What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the art and science of increasing the visibility of web pages in search engines such as Google. Because search is one of the most common ways for people to find content online, ranking higher in search engines can result in increased traffic to a website.
The results page of Google and other search engines frequently includes paid ads at the top of the page, followed by regular results, or what search marketers refer to as “organic search results.” To distinguish it from paid search traffic, SEO traffic is often referred to as “organic search traffic.” Paid search is also known as search engine marketing (SEM) or pay-per-click (PPC) (PPC).
Because search is one of the primary ways that users navigate the web, search engine optimization is an important component of online marketing.
Search results are presented in an ordered list, and the higher a site ranks on that list, the more traffic it receives. For example, for a typical search query, the first result will receive 40-60% of total traffic for that query, while the second and third results will receive significantly less traffic. Only about 3% of searchers go beyond the first page of results. As a result, even minor improvements in search engine rankings can result in increased traffic and, potentially, business for a website.
As a result, many businesses and website owners will attempt to manipulate search results so that their site appears higher on the search results page (SERP) than their competitors. This is where SEO comes into play.
How Does SEO Work?
Google, for example, uses an algorithm or set of rules to determine which pages to display for any given query. To determine the rankings of their SERPs, these algorithms have evolved to be extremely complex, taking into account hundreds or even thousands of different ranking factors. However, there are three key metrics that search engines use to determine a site’s quality and where it should rank
Links – Links from other websites play an important role in determining a site’s ranking in Google and other search engines. The reason for this is that a link can be interpreted as a vote of quality from other websites, as website owners are unlikely to link to low-quality sites. Sites that receive links from a large number of other sites gain authority (referred to as “PageRank” in Google) in the eyes of search engines, especially if the sites linking to them are authoritative themselves.
Content – In addition to links, search engines examine the content of a webpage to determine whether it is relevant for any given search query. A large part of SEO is creating content that is tailored to the keywords that search engine users are looking for.
Page structure is the third essential component of SEO. Because webpages are written in HTML, the structure of the HTML code can affect a search engine’s ability to evaluate a page. Site owners can improve their site’s SEO by including relevant keywords in the title, URL, and page headers, as well as ensuring that the site is crawlable.
Optimizing each of these core components of search engine algorithms in order to rank higher in search results is what the search engine optimization process entails.
Search Engine Optimization techniques
Understanding how search engines work is only the first step in improving a website’s search rankings. Improving a site’s rank entails utilizing various SEO techniques to optimize the site for search:
Keyword research – The first step in SEO is to look at what keywords a site is already ranking for, what keywords competitors are ranking for, and what other keywords potential customers are searching for. Identifying the search terms that users use in Google and other search engines provides guidance on what existing content can be optimized and what new content can be created.
Content marketing – After identifying potential keywords, content marketing comes into play. This can include both updating existing content and creating entirely new content. Because Google and other search engines value high-quality content, it’s critical to research what’s already out there and create a compelling piece of content that provides a positive user experience and has a chance of ranking higher in search engine results. Good content is also more likely to be shared on social media and attract links.
Link building – Because links from external websites (referred to as “backlinks” in SEO parlance) are one of the most important ranking factors in Google and other major search engines, obtaining high-quality backlinks is one of the most important SEO levers. This can include promoting good content, reaching out to other websites and establishing relationships with webmasters, submitting websites to relevant web directories, and obtaining press in order to attract links from other websites.
On-page optimization – In addition to off-page factors such as links, improving the actual structure of the page can have enormous benefits for SEO, and is entirely within the webmaster’s control. On-page optimization techniques commonly used include optimizing the page’s URL to include keywords, updating the page’s title tag to include relevant search terms, and using the alt attribute to describe images. Updating a page’s meta tags (such as the meta description tag) can also help—these tags don’t have a direct impact on search rankings, but they can increase SERP click-through rate.
Site architecture optimization – External links aren’t the only thing that matter for SEO; internal links (links within one’s own website) also play a significant role. Thus, a search engine optimizer can boost a site’s SEO by ensuring that key pages are linked to and that relevant anchor text is used in those links to improve a page’s relevance for specific terms. Creating an XML sitemap for larger pages can also help search engines discover and crawl all of the site’s pages.
Semantic markup – Optimizing a website’s semantic markup is another SEO strategy used by SEO experts. Semantic markup (such as Schema.org) is used to describe the meaning behind the content on a page, such as identifying who wrote a piece of content or the topic and type of content on a page. Semantic markup can aid in the display of rich snippets in the search results page, such as extra text, review stars, and even images. Rich snippets in the SERPs have no effect on search rankings, but they can improve CTR from search, resulting in more organic traffic.
Search Engine Optimization tools
As a fairly technical discipline, SEO relies on a variety of tools and software to assist with website optimization. Some commonly used free and paid tools are listed below:
Google Search Console (formerly known as “Google Webmaster Tools”) is a free tool provided by Google that is a standard tool in the SEO’s toolkit. GSC provides rankings and traffic reports for top keywords and pages, as well as assistance in identifying and resolving on-site technical issues.
Google Ads Keyword Planner – Another free tool provided by Google as part of their Google Ads product is Keyword Planner. Even though it is intended for paid search, it can be a useful tool for SEO because it provides keyword suggestions and keyword search volume, which can be useful when conducting keyword research.
Backlink analysis tools – There are several link analysis tools available, the two most popular of which are AHREFs and Majestic. Backlink analysis tools allow users to see which websites are linking to their own or competitors’ websites, and they can be used to find new links during link building.
SEO platforms – There are numerous SEO platforms that bring together many of the tools required by SEO to optimize websites. Moz, BrightEdge, Searchmetrics, and Linkdex are among the most popular. These platforms monitor keyword rankings, assist with keyword research, identify on-page and off-page SEO opportunities, and perform a variety of other SEO-related tasks.
Social media – While most social media sites have no direct impact on SEO, they can be a useful tool for networking with other webmasters and building relationships that can lead to opportunities for link building and guest posting.
Optimizing Content for Discovery and Conversion
When done correctly, search engine optimization has the potential to significantly increase the amount of traffic that a website receives, but all of that search traffic won’t help a business grow unless it converts into paying customers. This is where conversion rate optimization (CRO) enters the picture.
Conversion rate optimization entails making changes to websites and measuring the impact of those changes on the conversion rate. Successful search marketers understand that simply driving traffic to a website is not enough; what the traffic does once there is equally important.
Going over Search Engine Optimization – OC/DC
Talk with any professional expert in SEO and you will quickly find they rarely just spend time optimizing a site for a search engine.
In fact, most people who started out as SEO experts have morphed their services over the years to encompass the full spectrum of content marketing activity.
What people really mean when they say “SEO” is the idea of optimizing content for discovery and conversion across a wide spectrum of the web … not just search engines.
Think about it: When you optimize your site, is it just so that it will rank in Google … or are your goals wider than that?
Absolutely, for many sites, traffic from Google is important. But sites get traffic from a variety of sources — social media, related blogs, and so forth.
Are search engines the only source of valuable traffic? Of course not. Yet we still call the tactics of optimizing for organic traffic “SEO.”
Silly isn’t it?
Optimizing Content for Discovery and Conversion, or “OC/DC” for short, encapsulates this idea of amplifying the overall reach and results of content creation.
OC/DC defines a new role for the former SEO activities, broadening the scope and applicability to what a professional online marketer actually does.
The real rock stars of search optimization have always known that it took a lot more than just getting the top result in Google to measure the success of their work.
How should OC/DC be defined?
OC/DC can be thought of as two distinct areas of focus:
- External optimization
- On-site optimization
External optimization refers to traffic generated to your site, and the research and refinement necessary to improve its quantity and quality.
The external part of OC/DC includes numerous traffic sources — search engines, social media sites, blogs, as well as aggregation sites like Slideshare.net and content syndication sources like Business Insider.
On-site optimization makes the most of these external efforts. This matters because improving the quantity and quality of your traffic only helps you if visitors take the action you want when they find your site.
Load times, usefulness of content, responsive design, and ease of conversion are all encompassed within the on-site portion of OC/DC.
Once you understand the breadth of what OC/DC entails, it is easy to see how it plays a crucial role in the execution of a smart content marketing strategy.
Here’s what OC/DC looks like in practice
Armed with this new and better concept, how can we apply it to our online marketing?
Below are six tactics you can implement right now as part of your effort to optimize content discovery and conversion.
1. Improve content symmetry
All pieces of content on your site should work seamlessly together.
If you have been active in creating content, this may be a good time to stop and re-edit your existing content.
For example …
- Edit headlines — We talk a lot about the importance of headlines, so it may not come as a surprise that we routinely edit published headlines. If you have under-performing articles, take some time to rethink and optimize your existing headlines. (And grab this handy tool for when you do.)
- Review in-links — More than likely, your earlier published content doesn’t link to the latest articles you have been publishing. Take a look through your early articles that are drawing the most traffic, and find ways to link from that content to your best recent work. (Remember: time on site matters for conversion, so the more links to other internal resources, the better to keep the user on-site.)
- Improve calls to action — Who cares if you are getting a lot of visitors if those visitors don’t take the actions you want? Take a hard look at the way you are including your calls to action. Test different wording and designs for improved conversion.
- Convert list posts into individual posts — The numbered list is a tried and true format for drawing more traffic. If you’re looking for new content ideas, consider mining your successful list posts, breaking them down and expanding them into new individual posts, and using internal links to stitch them together.
- Revamp keywords — The Google Hummingbird update placed a new emphasis on the context of keywords within your content. Once again, spend some time reviewing your old posts, then use a tool like Scribe to make sure you are doing a good job of building out the keyword context across your site.
2. Consider mobile responsive design a requirement
Web traffic from mobile devices keeps growing.
If your site is not properly rendering for the myriad mobile devices out there, then you are severely limiting your OC/DC efforts.
Luckily, there are many pain-free ways to optimize a site for mobile devices.
3. Target a 3-second load time (max)
OC/DC practitioners appreciate the fact that a site loading slowly equals the loss of business.
If you are using WordPress, consider a fast, secure, reliable managed hosting provider.
Of equal importance is the code that is running on the server.
Spend time reviewing the loading of your site using tools like WebPageTest.org and find ways to optimize your page loads.
4. Repurpose your existing content
One of my favorite sites to visit is Business Insider. A tactic they use is to republish existing content from other sites directly on the Business Insider site.
No, they are not stealing the content. And no, search engines do not penalize Business Insider or the original publisher for duplicate content.
What Business Insider is doing, as well as a lot of other sites, is reposting existing content from reputable sites and using the “rel=canonical” meta tag to link back to the original post (with permission, of course).
If you look at the source code of the page, you will quickly see that the content originally appeared on the Buffer blog.
By syndicating its existing content to other sites, Buffer can increase its exposure online … while sites like Business Insider can serve more content to their visitors.
It’s a win-win strategy for all involved.
So if you have posts that have done well, don’t be afraid to find sites that would be willing to syndicate the content using the “rel=canonical” tag.
This is a simple tactic for optimizing content discovery if your site has authority.
5. Create your own research
Here is a unique idea to become a real rock star with OC/DC.
Most sites love to publish original research reports within their industry. In the past, creating a research report would take a lot of time and money.
The trick is how you publish the data.
Once you have your survey completed and some basic analysis done, you can repurpose that research in a variety of ways:
- Downloadable report from your site
- Infographic highlighting the key data points
- Presentation deck uploaded to sites like SlideShare.net
- Narrated presentation deck on YouTube
- Webinar discussing the results of the analysis
- Press release detailing the analysis
- Guest posts on the results of the research
- In-person speaking opportunities to present the data
For an expenditure of a few hundred dollars, you have at least eight ways to generate content … from just one piece of research.
That is true optimization of content discovery.
OC/DC to replace SEO
SEO not only has a negative connotation, it is too often used inaccurately to explain a wide breadth of services and tactics that have nothing to do with search engines.
Optimizing Content for Discovery and Conversion, OC/DC, is a more accurate term, describing exactly what a content marketing strategy must encompass to be successful.