Getting Started with SEO

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According to the 2012 Digital Influence Index, Canadian consumers believe the Internet is more influential than their friends and family in helping to make purchase decisions. This same study found that when consumers head online to find information about brands and products, 93% use a search engine. Despite this growing trend, search engine optimization (the practice of improving and promoting your website in an effort to increase the number of search engine referred visitors) is still unfamiliar territory for many marketers – myself included!

Fortunately, this summer I have the opportunity to learn more about SEO and internet marketing as an intern with Powered by Search. To start things off, I’ve gone through The Beginner’s Guide to SEO, created by SEOmoz. Without a background in web design I wondered if the guide would be too technical to follow. However, since it was designed for beginners, it starts off with the absolute basics and explains potentially unfamiliar terms as you go along. This free resource is a great introduction to search engine optimization, and I’d definitely recommend giving it a read if you’re new to SEO or need a quick refresher.

Still not convinced? Below are some of my thoughts and key takeaways from the guide.

Beginner's Guide to SEOThe SEO Beginner’s Guide provides you with a lot of new information all at once, but the casual tone and use of fun graphics throughout keeps it from feeling like a chore to get through. It’s filled  with links to outside resources, studies, and tools that help to round out the guide, as well as some practical, hands-on activities you can try to further your learning.

One of the things I liked the most about the guide is exemplified by this quote:

Search Engine Optimization isn’t just about ‘engines.’ It’s about making your site better for people too. At SEOmoz we believe these principles go hand in hand.  

These words are some of the first that you read, and this philosophy is repeated throughout the guide. There’s a great balance between technical and practical advice. Marketers should think of SEO as more than just getting consumers to visit your website, since the site needs to satisfy these consumers’ needs once they arrive – a high search ranking won’t stop consumers from leaving your site straight away if they can’t easily find what they want!

SEO can be used by any organization to better reach consumers who are already interested in a specific product or service, and is becoming increasingly important as search has the power to drive both online and offline purchasing. SEO influences how search engines perceive both the relevance and importance (popularity) of your website; this determines whether or not your site appears in the results for a specific search, as well as what rank it’s given. Appearing higher in the search rankings is critical not only to increasing click-through traffic, but can also make your site appear more important and trustworthy to consumers. (Just think of your own online search habits – how often do you look past the first page of results?)

Despite huge advances over the years, search engines cannot understand and interpret content on a webpage the same way that people can. That’s why a key outcome of SEO is making your site visible and understandable to engines so it can be properly indexed. The most important content on a site should be in HTML text format, since search engines spiders may ignore images, Flash files, and other non-text elements. A “crawlable link structure” is also necessary if you want search engines to be able to navigate through your site and index your various pages.

Once engines can read and access your site, they’ll analyze your keywords to determine which search terms your website is a relevant match for. SEOmoz recommends using keywords naturally and strategically, ensuring that they appear in titles, text, and meta data. By researching keyword demand within your market you can learn which words or phrases to optimize your site for. Although it may be tempting to try and improve your site’s ranking for a popular search term, consider the “long tail” of search, which makes up the majority of all searches. Long tail keywords are generally more specific, increasing your opportunity to get a high ranking due to less competition, and tend to convert better as searchers are further along in the buying process. This is illustrated with the great example of comparing someone searching for “shoes” to someone searching for “Air Jordans size 12.”

Going back to the idea that search engine optimization is about both the engines and the people using them, creating high quality and useful content is another critical part of SEO.  People search to satisfy an intent (e.g. learn, fix, buy). If you craft great content that addresses the searcher’s needs, they’ll reward you by being more engaged (staying on your site for longer) and sharing the link with others. The popularity of a site is taken as a sign of higher quality to search engines, which can help boost your ranking. Since engines analyze popularity through links, building the link profile of a website or page is an important task. Creative, quality content will naturally lead people to link to your site, but SEOmoz also suggests using manual link building by reaching out to bloggers for links or submitting your site to a directory. Be wary of self-created link acquisition, such as posting a link to your site in blog comments, as they can be considered spam. The guide has a great discussion of specific spam tactics not to endorse them, but to warn SEOs that these actions could lead to search engine penalties.

I was happy to find a chapter near the end of the guide that disproved a number of common SEO myths, such as using keyword density to improve your relevancy, and buying search engine ads to improve your organic search ranking. With so much information on SEO available online, it’s great to have a resource like The Beginner’s Guide to make sure you’re following the best advice.

Finally, no SEO guide would be complete if it didn’t discuss measurement. While SEOmoz provides links to a number of different paid and unpaid alternatives for analytics software, they ultimately recommend using Google Analytics. The guide also suggests a number of metrics to track for SEO, accompanied by the sound advice that data isn’t valuable unless you have a plan for what you want to do with it. All professional SEOs will track data about rankings, referrals, links, conversion rates and more in order to analyze their SEO strategy, and apply changes where necessary.

The last thing I’ll say about this guide is that I’m even more interested in SEO now than I was before I started reading it, and I look forward to learning a lot more this summer!

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