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How in the Heck Does SEO Work?

Oct 27, 2015 8:26:07 AM

One of the very interesting things about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is that while most business professionals understand what it is, very few understand how it works. It’s kind of like a layperson talking about a nuclear reactor – they might know it generates energy, but if they had to explain how, they would be hard-pressed to do so.

While you may hear buzz words about SEO, like robots and spiders, PageRank or Panda, optimizing a website for search engines is actually a very simple process that is undertaken by incredibly sophisticated search engine algorithms. 

Let’s go ahead and get into exactly how search engines work, and why your SEO is either doing great, horrible, or somewhere in the middle.

Part 1: Why use an algorithm?

Everyone knows Google is the king of search, but why does such a huge company put so much emphasis on the quality of search results? The answer is very simple – ad revenue.

A huge part of Google’s $66 BILLION in annual revenue (2014) is based off of paid search clicks. A user enters a keyword phrase onto the site, and they receive natural and paid results that should give them a good user experience. If the user isn’t happy with their search results, they may go to a competing search engine, which would result in lost revenue to Google.

In a nutshell, good natural search results support the core business model that drives a huge amount of Google revenue. Bad results mean you’re less likely to come back in the future and possibly click on a Cost Per Click (CPC) ad.

Part 2: What does the algorithm want from you?

We’ve covered the reason why Google demands high quality in their Search Engine Results Page (SERP), but how exactly do they figure it out? If you were to hop in a time machine and go back about 10 to 15 years, the answer would be easy: High PageRank (link to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PageRank) and content on a subject that could be ranked for a keyword phrase.

While PageRank was once one of the primary means that Google used to generate SERPs, the company eventually outgrew it. It is still one of the “signals” Google uses when figuring out how to return results for a page, but it’s only one ingredient out of dozens and dozens of others that make the Google secret sauce.
What does Google want these days, then? In no specific order:

1. Long-term authority on the subject, with the primary indicator being inbound links from other high-authority sites (more on this later).

2. In-depth content regarding a keyword phrase. You may have heard someone ask before, “How long should an article be to be SEO-friendly?” The answer is: As long as it needs to be. If we’re talking about a subject like World War II, you’re going to need A LOT of content, while for a keyword phrase like “best homemade ice cream,” you’ll get away with a lot less. The key here is that the content should be head and shoulders above any of your competitors in terms of authority and delivering an answer to the visitor’s original query.

3. Semantically related content. What does this mean? Well, if you believe your website deserves to be ranked número uno for “Gas Range”, you better also have content on your site that is related to a gas range (e.g., kitchen appliances). Part of search engine algorithms is weighing the relationship between subjects to decipher what drives a good user experience. Going back to the example of World War II, there are literally thousands of inter-related content pieces that as a whole encompass the subject – it’s no surprise then that Wikipedia has owned the #1 position for this query for a long time running. The Wikipedia entry for WWII (link to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II) has literally hundreds of internal links talking about every facet of the subject, and each of these in turn internally link to supporting content on the subject.

4. Social signals. While Facebook Likes and Twitter Retweets will not directly net you an increase in search engine rankings, they are being used more and more as indicators of overall authority. Because of the ubiquitous nature of social media, it’s not a far stretch to assume that a company with a huge social following on a subject would also have high authority on it within natural search.
These are only a few examples of individual signals that search engines use, with literally dozens more we haven’t covered, though it does give a good starting point.

Part 3: Why are inbound links so important?

If you’ve spent any time within SEO, you’ve heard two things time and again: content and inbound links. We’ve covered the “why” around the importance of high-quality content, but what about inbound links?

To put it simply, inbound links are like votes in a popularity contest. If you get a link from a non-popular site, you’re not going to get a lot of lift around it; however, if you get inbound links from highly popular sites, it indicates to Google that you’re an authority on a subject. Here’s the really important part – the best high-authority links have “anchor text” that aligns with the keywords you want to rank for. “Click Here” or “Visit website” as links are not nearly as effective as anchor text specific to what you want (e.g., “Best pizza recipe,” “Cheap flights,” or “Direct marketing agency”).

Part 4: Why are inbound links so dangerous?

Okay, so you need great content and you need inbound links. How do you get them? Hop back in our time machine, go to the early 2000s, and this was simple – you could buy them, you could spam them, and you created a bunch of low-quality ancillary sites to game the ranking algorithms (one of the big reasons why Google’s algorithm has become increasingly complex is because of “black hat” SEO practices). While none of these methods have ever been considered “white hat” (helping a site rank for keyword phrases in a way that does not manipulate search algorithms), they did work.

These days Google has put all inbound links under much more scrutiny with much more sophisticated tools – they call it “natural search” for a reason, your inbound links should appear to be natural.

This is where the old dynamic of link building has been changed into link earning. Good SEO companies don’t just create a bunch of low-quality sites like directories or non-related personal blogs. Instead they work cross-functionally with social media and PR teams to earn coverage, create content, and attract inbound links.

The danger in going against this approach is that Google can strike down your site with a “Manual Penalty” that can wipe out all or a portion of your keyword rankings. This isn’t limited to tiny companies trying to eke out some rankings, even companies like Expedia have felt Google’s wrath.

Key takeaway: If you want to be the best in the eyes of Google, you have to convince real people who run websites that you are the authority on a subject. If you don’t and you try to game the system, be prepared to have your website treated like a card counter in Vegas.

Part 5: How do you use this info?

To wrap this all up, the key to great SEO results is to not worry about gaming the system, but instead focus on truly being the highest authority on the subject. A great real-world example from our client Crystal Cruises is their top ranking for “luxury cruises.” They quite literally exemplify what it is to be #1 in luxury cruises, because they are the best in luxury cruises!

You must also remember that SEO is a long-term game. We regularly let our clients know that we cannot ever guarantee results and that in reality it’s going to be at least 6 to 12 months before any content creation and link earning efforts result in changes for them. In this way, SEO is a lot like building a business from the ground up – there is no such thing as overnight success, but there is a lot of hard work over months and years to earn a place at the top of search rankings.

Leah Smith

Written by Leah Smith

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