When it comes to maximising your online presence, search engine results are everything. Every top ranking website appearing in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Page) has been helped by finely tuned SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). It’s no longer enough to simply stuff sites full of keywords or build the most exact-match anchor text backlinks. In today’s customer-focused world, the only way to climb the rankings is to employ thoughtful, intelligent optimisation tactics. And here’s how.Making Search Engines Work for You.
No matter which major search engine is used – Google, Bing or Yahoo – all use intricate algorithms designed to crawl the net using bots that find, fetch and then sort website pages into an index. Trillions of pages are analysed and then the website pages in the index are ranked according to a set of complex criteria – so that what ultimately appears in the SERPs is of the most value to the end user.
From a businesses point of view, in order to get one of the top ranking slots on a search engine results page, it’s important to make sure your website has all the requisite elements these search engines need. And considering Google gets over 2 trillion searches a year worldwide (Source: SearchEngineLand), this type of optimisation involves a number of strategies, methodologies and techniques: all of which are designed to affect a high-ranking placement in the SERPS. Why? It’s simple – the higher up you appear in the results, the more traffic you’ll attract to your website.
Of course, how high up your business appears is dependent upon more than just one issue. Google has over 200 ranking factors that take into account content, user signals, technical, user experience, social and backlink signals (Source: SearchMetrics).
If you’re competing in certain sectors – such as the travel industry or mobile phone arena – then you’re going to be up against aggressive rival organisations all competing to get to the top. However, if your brand or company is more niche or localised, then savvy application of niche and local SEO techniques could catapult you up the SERPs. In order to understand where optimisation is headed, it’s important to see where it’s been.The Evolution of SEO.
To trace SEO back to its origins, we need to return to the birth of the internet itself. The world’s earliest internet site was published by Tim Berners Lee on 6 August 1991.
The first words on the site are worth noting: “The WorldWideWeb (W3) is a wide-area hypermedia information retrieval initiative aiming to give universal access to a large universe of documents.” The description is uncannily prescient when it speaks of a ‘universe of documents’ because, of course, back then there wasn’t the seemingly-infinite body of information available that there is today. But within that explanation is the kernel of something that would soon grow to epic proportions.
As the world wide web took off and more websites filled cyberspace, a need grew to catalogue and organise everything that was ‘out there’. The first search engines were born. Primitive platforms like Archie (1990) and Gopher (1991) emerged. These were quickly followed by Excite, which debuted in 1993, and revolutionised how information was accessed. It sorted results according to content key-words and backend optimisation. Soon after, Yahoo burst onto the scene, followed by Google in 1997 – now so vital to us that it’s become a verb as well as a noun.
During these early days, there was an ‘anything goes’ approach towards SEO, to what is now referred to as 'black hat' SEO techniques; keyword stuffing, hidden text, cloaking, doorway pages, comment spamming, link farms, link wheels etc... which all worked to push sites higher up the rankings.Getting Strict with SEO.
Google soon recognised these tactics which resulted in sometimes poor quality search results. They wanted to connect users to richer, more valuable content. And so algorithm updates began to emerge which eventually blossomed into the search engine we’re familiar with today.
Between 2002 and 2005, there was a concerted clampdown on all these optimisation tactics by the release of many algorithm updates named Google Dance, Boston, Cassandra, Dominic, Esmeralda, Fritz, Florida, Austin, Brandy, Allegra, Bourbon, Gilligan and Jagger (Source:RankRanger). Google wanted brands to earn their rankings, rather than get there using back hat SEO techniques.
It’s during this period that a more personalised approach, based on users’ search histories, began to evolve. Geographical SEO also began to take off – adding value for users by connecting them with local information, such as nearby attractions, maps, store hours and a wealth of other locale-specific material.The Search Experience Evolves.
From around 2006, searches increasingly began to tune into users’ interests, offering a more reactive, engaging experience through features like Google’s Universal Search – a radical approach that blended listings from its video, news, images, local and book search engines with those gathered from crawling web pages.
Previously, Google had begun layering in ‘vertical’ as opposed to merely ‘horizontal’ searches – allowing users to slice down vertically into a specific topic area, rather than trawling sideways through an array of possibly unrelated topics.
So if, for example, somebody wanted to buy new windows for their home, a vertical search would help them hit that more quickly – whereas a horizontal search may throw up unrelated topics e.g. on the Windows operating system. This vertical search was facilitated by links above the search box on Google’s home page, such as ‘Finance’; ‘Images’; ‘News’; ‘Book search’; ‘Video’ etc.
However, many people didn’t notice these tabs or realise what they were for. Universal Search solved this problem by tapping in to several of its vertical search services at once, blending those in with its regular results. Google was becoming increasingly helpful and intuitive.
Then, in 2008, Google Suggest was introduced. Suddenly, Google seemed like a mind reader, displaying search suggestions of relevant terms based on historical and predicted data. Add in Google Trends and Google Analytics, and suddenly you had impressively-targeted optimisation.Quality or Penalty.
By 2010, there was a huge sea-change in SEO philosophy, and brands were forced to earn their ranking-stripes through superior, user-focused content. If they failed to do so, they’d incur penalties.
One of the first to be named and shamed was J.C. Penney who were doing amazingly well in organic, unpaid searches. When the New York Times investigated, it turned out that there were thousands of unrelated websites (some containing only links), all of which hooked back into the J.C. Penney website. For a time, they became ‘website non grata’ to Google, disappearing from the rankings they’d previously taken top billing for.
As well as clamping down on black hat SEO, Google also added new features that made searches more accessible – most notably their Knowledge Graph in 2012. Now often used as a spoken answer in Google searches, this is the helpful summary you see at the top of the page that can often give just enough info that you don’t have to click through to anything else.
Making searches faster and easier still was Google Instant which offered up results with psychic-like accuracy while a query was still being typed.Modern SEO.
Today, businesses and search engines have to tread a fine line between usefulness and privacy. While nobody can argue that precise, targeted, individual-focused content isn’t important, businesses also need to be aware of users’ unease surrounding privacy and invasive marketing techniques.
Google is increasingly personalising results based on location and browsing history etc. On the other hand, this data isn’t necessarily accessible – meaning content needs to work harder. And this means paying close attention to mobile optimisation too. Google's algorithm update in April of 2015 dubbed 'Mobilegddon' by the web development community gives priority to websites that display well on smartphones and other mobile devices.
It’s vital for brands to make sure their site is optimised across various devices with responsive design or a mobile first strategy and quality content.The Importance of SEO for Your Brand.
A site without effective SEO is akin to opening a shop inside your house and not letting anyone know it’s there. All brands need SEO.
In today’s fast-moving world, customers don’t tend to spend time of page 10 of the search results. Statistically, most people don’t look beyond the first page. Many won’t even bother with anything below the fold of the first page. Plus, it’s been shown that people tend to place more trust in companies which rank in the top 3 positions. So it pays for businesses to do everything they can to position themselves at the top of the SERPs.
SEO is another form of advertising. It’s a means for brands to reach customers actively seeking related products or services that are also already in a buying frame of mind.
When it comes to your marketing budget, SEO also increases your sales without proportionately increasing your marketing spend, converting more customers at a lower cost than traditional advertising. This means you’ll see your profits grow exponentially and over time – making SEO an indispensable tool in ensuring an impressive ROI. Factor in that every element of your SEO can also be evaluated and corrected continuously, and this will enable you to pin down your ROI with impressive accuracy.
Finally, a well optimised site attracts more footfall. And since all traffic is tracked by Google Analytics, this gives businesses invaluable information about customers’ locations, searches, online behaviour, interests and more. Once you have this information, it’s then possible to develop a finely-tuned and targeted website that enhances the customer-experience.Striving for Greatness.
Having seen what SEO can do for a brand, it’s important to bear in mind that not all SEO is created equal. Merely having a site that’s optimised and SEO friendly isn’t nearly enough – not by a long shot.
In order to truly win with the search engines, your content has to be outstanding. According to a June 2015 report from Ascend2, 72% of marketers worldwide said relevant content creation was their most effective SEO tactic. The reason content is king is because, in true stately fashion, it enables you to dominate. The top spot on Google SERPs gets 34.4% of all clicks. Number 2 gets 12.5%, with spot 3 getting 9.5%. After that it declines rapidly. This alone illustrates that even good SEO may not be enough, and if you want to become front of mind for potential customers, you need content that’s outstanding.Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird, Pigeon.
Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird and Pigeon – are algorithms which have, individually and over time, had a huge impact on SEO. The rationale behind each has been to edge site developers towards rich content in place of mere links or keywords.
When Panda first launched in 2011, it gave us a clue as to where the future of SEO was headed. The purpose behind it was to feature high-quality content sites at the top of the SERPS, while demoting lower-quality sites. Here was an algorithm that was all about excellence.
In order to fare well with Panda, it’s essential to meet certain credentials:
- Does your website feature expert articles that are in-depth in detail?
- Is the information on your site trustworthy and authoritative?
- Is the website professionally presented, without spelling errors or factual errors?
- Does your site avoid duplicate content or similar articles?
- Does your site feature original articles, analysis or research?
- Is your written content well edited and well written?
- Would users gain something from your site?
The list goes on – but what it makes clear is that there was a distinct move towards rewarding sites that were original, professional and well-researched. In a nutshell, those that provided visitors with a first-rate user experience.
The good news is that Google refreshes the Panda algorithm each month – so every 28 days or so, there’s a new opportunity to iron out mistakes and ensure you hit the top spot.
In addition to Panda, Penguin, which launched in 2012, stomped down on using fake backlinks to edge up the Google ratings. There is huge value in a well-respected website linking to yours – and the more authentic, natural links you can gain, the better you’ll fare in Google rankings. But if smaller, weaker sites link, it now won’t count for as much. As for fake backlinks, that’ll just incur penalties.
Then came Hummingbird in 2013 – a complete overhaul of the Google algorithm. The main goal of Hummingbird is to better interpret users’ queries. That’s the end result – but what it means for companies is that they should be creating content that’s of high-value and which answers peoples’ queries, needs or wants, rather than just trying to rank for specific keywords.
The interesting thing about Hummingbird – and its impact on SEO – is that this isn’t just about Google’s trust in a website or quashing underhand practices any more. Instead, it’s all about content. Websites need to become even more thorough in producing relevant, informative content.
2014 saw the release of what we call the Pigeon update. Its aim is to provide more accurate and relevant information regarding local searches. It also effected the search results shown in Google Maps as well as the regular Google search results.Future-proof Your SEO Strategy.
The personalisation of SEO is becoming increasingly important now that more of us own smart tech and always-on gadgets that connect us permanently to the web.
Google Image Search also tells us that people want to be able to browse not just textually but visually too. So it’s worth experimenting with visual content media. You want to reach customers in every conceivable way – and that means making content accessible across all devices and via a range of search options – be it mobile, local, photo or voice-enabled.
The time you put into your website now will pay dividends in the future. Be smart, be ethical, be informative, be relevant. But, most of all, be what your customers want and need you to be.
If you are looking for rapid growth and you are also the very best in the world at what you do, passionate, full of energy and bold or a captain of industry of a leading or seriously ambitious challenger business or brand - get in touch to find out more ›