SEO is not an isolated component of your marketing strategy. I believe it can affect, and be affected by, every aspect of your business. Because of this, I think everyone in an organization should have a fundamental understanding of SEO.
There’s a heck of a lot more to SEO than I’m about to put forth here – but I hope this post can serve as an accessible way for the layperson to wrap their head how search engines work.
Search rankings can be largely reduced to this simple equation:
Relevance * Authority = Rankings
Relevance determines what your pages will rank for and authority determines how well.
That’s really all there is to it. Yes, search engines like Google consider over 200 ranking factors in determining where to place your site in their SERPs (search engine result pages), but most of them either fall neatly into this equation, or you don’t need to worry about them to form a basic understanding of SEO.
And that’s just the thing… the technicalities of SEO can be completely overwhelming. They all have their place, but search engines ultimately have one goal: to give users the best result for their search. They’ve evolved drastically over the years in an effort to beat the people who try to game the system, and they’re going to keep doing that. A common mantra among web marketers and developers is “don’t build websites for search engines, build them for people.” This can be very powerful advice, since how search engines behave is constantly moving towards interpreting the web more like humans. That doesn’t mean you should completely ignore SEO, but it’s a good reason to take a step back from the complexity of SEO, and see the forest for the trees.
Scammy or complicated tactics to win rankings come and go, but the two main pillars of SEO, relevance and authority, have been around since the beginning – and they’re here to say.
Relevance is the first and most critical piece of every SEO puzzle. Relevance is established almost entirely on your website on a page-by-page basis by a process most people call “on page SEO.” In the simplest terms, search engines see each URL on your site as an individual page. In order to rank for a phrase or concept, you need to have a web page on your site that is relevant to the query.
The best bet for ranking on a phrase is usually to have a specific page as close to the concept you wish to rank for as possible. There’s a delicate art to how granularly you slice up your concepts into target phrases and individual pages on your site, which has swung from one end of the spectrum in the early days of SEO (one landing page per target phrase) to the other (not targeting phrases at all, and only targeting general topics), but the best approach is most often somewhere in between – as Rand Fishkin of MOZ explains very well in this Whiteboard Friday video.
Search engines interpret your web pages a lot like a person interprets a magazine article.
People start at the top, and determine what the article is about by reading the title, headings, and sub-headings. They also take into account what magazine they’re reading (an article about cars in a woodworking magazine might seem out of place), and how prominently the article is featured (was it mentioned on the cover page? is it a big important article or a small one-off?) All these tendencies are reflected in how search engines crawl your web pages and determine the relevance of the pages.
Web pages are composed of a handful of important elements that most search engines (and readers) prioritize for relevance as follows:
- Title Tag
- Headings (H1, H2, etc)
- Body text
- Media (images, videos, etc)
I recommend including your target terms naturally into these elements by order of importance, but not stuffing them in simply for the sake of it, or repeating them over and over again. Just like a person, when a search bot reads your content, they can also tell if it’s meaningful – or if it’s just a bunch of words put together for the sake of targeting phrases to rank on.
Want more insight into the perfectly optimized page? Let me Google that for you 🙂
Once you have a well-targeted page, you may not even need anything else to get top rankings. That is, if there’s little or no competition for a phrase you’ve established clear relevance for – that might be all you need. If I made a page right now that directly targeted something extremely obscure, it could take the top spot in a few hours!
You can rank #1 all day and night for something, but if no one is searching for it there’s not much value in it. Even more important than establishing relevance on your web pages is establishing relevance on the right thing.
One of the most useful tools for doing keyword research is Google’s AdWords Keyword Planner.
It’s free, but you do need an AdWords account to use it (however you don’t need an active campaign). Here’s a basic (and slightly outdated – sorry) guide to using it for keyword research.
Some other great tools for doing keyword research are:
- Google Trends
- KWFinder (paid)
- MOZ Keyword Difficulty Tool (paid)
- SEMrush (paid)
The most lucrative terms are those with the highest volume of searches, but those are also most often highly competitive. Maybe you’ll find a gem or two that are high volume/low competition. In order to evaluate the competition (other websites who’ve already established some degree of relevance on your desired phrases), you’ll need to take a look at their…
Authority is how the search engines measure the worthiness of your web page against that of all the others vying for a particular ranking spot. All relevance factors being equal, it is the authority of a page that will ultimately determine how well it ranks.
Where relevance is the most important factor in a page’s ranking (a blank page with infinite authority can’t rank for anything), authority is far and away the most powerful factor. A page with massive authority that simply mentions a certain phrase in its body copy can easily outrank a perfectly optimized page with inferior authority.
Authority doesn’t have a fully standardized means of measurement, but the closest we have in the SEO industry are MOZ Domain Authority & Page Authority, which can be measured using their Open Site Explorer tool, or a variety of other tools that use its API including MOZ’s SEO Toolbar and a number of Chrome and Firefox extensions (my personal go-to is SEO Site Tools for Chrome).
There are numerous other tools with their own indexes that provide a version of domain and page authority metrics, including SEMrush and Ahrefs. They all have their pros and cons, but generally each will provide a decent comparison of authority relative to itself. MOZ’s Domain and Page Authority, however, are the most widely used and are accessible for free.
These metrics are often abbreviated to DA and PA. Essentially, DA measures the authority of the domain, or the website as a whole, and PA measures the authority of each individual page… But you probably sorted that out already 😛
An authoritative domain can have its pages rank without them necessarily having their own page authority. An obvious example of this would be when CNN publishes a new article on a hot topic, that article may rank well in Google before anyone starts linking to it. Similarly, a strong page can rank in spite of a weak domain. An example of this would be a blog post on a small website that gains critical mass and becomes the primary traffic generator for that website.
Sizing Up the Competition
We can use DA and PA as a rough means of gauging competition for a given search result. Plug your target term into Google and look at the first result (and the second, and maybe the tenth). If one of these pages are well-optimized, clearly targeting your searches intent, and if MOZ tells you that page has 50 PA while your site has 10 – you’re going to have to grow your page’s authority in order to outrank them.
On the other hand, if these pages have killer authority, but don’t actually have your searched term prominently featured in their title tag, or the ranking pages don’t seem to really match the intent of your search, there may be an opportunity to create a more relevant page and sidestep the authority game (or perhaps you’ll need some authority to outrank them, but not actually more than them).
This is the hardest part of SEO, period. And it should be! The goal of every search result is to give the searcher the absolute best page on the internet that relates to what they are looking for. While there are of course many nuanced facets to how a search engine determines authority, what is and always shall be the most prominent authority-driver is links.
Links from other websites that point to yours indicate that your content was deemed valuable by others. The more of them your domain or page has, the more confident a search engine can be in the quality of your content. Not all links are equal, though. Far from it. The value of a link is largely determined by the DA and PA of the linking page, so a link from The National Post is going to be worth a lot more to your site than one from scammy-link-farm-directory.net.
You can think of websites like investors, and links like currency. Mark Cuban is a well-known investor. If he invests in your product, that endorsement goes a lot farther than if your unlce Jim does. Even if they invest the same amount, Cuban’s investment will help you get other investments, and give your product more visibility.
The context of the link is also considered (what kind of page it’s on, what that page is about) as well as the words contained in the link “anchor text” itself. There’s a lot more value in getting an editorial link to your freelance SEO website in an article about “The Top 5 Freelance SEO’s Ever” with the anchor text Nick is the best freelance SEO guy out there, than there is from being on a handful of self-submitted web directories with your business name as the anchor text.
A few popular ways of generating links to your site are:
- Directory link building (adding your business/site to relevant business directories)
- Guest posting (writing posts on other websites’ blogs)
- Competitive link building (finding pages that link to your competitors, but don’t link to you, and asking them for a link)
- Broken link building (finding pages that link to other pages that don’t work anymore or suck, and providing a better page to link to on your own site)
- Link outreach (connecting with website owners in relevant areas to your own, and explore opportunities for acquring links)
- Link baiting or content marketing (building great content that attracts traffic and links by virtue of its greatness)
Link Bait & Content Marketing
One of the most popular and effective means of generating authority for your site is by not doing link building at all. If you can create amazing content and get it in front of the right audience, you can potentially garner more links of a higher quality than by any other approach. One single blog post that hits a critical mass can accumulate links from 100’s of sites, or from enormous sites like national news publications, etc. Content can come in many forms: blog posts, infographics, resources, tools, etc.
If you always find your customers asking the same questions, or your industry peers always need to do some certain calculation and there are no solid answers or tools out there – those might be opportunities to create high-value content that could generate traffic, links, and authority for years to come! Everything I’ve linked to in this post is an example of those sites accumulating links by providing good content!
Authority passed from one page to another is often referred to as “link juice” or “link equity.” When one website links to another, they give away a little bit of link equity away to the site they link to. Don’t get too hung up on this, as it’s far from a 1:1 relationship and linking off your site in a natural way can be a good thing, but helps illustrate why certain websites use the “nofollow” attribute in their links.
Nofollowing a link asks the search engine crawling the page to ignore the link, and not count it as an investment from the website. Links from directories (like Yellow Pages), social sites (like Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit), or comment sections are often nofollowed so as to prevent abusing these sites to build quick links. Nofollowed links can still be valuable, either simply by generating traffic, or in some cases still passing on some equity, but they offer significantly less authority to the sites they link to than their followed counterparts.
Spam = Bad
A lot of folks try and artificially generate links by creating some form of web spam. Whether it’s buying PBN’s on Fivr, or commenting on blog posts with a link back to your site until your fingers bleed (or creating a bot to do it for you). Some of these tactics can work temporarily, but most often result in domain penalties that can tarnish your site’s reputation (and ability to rank) for years, or forever. If you want to build a sustainable web presence, it’s probably best to avoid spam at all costs.
Social networks’ contribution to DA and PA is debatable. They can absolutely offer indirect authority boosts, by generating traffic to your site (which can then result in links and other authority signals), but simply putting your content on Facebook isn’t going to have a significant impact on your site’s authority in and of itself.
One handy thing to keep in mind, especially if you have a smaller or newer website, is that Google’s network, Google+, does help speed up the indexing process when you create new content. For example, when you create a new post on your blog, Google doesn’t know it exists until it follows a link to it from somewhere else. Until your post is noticed by Google, or “indexed” it won’t show up anywhere in the search results. Sharing your new blog posts on Google+ is a pretty reliable way to make sure Google begins to evaluate it for relevance and authority as quickly as possible.
For more in-depth advice on building links to your site, here’s a crazy-good guide from Brian Dean at Backlinko.
- Relevance determines what your pages will rank for.
- Establish relevance with your page structure, title tags, headings and content.
- Research search volumes to find the best phrases to target.
- Authority determines how well you’ll rank on something your page is relevant for.
- Measure authority by MOZ’s DA and PA, or the metrics used by other popular tools.
- Consider the DA and PA of your competition when deciding what to target.
- Find ways to acquire links to your website without being a spammy jerk.
- Great content is one excellent way to generate activity and links.
Thanks for reading and good luck!