After several years of working in web dev and SEO, I’ve come to the realization that SEO isn’t really that hard. That’s not to say that there aren’t any challenges in SEO, but that overall, you can simplify SEO down to a few key ideas.
I’ll be writing a companion article about the challenging things later as well.
Search Engine’s Goals
Google’s goal for search is to bring you the best results for your query possible.
It’s been said that “the best place to hide a dead body is on page two of Google”, because most of the time, Google delivers on that promise. Google makes daily changes to the algorithm to attempt to meet this goal.
While there may be some “tricks” to getting higher rank, Google works continually to make sure that the best content is on top; tweaks the algorithm continually to ensure that it continues to do so, and issues manual penalties for sites that acheive rank through violating Google’s guidelines.
What can we learn from this?
There’s two ways to play this game.
Fight dirty. Do absolutely anything and everything to rank well. Spend weeks on researching new “tricks” and obscure ranking factors to rank for, writing tons of clickbait articles, spamming backlinks everywhere, sacrificing usability to push features that search engines temporarily value, and maybe even fake it by buying “traffic” from Fiver.
Build the best content. And a few tiny other things.
If you go the first route, you will eventually run into trouble. You’ll get penalized, continually fight algorithm changes, have angry customers that call on holidays because thier traffic drops to zero, or get few actual sales.
With the later route, you’re doing what Google wants. Google will want your content on the top, and will tweak thier algorithm to get it there. Sure, they won’t be dedicating teams of people to get your site to the top, but they’ll be using some techniques we’ll get to in a bit to do this across groups of sites.
If you work with Google, the path to success is actually fairly straightforward.
How does Google determine what is best?
We don’t know completely, but we can use the things we do know to make some good guesses.
First, we have to determine what “best” means in this context. I’m considering the “best” content to be the content that most people would agree is the best for a given search term.
So how does Google’s algorithm determine what people think is best?
They measure it.
Of course, no one outside of Google knows completely how they do this, but based on my knowledge of Google, SEO, and AI, this is my best guess as to how it’s done. It’s not meant to be 100% accurate, but give you an idea how it works:
Google tracks outbound traffic from search at least some of the time. With this data, Google can determine which sites are getting clicks, and from which of those customers return to search right away versus staying on the site. Google can use this (along with feedback through the webmaster forum and youtube channels) to flag potential pain points without needing to use an exorbitant amount of internal testing.
Google taps actual human raters, which they’ve done in several ways:
First, and most obviously, through internal reviewers.
This doesn’t scale that well, so Google eventually outsourced this to several agencies which hired contractors to review search engine rankings.
Third, through evaluation of reports on Google’s webmaster blogs and youtube channels, relying on the people that have been negatively affected by ranking changes to self-report those issues. Internal teams can then evaluate these reports and make changes if they agree with them.
And finally, Google now croudsources this through the “Rewards” app and other similar tools for maps, youtube, etc.
Google uses the data it gathers from these sources to retrain it’s algorithm to give better results in the measured cases. Google likely uses a mixture of AI ranking factors (such as RankBrain), in addition to other measured ranking factors, such as site speed.
More than likely, Google will move towards more AI ranking factors, as the qualities that make content “good” are subjective and complex, which can be better modelled through AI.
What have we learned so far?
- Google’s goal is to bring you the best content
- Google uses feedback algorithms to evaluate what humans think is “best”
As Google moves more towards AI ranking, the likelihood of finding “quick tricks” to rank well are likely dwindling. The only way forward is to generate “good” content.
What does “good content” look like?
A lot of the time people want to make existing content rank well. This is already wrong and will likely not work well. That’s marketing, not SEO.
The correct starting point is to determine what people want and make content that offers what people want.
For example, if you’re the best cobbler in the world, and you want people to come to have thier shoes repaired at your business, forget it. People aren’t looking for that. You need to have something people want, and not try to convince people to want a thing you have.
People are searching because they’re looking for something, whether that’s a product, answer to a question, information about a topic. To rank the best, you need to find the things that you can deliver the best results for and write content about or sell those things.
Being the best means:
- Being an original, primary source (do not plagiarize)
- Having the most accurate, and concise information
- Knowing your audience and deliver the solutions they need in a way that makes sense to them.
- Being clear in who you are targeting. You can not be everything to everyone, trying to do so will lose you the most valuable clients. If you absolutely must target multiple audiences, make separate sections on your site for those audiences.
This is by far the most important thing you can do to succeed at SEO.
Selling the best product is definitely important, and I never cease to be amazed at the people who are still making a lot of sales with really outdated websites, but you will lose sales if your website is confusing and hard to use.
Think about the most common tasks your customers want to accomplish and make it as easy as possible to accomplish those tasks.
If you’re writing instructions on how to order a product, or putting highlighted messages on your product pages to warn people about mistakes that people make when ordering products, or telling people to go to different pages, you’re doing it wrong.
Pay a developer to tweak your checkout process to not accept the bad orders in the first place, make the fields you need required, and make a checkout flow that’s obvious enough to not need instructions.
Don’t ask people to visit a different page, link them to it. This is the internet, after all.
Don’t try doing tricks to “keep people on your site” like opening links in new windows (except in very specific situations, like the middle of a form or order). You’re just hurting the experience for people, and this has security implications that must be carefully avoided, and really bad for mobile users. It’s like locking people in your store and expecting them to buy more things. None of the top sites on the internet do this - just stop.
In addition, your website needs to establish trust with people potential customers that don’t yet know your brand. Having a clean website, and demonstrating why people should hire you. Show them jobs you’ve done, show them your google ratings, show them your certifications, how long you’ve been in business, and what you can do for them.
Always have the actions that you want your customers to take be obvious. Instead of having a message telling people where to find the checkout button, make the button large and visible.
Don’t use cryptic icons for things as Gmail does; use well-understood icons or put words on the buttons so that people know what they do.
Most web traffic is now phones (around 70%), so make sure that your mobile site experience is at least as good as your desktop experience.
Ask a friend or relative to try and accomplish a thing on your website while you watch. If you have to point out directions they missed or they get confused, those are probably things that you can improve to make the experience better.
Performance and Technical Factors
Research by large companies have shown that even small changes in performance can dramatically affect sales.
This does not necessarily mean that you can get loads of sales by making your website faster - you still have to make sure to sell things that people want, and have a good experience. However, once you’ve done those two things, you’ll want to make sure that your website is fast and is presenting search engines with the correct data to understand your site.
For speed, remember that you’re limited by the bandwidth the customer has, so reducing the data that a customer needs to view your site will generally give the best improvements. Beyond that, make sure that your server is able to respond quickly. There are many testing tools that will help with this such as the Google/Chrome lighthouse tool or WebPageTest. In general:
- Make sure images are as small as possible, and in formats that all browsers can use.
srcsetto specify different images for different devices to further reduce size when there’s a large difference between the sizes that each device can display.
- Consider lazy loading for images below the fold if it makes sense to do so.
- Reduce the number of fonts, and js dependencies.
- Cache Resources where appropriate.
- Consider switching to a server that supports HTTP2 if you have to load a lot of resources.
- Make sure server response quickly, and your website code is reasonably optimized.
- Use a CDN if you have sufficient traffic for it to make sense to do so. (CDNs will slow down sites with low traffic)
Modern search engines can glean most of the data they need without setting up any technical factors, however there are a few that can be used to help search engines understand the content a little bit better, fine-tune the presentation in search result pages and add a couple of additional features to help you stand out:
- Use HTTPS.
- Use a domain that closely matches your brand or product.
- Write Meta Descriptions and Page Titles that persuade the customer to click on your site. Tell them what they’ll receive, not the steps they have to take to get it.
- Use semantic markup to help search engines understand the parts of your site, such as
H1-6tags to outline your content.
- Use Structured Data where applicable to featured snippets in Google for things like Events, Products, and on-site Search.
- Add a favicon.
- Use Canonical Tags to denote which variation of content is the primary version.
- hreflang tags for multilingual sites
- Create a sitemap to help Google find new content, and add it to your robots.txt, and search console.
Going back to the premise that Google wants to rank good content, the answer to most SEO questions becomes obvious.
For example, watch one of John Mueller’s SEO talks, pause before he answers, and consider in order:
- What will be best for human visitors of the site?
- What will help search engines better understand the content?
Then try to answer the question yourself and you’ll probably be right the vast majority of the time!
Let’s try it on a few:
- Are lots of 404s bad?
- 404 just means that for a given url there is no content. There are infinitely many such pages on every site, and 404 is the correct response for them. 404 is a problem however, if content was moved or deleted by mistake and other pages are linking to it, you should restore that content.
- Will deleting outdated product or informational pages be bad for SEO or should I do something else instead?
- You should delete them, because finding bad information in search is a bad experience, which will eventually get those pages deranked once Google’s feedback mechanisms detects that this content is bad, and could negatively affect your entire site’s quality score. It’s better to take a tiny penalty for removing a page vs. a sitewide hit to quality. Don’t miss the forest for the trees.
- Will do-follow linking to other sites hurt your rank?
- It depends why you do this. Practices like citing sources shows that you did research and tried to be accurate. This is something good, those people deserve credit and you should link them regardless; reasonable amounts of external links should be seen as a positive for your site. Historically, with the eingenvector-based algorithm, this did cause your site to ‘leak’ a bit of rank and over-optimizing for this old algorithm is likely the reason that Google stopped honoring nofollow links. Having a directory of unrelated sites is not useful for visitors and that’s where you’re going to get a penalty.
- How does down the page does Google read?
- How far down the page do your customers read? Google’s trying to match the behavior of your customers, so assume it does the same thing and values content based on the likelihood that somebody will see it.
- How many times should I use my keywords?
- How many times can you write “best widget store in new york” in your content before it starts to seem “off”? Not that many. Focus on good content over the number of times you use keywords. If the text seems “off”, actual customers wil leave, and then it doesn’t matter what your rank is anyway.
I like to think of it like this:
Based on how useful the content you have is, you deserve a certain rank. You may be able to use “tricks” to temporarily boost rank, but Google’s feedback algorithm will compensate and put you back in the deserved place. Just write better content.
What if you have something that customers don’t yet know about or aren’t searching for?
Well for that you need awareness, and other marketing techniques will be better for that. It’s important to use the right tool for the right job.
SEO is a slow process, it takes time to figure out the best content and products you can deliver. If you need sales NOW you need other marketing techniques.
You can quickly adapt your marketing to current events and trends, while SEO could take a year.
Ideally, you’ll use multiple marketing strategies including SEO, Ads and other marketing techniques together to spread awareness, by naturally capturing the audience that is already searching for you.
SEO seems hard because many focus on the minutiae and miss the big picture. The “quick roads” to success aren’t real.
Good SEO is Easy: The best way to rank well is to write or make something people want, make it easy to use, and fast.« Back to home