SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is such bullshit. There are so many snake oil salesmen out there selling SEO to unsuspecting businesses and those poor customers have no idea that they’re buying a big fat bag of bullshit. Alright, so let me tone that down a bit. SEO – as in fundamental on and off-page optimizations and accessibility – is a good and helpful thing for everyone. What’s bullshit are the shortcuts and “tips” that get irrelevant pages ranked higher than other lesser known pages that have better content. Let’s talk about what’s bad about SEO, when it’s helpful, and the truth about how to rank highly in search results. There’s an endless amount of talk online about how to get a top ranking in Google but there are very few no-nonsense, middle of the road articles that give you the truth about SEO and how to get your site to rank highly in Google search results.
One bullshit part of SEO are all of those articles talking about keyword optimization. The idea is that you come up with an idea for a blog post or distill a marketing/landing page down to it’s essence then do some keyword research to see what words and phrases you should use to get your page ranking highly.
This practice sounds like bullshit. Re-read that last paragraph. Choose keywords based on what people are searching for most? Eh, no thank you. Sure, it sounds completely counterintuitive but if you run a website you know your subject inside and out. You should speak in the same terms your audience uses and understands. Keyword research is great for generating ideas and maybe discovering what your audience is looking for but be careful not to follow this advice too closely. Don’t choose keywords solely based on search volume. Choose them based on relevance to your subject. Too often I see non-technical people use the Google keyword research tool to find words related to their niche then they use the hell out of them on one or more of their site’s pages.
Your goal should be quality, not quantity. Anyone can rank for some random keyword or search phrase but wouldn’t you rather have 1,000 visitors a month with a 10% conversion rate rather than 1,000,000 visitors a month and a 0.1% conversion rate? Just because you’re attracting visitors to your site it doesn’t mean they’re the right visitors.
Keyword research should be focused on capturing the traffic that’s right for your site, not just any traffic. Too many SEOs focus on quantity over quality. Watch out for these used car salesman types. And that’s just one of the sins these suckers commit.
The best way to do keyword research is to check out what keywords are attracting visitors to your site to begin with. If you’re lucky enough to have Google Analytics installed on your site then you’ll be able to see which keywords are driving traffic to your site. If you don’t have Google Analytics installed then do that first. Get some data on what organic traffic is being driven to your site by which keywords or phrases. From there you can do a little keyword research and add in a little variation but not much. Just keep speaking the language of your audience.
When should you focus on SEO?
SEO is helpful from day 1. I know I said SEO is bullshit but it’s also helpful at the same time. (Yes, I know I have a habit of contradicting myself all over this site). On day 0 you should be planning the information architecture of your site. You should be thinking about the content that your audience will looking for and create a site map that fits those expectations.
I have mentioned in the past that I often design in code (the process of designing with pure HTML and CSS without first creating comps) but I almost never do that without first thinking through my content and information hierarchy first.
You should be thinking about SEO before you begin designing mockups or writing any code. If you know your audience well enough then I recommend you skip keyword research and just start writing content from the start. You can always tweak your copy later. Each page of the site will be focused on one specific keyword with a smattering of generic keywords thrown around throughout the site.
How to do SEO the right way
The best way to “do SEO” is to focus on the fundamentals. In my Code in One Day workshops (next one taught by my excellent colleague Jim Haff on May 1, 2016) I talk about HTML and what it was created for: describing content.
HTML and CSS were created for completely separate purposes. CSS was designed for declaring styles and design. HTML’s purpose is to describe content. It’s opening and closing tags can be thought of as a way of highlighting text. The idea is that HTML describes what text is, but not what it looks like. Obviously, computers don’t understand human language. A bot reading this article could sum it up using a clever algorithm but at the end of the day the computer still doesn’t understand what we as humans are talking about. If they did we wouldn’t need code. We could instead simply write code like this:
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How cool would it be to interact with a computer like that? Not just communicate with the computer but to actually program a computer by speaking to it? That would be amazing. But that’s a long way away. For now the best we have is Googlebot; a web crawler that scours the web and tries to decipher what topic a web page is about and then ranks it using a complex algorithm.
Accessibility is good SEO
What I’m getting at here is that describing what something on a page is does wonders for its SEO score. By telling search spiders “this is a paragraph”, “this is a heading”, this text is small and less important”, etc. they can then use their fancy algorithms to figure out what your page is all about and rank it according to how relevant it thinks it is in relation to a user’s search query.
One important thing to remember is that you should think of your lashes as documents. A Word doc he’s a header, content that is presented in a logical order and maybe a footer. With all the fancy layouts you can create for a page it’s hard to put your content in order because of the constraints of CSS but it’s important that you do everything possible to do it anyway. Put your markup in order and use CSS to bend that markup into whatever design you need it to become but above all else, structure your document like you would any other text document – too to bottom, in a logical order. This will give you a head start on achieving good rankings on search engines.
But this boost in rankings is only a side effect of a much more important problem you don’t even realize you’re tackling when you write good, clean, semantic code: accessibility. Most of us think of other people as being similar to us. We think of others as having similar attributes and abilities as ourselves but that’s not always the case. There’s a whole class of people with hearing and vision disabilities that still use the web. If you use semantic markup to properly mark up and describe your content then you’re killing two birds with one stone: you’re helping those who use screen readers better navigate your content and understand it in context. Check out the WebAIM project, study up on WCAG guidelines, and become familiar with WAI and Aria roles and attributes.
To recap, good SEO starts with an understanding of your audience. It moves on to planning your information architecture. Then during the implementation stage you write good, clean, semantic HTML code.
There are literally hundreds of signals Google and others take into account when ranking websites. A bullshit SEO will start tackling everything but your own site’s copy. They’ll begin snapping up related domains, start focusing on backlinks, social media profiles, and on and on until one day they break out the keyword research tool and start telling you that you need to put variations of the term “wild animals” on your website about the best zoos in the world.
I call bullshit on that. Everyone wants to rank highly and there just isn’t enough room for everyone to be #1. So realize that search engines are not always the best way to drive traffic to your website and they’re far from the only way.
Patience: the most important SEO virtue
New website owners are desperate to get their sites not just ranked by Google but ranked highly. I can almost guarantee you that you won’t be ranked by Google for at least a month after launching your site and even after that you’ll be ranking very low. If you’re curious about how well your site ranks or how Google views your site, check out my website SEO checker app.
How to rank highly in Google
In the future I’ll do a full no-bullshit guide to ranking highly in Google. For now, just remember that you need to be patient, write good content, use semantic markup, and be very patient. Give your site a good 3 months to see any movement. Create pages for humans, not crawlers, and once you establish a baseline for stats, study them and adjust your strategy based on the stats.
SEO is simple. Once you get into enterprise development then maybe the bullshit guys have their place but when you’re a small or medium sized business SEO is simple and you’ll get by for a long time on just these tips.
One last thing – you’re creating a series of interlinked documents. Think of them as documents and not web pages and you’ll have a much easier time with all this.