In the year 2018, it might be easy to assume the term SEO has risen to near-ubiquity in the business world, and that a definition for it is no longer necessary. As our fifth-grade teachers reminded us through the old trope, “never assume because you will make an ass out of you and me.” Our experience with local businesses has shown us that even in the digital age, small business owners and new business owners often do not fully know what SEO means, nor how to go about it. So, What is SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and How Does it Work?
To understand SEO and how it works, we first need to look at how and why search engines, such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo, were created.
The history of search engines and their algorithms.
In the beginning, there was a man named Jeeves. Well, he wasn’t a man, but an odd-looking butler who helped users find answers to their questions on a new tool called The Internet. Ask Jeeves was not the first search engine ever created, but it was one of the first to become a household name. Before search engines, there was no easy way to navigate the internet. Websites had no way of being found other than by having users type a URL directly into their web browser. Jeeves had a solution to this: he indexed (catalogued) all the websites on the internet and created a search function to allow his users to find new, exciting sites. He helped users whether they were looking for new recipes, sources for a school project, or answers to their pressing questions about life, the universe, and everything.
Jeeves quickly had steep competition on his hands. A few other savvy internet companies understood how valuable search engines would become and built their own search tools. Prominent among these were Yahoo and Google. Yahoo had the advantage at the beginning of being a webmail service provider, so they attracted many of their own users to their search engine. Google, on the other hand, had to find a way to differentiate themselves to win over internet users. Their algorithm, the complex code they used to index a website and return search results, had to be the best for them to succeed.
Google’s rise to hegemony.
Google understood that search engines would quickly replace reference books, directories, and all other traditional reference tools. This included looking up local businesses such as doctors and dentists, plumbers, electricians, etc. Essentially, Google expanded its search engine beyond answering questions to serving as a directory. They even went so far as to create a separate algorithm specifically designed to return directory results for businesses rather than content websites to answer questions. This local directory search function, coupled with better results to questions than their competition, differentiated Google enough to give them the lead in popularity among internet users.
It was the early 2000’s, and most small businesses, especially local companies, did not yet have websites. To improve their search results for directory searches, Google created its local search algorithm to scour the internet and all other directories, and cross-reference multiple sources, to determine the existence and information for local businesses. Keep in mind that this was before Google ruled this internet, so the competition for a listing on their site was null. Today, companies fight tooth and nail for placements in the local search algorithm.
All of these factors led to better search results from Google and, ultimately, to their success.
The push toward local search
When search engines first made their mark, the results they returned heavily favoured big business. Companies hired internet and computer experts to learn and predict the search engines’ algorithms to favour their website. These were the first “search engine optimization experts” whose entire job was to figure out how to game the system. Search engines were new, and so they were reasonably easy to figure out. Google, however, knew it was critical that their search engine satisfy their users’ search intent rather than return spammy websites trying to sell them something. Thus began the interplay between the search engines and search engine optimizers, or SEO’s.
In the mid-2010’s, Google pushed several updates to their algorithm to combat the flurry of SEO’s working to rig the system in their favour. Part of these updates, as Google explicitly said, would favour local searches over national searches. Google would make better use of location information to return relevant search results to their searches. It is during this series of updates that local search took on a whole new level of importance, and SEO’s took notice. The algorithm itself would now more quickly and accurately determine a user’s search intent and assign the query to one of two algorithms, local and national. Separating the two algorithms would eliminate erroneous national websites from local search results, and relegate national websites to general question-and-answer queries.
What SEO means today
Over the years, Google has outwitted spammers quite well through algorithm updates, and so the field of search engine optimization, or SEO, has changed significantly. Due to the steep competition on the internet today, SEO’s are no longer agencies looking to game the system (although there are some who try). They instead advise businesses and website owners on the many, many signals a website needs to send out to search engines to be found and ranked. Part of what SEO agencies do is to plan out the best strategy for a site to rank. A strategy will differ significantly from business to business. Some may require a comprehensive content strategy, while others may not. What is most important to understand is that, because of the strict rules imposed by search engines today, there is a right way to do SEO and a wrong way to do it.
How SEO works
Major search engines, such as Google and Bing, have put forward guidelines on best practices for legitimate businesses looking to rank well for searches that related to them. These instructions explain what criteria search engines look for in websites for ranking consideration. More and more, the user experience is at the heart of what search engines look for when considering a site. For example, a website must load quickly (3 seconds or less), be responsive (i.e. work on both computers and mobile devices), and not be overly spammy with popups and ads.
Next, search engines — Google in particular — rank websites in popularity based on the number of links a site had from other websites. This is probably the most important ranking factor for websites both local and national. Receiving links from other reputable websites increases a search engine’s trust of your site. Trust is a significant factor in search engines because the last thing they want is to return spam results to their users. When you increase your website’s trust through more quality links from other trusted sites, your website ranks better.
Variations in SEO strategy
For local businesses, SEO is a bit less of a challenge than for companies seeking to rank nationally. To rank well as a local business, a few criteria exist that will increase your likelihood of showing up on top of search results. First, make sure your website is compliant with Google’s recommendations. Second, list your site in local directories (see: tools to help you rank in local search). Third, network with other local businesses to earn links from their websites to increase trust with search engines. Follow these three steps, and your site will likely do well. Of course, there is never a guarantee that your optimizations will work; search engines have the final say.
For larger, nationally-focused websites, local search directories are less (if not at all) a priority. Instead, these websites must focus on comprehensive content strategies, through quality articles, to earn as many quality links to their site as possible for as wide a breadth of keywords as possible. At this level, it is also essential to work on social media and PPC, as both of these marketing channels contribute to the overall ranking of a website.
SEO is a complicated field, but one which, if done correctly, can yield tremendous returns for a business. To do it right, it is essential to understand the history of search engines, why they came about, and how they got to where they are today, to initiate a quality search engine optimization program for your business. What works best today is to play by the rules, build a website that follows the guidelines set forth by search engines, and network. The great irony of internet marketing today is that most of what will make your site successful (i.e. linking) will happen offline through networking and outreach, especially if you are a local business.