I'm asked by almost every potential client about search engine optimization... What it is, how it works, how to take advantage of it... No matter what level of technical or web industry knowledge a prospective client has, they always want to know the ins and outs of SEO. So, here are our thoughts about this ever changing topic.
No one really knows exactly how the search engines work
But we have really good theories. The fact is, Google (and let's just focus on them. Sure, there are other search engines, but we all care about Google the most!) keeps their algorithms very close to their chest. Any word to the public about algorythm changes typically reach us weeks after they are set in motion. They do have a public evangelist named Matt Cutts who maintains a great blog, and gives us some advice along the way. However, the actual nuts and bolts of how their search rankings work are a proprietary secret. I'll speak a little more below about our recommendations and some theories about how it works, but, its important to keep in mind that no one can be 100% certain of what's happening in those big, floating data centers.
No one can promise results
If someone asked me the number one question to ask any SEO consultant, it would definitely be "Can you promise me that my site will be ranked X for the search term "Y". If the consultant answers you with a definite yes... Then run. Because, as per my point above... No one knows for sure how Google works. Therefore no one can promise you much of anything in terms of results. If someone does, be afraid.
If your site is new... It could take a while
The subject of a Google "sandbox" has been debated for many years. But it definitely has some legitimacy. Some sites can take many weeks, months and in some cases over a year to appear in the engine. Even weirder is that these sites seem to go slower, when there is a massive amount of linkage to it upon first launch. No one can predict how soon your site will appear. I've seen new domains appear next day, and I've seen them take over a year.
The 80/20 split.
Our theory, and the guidance that we give our clients, is that search engine optimization is an 80/20 split (thanks to the Pareto principle). 20% of the equation is your onsite optimization. This means coding, content organization, keyword optimization. Are your title tags arranged properly? Are you staying within recognized character limits? Can the crawlers access all parts of your site equally? So you follow the latest coding techniques as recommended by Google? And so on...
But the other 80% is something very organic... It's all about backlinking! That means, who links to you, and more specifically, what is their reputation?
You probably all receive spam emails from offshore SEO agencies promising you tons of links back to your site. What they fail to mention is that the power of a link is based on TRUST. Meaning quality - not quantity. Example... A domain with a link from a reputable source will receive a greater trustrank than a domain with links from a bunch of crummy blogs. So if you were to be mentioned in an article at the NY Times, or say your friend on a Harvard.edu site links to your site... Those domains would be worth exponentially more value than a link from your friend's blog that was setup on GoDaddy last week.
Which makes me wonder sometimes: is SEO now truly just a matter of a good ole, traditional public relations campaign, as opposed to something more complex? That, is a post for another day!
The best approach? Common Sense.
I'll drive to work at 33 miles per hour, in a 25 mph zone probably every day for a year and not get noticed. But if I went 75 mph a few days in a row, it wouldn't be long before our local police put me in my place. And the same goes for SEO. Yes, you can indeed be PUNISHED for taking advantage of the system. So, our recommendation is always to follow a common sense approach. Take advantage of the 20% of SEO that is within your circle of control. Site coding, tactics, content strategy onsite. Then, work to build an organic and trust-based set of backlinks to your own site. It's the best way to ensure that you build a solid reputation for the search engines.
Everyone has heard stories of a site that overnight lost the majority of their organic traffic due to a change on the Google search. What you oftentimes don't hear is about the companies running the SEO campaigns for those sites. Massive linkbuilding, black-hat techniques - it's no wonder they were punished!
If you do hire an SEO agency - fire them...
...after a year. Because most agencies do a front-loaded sweep of your site from a content and coding perspective, and then set your account on autopilot. SEO strategies change frequently (or, we think they do), so getting a new set of eyes on the prize every year or so is a great way to stay fresh.
Surely, this point is going to get me a few less holiday baskets this year!
This post will answer some of your SEO related questions. SEO is a complex topic with lots of moving parts. While we do not provide in-depth SEO services, we do optimize all client sites and we do focus on that 20% we feel we can control. If you want us to take a look at how your site is optimized for search engines (from a technical perspective) then contact us!