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What is SEO?

Here’s Everything You Need To Know.

SEO is an acronym for Search Engine Optimisation and is a marketing practice which aims to increase both the volume and quality of your website traffic via search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo. When we say organically we mean as a result of people searching for keywords and phrases which relate to your business and its offerings.

The large majority of organic website traffic is driven by ranking highly on search engine result pages, or SERPS, and creates a huge opportunity for business to convert these website visitors into leads and then customers. Gaining these website visitors allows your business to showcase its products and services to an audience it would not have otherwise had access to, and this is why businesses, big and small, allocate a good portion of their marketing budget to the practice.

In this article we’re going to explore the range of components that combine to create an effective SEO strategy and the importance of implementing SEO into your business in order to achieve its commercial goals. We’ll cover the following topics:

How does SEO Work?

Watch this short video from Search Engine Land, the leading SEO marketing blog, explaining how SEO works. In addition, we’ve broken down some key information as to how search engines operate.  

  • Search engines are a tool where a huge number of customers begin their journey looking for a new product or service to buy.
  • The role of the search engine is to provide those people who have asked a question with a list of website pages that will best answer that question. E.g. if I search ‘Where can I buy a new tv?’, a search engine would most likely display results such as Curry’s, John Lewis, Argos etc.
  • Search engines do this by knowing the content of every site published to its index and using an algorithm to determine the best matches.
  • The search engine displays the results from best to worst, 10 per page, based on a range of factors including how much relevant content a page contains, its trustworthiness and reputation, its user experience, and more.
  • The higher a page scores in the factors that make up the algorithm, the higher they will appear in the set of results and the more people that will visit the website.
  • Businesses are able to optimise their website for the purpose of ranking highly on search engines, which is what we call an SEO strategy and something we’ll be exploring in this article.

As displayed in the video, we like to think of Google in the same way as you would think of a librarian. When you go to the library and ask the librarian for a book, they will use their knowledge of who you are, what you may like and what you have expressed an interest in so that they can recommend a book which you will enjoy and find valuable. Google is no different… when you Google something they take information such as who you are and where you are searching from and combine it with your search query to deliver you the best possible answer or resources to your search. Taking this one step further, the librarian has to have read the book, had lots of good feedback on it from others and trust that it’s going to meet your requirements before they would feel comfortable recommending it to you. After all it is their reputation on the line and if they recommend a rubbish book to you, the likelihood is you won’t ask them again! Google is the same with websites. It has to understand the site, trust that it provides value and has received lots of good feedback before it will recommend it to others and serve it up highly In SERPs.

The first step of SEO is to optimise your website and its content and begin to improve your rankings from their current position,  which can often be from pages 4 or 5, and moving on to page 2. The ultimate goal is to obtain and maintain a ranking on page 1, and even better in the top 3 positions. The graph below demonstrates why this is important. As you can see, the top 3 position account for 62.6% of all click throughs. The remaining 7 results account for 27.03%, and the outstanding 10% is covered by results on page 2 and further. 

Keyword Research and Baskets

Search engines work by matching words from its extensive library of web pages to the words used in a search question or query. It is therefore vital that the words used on your website to describe your business, your products, and your services, are going to match the words that your target audience are using to find what you offer.

You may be thinking ‘how would I know which words people are using?’. Well, luckily for us all, there are tools for this. Some tools, such as Answer The Public, are free to use and don’t require a subscription. You can simply enter a word and it will let you know the most common questions used in relation to that topic. Alternatively, if you’re subscribed to specialist SEO software such as Moz or SEMrush, you can gain in depth insight into words, phrases and questions that are being frequently searched, their volume, their competitiveness and their click-through-rates.

Using these tools to identify which words you should be using is what we call keyword research. In carrying out this research, you’ll discover that there are thousands of keywords being used and you can’t include all of them on your website. The key is to identify which words are most appropriate, offer strong click-through-rates, and are at a level of competitiveness that is suitable for your business. The result of your keyword research will be a keyword basket, which is essentially a list of the keywords you’ve decided are relevant to your business and that you want to rank highly in Google for. If you are using tools such as Moz or SEMrush, you should include a long list of keywords in your basket even if you’re not integrating them all into your website. This allows you to track changes to search volumes and competitiveness and update the keywords on your site as appropriate i.e. when non-used keywords increase in search volumes you will want to add that word or phrase to your site.

Search Engine Results Pages and SERP Features

So far we’ve talked about what SEO is, how it works and why keywords are important. We know that users submit a question or query to a search engine which then displays a list of web pages that have a good reputation, relevant content, a strong user experience, and that include identifiable titles. What we going to look at now is the page from which users see this list of web page. We call it a search engine results page, or SERP for short. The page design and layout may differ depending on which search engine you use, and it will also depend on the search query entered, but if we take Google as our example it will typically look like this:

  • The top of the page is usually taken by 3 or 4 paid ad placements, which are indicated by the bolded word Ad. Business will pay for these positions in order to enjoy the higher placements. This will form part of a paid media strategy and is separate from SEO, although we would recommend running paid media alongside SEO.
  • Underneath the paid ads you’ll generally see the first of the organic search results. This is a result that is ranking highly thanks to a great SEO strategy.
  • As indicated by the yellow lines, SERPs also serve up what are known as SERP features. Unlike generic results, these are usually more than just words and they take up much more space on the page. You can’t buy a SERP feature, or even just decide to have one. You need to optimise your page content to be suitable for a particular feature and then Google will determine whether to apply one to your web page in the SERPs.

There are a wide range of SERP features with each more suitable for particular SEO goals than others. To find out more about the different SERP features and how to improve your websites chances to obtain them, see our blog here: An introduction to Google SERP features and how to obtain SERP feature status.

As evident from the image above, search engine landing pages are busy places. Standing out in the crowd can be difficult, and based on the fact that ads come first, and you also have to compete with SERP features, it’s clearly important to deploy an effective SEO strategy that will enable your web pages to rank highly and even obtain a SERP feature.

You may also be wondering why you should invest in SEO when you could just pay for ads and appear at the top, right? Well, that’s true – to a point. The reality is anybody can set up an account, pay for ad space and appear at the top. But appearing as the top organic result is only achieved by credible, trusted businesses and users know this; a larger percentage of people click on organic results over paid ads, meaning you’ll generate more clicks for your organic listing than your paid ones.

Optimising Your Website for SEO

At this point in the process we have to start thinking about SEO from the users point of view. Up until now we’ve learnt what we can do as a business in terms of using SEO tools for keyword research, creating keyword baskets, and the key role played by search engine results pages and SERP features in obtaining click-throughs. These are all considerations that only businesses care about. What users care about is finding an insightful answer to their search query in a seamless and enjoyable way.

Therefore, your website needs to be optimised for SEO not only in terms of titles and meta-data, but also in terms of relevant and insightful copy, compelling visuals, and simple navigation. There are 3 key components to achieving this: on-page copy, visual design, and overall user experience.

When people visit a website from a search engine it’s because their looking for something in particular. They have a question for which they are looking for the answer and they want to find it quickly and easily. So when users enter search queries that revolve around the keywords in your basket, the ones for which you want your website to rank highly, your on-page copy needs to do the following:

  1. Integrate your keywords to allow search engines to match your website to the user’s search term.
  2. Be easily readable in terms of font sizes and colours
  3. Be laid out in short paragraphs and phrases to allow users to scan the page
  4. Be of value. The copy should provide answers, insight and opportunity to understand more

In terms of design, again it leads back to users being able to find their answer. There needs to be a healthy balance between the copy and the visuals and everything should work together to create a website that’s aesthetically pleasing whilst only serving up insightful copy. We must remember not to get lost in images, videos and GIFs because there’s more to great website design that superficial good looks.

When we refer to your website offering a strong user experience, we include the copy and visuals but even more so we allure to the ease at which users can navigate through your website and engage with it. How easily can they find further content they may be interested in? How quickly do your web pages load? Can users interact with your website? There are many considerations here and all are important when optimising your website for SEO, which is why many businesses employ the services of User Experience (UX) experts to ensure every detail of their site is designed with purpose.

The reason your website needs strong on-page copy, great visual design and an enjoyable user experience is because search engines such as Google can see your page. They can understand how users are interacting with your page and know if your page offers users a great experience or not. To determine if your copy is insightful and relevant, they read it. To determine if your user experience is strong, they analyse it. They collect data such as the average time people spend on your website, whether they interact by clicking buttons or watching videos, whether users click-through to other pages, and more. Search engines take all of these factors into consideration when deciding whether to rank your page high or not in their search engine results pages.

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Content Creation

In the current world of SEO, content is king. Without constant production of impactful content on your website, and through your social channels, it will be very difficult to deploy a successful SEO strategy. The importance of content began back in 2011 when Google released their Panda algorithm update. This update began the penalisation of shallow and low-quality content and rewards in-depth, quality content that is kept fresh and posted frequently.

Whilst producing fresh new content on a regular basis is key, it’s much more than simply keeping up with the Joneses. With any piece of content you produce, you should aim to make it interesting and meaningful, and always try to evoke an emotional connection, such as humour or happiness. As you may expect with SEO, you should include the keywords for which you are aiming to rank highly. Freshness is vital because search engines rank sites higher when they are updated frequently, whilst content that provides answers to questions are also recognised as more useful and tend to achieve better visibility, as we have learnt.

Creating and publishing highly valuable content on your website will contribute towards users enjoying a better experience and will help attract new website visitors through SEO. They will find answers to their questions in an enjoyable way, they will spend more time on your website and likely click through to other content you have produced – all indicators to search engines that your website is being valued by users. Great content also encourages other websites to link to your pages, which is another influencing factor in high rankings which we’ll learn more about in the next section.

Link building is how websites obtain a strong reputation. When a website links to yours, it’s a signal to search engines that your website contains useful information. The more links search engines see the higher the trustworthiness score they will assign to your site, and in turn, the higher they will rank your site in search engine landing pages. The role link building plays in your SEO strategy cannot be overstated.

You may be wondering how you can generate links, and the answer is two-fold. Firstly, you need to focus on content. It’s much more likely that other sites will link to yours if you’re publishing and promoting high quality, insightful content and on a regular basis.

Secondly, you may want to execute what is called an outreach program. This involves reaching out directly to bloggers, influencers, and relevant publications to share your content and ask for a link. Any old link won’t do however, and it’s important to focus on building high quality, relevant links that are suitable for your website and its content. Links are considered as high quality if they come from trustworthy sources. Securing high quality links will have a significant impact on the success of your SEO strategy but the opposite is also true for poor quality links which can have a negative effect on your rankings.

To learn more about link building and the role it should be playing in your SEO strategy, check out our introduction to link building.

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Technical SEO

Throughout the course of this article we have discussed, in the most part, the factors which make up on-page and off-page SEO. There’s a third hugely important segment to the strategy which is technical SEO. Technical SEO focuses more on the structure and foundations of a website as well as enhancing crawlability and indexing. The list below outlines the components that make up technical SEO and each and every one of them plays a contributing role in higher search engine rankings. Why? Because search engines can see all of these components and understand their performance. In fact most, if not all, of the components are developed purely for the purpose of telling search engines about the website. Every one of the components below must be seriously considered, developed and continually monitored and improved if your SEO strategy is to be successful.

Components of technical SEO:

  • Sitemaps
  • Site structure
  • URL formatting
  • Canonicalization
  • Pagination
  • Structured Data Mark-up
  • Page-speed optimisation
  • Site accessibility
  • Redirects
  • txt
  • Crawler issues

Local SEO

If you’re small business and operate only in one or a few locations, you may be wondering how you could ever compete with large national companies when it comes to ranking in search engine results pages; and it’s a fair point. Especially as they tend to have a much larger budget and human resource to allocate to developing and deploying search engine strategies. You needn’t worry. Search engines have taken this factor into account and supported what is known as Local SEO.

Local SEO is primarily aimed at small businesses, operating in only a few locations (or maybe just the one) who have the same goals as the larger companies: generating leads online. The same SEO factors apply in terms of how to implement the strategy but with one main tweak – a key focus becomes the area(s) you operate in. So, for example, if you are a removal company based in London, when it comes to keyword research you would add ‘removal services London’ to your basket to denote the fact that you want to pick up website traffic and leads from those who are looking for removal services in your area of London.

As a local company who provides their services in specific areas, you only need to be concerned with your rankings in these locations rather than your national ranking. This is because when people enter a search term that includes a location, Google’s algorithm absorbs that information and adjust its ranking to show results best matched for that location.

Google’s algorithms are so intelligent that they can even determine where users are in the world automatically and deliver the most appropriate results based on this. The users don’t even need to include the location in their search term – they can simply search ‘removal services’ and Google will know they’re in London and will prioritise websites of companies Google knows are based in London. Having a complete ‘Google my Business’ page is vital in ensuring the search engine knows where you’re located and to take full advantage of local SEO.

There is also a specific SERP feature for local SEO, which shows local business on a map and very high up on the results page. Being listed in the local SERP feature can drive large volumes of traffic to your site and can be a key contributor to a rise in leads. To get listed you need to optimise your Google my Business page and your website for local SEO.

SEO Tools

For your SEO strategy to be successful, and for you and your team to be able to manage all the different aspects of SEO, you’ll need input from multiple sources and a wide range of digital tools. These tools, also known as your ‘stack’ provide valuable insight into the performance of your SEO strategy as well as showing you the opportunities available to optimise your campaign. There are many tools out there, and some SEO teams will us as many as 20 – 30 different tools for any one campaign. The use of a wide range of tools is helpful as it opens you up to a lot of data that can be analysed and used to enhance your strategy. However, if you’re just starting out this many tools can be daunting. We usually recommend starting with just a few tools to familiarise yourself and build up from there. Here are 5 great tools we use in our everyday SEO activities and that provide true value for our clients.

Summary

While we’ve defined and discussed an array of SEO components individually, they shouldn’t operate in isolation. They should form part of a cohesive strategy and work together to complement and support one another. As an example, your keyword basket should inform your on-page copy and the content you produce, which should help identify your SEO metadata and give search engines the best chance to rank your website highly.

It’s also important to place a high level of focus and attention on all aspects of the SEO strategy. A strong production line of content won’t improve your SEO performance if your technical SEO has been ignored and you fail to deploy an effective link building strategy.

When building out your SEO strategy, you should consider it a cyclical process rather than a lineal one. Whilst some aspects require an order i.e. keyword research before creating a keyword basket, there is no end to that process. Once your initial keyword basket has been developed, you should continue to research keywords and update the basket because popular and relevant search terms forever change. You should frequently optimise your SEO strategy and the individual elements within it. This helps ensure you keep up to date with changes to user behaviour as well as updates made by the search engines themselves, such as Google algorithm releases.

If you’re new to SEO or have little experience in the field, it may seem daunting when you consider all of these factors that contribute to high performing SEO strategies. Don’t sweat – we’re here whenever you need us.


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