This article first appeared in issue 238 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.
Sure, you know about SEO. You might not be an expert, per se, but you have a good understanding of the basics: title tags, clean URLs, text-based design and so on.
Even if you’re more of an expert than most, just as often it’s what you don’t know about SEO that will hurt you.
Many webmasters found this out the hard way in February 2011, when Google’s Panda update was released. Many of these same webmasters were hit again little more than a year later, when the search giant’s Penguin update followed – targeting low-quality, spammy link-building tactics. What they thought was SEO worked for a little while, and then turned out to be less than optimal. Sites were penalised; traffic and revenue lost, and so-called ‘SEOs’ fired.
Since then there’s been a new tone in the SEO industry. Not all of us were creating low-quality content and links; but for many of those that were these two updates were a wake-up call. And for those of us who have always been focused on high-quality, relevant content and links, it was something like redemption. Our sites soared while so many fell.
This is the new normal for SEO. Yes, there are still some who call themselves SEOs but focus on manipulative tactics with short term revenue goals; yet there are also many who are part of a large and growing industry of specialists in a highly complex discipline that requires marketing, technical, and research and communication skills.
So just how big is SEO? Believe it or not, it’s bigger in the minds of Google searchers than web design. Once considered a subset of web design, searches for SEO now eclipse those of web design worldwide.
The total projected value of the North American search marketing industry (SEO and paid search) in 2013 is $26.8billion, according to industry trade organisation SEMPO, and 13 per cent of companies have SEO budgets of half a million to more than three million a year (up from 8 per cent in 2011).
As budgets increase, there’s more to lose, and many companies have become more risk averse – forgoing the shady tactics they may have pursued in the past.
In cutting out the garbage we start to see what SEO is really good for (and has always been good for): connecting relevant content with relevant searchers, and making content discoverable through accessibility and marketing.
For those of you who still think of SEOs as greasy algorithm-chasers in cheap suits or parents’ basements, consider the new reality.
Engines are not enemies
When I started doing SEO in-house for a Fortune 50 corporation 10 years ago, there were many in the organisation who were a little nervous about what we were doing. Nothing was against the Google guidelines … because there were no such guidelines in existence. At that time there were a few books, but SEO was largely something that was spoken of covertly, and certainly never to search engines, which, it was thought, would likely think of it as manipulation.
Today we know better. Google and Bing have both published extensive webmaster guidelines, and Google has even published a guide to SEO for beginners. In August 2011 Matt Cutts, Google’s head of webspam, released a video statement saying that Google does not consider SEO by itself to be spam. This sentiment now appears in Google’s definition of search engine optimisation, in which it says: “Many SEOs and other agencies and consultants provide useful services for website owners.”
Still, because of a few spammers who call themselves SEOs, SEOs in general have the reputation of being charlatans, and have been portrayed as such on television shows such as The Good Wife and Dexter.
“SEO has unfortunately got a bad rap, and it’s due mainly to questionable SEO practitioners who perpetuate the ‘snake oil’ stereotype by making customers believe there’s some magic ‘black box’ that ‘tricks’ the search engines,” says Gord Hotchkiss, chief strategy officer for Montreal-based Mediative and regular columnist for Search Insider. Hotchkiss, and the other experts I reach out to for this article, explain that SEO is simply about getting relevant content indexed, and making sure it’s visible to the search engines.
All of the veteran SEOs that I speak to understand why SEO still has the reputation in some circles of being snake oil. But they insist that it has, at this point, become much more mainstream and credible.
Rand Fishkin, founder of Seattle-based SEO software company SEOMoz, discusses with me a few of his favourite reasons for SEO being something other than snake oil, including that “SEOmoz itself has more than 2million monthly visits, nearly all from web marketers looking to learn more about the practice. And our software, which bills monthly, has more than 18,000 subscribers as of today. If SEO were just snake oil, I strongly suspect folks would stop paying.”
SEO, in its legitimate form, is now a more accepted part of the web design process, and in many organisations is finally getting a seat at the table when it comes to designing professional, search engine-friendly web sites.
A process, not a project
In my decade-plus doing enterprise SEO there have been many instances in which the SEO team is brought in after the website is already complete, and told to magically make it search engine friendly. This isn’t ideal. As Google says in its guide to SEO: “If you’re thinking about hiring an SEO, the earlier the better.”
The really competitive sites that I’ve worked with over the years understand this, and integrate SEO into every stage of their planning process, from information architecture to content strategy to design, development, launch and post-launch.
A lot of web designers and developers are hesitant about integrating SEO further into the process, because doing so effectively produces extra work. But the rewards can be great, reminds Vanessa Fox, founder and CEO of Nine by Blue and author of Marketing in the Age of Google. “Organisations are losing 1) tremendous insight into their customers and potential customers if they don’t take advantage of the free search data that’s available from the millions of searches we do each day; 2) the opportunity to reach a significantly larger audience through being visible in search results.”
Would you put the Mona Lisa in a closet? Would you spend hours cooking Beef Wellington, and as it emerges perfect from the oven throw it in the trash? Then why would you build a website without considering how it will be found?
There’s another reason for making SEO a priority in the web design process, advises Hotchkiss – “it forces you to create a better website! Good SEO optimisation should be baked into your information architecture. It will force you to think about common content themes. It requires you to consider how all digital assets (such as videos and user-generated content) will be integrated into the overall user experience. It helps eliminate user experience dead ends such as gratuitious Flash interfaces and, my personal pet peeve, content locked in PDFs. It extends your perception of your online footprint beyond the bounds of your website, including things like social media. It will also instil a healthy rigour when it comes to thinking about how your site links together. Good SEO practices means a better user experience.”
From my experience, more organisations than ever are learning these lessons, and are no longer thinking of SEO as a project, but as an ongoing process that ensures a website will be as visible in search as possible. This is good for web design because it gives it a larger audience, but also good for business.
It’s not just about links: emerging SEO trends
While many commentators have claimed that SEO is dead since it began around 1997, the truth is that it doesn’t die; it evolves with the search engines. While SEO is constantly evolving, at the moment it seems focused on mobility, utility, the audience and automation, among other things.
One of these trends is the dissolving distinction between SEO, user experience and content strategy. In one recent Webmaster Tools YouTube video, Matt Cutts even suggested that those looking to change the name might consider “searcher experience optimisation” to differentiate from the snake oil variety of SEO.
Some, such as Vanessa Fox, have suggested that SEO need not proceed as a separate activity from UX and content strategy: “I think that both disciplines should incorporate best practices from search rather than thinking of it as something tacked on later,” she says. “Particularly, the data available from search is extremely valuable. Also, understanding that many visitors begin with a major search engine and that any page of the site can therefore become the home page of the site can shift how we look at both page design and content.”
At the same time, Fox – and all of the other SEOs I asked – recognise that content strategy and usability, while essential for reputable SEO, need technical and other elements from SEO to be useful as a way of getting incremental search engine traffic.
“When SEO is done the right way, usability and content is a huge part of the plan,” opines Eric Enge, founder and CEO of Massachusetts-based Stone Temple Consulting and co-author of The Art of SEO. “This is something that the snake-oil SEO people don’t worry about. For long-term success as a web publisher, the use must come first. However, for success as a business, you need to do more.”
With this concentration on content strategy and usability comes a focus on the audience as well. For Hotchkiss, this is a shift from word-matching to utility, and follows the search engines’ own evolution. “Today, good SEO is about making sure that when a prospect uses a word (or words) to search for something, you match that as best as possible,” he says. “But in the future, SEO will be about ensuring that when your prospect wants something, you deliver it. It may not be content. It may be a movie ticket, a hotel booking, a restaurant reservation or a downloaded TV show.”
A change in analysis
Delivering on this promise frequently requires a new type of analysis. In the past, marketers have done keyword research to uncover keywords as proxies for user intent. In Marketing in the Age of Google, Vanessa Fox describes the process of creating searcher personas that get beyond simple keyword matching and search volume exercises. And still others, such as iCrossing’s Core Audience and Resolution Media’s ClearTarget try to understand characteristics of audiences, including but not limited to the keywords that they use.
For some businesses, mobility will not change user intent. For example, news is not going to be rewritten for a separate platform, as Karen McGrane and other adaptive content advocates frequently point out. However, for some businesses it does; and if marketers want to get the most traffic and conversions from the mobile platform (in other words, be optimised for) the devil is in the detail, and understanding potential differences between mobile and desktop audiences is key.
There are technical considerations as well, which make a type of SEO geared towards these differences – what is commonly called mobile SEO – what it is. Many people in the SEO world, as with their counterparts in the design world, believe that responsive design is the answer to these differences – and Google stated a preference for responsive design in June. However, as I said in issue 232 of .net, responsive design is not always best for the user, and Google wouldn’t prefer it in those cases. If mobile and desktop search behaviour is significantly different, Google supports using dynamic serving or switchboard tags as well.
Cindy Krum, CEO of Denver-based mobile marketing agency Mobile Moxie and author of Mobile Marketing: Finding Your Customers Wherever They Are agrees that responsive design is one of many solutions for mobile SEO. “I have been recommending a mixed solution for most of my clients,” she says, “leveraging responsive design when it makes sense, and special mobile-only landing pages when keywords or use-cases cannot be appropriately addressed with a responsive design approach.“
Tools of the trade
Another big shift in SEO has been the introduction of more automation to the process. SEO software has been around as long as SEO has (remember WebPosition Gold?), but the breadth of tools and level of sophistication has increased considerably in the last year or two.
Now there are tools to help you optimise the long-tail through semantic relevance (BloomReach), reporting tools (Conductor, BrightEdge, SEOMoz)), link building tools (Ontolo, Ahrefs, Open Site Explorer, Majestic SEO) and more, all geared toward automating aspects of the SEO process (see our top 20).
When this happens, inevitably someone in the press will claim that the tool will allow you to fire your redundant SEO; but none of the SEO experts or software providers I talk to agree. “Great SEO starts with human beings who are creative, tenacious, and empathetic to the needs of searchers,” says Fishkin. “No software can ever automate those processes.”
There are other trends in SEO that are important, among them the integration of social signals into ranking algorithms and SEO that is not just text-based, but about understanding and optimising images and videos – perhaps eventually for wearable computing purposes (Google Glass, for example). All in all, legitimate SEO has evolved with the search engines – and it continues to do so. As I’ve said, understanding and applying this new information requires a new type of SEO practitioner, and a different kind of user-focused SEO. The next time someone tells you something different, you now have the knowledge to set them straight.
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