Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) matters. Not only are there millions of businesses that depend on it for customers and sales, but there are also countless SEO specialists who make a living from it.
Whether your site will rank on the first page of a Google search depends on how well it favourably it is seen by Google’s ranking algorithms. The same is also true for every other search engine out there, from Bing to Duckduckgo and Yahoo to Yandex.
However, Google is easily the most popular, owning over 92% of the search engine market as of July 2019, handling over 3.5 billion searches per day, so it makes sense to keep our focus there.
Ranking algorithms are the rules for listing websites on specific searches. The main goal of these algorithms is to automatically learn how good the information on a particular page is and whether it is relevant to the searcher.
Google updates its algorithms frequently – they constantly undergo careful, regular updates aimed at improving them and to improve relevance to searcher requests. This is in part due to improvements in AI and machine learning, and in part, because the market is constantly shifting. 10 years ago, who would have thought mobile device adaptability would be so important?
Search engine algorithms are not published (and anyway, are made up of many millions of lines of code; so much so that not even Google’s own staff fully understand the whole of the Google algorithm!).
Yet good SEO relies on understanding these as much as possible and crafting a website to make it more attractive to search engines, whilst at the same time not overdoing it and incurring a penalty for ‘trying too hard’.
SEO is about bringing a website and its content into the best possible form that not only provides the service it is designed to but that it does it in such as way as to satisfy search engine algorithms better than its competition does.
Here we will try to outline the most important aspects of successful SEO but do understand that there are many subtle indicators and that the goalposts are constantly being shifted. We will also take a view on what will be important for web design and content, to stay relevant for the future.
How do we know what works in SEO?
Thanks to the analysing of millions of websites, search results and current rankings, we can develop a list of constant factors that are most important to search engine algorithms. Broadly, we can divide them into three groups:
- On-page SEO covers web content and design that follows best practices which make web content as easily discoverable as possible. This includes the creation of detailed page metadata for each page and elements such as images and video, the use of unique, static URLs, the inclusion of keywords in relevant headings and subheadings, and the use of clean HTML code, to name a few. This also covers content itself – not only text, but images and video are playing an increasingly important role.
- Off-page SEO refers to strategies that affect the whole website. For example, link building and exchange, cross-platform social media connections, content marketing, submissions to directories and search engine indexes, and the creation of online communities on social media.
- Behavioural Factors describe how the user interacts with your site. Relevance and quality of content affect statistics such as how many visitors click through from the search engine results (SERP), how long they stay on your page and whether they take a look around, or just leave your site for elsewhere – the bounce rate. (High bounce suggests your site is less relevant to the search query).
All these groups are important, and attention must be given to each.
But looking to the future, is it possible to build a strategy that will not depend entirely so much on search algorithms?
Unbreakable SEO Principles
A key principle to remember is this. After a search engine has delivered its results, the sites visited are chosen by users, not the search engine. Search engines only adapt to user preferences.
It’s important to understand that you are struggling with competitors, not a search engine.
A search query is a formulated task.
Your landing page needs to be the solution to the client’s problem.
Who is most worthy of search engine ranking?
The answer is the one who:
- Better solves the user’s problem
- Is better in comparison with their competitors
- the user selects from the search responses
All principles of the search are based on the preferences of the individual.
For example, no one in Google decided in advance that freephone 0800 telephone numbers would be a ranking factor. Companies began using them and customers responded by preferring freephone contact numbers. The search engines, in turn, responded to this consumer preference, and as a result, 0800 numbers became a ranking factor in search results.
How search engines understand which site is better
Search engines understand the quality of the search as a solution to the user’s problem. The better you solve it, the higher the site will be in the SERP.
The structure of your site for search is the entry point – the doorway by which the user comes to you. Search engines are looking for user satisfaction, which they understand as a successful solution to the customer’s problem.
A search query is a formulated task. Your landing page needs to be the solution to the client’s problem and must be understood as such by the search engine.
How search engines determine site quality
Many SEO specialists still approach optimisation only from the point of view of a search query, but this understanding is outdated. It is important to understand that a search request is just the starting point. Behavioural factors come to the fore and this makes customer interaction a key determinant in site quality.
Consider the following two web pages:
The word meanings are not important – focus on the overall impression that the page gives you.
A classic SEO solution is written text stuffed with keywords (left image) but which is more user-friendly and attractive to read? Which site is the customer most likely to want to pause, read and interact with?
Even if the search engine ranks and displays the website on the left, it will get only a few people staying long as they won’t have time or patience to wade through all the text. They will bounce and go look at the next search result instead. It is not inviting, simple or straightforward.
The search engine will, therefore, mark it as less relevant the next time that search query is used.
The landing page on the right, however, is clear. Not overwhelming with information, but a simple presentation which is clear and easy to follow.
The modern searcher simply does not hang around on sites that have too much data, are not visually appealing or that look hard work to understand.
The modern searcher wants their information now – understandable, simply presented and preferably with an image or video.
It is these sites that the user is more likely to linger on, and therefore inform the search engine that this site is most relevant to the user’s needs.
The smart approach to future-proof SEO therefore becomes:
- Identify customer needs.
- Understand what affects their choice.
- Adapt the site to cater to these requirements.
Remember, it is always necessary to make website improvements based on the needs of the user. Consumer convenience will always promote ranking. They will stay longer, buy more, click through, look at other pages on your site, and in doing so will train the search engine that your site deserves a higher ranking.
To conclude – search engines do not choose sites – users do. Think less about algorithms and more about people’s problems.
Remember, it’s not “search traffic” that comes to the site, but real people with real problems.
Therefore the main principle of SEO in 2020, and for the next 20 years, will be this:
Cater to your target audience. Keep it simple, relevant, and clear.
Help the user solve their problem.
This post is one of a series of articles published in support of Splento’s Ready for Work (R4W) programme. This was initially a successful four-week programme run in July 2020.
As of September 2020, R4W v2.0 – a six-month full training and work experience programme – has been created and submitted to the UK DWP for approval to be a part of the UK Government Kickstart Scheme. Further announcements will follow once approval has been granted. For more details, read The ultimate guide to the UK Kickstart Scheme.
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