A couple weeks ago I was asked a question by a client relating to SEO, and I found the question just a little disturbing. To provide some quick background – this is a valued customer of ours and we’re finishing up work on two websites for their businesses.
As with all projects, we have a detailed design specification and contract in place, and within this contract we referenced some basic SEO work, chiefly setting up Meta tags, on-page links, some basic keyword research etc.
The day after the first website went live I received an email from the company President. This was literally 24 hours after the contract had been declared ‘Completed’ and I had removed the ‘block search engines’ setting in WordPress.
The email asked in very plain language, “why are we not showing up first on Google for our search term “______”” (I’ve omitted the actual keyword as it isn’t relevant, suffice to say it’s a generic word, highly competitive across multiple markets and industries, not dissimilar to the word ‘software’).
I was perturbed, to say the least, that this person had come to the conclusion that as a result of our work, which was primarily design, their company would be placed at the top of Google on a search term pulled out of the person’s hat.
I sat and thought about this for a while before responding, my response (slightly edited to remove specific data) is below:
General Notes on Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Pay-Per-Click (PPC)
Firstly, it’s important to understand that everyone wants to be at the top of the search results against all of their important search terms. Clearly this isn’t possible or practical, so it comes down to understanding what can be achieved within a given budget and time frame, then setting about the implementation.
Organic Search Ranking (non-paid results)
How does Google determine the ranking of different websites in its search results?
Google uses a ranking algorithm, the components of which are extremely varied, with the specifics unknown to anyone outside of Google itself.
Google essentially wants to create search results which are accurate and meaningful to the searcher and to provide content which is useful and valuable. The key here is ‘Content’, this is the most important factor in determining search ranking.
The algorithm factors in many components, including –
1. Age of domain
2. The domain name itself and the relevance to topic/subject
3. Textual content and relevance to topic/subject
4. Images / Videos and other forms of on-page content
5. Refreshing and adding to existing content regularly
6. Incoming links from other websites
7. Social media and other off-site activity (a measurement of popularity)
Furthermore, Google is able to collect and utilize data from searcher’s browsing activity, and this data is used in determining the search results. There are hundreds of different data metrics but the most important are –
A. Bounce rate – how many people leave the landing page and head back to perform a repeat search
B. The time spent on a page
C. The time spent navigating pages other than the landing page
So Google is basically looking to see if the content of a website returned from a search is a good match for the actual search term used, and then to determine the value of the website from how the visitor interacts with it – the common term for this is ‘engagement’.
So how do people achieve good rankings?
Firstly, the actual on-page content must be optimized in such a way as to render the website content ‘search engine friendly’. As part of our contract with [the company] we have created a search-engine-friendly website, utilizing SEO plugins and optimizing all on-page content. Our optimization process involves –
A. Keyword and search term research, including competitor analysis and opportunity analysis
B. Setup of Meta Data elements for on-page ’Title’, ‘Description’ and ‘Keywords’ tags, along with Alt data and other factors involving page layout/structure.
C. Establishing automatic sitemap crawling via Google Webmaster Tools to ensure all content is accessible and all new content is indexed.
D. Blocking of non useful content via robot exclusion tags.
All successful websites have some strategy for ongoing content creation and for social media engagement. The key is to –
1 – setup a content creation strategy that involves the ongoing development of valuable, useful and engaging content for the website. This can be accomplished through the implementation of things like a ‘Resources’ section or even a company blog.
2 – Find ways to engage people away from the website itself then to draw them to the website in order to interact – this is generally done via utilizing social media sites such as Facebook/Twitter or by posting to other external blog sites, forums, groups etc. Much of this external activity is monitored by Google and utilized in determining the usefulness and popularity of a website – the most important metrics in the ranking algorithm.
The above is an overview of the basics required to move towards better search rankings. It is not uncommon for companies at your level to have annual budgets upwards of $15-$25K for SEO and Social Media Marketing.
Many companies have little or no desire to expand and update their websites on a regular basis. For these companies a paid advertising strategy may be more appropriate, such as the use of Facebook ads or search engine pay-per-click marketing.
Performing a search on Google you will see that the top websites returned are listed as ‘sponsored’. Also, at the end of the page there will generally be more sponsored websites and ‘local search’ websites may also occupy the search results area. The quantity of sponsored websites returned has increased steadily over the years, meaning fewer opportunities for Organic Search Traffic (unpaid).
The basics of PPC are
1. Research the search terms common to your industry
2. Analyze competitor rankings and competitor bid strategies to determine the average cost per click
3. Create a number of ads which are displayed when your website is returned in search results
4. Setup ad demographics to ensure best ROI
5. Deposit funds, set budget limits and launch an ongoing PPC campaign.
Through this process you can basically buy spots on Google’s search results against any of your keywords and you will pay each time someone visits your website from a PPC search. What you pay will largely be determined by the popularity of your search terms (how many competitors you are competing against) and how many visitors you wish to acquire.
It is imperative to have a PPC account managed by an experienced person to ensure only useful search terms are monetized and to ensure a positive ROI. PPC is also very much an ongoing process – on launching a new PPC campaign you will often find your competitors will adjust their bids to try to push you down the listings, so you need to constantly monitor this competitive bidding otherwise you will lose traction and may end up paying for visitors who do not increase your customer base.
It is not uncommon for companies of your size/stature to have PPC budgets of $50K+ annually, including the cost of management.
Historically, a sensible strategy for new websites was to have some PPC advertising alongside an organic search campaign. Then, as the organic results start to bear fruit, the PPC costs could be scaled back. However, with Google dedicating more space to PPC, it is now common for websites to have an ongoing commitment both to PPC and Organic Search, alongside Social Media Marketing as a path to better Organic Search Results.
That was the end of the email, so far I have not had a response, so I’m assuming it was understood and noted.
The important point here is to understand that many people, even those in lofty positions at larger corporations, do not really understand even the basics of search engine ranking. I believe I cover myself very well contractually when undertaking website design work and SEO. I never make false promises regarding the potential for gaining good rankings, nor do I speculate on the matter.
Yet still it seems that it is possible to be misunderstood.