Search engine optimisation – the basics
Despite all the confusing acronyms and jargon, getting your website ready for Google is more about understanding people than technology. Here, we discuss some SEO basics. It’s about creating clear, targeted and useful copy, structured in a way that makes it easy to skim and consume – something you should be doing anyway.
Search engines help people find sites and information on the internet. It means you don’t have to know the exact web address (totally handy) – just type in keywords that describe the website or information you’re looking for.
The search engines use massively complex sets of rules called ‘algorithms’. These rules tell the engines how to rank sites for relevancy and credibility against what someone has searched. Type in “cute puppy eating a melon” and Google will use its algorithms to decide what should be on that crucial first page.
It’s this for me, by the way:
Search engine optimisation (SEO to its friends), is about doing a bunch of stuff to make Google rank your site higher in a search result – that’s called improving your page ranking.
But – and this is something the industry is only just getting its head around – SEO shouldn’t be about gaming the algorithms. You’ll see lots of “SEO Hacks” out there promising fast results. Stay strong. They may work in the short term, but Google is constantly updating its algorithms – and that hack that once got you to the top could suddenly send you downwards. The only way to future-proof your SEO efforts is to prioritise the reader’s needs. If it’s useful and/or interesting to your reader, it’s likely to be A-OK in Google’s current and future algorithm settings.
Ok, thank you for coming to my Ted Talk. Here’s some actual detail on how to get your site Google-friendly for 2022.
Take a look at your main pages – the ones titled “about” or “services”. Those are called static pages. There’s a bit you need to do here, SEO-wise, but it won’t bring the ranking gold – think of it as basic housekeeping. It just needs to be done.
That housekeeping is founded on keywords – that is, the words or phrases you think your potential customers will type into a Google search to find you. To get Google to match you to the right people, you need those same words and phrases to appear in the right places on your site.
SEO keywords stem from natural human thought patterns. Properly define your audience and put yourself in their shoes – what will they type into Google to find you? OK, good. Use those keywords and phrases naturally in these spots (unsurprisingly, putting these keywords here also make things easier for the reader):
• The main headline, aka the H1 tag – it’s best to put the keyword as close to the beginning of the title tag as possible. If you think about the way people skim read, this makes sense for the reader too.
• The body copy – don’t get hung up on how many times your keywords should appear. Just focus on creating well-written, single-minded, useful copy and it’ll happen naturally.
• Bolded in subheads or a key sentence – again, this should happen naturally if you’re including good descriptive subheads or highlighting key messages.
• Alt attributes of images – this is the text attached to images. Most websites will set the ‘alt attribute’ from the image’s file name. Take the time to name the file something descriptive, using the keywords.
• URL and permalinks – this is what appears in the address bar at the top of the page. If your text is single-minded and focused, this will happen naturally. For example, a page about puppy toys will have the URL: www.petstuff.com/buy-puppy-toys. Make sure your URLs don’t have meaningless numbers or figures – use petstuff.com/diamond-dog-collar, not petstuff.com/dgclr3425.
• The meta description – this is the text that appears in search results. It acts as a little ad for your site and encourages people to click.
• In links TO the page – this one is arguably the most important. Links to a page where you can buy puppy toys should have the key phrase “buy puppy toys” in it.
And that’s it. Not too hard, right? But there’s only so much you can achieve by tinkering with your site’s static pages – here’s what to do next.
Recent algorithm updates look like they’re prioritising how people behave on and around your site. So, the best way to boost your rankings is to get lots of people clicking onto a page, and then (crucially) staying around to read it. If people link to your page? OMG, amazing. If people share it? Call your parents, you’ve won at SEO.
So that’s the goal, and content is the easiest way to get there. In the meantime, it’s also doing triple duty by building your reputation and staying top of mind with clients.
Google’s AI tool RankBrain is a game-changer. It looks at searches in a more human-like way, so it can figure out what you’re actually looking for, rather than just matching up keywords. So, if I search for “Barack Obama wife”, it can figure out (by having watched other users) that I want info on Michelle, not simply articles that mention “Barack Obama” and “Wife”.
What that means for you as a content creator: happiness. You can worry less about the algorithms and instead, focus on what your reader needs and wants, communicated in language that makes the most sense.
The old-school way of approaching SEO was to come up with a keyword, then create a billion bits of content, all with slightly different variations on the keyword. One article might be optimised for “copywriters, Auckland”, another for “copywriting in Auckland” and yet another for “top copywriter Auckland (rinse and repeat until your actual copywriter would rather die than re-write another article about copywriting).”
Because RankBrain and the algorithm itself care more about user behaviour, having a bunch of articles that no one goes to can actually be a negative. Google is also pretty smart about synonyms, so you’re better to write one really good piece that people are likely to read, share and link to.
The goal with content is to get people to visit, read, share and link to your site, which means hitting them in the feels. You do that by thinking about what really matters to your audience. Remember, you still need keywords in there so your audience knows that they’re in the right place. Here’s what I mean.
Nicely descriptive, with good keywords, but pretty blah:
Content Marketing – 2021 Guide
Nicely descriptive but with a bit of hype and intrigue:
Why Your Content Marketing Guy is Terrified (2021 Guide)
People don’t want to work. The writing in even extremely brainy publications like The Washington Post is about as complex as Harry Potter. So, write simply, keep an eye on sentence length and choose more common words.
Adding subheads and bullet points will also guide your readers through the text – they’ll give a fast understanding of what your text is about and let readers jump in at points most relevant to them. Bonus time: more keywords in good places. Remember, Google looks for keywords in headlines and in bold, so the more you break up your text, the more chance you have to get those keywords in there.
Popping your content up on your site is step one. Getting people to come and read it is step two. There are lots of ways to promote your content – pay for some ads, get someone else to publish on their site, share it on social media and send it around in an email. Try and get in front of people regularly – the more great content you get out there, the more of a reputation you’ll build, and the better your site will rank. It’s honestly that simple.
For almost two decades, we’ve been trumpeting on about how important content is. The arrival of social media and shifts in Google’s algorithms have only amplified it. Why? Because after you’ve gotten your website-SEO spring cleaning sorted, content is the best (and for some brands the only) way to bring up your rankings.