What SEO really is

SEO is easy

Since I started doing SEO at the end of 2004, I always thought (especially after having seen the first success cases, few months later) that SEO was (and still is) easy.

For several years, I thought that my strong technical background was my big advantage over the average SEO.

But if that was true, then why so many other SEOs with a strong technical background don’t find it that easy? Instead, they struggle with stress of performance, the fear of penalties, the doubts about different options, and the uncertainty of the next Google update. Many SEOs proceed with tactics and techniques, trying to force the algorithm, accepting the risk of penalties, happily before getting caught, sadly afterward.

And this happens with those who call themselves SEO.

What about the others? For example, those who just hear something here and there about SEO, but who don’t really understand it, who don’t really know what it is, who barely care. What about those who know that one day “Content is the king” and the day after “SEO is dead”? Or those who ask themselves (if they get to ask themselves questions at all!) “should I use the dash or the underscore in the URLs?”, “how many times should I repeat this keyword in this text?”, “do I put more keywords in the title?” or “how long should this text be?”, like the complexity of a search engine like Google can be faced with this kind of questions… What about those who are just lost, those that SEO is all about content marketing; or all about buying links. Maybe SEO is just spam.

Or, even worse, black magic.

This is a very common perception of what SEO is.

Then, why did I always find SEO very straightforward? Why something complicated for others was so easy for me? Now I know it’s because of my different approach. An approach that turns inside out even the definition of SEO itself, an approach that requires a rigorous attention to the details and the mind focused on the big picture, an approach that starts from ignoring the most used metrics and tactics.

Change perspective

Forget keywords. Forget ranking. Forget links.

Don’t look at Google like the enemy to fight; look at Google like a judge who evaluates the quality of a website; more, the quality of the whole business. And look at SEO as a guideline on how to do the right thing the right way.

Pretend it’s not about search engines. After all, SEO is optimization on every level, from server and network to users and conversions.

SEO is optimization of every single aspect of an online business, and every single department within the company can have an impact on SEO:

  • Marketing (brand, social, country)
  • Affiliates
  • UX
  • System and network administration
  • Web developers
  • Finance
  • Customer support

SEO is optimization of every single thing, because every single thing can have an impact on the ranking on search engines.

Don’t consider it a marketing channel. It’s not a competition with other channels. It’s about improving the whole business.

  • It’s about improving usability of a website.
  • It’s about improving speed of a website.
  • It’s about improving trust of a website.
  • It’s about improving recognition of a website.

Keep SEO in mind when doing your own job. That way you can contribute to SEO success; that way SEO success will be also your success!

There’s nothing done for search engines only. Saying something is done for search engines actually means that something is done in a better way.

What SEO really is

SEO is about doing the right thing the right way.

With 12 billion searches per month, Google knows quite well what its users want and what makes a site good or bad.

So, take SEO as a guideline on what to do, and how to do it. Ranking will just naturally follow, once the right thing is done the right way.

Basically, you should always chase perfection. And who decides if something is right is, in the end, the final user. To chase perfection, you should start by following the best practices, and then you should improve your work by analysing its results. It’s an ongoing process that involves every single element, of a website and of a business.

When this result is achieved, search engines will reflect this achievement by ranking the website accordingly.

You do SEO

You need to understand how your work impacts SEO. Because, like it or not, your work is already doing that, because everything done on a website can potentially lead to a change of evaluation of the website by a search engine.

Be curious. You really need to have your mind on SEO effects all the time, because they do happen all the time!

Ask yourself how your work has an impact on SEO, and find out how you can improve them both, your work and its impact. Start from a search on Google. If you can’t see how your work can have an impact on SEO, keep on trying. I assure you your work has an impact on (at least) one of these three big pillars of SEO: technical, content, popularity.

The three pillars of SEO

The technical SEO is about things like accessibility, indexability, site speed, usability, structured data.

The content side has today evolved into what is called content marketing. However, before content marketing, it’s important to remember the basic features of a good content (uniqueness, usefulness, attractiveness) and the right use of every element (title, meta description, alt attribute, canonical).

There is then the popularity of a website. This important part of SEO is mostly about links. Links are seen live votes by Google, so you want to get more links. It’s important to understand that even just a good customer support experience can potentially lead to a link, so doing it right is important.

Yes, a customer support agent can have a big impact on SEO. Still thinking if your job can really have an impact on SEO?

The ultimate goal

The real goal of SEO is to improve the visibility of a website on search engines by deserving that visibility.

To deserve maximum visibility, a site has to be the best. SEO is business optimization and growth, because it involves the improvement of the product.

6 examples where SEO and usability are the very same thing

If I had to kittens, I'd call them Search and User

I already explained why SEO and web usability go hand in hand. Let’s see some example where this happens. You will quickly realize like every big on-site SEO element is also, mainly, sometimes solely, a usability element.

Title tags

Considered the most important single SEO tag in a page, the title tag is indeed very important.

How a title tag should be written to be good for SEO? It should be unique, short, meaningful. And when you have a title good for SEO, what else you have? A title good for users. Think of a SERP, where the title is shown as the biggest part of the snippet. If the title is unique, short and meaningful, it will be able to tell the users immediately what the page is about.

By the way, the SERP is also a perfect point of contact between SEO and usability.

But even in a different context, far from a search engine, a title is still very useful for a user. Think of the tabs in your browser, think how it is when you have 5 tabs open. How do you know what each tab is about? Just read the tab. It’s in fact showing the title tag.

URLs

Historically, search engines proved to have troubles to clearly understand URLs full of parameters (you know, those URLs full of ? = and &…). So, making these dynamic URLs static was a good idea from a SEO point of view. Transforming a URL from something like /?id=1&cat=2&tag=3 to /1/2/3 was such a big improvement for SE and users that it was a no-brainer. But adding keywords to the URL was even better, because a URL is still supposed to be seen by the users somewhere (and SEOs found another thing to stuff with keywords, woohoo!).

Truth is, for the search engines, URLs are friendly once they can be processed and understood correctly: when they are static. Adding keywords was believed to be an advantage from an SEO point of view, mainly because of this common misconception that keywords must be everywhere. Nonetheless, keywords in the URLs are still a good thing to use (as long as the URL doesn’t become too long), if URL is built the right way. A good URL is static, unique, short, meaningful, consistent and follow a hierarchical structure.

Anchor texts

The anchor text has been so much abused by SEOs that it’s now one of the first signals that can trigger a Penguin penalty. But why Google decided it was worth to consider the anchor text of a link? Because an anchor text says (or, at least, should!) what the destination page is about. It says that to the search engine like it says  that to the user.

Redirects (301)

Imagine you are browsing the web. Maybe you are reading an article. At a certain point, in the page, you see a link you want to follow. You click on it and… not found! User experience ruined before it even started…

Or imagine that, when you click the link, you get redirected to the homepage. Would you feel lost? I know I would!

But user experience can be preserved, if resources are moved from a URL to another.

What is the correct way to handle a change of URL for a resource? The server side redirect.

SEOs know redirects very well, everyone else tends to forget it (or, even worse, to decide not to care about it). That’s because redirects are useful for SEO, they let you keep the value of a link pointing to a resource that is going to be moved to a new URL. Redirects let you preserve the link juice, so they must be good for SEO. But they are also very very good for users, because users won’t experience the kind of user journeys I used as example: a 404 page or an irrelevant redirect.

Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs are useful for users, who can find out where in the website they are. And so does Google. Breadcrumbs help Google understand the structure of the site and the content. I can’t even tell if breadcrumbs are more important for users or for search engines. The fantastic truth is that it doesn’t matter!

Custom 404 page

This one has really nothing to do with SEO. Afterall, once Google sees the status code 404, it doesn’t even bother to check the content of the page. If it’s 404, it doesn’t exist. Simple as that.

However, this is something that often an SEO will be asked about. But it’s clearly a usability question, not a SEO question.

 

I could go on and on with this list, but I think these six examples should be enough to understand why SEO and usability overlap so much and so well. So much and so well that in many cases SEO and usability are in fact the very same thing.

Usability vs SEO: the big misunderstanding

Dilemma

When working in big companies, where every person has his own speciality, many conflicts can happen. Social media, SEO, UX designer, developer, content manager: everyone has his own reasons, and it seems impossible to reconcile every request. The consequence is a less than optimal compromise.

As SEO, I too often hear statements like “I understand you need this for SEO purposes, but we can’t do it because it would be bad for usability”. A big misunderstanding.

No, it’s not what you are thinking: we are not talking about keyword stuffing all over the page (that shit stuff stopped working before I started studying SEO in 2004 – 10 years ago…).

And every time I hear that, I can hardly keep calm, because it’s immediately clear to me that the other person is totally missing the point. And I’m not referring just to the specific SEO request; I’m talking about completely missing what Google wants. Because in the end, doing SEO is a lot about understanding what Google wants. And what is it?

Google wants to make his users happy.

Once you understand this, deeply understand this, the question “usability or SEO?” becomes suddenly meaningless. SEO and usability have the same goal!

This very simple truth has a huge consequence: the conflict between the SEO guy and the UX guy becomes a joint effort to find the best way to implement some improvement. Not anymore a less than optimal compromise, but a possibly new best practice to experiment.

Unless the SEO guy and/or the UX guy are not good at their job, of course.

By the way, there’s an interesting 2 years old article by Jakob Nielsen about SEO and Usability, and the few possible conflicts he mentions there aren’t in fact an issue, if the SEO guy really knows his job.

SEO and web usability go hand in hand.

If a solution is not good for both sides, chances are that the solution is not good for any side!

In that case, please reconsider your options.

2 books that have made me a better SEO

Like everyone else, I wasn’t born SEO.

DNS&BindHowever, when I first started doing SEO in 2004, I had a solid understanding of how Internet works. In fact, at that time I was more a system/network administrator.

I knew many things, but surely I didn’t know that knowledge would have helped me to become a better SEO.

I didn’t even know what SEO was, I think.

But still, I was learning it. The two books are:

  1. TCP/IP Illustrated Vol. 1
  2. DNS&Bind

I know, it seems unnecessary to study the basics of Internet. However, still today I happen to answer to SEO questions using the knowledge I got from these two books.

Also, I’m not saying that without this knowledge you can’t be a SEO.

Afterall, I’m not your average SEO.

Celebrity Website SEO Audit

Celebrity Website Audit Yesterday I was following (“participating” would be too much for someone who doesn’t say a word, right?) the Celebrity Website SEO Audit, a Google Hangout organized by Dejan SEO.

I don’t know if it was the spam attack to Spamhaus, a too slow internet connection here in Malta or just that sometimes I’m not very patient, but after about 10/15 minutes I decided to give up trying to follow the SEO audit.

However, in the few minutes I followed, I could get a bit of what I was actually trying to get, which is, basically, how other SEOs would conduct a quick SEO audit, what they would look for first, and so. Because it’s always good to compare your way to do things with others.

And what I could see is that there are not big differences. I didn’t expect to find them, but you never know.

However, to apologize with Dan and all the others, I would like to point out 3 issues I found on LadyGaga.com, the first website audited yesterday. I apologize again if any of these issues has been already pointed out yesterday, but again I had 5 minutes of connection problems, and then quit, so I might have missed it.

  • The first issue I saw is the link on the logo, which links to /Default.aspx instead of /. There’s not even a rel=”canonical” saying search engines / and Default.aspx are the same. Yes, I know: if you search for the Default.aspx page, you don’t find it on Google, so one might ask why bother?  Mmm
  • Performance can be improved, just by adding a max-age or expires headers to a lot of static content or by combining CSS and javascript files.
  • All the events could use Event Schema

These are my 2 cents. Hopefully, next time I will be able to properly participate, also because SEO audits are something I really like to do.

Link building in the gambling industry

After the Penguin update, the SEO community talked a lot about unnatural links. Most of the times, the links that look unnatural are also purchased links.

This is true because SEOs focused so much on the anchor text of the links they could get from other websites they forgot one of the great rules of SEO: if you are making something unnatural, make it look natural.

The panic is at such levels that many SEOs started contacting the link vendors to ask them to shut down the links.

Ah, if only all those SEOs didn’t spend time forcing things that much… But ok, not everybody is meant to be a great SEO…

So, penalization after penalization, people is learning the importance of getting links with the most stupid anchor texts… Better late than never!

But is Google really penalizing every website buying links? Clearly no! First of all, it would be absolutely impossible for Google to know, for every link, which link is purchased and which link is spontaneous. They can just guess.

I work in a weird industry: gambling. Gambling is usually considered a very competitive niche. Yes, it is, but SEO in this industry is also really primitive. So, i wouldn’t say it’s that competitive! In the short term, sure it is… But basically every website is violating Google’s guidelines, so it’s reasonable to expect that one day they will be just wiped out.

If someone today wants to work purely in white hat mode, they won’t rank in short term, but they might be one of the best websites in the long term.

It’s funny, however, one aspect of the story: many of the online casinos buy unnecessary links. They just have a big budget and they buy all they can get.

SEO in the gambling is hard? Well, most of the times, a SEO in this industry just contact/is contacted, ask for a price, get quotes for every website (quote that varies depending on Pagerank! In 2012!), and choose a anchor text and a destination page to link to. Hard work!

This is the very competitive SEO in the gambling industry!

LOL

Even those companies that say “we don’t do that, come on” work this way. An example? This is just a little piece taken from a job description from one of the biggest betting companies when it was looking for a SEO Manager more than a year ago:

Would you expect to receive an offer of 10€ for a post with two backlinks from the same company? Well, what can i say… they don’t buy links. They beg for them!

But… is there any other way to acquire links, for a gambling website? I mean, apart from buying or exchanging links, what else a SEO working in this industry can do? It’s not all our fault. After all, who would naturally link a gaming website?

50% of webmasters wouldn’t do it at any cost; the other 50% would do it only for money. So, there’s no room for free links in this industry.

Unless you are creative. Unless you do something worth a link. Unless you deserve it.

But even doing so, you are still fighting against competitors that spend many thousands of dollars in links. If Google decided (and actually could) to ban all the websites buying links, today we’d likely have this SERP when searching for online casino:

SERP for the keyword "online casino" if Google banned websites that buy links

(click on the pic)

 

The irrational fear of high bounce rate

Watching a video from a Whiteboard Friday on SEOmoz, 10 Myths That Scare SEOs But Shouldn’t, i got stuck for a bit on the 5th myth listed by Rand about a high bounce rate.

Because yes, many SEOs are really afraid of that, they are afraid that Google can see that data and use it against the website.

The point is: this makes no sense. Users search for an information on search engines, they click on a result, they find the answer… and they leave. Happy.

What’s wrong with this behavior? Nothing! Why should a SEO be worried about the bounce rate then? No reason.

Rand correctly uses the example of a Q&A website. I go further: if you go on Google, search for something, and leave Google without coming back for more results, doesn’t it mean Google actually provided you with a good result?

Ok, technically speaking, searching for a key-phrase and clicking on a result doesn’t increase a bounce rate, since you are visiting two pages, not just one. But still, the time spent on Google is short. The shorter, the better.

You should be worry about the short time spent on your website for other reasons, maybe. But that data, out of context, means nothing. So, don’t panic.

Nice try

Derek Powazek – Spammers, Evildoers, and Opportunists. This is a kind of link baiting tactic i don’t like too much: the attack hook.

This is why, for once, i’m using a nofollow attribute.

Multilingual SEO

Do you know all issues you can have when doing SEO on multi language websites? Or, simply, when you have to do SEO for non english websites?

Don’t think it’s an easy work just because english is more competitive. You could damage your ranking if you don’t take care of language related issues.

I just found out (via Achille) Multilingual SEO Forums, a forum focused on multilanguage websites topic. If you need (or just want, uh) to do SEO on non english websites, keep it in mind.

10 tips about backlinks

Nobody doubts backlinks are very important for SEO. Links are like votes, for search engines, but every vote has a different value. This value depends on many elements and the Pagerank is only one element.

Knowing what makes a link good or not is priceless. These ten tips may worth more than two cents.

  1. Quality, not quantity. Remember your run is on quality, not quantity. Stop watching how many links you and your competitors have with link: operator on Google (even asking why Google shows low numbers) and others search engines. You have to see which links your main competitors have, and try to get even better. But looking for quality, not quantity.
  2. Anchor. Nobody doubts anchor text is (still, yes) very important. And it works (Googlebombing still works, yes). But don’t focus on a single keyword; try to get different ones.
  3. Text around link. A link with text around it looks more natural. Just think about it and you will agree. And don’t forget words give a context to links.
  4. In topic. Which one would you prefer for your SEO company website? A link from a popular SEO Guide or a link from a popular food blog? Ok, you got it.
  5. Pagerank matters. A bit. When looking for links, many webmasters and SEOs look at the green bar of Pagerank. But that’s just a number. And neither so much accurate and updated. However, if you want to look at Pagerank, look also at number of links on that page. The more the links, the less the Pagerank distributed with every link.
  6. No poison words around it (sponsor, adv, etc.). Words like “sponsors”, “advertisers”, “link exchange” and so on are just a way to tell search engines links are not so natural. And they will devaluate those links.
  7. Different anchor texts. It’s pretty hard all natural backlinks can use the same anchor text, even if it’s the name of the website. Think how people links Google, for example. This is a perfect example, since surely all of these links are natural (does Google need SEO?). Most of them will have “Google” as anchor text. But maybe someone will use “Google.com”. Or “Mr. G.”. Or “Big G.”. Or “Big Brother”. So, when you can decide anchor text on backlinks, try to use different anchor texts, so that links look natural.
  8. Backlink to internal pages. It’s not natural all of backlinks goes to homepage. And it’s not usefull as well. Using another example: you have a website about fruit; if you can have a backlink on a website talking about apple, you should choose a link to your internal page that talks about apple.
  9. ODP. Dmoz is the most important directory in the world. So, you should get your link in it. But you can rank well if you are not in it. So, don’t waste your time asking why your site has not been reviewed or when it will be. When your site is done, submit it to ODP and stop thinking about it. Accidently, this is the best way to get your site on Dmoz.
  10. Language of pages that link to you. Links pass informations about many things like topic, trust, and language. For example, if you have an italian website, don’t get backlinks from english websites, because your site won’t rank on Google.it (and people won’t look for italian keywords on Google.com).