f you’ve asked yourself this question before, you’re not alone. Ranking at or close to the top of search engine results (without paying for an ad) can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. We’ve written this article to shed some light on why SEO can be so damn hard and how to approach it to get the best possible results for your business.
The Online Landscape
Let’s start with a bit of context. The first website was published in 1991 and as of early 2020 there were 1.74 billion websites in existence – many vying for the top spot in search engines. Google dominates the search engine market with 92.26% of queries, receiving at least 5.6 billion searches per day. Pretty staggering numbers, right? Fortunately, you’re not competing with 1.74 billion websites, but you are competing for search queries relevant to your product or service and from within your geographical service area. This makes the prospect of ranking well a little less daunting, but there’s still some work to do to compete effectively. The hardware and algorithms that make up a search engine need to effectively manage this enormous scale of data and queries though, so it’s a complex environment to command. Let’s understand a little about how they do it.
Priorities of a Search Engine
Before getting into the technical side of search engine technology, it’s important to keep in mind why search engines exist and what their objectives are. For any search engine to be successful, it needs to deliver the best possible search results for each query made by the searcher. Better search results mean more users, which means more advertising space that they can sell and generate revenue from. For the searcher, better search results deliver high-quality and relevant content quickly and effortlessly.
As the owner or manager of a website then, this means that you need to prioritise high-quality content that is relevant to what your target audience is searching for. While you might be able to cheat the system for a while before the technology catches up (and then penalises you), strategies that don’t focus on delivering high quality and relevant content to an audience just to rank faster in the short-term is ultimately counterproductive. We’ve all seen websites shoehorn 300 contextually-inappropriate references to their product and geography into their landing page – and we’ve all clicked out of them! The ubiquitous search algorithm knows that we hate getting served content like that and will penalise websites for doing it. This is where some of the more technical side of SEO comes into play. So, let’s look a little deeper to understand a bit of what’s going on under the hood –and why it does that.
Online Searching User Journey
Think back to the last time you searched for something. You typed in a query and got back pages upon pages of results, typically starting with a few ads. Some results were just one link, others a link and a description, and some even had sub-pages shown with their own description. For example, when I Google “LimeHub” (see below) the first result is our website with a number of sub-pages and the second results is the Lime Scooter Service Hub with just the one page shown.
Once you’ve received the results of your search you will probably have clicked on the second or third organic result or perhaps a compelling ad and maybe even navigated to the second page results – like most of us do. It’s important to understand the process and how the information is presented because what you’re seeing in the search results isn’t live.
Search engines send bots around the internet scraping and storing available data, categorising and updating their databases. Although they have many bots doing this work, they don’t scrape from every website everyday. The upshot is that when you click a link within your search results, you’ll be directed to to the live published website, but it might not be what you expected if it hasn’t been properly optimised (or updated) for search engines.
This isn’t a great outcome for you – the customer of the search engine – and therefore not a great outcome for the search engine itself. If you exit the website and search again, then the search engine takes note of this and the website could have its ranking downgraded for future searches relating to that query because of its poor performance. If searchers click out of a page frequently enough, it can have a material impact on a page’s ranking.
On the other hand, if a website wasn’t presented in the search results properly - even if it was on the top page – it’s unlikely to be clicked on. The key takeaway from this is that the way that your website is presented in search results, regardless of rank, matters and the good news is that this is easy to do. Let’s take a look at how you can improve the presentation of your results with relatively little effort.
The Easy Part of SEO
The easiest part of SEO is ensuring that your website is structured correctly so that search engines can easily understand what your site offers – this is known as on-page SEO. In the example above, the LimeHub search result shows sub-pages which are the children within the structural hierarchy of the site, but which are higher performing over other internal pages. It also shows a summary of each page – otherwise known as the meta descriptions.
Since text is the only thing that a search engine can “read” and translate at this stage, structure and alternative (or ‘alt’) text that sits behind images and videos is essential. Search engines also preference relevant links between your site and other sites so that it can establish contextual relationships in terms of navigation and topics. Website performance is also important, so the speed of your site and the user behaviour (time on site, click-through to other pages, etc.) which are based on your websites’ User Experience, will play a significant part in your ranking. While the easy stuff can help improve your rankings, alone it’s not enough. Let’s have a look at the part of SEO that’s more difficult, but which really drives ranking optimisation.
The Hard Part of SEO
The hard part of SEO is trying to get high-ranking websites to include contextual links to your website. This is typically where a lot of major SEO 'as a service’ providers focus as it’s extremely time consuming and doesn’t guarantee success. There are some very dodgy providers, and even the reputable ones often work within a grey area of ethics. The quickest wins in terms of backlinks are from social media platforms and business listings websites. To get started (for Australian businesses), make sure your website (with relevant descriptions and categorisations) is listed on the sites below. A search engine which finds links to pages on your website within high ‘Domain Authority’ sites, will reward you by increasing the ranking of your linked pages. High Domain Authority is a predictor of how likely a website is to rank on search engine results pages.
Some of the main directories with the highest Domain Authority’s (DA’s) are:
- Facebook (Domain Authority = 100)
- Apple Maps (Domain Authority = 100)
- Google My Business (Domain Authority = 100)
- LinkedIn Company Directory (Domain Authority = 98)
- Bing (Domain Authority = 94)
- Yelp (Domain Authority = 94)
A few others include:
Content in the form of blogs, social posts, slides, and videos play a major role in backlinking, but as mentioned, this is the hardest part and takes the most time, money and effort. It’s not just a matter of creating content for the sake of it after all - it has to be strategic, high-quality and most-importantly, relevant.
The First Step to an Effective SEO Strategy
Strategically, as part of any SEO project, there are two major variables to consider – the volume of queries and the competitiveness of ranking for them. While you might want to rank for the most popular search queries in the long-term, it would be much wiser to focus on less competitive terms with slightly lower volume to get traffic to your site quickly in the short-term while chipping away at the highest-value terms.
For example, the LimeHub domain is only two years old at the time of writing this which puts us at a disadvantage as domain age influences Domain Authority. This means that we have to focus on low hanging fruit to rank even more so than some others. For us to compete for say the term “SEO agency” when there are so many much larger and older organisations focussing on SEO services exclusively would be extremely hard. Instead, we focus on creating fresh content relevant to our services that is newer to the market.
We develop websites and apps using a variety of technologies and coding languages, but one of the fastest growing solutions with the least keyword competitiveness is Webflow for example. So, instead of focussing our efforts on competitive terms like “SEO Agency” it’s more strategic to focus on content around new technologies like Webflow or Adalo that quickly generate a lot of organic traffic from prospective clients looking for web development services, which will inevitably require an SEO component.
Going into the depths of SEO strategies and the range of variables that effect ranking in search engines is like disappearing down the rabbit hole. The number one thing to do if you’re looking to improve the ranking of your website is to start with getting a thorough understanding of your website’s current SEO status and what keywords you want it to start ranking for (based on volume and competitiveness). Only once you have this information can you plot a long-term course to success. There are sadly no silver bullets when it comes to SEO considering the complexity we all have to navigate through (alongside our competition). But armed with a solid SEO strategy and resources to execute it, success will eventuate.