by Simon Ensor
There may still be those who view search engine optimisation as a dark art akin to the reading of one’s future from the entrails of some unfortunate animal. However SEO is in fact a fairly common sense subject with very clear rules set out in Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. And while the threat of Google updates that can have potentially catastrophic consequences for your search ranking—which can make or break a business—may make you cautious about implementing techniques that increase your search visibility, this is territory into which you must tread. Indeed, tread with care, but in this four part series, I will outline four major points to consider when either running an SEO campaign in-house or outsourcing to an agency, starting with this: question everything.
Google’s most infamous algorithm updates create an uproar amongst members of the SEO community who have had a website penalised as a direct result of their spammy SEO work. Being caught for spammy work is an inevitability. The good thing is that two questions can answer whether work is classified as spam or not, and they are:
- Would this happen naturally if I knew nothing about SEO?
- Is this of real value to the user?
SEO is by nature a manipulative process. After all, you are trying to tick certain boxes in order to rank higher on search engines, but there is a difference between working hard to pass a test and just cheating.
Google analyses over 200 website factors to judge a site’s authority, credibility and relevance to any given search term.
It is, therefore, an SEO’s job to create a website that is of a high enough quality that it is the preferred result for a search term. If it is of no use to the user, then it is definitely of no use to Google because if they were to return your poor quality website as a result, it would provide a poor user experience for Google’s customers. So the user always comes first. I can’t discuss all of the factors taken into account in this article, but with a few more well-known examples the "question everything" stance should make sense:
This is the practice of including as many of your target keywords on the website as is physically possible in order to appear in search results for that term. This tactic went out of fashion at about the same time as the current generation of school kids were being born, and Google’s ranking system is far more complex than just counting how many times a keyword appears on a webpage. Here are some tips for when you come to writing content:
- Always write for the user first. Try to forget that SEO exists and think about the kind of information that the user would find truly useful on that particular topic. If you do this to keywords and their synonyms come naturally. By contrast, if you write specifically for SEO you will find that too many keywords creep into the content and you run the risk of keyword stuffing.
- Structure the content. Use clear headers and paragraphs so that the user can clearly identify the content they are looking for. This is primarily for the user, but it is also useful for Google to determine the main topic of each section.
- Do not be afraid of synonyms. Users like variety so in order to avoid boring them, try not to repeat the same word. Google is very good at understanding the relationship between synonyms due to something called Latent Semantic Indexing.
Link building is an infamous and powerful aspect of search engine optimisation and one that is oft abused. The theory is that a link from another high quality and relevant website would pass "link juice" as a form of endorsement. However, getting links from high-quality websites can be a tough and time intensive process. If you have engaged in link building previously, it is recommended that you assess your backlinks with the aforementioned questions in mind:
- Look at your Search Console (previously Webmaster Tools) or Moz’s Opensite Explorer in order to identify the websites currently linking to you.
- Question whether the link provides any real value to the user and whether it would occur naturally if you had known nothing about SEO. For example, are poorly designed link directories used by real people? No, they are not. Has this blog been created purely to host poorly written articles and provide a backlink? If so, then it is spam.
- Create a list of poor quality links and contact the websites asking for the links to be removed. Failing this, follow Google’s Webmaster Guidelines to remove the links using the Disavow Tool.
Anything that you do in regards to SEO should fulfill the two criteria of happening naturally and offering real value the user. This is the same for link building. If you are going to proactively build links then following these steps will prevent you link building from spammy sources:
- Ensure that the website’s content is relevant to your own. For example, as a marketing agency it really wouldn’t be relevant if we were link building from automotive websites!
- Is the website of a high enough quality? This may seem like a hard question to answer for business owners with a lack of SEO expertise. However, the question of value will help answer this. Does the content on the site offer real value to the user? If so, it is unlikely to be viewed as spammy. It does not take an SEO to be able to tell if the content offers value—simply put yourself in the consumer’s shoes.
- Asking whether this link would happen naturally is the final step. If this website’s owner would naturally link to your website then it is highly likely to be relevant and would most likely provide real value to the user.
These two questions are critical in avoiding falling foul of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and it means that you can do not necessarily have to know the ins and outs of every single ranking metric. Be vigilant and very honest with yourself. It is all too easy to start allowing a few exceptions, only to find yourself falling down the dark and slippery slope of spam!
In part two we will explore why the small things not only count but are absolutely critical in competing in an ever increasingly saturated market. Till then, question everything.
Simon Ensor is an SEO specialist and managing director of a marketing agency and consultancy in the UK called Yellowball (weareyellowball.com). As part of their SEO service, Yellowball provide audits, training, and full campaign management for clients ranging from cash-strapped start-ups through to more established SME's, larger blue chips and governments. He is a big believer in ensuring that all marketing efforts are connected and help fuel cross-platform engagement as well as efficiency. Say hi on Twitter @simon_ensor