Back To Basics : #1 SEO
Updated: Jun 16
It’s easy for us to forget that, given we live this kind of ‘stuff’ here at CubeSquared, not everyone who runs a business or offers a service will necessarily understand the in-and-outs and the technicalities of the online space and how they can use it to their advantage.
To address that we’re going to start a series of blogs that strip everything back to its basics, starting with SEO, or Search Engine Optimisation.
Whether you're one of our customers or not, these posts are designed to help you make your business an online success by understanding the basic building blocks you can utilise to help yourself succeed in terms of your online presence, especially if you're doing it yourself.
Think of this series of blogs as the first day of digital marketing school on a range of subjects. They will hopefully be the perfect guide for you to use, whether as a jumping-off point, a reference guide or a cheat sheet, especially if you’re a complete beginner.
We apologise in advance if we’re teaching any of you something you already know, but we want to cover it all from the ground up.
For this, and all of the topics ahead, we’ll hopefully cover what it is, why it’s important and how you can maximise it for yourself. Then, going forward and as we add additional posts over time, if you’re missing anything, you can always refer back to them again.
So let’s start with the very basic of basics. WTF is SEO anyway?
WHAT IS SEO?
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation. It’s the art of optimising your website / pages so that they rank high (or as high as possible) on search result pages from search engines like Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, etc.
Higher ranking generally means more hits or traffic (i.e. people clicking on results and visiting your site) to read your content, find out information about you, buy your products or purchase your services.
This isn’t a coincidence. In fact, there is a direct correlation between search ranking and internet traffic. Still unsure? Consider this. The top five search results, get 70% of the clicks. That’s not the first five pages, it’s the first five results!
Most people, when they think of internet search think of Google, and whilst they are the biggest player in the market, they’re not the only ones. When we talk about search engines or mention Google here, we’re not necessarily talking about Google specifically. Most of this will also apply to other engines too, but you can’t talk about internet searches without using Google as a verb and a noun!
When it comes to search, the results that are created and given back to you can be divided into two camps; organic and non-organic results.
Organic results are those pages that are found without the creator paying the search engine in question to have them listed at the top. They appear 'organically' thanks to good old-fashioned, hard work, not to mention some clever digital marketing techniques.
The others are called ‘non-organic’ search results, because, as you might guess, someone has paid Google (or whomever) to put their site at the top of the page, based on what you’ve searched for.
Anyone can pay to have their sites listed at the top of the ranking listed. It only takes some deep pockets, so SEO is really only focused on organic search. Let’s give an example.
If, for instance, you search on Google for ‘men’s training shoes’; you’ll type your query in the search box and hit return. The engine then crawls the internet and using its algorithm finds you what it thinks are the most relevant results and brings you back thousands, if not millions, of results that match your query.
It's a pretty broad term, so the results will be plentiful. There will be pages and pages AND PAGES of them stretched over dozens of SERPs (or Search Engine Related Pages). Whilst all of the results will be relevant to some degree, Google knows, we know and, let’s face it, you know, that you’re not going to be looking for results on pages 4, 12 or 103 for what you want. You’re interested in page 1 and occasionally page 2.
If you look at the top of the first page of results (after the images it brings up), you’ll probably see a couple of results with the word ‘Ad’ next to them (as per the example below).
Now whilst these links will be relevant, they will also be at the top because those companies have paid the search company to put them at the top (in this case On-Running.com, Adidas and New Balance). That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best training shoes for you, or the cheapest or the most fashionable, it just means that the search company has selected them from its list of customers and delivered their now financially biased results to you.
The word ‘Ad’ itself is pretty easy to miss, so if you click it hoping it’s the most relevant result (because it’s at the top), then Google will get paid. This is a process called Pay-Per-Click (or PPC). We’ll cover that in more detail in a later post, but we digress…
Before we get into SEO, let’s briefly look at what’s going to get us there, and that’s search terms.
When you go to Google, Yahoo or any of the other 140+ search engines that exist, you go there to find out something. Whether you’re looking for answers to life’s important questions, looking to buy something or just browsing, you’ll type some words into the search box and hit return, those words and / or numbers are your search terms.
Search terms can be one word, multiple words or complete sentences. It’s important to remember that, because people are different, 10 people looking for the same thing might phrase their search query in 10 different ways.
Carrying on our earlier example, not everyone will use ‘men's training shoes’ as their search term; it might be “men’s trainers” or “training shoes for blokes” or “male sports shoes” or any number of other perfectly acceptable variations. You will want your sports shop to rank high for all of the possible combinations (or as many as the website owner can think of).
It might seem like a relatively simple search term, and it is, but behind the scenes, there’s a virtual war going on between all the interested parties trying to get their result higher up the list.
In a dream scenario, the user types a query, the search engine understands the intent perfectly (more on that soon) and delivers the perfect result. The user then clicks the first result and finds the most beautiful website that is exactly what they want, but we hope you are beginning to see the problems with this scenario.
What are the ‘perfect’ search terms to use and even if they were used, the perfect website (maybe that’s yours) might not be optimised to take advantage. Their SEO might be lacking and they’re languishing back on page 67 feeling pretty lonely.
On top of all that, search terms also might contain spelling mistakes, numbers instead of words, abbreviations, ‘text speak’ or be phrased with the same (or similar) words but in a different order.
Search engines have to deliver results based on search terms that might contain one or all of these things from millions of people. It’s far from an exact science.
HOW ARE SEARCH RESULTS DETERMINED?
Ah! Here’s the important question. For all the results that a search engine could bring to you and millions of web pages on the internet that relate to your query (however tenuously), how does it determine and rank one from another?
The answer is simple; it uses an algorithm. An algorithm is a mathematical formula its systems use to give you the answer you want (or the answer it thinks you want).
Each search engine will have its own secret algorithm it uses to rank its results and, whilst its exact workings are an ever-changing mystery to those outside of the team creating them, there are those working with SEO (like us) that have developed insight and experience over time into what they are looking for so we can give you our best informed ‘guesstimate’, which if we are honest, is all anyone can ever really do.
That’s not to say it’s static, the algorithms change regularly, as much as 500 - 600 times a year, so it can be an ever-moving target we’re trying to hit and we can’t be complacent. What might work today won’t necessarily work as well tomorrow. It’s also why SEO is a long game, rather than a one-and-done hit job.
That said, the vast majority of these algorithmic changes will be fairly small (bug fixes, glitches, indexing errors, etc.) and most won’t impact either digital marketers (like us) or users (like you) to any great degree, but every now and again, the algorithm has a major update and that’s when things get interesting and things need adjusting to ensure sites are still relevant and ranking highly.
At the time of writing, the last core update for Google was just a couple of months ago in December 2020.
WHAT FACTORS DOES IT LOOK FOR?
Another great question! You’re on fire today! Whilst any search algorithm is complex in nature, in basic terms, (this is a ‘basic’ post after all), SEO can be broken down into two factors; on-page SEO and (not surprisingly) off-page SEO. Let’s take a look at both of them and how you can use them to your advantage.
The good news is that on-page SEO looks at those factors that you, or whoever manages your website on a day-to-day basis, can realistically control. These can include things like the code base of the site itself, the images you’ve used, the written content on each page and how user-friendly your site is (often referred to as the UX - or User Experience).
All of these are in your hands so you’re in a good position to start from. If any of these things aren’t working (or optimised) for you, then you can change them quite easily.
You can improve your content (or start creating content if you don’t already), look at the structure of your site and make sure that site navigation is a breeze for users. Doing these things well also gives you a good starting point when it comes to off-page SEO.
OK, SO WHAT IS OFF-PAGE SEO?
Off-page SEO, on the other hand, looks at those factors that aren’t in your control, or at least, things in which you’re in less direct control. These include things like links to your site from other sites (known as backlinks), the attention your site gets from social media and a multitude of other marketing-related factors that exist away from your site like trust, brand reputation, relevance and popularity.
Off-Page SEO can also include reviews of your business on sites like Google, Yell, Trip Advisor (if that’s relevant to your business) and TrustPilot, etc. Search engines, especially Google, use these to act as a barometer on how your business, or brand, is perceived.
There’s also a factor of off-page SEO that looks at the sector in which you operate and how ‘niche’ it is. If you run an independent sports shop in a small town selling trainers, then you’re in a very crowded marketplace (like for our earlier example) so ranking higher organically will be much harder when you’re competing with large corporations than if, for example, you’re the only seller of purple organic carrots, which will be a much smaller sector.
Do these things make it harder for SEO? Well, yes, but don’t be overly downbeat. Concentrating on creating quality content, managing a well-built, regularly maintained website and delivering great service will all help you in the long run and that’s what this is. Remember, SEO is a long game and, like you, we play to win
Whilst on- and off-page SEO are distinct entities, they work together and are intrinsically linked. Both need to play a part in your SEO and marketing strategy. It’s not something just to look at when you remember to or to satisfy the boss when your appraisal is due. Focus on doing what you can control REALLY well, week in and week out and the rest will begin to fall into place.
At the end of the day, search companies want to point their billions of users to the best websites, not least so they keep coming back and not start using another search engine, so it’s important that one of the best websites they promote is yours! Got that, good! Moving on!
By putting on- and off-site SEO together and they become a ranking signal, one of a number of signals (or factors) that search engines look at. This leads us in nicely on to…..
Ranking signals or ranking factors are those characteristics of any website that helps determine its position in search results. We say ‘helps’ because, as we mentioned earlier, the intricacies of the search algorithm are secret, so no one knows EXACTLY what combination of ranking signals is going to work their magic on a position.
Neither Google nor Bing (or any other search engine) are going to disclose their secret search sauce, but they do tell organisations like us what’s important. This allows us to test and try different combinations to see what works best for our clients.
There are any number of signals available, but these are basically the main ones to think about, as are those things we mentioned earlier like creating quality content, having a simple, easy-to-use website structure and creating backlinks to your site. Another important signal is something we haven’t mentioned yet, and that’s mobile SEO.
Since 2018, Google has been indexing the mobile version of your website first. Websites look and work slightly differently when viewed on a smartphone or tablet; for one thing, the navigation of the site alters to deal with the limited real estate of the screen.
These days, more people surf the internet on a mobile device than they do on a desktop or laptop. As such, the search engines will crawl and analyse the content and mobile performance of your site BEFORE the desktop version. If your website isn’t optimised for mobile and mobile-friendly, it REALLY needs to be.
THE 4 PILLARS OF SEARCH INTENT
Now we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of SEO. It’s one thing for you, or anyone, to type words into a search engine, but for Google, Bing, or anyone else to deliver the best search results, it needs to understand the context of your search or your ‘search intent’ if you will!
Search intent (sometimes known as ‘user’ or ‘audience’ intent) aims to understand what it is someone is looking for when using a search engine. Are you looking to answer a question? Wanting to buy a product or service? Crawling for recommendations or reviews? Are you looking for a specific website or just browsing to find the best price?
For a search engine to give you the best results, it needs to know what your intent is. For that, there are 4 distinct choices; information, navigation or transactional intent and finally commercial investigation.
The intent will be driven by the words used in the search query. Different words will give context for the query. We’ll try and highlight them for each one to give you a better understanding of how SEO works. Let’s take a look at them all in more detail.
1. INFORMATIONAL INTENT
Many people will use search engines when they are looking for information. Whether that’s how far away the sun is, who the President of France is or where is the best place to get a website (SPOILER ALERT - it’s us) ;-)
Whatever the question, there is an informational intent in the question. The user asks a question, the search engine needs to not only understand the words, it also needs to understand the intent of the question to deliver what it thinks will be the most relevant result.
They know that when you ask “How far away is the sun?”, you probably don’t want to know how far the offices of The Sun newspaper are from your house, you want to know how far that burning ball of gas in the sky is from Earth.
The question could require a simple answer, like the example above, or if it’s a more complicated question like “What is cryptocurrency?”, the answer needed might be more informed.
That’s fine if the query is phrased like a question, but not all of them are. If the query is ‘Houses of Parliament directions” or “spaghetti bolognese”, it’s less clear, so the algorithm needs to work out what you want based on a less-than-obvious request.
The algorithm will assume that, if you type ‘spaghetti bolognese’ as a query, the probable intent is to find a recipe for it, rather than to find out its culinary history. Also, if your query starts with “how to…” you’re probably looking for help to do something, so will first often offer up videos and pictures to help you do whatever it is.
Typical words that will derive informational intent include the classics '“who…”, “what…”, “where..”, “why…” and “when…” but also can incorporate things like “learn…”, “a guide to…” or “the best way to…”. Informational intent doesn’t exclusively include these words, there are plenty of others, so when doing research on keywords for your site or blog post, use these kinds of modifiers to find different examples of intent to make sure you cover your bases.
2. NAVIGATIONAL INTENT
Navigational intent is pretty straightforward and is used when it seems like the intent is for the user to navigate to a specific website.
People who, for example, type ‘Twitter’ or ‘Facebook’ into a search box are usually looking to go to those respective websites. It’s also often easier than typing the full URL into the navigation bar, or it happens when they don’t know it.
Search engines understand navigational intent through the use of brand names or the actual name of the product or service you’re looking for. They know when you type ‘Facebook’ you’re not looking for a list of books on faces. Of course, you might be, but it’s not going to bring those up immediately.
3. COMMERCIAL INVESTIGATION
Before they reach 'buying mode', people increasingly want to research any purchase they’re looking to make, and the internet has made that easier than ever.
They might want to find the best laptop, the quietest washing machine, or they are comparing one item to another to ascertain which features are best for them. They may also be looking at reviews for your company or products. They will be doing research and whilst those searches may contain a degree of transactional intent (more on that in a minute), they’re not quite at the point where they’re going to buy, so these searches are called ‘commercial investigation’.
This type of intent also plays a part when it comes to local searches. Users might be looking for ‘electricians’ (or ‘plumbers’ or ‘whatever’) near me’ or the ‘best restaurant nearby’ and you want those results to include your business, so your site needs to help answer those local searches too (see the next section).
Examples of commercial investigation searches will include “the best…”, “top…” or attributes of a particular thing (size, colour, etc).
4. TRANSACTIONAL INTENT
Finally, if you’re looking to buy something online, then this is where transactional intent comes into play. At this stage, most will know what it is they want to buy, the research is done and are using a search engine to either look for the best price, the fastest delivery or the closest stockist, etc. These people are in full-on buying mode, rather than research mode, so the intent needs to be to find them what they want to complete their purchase.
Queries with transactional intent will include typical purchasing words like “buy”, “price”, “cheap / cheapest” or “discount” to help the search engines to understand your intent and deliver you the best results.
There’s another aspect of SEO that’s important. We touched on it a few minutes ago, but often gets overlooked, and that’s local search engine optimisation. Not every business is looking for global domination online, they just want to be found in their local area.
Most businesses exist locally and are often just looking to help visitors find them online and get people to their physical shop, venue, restaurant, etc. (assuming there isn’t a global pandemic raging).
If you don’t think it’s important, consider that 18% of local searches will lead to a sale on that very day. In contrast, only 7% of non-local searches will!
These businesses aren’t looking to target people searching halfway around the world, they just want to appeal to people in their immediate geographical area, so local SEO looks at doing just that. We’ve talked about the basics of local SEO in more detail in the third of this ‘Back To Basics’ series (linked here).
There you have it. The first in a series of our simple ‘Back to Basics’ guides on SEO. As we mentioned, Search Engine Optimisation isn’t an exact science and there isn’t a magic wand that anyone can wave that puts you at the top of search results (outside of paying for the privilege) overnight (we wish there were), so don’t listen to anyone who promises that.
The second one in the series on Keyword Research can be found right here!
If you think we’ve missed anything here or want another Basic Guide to ‘something else. Let us know in the comments below.
Also, if you want help with SEO for your business, get in touch with us and we’ll be happy to help you. All the links for doing so are linkep below. You can also check out our own page on the subject right here. We look forward to hearing from you. Original blog photo courtesy of Merakist on Unsplash