Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the process of adjusting content on a webpage to improve the page’s overall ranking against specific keywords on search engine result pages (SERPs). With trillions of searches requested each year, search engines are a crucial method of finding information online, and with research showing 27.6% of clicks go to the first link listed on search results, ranking highly is important to increasing overall site traffic. By understanding more about how search engines categorize information and optimizing accordingly, publishers can boost their position amongst search results, thereby increasing web traffic and profitability.
How search engines work
Search engines use a three step process in order to discover, categorize and rank web pages found online, which are then ready to be found by users.
Firstly, search engines send out software robots called ‘crawlers’ (sometimes referred to as ‘bots’ or ‘spiders’) across the web, to discover sites and download the content of their web pages. Crawlers initially use pages sourced by the search engine, before moving on to pages linked from the first, in order to construct a web of as many pages as possible. Content can vary from HTML web pages, to images, videos, PDFs and more.
Once a web page has been crawled, search engines scan for keywords on the page to better understand and categorize the information it holds. This information is then stored on the search engine’s web index for future reference when users search for particular keywords. Search indexes are massive in size, for example Google’s ‘Caffeine’ database stores in excess of 100,000,000GB of data across 2.5m servers around the world.
Once webpages have been crawled and indexed, they are ready to appear on SERPs. Search engine rankings are based on hundreds of factors, not just the relevancy of keywords entered, but also by factors such as page load times, the relevancy of embedded links, user location, device type and much more depending on the search engine used.
It’s important to note there are two kinds of results shown on SERPs, namely ‘organic’ and ‘paid’ search results. Paid search results appear at the top of a SERP, after an advertiser has paid the highest bid to appear amongst specific keywords. Organic search results appear after paid results and are determined by the search engine’s ranking system. For the purpose of this article, we will be focussing on non-paid means of boosting organic search engine rankings.
How to boost search engine rankings
Search engine rankings are based on a combination of on-page, off-page and technical factors, which determine the overall suitability of a result based on a user’s search terms. On-page factors refer to web page elements used by search engines to better understand site content and rank pages accordingly, whilst off-page factors are the behind-the-scenes content surrounding a webpage, deemed valuable by a search engine’s indexing rules. Technical SEO refers to the overall user experience of a website, including factors such as load times, layout and usability.
Content Quality, Length & Keywords
Content is perhaps the most important factor to consider when optimizing for SEO performance, as this is the main reason users will visit a web page in the first place. Good content must have a clear purpose and audience in mind, and share a broad-spectrum of relevant information pertaining to the keywords a user has searched for. In addition, search engine algorithms prioritize trustworthy, readable and updated content, so it’s important to ensure all information is factually correct and consistently updated in-line with any recent developments.
However, content creators often fall into the trap of producing content for SEO alone, rather than taking a human-first approach. One major example of this is ‘keyword-stuffing’, or the practice of cramming articles with as many keywords as possible. This often leads to misguided, jargon-heavy content, which is both unappealing to readers and can actually reduce SERP rankings. For example Google moderates web-pages which contain a large amount of specific keywords and ranks them as more untrustworthy for trying to outplay their indexing practices, leading to lower search rankings.
Content length is also an important factor in determining SERP rankings, with research showing on average, articles with 1,890 words rank on the first page of search results. That being said, content quality is still king, so writing excessive copy for the sake of reaching a hypothetical word count is largely unproductive. A better solution is to choose a topic with enough depth and scope to explain each point further in detail.
Whilst keywords are certainly important in guiding content development and reaching the correct audiences, content creators must always keep a human-first approach to deliver great content which satisfies search intent.
Title Tags, Headings & Meta descriptions
HTML title tags determine the name of a webpage and appear as the main text for a link shown on a search engine, whilst meta descriptions (a short explanation of the page), form the subtext. These are the first elements of a page users will see on a search engine and therefore determine whether they choose to click through to the full site. Therefore, the title and meta description must appeal to the question a user has asked and the content must reflect what information they expect to find. In addition, formatting headings with heading tags (H1, H2, etc.) and including alt. descriptions for embedded images and other elements, can help crawlers better understand the content they are indexing and thereby improve search engine rankings.
The URL of a web page can also impact search engine rankings, so it’s important to ensure these are as clear and concise as possible. Ideally, the URL should be as short as possible, with each word hyphenated and at least one keyword included.
Backlinks are all external sites which reference a page on the target website, for example hyperlinking an article from an external publisher. Backlinks help build credibility for the referenced web page by linking information useful to both of them. Earning backlinks from trusted web sources boosts the authority of the target site and can therefore help boost search engine rankings. Backlinks can come in a wide range of forms, from users sharing a page on social media to news outlets referencing their sources.
Brand Building, Content Marketing and Social Media
Whilst often considered an on-page strategy, content marketing helps build contextual relevancy within the environment the target site or web page exists. The production of high-quality, topical and relevant content surrounding the nature of the target brand, site or webpage, can help increase search intention and build credibility by encouraging backlinking. Actively engaging with communities and discussion surrounding the nature of a given web page or site can increase credibility amongst target audiences, and with this organically increase search engine rankings.
In 2019, Google switched to a mobile-first indexing system for all new sites, meaning mobile webpages are used primarily for indexing and ranking, rather than their desktop counterparts. With roughly 58% of all web traffic coming from mobile devices, mobile usability is more important than ever, as users won’t even bother using poorly adapted webpages, with better alternatives just a click away. Publishers must take advantage of responsive design or utilize existing mobile templates in order to adapt their content to better suit mobile devices.
Google offers their ‘mobile-friendly test’ to help publishers better understand the usability of their content on mobile devices.
Core Web Vitals
Core web vitals are a set of website metrics which Google considers most important for overall user experience; the three most important being load speeds, interactivity and visual stability. Metrics such as Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), First Input Delay (FID) and Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) are used to determine an overall health score of a given site or webpage. Optimizing against these metrics can help boost search engine rankings by improving overall user experience.
Page Speed & Load Times
Page speed refers to the amount of time a webpage takes to load on a user's device, from initially clicking the link to fully rendering the page. If page load speeds are too high, a user may back out of a page and choose something else, thereby increasing bounce rates. Web publishers must ensure that all users, regardless of their connection speed, can access the information they host in a timely manner, which may mean reducing the size of images and other large files which could increase load times.
With the sheer abundance of information available online and hungry publishers ever-incentivised to keep adding to this, search engines remain the most crucial tool available for the collection and organization of the world’s data. As competition increases, relying on keyword matching alone in order to attract clicks from search engine users is becoming increasingly unviable. Publishers must take a holistic approach to SEO rather than focussing their efforts solely with on-page strategies, taking into consideration the wider environment in which their content exists.
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