What is SEO?

By Nov.04, 2015

What is SEOSearch Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Search seems to be defined by crises – first came the dreaded Google updates petting zoo, then we survived mobilegeddon, and we’re currently living under the reign of King Content. But what’s coming next? And how can we prepare for it?

In this post, Rob from Provident Insurance shows us how we can forecast what’s coming next by looking back at what’s come before, and provides his top tips for future-proofing your site and its content.

What is SEO?

SEO is optimising a website for search engines so that Google, or any other search engine, can rank your site’s relevance to a search term, and present it to the searcher on a Search Engine Results Page, or SERP. The chosen term could be your brand name, or it could be your product…

SEO is also a field of constant development – a few short years ago, stuffing your site full of keywords could get your pages ranked for almost anything. Nowadays, search engines get very suspicious if you’re mentioning a word more than you naturally should.

We’ve all seen the effects of Google algorithm updates and how they have changed the face of modern SEO, so we’ve seen the how and the what: but what about the why?

Developing Search

Not too long ago, SEO was a series of tweaks and considerations that made it easier for your web surfer to find and navigate your website. Content didn’t have to be well-crafted; it just had to hold the keywords and drive a customer to your call to action. So called “Black Hat” techniques like keyword stuffing, purchased links or the black art of PPC helped you jump the queue, but the result was the same: SEO helped users to find your website, whether it was what they were looking for or not. This is how search works as explained by Google themselves:

Cut to the present day and the landscape is a little different. Webmasters and Search Execs still optimise their websites, but the best ones work with their content writers (or even create content themselves) to publish engaging, interesting, valuable content that not only gets people to their websites – but gives them a reason to stay.

The Black Hats have been put away now that Search Execs are on an organic diet, webmasters are desperately trying to remove those paid links and PPC – well, PPC’s not going anywhere for those who have the budget. White-Hatted messiahs like Rand Fishkin are still trying to lead SEO disciples to the promised land (#1 in the SERPs) but there’s a way to go yet before we understand exactly what we’re aiming for – but there are clues.

Google Updates and Me

With each update Google moves the goalposts, and it would appear that wherever Google goes, other search engines follow. While the old-school SEO crowd began to view Google’s menagerie like the world’s scariest petting zoo and “mobilegeddon” was the word no-one dared to say aloud, those a little further from ground zero were able to get a view of the wider picture – and suddenly everything seemed to fall into place.

Every year Google makes over 500 search algorithm updates – how can you keep up with them?

SEO, or Search as it’s now more commonly called, has changed its focus over the last few years. It’s become more intuitive as search engines try to meet the needs of its users, managing the users expectations in order to provide the best experience – which is effectively Customer Experience done well.

That’s SEO’s big secret – that standalone SEO is dead, that all of the tricks, tweaks and black hat techniques in the world won’t make search engines or people love your site if there’s nothing there that provides value. Search has taken SEO’s place; it might look the same, but don’t let appearances fool you.

Search vs SEO

They’re the same, right?

Not really.

Search is a much more rounded, integrated field than SEO ever was – it combines elements of digital marketing, customer experience, sales, SEO and copywriting, cherry picking the desirable elements from each but leaving the black hats behind. SEO is still there in spirit, with on-page and off-page optimisation techniques still seated at the foundations of Search, but without the gaming intent.

Take the Meta Description as an example – an essential part of any web page, the window dressing which encourages a potential customer to click through to your full site. Does it provide any quantifiable SEO benefit? No. Will a badly written or non-existent Meta Description have a negative effect on your web traffic through SERPs? Most likely.

So why does the Meta Description, a text-based marketing asset meant for users, come under the SEO bracket when it’s more of a Customer Experience element?

That’s because Search doesn’t optimise for search engines, Search optimises for the user – which, coincidentally, is also what search engines are currently working toward. Content should be informative, valuable and well written; the websites themselves should be designed to be accessible and easy to use; links should be from relevant pages on relevant sites – earned, not paid; in short, it’s all much more natural and organic than SEO.

So What’s the Secret of SEO?

The secret is that there isn’t any great secret to it. SEO isn’t dead and content isn’t king. It’s just that nowadays, you shouldn’t be optimising for search engines anymore. You need to optimise for humans.

Make your content accessible to search engine, offer valuable content that describes what you do and don’t think about Link Building – think about marketing…

The signs have been there for a while; each Google algorithm update has pointed us in the direction of improved user experience, with dead link and thin content penalties signposting the future of SEO. The word “semantic” has been thrown about a lot recently, which basically means that your content should look and read in a natural way, not just a stiff carrier of your keywords. Search engines don’t want to direct users to poor quality websites or low-value content, and in their attempts to protect users from a poor experience they can also prevent users from seeing sites that have valuable content that’s poorly marked up.

Content might be king, but Search and SEO are the power behind the throne. So how do we make sure that your content gets seen?

Top SEO Tips

So we’ve been through the history of SEO, where it’s come from and where it might be going, but how can we make sure our content isn’t going to be penalised in the future?

  1. Create for the user, not for yourself
    Content shouldn’t be a vanity project – Don’t be that guy who no-one wants to talk to at a party, because you’re always talking about yourself. Learn the difference between informing and telling, so the user has a reason to consume your content and stay on your site.
  2. Optimise for the user, not for yourself
    Your user interface needs to be friendly, accessible and easy to use. You might think hiding your navigation buttons or burying important information might create an element of mystery, but users will be less entertained and more irritated. This also means making your site responsive so mobile users can use it as easily as a desktop user.
  3. Talk like your users, not for yourself
    Feeling a trend forming here? This point refers to your keywords and your vocabulary and it’s a bit longer than the other points on this list, so bear with me.
    Let’s say that you’re a company selling bread online (not the best business model, but this is just an example). You decide to add baps to your product line – what do you call them?
    In Yorkshire, it’s called a teacake or a barm and in Lancashire, a bap. But you might live in the South, where it’s called a roll. So how exactly are you meant to target a keyword that changes across the country?
    Well, if you deliver across the UK, you make sure to target all of the possible keywords in the way that they talk about their teacakes, barms and rolls. If you only deliver inside your local area in Hampshire, then you don’t need to cover all of the bases.
    NOTE: This doesn’t apply for blog or opinion-based content, as this is content from you, not your brand!
  4. Don’t forget the basics!
    SEO or Search might be more weighted in favour of the user these days, but that doesn’t mean abandoning the basics of SEO. This means that all of your on-site optimisation (anything you can do on your own site i.e. keywords, meta descriptions, alt tags, XML sitemaps, page load speed, Title tags, H tags, link profiles, canonical content etc) should be done and done properly – no shortcuts! And continue to tinker with them, using Google Analytics and Google Search Console to maintain their effectiveness.
    Your off-site optimisation (anything that takes place off your site i.e. link building, content marketing, PPC etc) also needs to be maintained if you want to pull people to your site and to keep them there.
    In essence, drop the “If I build it, they will come” attitude and adopt more of a “If I build it, I also need to make sure people can find it” attitude.

So in summary, we now know where SEO has been (stuffing keywords into black hats), where it is going (semantic search and better user experience), and how to optimise your site for the future (always have the user in mind).

Next comes the fun part: actually going out and putting all of this into practice.

Have I missed anything? Do share your thoughts below!