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Search Engine Optimization

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) often feels like the "snake oil" of the interactive business. Everyone does it and no one seems to know what to expect, what to pay, or what to even think about search engine optimization now that the landscape has been changed by social media. Here's our take on why this topic has been confusing and will likely continue to be complex.

Back When the Web Was Human

When Yahoo and Google started their "bots" scanning and indexing pages on the internet, the main goal was to help ordinary people find the information they were looking for. Each "robot" was programmed to use a proprietary method to determine "relevance" - and to rank how relevant each webpage it scanned was to a set of "keywords" or topics. Yahoo originally was maintained manually - by real human beings - and continued to be "curated" for many years. The argument was that only humans could determine true semantic relevance correctly. And they were correct at the time and up to a certain point. But Google begged to differ and relentlessly upgraded its automated system to scan pages faster and more comprehensively. The speed and breadth of results Google offered provided a decisive advantage over manually-operated competitors. But as automation ruled the day, website producers noted that some pages were showing up more regularly in the search engine results than others. And they started to try to reverse-engineer the factors that accounted for these differences. You couldn't fool people too easily, but you could occassionally fool robots. And so the battle began.

The Battle for Search Engine Results Placement (SERP)

As the search engines grew to become a primary tool for researchers and consumers over time, website owners began to realize how important it was to show up in search results. And many early technologists and agency types rose to meet the demand to get into the search results listings. Many techniques were devised - jamming tons of keywords into each page, hiding text in the page using the same font and background color, link farms, etc. Each technique was a way to try to exploit the mechanics that search engine robots use to index and rank pages. These techniques began to be labeled "white hat" (for honest above-board approaches like adding good content) or "black hat" (for techniques that didn't really improve true content relevance but instead used more subversive ways to bump results placement - like hidden keyword spamming). As "black hat" techniques flourished, Google and others evolved their robots to evade these tactics and the arms race began. Eventually it became very hard to know what the search engines used to rank pages - and that is true at this point. Anyone trying to sell a "quick fix" for SEO is still potentially selling you "snake oil" unless you truly are completely sub-optimized which does still happen.

Basic Keys to Search Engine Optimization Success

There is still one perfect approach to search engine placement success - lots of highly relevant content. If you have this covered, there are still some mechanical optimizations and basic markup approaches to consider but you have the important part in hand. If you are trying to optimize a page for the keyword "real estate" and your content is all about some other topic, no amount of mechanical markup work is going to fix the issue.

Once you have this basis of relevant content, you need to think about how people will try to find this content. What words will they type into a seach engine to attempt to find it? This can be a hard exercise. If you ask customers this question, they will often not really know. If you look at what keywords are bringing people to your site now, you are missing the universe of other keywords that were used that didn't bring someone to your site. We call figuring this out a "keyword strategy". To develop strategy, we do ask customers and we do a bit of brainstorming. We also use tools from the seach engines to see how popular potential keywords are. We even create pay-per-click ads and bid on keywords to see how well they convert. This is a great "short cut" indicator of whether you are headed in the right direction before your page rises in the rankings. You may have the most relevant keywords picked out, but if no one is typing them into search engines you won't see any traffic. But is "more traffic" the goal?

Is All Search Traffic Good Traffic?

In short, no. There definitely is such a thing as bad traffic. The metric that determines how bad is known as the "bounce rate". When vistors fist come to your page from a search, they are hoping to find what they were originally looking for when they typed a keyword into the search box. Most people can quickly tell if they got what they wanted or not. Those that don't see what they want will leave immediately - or "bounce" away from your page. The common definition is that they hit the first page of your site never to return and certainly don't click any deeper into your site via any links on your page. Another term often used is "engagement". But "engagement" can also depend on how long someone looks at your site. Many search engines try to provide metrics for the time people spend looking at your pages. We look at that metric a bit skeptically. Did a phone call come in just after they opened the page? Did they run off to a meeting only to return later? The analytics engine has no idea and unfortunately neither do we. At least not precisely. The time-per-page is a rough metric at best. But when the bounce rate is high, you can be fairly sure that traffic is coming to your page that isn't interested in your content. And that isn't a good thing.

Have SEO Keyword Strategy, Need Implementation

We now have the search engine optimization keywords that are a good match to our content and also are actually used by humans enough to drive some traffic to our page. How do we optimize the mechanics? Here is where it gets a little technical. Different search engine robots still work differently. When you "view source" on a webpage, you can see the basic input that the robot will scan. Take a look at all the tags and mumbo-jumbo in there. Its often not pretty and it rarely looks like what you see in the browser window.

And this is a problem. As pages have more "code" in them, the ratio between real content and all this other stuff becomes less favorable. The general term here is "content density". Think of each word in your source code and how often it is repeated versus all the other stuff in there. And whether it appears in a prominent location like a header (e.g. h1) or not. Search engines try to determine relevance by how often certain terms are used in a page and whether they are important enough to be used in a prominent location or not. Titles are important. Headers are important. Link text is important. And having a term show up frequently in relation to other terms on the page is important. Relatively good content is often undone by not looking at what is in the more prominent locations (from a search engine perspective).

Now that we have good content with the right keywords in important places, we can do some fine tuning. Alt tags for images are great places to reinforce important keywords and terms. The specific text that you have in your anchor links should contain important terms. Meta data should be added to help the engines focus on the right words. And there are some external steps like manually submitting your pages to the search engines to scan, setting up indexable sitemaps, and of course making sure you have analytics in place to measure progress.

Our SEO Is All Done, Can We Rest Now?

The hard work is done. But the bad news is that search results are a constantly moving target and search engine optimization is an ongoing program. Just as you now have gotten things together, everyone else in the world is too. And they may leapfrog your efforts tomorrow or next week. If you want to be the most relevant result...you actually have to remain relevant. In reality, search engine optimization work generally happens for rewrites of a site or redesigns but then stops for significant time periods. Since it takes search engines a minimum of a couple of weeks to pick up on the changes you just made, you should give yourself a break for that time so you begin to see real data. But just as you may have an editorial calendar for adding content to your site, you should also have a search engine optimization reminder to go and try to search for your site using your keywords and see how you are doing periodically. Competitive intelligence can be very helpful over time.

How Can Envigna Help with SEO?

We can help you with your search engine optimization keyword strategy, with implementing the search engine optimization changes, and with tracking progress over time. We charge reasonable fees based on the real time it takes a skilled and experienced professional to do this work, which is oddly often significantly less expensive than the junior account manager that a large interactive agency will usually assign to your task. We take your search engine optimization success very seriously and look forward to finding the right way to help. Please contact us to talk more about what you would like to do.