Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the silent popularity contest of the internet. And just like it was in secondary school, many of us have spent our years clueless to the secret workings of this code-driven battle of the best and falling victim to those who have made it to the top. (I know I am not alone when I remember, with a cringe, several travel blog posts I spent two days and 4,500 words on going unread—except by my mom #pityread—, while others made their writers fame and fortune). Yet, not unlike the popularity contests of our tweens, there are many all-too-simple hacks for SEO and by adhering to these, your site can soon become the internet equivalent of the girl who developed early, or that kid whose older brother bought everybody booze.
In 2017, SEO looks very different than it did in the early days of the internet. It is more precise and more reactive to the ever-changing whims of users. This year, websites that win will undoubtedly be churning out compact, precise and punchy content to counter the oversaturation of Medium long reads and exhaustive tutorials; they will be demanding attention through flashy and memorable personal branding schemes; and they will be making user experience more efficient, fast-paced and personal than ever.
But to understand the trends of 2017, we must first look briefly back at the very short, but detailed, life of SEO itself.
In the beginning (i.e. August 6, 1991), Tim Berners-Lee said, “Let there be the World Wide Web.” And there was. Not long after (1993), primitive search engines started appearing—many remaining to this day. Yahoo!, for one, popped up in 1994 and Google followed in 1998.
Search engines ran into problems from the start, mostly due to the “blackhat” techniques of early SEO masters. Knowing the basic algorithms by which Google and other engines ranked results, these site owners would pack pages with keywords (a.k.a. “keyword stuffing”) and tag the sh*t out of the HTML. They would also load sites with spammy backlinks to further boost their site’s seeming popularity.
Search engines giants did not take this lying down, however, and countered these malicious nerds by campaigning for a more ethical internet. (This was in the early 2000s). Those who followed these new rules were rewarded with higher search engine rankings and those who kept on with the old ways, were punished.
This was all good news for the average user because results became a hell of a lot more relevant, and you didn’t have to worry as much that the birding site you were showing your Nana would link “Chestnut Breasted Finch” to a bare-breasted Robin Byrd. On the other side of things, for site owners, this meant that content became king. Everyone was scrabbling—as they still are in fact—for inbound links, original content and a user-focused design.
Meanwhile, Google was busy crafting its first edition of the Universal Search (a close predecessor to the search engine we know today, a blend of web pages, news, images, video, etc.), which rolled out in the late 2000s, along with the real-time updates, location statistics, and the tools that have become marketers’ bread and butter: Google Trends and Google Analytics.
All these new improvements to search engines did not mean, however, that dirty tricks were gone for good. J.C. Penney, the least likely villain of all time, was busted in 2011 for much the same techniques as used by the early blackhatters of SEO. They had played the system by planting links, loaded with crediting anchor text, in every random corner of the internet to increase their Google rankings. (A measure probably deemed necessary due to ad campaigns like this one).
While I do not wish to take too much time with the J.C. Penney incident, it is useful in order to say this: this scandal, after so many years of rules and regulations on the part of search engine giants like Google, heralded the continuance of SEO trickery for many years to come. And why? Because SEO matters. In 2014, Google Webmaster Tools Search Queries reported that 71.33% of users clicked on searches from page one of Google’s SERP (Search Engine Results Page) and that 67.60% of these users clicked on the first 5 results. Another study by Chitika found that 33% of traffic went to the top listing alone. 33%. This is why SEO matters, and why it inspires skullduggery.
Anyway, lots of good things happened around this time as well. Google’s Panda 2011 update meant that poor quality content was in greater danger than ever of slipping into anonymity on the SERPs of Google. A year later, Google’s Penguin engine was launched and came down with an iron fist on spammy sites and questionable link building techniques. This is also when social media came on the scene in a big way, which meant that content now had to be as shareable as it was useful and sites had to look as sexy on a mobile device as they did on a monitor.
During this time, and up until the present, SEO became intrinsically linked with personalisation and instantaneous gratification. Everyone wanted and wants to be everyone else’s first solution, first resource, the site whose posts they share most on Twitter, the food blog whose recipes get tagged most in Instagram #foodporn.
Which brings me to the inevitable end of this very short history of SEO (there are many more, and much longer, techier histories of this same subject, a few of which—this one, this one, or this one—I would highly recommend): What is SEO and how do you ‘use’ it?
SEO is the process by which site owners can make their site be seen, clicked on and shared in the labyrinthine results of search engines. Essentially, this process is a way to formulate your website and posts into the answer that search engine algorithms are looking for when a user inputs a certain string of terms. If you sell weight loss supplements, for example, and you know what you’re doing with SEO, then your site should be within the first results when someone searches, “How to lose weight fast” or “Pills for weight loss,” etc.
As I have suggested, there is a makeshift formula behind SEO. But it is important to note that this formula takes time, words, continuous effort, lots of awkward emails and plenty of patience. Let’s, for a moment, go back to the idea of the popularity contest and, in particular, that kid who was getting his older brother to buy all of his friends booze. Ignoring SEO as a site owner would be the equivalent of thinking that you are above this kid, thinking that your ‘personality’ (i.e. CONTENT) will be enough to win the hearts of all. Wrong. The kid with the older brother knows what he’s doing. He knows that in this market, his ‘coolness’ needs to be easily accessible and translatable in order for him to become popular. Hence, the brother (older kids are always cool) and the booze (getting drunk is more fun when it’s not allowed). In the same way, the site owner who is SEO savvy knows that killer content alone won’t earn her the visibility she wants, and needs, for her success. Instead, she moulds her content into the answer search engine algorithms are looking for.
There are many theories on how to master SEO, each more abstruse than the last, but they all mostly boil down to this: content, keywords, link “building” and socials. Especially in the age of social media, your content should always attempt to fulfil the criteria which make a story/article/post shareable. It should be approachable, conversational, fun, chock full of images and start with a hook. People can essentially read or click on and out of whatever the f%&k they want, so make them want to stay.
Then there are keywords. Targeting the right keywords is, in the opinions of most SEO experts (i.e. nerd lords), a vital part of triggering the interest of search engine algorithms. What’s most important here is to choose the right keywords, and to play with them and position them where it counts, meaning in the intro paragraphs, the post’s title, the URL for the post, the tags, etc. But you also don’t want to keyword so hard that you ruin your content.
Why not? You might ask. Well, Google uses this thing called Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) to trawl your pages for keywords that will later inform user searches. LSI is pretty judgemental and pretty smart. Instead of responding well to things like, “Try this ab workout, it is for your abs, using your abs, to make your abs look great through a workout,” it looks for relationships between words, to pick up on the jist of posts that are written well, with variation, rather than written specifically to trick the system. (“Try this ab workout, a real core buster that will liven up your exercise routine”).
Keywords lead me down a slight tangent from “the Big Four” that I have named above. Tags, domain authority, URL structure: these, and many more technicalities, are all worth consideration and a bit of time when you’re building up your site. But they aren’t the most important factors anymore. Their glory days are over, though one of their peers remains all-powerful…
If content is the older brother, then link building is the booze. In other words, incoming links to your site are inseparable from your site’s success. They are the means to the ends of $$$, and ☺ and ?. They are, by most accounts, the most powerful factor for SERP rankings. Incoming links (a.k.a. backlinks) are the links that other websites post on their sites that make your site look ever more attractive to the search engine algorithm. Backlinks=street cred. They are tangible (for the search engines at least) proof that your site is 1) an authority on this subject, 2) trusted by other trusted websites and 3) popular enough to be chosen from among the hundreds, thousands of other sites on this subject.
In the Social Media Age, backlinks are inextricably linked (lol) to shareability. To be linked out to, your site first of all needs to look good on socials—it needs good images (so people can Instagram and Pinterest it), it needs a catchy meta title and meta description (so that people will smile, laugh or say ‘Huh!’ when they see it on Twitter or Facebook) and it needs to be abso(frickin)lutely mobile-ready. It also helps to have experts in a certain subject who stick to their beat. That gains these individuals—often referred to as influencers—authority and a following, which usually means a following for your site as well.
And finally (even though there is never really a finally in SEO strategizing), backlinks mean outreach. Especially if you are starting small, you will have to self-promote like crazy to get those links that your site needs. This is where the awkward emails come in—and the awkward Facebook messages, Instagram DMs, tweets, Tumblr messages, you name it. The goal is to establish working relationships with site owners whose links will give your site cred, traffic and rankings. The process of all this outreach should be the same: admiration, slow introduction to your own work, shameless ask.
Which leads us back, as SEO always does, to content. Trend trackers have noted that SEO of 2017 will look a lot like this: compact content, catchy brands and speedy sites. So to get those site owners to say yes to your proposal in 2017, your content needs more efficient, more branded, more multimedia-ed and more user-friendly than the other content that is trying to push its way into this webbie’s mailbox. But more than all this, it needs to be something that is forward-looking to the next wave of consumer appetites.
Because if there is another similarity between the popularity contest of the internet and the popularity contest of secondary school, it is this. After you rise to the top, the only way to stay there is to not only keep up with the fads, but rather to anticipate them. This often means finding help, through research, through tools…or through that cooler older brother. Which is where, we hope, Melbourne Media Consulting comes in. Let us be your cooler older brother and help you start, and continue, to rise up the SERP.