Search engine optimization (SEO)
The process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine's "natural" or un-paid ("organic") search results.
You've probably heard the term "SEO" before from your co-workers, a web designer or marketing firm. Now a mis-understood acronym promising the "top spot" in search engines, SEO is simply the practice of technically refining your online marketing strategies to optimize for visibility. Although it's important to show up first when people search for your business, the way to the top is no longer through keywords and tags, but through something simpler to understand. Something more fitting for an internet age, demanding authenticity.
Be weary of hiring an SEO specialist - You need to consider that the internet has changed, and "Search Engine Optimization" is a very antiquated way of thinking, especially for small business. You should invest instead by bringing marketing efforts towards creating conversations about your brand online. Also, having somebody well informed in those areas (a high end web designer, marketer, online journalist) advise your strategy and provide advice ensures you're in the right mindset.
Here's some great tips from Google on why you probably don't need an SEO specialist.
How search has changed
This is for small businesses who are passionate and want to build a valuable brand online. "SEO" is old news, this is how to be search friendly.
With the boom of the internet bubble in the 1990's, websites and online entertainment became the next clear revolution. This buzz created a whole new industry, imagined by the minds of fast-thinking entrepreneurs. Among these go-getters were Larry Page and Sergey Brin, both co-founders of Google. They established the standard for web-search and opened the flood gates for the future of online directories and search engines.
The days of websites for robots
Even in just the early days of online search, the idea and it's popularity picked up pretty quickly. People and businesses naturally wanted to be at the top of online search results for things people were looking for. Web architects and marketing firms started offering services to help get your website to the top, and this coined the term "SEO" or "Search Engine Optimization".
<meta name=”keywords” content=”shoe, shoes, shoee, shos, footwear” />
Web developers were given tools to categorize their websites online. The above code example was a popular (and discontinued) SEO practice called "Meta Keywords". This allowed website developers to categorize their website and allow Google to place them in the right sections.
These were the early days, and Google's system was very rudimentary and easily manipulated. The turning point was web developers and marketers realizing that Google's algorithm could be tricked by simply using the tools given in sneaky ways (a drastic analogy would be burning down your house to collect the insurance money). This began the downwards spiral of online search, and would give the term "SEO" a bad name for the years to come.
When things got really bad, common "black hat" practice was to use meta keywords, link exchanges, keyword stuffing, sneaky redirects and automatically generated content. All of these unfair methods and SEO practices are now considered a violation of Google's quality guidelines. Today, using these methods will hurt your ranking in Google and may result in your site being blacklisted from Google and other search engines - but hey, this was the internet back in the 90's, and pretty much anything was fair game.
People were jumping through hoops to get to the top of the search results, and Google was losing control of their platform. Their search results had gone from useful listings with websites that had original content designed for people, to a mess of spammy websites packed with keywords, smoke and mirrors (note the example above).
Shady and conniving SEO practices coined "Black Hat SEO" was a huge problem. It threatened to ruin the face and reputation of online search by tricking the system. We had essentially found a loophole in an industry about to lose it's cool, and we kept pushing. Why make websites for people if robots and computers control the internet?
The wild wild web
By the early 2000's, the internet had gone through many changes. It had gone from a little pet-project of Silicon Valley, to the platform of the worlds largest industries, almost overnight. The internet even saw a speculative bubble and massive crash at the turn of the millennium. Looking from the outside it appeared as if the whole world would be consumed by "the information super highway", but things were much different on the ground floor.
Google's continued relentless growth into the mid 2000's brought even more focus from marketers and web developers. This put even more pressure on Google's engineers to thwart websites that were "cheating" their way to the top. The quality of search results were plummeting, and things started to get serious.
Search results were soon littered with websites that were actually harmful to people and their computers. The algorithms and techniques Google had in place to prevent this couldn't keep up with the crafty SEO methods being used to game the system. The crawler bots Google and other search engines send out to find websites were flawed in a very vital way. They weren't capable of understanding one key factor - "is this a website humans would find useful?"
The solution for Google was to re-think how search engines looked for websites on the internet. The web was getting smarter, and people were starting to share information about themselves with companies like Google. This lead them to realize the best way to understand what people were looking for - instead of a system that worked like a robot, they needed a system designed to work like a human. Enter the "social" web.
Google wants you to "understand where the money goes" - "Some SEOs will promise to rank you highly in search engines, but place you in the advertising section rather than in the search results. A few SEOs will even change their bid prices in real time to create the illusion that they "control" other search engines and can place themselves in the slot of their choice."
Nobody can guarantee a #1 ranking on Google - Anybody or business that makes drastic claims about "getting to the top" or "increased traffic" is a service to be weary of. If you keep up to date, and can enjoy running a business online, you can do most, if not all of the things required to succeed in search!
Unexpected emails - Also, be wary of SEO firms and web consultants or agencies that send you email out of the blue.
This is all mainly advice for small business but the way search is implemented these days, SEOs really won't be needed. Online search is instinctive enough to.understand what's good for humans, and intelligent enough to make it accessible for the internet and now, small business.
Websites designed for people
In July 2004, a new type of online directory sprouted out of necessity. Instead of a service that's focused on building indexes like search engines, it was designed to make connections between people, a sort of "social graph". This was the invention of the social network, and the first big player to the social network game was Facebook.
Soon to follow was Twitter, Myspace and Youtube (among thousands of others). The idea was to create communities of millions of people and collect data about them. Where do they live? What do they eat? Where do they work? Who are they friends with? - this was a whole new way to think about sharing and finding information online. This was the missing piece that search engines needed to bring quality search results to everyone.
Gaining access to this social media data was the key to allow search engines like Google to offer better results to internet users. It also spelled doom for spammy, harmful and misleading websites. With both of these realizations implemented, things were about to change faster than they ever had before.
The ability for somebody to actively "Like", "Tweet" or "Share" a webpage meant that search robots could tell what real humans actually liked with very little guesswork. Google began using this "sharing" data collected by social networks and other communities to determine which websites, businesses and products mattered most to real people. On top of that, Google added the ability to tell where you physically are in the world using WiFi, GPS and other technologies. This made search more accurate, and was a turning point for local businesses who now have the chance to rise above the big name brands in their town or city.
Later in 2009, Google eliminated the use of Keywords completely in their search rankings and enforced a new set of Quality Guidelines to leverage their new system and prevent web rank cheaters. Essentially, Google's approach to finding the right search results for you has advanced dramatically. Search results are no longer just a simple list of links.
For example - If you were to search for "coffee shop", Google would deliver results tailored for you based on your activity. It can tell you which cafés are closest to you based on where you are, which ones your friends recommended, what time their open, where they are (with directions) and much more.
Now, if you were to simply travel to the other side of town and perform the same search query for "coffee shop", your search results would be different. The amount of information used to find search results is absolutely incredible, and the best of all - it's pretty much organic. It's all information that's generated by real people interacting with the internet, instead of easily manipulated, archaic practices.
So how do we get to the top?
That's a question people will ask forever, and a question that we'll never be able to answer. There have been many fad fast ways to climb the mountain of Google, but these have all been short-term efforts, and the landscape is constantly evolving. Yes it's vital to implement timely strategies to take advantage of the tools available, but there's something much more important than anything. It's something called straight-up honesty. It's the winning long term strategy since day one of online search.
The number one search optimization tool since the beginning of time has simply been authenticity over everything else. It's the difference between a friendly watch repair shop down the road and a dishevelled grease-ball selling watches out of a trench coat. Both have the same potential to succeed, there's just simply different paths to take.
If we focus on designing websites for humans, trying to avoid "trendy" techniques and keeping our focus on being genuine, we win every day. Not only is it the best way to ensure you succeed online, but it's the easiest way. Every online marketing effort you put into place needs to stem from this mindset of honesty. Internet users are smarter than ever, and having people respect your brand is what puts money in your wallet and lets you sleep at night.
How to climb the search mountain
We're not saying don't follow the research and methods that search experts provide. What we're saying is relying exclusively on "SEO techniques" to promote your brand online is a hollow strategy, and one that lacks longevity. The only true and proven way to sustain a presence online is through authenticity and levelling with your customers. What we mean is treat your website like your physical location or home office. It's a place that reflects who you are, and what you stand for. Your integrity online matters.
Furthermore, utilizing social media is key for a business in the online space. The more genuine interaction your business has online, the more importance Google places on your business - and no, following a thousand people on Twitter expecting a "follow back" or spamming your Facebook page with auto-posts doesn't work, and makes you look foolish.
The message here is to make your online marketing strategy as simple as possible. Maintaining a clear voice that people can trust and taking the time to reach out to your customers (replying to messages on Twitter and Facebook) let's them know you're for real.
We really hope this article helps small businesses understand how simple it can be to succeed online. Change is a good thing, and the curve to learn simple online marketing is more natural than ever. If you are truly passionate about your business and your message, you're doing yourself a dis-service by not giving people a way to discover you. Everything is waiting for you, and all you need is advice from the right people along the way.
Share any of your tips in the comment section below!