SEO, white hat, black hat, cheats, and snake oil.
Phone books are dead and SEO is simply good content. With the new Google Panda Update roll out, good content on smaller sites is expected to be rewarded even more. SEO by any other name would smell as sweet.
People don’t use phone books anymore, they use Google. More now than ever, customers search specifically for the businesses that will solve their problem, rather than just passively being advertised at. With the ease and effectiveness of search engines, customers are empowered to find just what they need, when they want it, with reviews and directions included. When they search, though, few ever go past the first page. This means that getting your site on that first page is critical to your business.
We’re paddling through the territory of charlatans and swindlers, here. If you don’t keep your wits about you, you may find yourself hoodwinked by the practitioners of black hat, who live in these parts, into thinking there is a mysterious magic to SEO. There isn’t. Search Engine Optimization, or a Search Engine Optimizer, can improve your site’s potential to rank well on the SERP, Search Engine Results Page. White hat SEO can get you good CTR, Click Through Rates, which lands people on the shores of your site. Black hat SEO can get your site penalized or even taken off Google’s index, effectively disappeared from the web.
Robots decide where your site lands on that results page. Search engines instruct the bots, called web crawlers or spiders, to browse the internet, look for websites, find out what they’re about, called indexing, and what information might be most relevant to a user’s search. Algorithms determine the relevance of a site, for a search, by looking at the site’s content, how many others link to the site, traffic to the site, title tags, alt attributes, freshness of content, and many other inputs. This algorithm can be tricked into concluding that a site is more relevant than it really is and that’s where black hat SEO lives and dies.
A keyword or key phrase matches with a site and the search engine ranks it based, in part, on this match. If we’re looking for a good ale and we search “find good ale,” the site’s page with the title tag “Find Good Ale Here” might be a good match. Meta tags, which may be displayed in the snippet of the listing on the SERP, if they are specified, may list a description dense in those key words and phrases and help clickthrough rates, though not rankings. Key words may be dense in the content in the body of the page, too, the higher up the better. This is where it gets murky.
It’s ok to use key words and phrases intelligently. If one sells ale, talk about ale. That’s exactly the idea! Describe the page accurately, in the appropriate tags. Use content structure properly. Write content that people want to see, to which people want to link, through which people are motivated to click. That’s white hat. It turns grey, then black, when your content is written less for humans and more for robots, with practices such as those known as “keyword stuffing.” It’s what it sounds like and it may get your site penalized by Google.
Some other tricks include hidden text stuffed with keywords, doorway pages and sneaky redirects, where users get sites they didn’t expect because the links are part of manipulating SERP, and links schemes, with link farms or link spam. These violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and will get your site penalized or even blacklisted from it’s searches. Even though some techniques no longer work with the newer releases of Google’s algorithm and others may work for a moment, just before your site gets penalized, there are plenty of “SEO” companies practicing black hat SEO, willing to sell you down the river.
There are a few tips for spotting these nefarious creatures. If you’re solicited out of the blue, especially through email, something may be afoot. Companies that require links to their sites, promise super fast results, take ownership of content, or are secretive about what exactly they do are swindlers. Watch out for guaranteed rankings. No one can guarantee top ranking on Google. Ranking on the SERP depends on the combination of words in a search. If one gets specific enough in a search, they’ll be number one every time.
There are no “partners with Google.” Straight from the horses mouth, “Beware of SEOs that claim to guarantee rankings, allege a ‘special relationship’ with Google, or advertise a ‘priority submit’ to Google. There is no priority submit for Google.” This is not to be confused with a Google Authorized Adwords, Analytics or Website Optimiser Consultant, which may or may not have any significance. Some will offer to “submit your site to 1,000 search engines!” There are only three that matter, two of which, only marginally. That’s Google, with nearly 70% search engine market share, Bing, with just under 20%, and Yahoo!, with about 10%.
SEO is about understanding for what your customers are searching. It’s not just about the highest demand keyword. The ale seller may benefit from all the traffic, if she comes up top for “ale,” but the most popular searches are a lower percentage of the overall search traffic, 70% of which is unique strings of keywords. Likewise, conversions are more important than clicks.
Conversions are people actually taking action on your site; signing up, buying, and visiting your brick & mortar. 1,000 users with no conversions is worth less than five users with two conversions. The person searching “ale” is probably “just looking.” The person searching “best cheap ale in Alesville” has their wallet out. There is also something to be said for keyword difficulty, where Ales for ALS, a perfect keyword match on a popular, national website, will take the lead after Wikipedia’s article about Ales. Honing in on more specific searches, which are more abundant as they are diverse, may gain more traction and will better target your audience in Alesville. Having content that focuses on searches like this and many other similar combinations of keywords is effective white hat SEO, it gets more traffic and better conversion rates. SEO is important, but if people don’t engage with your site when they get there, it’s not doing it’s job.
A big part of conversion rates is website design. The aesthetic, the layout, knowing where and how to place the CTA, the Call To Action, understanding rapidly changing design standards and user expectations; these are all part of good web design and critical to getting conversions. SEO can get users to your site, design delivers good user experience and interaction.
This raft is going to need something a bit more sturdy for the waters ahead. We’ll need to go ashore.
Coming up: The importance of branding, web presence on a tiny budget, cookie-cutter websites, content management systems, when and how to get a designer, phantom competition, what web presence costs and should cost, posting social, and responsive design.