Welcome to Part 3 of the basics of search engine optimisation for small businesses.

In Part1 we covered:

  • What is SEO?
  • Challenges to address
  • Will SEO work for your business

In Part2 we covered:

  • The internet and the world wide wide
  • Search Engines – The Basics
  • Page Ranking – An overview
  • Lies, Damn lies and SEO Experts

In this (the final part) we cover:

  • The pillars of SEO
  • Technical SEO – The basics
  • Off-site SEO – The basics
  • On-page SEO – The basics
  • Pulling it all together

So, let’s get started:

The Pillars of SEO

If you want to learn SEO forget the masses of tools and just look at the search engine results pages (SERPS). Whatever your market is, type in a variety of queries and view the results. Try to think through why one result might rank higher than the next. After a while, you will start to notice some common themes.

As far as I am aware, there is no certified degree course in SEO. Everyone who works on search engine optimisation (or worse, calls themselves an expert) is self-taught. They might have had a mentor that gave them a good start, but they all had to start somewhere. If you want a place to start, look at the SERPS.

Search engines interpret signals. My view is they then have some mathematical method to take a variety of signals and obtain an overall score. That score is then used to rank pages on the search engine results page. They could use some weighting factor and/or they could multiply scores or add them. The process could be single-stage or (more likely) multi-stage.

My view again, ranking is not simply down to signals and numbers. It is not a meritocracy. It is not a level playing field and there are other factors at work.

What is a signal? My definition is it is something the search engine engineers have decided is appropriate to identify and measure. The measurement could be a Yes/No or it could be it falls into some band.

Always keep in mind three factors when trying to interpret the search results returned in response to a query input by a user. They are RELEVANCE, AUTHORITY and INTENT. In reverse order, how does Google judge the intent of the user? How does Google assess the authority of one web page over the next and how relevant is the web page to the query.

In a nutshell, this is what Google is trying to judge. It uses the initial tags applied to indexed pages and it uses signals. Some algorithms are interrelated, some are artificial intelligence-based.

Oh, and one more thing (and again, this is an opinion) Google takes account of the users’ status when deciding what search results to deliver. That is where they are, what device they are using, and perhaps, also their previous search history.

The first step is to ensure the SEO basics are in place. Define your objectives. Where does SEO fit within your business promotion plan? What are your expectations? What skills do you have in house and what will you need to outsource? What content (text, graphics, video, audio) can you produce of value to your potential customers?

Technical SEO – The Basics

It is important to understand the basics of how browsers, the internet and the world-wide web work. That knowledge should be applied to when a new website is developed. It is important to make the crawling and indexing process as simple as possible for the search engine.

If a website has many pages that cannot be found, that could be a negative signal. If a website is slow to respond, that could be a negative signal. I don’t know if these are actually negative signals. If they are, I don’t know what weight the search engines may give to these signals compared to others. They are only examples to make a point.

I do strongly believe that if a website is not technically sound it will harm rankings. Many try to brush over what is known as technical SEO and claim it is not something those building small websites need to understand. That is wrong, it is not necessary to have an in-depth knowledge, but it is important to at least know the basics.

Off Page SEO – The basics

Off-page SEO, as the name suggests, is anything you try to influence that is not on your site that affects the ranking (position of your site) in the SERPS.

Off-page SEO is usually associated with obtaining links to your site (backlinks). From the earliest days of search engines, there has been an obsession with backlinks. Off-page SEO activities also (possibly) include NAP citations, reviews, brand mentions and social shares.

Let’s look at links first. We know the world wide web is links between documents and crawl spiders follow links, so fundamentally links are important. We know the original Google page rank algorithm was used as a measure of the authority of a website and that was based on links.

My view is yes inbound links to webpages are an authority signal. How much of an authority signal we could argue all day long. We don’t know which links count or if they are weighted in some way. If links are weighted, we don’t know how that weighting works. If links do count are only those from relevant websites counted, or is it all links? What about nofollow links? Do they count in some way, or are they irrelevant?

From the earliest days of Google, many SEOs have tried to manipulate links. What is a valid link and what has been manufactured in some way is open to interpretation. Whatever links Google determines do not meet their guidelines could be penalised or ignored. Assuming, of course, Google can identify those links.

Now onto the more soft and fluffy elements. Let’s take out NAP citations that I believe are used as a signal. The rest, I suggest, are wide open to manipulation and are probably avoided by Google. Even if Google did want to use these elements as signals I find it hard to understand how they would do that without investing significant resources. What would be the benefit of allocating those resources?

On Page SEO – The Basics

Let’s assume all technical SEO issues have been addressed. We know search engines interpret text (HTML) on a page. That text may be in the main body of the page or in various tags. On-site SEO is all about delivering ‘signals’ to Google that show the content on the page is relevant to a search query and the intent of that query.

The early search engines only understood words (keywords). They did not understand the relationship between those words. In the mid-2000s the standard way to try to rank in a high position in SERPS was to stuff the keyword you would like to rank for into a webpage text as many times as possible.

Over time Google caught up with this practice, but in 2012 there was still plenty of (so-called) advice online recommending:

  • Keyword phrase in title.
  • Keyword phrase in description.
  • Keyword phrase in URL.
  • Keyword phrase in the first paragraph of text.
  • Keyword density in text 4%.
  • Keyword phrase in the last paragraph of text.
  • A sprinkling of keyword-related words.
  • Exact keyword phrase in link anchor text.

2012/13 were big years for Google and SEO. In 2012 the so-called Panda and Penguin algorithm updates were released. Penguin was designed to take out the manipulative link schemes discussed above. The purpose of Panda was to address content that was not (perceived as) useful or was manipulative.

The Hummingbird update was released in 2013. It received a lot less attention than Panda and Penguin but was actually just as important. Perhaps even more important.

Hummingbird interprets each word in a query, ensuring that the whole query rather than individual words are taken into account. It was the first step on the road to semantic search. This was a game-changer. The start of a movement from (to quote Google) ‘things to strings.’ A process to help the search engines determine intent.

At this point, the complexity goes up a level but to simplify, semantics can be defined as the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning. Semantic search is a move away from simply evaluating keywords to determining the relationship between those words. Its goal is to understand the intent and the context of a query.

Semantic search works by linking data contained in an array of databases. Confusingly, this is known as a graph. The data in the databases are entities (things) constructed so they can be understood and interrelated by computer algorithms.

Let’s go up a level of complexity again, in 2015 Google introduced RankBrain. This runs alongside the main algorithms. Its function is to use machine learning (AI) to make suggested changes to ranking. Its purpose is to evaluate queries that are difficult to interpret or have not been seen before. Rank Brain may have more influence over the search results than just described. That is open to debate.

Head hurting yet? Well, let’s go up one more level. In 2019 Google introduced BERT into its search results ranking suite of algorithms. BERT purpose is to understand language in content and queries. Again, it helps the Google search engine understand intent.

Pulling It All Together

The first search engines appeared in the early 1990s. Google was founded in 1998. The Google search engine has gone through over twenty years of development. Each modification was built on what was already in place. In my view, very little has been deleted along the way. It may have been modified, or its relative importance reduced, but it is still in there somewhere.

Again a personal view. Even if it were possible to fully understand the intricacies of BERT there would be little point concentrating all SEO efforts on that alone. The same applies to Panda, or Page Rank, or any other known algorithm update. Remember, there may be some that are unknown. It is the combination that matters. Are some things (signals) more important than others? Absolutely, do we know which ones they are? Nope.

Here’s the thing. Don’t assume because the search engines are moving towards semantic search individual keywords don’t have an impact. Don’t think that only highly relevant links from high authority sites are of any value. The techniques on the 2012 SEO tactics list above are not all obsolete.

There is still what is known as black hat SEO. The term refers to those who actively try to promote their pages in search by gaming the system. There may be a fraction of the black hat SEOs there once were, but they are still out there. They still use those (so-called) long obsolete techniques discussed above and some make a success of it.

I am not for an instant suggesting black hat is something to try. My view is, those who can make a success of black hat do it at scale and are prepared to slash and burn. My point is (it appears) someone out there is making a profit using so-called long obsolete techniques.

Don’t take everything you read on SEO (including from Google) as correct. Always think through if it makes sense based on your own experience. Think about how a search engine could implement what is suggested.

To summarise, ensure any technical SEO issues are addressed first, or you will be building on sand. Never forget relevance, authority and intent. Fundamentally, search engines look for text so give them some text to read. That is not random text on random topics you need a content plan.

Follow the history trail. Links are still important, keywords (that’s words, not phrases) still matter. Think through what each major Google update brought to the party? Unless you happen to be the next Alan Turing you can’t outthink Googles pool of search engine engineers. So try to give the search engines what they want.

Finally, don’t get despondent when a webpage that should not outrank you does just that. Search is not a level playing field and the search engines are not perfect (far from it).

Remember algorithms are simply computer programs (code). The internet, indexers and computers are machines. All they can do is follow instructions (code). They cannot see, they cannot think, they do not perceive image A as more attractive than image B.

Despite the hype, AI is still in its infancy. Don’t overthink things.
Small business search engine optimisation has changed dramatically in recent years. The rate of change (and complexity) is accelerating. Jumping from one tactic to the next in the hope of some quick wins will not work.

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