Aug 13 '14
Once upon a time the digital disciplines that we have today (web design, development, search engine optimisation, online marketing and a myriad of others) could all exist within one person’s skillset. After all, building websites was much simpler; the technologies available were simplistic, search engines rudimentary and a merely mediocre design was enough to set you out. Over time, however, all that’s changed. With the depth now required, in each of these disciplines, the jack of all digital trades is now frequently master of none. Marketing managers are can no longer just blindly trust their ‘website guy’ to get it right.
In this series, EC Associate Rich Mehta sets out to focus on the SEO part of the digital landscape. In this first post, he’ll explore what impact SEO has had on websites and digital strategy. Where did it come from and why is it important? Over the following weeks he’ll go on to look at SEO further, discussing advertising, pay-per-click, search engine optimisation strategy and finally bringing it all together with the different types of SEO.
Websites before the impact of SEO
Before SEO, websites were built primarily as ways of disseminating content or a form of advertising. Websites usually sat in their own digital silo mostly accessed directly or via a link sent to potential visitors (like on a newsletter or business card).
All that changed with Google, who introduced the idea of a complex algorithm to rank websites based on search terms. Initially, this was based on the words in a link (the blue underlined text visitors would click on to get to a website) but over time this algorithm became more and more complex (today, Google relies on “more than 200 unique signals or clues” to guess what you’re looking for).
If you were switched on you a few years ago you might have measured your website’s success on:
- Number of hits (that is, amount of website pages viewed)
- Referrers (e.g. other websites referring traffic to you)
- Referral source (search engines, direct, other websites etc)
As site owners became more aware of the benefits of search traffic they demanded their website appear higher in the search engine results page (also known as the SERPs, in SEO terms). They wanted more traffic; SEO professionals appeared to give it to them.
How SEO has changed websites
The discipline of SEO was arguably the first large-scale, concerted effort towards digital strategy on the web. It sought to fundamentally alter websites in order to make them more search engine friendly; affecting elements from the text of links to the website all the way down to, eventually, the structure and code of the website. Today, SEO professionals can advise changes to design, layout, content, code, hardware, configuration and more in their attempts to push a website up the SERP.
In order to improve rankings website strategy adapted to match Google’s preferences. For example; in 2012, SEO industry leader Moz published an article explaining how social signals affected SEO, pointing to various industry sources (including Google’s Matt Cutts) explaining that Social Signals were becoming more and more important in the signals Google uses to rank websites. This was apparent as early as 2010; Facebook more than doubled its user figures since that time.
Google’s view of on-page SEO has become more and more important over time. Around 2012, the industry started to realise that on-page tactics – such as content creation, landing pages, internal linking and blogging – were becoming as important (or more so, in some cases) as off-page tactics (such as link-building). Integrated approaches, involving both strategies, were starting to be advertised as the way forward.
With this in mind, suddenly businesses had to:
- Produce more content (done primarily through blogging)
- Make that content focussed; writing content that either focussed on their core product/service or spoke to their target audience (e.g. pages about the coolest sheds from wood treatment/covering company Cuprinol)
- Create landing pages (so named because visitors “land” on them from external sources) which spoke specifically to a target market and contained content they’d search for
The key performance indicators had changed, becoming smarter; now SEO was measuring:
- Unique visitors (the amount of individuals viewing content)
- Page speed (how quickly a page loaded)
- Popularity of content (what pages/content is the most popular? Why?)
- Number of new vs. returning visitors
- Conversion (online/offline sales) against ad spend
Content management systems also changed. WordPress’s human-friendly web page addresses (like https://www.elephantcreative.co.uk/2014/07/23/makes-good-prospectus-great/; you can tell from the end of the address the post is something to with making a good prospectus great) amongst other SEO-friendly attributes was arguably something that gave it the most market share in content management systems (53.8% in 2012).
Where we are today
Today, the bottom line is that your website shouldn’t be built without some kind of SEO input (unless search engine traffic isn’t of any use to you). That doesn’t mean you need an SEO specialist on your team necessarily; it does mean, however, your development team should at have a common sense knowledge of it.
Adhering to good SEO practice – and believe me, there’s bad SEO out there which can get you banned from Google – as Irwin Mitchell found after paying for placement of links to their content on other websites – is a way to ensure your website is well built and serves your audience. Good SEO should ensure
- Easy, simple navigation
- Good cross-linking (e.g. enough links to allow a user to move from one relevant area to the next)
- Good, relevant and interesting content
- A speedy website built on good, solid, semantic (or easily understood) code
- A content management system which supports your business objectives
In the next article in this series, on 27th August, we’ll explore the world of online advertising, pay-per-click and Google’s adwords platform.