It's been so long since we last contributed to the ever-expanding knowledge base that is the web that you probably assumed Blue Magnet had been the victim of a very localized 2012 Mayan apocalypse. Not so, my fellow digital denizens. Fortunately, 2013 has jump-started us into another great year.  So much so, in fact, that we've had to put the blog on hold while we manage the growth of our company--a welcome change, indeed, but I'm sorry to say it has come at the expense of our own blog contributions. In other words, we're preachin' but not practicin'.

Nevertheless, we're back and ready to dive right in with a topic almost as legendary and mysterious as the Maya themselves: SEO.  Specifically, I'd like to explore the core areas compose a given business's search engine optimization efforts.

Those outside of the search industry typically associate SEO with keywords...and only keywords. Their understanding of SEO is somewhere along the lines of optimization circa 1997, where simply stuffing your content with keywords alone may have bought you top rankings in Altavista or Hotbot. But in our brave new online world, keywords alone do not an effective SEO campaign make.  The way I see it, there are 3 keys to setting your website up for SEO success: building great site usability, creating relevant content and establishing your site as a trusted authority.

The Search Engine Raison d'Être

In order to understand the core components of SEO, you have to first understand the purpose of a search engine.  Like any major business, the end goal of the major search engines is to make money through a sustainable business model.  As you've probably figured by now, the model of choice for the search engines is advertising.  Just like the newspaper biz, search engines thrive on advertising revenue.  And the way you sell more advertising is by having a large, targeted audience viewing your product.  Google has just that.  The more users Google gets to adopt its products (like Google Search, YouTube, Google+, Google Maps and all their other products), the more consumer eyes are on Google.com--the perfect place to present targeted Google Adwords PPC campaigns.

How Do Search Engines Build An Audience?

This isn't the Field of Dreams, so building it does not necessarily mean they will come. Search engines create an audience by providing a valuable service to consumers: delivering relevant websites based on a search query. If search engines provided crappy results users would simply turn to other channels to find information on the web (see: social media). That's why it's in the search engines' best interest to provide customers with the most relevant information from the most trusted authorities on that subject. Search Engine Optimization is really just about making sure your website is providing the search engines (and ultimately the searching public) with the most relevant and trusted website content.

We Have The Same Goals!

This is great news! Our goal of providing relevant, trusted information to our visitors is the same goal that the search engines have.  In the end it's all about helping the customer find the information they need. When Google sees businesses providing this information on their websites, it rewards them by ranking them higher in the search results. It's so elegant in its simplicity, and best of all, everybody wins! And it makes sense.  Why would Google or Bing promote a site that uses spammy keyword techniques, has little relevant information to your search and is part of a sketchy link network?  Promoting a site like that is a good way to drive users to other search engines--one which would hopefully offer better results.

The 3 Pillars of SEO

Once you understand the search engine's goals, it becomes clear that SEO is more than just keyword and link building; instead, it's about improving the usabilty of your site, the relevance of its textual content to the searcher, and the level of authority your site has within its industry.  Ultimately, both you and the search engines want to create a better user experience (which means more conversions).  And, although there are MANY, MANY ever-changing factors that determine how search engines like Google and Bing rank your website for given keywords, for the most part those individual criteria all tend to fit nicely into these 3 high level categories:  

  1. Site Architecture (establishes your site's usability)
  2. Content Optimization (establishes your site's relevance)
  3. Relationship Building (establishes your site's authority)

I'll break it down even more so you can get a better understanding of what I mean for each category.  In addition, we'll explore a few good examples of the SEO work done for each.

Site Architecture (for Usability)

Site architecture, as the name suggests, is the foundation of your SEO--it's about creating a user-friendly website.  Any good SEO professional will tell you that before you even dive into writing optimized content or building links, you need to ensure that your actual website is built in a user-friendly way.  After all, what good is it sending thousands of visitors to your site if the site's webpages offer such poor usability that those same visitors leave your site in frustration? Overall, site architecture is about designing and coding your website in a way that benefits your visitors. The easier it is for your customers to find, access and navigate your site, the better you'll rank in the search engines.  

Site architecture is one of the more technical aspects of SEO and includes things like:

  • Site speed - The faster a site loads the better it is for SEO.  Google even stated that it takes page load speeds into consideration as part of its ranking algorithm.  Slow loading pages frustrate users and offer poor on-site experiences.  Search engines do NOT want to promote those kinds of sites.  In addition, with the proliferation of mobile devices, it's more important than ever to make your site as zippy as possible to prevent your webpage from taking 5 minutes to load on your mobile device.
  • File naming and structure - Your website is made up of many different files, including things like HTML, image files and PDFs.  All the files of your site should be properly named and organized in a logical way.  For instance, don't name the photo of your hotel lobby "IMG_2364.jpg."  Instead, name it something more descriptive, like "MarriottAtlantis-HotelLobby.jpg."  Even that small change gives your hotel a greater chance of appearing for the keyword you just included in that photo's file name. In addition, if your site's URL looks like this mysite.com/file123.html?tag=accommodations&special=523, you'd be better off having the URL rewritten as something that makes a little more sense to the untrained eye, like mysite.com/rooms/chicago-hotel-specials.html. Not only does that rewritten URL give visitors a basic idea of its content, but you can even fit a few keywords into the URL as well (ie, "Chicago hotel specials").
  • Canonicalization - Otherwise known as the dreaded "duplicate content" problem, fixing canonicalization or redundancy errors in your site can streamline how the search engines crawl your site.  This problem arises when two pages of your site have identical or nearly identical content.  When this happens, the search engines figure, "Hey, why do I need two identical copies of this page in my database.  What a waste!  I'll just keep one copy and drop the other."  The problem is, you don't get to decide which page Google keeps and which it drops unless you specifically tell the search engine what you'd like to do.  This can be done with canonical tags in the code or by setting up 301 redirects.  It's an important "housekeeping" item that goes on behind the scenes, which clients rarely know about or understand.
  • Server errors - Have you ever clicked on a link to a webpage that displayed a 404 error, stating that the page you are looking for cannot be found? While these pages aren't inherently bad, your site should be scoured for outdated or broken links that point to 404 pages within your own site.  Using a tool like Bing or Google Webmaster Tools can help you troubleshoot those pesky 404 and 500 errors and get your site back on the right track.  Again, although most clients never see this part of SEO, it's an important part of the clean-up process.

This list is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to optimizing your website's architecture, but it's crucial to understand that not all optimization is in plain view.  Some of the magic takes place behind the curtain. And while it's not nearly as visible or glamorous or understood by all clients, it's imperative to the success of your SEO campaign nonetheless.

Content Optimization (for Relevance)

This is what most people think of when they think SEO. Whereas site architecture focuses on the usability of your site, content optimization deals with the relevance of your site to the searcher. How relevant is your page content to the keyword query of your visitor?  

While keyword optimization can be an important part of site architecture (ie, for naming files and organization), much of your keyword research will take shape in the content optimization section of SEO.  It's the meat of the campaign and comprises the (mostly) visible content on the page.  Making your site more relevant to searchers through Content Optimization can be done in the following ways:

  • Meta Tags - This is SEO 101, but optimizing your Title and Description meta tags is one of the most basic things you can do to optimize your website.  While meta tag optimization alone won't rocket you above your competitors in the search engine rankings, it's an important step in the overall process.
  • Alt Tags - Similar to meta tags, alt tags are the alternative text attached to the images on your website.  Adding alt tags gives the search engines crawlable text in the code of the webpage.  Without alt tags the search engines will see a big, fat ___________ where some good, optimized text could reside.  It's an often missed opportunity.
  • Headings - Like any good publication, headings also play a big part in the usability of your site.  They are the titles and subtitles on the page that help break your big blocks of content into smaller, clearly labeled chunks.  Although they have less impact on content optimization, headings (like H1 and H2 tags) should nevertheless be optimized for the search engines.
  • Body Text - Keyword research should be integrated seamlessly into the body text of every page of your site.  Focus on 2 or 3 keywords per page and write for your users, not the search engines.  Your text should always be written naturally and should never become bloated with keywords. Don't write copy like this: "This beautiful Chicago hotel in Chicago is the ideal Chicago hotel in the city of Chicago."  Spoiler alert: You probably won't rank for the keyword "Chicago hotel" writing copy like that.  And even worse, your site will likely get punished for your keyword stuffing.
  • Intrasite Links - Links from page to page within your site are integral to getting search engines to crawl deeper into your site. This ties in with usability, but is typically part of your content optimization efforts.
  • Interesting Content - By making your content more interesting, you make it more likely to be shared, which is an important part of the next pillar of SEO: relationship building.  Not all your pages will have link-worthy content, but the more unique and relevant your copy is to your community, the more inbound traffic see coming to your site.

Relationship Building (for Trust)

It's great if your site is user friendly and the on-page content is optimized to the gills, but if those were the only factors that determined search rankings, there would be a tremendous amount of unscrupulous nogoodniks that could easily game the system. This is because the site owner has complete control over the site architecture and the content on the site.  However, the one thing that the site owner doesn't control is the public's trust in their site.  

The search engines needed a way to establish trust online.  Which sites should be considered an authority in their industry?  And how do search engines assign a value on authority?  Enter link building and social media.  Google and Bing decided that the best way to determine the trustworthiness of your site is by evaluating it based on the company you keep. Which sites link to yours? Who shares your links on social media?  These social cues are indicators to the search engines that your content is a trusted source of information.  It's also why search engine optimization can take so long to impact your site. Trust isn't something you earn overnight; you become an authority through consistent leadership over time within a given field.  

With that in mind, here are some ways that the search engines establish trust:

  • Link Building - Having trusted websites link to your own is one of the best ways to build up authority in a given niche.  The search engines consider every good link a "vote" of trust for your site.  Conversely, links from poor quality sites or spammy sites can negatively impact your authority in the eyes of the search engines.  As someone's mom always said, "Mind the company you keep, and always steer clear of the misanthropes."  Same goes for websites.  Hang with the good crowd and get their links. Don't associate with sites of ill repute.
  • Social Networks - While link building is still an important part of SEO, social sharing is quickly becoming an indicator of both trust and relevance for the search engines. It's all one big popularity contest, and if people are sharing your content on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, then the search engines take this as a cue that your site must be pretty relevant. Social networking actually comes in to play within all three pillars of SEO.  It's important to build social sharing features into the architecture of your site to allow users to share your content. In addition, the on-page content has to be share-worthy enough to pass it along, so content optimization is crucial.  And finally, by building relationships through social networks you increase trust and authority in your brand, making it more likely that customers will spread your content to the own communities.

Making The Web A Better Place To Search

The good news is that you and the search engines are both working towards the same goal!  So build your site with usability, relevance and trust in mind and watch your site climb the search rankings. These lists are by no means exhaustive, but they should give you an idea of why SEO is such a time-intensive undertaking any why the search engines promote sites that benefit their users.  By improving your site content and how your users find information on your web pages, not only will you see an increase in traffic to your site, but you'll also see an increase in those visitors converting to paying customers!

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