Search engines are something we use every day, but how they work is often misunderstood and surrounded in ambiguity. Everyone is familiar with the basic idea: users go to a search engine looking for something, the search engine recommends sites that contain information or products relevant to the search, the user clicks on the search result and, hopefully, finds exactly what they were looking for. Only it’s not that easy because there are hundreds of other sites that contain similar information or products. So how does a search engine know what order to display the results in? This is done by using a complex algorithm that analyzes different bits of information — things computers can quantitate — across many different websites to create an ordered list of results in just fractions of a second.
As a business owner, naturally you want people to visit your website, and in a time when people will rarely even bother with the second page of search results, the higher your business appears in the list of search results, the more likely it is to get clicked on. So in a sea of other websites all competing for the coveted first page, how do you make sure search engines rank your site ahead of your competition?
There are two main strategies for improving your search ranking. The first is SEO, or search engine optimization, which pertains to optimizing your website content to match the search engine algorithm’s criteria for ranking. The second method is paid digital advertising, usually in the form of pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns, where you pay the search engine to display your website in search results that match your chosen keywords. Two vastly different approaches for the same end goal: increased visibility through inclusion on the coveted first page of search results.
Your next question might be how do I get started? How does it all work? Do I only need to use one strategy or both? To answer these questions, you will first need to understand a little about how paid and organic traffic work and the criteria that will determine your success with each.
In this first article of a three-part series, we will dive deeper into organic traffic. Be sure to check back for the follow-up articles which will cover paid search and frequently asked questions about inbound traffic.
Search engine algorithms evaluate every website to know where to rank them when a search is conducted. They do this by scanning a massive amount of information in addition to looking at several different factors to determine the quality or trustworthiness of your site. Some of these factors are known to the public, but some are kept under wraps by the search engine companies. At one point, a website’s Google PageRank score was accessible, however this is no longer the case. In order to get a read on where a website stands, we now have to look to third-party tools; the most common being Moz.com’s “Domain Authority” score which is meant to replicate the way Google and other search engines evaluate domains and assign a score from 0-100, with 100 being the strongest. Keep in mind that this tool is only a recreation of the grading scale, not an official Google metric, and it’s important to look at other factors outside of just domain authority when tracking SEO progress.
But what do search engines actually look at when determining a website’s page rank? As previously mentioned, nobody knows for sure all of the criteria utilized by a search engine’s algorithm (other than those that created it), but we do know the main factors taken into consideration. There are hundreds of different on-page and off-page factors that are weighed as part of your overall domain standing and this article would quickly turn into a novel if we tried to cover them all. So here are the most important and impactful to keep in mind when building or optimizing a website:
Site speed – How many times have you clicked a link to a site and then given up due to long load times? Users on search engines are looking for information quickly and have little to no tolerance for laggy web pages. It’s a no brainer that faster load speeds equal a better site experience for your visitors, so getting your load speeds minimized will help you significantly.
Mobile optimization – It’s no secret that mobile devices are the future of web usage. Their popularity continues to rise every year and has now left desktops in the dust. With mobile devices responsible for the majority of all internet traffic worldwide, we can see why it is so important to have your website optimized for mobile browsing above all else. Making sure your content scales to different screen sizes correctly, having navigation that is simple and easy to use with a touch screen, and using visible font colors/sizes are all best practices to ensure a site is considered to be “mobile-friendly.”
Crawlability – Search engines like Google can only rank your site if they can access it and the necessary information it needs. They do this by regularly “crawling” your website, analyzing all the content, text, photos, etc. Sometimes certain pages cannot be crawled due to trouble locating the page, it being blocked, or a number of other issues. It is recommended to integrate the Google Search Console with a site and upload the sitemap or site index to make it more accessible for crawling. This is basically a roadmap of your website that tells the search engines all the pages that you would like to be scanned.
Keyword Usage – Search engine algorithms are not human; they cannot think critically, but they do understand data. When you write a blog post, every word is a piece of data a search algorithm will compare to other content across the web and then form an “understanding.” Think of keywords like little clues for search engines about the subject of a website’s content. For the individual pages of a site, a good practice is to choose a target keyword and then integrate that keyword throughout the page including in the title, headline, URL, body text and meta tags, including using different variations and long-tail keywords. Another good practice is to avoid “keyword stuffing” as it can actually cause more harm to your ranking than good.
Backlinks – Another way search engines gather information about a website is by looking at the site’s inbound links or “backlinks,” which are other web domains that have linked to a page on your site. Because domain authority is shared when there is a link between two sites, having inbound links from a site with a good page rank and overall SEO standing will help, while links from sites with poor standings can have a negative impact. Building a healthy number of site links takes time and is not always easy, but the best practice is to focus on getting links from domains that operate or deal in the same industry, preferably for a few years or more, and to avoid links from sites with excessive spam, pop-ups, non-relevant content, or sites under one year old.
Content – The last and single most important factor on this list is the actual content of a website. Simply put, the value of a website is directly related to the content it publishes. If it has something unique that no one else has, that makes it more valuable because it cannot be found anywhere else. Always think about the customers/visitors that will be reading the content and write the same way that they talk. This means avoiding overly technical language or sacrificing the overall readability of text just to have a lot of keywords. Focus on making content as unique and informative to the reader as possible and don’t be afraid to make it longer-form; search engines prefer content that is over 700 words because it contains more information to process. One more thing to keep in mind is that search engines are a bit omniscient as they have indexed every piece of content ever published online, so never plagiarize or duplicate content — even if it’s from your own website — or it will have a negative effect on the site ranking. Blogs and news sections are a great way to keep a consistent stream of fresh content coming to a site, but text isn’t the only way to add value. Photos and video content is also taken into account by search engine algorithms. When it comes to content, every new bit of material will help move a website’s rank in the right direction.