By Anne DeVito
Back in the Dark Ages of the Internet, searching for information was like hunting snipes. You believed that what you sought existed somewhere out there, but damn if you could actually find it on a primitive search engine. It was a frustrating experience that often led to people turning to traditional sources, like hardbound, physical copies of the encyclopedia. (Remember those? Crazy.)
But, lo! An algorithm was born, and unto us a Google was given to light our way through the darkness! Suddenly, you could easily find the information you were searching for. It was such a revolution that “google” became a verb in English, and Google’s popularity (and profits) skyrocketed.
With the arrival of Google’s amazing and reasonably accurate search engine, everyday people started using the Internet to search for companies and products, like a modern Yellow Pages. Ranking as one of Google’s top search results became increasingly important for businesses—but hardly anyone knew how to actually improve their Google rank. Through trial and error, some clever folk figured out ways to optimize websites so that they were more likely to be ranked as the top result. The Search Engine Optimization (SEO) industry came to be, and marketing online would never be the same.
What’s in It for My Business?
Before we go too far, let’s talk about why knowing a bit about SEO is a good thing for you and your small business. Most consumers turn to the Internet when they are looking for a product or service. Millennials do it, Baby Boomers do it, even my 91 year old grandmother does it. Studies have proven that the higher you are on Google’s search results, the more likely you are to get a click1. Your website, products, and marketing may be astounding, but if nobody can find you online, it’s not going to make a lick of difference. SEO can help your customers find you, and that’s a very good thing indeed.
It’s Not an Exact Science
SEO is all about using what we know about Google’s algorithm to improve a website’s search ranking. The problem is that Google keeps its algorithm under a tight lock and key—so we know nothing about it for certain. Sometimes our Google overlords are kind and drop a hint or two, but most of what we know, we know through trial and error. (Watch the sheer panic the SEO community undergoes whenever there’s a major algorithm change, and you’ll see.) However, that trial and error does produce repeatable results that SEO companies use to help their clients improve their search rank. It’s not an exact science by any means, but it can produce results. The biggest focus of current SEO is still what it’s always been: keywords.
Keywords, Keywords, Keywords
It’s an all-too-common joke amongst people who know SEO that an “SEO marketer walks into a bar, grill, pub, public house, Irish, bartender, drinks, beer, wine, liquor…” Unfortunately, this is a “funny because it’s true” scenario. Google’s algorithm still has a heavy focus on the words that users put in the search bar. In the past, this has led to some pretty atrocious content practices, like those in the joke above—but it’s an understandable thing. You want your customers to be able to find you, and they type in some crazy things.
As an example, if I ran a cat herding business in Atlanta, here are just a few of the things people could type into their search bars to try to find my business:
• Atlanta cat herding
• Cat herding
• Cat herding in Atlanta
• Georgia cat herders
• Cat training Atlanta
• Feline coordination specialists
• OMG help I need someone to control my cats
…and so much more. One of my favorite blogs, The Bloggess, has a series of posts of the positively ridiculous (and often Not Safe For Work!) search terms that lead people to her website. The terms often have nothing to do with her site or her work, but yet people find her through them—and they’ll find you the same way.
Fortunately, we can predict some of the terms (known as keywords) people are the most likely to use. From there, SEOs employ a variety of tactics (some good, some bad, and some ugly, depending on the company you use!) to help to improve your searchability
Because some SEO companies have used their powers for evil, Google has been forced to evolve its algorithm. This, in turn, has forced good SEO companies and good websites to change how they present their content online. Through these changes, Google is slowly molding the Internet into a user-friendly experience instead of a quagmire of link spam and excessive keyword use.
As a denizen of the Internet, I’m actually grateful to the shady SEO companies because they have unintentionally forced the Internet to become a better place and forced SEO content to be significantly less painful to read (and write!). There’s still a long way to go before the Internet is an entirely user-friendly place, but positive steps have been taken.
What Does the Future of SEO Hold?
There is a lot of uncertainty about the future of SEO. Naysayers have been preaching that SEO is dead since it was first born, but it’s still very much alive. Here’s what I know: Google’s never been particularly happy that SEO exists. It’s a way to game their system, and they don’t like that at all. They have made extensive changes to their basic ranking algorithm and the PageRank system to dissuade and bump pages which use certain black hat SEO practices.
SEO will stick around for a few years yet (at minimum), but it will continue to be more and more difficult for SEOs to affect their pages’ search ranking with cheap tricks. They will have to invest more in quality content and user experience—and the Internet will become an even better tool because of it.
There are SEO best practices for other search engines like Bing and Yahoo—but let’s be real: Google is the only engine that actually matters to you and your business. For one, Google leads the market on searches with over 67% of users making searches there. (Bing comes in second place with a paltry 18%. Other engines have even less of a market share than that!)2 Second, Google is the engine other engines aspire to be, and those other engines are using most of Google’s tricks.
If You Want to Learn More
SEO can be a very useful tool for your small business to have—and knowing even basic tricks yourself can save you significant money over hiring an SEO firm. The Internet is FULL of resources on how to succeed at optimizing your website, but I’ve found these resources particularly helpful:
Search Engine Watch
Search Engine Watch watches Google closely to try to figure out its next move. Frequent updates and a more comprehensive view on online marketing (that is to say, more than just SEO) make this a good resource.
Matt Cutts’ blog on Google and SEO
Matt Cutts is the head of Google’s Webspam team, a.k.a. the guys who are trying to kill bad SEO practices (which might just be all of them in Google’s mind—we’ll discuss this more in a later post). He discusses the ways you can get in trouble with Google in most of these posts, but he also discusses ways that honest sites can pursue certain SEO tactics as well. His videos are short, informative, and clear. His Twitter account (@mattcutts) is also a good follow.
Anne DeVito is a consultant specializing in content development and nonprofit funding. She has over 5 years of experience in the marketing sector and currently operates a private consulting firm. In her free time, Anne enjoys cooking, creating art, traveling, and volunteering.
Follow Anne on Twitter: @afdevito