I visited a website for the first time in 1994 and built my first web page just a few years later. Going online in those days was an adventure. Disconnecting for more than an hour now seems heroic. A lot has changed.
But when it comes to search engine optimization there’s one question people keep asking almost 25 years later. Last week I heard it from a real estate broker, a personal trainer, and the owner of a printing company. I like the way the trainer asked it best:
But how do you get a website to the top of search engines?”
The question is just as relevant today as as it was in the good old days of Excite, Infoseek and AltaVista. And here’s what’s interesting: The answer — the simplest answer, anyway — hasn’t changed much at all.
By some estimates, Google evaluates more than 200 different factors when ranking web pages in search results. An entire industry is devoted to studying the rise and fall of those factors. The practitioners are like priests at the Oracle of Delphi waiting for Google to reveal the slightest change in its inscrutable will. At one level, it’s all very complicated, always changing, always some mysterious amalgam of art, science and even a little voodoo. But here’s what hasn’t changed . . .
Three Basic Elements of SEO That Haven’t Changed
#1 Create Great Content. The first job of a search engine is simply to give people what they want, to help people find what they’re looking for. Google has consistently given one piece of advice over and over: Create content that is awesome. Write articles that people want to read. Create products that fill a need. Contribute a valuable service to the world.
So the first step in getting to the top of search results is simply to give people what they’re looking for.
Do this effectively and consistently and you’ve done the hardest and most important work in search engine optimization.
This is the step most people want to skip, because it’s hard. If your website offers essentially the same product or service as thousands of competitors, it’s not easy to stand out from the crowd. What do you offer that’s different, better, or more valuable? That’s a challenge in any business. But just as there are no shortcuts to lasting success in business, there are no shortcuts to lasting search engine ranking.
#2 Give Your Website a Technical Tune-Up. Here’s where things get complicated. Yes, there are things you can and should do to ‘optimize’ your web pages for search. And while the manual is a little different in 2017 than it was five years ago (think mobile!) a good technician will have access to the most important technical elements in optimizing your website and content.Some of the elements in an SEO technical tune-up including optimizing your website navigation, internal linking structure, landing pages, titles, images, page speed, mobile responsiveness and tweaking dozens of other elements.
Just like getting your oil changed periodically, you need periodic service to ensure your website is tuned up based on the most recent SEO standards.
In addition, a good technical SEO analysis will include a study of the competitive landscape. What search terms do people actually use? (You’d be amazed how often people guess wrong.) What terms are most likely to generate a lead or a sale? What opportunities have your competitors overlooked that you can exploit?
#3 Get the Word Out. Imagine for a moment that search engines didn’t exist. How would you spread the word about your website? You might advertise. You might publish a press release and share it with a trade association or the chamber of commerce. You might share the news in an online forum. You might write an article for LinkedIn or share the content on Facebook. You’d certainly want your listing in business directories to be up-to-date. You might ask a partner in business to share information about your services on their website.
What set Google apart from the competition back in the old days was the idea that the value of a website could be measured to a significant degree by the number and quality of other websites linking to it. In principle this is still true, but the practice of link building and guest blogging simply for the purpose of gaming search results is a thing of the past. Google sees past the tricks and may even penalize you for them.
Google now takes a holistic approach to the popularity of your website: Is it listed consistently in major online directories? Does it have an active social media presence? Does it have good reviews in the various review sites? Is it referenced elsewhere across the web in a natural way?
This aspect of search engine optimization is also frequently overlooked because it’s time consuming. Also, the results can’t be measured immediately or in direct correspondence to your investment.
So the key is to view this part of your search strategy as a public relations strategy. Rather than obsessing on the number of inbound links, likes or reviews, focus on growing the awareness of your business and the great service it provides. The tools and opportunities are different, but in principle this is the same thing businesses have been doing for ages.
One More Question: Can I Do It Myself?
You can change the oil on your car yourself. You can even give your car a tune-up if you have the skills and tools. But if you’re like most small business owners that’s not the best use of your time and skills.
In the same way, you should take your website to an expert for a period review of your website. They can help you optimize your existing website and content for the best results. They can also help you with guidance on how to focus your efforts to create valuable content and get the word out.
So no, you shouldn’t do it all yourself.
But on the other hand there are some things you simply can’t outsource. While an expert can help you create great content and develop a strategy to get the word out, it has to be a partnership. When it comes to the public face of your company, there’s no substitute for your experience, engagement and creativity.