Executives hear it, read it, and repeat it on the golf course - SEO (search engine optimization) is still a buzz word in the world of marketing. But oftentimes, executives don’t understand SEO. When it comes budget time - if you don’t have an SEO expert on staff to show ROI of the last year’s efforts, it will be a line item that just gets slashed.
The results of that could be dangerous. SEO is always changing, and the next Google algorithm update is just around the corner. Measuring the success of SEO efforts has pivoted from rankings (judged by page positions in the SERPs, or search engine result pages) to ultimately more effective barometers of online success like website traffic (particularly organic) and conversion rates.
You can’t afford not to know what’s changing in the industry. How will you best set up your website for success? At the end of the day, showing that SEO efforts increased the bottom line through increased traffic and conversions is the best way to prove ROI. But, what if your executive is looking for more, or attributes that success to other efforts?
Here are four sure-fire reasons why SEO still matters and how to approach the topics with your CEO and other decision makers in your organization.
1) Technical SEO Still Matters
SEO as an industry changes at a rapid pace, but one thing that remains unchanged is how important it is to have a technically sound website. Google has gone so far as to publish guidelines for webmasters on how to build a website correctly so that Google can find, index and rank your site.
Signals like meta descriptions, H1s, and others not only help users find what they are looking for quicker, but they are also considered core parts of website construction, and thus need to be optimized in order to benefit both users and search engines.
In a recent study on ranking factors for U.S. Google searches, Searchmetrics discovered that 99% of all Top 10 ranking pages have Meta descriptions. Digging deeper, they found that 80% of all top pages have H1 tags, while 74% have H2s.
Site speed matters, too. File size, flash, and other technical items all are factored in for Google ranking purposes. Which means these are all functions of SEO too. Something that your expert should be considering, testing, and improving to increase site optimization.
Pro Tip: Use a program like Screaming Frog to scrape your website pages to discover what meta titles, meta descriptions and H1s and H2s are across your website. Then use Excel to set up character counts to see if the meta information is optimized for length (55 characters or less for meta titles, and 155 or less for meta descriptions). Write new optimized content for a set of pages and test the results in one-month and three-month samples to see for yourself if these elements factor into better performance. Be sure to measure both page rankings and website traffic.
2) User Experience Reigns Supreme
Search engines are a business too, and are in the business of providing users with accurate information. As a result, Google has changed much over the last few years in order to incorporate user behavior metrics - and user habits themselves - into their ranking factors as well as information delivery.
The 2016 mobile-friendly update, playfully called Mobilegeddon in the industry, wasn’t as impactful as many SEO experts feared, but it did show a significant signal from Google that mobile-centric designs, especially responsive design, would be an important factor in rankings moving forward. Google even began adding “Mobile Friendly” tags to search results, and provided webmasters with a tool to test if their pages were considered optimized for their mobile audiences (and this mobile search).
The user experience (UX) ranking factors don’t end with mobile. In fact, several other factors including internal links, site speed (again), images, video, time on site and bounce rate. Content that keeps users interested and engaged (ie, more time spent on-page and low bounce rates of users leaving) is the type of content that Google wants to serve in search query results, since this type of content is ultimately answering user questions and thereby providing the correct result for search.
Pro Tip: Optimizing for web is no longer a “should we” or “shouldn’t we” game. Utilize Google’s tools like the Mobile Friendly test and Web Developer tools that help test site load times and issues causing load errors or complicated code, and find examples of other websites that are doing it right. Compare your results with theirs, and drive home that mobile-friendly sites perform better in the most important metrics (even more than site rankings): web traffic and conversion.
3) The Death of Keywords is a Lie
A common phrase heard in the SEO industry is “the keyword is dead.” To some, it’s a serious statement. To others, it’s a joke. It just depends on perspective. Keywords and keyword phrases used in exact match domains (as in, “www.thisismykeyword.com”) and in exact match anchor text (like this link) are discouraged now more than ever thanks to Google’s many algorithm updates. Keyword stuffing is a black hat tactic where the desired keyword for which one wanted to rank was repeated ad nauseam within a web page’s content. Sometimes including hidden in places a user couldn’t see but where a search engine could.
At the end of the day, Google and other search engines are driven by language. Whether we type it or speak it, searches are conducted using words that we type in the input field. Results are described in words (as well as images and videos in some cases - but always in words). So words themselves aren’t dead - just the practice of trying to over optimize specific ones in order to manipulate search rankings.
Proof terms and relevant terms are any words primarily and secondarily related to the topic at hand. These are still incredibly useful search ranking drivers. The context of the language we use in our content is essential in our intent and in how the user engages with our websites. Words will always be important so long as a human being is inputting them into a search program.
Speaking of the human element, another indication that written communication is still of imperative importance to search engines can be found in Google’s recent updates to include semantic search. The mathematical algorithms that form the basis for how search engines work can now read context in a search phrase - and within the destination page - and top programs like Google are also always learning, becoming more humanocentric in how they deliver results based on they continue to learn to read and think in the ways we naturally speak and write.
Finally, the word count of pages is another impactful metric of SEO success, and a readily quantifiable one. In Searchmetrics aforementioned rankings study, they found that the average word count of pages in the top ten of U.S. Google search rankings had an estimated 1200+ words. Other studies predict that no less than 2000 words is best for earning a top ten position for your page.
Pro Tip: Before you write content for new web pages, look at existing content on your website that’s already performing well. Break down how many and what types of words are used within, what typical word counts are, and what other content factors like images, graphs and charts, and other user engagement factors are utilized. Include these in your report for how the new content can be created, why these facts matter based on the top performing pages, and a prediction for how much traffic the new pages might generate. You’ll be surprised how much easier you’ll get buy-in for the next set of content you need to publish.
4) Backlinks Still Matter
Another axiom in the SEO industry is that backlinks (a link from an external website to your own) are dead. This most specifically refers to the exact match anchor text link practices mentioned above, as well as links from content farms or guest blogging networks, spammy content links with little or no relevance to the destination web page, and other low-quality backlinks. This axiom is again a result of Google’s algorithm updates that took aim at these practices, now considered “black hat” in the industry.
With the practice of use of Google’s link disavow tool, most savvy SEO experts and webmasters have excluded these “bad links” from their link profiles. But a good, relevant backlink is still a great validation signal that your content on your web page is useful, and these “good links” are still a large part of the basis for high search engine results and rankings.
Where before any link would be a boost, now context is again the driving factor of what is good and bad. The most useful links from websites now are those from news organizations, that point to new fresh content on domains. Doing something newsworthy or publishing exceptional content that gets covered is a surefire way to build a healthy link profile.But website links aren’t the only backlinks in the game. Google is always changing the SEO fashion landscape, and in today’s landscape - social is the new black. Facebook likes and shares and Twitter mentions and shares are among the strongest signals that can boost your website traffic and rankings. That Google now includes social profiles in its search results is also telling. YouTube (property of Google) is now considered the second most popular search engine. It won’t surprise you to know Google is displaying YouTube results in searches as well.
Even the much lambasted Google+ is sending strong relevant signals to Google that help search algorithms judge the effectiveness and quality of content.
In today’s modern SEO world, backlinks do still matter. But, you're wise to make sure you’re earning them from news / PR efforts and social media engagement.
Pro Tip: The next time you propose a link building campaign for SEO, focus on social instead of or in concert with web backlinks. This traffic is reported separately in Google, and combined they can make for an impressive one-two punch of increased percentage of total web traffic that can help prove ROI and make the next campaign budget easier to approve.
The Modern SEO Landscape
There you have it! Four great reasons why you need SEO and how to help justify it to your executive teams. But as an added bonus, here are a few more reasons why SEO is an essential part of any marketing department’s efforts.
SEO helps justify a Total Team-Based Approach. Since many of the purely technical aspects of SEO are now discouraged or penalized by Google, the best efforts at improving organic search and web traffic increases are efforts that must be done in concert with other marketing team members. Public relations, media outreach, content creation, and web development are all sources for search engine optimization. Having an expert on the team or a partner to oversee and drive these efforts is essential in providing the results necessary to prove ROI and keep marketers hitting their traffic and conversion goals.
SEO is easy today because it must, by necessity, be baked into everything we do. But by contrast, this also makes SEO difficult to do today because it must be considered and incorporated into most/all other marketing efforts. Just like an editor must go through a brilliant writer's works to cross the t's and dot the i's and correct a typo or punctuation here and there - so too must the SEO edit the work that's been done and guide the efforts of future work. Having an expert handy to do this work is undeniably important to do so correctly.
Finally, there’s a lot of past, present, and future knowledge to consider. If your team isn’t up to date on the latest website development and optimization trends, then you’re already months behind. Having a dedicated resource that knows and understands where the industry has been, what state it is in today, and where it’s going tomorrow is crucial to not being left in the dust. It’s a lot harder to regain lost relevancy than it is to maintain it - and great SEO can be seen as the cost to maintain and improve it, if nothing else.
Context, not content, is truly the king in today’s digital marketing world. The SEO expert in your life can be the knight that fights the tough battles and makes the kings and queens in your organizational kingdom smile when the reports come in. Keep your kings informed and your knights well fed and involved in the day to day activities in the kingdom, and your online marketing world will truly be the envy of the competition everywhere.
As the Digital Marketing Director for Element Three, Dustin works with the Element Three digital marketing department to determine the best combination of data analysis, marketing technology, and storytelling for driving our clients' bottom line. His background in journalism, digital communication, and ecommerce positions him as a unique voice in the cluttered digital marketing industry. When he's not writing about the forefront of digital marketing, you can find him jamming with a guitar or at home with his wife and two children.
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