The internet is unfathomably big.
According to a Netcraft survey last year, the internet clocks in with more than 1.8 billion websites, containing trillions of individual pages, and it’s steadily grown every year since its inception. Getting your message heard online can feel like shouting across a crowded sports stadium.
It’s little wonder, then, that search engine optimization — the process through which online content is crafted to boost its odds of being discovered by casual searches — has become an art, a science, and an almost-$80-billion industry.
But before you start shelling out cash for an SEO expert, you should know what you’re paying for — and what you reasonably can expect to receive in return.
Let’s break it down.
To understand search engine optimization, you have to know about search engines.
A search engine is a program that crawls the internet, indexing websites into a massive database that can be searched by typing keywords or phrases into a search bar. Search engines provide a way to find a website without knowing its URL. They also provide a simple way to find information about a given topic or quickly get the answer to a question.
Google is far and away the biggest search engine on the web today.
The company’s business model relies on giving searchers what they’re looking for. If a business wants to show up right at the top of the search results page, it can pay for premium ad placement (whether searchers will click on those ads is a different matter). But if people aren’t finding useful results when they search for information, they’ll look elsewhere.
That means that Google’s top priority as a search engine is to yield the highest quality, most relevant results to the users who are searching. To keep up with that goal, Google utilizes search algorithms that are complex, proprietary, and constantly changing.
What does this mean for content creators?
Any time someone finds a way to “crack the code,” “hack the system,” or otherwise find a shortcut for getting to the top, Google changes its ranking system to counteract it.
In the early 2000s, search programs mostly operated from keyword density. In other words, if you wanted to appear at the top of the page whenever someone searched for “organic bananas,” you just had to be sure that you stuffed the phrase “organic bananas” into your website as many times as possible. Including related search terms like “organic banana farmer,” “cheap organic bananas,” or “where to buy bananas online” would help to boost your visibility.
Knowing the words people most commonly used while searching and filling your pages with those words at a specific density was the bread-and-butter of SEO for a long time.
The other piece of the puzzle was Google’s Page Rank, which determined how relevant a site was based on how often other sites linked to it (backlinks). If you were an authority on bananas, then it’s likely that grocery stores, news outlets, online wiki pages or other such sites would reference your page. The more sites linking back to yours, the more likely it would seem that you were an expert with relevant information. This led to all sorts of strategies, like paying bloggers to write about a topic and link to your site in their post.
Keyword density and paid backlinks were great for SEO gurus, but they were terrible for consumers. And, for the better part of a decade, they haven’t really been effective – but that doesn’t stop so-called experts from recommending these strategies.
Good SEO in 2019
Thanks to machine learning, a search engine’s web crawling technology can be skilled at “reading” websites for meaning, which means it can tell from context whether you’re talking about a fruit or a clothing retailer when you mention “Banana Republic.”
Virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa have pushed the use of real-language, long-tailed search terms (“Who is the top banana farmer in the world?”), and keyword density is swiftly becoming irrelevant.
The quality of the links back to your site matter a whole lot, too: Spammy paid link strategies are out; scholarly citations and meaningful links from authoritative sites are in.
There are many other factors weighted into the algorithm, from the age of the domain and the site’s coding to the amount of content on a site or its mobile friendliness.
Google isn’t shy about sharing its guidelines for best practices, but the actual formulas that go into a site’s search rank are top secret.
There’s no magic formula; there are only best practices that coincide, more or less, with the type of things you’d already be doing when creating quality content. From the perspective of content creators, the important take-away is to write for readers, not search engines. Google is in the business of giving human users what they want when they search online, and content creators should aim to do the same.
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Tiana Gibbs is an Associate Customer Content Specialist with PR Newswire moonlighting as a freelance copywriter. When not writing for the web, she can be found trying (and sometimes failing) to build an urban homestead in the Land of Enchantment.