why we will be focusing on it throughout the article, just like most SEO professionals do in their day-to-day activities.

In its mission statement, the company says that its goal is to:

organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful

While this is a worthy undertaking benefitting all of humanity etc, one should not forget the primary cash machine that allows Google to exist: its enormous pay-per-click advertising business called AdWords (generating almost all of the $90 billion of the search giant’s 2016 revenues). This means two things:

  1. If there’s a way to consistently influence one’s rankings, people will buy fewer ads (why pay for each click when you can invest a fixed amount of money and time to get free clicks?)
  2. Even though ads are what matters for Google, search results should still be of high quality, since people will stop using the search engine if they aren’t; fewer users, in turn, will put the ad revenues under jeopardy, which Google understandably wouldn’t enjoy.

From this, we can go on and deduce, with a fair degree of confidence, some of the engine’s preferences with respect to organizing its search results.

Things Google Likes

In order for people to keep using the search engine (and for Google to earn its advertising profits), the results it generates in response to people’s search queries should possess one paramount property: they should be useful. In other words, people want to be able to find whatever they were looking for, and the faster – the better.

Google can’t (yet) ask its users directly if they like what they see in the search results, so it has to resort to indirect methods of determining the quality of a page with respect to a specific search phrase. There are two parts to this assessment: the page’s quality (the on-site SEO factors) and the page’s authority (often called off-site SEO factors).

When gauging the quality of a particular web page, search engines look at all measurable parameters they can lay their hands on:

Originality – a page’s value to the users is higher when its content is unique rather than taken from somewhere else, as simple as that. While original content is very unlikely to earn you high rankings on its own, plagiarizing is a sure way down the rankings and even to a penalty bench.

Substance – while there’s no hard rule that says “less text on a page is bad for SEO”, you should consider if your visitors would appreciate a deeper discussion of the topic at hand rather than a few superficial sentences. If that is likely to be the case, make sure your content is as substantial and well-researched as possible.

Usability – how long a visitor spends on your website is often a good indicator of its usefulness; time spent on a page, in turn, is heavily influenced by how easy it is to use it, including layout, navigation, and design. Making sure your website looks professional and adheres to UX (user experience) best practices is crucial in optimizing for better search rankings.

Speed – digital devices have made us all quite impatient with their immediate-feedback interfaces; according to Google, more than half of smartphone users abandon a web page if it takes more than 3 seconds to load. To rephrase that: the faster a page loads, the better for the user – which, in turn, means that load time is very likely to be one of Google’s ranking factors, especially for pages accessed via mobile devices (since many people browse the web on metered mobile plans and fixed mobile internet usage limits or even pay per megabyte).

Our dedicated on-page SEO guide covers the above items in more detail, including practical advice on how to make the most out of each parameter and maximize your page’s chances of better search rankings.

Moving on to the authority metrics, this is where Google estimates how trustworthy a page is based on other websites’ actions. In plain terms, off-page SEO is mostly about third-party resources linking out to your pages: if such a link looks genuine, it tells search engines that other websites appreciate your content.

The more authority you gather through incoming links from other trusted websites, the higher your chances for top search rankings.

Things Google Doesn’t Like

While it’s quite obvious that the opposites of the things described above are red flags for search engines, it’s still useful to quickly review the behaviours that are detrimental to search rankings:

Low quality – Google’s algorithms are constantly improving, i.e. getting better and better at spotting unoriginal, superficial, difficult to use, or offensive content. Such pages don’t stand a chance of ranking high in search results, and sometimes even ranking at all.

Bad company – if your immediate “web surroundings”, i.e. sites that link to you and the ones you link to, are of dubious quality and reputation, your chances of higher rankings might suffer as well. And while you can’t control who links to your website, it is possible to take action if you spot any shady inbound links: by uploading a disavow list in the Google Webmaster Console you can tell the search engine which of your backlinks you don’t want it to consider.

Manipulation – while there’s nothing bad in improving your website for the sake of getting higher rankings, outright gaming the algorithm has never been something Google was particularly fond of. Add to that the fact that it’s becoming ever more sophisticated and eagle-eyed, and it’s clear that the risks involved hardly make it a worthwhile strategy to pursue.

Over to You

Search engine optimization is no hard science – rather a soft skill that can be improved by involving common sense and collecting as much experience as possible. In case you’ve got some interesting stories to share, or have questions about the topics covered in this guide, let us know in the comments section below!

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