Here’s the deal
If you’re a business owner, marketer, blogger, or web developer you need to know about SEO or you’ll eventually find yourself living in a van down by the river. (Newbies under the age of 30: Google that pop culture reference and enhance your life with a quality history lesson.) Those who ignore the value of SEO will be less likely to compete in business in the 21st century. Period. That’s why you should care.
Wondering what SEO stands for? It stands for Search Engine Optimization.
Carry on about your day. Check your Twitter feed to see how many follow-backs you have now.
Do you care yet?
If not, you might want to check Craigslist for that van.
Want to know more?
Are you committed to learning about SEO for the sake of your job security, your business, and your tech savvy-ness?
Then let’s dive in.
Search engines are your connection to the rest of the world.
Talk nicely to them or they’ll leave you in isolation somewhere in Siberia or floating outside the Earth’s atmosphere like George Clooney in Gravity. You probably know them better by their proper names: Google, Bing, and Yahoo!. They’re like the mom for lost items belonging to teenagers, a metal detector in the hands of a scrawny nerd on the beach, the treasure map for greedy pirates, or a Kardashian for gossip columnists. They help you find what you’re looking for.
There’s a lot of technical jargon and complicated math formulas that go into how search engines work. I don’t expect you to understand all of that. Nobody really does. Google is like the mafia: “We could tell you, but then we’d have to kill you.” What you need to focus on is providing search engines a path of least resistance. You need to help them read and understand your website. You need to become a search engine whisperer. That’s what I mean by optimization: doing everything in your power to make your website as friendly as possible (read: optimally friendly) to search engines.
How To Optimize For Search Engines
There are two basic ways to optimize for search engines: on-page optimization and off-page optimization. See? It’s as simple as on and off.
- On-page optimization involves to the things on your website you can control:
- Meta descriptions
Let’s briefly walk through each one by using an example. Pretend we work for a company that manufactures and sells Xaggles (an imaginary hipster fashion item I just made up).
Think of content as a means of wooing search engines to your site. It’s your website’s version of pick-up lines in a singles’ bar, beckoning the search engines with a flirtatious “How you doin’?”
You can control what your website says about Xaggles. That’s your content. In the same way that you control what words come out of your mouth (most of the time anyway), you control what words are on your website.
This is where keyword research (a discussion for another day) comes into play. As experts on Xaggles, we want to produce fresh, unique content about how Xaggles benefit customers and why everybody needs one (or more) in their wardrobe if they don’t want to lose their hipster designation. The content can be text on various pages on the website, it can be blog posts, or both.
Think of content as a means of wooing search engines to your site. It’s your website’s version of pick-up lines in a singles’ bar, beckoning the search engines with a flirtatious “How you doin’?” Content allows you to wax eloquent and use your beatnik tendencies for good. Ideally, you’ll get so good at content that you’ll convince prospects like Google to stalk you. The process is both flattering and creepy. You want Big Brother to watch you. (That’s a literary reference you should have learned in high school. If nothing else, this post is helping you become more well-rounded.)
You can also control what images you put on your site. Use clear, professional looking photographs or designs to help site visitors get a clear idea of what Xaggles look like. Aim for the quality of images you want to see on Tinder, not the quality of images you put on Tinder. But let’s keep it clean, please. This post needs to hover around a PG to PG-13 rating.
Search engine optimization comes in with how you name the image files and what alt text you use for those images. For example, you don’t want to upload a file named DSC9873. Instead, save the file as “neon Xaggle” or “beach Xaggle”. Search engines don’t (yet) incorporate the content of a picture without being told to do so. Tell them in the file names. This is what I meant when I said we’re making the site easier for search engines to understand.
Note: search engines won’t read text in an image either, so that fancy word art overlay you created may look worthy of an art gallery exhibit, but if Google isn’t blatantly told what it says, you wasted valuable time (at least as it pertains to SEO).
You know those people in your life who you have certain impressions of that you would never verbalize but that consistently linger on the edge your subconscious…?!
Like images, any videos of how to accessorize Xaggles, how Xaggles are made, or any other hipster video on the site needs to be optimized. Search engines won’t watch videos to figure out what they’re about so you have to spell it out in text. If you use a YouTube player, explain the contents of the video in the description on YouTube and provide an embedded YouTube link on your site so the search engine knows to go to YouTube where it can read the text description. Simply speaking, Big Brother Google relies on spoilers to understand the plot line of any movie.
For a more detailed discussion about optimizing non-text elements on your website, Moz has a great post on optimizing for accessibility.
The titles (and the corresponding URLs) you use for the various pages of your website matter, too. As fun as it is to use humor to label pages things like Xagglemania or Get Xaggled, search engines don’t understand our made-up words. Use titles like Where To Find Xaggles or Xaggle Locations instead.
You know those people in your life who you have certain impressions of that you would never verbalize but that consistently linger on the edge your subconscious–thoughts that immediately come to mind when someone mentions that person’s name? Those thoughts are meta descriptions. (HT to my co-worker James C. for that ingenious analogy.)
When you search for something in Google and the results page shows up, some of the results have a brief description of what the site is about below the URL link. That’s the meta description and it’s something you can control on your website (but probably not in your subconscious).
If your website is on a WordPress platform, install the Yoast SEO plug-in. (It’s free!)
You can then edit the page and add your own meta description for the search engines to read. For Xaggles the home page meta description might read: Xaggles are the next hipster fashion trend. Discover various styles, shapes, and sizes. Find out where to get yours and be on the cutting edge of hipster fashion. This tells searchers and search engines what type of information they’ll find on the site and includes the keywords “hipster fashion” so Big Brother Google knows how to categorize the information.
The meta description is a key factor in helping people decide whether to click on your site on something else in the results. Notice that the wikiHow meta description in the screenshot trails off and doesn’t really create a sense of intrigue. Does that make you want to visit the site, or does it make you think the site is droning on or falling asleep mid-sentence? The meta description for Complex is more intriguing. Who doesn’t want to know how to identify a hipster by their clothes?
I have a confession. I hate map apps. I don’t trust them. They mean well, but they’ve misdirected me one too many times for the relationship to go beyond the friend zone. I gave up when they didn’t take me where I wanted to go. I’ve drafted a letter to my congressman about the whole thing.
Has that ever happened to you? If so, you have a general idea of how search engines feel on a website with complicated navigation. At some point they just give up and go somewhere else.
Think of your website pages as a flowchart with the home page at the top, the tabs as the next level, and any links from those subcategories as a third level, etc. Ideally the search engine won’t have to descend more than two or three levels to get to all of the content on your site. They don’t like to crawl very deep unless your site is a super high-authority site like cnn.com or nytimes.com. Search engines are shallow and superficial like that.
Crosslinks are the links from one page of your site to another page on your site. For example, on our Xaggle blog we have a post about how Xaggle participated in a charity event for the local children’s hospital by donating a bunch of artsy things for a silent auction. In the context of that post we mention the company’s founder, so we linked to his bio page on the site. We also mentioned a specific Xaggle product, so we linked to that product page, too.
These crosslinks make it easier for Big Brother Google to recognize the various connections on the site and better understand how things are interrelated. Remember that flow chart we talked about? The link lines between pages should make the site structure look more like a spider web than a government bureaucracy. Even the search engines knows bureaucracies are lame.
For a more advanced discussion about On-Page SEO, check out what Brian Dean at Backlinko has to say.
Even the search engines knows bureaucracies are lame.
Off-Page Optimization: Backlinks
Now that you understand what you can control for SEO, let’s talk about what you can influence but not control. Backlinks (a.k.a. external links or inbound links) are links to your site from other websites. Think of them as friends putting in a good word for you with that girl you’re trying to woo. The closer the friend and the girl happen to be, the better your chances. (In case you didn’t learn about personification in English class either, let me translate for you. Search engines are the girl, you’re the woo-er, and the friends are the backlinks. You good now?)
For example, if hipster.us (not an actual site at the writing of this article) posted an article about trendy fashion and mentioned the Xaggles brand with an embedded link back to the Xaggle homepage, that would be considered a backlink. Search engines like backlinks because it makes them think your site is relevant, popular, and authoritative in your industry.
There’s a catch, though.
You can’t just get a bajillion backlinks from the same website domain without it throwing up a red flag for Google. Similarly, if you use sketchy techniques to get backlinks (like spammy comments, Private Blog Networks, or bribes), Google has a tendency to penalize your site in the rankings. That may seem harsh to a generation of people who consider discipline to be an infringement on their self-esteem. In reality, Google does this to level the playing field. This way the tiny business two college kids start in their garage has the same chance of ranking as the giant corporation who could afford to buy thousands of backlinks.
The jury is still out on the absolute best practices for acquiring backlinks, but one thing you can do is link all of your social media profiles to the website. There’s no proof Google considers that in the rankings, but there’s no proof that they don’t. In other words, it couldn’t hurt.
Backlinks are like arrows that point traffic (and search engines) to your website. You can try to earn them with favors (buying your friend a beer to talk to the girl) or by becoming an expert in your field (getting her attention with your awesome nunchuck skills), or you can politely ask for them (Remember middle school when you would beg a friend to ask the girl if she liked you?), but ultimately you can’t control whether or not another website will link to yours. Relationships are tricky.
Look for a future post about practical tips for getting backlinks.
Now you know what SEO is. Now you know what Search Engine Optimization looks like. Now you know the difference between on-page and off-page optimization. You’re one step closer to being a tech-savvy, online marketing hipster who sets trends by wearing Xaggles and understands literary allusions.
Maybe, just maybe, if you apply what you’ve learned, you won’t find yourself in a van down by the river for a few more years.
If, after reading this gold mine of information, you realize you’re going to need help to keep from becoming a van dweller, let our SEO team lend a hand. Shoot me an email (Tiffany [at] ArdentCreative [dot] com) or leave a comment below.
As a parting gift, here’s a motivational speech to get you going.Motivational Speaker