What is SEO?

For many small business owners, mentioning the phrase SEO can result in the emergence of a confused facial expression.  In fact, I’ve met plenty of marketers (who will remain anonymous) that haven’t got the faintest idea what SEO means – and if they do, their views are often outdated.

Working in the industry, it’s easy to forget that many potential clients won’t understand the basic principles behind search engine optimisation, so I thought it might be worth briefly outlining the basics here.

What is SEO?

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is the process of attempting to influence the appearance of a website or a specific page of a website in a search engine’s organic (unpaid) search results.  The principle reason for this is the attempt to improve the websites/pages position in the search engine’s results pages for a specific phrase.  In general, the higher a website is ranked on a search engine’s results page, the more visitors this website will receive from the search engine’s users.

SEO analyses the way search engines work, and considers what people are searching for.  This includes an in-depth analysis of the actual search terms users will type into search engines.  These search terms are often referred to as keywords.

What are Keywords?

Keywords refer to the search terms that users will type into search engines in an attempt to find what they’re looking for.  For instance, a user looking to buy a winter coat will most likely type in the phrase winter coat.  If a company selling branded winter coats don’t implement this phrase onto their website, then they won’t appear in the search results for that phrase.  Many smaller businesses are oblivious to these phrases, whilst their potential customers will be using them to search for the types of product/service they’re offering.  All too often companies will simply rely on their brand name being found until they realise the amount of website traffic they could be attracting by conducting basic keyword research.

What is Keyword Research?

Keyword research involves getting into the mindset of your potential customer.  What will they be searching for to find similar products/services to those you’re currently offering?  Replace words with synonyms to uncover phrases you may not have initially considered.  Of course, detailed keyword research takes into account other factors including the volume of people using the phrase each month and the likelihood of a particular phrase converting once they’ve landed on your website.  For instance, if you owned an ice skate store there’d be little point in optimising your site for the phrase ice skating, as this search term indicates an interest in learning more about the actual activity, not purchasing a pair of ice skates.  Where to place keywords on your website and how frequently to mention them on your web pages is something that we regularly give advice on.  By irregularly mentioning the same phrase on all of your web pages, you’ll make the wording of your site seem unnatural, and the search engines WILL pick up on this and potentially penalise your rankings.


The link building misconception

Having trusted, high quality websites linking to your website or an article on your site is an important trust signal for search engines in their ranking decisions.  Having a large number of quality websites in your industry linking to your site will generally improve your sites perceived quality from a search engine’s point of view.  In the early days of SEO, you may have been able to boost your rankings by getting the most links to your site, regardless of the referring websites industry or quality.  There are now many factors which the search engines will take into account when analysing the links to your site.   For example, they will penalise your search engine rankings if you’re being linked to from a considerable amount of poor quality websites, as this indicates you’ve manufactured (paid for) these links.  In short, you shouldn’t need to request links from other sites, you should aim to produce content that is beneficial for another site to share or link to.

Optimising your website with relevant keywords and having a healthy inbound link profile are possibly the 2 most important SEO factors to consider if you’re just getting to grips with the subject.  However, there are many more factors that search engines take into account when analysing the quality of your site and deciding how to rank you against similar sites.  These include:

  • The quality of your content
  • The freshness of your content
  • How often visitors engage with your brand (including via social media)
  • Your HTML title tags
  • Your HTML meta descriptions
  • Your HTML headings
  • The keywords used in your website copy
  • How easily search engines can crawl your website, providing an XML sitemap can help with this.
  • The speed of your website
  • The URL structure used on your website
  • The anchor text used in hyperlinks to your site
  • Your social reputation, including the number of social shares your brand has accumulated
  • The age of your domain name
  • How many people have blocked your site from the search results.

The ever changing world of SEO

As search engines become more intelligent, they’re developing new algorithms and updates to existing algorithms to target those companies who attempt to manipulate their rankings in the search results.  More and more factors will contribute to the quality perceived in your site by search engines over time, so it’s important to keep up to date with the latest developments to avoid being left behind by your competition.  A list of 8 simple SEO tips for small businesses was produced by my colleague Sean a week ago, which would be a great starting point for any business wishing to begin optimising their website.


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