SEO has come a long way since the 90’s. Back in the early days, attempts to rank higher on Google and other search engines involved crude tactics, such as keyword stuffing, link building accelerated through automation software, and paying unscrupulous blog networks to create and proliferate backlinks.
None of these early tactics benefited the visitor. The days of measuring success through good user experience and customer value were still very much a distant future.
Rolling forward to 2017, while some marketers perceive Google’s rolling algorithm updates as a threat to their SEO activity, one could also argue that Google’s regular updates are a reaction to a rapidly growing environment where mobile dominance, user-generated content, voice search and semantic search are the new norm.
To be successful in modern SEO, it requires an appreciation of five key pillars of SEO, namely: planning and strategy, technical SEO, on-page optimisation, off-page optimisation and user experience factors. Successful SEO campaigns almost always require a holistic approach encompassing all these components - sometimes across multiple teams or suppliers.
The purpose of this article is to dissect each of these five areas in greater detail, in order to help guide your future SEO activity.
Planning & Strategy
Every SEO campaign should start with planning and strategy, but alas most aren’t. The temptation to jump straight into tactics is simply too tempting. And this phenomenon isn’t unique to SEO; far too many social media or email marketing campaigns exhibit similar tendencies.
Without planning or strategy, marketers may well lose site of their core objectives, as well as their key performance indicators (KPIs) which help define success and failure.
In a typical SEO campaign, planning and strategy also means audience research, user journey mapping and competitor analysis. Having a true understanding of your audience behaviour and intent, as well as how your brand fits into the competitive landscape, will dictate your content planning, your keyword research and your future link outreach strategy.
Despite Google’s huge resources, it still has a monumental task crawling the web’s content and indexing it. Millions of new pages are being created (and removed) each day, with a staggering amount of user-generated content to crawl and index. Running successful SEO activity means having your website in tip top condition technically; crawl errors, slow page load times, uncrawlable content or hosting and geo-location issues, may cause poorer SEO results.
Much of this is SEO housekeeping, and in many ways box checking activity. It’s not the most thrilling part of SEO, but an area you simply can’t ignore. If you’re outsourcing your web development, it’s something your agency should be able to handle.
On-page optimisation refers to page content or coding elements that could influence your Google love. In the late 90’s when SEO was in its infancy, tweaking on-page elements such as heading tags, meta tags and image ALT attributes saw a measurable change in SEO performance.
Whilst good markup is still important, its impact on rank has very much reduced over the years. Building authority and good UX is de rigeur nowadays, and whilst the use of H1 tags is helpful and recommended, it’s unlikely to change your SEO fortune in a dramatic way.
That being said, on-page optimisation is still evolving. For example, embedding structured markup in your HTML code to signpost content, be it product info, location details, video content or customer reviews, is an excellent way of helping Google and other search engines understand and index your content more accurately.
One cannot forget that on-page optimisation also includes adopting best practices when writing copy. Having run hundreds of SEO content workshops, it pains me to see that content creators are still using old-school techniques, such as keyword repetition and keyword density to optimise their content. In 2013, Google launched Hummingbird partly as a reaction to the diverse way people search. The effect of Hummingbird was to turn Google into a semantic search engine allowing sites to rank for a larger variety of semantically similar words.
To be Hummingbird friendly means to write topically strong content that’s focussed on user needs and user intent. The good news for copywriters is that natural language and storytelling is very much embedded in the modern-day SEO philosophy.
When one talks about SEO, commonly conflated with it is link building. The problem with the phrase "link building" is that it conjures up black-hat (unethical) SEO activity, most popular in the 90’s, when links were created on an industrial scale in order to boost authority and hence rank. Whilst the phrase off-page optimisation includes link building, it is more palatable and less laced with history.
Off-page optimisation is still currently king, although it is being hunted down by UX and user intent factors. When Google launched its Penguin update back in 2012, SEO experienced a sea-change. Marketers then realised that achieving backlinks required a very user-focussed content strategy, allied with content marketing and outreach activity that earned links and hence authority.
The bitter pill that many small businesses are still swallowing is that a “web 1.0” website, with little thought for content strategy and even less thought around integrated PR, outreach or social media activity, is very unlikely to earn links.
Whilst it’s easy to preach - and I do so, fully aware of how hard it is to gain links - off-page optimisation simply cannot be ignored.
When it comes to SEO, UX is the new(ish) kid on the blog and snapping at the heels of its counterparts on- and off-page optimisation.
Much like its cousin AdWords, which places clickthrough rate (CTR) as one of the critical factors in the keyword quality score algorithm for advertisers, CTR from search results is also being measured by Google, as are “bounces” back to search results. Both are measures of user experience, which Google is becoming increasingly fixated on.
UX ties in with Google’s overall strategy of rewarding websites that are more user-focussed. The evidence is everywhere. Look at Google’s “top heavy” update, where it penalised sites with too many ads above the fold; its admission that page speed is a ranking factor; its search quality raters guidelines, that asks raters to see evidence of EAT, namely expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness. The list goes on.
They all point to the fact that UX signals are now playing a role in SEO and will continue to do so for quite some time.
To conclude, if you’re embarking on an SEO campaign, be sure to approach it as holistically as possible. Focussing on a small selection of tactics may provide some quick rewards, but long-term you’re better off adopting an integrated approach to SEO.
About the author:
Jonathan Saipe is the founder of Emarketeers , the UK’s leading independent provider of digital marketing training. He has over 20 years’ experience running digital marketing campaigns and is a leading speaker, trainer and consultant in search marketing.