SEO can be a confusing topic for site owners, not least because of the mixed messages they hear. There are the SEO optimists who say all you need is great content and a Twitter account. Then there are the SEO professionals who make it seems as if you need degrees in statistics and marketing to rank well. And, of course, the SEO hucksters who’ll tell you anything at all if it’ll encourage you to give them money.
In reality, search engine optimization is a complex business, especially at the technical end of the spectrum. But to have a decent chance of ranking, most site owners just need to implement some commonsense measures.
Without content, there is no SEO. Where content is concerned, you should be aiming for high-quality, original, informative writing, video, and audio. The SEO optimists have it right on this at least: when you are creating content, think about your audience and create content for them.
Don’t create content for Googlebot, create content for the human beings who are going to make your site a success.
In an ideal world, that would be enough, but Google isn’t smart enough yet to make the same judgments a person can. It needs help. That’s where keyword research and optimization comes in, but again, this is human focused. Use tools like the Google AdWords Keyword Planner to discover the queries searchers are using, and include them at important points in your content.
You should focus particularly on:
- The title tag
- The meta description
- Headers (H1, H2, H3, etc)
Yoast’s WordPress SEO plugin will guide you in this, and create input boxes beneath your WordPress editor so you can quickly add the title and description information.
As I already said, search engines aren’t too bright, and they need a lot of help to place content properly in the SERPs. Technical SEO is largely focused on making it as easy as possible for search engines to do their job. It includes tasks like:
- Adding metadata to help Google understand content
- Ensuring that your site is as fast as possible
- Building a site with a logical structure that both users and Google can navigate
- Minimizing duplicate content
If you want to be an SEO minimalist, great content and competent technical SEO will put you in a good place. Google will be able to find your content and index it properly, but if you want to rank well, you’ll need to demonstrate to Google that people like your content, that it provides something of value to them.
Search engines use lots of signals to rank content, but the most important of these is incoming links. When someone links to your content, Google interprets it as an indication that they approve of your content — lots of links lead to higher ranking, all else being equal.
Keep in mind that Google is quite clever at working out whether a link is really an endorsement or not. If the New York Times or a respected blogger links to your content, it can have a big impact on ranking. If you spam links into the comments of dozens of low-grade blogs, it will have no positive impact and may well gain you a penalty.
So, how do you get links?
Social media is the most important link building tool on the modern web. Social media links themselves don’t have a huge impact on ranking. Your hundred retweets won’t rocket you to the top of the SERPs. But, if those hundred retweets are seen by the right hundred people, and they link to your content from their well-regarded blogs, there will be a positive effect on the page’s rank. Social media is a tool to get your content in front of people, in the hopes that they will promote it, read it, or buy something.
There’s nothing intrinsically special about social media in this regard. You get links by writing great content and making sure that people see it — traditional methods of promotion are effective too, even offline ones like having your web address on business cards. The more people see your content, the more they will link to your content, and the better your site will do in search.
In summary, the pillars of SEO are
- Create strong, relevant content.
- Make sure search engines can find it and understand it.
- Promote it to as many people as possible so that they can link to it and promote it further.
All SEO strategies, from the simplest to the most arcane, focus on these three pillars.