One area of expertise that I’ve focused my marketing on over the last two decades is search engine optimization (SEO). In recent years, I’ve avoided classifying myself as an SEO consultant, though, because it has some negative connotations with it that I would like to avoid. I’m often in conflict with other SEO professionals because they tend to focus on algorithms over search engine users. I’ll touch base on that later in the article.
What Is A Search Engine?
In its simplest definition, a search engine is simply a tool to find a relevant resource on the Internet. Search engines index and store your site’s public information and use complex algorithms to rank and reveal what they believe is the appropriate result back to the search engine user.
What Are The Most Popular Search Engines?
In the United States, the most popular search engines are:
|Search Engine||Market Share|
One search engine that’s missing here is YouTube. By volume, YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world, although all it is indexing is video content on its own platform. However, it’s a property that should not be overlooked since so many users use it to search for products, services, how-tos, and other information.
TIP: Many SEO practitioners are always looking at Google since they dominate the market. That doesn’t mean that an audience you wish to reach isn’t on another search engine that you could easily focus on and rank for though. Don’t be dismissive of these other search engines… who still get tens of millions of queries a day on them.
How Do Search Engines Find and Index Your Pages?
- The search engine has to know that you exist. They can discover your site through a link on another website, you can register your site via their search console, or you can do what’s known as a ping where you notify the search engine of your site. Most major content management systems typically support pinging search engines nowadays.
- The search engine must be notified that your content has changed or been updated. Search engines have some standards that they deploy for this.
- Robots.txt – a root text file in your hosting environment will tell the search engines what they should and should not crawl on your site.
- XML Sitemaps – one or often a series of connected XML files are automatically published by your content management system that shows the search engines every page available and the last time it was updated.
- Index or Noindex – your pages can individually have header status codes that notify the search engine of whether they should or should not index the page.
The process for a search engine to crawl and index your site is to read your robots.txt file, follow your XML sitemap, read the page status information, and then index the page content. Content can include the path (URL), a title for the page, meta description (only viewable to the search engine), headings, textual content (including bold and italic), secondary content, images, videos, and other metadata published in the page (reviews, location, products, etc.).
How Do Search Engines Rank Your Pages?
Now that the search engine understands the keywords and key phrases of your page, it now needs to rank it with competing pages. Ranking for keywords is at the heart of search engine optimization. Some of the factors involved in this process:
- Backlinks – are there relevant, popular sites that are linking to your site?
- Performance – how does your page perform in accordance with Google’s core vitals? Aside from speed, page errors and downtime can impact whether a search engine wishes to rank you well.
- Mobile-ready – since many search engine users are using a mobile device, how mobile-friendly is your site?
- Domain authority – does your domain have a history of relevant, high-ranking content? This is an area of great debate, but few people will argue that a high-authority site doesn’t have an easy time ranking content (even if it’s terrible).
- Relevance – of course, the site and page have to be highly relevant to the actual search query. This includes the markup, metadata, and actual content.
- Behavior – search engines like Google state that they don’t actually observe user behavior beyond the search engine. However, if I’m a search engine user and I click a link, then quickly return to the search engine results page (SERP), that is an indicator that the search engine result may not be relevant. I have little doubt that search engines must observe this type of behavior.
How Has Search Engine Ranking Changed Over The Years?
It was fairly easy to game the search engine algorithms years ago. You could write frequent, low-value, content, cross-promote it (backlink) on various sites, and get it ranked well. An entire industry popped up where consultants spent billions of dollars buying fraudulent backlinks that were built on backlink farms… sometimes unbeknownst to the organization that hired them.
As search engine algorithms changed, they became far better at identifying toxic backlinks over healthy ones and honest sites (like mine) began to rank again while cheating competitors were buried in low in the search results.
At their core, what the algorithms did that was critical was pay attention to the quality of content, the performance of the site, and the authority of the domain… to ensure that the search engine user was provided a good experience. Remember above where I said I tend to differ from other SEO consultants? It’s because I don’t focus as much on the algorithms as I do on the experience of the user.
I’ve said before that traditional SEO was dead.. and it really angered a lot of people in my industry. But it’s true. Today, you must invest in the user and you’ll rank well. Write amazing content and you’ll earn links with the best sites rather than having to beg crappy ones to backlink to you.
Search Engine User Optimization
I wish that we could dump the term SEO and, instead, focus on Search Engine User Optimization. How does one do that?
- You measure the behavior of your organic traffic down to every detail, incorporating events, funnels, campaigns, tests, and conversions to see what is resonating with your target audience and what isn’t. I can’t believe the number of consultants that will proudly proclaim they got their client ranked… but it’s not producing any end result for the business. Rank doesn’t matter if it’s not driving business results.
- Rather than constantly publishing low-value content, you develop a content library that your target audience is seeking. This is in-depth, multi-medium, rich content that’s kept fresh and updated. This article, for instance, was originally published 12 years ago and I continue to enhance it. I often retire old content and redirect the URLs to new content that’s relevant. My theory is that having a site full of unranked, low-value content is going to drag down the rest of your rankings (since it’s a poor experience). Get rid of it! I’d rather have a dozen articles ranking in the top 3 than a thousand articles on page 3.
- You perform all the technical aspects of site optimization. The analogy that I draw on this is that you can build an amazing store… but people still have to find you. Search engines are your road and you must help them get you on the map by following their best practices.
- You monitor your site continuously for issues – from pages that aren’t found, to toxic backlinks that may have been published to hurt you, to site performance and mobile experience issues. I’m constantly crawling my client’s sites and have dozens of audits and reports automated with Semrush. I monitor search consoles and webmaster tools and work hard to diagnose and correct issues that may be hurting their rankings.
- You monitor your competitors’ sites and content. You’re in a race against your competitors and they’re investing in beating you on rank… you need to do the same. Stay one step ahead of them by keeping your sites running beautifully and continuously improving your content.
- You deploy local SEO efforts by publishing on your Google Business page, collecting reviews, and keeping good directory listings up to date.
- You deploy international efforts by using accurate translations of your site, offering multi-language support, and monitoring your ranking in other countries and their dominant search engines.
- You look for opportunities to rank well on keyword combinations that are highly relevant and don’t have a lot of competition. This may include pitching your content to publishers (like me), guest writing on industry platforms, or even hiring influencers and compensating them (with full disclosure).
TIP: Too many SEO consultants focus on high volume, highly competitive keyword terms that are – frankly – impossible to rank on. The authority of many sites that rank on highly competitive terms may be spending millions to keep themselves there. Highly relevant, low-volume keyword combinations that are easy to rank on can drive fantastic business results to your organization.
And most importantly, you must prioritize your efforts. Not every site warning is going to hurt your ranking or the experience of your user. Most audit systems are comprehensive but they can’t weigh the impact of an issue or an issue versus an opportunity. I often tell my clients that I’d rather they invested in an infographic that could drive tons of visits, social shares, and backlinks… than fix some obscure issue that’s not hurting them at all.
SEO Is About Business Results
Your investment in ranking organically is all about business results. And business results is about providing value through your content and marketing efforts to potential and existing customers. Understanding how ranking is helping you build brand recognition, build authority with search engines, build value with potential customers, provide additional value with current customers, and drive search engine users through to do business with you is the ultimate goal of SEO. Search engine users have intent to research and often intent to purchase – it should be a huge focus of your overall digital marketing efforts.
Does it work? Absolutely… this is an actual result we shared today with a multi-location client today where we prioritized their optimization, rebuilt their site, rewrote their content, redirected their traffic, and provided a superior, multi-language experience… all leveraging organic search strategies. This is monthly organic search acquisition for July compared to last July:
If you’re in need of a good, honest consultant who understands how to leverage organic search to increase business results, reduce costs, improve reporting, and incorporate it into a multi-channel marketing program… contact my firm, Highbridge.
Disclosure: I am using affiliate links for platforms mentioned in this article. I’m also a co-founder and partner of Highbridge.
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