Excuse me, what is SEO?

Posted on September 5, 2012

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As I walk into this interesting social hang-out in Northern New Jersey last night, I hear a group of people raving about how they are creating a website and how it is going to be the most creative thing they have ever launched. SEO (Search Engine Optimization) in their planning was an after thought, something that they would consider after the website is complete.

And then I enter the conversation and talk about what I do for a living. Duh, A die-heard search expert that swears by it.  I actually wanted to tell them I live, breathe and think search and then by the time I could actually complete my sentence, they went on to say, “so we have finished creating our website, so what do they do do about SEO?” That’s when I decided I need to write this post and make people aware of what actually Search Engine Optimization is and what a SEO expert is all about.

So yes, this is not for the Fishkins, Kaushiks , Cutts or Conductors of the Search industry. I wanted to write this post to enlighten people just like this group above who think that SEO is a modern phenomenon that came into picture recently. Think again guys! And I am talking to every product manager, business owner and PR person; sorry to say but you just don’t get it. And my friends (even my husband) out there are so impressed with the acronym and the entire buzz around Google, but they still don’t get it. So this one’s for all of you.

My journey into the world of Search
When I was doing my MS in Direct & Online Marketing in New York, my focus was very clear. The program included not just the traditional Direct Marketing but the A-Z of Digital Marketing- Website Management, Organic Search, Paid Search, Social Media, Online PR, Database Management, email Marketing, display advertising, Affiliate Marketing; You name it and I went through it all. But it was the world of search & social media that fascinated me. I was into Google from the time I started using the web and who has not been; right? But the whole idea of discovering how Google spiders and algorithm work and the excitement of seeing your keywords perform on Google was just riveting.

And so I started my digital journey at a small agency and worked with various mindsets, some of whom treated SEO as a separate entity to the whole process of website creation and management.  I learnt a lot about the industry and how it is perceived by businesses.

How should one approach SEO? Whether you are a SMB, a publisher or a MNC, the process of website creation starts with a SEO person by your side.   And I mean right from the time when you choose a website name as that is where it begins from. I have actually worked with a client, an established chain of hotel groups. They hired my agency just because they were renaming one of their hotels for legal reasons and we were assigned to go through the whole process of coming up with a name that would benefit them in SEO. They were that concerned about their presence on search.  After the meticulous SEO research and implementation, today that brand is performing better than their last name. I command the initiative they took to get to the re-naming decision. Presently, I work with a MNC and search is lot more deep-rooted in the culture.

The website anatomy in the search era
What do you need to come up with a website? ; A product, service or content to sell. Then you need a space on the web to store it. Then you need a good web design and pictures to showcase it. Then you need creative content to communicate its presence and then you need the right keywords in that content to invite the search spiders to book your spot in search results. Also, remember the content is also about connecting your product with the relevant audience. You need an expert who can guide you on the navigation structure and link it with analytics.

So here’s the deal. I am a shopper. I go to Google, search for “baby shoes”, look at the most impressive entries on page 1 and click on the desired website and boom; I turn into a visitor or lead or sale for that website. So it is actually Google that gets me into an online store. And it is an SEO expert like me that does that trick. Sure, you are going to promote your website through various means so there will be brand knowledge getting you direct hits or referrals; however, 93% of online experiences begin with a search engine. And whoever leads the search results is able to capture a visitor. So your communication is not just with the searcher but with the search spiders as well.

Getting the visitor to your product page is a good start but where to from hereon?
The SEO expert brainstorms on the keywords that speak to the shopper, navigation structure to help ease the sales process and the kind of information that the visitor looks on for authenticity of the website.  Again all these points are verified by search spiders as well and the detailing starts from the file name, alt tags, product names, meta tagging, url structure and sitemap.

For example, you might have a section that says “sale”. It makes a difference as to what you name it. Should you name it “Special Offers”, “Deals of the day” or “Sale” or “Big sale”? That’s where one would look at the search volumes and competition levels for those keywords based on local or global target segment and then maybe test it out by looking at clicks and bounce rates. This refers to as (on-page) optimizing for conversions.

And yes, with Search Engine Marketing you would want to strengthen your customer reach by bidding on keywords and paying for visitors, But as per recent studies and as every marketing department will confirm this, 70% of the links search users click on are organic. It is regarded as websites with Google’s highest votes of authority compared to sponsored results.

SEO Expert: The Spy that never sleeps
The Search market is pretty much like the stock market. While in paid search you are looking at how your bids on keywords are performing, organic team is evaluating how their optimization techniques are helping their prime keywords. It is all about grabbing the top spot for your preferred keywords and web page. How is Google presenting the results? What are our impressions versus clicks? Is there an image and video that is helping the description? How is the competition performing? And trust me us SEO specialists operate like a spy scraping the competition’s complete organic arsenal. And our eyes never miss a Google Algorithm change. That means we are constantly on our toes to make sure we remain on page 1 without offending Google’s guidelines. And don’t forget with the arrival of smart-phone, mobile search optimization is another area we need to cover.  That is a topic that deserves its own post.

Off-page optimization: The invisible lift
So you thought okay, she worked on the page content, added the required tags and created a Google Analytics account. That’s it her job is done. Wrong! Another area we need to cover aggressively is creating links for our keywords; both internal and external. The link that once clicked on takes you to a certain page; that is referred to as anchor text. Our job is to add as much link equity as we can to it. And trust me it is not an easy job thanks to Panda and Penguin. But it is building links that makes all the magic happen. For example, if you were to search for “women’s shoes”, the first result that would show up is Zappos.com I analyzed their link equity on SEOMoz siteexplorer and discovered that they have nearly 500 links with different variations of this anchor text, with 350 just for “women’s shoes”. In comparison the other websites that showed up did not utilize their anchor text accordingly and had fewer links.  But they had some equity of links of course to keep them on page 1 of SERP.

I refer to Nathan Safran’s blog, that explains Google’s PageRank algorithm that was created to determine the popularity of a page. “Central to extrapolating the terms and search position for which the URL should rank, the Google algorithm looks at the anchor text contained within links. For example, numerous links to http://www.buy.com/iphone with ‘iphone’ in the anchor text signal to search,” he says. I would urge you to read his blog where he evaluates the success of anchor text selection. In the study he looked at more than 100,000 inbound links across more than 650 e-commerce and non-ecommerce domains, ultimately analyzing more than 4.2 million links and their anchor text using Conductor’s Searchlight SEO platform. Among his observations, what really stood out for me was his advice on anchor text placement. “Our analysis of inbound links shows given the way anchor text is used across many sites, there may be opportunity for marketers to optimize their own internal links and target low hanging fruit of non-optimized inbound links from high-value targets”. This is where a good SEO expert makes all the difference, both for internal and external link sourcing.

And besides building the link equity, using these keywords in your social media communications is another factor that Google and Bing are beginning to acknowledge in their algorithms. Link distribution through social media channels like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the likes is now a part of our off-page optimization efforts.

Get your ducks in a row for Search
The power of search is growing tremendously; the search engine industry is estimated to be worth more than $16 billion and there are over 100 billion global searches being conducted each month. Do you want to top these searches? Can you anticipate the revenue this could lead to with a few good conversions? If your answer is yes, then I say, go ahead and “Optimize your digital team today”. Make SEO your priority from the start and not something that comes as an after thought.

Did this post help you understand SEO? Were you able to comprehend what is involved in making organic search successful and its impact on your website? Please share your views.
> Also check out related post: Acquainting with the Search Specialist