An introduction to technical SEO
Google sends out ‘bots’ that crawl websites. The bots read everything on a website and attempt to understand what the text, graphics, files and code all mean. Google then saves the information and can choose to display it later in search results for relevant queries. Through items such as XML sitemaps and robots.txt files, SEOs can help Google to find and crawl new and updated website pages as well as block the search engine from accessing private pages that should not be displayed publicly.
There is more work to do on a coding level. For multinational companies, technical SEO work can ‘tell’ search engines to display different websites or parts of a website to people in specific countries or who speak certain languages. Physical stores or businesses with numerous branches can do local SEO to ‘get found’ in Google Maps. Department stores and e-commerce websites can implement ‘rich snippets’ to display product images, pricing, availability and reviews directly in search results.
Schema markup and social media tags can be used to show many different types of information in search engine results and social media shares. As I discussed at an SEO conference last year, server logs can be analysed to see how people and search engines are using a website. Company blogs can also get included in Google News. Mobile websites and apps need to be optimised differently than desktop websites. Fast page-load time is critical.
Auditing and optimising a website for technical SEO is the first step. Helping Google to crawl and understand a website generally leads to an initial and sustained boost in search engine traffic.
The reason? Google’s search-result pages have not been simple lists of 10 blue links for a long time. Today, as Google becomes smarter, the search engine is understanding and displaying a variety of information in different ways. A lot of the work that goes into technical SEO fulfills what Bryan Eisenberg and Gianluca Fiorelli have called ‘search experience optimisation’.
It’s not only about ranking highly. It’s also about maximising your overall presence throughout Google:
After initially optimising a website on a technical level, the next part of the process is to create and publish material on a regular basis on the topics for which your target audience is searching in Google.
People often search Google to find information on specific topics. B2B companies can focus on such queries for problems that their solutions solve. B2C consumer brands can collect customer service questions and publish the answers in a Q&A section. Such pages would likely rank in Google for searches for those issues.
In a marketing context, just look at what SEO software Moz’s keyword tool reports for the number of times that people search for this topic:
A company, for example, that sells software for conversion-rate optimisation would want to publish informational material such as blog posts or e-books on CRO that would aim to rank highly in search results for searches for that informational topic.
One common practice is to research which relevant, informational topics are being searched in Google and then publish what will be be the single, most authoritative material on each subject. Think of it as creating something that deserves to rank highly.
But what about links?
Whenever someone enters a query into Google, the search engine processes its saved collection of internet material on the topic and presents some of it in a ranked order. SEOs estimate that Google has roughly 200 ranking factors, but two of the most important are the quality of the information and the authoritativeness of the website.
‘Authoritativeness’ is judged in part by the number and quality of links that point to a website. Essentially, Google considers a link to a website to be a ‘vote’ for the ‘quality’ of that website – and some votes matter more than others.
Under the assumption that more links lead to higher rankings and a greater overall prominence in search results, SEOs have always wanted to place more links to websites. Before SEO became more professional, people would use a lot of nefarious tricks to do exactly that. (No, I will not list those tactics, most of which are now penalised by Google.)
Today, SEOs prioritise links that come naturally within the text of material on other relevant and authoritative websites. A British politics blog, for example, would want a link from an article in the BBC’s Politics section over a link from some random hipster foodie blog in Argentina.
Modern SEOs tend to create material that aims to rank for a search query and then email countless people to encourage them to share and link to it. This is often called ‘outreach’, ‘link earning’, or even ‘content marketing’. But it’s precisely the wrong thing to do.
In my experience in SEO work specifically, I have seen that something that is truly the best material on a topic will often rank highly by itself. People will naturally find it and often link to it themselves without any prodding from the publisher because it’s that good.
But in the end, the best and greatest numbers of links to websites come not from hiring an SEO ‘linkbuilder’ but as byproducts of publicity campaigns. It’s getting reporters and bloggers to write about about you. It’s simply getting people to talk about you online – and those mentions will often include links. Just as ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’, so will all of those links increase your ‘authority’ and overall search-engine rankings over time.
Most ‘linkbuilding’ or ‘link earning’ work today is just imitation publicity. For those who are interested in learning more about real publicity, I’ve written this extensive guide to publicity campaigns elsewhere.
The pros and cons of SEO
Of course, different companies prioritise different parts of the promotion mix. I argue that SEO needs to be added to that collection of tactics, but there are positives and negatives to consider.
Pros: The effect of brand advertising declines when one stops running the ads – but if a website page ranks highly in search results, it will usually stay there for a long time without you needing to do anything else. As a result, the traffic that a website gets can increase every month as more is invested in SEO. In addition, it’s often easier and cheaper to write informational material than to take gambles on expensive creative campaigns that might flop.
Cons: SEO campaigns only fulfill existing demand; they cannot create additional demand. People search online when they already know that a product exists or that they need a solution to a problem. Other activities such as brand advertising and publicity build brands as well as generate awareness and demand. Technical SEO also requires costly technical people, and SEO in general depends on your publicity efforts gaining quality backlinks.
In the digital marketing world, adtech has turned out to be a joke for brand advertising. Social media marketers have over-promised and under-delivered because no one wants to ‘engage’ with brands on social media networks. SEO, on the other hand, has become critically important.
The future of SEO
To me, Google is ‘an algorithm that wants to think like a human being’ – and it’s getting better at doing so every single day. After one does the technical SEO work, it’s becoming more and more important to build a strong brand among human beings that deserves to rank highly in search results. Google will figure that out.
Just look at the top of this Google search-result page for ‘best Indian restaurant in London’:
A decade ago, SEOs would have filled the text of these websites with phrases that relate to ‘best Indian restaurant’ and ‘Indian restaurant in London’. They would have built links that contain those phrases. Today, what do you see? The top restaurants as rated by human beings as well as reviews in professional publications.
It’s not just about keywords and links. It’s about actually being one of the best Indian restaurants in London and then getting others to promote that fact through publicity campaigns combined with technical SEO Google Maps optimisation and Google+ reviews.
In the end, all of that involves the incorporation of SEO into the traditional promotion mix. It’s about doing web development best practices along with an integrated modern marketing communications campaign.
This column is only an introduction. For traditional marketers who want to learn more about SEO, here is a collection of my own favorite resources (each in alphabetical order):