It’s a wild web out there, awash in information, but luckily we have search engines to make sense out of that sea of data. Google has all but dominated web search since its inception in 1998, when it indexed just 26 million sites. Today, it indexes over 130 trillion.
With more and more commerce taking being mediated by the internet, companies are competing with increased urgency in cyberspace to climb the rankings of Google’s search results.
Every brand marketing itself online has to consider where paid SEO, purchased placement in a search result, is the right marketing spend. But, they also need to hone their organic strategies, improving their standing by increasing their natural relevancy.
Over two-thirds of all internet searches run through Google and the company receives 78% of all investment in search ads. The reason for its success comes down to one word: relevancy.
When users enter a search string they expect Google to scour the web, sort out all the spam and unrelated information, and bring them exactly what they were looking for. Google a uses a constantly evolving (and closely guarded) algorithm to accomplish that task.
Earlier search engines relied heavily on keywords and metadata (tags, file names, timestamps, etc.) to determine relevancy, which was somewhat ineffective and vulnerable to manipulation. Back in the late 90s many pages had long footers loaded with invisible text meant to attract search engines.
Google’s first breakthrough was PageRank, the famous algorithm named after co-founder Larry Page, that works by counting and evaluating the quality of links to a website to estimate its importance. It is still a major component of Google’s ranking system, but has been modified and combined with a number of other tools since then.
Because it is engaged in a cat and mouse game with webmasters who want to game their system, Google changes its algorithm rapidly. According to former CEO Eric Schmidt the company makes over 500 algorithm changes annually.
Starting in 2010, Google foresaw the explosive growth of blogs, social media, and other sites that were updated regularly. It responded with an algorithm update called Caffeine that preferred more timely results. In 2015, mobile searches finally overtook desktop searches and Google altered its ranking system again to favor mobile-friendly sites.
Search is also much more diverse today than in the past. SEO must be tailored for a variety of search types, including for images, locations, videos, scholarly articles, and news stories. There has also been tremendous growth in industry-specific vertical search engines (specialty or topical search engines, such as Yelp for local business reviews and Zillow for real estate listings).
Climbing Google’s search results is no easy feat, but the benefits are substantial. Not only does it mean more exposure in general, in also leads to a significant increase in clicks and sales (a third of search traffic goes to the top result alone). In fact, failure to rank highly can be a veritable death sentence:
Paid ads in search results are still important for a diversified marketing effort, but the holy grail of SEO are organic results (also called natural or earned results), where you pop up not because you bought an ad, but because you are relevant to whatever is being searched for.
Studies routinely show that users overwhelmingly prefer organic to paid results, “by a margin of 94 to 6 percent.” The key to organic performance is understanding Google’s algorithm. While they keep its secret sauce under wraps, some elements are known:
Over the years Google has increasingly been introducing natural language processing (NLP), computer systems that understand language contextually, as opposed to just recognizing a word. It’s the difference between spotting the word “house” in a string of text, and actually understanding what a house is.
NLP means that keywords aren’t as effective an SEO tool as they once were. Merely including a word isn’t that helpful if it’s not relevant to the surrounding text or the page content in general. But, while keywords aren’t as important as they used to be, they are still a factor.
Google offers a Keyword Planner for finding trending terms. Other research tools like Ubersuggest and SEMrush are useful for finding terms that are popular but not oversaturated online. Additionally, analyze your existing keywords to see which are driving the most sales and clicks. Build new content around popular terms and find related keywords to take advantage of.
- Content: The makeup of a web page is also a determinant in how it ranks in Google. For example, longer-format content is showing higher these days. Prior to 2014, most top-ranked results were under 1000 words; after 2015 the number was closer to 1200.
- Context: Location of keywords is also relevant, and far more so than repetition. You can type your best keyword over and over again and it won’t make a difference. But, placing it within the major page components (e.g. title, header and subheaders, and introductory and concluding paragraphs) as well as within the URL and underlying HTML will.
- Linking: Google scrutinizes link structure to find websites attempting to dope their PageRank with bogus connections to other sites. Lately, Google has also been looking more closely at internal linking practices as well.
- Navigation: Google favors pages that guide users through a site in an optimal and efficient manner. Similarly, search engines prefer sites that make use of interactive elements such as menus and buttons that improve usability.
- Tagging: Like keywords, meta-tags are not as important as they once were. But, while it might not have a huge impact on where you end up in the rankings, adding your desired search terms to your tags is still considered standard industry practice. It also works as subtle form of ad copy when it shows up on search engine results pages.
- Responsive Design: Mobile is rapidly growing in market share and taking over desktop search. Google, not wanting to be left behind, has moved to favor sites that feature responsive web design that automatically adjusts for use on smaller devices.
- Speed: Page loading times are a related issue. Google favors faster pages in general, but especially on mobile search where people are often constrained by data limits.
The days of playing fast and loose with your SEO tactics are on the wane. Google has gotten scary good at sniffing out spammy links and penalizing sites that were formerly bolstered by link-building techniques. The risks of attempting to game the system now outweigh the costs. The best SEO techniques for promoting a site now focus on strong fundamentals and building genuine interest.
SEO is a moving target, so stay abreast of the changes, format your content optimally, and, build your brand to keep showing up at the top.