Natural Search Explained:
The SMB’s Guide to Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)
Every business wants to be at the top of a search engine. It means a huge increase in traffic and a serious amount of sales. In fact, it’s thought that around 30% of online experiences start with a search engine. And when their search is complete, 70% of people click on links that are in the organic rankings section. Oh, and to really hit it home, 75% of users never make it past the first page of results.
So ranking highly in a search engine is important, but how is it done?
It’s called SEO or search engine optimisation and to many, it sounds like complicated work. But getting the basics down isn’t actually that hard. Sure, there are trickier elements that require more dedicated learning, but generally anyone can get the fundamentals under their belt.
In this chapter of the guide we’re going to take you on a short walk through basic SEO by giving you a definition, explaining how the search engines find and rank your site, and the nuts and bolts of how to optimise for certain keywords.
What is SEO?
Search engine optimisation is the art of getting your website to rank well in the natural search results of websites like Google, Bing, and Yahoo.
Natural search results?
They’re the listings in the blue box shown below. They’re separated from the paid listings (in the pink boxes) that are at the top and to the right of the page. See our guide on paid listings here for more on those . The difference is that you aren’t paying the search engine directly to appear for certain searches. You’re doing the work yourself behind the scenes to appear organically.
We don’t believe natural search is all about ranking though. It’s about making your website a more enjoyable experience for people too.
There are a lot of aspects to optimising a website for search engines including both technical and creative work – from the links that point to your website, to the HTML under the hood. But before we go any further, it’s important to understand how Google, Bing, and Yahoo work.
How do search engines work?
To provide users with a ranked list of relevant websites for their query, search engines employ two functions: crawling and creating an index. For this example, we’ll look to Google.
First, Google have to traverse the web and figure out what’s what. They do this by crawling links on the internet. Links are Google’s highway across the web, and on their journey they sort each page they visit by analysing a range of different factors. All of this information is then stored and tracked in huge databases that house thousands of machines designed to process massive amounts of information quickly.
When you type a query into a search engine like Google, they delve into their index (their databases) and find the most relevant page relating to your search. They then rank those pages based on over 200 different factors.
So organic search is all about making sure that Google (and other search engines) think you’re relevant, and incorporating as many of those 200-or-so factors as possible. The problem is that Google aren’t too open about what those factors are.
How do search engines rank your website?
The 200+ ranking factors used by Google make up their algorithm. Search engines don’t give much insight into what those factors actually are though. They only offer advice on best practices, so search marketers like us spend time getting to know the algorithms in detail and find ways to extract information about how websites like Google rank pages. This allows us to help clients establish a better organic listing.
We cover more on search engine algorithms in a different chapter here . For the purpose of this basic guide though, we’ll run through Google’s basic best practice guidelines.
Create pages for people – It might be tempting to show different content to search engines than you show to users. This is known as “cloaking” and search engines don’t like it.
Site structure – Your website should have a clear hierarchy and links. Each and every page on the site should be available from a link.
Create a useful site – An information-rich site that is useful to web surfers is great. Make sure that title elements are accurate and relevant too.
Keywords – Use keywords to create descriptive URLS and content that is relevant.
How can SEO help your website?
Now you know what natural search is and how it works, let’s have a look in a little more detail how it actually benefits businesses.
Increased traffic – The higher you rank in a search engine, the more traffic you’re going to get. It’s thought that 60% of clicks go to the first result – so always aim for the top spot. You might not see an instant increase in traffic when starting out, but it’s almost certain to happen.
Brand credibility – People put their trust in websites and businesses that are ranked higher on Google and other search engines. If you’re on the 187th page for a search, customers will likely see your business as a brand without credibility.
Useful data – Popular websites receive more traffic. The more traffic you get, the more data you can farm, helping you identify which products or services visitors are most engaged with and which pages are performing poorly. The more people visiting the website, the more accurate and beneficial this information will be.
Get ahead of the competition – If you’re a local business with stiff competition, you can get the competitive edge by ranking above competitors in search results. Over time, your website’s position could become so successful in organic search results that your competitors change and you find yourself up against bigger businesses.
It’ll make your website better – Many SEO best practices involve making changes that will improve your website’s usability. This can only be a good thing, because the easier it is for visitors to use your site, the more likely they are to convert into paying customers.
On-page / Off-page SEO
There’s a lot of work that goes into optimising a site, but it generally revolves around two categories: on-page SEO and off-page SEO.
These two categories involve very different work – on-page often involves the technical side of SEO, like altering tags and site structure. Off-page is usually part of a larger scale project, building links back to your website through various channels.
Here we’ll take a quick look at just some of the work that’s involved.
What are the on-page factors?
These three on-page factors help the search engines decide what the purpose of a specific page is and how relevant it may be to specific search queries.
Content – The content on a page is what the web surfer clicked on the link to see, so search engines hold it in pretty high esteem. But what constitutes good content? It must supply a demand and also be linkable.
Title Tags – These are ‘quick glance snippets’ describing what a page is about. They’re important for both SEO and social sharing. Highlighted in pink below is an example of a title tag in Google’s search results.
URLs – The URLs of your site should show the hierarchy of information on the page. Take this made up URL as an example: www.seoiscool.com/seo/offpage/guidelines. The search engines use the information in the URL to determine the relevancy of a certain page. So, a search engine crawling that webpage would know that it is discussing the guidelines of off-page SEO.
URLs are the foundation of good SEO and should be your starting point. Once these fundamentals are complete, you can look to the future and to developing your off-page strategy.
What are the off-page factors?
Off-page is all about the work you do away from your website to increase rankings. They often involve promotional techniques like:
Links – As we have discussed throughout this chapter, links are important. Google and other search engines treat links that are pointing to your website as a vote of confidence. The more ‘votes of confidence’ you have, the higher they may rank you. It obviously depends where those links are coming from too. One part of an off-page strategy will be to obtain a link from other, relevant, quality sites across the web. Don’t try to trick the search engines though. Bad links often do more harm than good.
Social – Social Media is an important part of the web, so of course, it’s an important part of SEO. Although not a ranking factor Social media has a high corolation to high ranking sites.
Establish a Twitter and Facebook account and communicate with your customers. The combination of great content and constant conversation will benefit your business’ reputation as well as your ranking.
Google+ – Sure, Google+ is another social media site, but we’re giving it its own tip of the hat because, well, it’s owned by Google! It is extremely likely that the world’s biggest search engine use it as a factor when ranking content.
Today, a lot of off-page work is comparable to PR and marketing work. It’s all about growing brand awareness and creating content that your target audience will want to engage in. And then this, in turn, should help you gain more genuine, valuable links, which will then help you rank higher.
Natural search then and now
SEO is constantly changing, so to ensure your site continues to rank well you have to revise and adjust your tactics on a regular basis. In the early days of natural search, the tactics used to get a site to rank were pretty simple. You could stuff a site with a keyword and it would guarantee that you would rank well.
Over time search engines got smart. They started to learn and adjust to these overly simple tactics, making it harder to use corner-cutting strategies. It was a slow process though and for a while webmasters kept finding new ways to outsmart them.
Google and other search engines have continued to refine and adapt their algorithms since these early days of SEO. Now, the tactics to make a site rank well require a lot more forethought. It’s all about becoming a relevant, reliable source of information.
Today’s tactics don’t just help you rank either. As we said, being found in search engines requires a site that is useful for people, which in turn, will improve your conversions and bring in more business. In short, they help ensure your site is good enough to compete in the 21st century, which can only be a good thing.
There have been many algorithm updates, too many to mention in this brief guide, but here are the most noteworthy ones:
2003 Nov – Following a host of updates throughout the year, Google brought in Florida – the update that changed SEO for good. It killed off late 90s keyword stuffing tactics and altered the organic search landscape forever.
2005 Oct – Google merge their map data into the Local Business Centre, encouraging users to update their info. This would eventually drive changes to local SEO.
2007 May – Universal search is introduced, integrating normal results with news, videos and images; significantly changing Google’s format.
2011 Feb – The first Panda update hits, affecting around 12% of search results. It came down hard on content and other quality issues.
2012 Apr – This “webspam” update adjusted a range of spam factors including keyword stuffing.
2014 Pigeon – This was an update that dramatically changed local results and altered how Google interpreted location cues.
These are just a few milestones in Google’s algorithm history. For a full, detailed timeline of each update, check out Moz’s list here.
Natural search can sound complicated, but it isn’t. Getting to grips with the basics and implementing them on your site is quite easy and often yields positive results. Sure, it takes a little more time than other marketing efforts, and yes, it can be frustrating. But the reality is that SEO brings in converting customers. And that’s really all you want from your marketing efforts.
Add People offer small businesses high quality SEO services that work. In fact, we are so confident in our ability, we will give you your money back if you don’t see an increase in natural traffic to your website.
To kick-start your website’s SEO, contact us here or call us directly on 08450 30 44 44.