Learning the hows, whys and wherefores of SEO – Search Engine Optimisation

You need to do SEO – Search Engine Optimisation – on every page of your web site. You can’t just put something on the internet and expect people to find it. In fact, everyone with a website will frequently be told how important SEO is. They’ll likely have lots of people emailing them trying to sell services to do it for them.

Search Engine Optimisation – SEO – is supposedly the way to make your website content stand out on search engines. Basically that means that, when someone does a Google search for something that you sell or something you’ve written about, your site will come on Page One of the listings.

I know that doesn’t make you much wiser about what SEO is. If it sounds like a dark art, well, that’s not far wide of the mark.

What do you really want from your website?

Most corporate websites are there to sell something – services or products. Blogs, media and academic websites may just set out to inform, though they may also sell access to the information they post.

What’s common, though, is that nobody (well, hardly anybody) puts up websites purely for their own gratification. Most web site owners want people to find them.

In some cases – maybe academic sites or private clubs – there’s no desire to be public. The people who need to access those sites can be provided with the links they need in an email or some other way. Joe Public is not welcome and doesn’t need to find them.

Web sites that ignore SEO are hiding in plain sight

Everybody else, though – and that’s 99% of websites – wants to be found. They may send out newsletters with the URLs (that’s the web address) to their customers and contacts and friends. But they want more. They want new people to find them. And those people all rely on search engines – usually Google, though there’s Yahoo, Bing and some other lesser-used ones too.

SEO means Find Me please
SEO = Find Me Please!

SEO = Find me please!

So, if you’re a company that makes sit-on lawnmowers, you want anyone who types “sit-on lawnmowers” into Google to find your website. If you’re a charity that rehomes gerbils, you want anyone who types “new homes for gerbils” to find you. And, whatever the subject, whatever the phrase that your desired market might type into their search engine, you know that there will be many competitors showing up – maybe pages and pages of them. You also know from your own experience that the tendency is only to click on the links that you find on the first page that comes up. So you want your website to be there.

Of course, you can pay Google to do that for you – buying “Adwords” or other means of getting featured. That works, of course, but can be expensive, and the listing will be marked with “Ad”.

If you’ve got a blog, or are promoting intangibles, you’ll unlikely to want to pay for advertising. So if you really want to get your organic content onto Page One, you need Search Engine Optimisation – SEO.

SEO Infographic - the steps that are needed
SEO Infographic – the steps that are needed

The Theory behind SEO

No end of specialist investigators have been trying to work out how Google and other search engines decide on the pecking order of the sites that they display. There are countless theories out there. You’d have thought that by now, some disillusioned ex-employee would have sold the secret of the algorithm. Well, they have – but it’s not much good, because the algorithm keeps evolving.

So there are a lot of theories out there about how to make every page of your website attractive to search engines. These have been translated into a whole long list of things that need to be addressed on every page on your web site. Truth is, nobody seems to know which ones are right or which are the most important – so you have to do all of them, or all the ones you can, and hope the combination works.

The SEO Specialists

I keep receiving emails from SEO specialists trying to sell me services to optimise my own website. Their pitch relies on three things:

  1. Nobody will ever find your page if you don’t have SEO done on it
  2. SEO is a complex dark art that needs a specialist to do it
  3. Even if you think you can do it yourself, it’s so time-consuming that you need someone to do it for you

If you’ve got a website, you’ll receive the same emails and you’ll know what I mean. You may be tempted. Problem is, there’s no guarantee that any SEO done by anyone will work – especially others who don’t know anything about you and your business. Even the best, ticking all the boxes of every theory out there, may only improve your rating by getting your site from page 6 of Google’s listings to page 4 – which isn’t what you want.

The SEO charlatans

There are some SEO vendors who “guarantee” to get you a top listing. Beware. At best, you’ll get top listing for a search phrase that very few, if any, people will ever type in. They can make you top for something like “Green Lawns of Greater Lawndon Sit-on Lawn Mowers”. But just type in “sit on lawn mowers” and you’ll still be hidden away on page 9.

At worst, such SEO charlatans use tricks that are well known to Google and others, and recognised by their algorithms. They might get you top ranking for one day or one hour – but that’s it, you’ll then be slid right to the end soon after, because Google will penalise your site for using dirty tricks. You can’t blame them.

How difficult is it to do your own Search Engine Optimisation?

Having met a couple of specialists and read up a bit about it, I became convinced that SEO was important – but not convinced enough to pay someone to do it for me. I’ve got some limited skills with WordPress, the system my site is built on, so I decided to try doing it myself. Or, at least, as far as I could – there are some tricks out there that, if they’re worth doing, need technical ability beyond mine.

Don’t get me wrong – I have no intention of becoming a SEO guru or doing this for a living. I just wanted to find out for myself what it was all about. And, being more or less locked down with the pandemic, I’ve had plenty of spare time to try new things. And write about my experience, in the hope that one day it may help others – you?

Top tip for improving SEO – get others to like you, and like them back

Backlinks are the Holy Grail of SEO
Backlinks are the Holy Grail of SEO

One of the top keys to success is getting other sites to include links back to your site – known in the trade as “backlinks”. Problem is, that’s not something you can do for yourself. You can’t make changes to someone else’s web site! But, if your content is good enough – interesting, well-written and relevant – you can encourage others to reference it. Of course, that’s easier with blog posts than commercial content; it’s no more likely your competitors will want to link to your site than you will to theirs. However, find someone influential who blogs on similar or related subjects, and you can try asking them to put a link on their pages, in return for which you could link to theirs. You’ll need to email or call them, and then it’s just down to your powers of persuasion.

You can do a lot of things to improve your SEO yourself

Staying on the last subject for another paragraph, what you can do is make sure that every page on your web site has “Share” buttons and an exhortation to readers, for example “If you like this page, please help by sharing on your favourite social media”. My tip: shares to LinkedIn are worth much more than those to Facebook or other social media, as they seem to be picked up by search engines as well as by anyone who may see your content on that platform.

You can make a lot of SEO improvements – but it’s a slog

Go into your web development platform, for example WordPress, and install a SEO optimisation plug-in like Yoast. Then open every page and post, one at a time, in “edit” mode. Even with the free versions of SEO optimisers, you’ll be hit at once by how many changes they show you should make.

Example SEO analysis from a widely used plug-in
Example SEO analysis from a widely used plug-in

Key phrases are key to SEO

You’ll need to assign a key phrase for every page – even that requires an element of guesswork, thinking what you’d expect others to type into Google to find your page. So perhaps, using my earlier example, you’d choose “sit on lawnmowers” for a page that’s all about them. But is that exactly what most people would type into a search engine? They might type “sit on lawn mowers” (with a space between the lawn and the mowers) or “tractor lawn mowers” or something else. Search engines will give different results for each. There are software tools to analyse the popularity of different search terms, and you might need to select two or more key phrases. All of that takes time. Even once I knew what I was doing (or thought I did), I spent maybe 15-20 minutes per post just on this.

SEO means editing your content – maybe even rewriting it

After you’ve chosen your key phrases, you need to make sure that they’re actually in the content of the page. If your key phrase is “sit on lawnmowers”, it’s no good having “sit-on lawnmowers” or “mowers that you sit on” in the text – you’ll need to change it, or you might not get found by so many people.

You also need the key phrases in the first paragraph, in some of the headings….

As I found when I went through my site, that meant not only minor editing of text and the creation of new headings, but in some cases fairly substantial rewrites. When, like me, you’ve got lots of posts that are each more than a thousand words long, that takes quite a lot of time.

Then you need internal and external links

Search engines prioritise content that refers to other content, either on your own site or on someone else’s. That means adding links, but not simple ones like this; the link text needs to be searchable in its own right to get maximum effect.

Finding other pages and posts to link to on your own site is straightforward enough (though you have to be careful in the future to avoid any broken links; there’s a tool to help for that too!). Choosing other sites to link to is more problematic. You don’t want to promote a competitor (unless of course they’re promoting you back) and you don’t want to send readers to another more attractive site that they may never return from. But there are always some good options; for our lawnmower vendor, perhaps a garden association, a trade body or sites showing photos of immaculate lawns mowed with the vendor’s equipment.

As an example for this article, here’s a good article that I found with 12 reasons why your business absolutely needs SEO, just in case you don’t believe me.

Even the pictures need work

Search engines look for pictures too, so you need to ensure that they’ve all got relevant captions, preferably including a key phrase, and update a few other parameters too.

You may also need to add more pictures; it’s not only your audience that’s likely to like lots of pictures, search engines do too.

Whew! Is that the lot?

No – the SEO tool I used prompted me to make lots of other little tweaks too. But let me not bore you with more detail here. Suffice it to say, that even once I’d got into the pace of doing it, I spent at least an hour on each post.

Digital marketing must be the answer
Digital marketing must be the answer

Sounds like it’s worth hiring a SEO company to do it for me

It’s certainly a lot of work to do your own SEO and achieve search engine optimisation, even if you do. But, having spent many hours over the last week or so working on my own site, I’m not convinced that contracting a SEO specialist would achieve the results you want.

Firstly, would you really trust a disinterested third party to choose your key phrases? Would you trust them to edit and rewrite your content?

I thought not. I certainly wouldn’t. They’re not going to understand your business or priorities, and, judging from some of the sales emails I’ve received, they may not even write good grammatical English.

But it’s certainly true that, even if you have all the time in the world to do your best to tweak your SEO, you won’t be able to go the whole hog unless you have technical skills that most of us don’t. Well, I don’t; I suspect that I could learn HTML, CSS, PHP, and JavaScript languages if I really wanted to and spent long enough, but I prefer to stick to writing in English. So, I did more or less everything that I could do myself with the help of a free plugin (resisting the temptation to buy the premium version) and reading up a bunch of articles on the web.

Is SEO worth the effort?

Yes! But the results are not instant. Google’s web “crawler robot” may only visit your site once a month or so, so you’ll need patience to see if you improve your page rankings.

To test out the results of what I was doing, I first selected some of my posts, thought of what I’d expect someone else to type into a search engine to find it, and looked at the rankings. One, on an obscure topic, was on page one (hurray!) – I was just surprised to find that others had written on the same subject. All the rest of my posts were on page 3, 4, or further down the rankings.

I left some of those posts on my site unchanged, and did my best to improve the SEO of the others. And it’s worked! Even after a week, I must have got lucky with Google’s robot, as other pages I’d improved had moved up to page 2 of the rankings. Looking at the other posts that rank higher, I now think I know what additional changes are needed, and I’ll have to go back and do them as soon as I have time.

I’m now confident that my posts will be seen by more people – the kind of people I want to see them.

Which brings me back to getting help to improve SEO rankings

Everyone uses the web, every single day, and everyone uses Google or other search engines to find anything and everything that they want or are just interested in.

So, every business needs a web site, and needs to fill it with quality content that their target audience wants to see.

So, every business needs new people to find their site and their content – which they’re going to do using Google. If that only shows up on page 2 or 3, not many new visitors will come. If it’s on page 4 or later, abandon all hope….

So, every business needs all their content to be optimised for search engines – they need SEO, Search Engine Optimisation. 99% of businesses don’t have anyone on their team who they can trust to do that for them, or even who will have enough time on their hands.

That’s especially true because SEO is always going to be a work in progress. Content needs to be refreshed regularly, and, even if you’ve got near to top ranking once, you’ll need to keep an eye on the situation and make occasional tweaks to keep it there.

The answer may be a committed Digital Marketing Partner

Such businesses and people exist. Ones who are a lot better at doing this than I could ever be. Ones who get sufficiently involved with your business to understand it in enough detail to market it. Ones who understand its target audience. Ones who can create and maintain fresh, relevant, well-written content for the company’s web site. Ones who make sure that every page is search engine optimised from the first day it’s published. Ones prepared to prove the results of what they have done, month after month. Ones who are humble enough to admit when those results aren’t as good as they need to be, and fix the problems.

Ones who can do all this yet still be affordable to small and medium size businesses.

Digital marketing - what is it all about
Digital marketing – what is it all about

They exist. My recommendation – if you have a business, and unless you’re a hobbyist blogger, seek one out!

I really welcome comments. If you’d like to discuss or want to reach me for any reason, please do so via the links on my contact page.

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