My first introduction to search engine optimization (SEO) happened many years ago when I first started learning about website management and blogging. I already knew how to create a website and write the content, but getting traffic was a completely different ballgame.
Search engine optimization was a distant promise that if you built a website, and then optimized it for search engines, visitors would come. But it seemed highly complicated. There were long lists of things you should and shouldn’t do to attract search engine traffic. I studied it from a distance for a long time.
And then I became a website copywriter.
As a website copywriter, SEO is often part and parcel of my job. Clients ask for blog posts, articles, and website copy that include any number of particular keywords, and sometimes clients simply ask that I include “any keywords that make sense.”
Ah, if only it were that simple.
What is Search Engine Optimization?
Search engine optimization is the practice of increasing the volume of traffic to a website by improving its rank on search engines through organic search results. The idea is that the higher a site ranks for any given keyword, the more traffic the site will draw.
SEO is the acronym for search engine optimization, and SEO also refers to those professionals who provide search engine optimization services.
There are two types of search engine optimization:
- White hat SEO
- Black hat SEO
White hat SEO attempts to follow basic guidelines set forth by search engines. According to Wikipedia, white hat SEO “is generally summed up as creating content for users, not for search engines, and then making that content easily accessible to the spiders [spiders are the search engines’ robotic reconnaissance team], rather than attempting to trick the algorithm from its intended purpose.”
Black hat SEO uses techniques that involve deception, often using SEO to rank for keywords that are not relevant to a site’s content. The only thing any honest businessperson needs to know about black hat SEO is that it’s wrong, it screws things up for businesses and websites that are trying to draw relevant traffic through SEO, and it can get you banned from Google and other search engines. Stay away from it.
How Does Search Engine Optimization Work?
All right, let’s cover a few basics. Here’s the slimmed-down version of how search engine optimization works:
Search engines employ spiders, which are automated bots that travel around the internet checking the content of the websites they find. The content is saved and indexed, then checked against highly complex algorithms to determine whether these websites should be listed when searchers enter certain phrases and keywords into the search engine. The algorithms also determine the order in which websites should appear on search engine results pages (SERPs).
SEO is all about getting a website to rank well on the search engine results pages for particular and relevant keywords. Optimizing a site may include the following steps:
- Establish the website’s purpose and goals and then assess its content. For existing websites, evaluate current keyword and search-engine performance by analyzing traffic statistics.
- Build a list of keywords that are relevant to the site’s content and that are likely terms that the target audience might enter in search engines to find said content. Research these keywords to ensure their viability. The size of the keyword list will depend on the size of the site. There could be five keywords or five hundred.
- Optimize existing content or create new content using keywords in the website’s code, text, and tags. This, of course, is the actual act of optimization.
- Engage in further search engine optimization by using a wide range of tools, both for actual optimization and for tracking purposes. Example: publishing a sitemap will encourage search engine spiders to visit and crawl a site more quickly and therefore index and rank the site much faster. Using a smart statistics tool, such as Google Analytics, allows you to assess how well your SEO strategies are working.
- As you track keyword and search engine performance over time, tweak and add content as necessary and continue to develop and hone your SEO strategy.
That’s it. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It’s not, and that’s why SEOs who are good at what they do are making big bucks.
Does it Work? Is it Worth It?
Search engine optimization is an inexact science. For example, nobody except the folks in white coats over at Google know the algorithm that Google uses to rank websites on its search engine results pages. The best anyone can do is try different SEO methods and then test and track them to see what works and what doesn’t.
However, there are a number of factors that SEO specialists know to be true with regard to search engine optimization. For example, if all else is equal, an older site will rank higher than a newer site. Age matters, and Google gives seniority to sites that have been around longer. On the other hand, Google also has a penchant for fresh content, so regular updates to a site will give it an advantage. We also know that there are certain places in the code and formatting of a web page that can help SEO performance. For example, search engines look at page titles and headings. They believe these are good indicators of a site’s content.
However, any search engine could change its algorithm at any time, which means certain SEO efforts might suddenly stop working as well as they have in the past. Furthermore, it’s hard to know what the competition is up to. If another website offering the same content as yours is also optimizing, they might outdo you — possibly by simply being a couple of years older than you are — and you could drop in rank as a result.
But for the most part, yes, search engine optimization works. After optimizing approximately 25 pages on one of my websites, my traffic nearly doubled.
Who Benefits from Search Engine Optimization?
Ideally, everyone involved benefits. Search engines want to produce search results that make searchers happy. If you’re searching for “baby gifts” and end up on an adult website, you probably aren’t going to be too happy about that, especially if your five-year-old is sitting right next to you.
Good, honest, white-hat SEO benefits search engines because if they produce quality results, more people will use those search engines to conduct searches online. People using the search engines will also benefit, because when they search, they’ll find exactly what they’re looking for.
Finally, website owners will benefit because search engine optimization will help them draw targeted traffic, which means searches will produce visitors who are a match to what the site is offering. And that’s a good thing.
Is Search Engine Optimization Right for You?
Consider this: the search term “flowers” gets almost 25 million searches per month on Google alone. Now, if you are in the flower industry, wouldn’t you like your site to appear at the top of those search results?
Let’s say you run a small, local flower business, and you primarily do flower arrangements for weddings. You are an independent entrepreneur, and maybe you have an assistant or two.
Do you really think you could handle 25 million potential customers, especially if they are located all around the world?
A florist, such as the one described above, would be better off using more targeted keywords — such as phrases that include “flowers,” “bridal,” and “wedding” but also geographically local keywords, like the names of nearby towns and cities. However, the best approach might be purchasing ads or developing partnerships with other local businesses that complement floral services.
Relying solely on search engine traffic might be beneficial for some businesses and websites, but others will fare much better by investing in alternative online marketing strategies, and there are plenty of those. Each website has a different set of goals and purposes, and it’s no good to draw a hoard of traffic if it’s not a match to what you’re offering on your site.
How Hard is it to Optimize a Site?
Search engine optimization is as difficult or as easy as you make it. You could go all out and invest weeks, months, even years optimizing a site. Or you could churn out a few hours. You’ll see better results if you pour a lot of effort into it, but if you have an older site with tons of content, you might get lucky with minimal effort.
For example, you might optimize a few pages on your site and find that doing so lands you on about page five of the search engine results page. At that point, you can be happy with the traffic that page five sends your way, or you can dig your heels in, continue optimizing, and try to get to page three or even page one. You can also optimize only the content, or you can get into the code and optimize that too. Plus there is a host of tools you can use to enhance your SEO efforts.
As you can probably guess, the more you do, the better your results will be.
Search engine optimization helps drive more traffic to your site, and it’s one of the most popular and effective online marketing solutions around. However, SEO is not for everyone. Optimizing a website for search engine traffic can be highly involved for website owners who want to optimize on their own, and it can be costly for business owners who hire professional SEO consultants to do the work for them.
However, the benefits can be immense. There is unlimited potential for sites to thrive through search engine traffic, and in many cases, the investment of time and resources can pay off in a big way.
Buzz Pro Studio provides online marketing services for small businesses, including search engine optimization. For more information or to get a no-obligation quote, contact me.
Melissa Donovan is a website consultant and copywriter. She is also the founder and editor of Writing Forward and the author of over seven books.