SEO – search engine optimization

Fernando Maciá

Written by Fernando Maciá

What is SEO

SEO is an effective marketing strategy because users use search engines to discover new content and visit only those websites that appear in the top positions. Identifying what those searches are and achieving top rankings for them is the goal of SEO. And since we can’t pay Google to show us in a better position, SEOs study how search engines rank content to improve positioning.

Why SEO is so important

Entering keywords in a search engine
Entering keywords in a search engine

As soon as the first search engines appeared, several aspects became evident that led to the emergence of SEO (search engine optimization or web positioning) as a professional activity in high demand and with a clear role in any online marketing strategy:

  • Users do not always pose their queries in search engines in an accurate, logical or predictable way: identifying what exactly a user is looking for when using keywords such as “slimming” or “operation” is not an easy task for a search engine. This is why search engines have refined their algorithms to consider the context of the search. For example, they take into account what other searches the same user did previously (their “search history”), whether they refined them in any way (e.g., if after searching for “slimming” they made a new search of the type “slimming diets”) as well as the type of device from which they entered the query and their geographic location. Knowing which are the most popular keywords that our potential customers could pose is one of the fundamental tasks of SEO as it allows us to set our visibility goals.
  • The first results are seen more and get more clicks than those that appear further down the page: as it is easy to guess, the first results more easily capture the attention and clicks of users than those that appear on later pages. Trying to appear in the best possible position for related searches that our clientele and/or potential audience may pose is the main objective of search engine optimization.
  • Search engines analyze content automatically, so it is important to know what limitations and problems could arise from the way we program and/or serve our content: SEO professionals study the way search engines crawl and analyze content to make their job easier. At the same time, they take into account their limitations to prevent search engines from failing to crawl content due to errors, long download times or finding pages with hardly any content (thin content) or with the same content that has already been crawled in other pages (duplicate content). SEOs learn how to improve their websites by studying search engine guidelines, analyzing their patents, conducting experiments in controlled scenarios and employing specific analysis tools. This type of SEO is often referred to as white hat or ethical SEO and, in general, is the safest way to optimize a website to avoid search engine penalties while achieving the best possible results.
  • It is possible to detect flaws in the way a search engine sorts the results in order to position low quality content ahead of high quality content: when it began to study the way search engines ordered the results of the search results.It soon became clear that their algorithms were not perfect either and some SEOs tried to take advantage of these vulnerabilities to position certain content in a position they did not really deserve. This type of optimization is often referred to as black hat and although it can give good results in the short term, when it is detected by search engines it is usually a reason for a penalty. In these cases, the results of the penalized website appear much lower in the results (partial penalization) or are not displayed at all. The website is then said to have been banned or expelled from the index. These types of penalties can be algorithmic (the search engine automatically detects unethical practices and lifts the penalty when the situation is corrected) or manual (a Google quality rater detects the offending site) in which case we must request a reconsideration from the search engine.
  • If users don’t find the content they need, they will stop using the search engine: this is why search engines are constantly refining their algorithm to prevent low-quality content from sneaking into the top results and displacing content that could better serve users’ interests. The first search engines of the 90’s were very vulnerable to black hat practices, so their results were usually filled with low quality content oriented to advertising monetization. Although Google was the last major search engine to appear in the 1990s, the basis of its algorithm – the analysis of content as well as the relationships and references to this content through its links – has proven to be much more robust than that of its predecessors.
  • To keep users using them, search engines will make every effort to refine their indexing methods so that the best content for each search is always at the top: we use search engines because they are still the most efficient way to find new content on the Internet. To continue to fulfill this role – an enormously profitable one for Google – search engines will strive to further refine their information retrieval methods to better understand the user needs behind their queries and to identify the content that can best meet these needs. Updates such as Caffeine, Panda, Penguin or Hummingbird – to name the best known – are aimed, on the one hand, at better detecting fraudulent or black hat practices and, on the other hand, at better classifying and sorting the information tracked.

Given the leading role played by search engines on the Internet, it is logical that a whole professional activity has developed focused on optimizing websites so that they appear in the top positions for the searches that most interest us. And given that until very recently there was no formal training on these matters, the truth is that SEO is a professional activity very conducive to intrusion.

SEOs, Web positioning professionals

SEOs must study search engines and users
SEOs must study search engines and users

In fact, the professionals who are dedicated to it -the SEOs- have reached this professional status based on experience, study and work from a common beginning in which all of them were part of this intrusiveness. Even today it is difficult for the layman to tell the difference between a true SEO professional and an inexperienced beginner. Nor are there any professional groups that have established some kind of best practice regulations or code of ethics on SEO practice. In this scenario, only the professional background and a portfolio of clients with abundant references and success stories is the only guarantee that can guarantee the professional value of an SEO or a consulting firm.

Experienced consultants are highly valued by companies as they can achieve, through improved search engine rankings, large increases in quality traffic with a acquisition cost (CPA) much lower than that of other traffic acquisition strategies, such as the pay per click (PPC), the display advertising or the e-mail marketing. It is therefore advisable to invest in optimizing our website to achieve its full organic traffic generation potential before investing in other traffic acquisition strategies with higher acquisition costs.

Hence, this activity is also related to an improvement in visibility or “findability” of a given content. If users use search engines to find answers to their needs, SEO strives to ensure that such content is visible or findable wherever potential customers search for it.

What differentiates SEO from other digital marketing strategies?

Quality traffic

SEO traffic is quality traffic because it is generated from the users’ own interest and at the very moment when they have a need. There is a popular saying in SEO: “it is much easier to sell when your customer is looking for you”. From this perspective, SEO traffic is usually formed by visits from very interested users with better indicators of visit quality (page views, time spent on the site, bounce rate) and conversion than that acquired by other means.

Perdurability

Another characteristic of SEO that differentiates it from other online marketing strategies is its durability. While it is true that it will be difficult for a new website to achieve a high volume of visits from search engines in the short term, it is also true that the benefits of optimizing a given website will last long after the time and resources have been invested in doing so. From this point of view, SEO is a traffic acquisition strategy that has a high inertia: initially, it is difficult to increase the volume of organic traffic but, equally, once the domain acquires a certain authority, it will remain well positioned even if you stop investing in its optimization.

Cost per acquisition

SEO is a source of quality traffic with a lower acquisition cost than other tools and with a high durability, SEO is today a basic and key online marketing strategy that is present in any digital marketing plan. Being visible in organic results for the searches of our users and potential clients is a first level objective for companies, media or professionals with an online presence. Let’s now discover what are the fundamentals on which search engine optimization is based and what are the main phases of SEO work to achieve top rankings.

Phases in the SEO work of optimizing a website

Keyword research

KeywordsThe first phase in any SEO work is to select for which type of searches we want to appear in the first positions. To do this, we must analyze what our market niche is, who is or are our target and how they would search the Internet for what our website offers.

With Google Keyword Planner we can find out approximately how many searches are made on Google each month for a certain keyword, as well as whether that volume varies throughout the year.

In general, keyword analysis depends to a large extent on whether the potential customer we are targeting is another professional (B2B business models) or a private end customer (B2C business models). While an end customer will use colloquial or more familiar language, a professional with whom we share an industry will enter more specific searches and use the same professional jargon as we do. One of the main mistakes in this phase consists in believing that our potential customers will search for us with the same expressions we would use.

Search analytics tools are useful to escape this subjective approach and to be able to compare with data how popular seemingly equivalent searches are. For example, “used cars”, “used cars” and “second-hand cars” seem to be used more or less interchangeably to search for such a car. However, Google Keyword Planner shows that “used cars” is the most popular of the three.

The result of the keyword research is usually presented in the form of a list of keywords with which we will check monthly in which positions our website is appearing. This sample must be sufficiently representative of the most frequent searches that our target would make as well as of the content present on the website.

SEO Audit

Robots index crawled contentIn the indexability phase, the SEO audit is carried out to check how search engine friendly a website is. It may include, among others, the following items:

  • Indexability: all aspects that influence how Google can find, crawl and index a website are checked. The use of unique URLs is verified and accessibility problems for the Google robot, such as navigation through forms, are detected.
  • Content: it is about discovering opportunities to generate duplicate content, hidden or inaccessible content or weak content. It also checks the use of metadata and tags that are relevant for SEO.
  • WPO: in this section, aspects related to download speed, page weight optimization, http headers configuration, cache use and controls, etc. are verified.
  • Popularity Profile: the popularity profile of the website is checked for links that could be detected as toxic by Google, in which case it is possible to include them in the Disavow file or modify or delete them.

At the conclusion of this report, we have a much clearer picture of the current status of the website and the main opportunities for improvement. Only from this analysis can we really work on a work plan for optimization, prioritizing tasks according to the complexity of their implementation and the benefit we expect them to generate.

Also in this section it is possible to detect content deficiencies of the website to attack the totality of searches that we have marked as objectives in the Keyword Research phase, which marks objectives for a content marketing oriented to SEO.

Relevance

Once the website’s indexability problems have been solved, the relevance consultancy focuses on identifying which are the contents on which we should work especially to achieve the visibility objectives we have set ourselves. In other words, we try to associate each keyword with a specific landing page that we believe may be optimal for the user’s search intent.

Once identified, these pages are optimized to improve their relevance and focus them to rank for the keyword(s) we have targeted. Among the aspects that are optimized are basic aspects such as the title and description, headings, texts that link to the page, their position in the website architecture, the template structure, etc.

Popularity and subject matter authority

In parallel with the on-page optimization work, a strategy for improving popularity and thematic authority must be designed. This link generation is often referred to as link building. A good starting point is to analyze where your competitors’ websites are achieving links and with what content or strategies with analysis tools such as SEMRush, Majestic or AhRefs.

Also to improve our PageRank creating content that act as “hooks” and make a good number of people want to link to them, such as controversial, humorous, ranking or eye-catching content, as well as link baiting, as rankings and classifications (the best…) that those mentioned are tempted to share.

Since Google is capable of detecting as suspicious a sharp increase in the number of incoming links that a website receives, the generation of popularity must be done gradually throughout the entire process of optimizing a website, and maintained in the future on an ongoing basis.

Additional SEO references

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Fernando Maciá
Fernando Maciá
Founder and CEO of Human Level. Expert SEO consultant with more than 20 years of experience. He has been a professor at numerous universities and business schools, and director of the Master in Professional SEO and SEM and the Advanced SEO Course at KSchool. Author of a dozen books on SEO and digital marketing.

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