Keywords Are Just the Beginning: An Intro to the Wild World of SEO
- Keywords are just a minor part of SEO — more important is what those keywords actually represent
- How easily Google Bots can navigate through your website plays a major role in where you rank
- If visitors have a good time on your website, you’ll rank higher
- Your digital reputation also plays a role, for better or for worse
Before we get started, let’s play a quick game. We’ll say a word, and you say the first thing that comes to mind.
Ready? Your word is SEO.
Was your word “keywords”? If it was, you’re in good company.
For most business owners, their SEO knowledge begins and ends with keywords. But keywords are just the gateway drug into the wild world of SEO.
In actuality, keywords make up only a small portion of your search rankings. The factors that determine your website rank is a combination of several things, all of which have varying degrees of importance in the eyes of the Google Gods.
Just as KFC’s mix of 11 herbs and spices are locked away in a Louisville vault, Google’s actual algorithms and rankings criteria are a closely guarded secret.
But just as you can find some copycat KFC recipes to figure out some of those herbs and spices, you can up your SEO game by understanding a few key parts of the algorithm.
The Not-So-Secret Meaning of Keywords
Keywords are the most popular element of SEO, and for good reason. When you’re looking for something online, you might type in something like “sushi restaurants North Park.” When you type in those keywords, you expect to find a place to enjoy spicy shrimp tempura roll near 30th Street.
But to understand the full picture of how you get from searching for sushi restaurants to eating it, let’s look at the actual function of keywords inside your content.
To start, let’s get rid of the idea that keywords are the be-all-end-all of your content.
Instead of being items to check off a list, keywords (and the rest of the words on the page) tell search engines and readers how to categorize your content. In other words, they provide context about what your article, and by extension, your website is all about.
For example, if a site was targeting the keyword “apple,” it could go two ways. The first is all about the Silicon Valley tech company, and the second might be the fruit that keeps the doctor away.
How does Google know where to categorize this article? Context.
The search engine is smart enough to parse all the words on the page and draw connections between them. If the bots find mentions of iPhones, Macbooks and Steve Jobs, it’s pretty clear it should be categorized under the tech company. If the bots found words like trees, Honeycrisp and Johnny Appleseed, it knows the article is talking about the fruit.
So, to sum it up, it’s the combination of keywords and contextual clues that help Google understand where to categorize your content. What this means for you is to not to repeat one word ad nauseum, but instead make sure your article contains enough context to sound natural and clarify what you’re writing about.
You’ve also probably heard that it’s a good idea to add your keyword to headings, descriptions and URLs. This is still solid advice. Keywords in these prominent places provide valuable context to the reader — the human, not the bot.
You want it to be clear what your reader will get when they click on a link to your website. It also has to be enticing enough to earn that click — which is another important factor in your rankings. When it comes to these elements, definitely add keywords, but also make sure it’s interesting to read.
When it comes to keywords and content, the most important factor is quality. Well-written, comprehensive and engaging content can easily improve in rankings with a stronger strategy.
There’s an entire team of humans who review content for Google and determine the quality of it based on a 168-page document of guidelines. They look at whether the search results answer the intent of the keyword or phrase, how well-written and comprehensive your copy is, whether it’s clear who is publishing the article, and a whole barrage of other factors.
Content that checks the boxes for optimization, but is thin, poorly written or even plagiarized, will be much harder to rank — and may even be punished.
What Website Crawlability Has in Common With Ants
The next important element of SEO involves taking a step back from the content on your site, and looking at the foundation on which it’s built. Specifically, how easy is it to navigate?
In order to parse and read the content on your website, the Google Bots™ have to be able to swarm all corners of your website — kinda like ants. Whether they’re able to get into every nook and cranny depends on the technical foundation of your site.
Despite what you’d do in your home, it’s a good idea to leave crumbs around your website, especially in these areas:
Robots.txt: Think of this as the instruction manual for the Google Bots. It tells them how to navigate your website, and shares some friendly tips and tricks for getting around.
Sitemap: Just as the name says, this is the road map of your website. Think the old-fashioned paper maps you’d get at a gas station, not the fancy GPS versions on your phone.
Site architecture: If your sitemap tells you how to get through the wilderness, your site architecture is that wilderness. Is it fairly simple to figure out, like driving on a freeway? Or is it more like the windy mountain roads where you have no phone signal, you don’t quite know where you are, and you may actually be in a horror movie?
Internal linking: These important navigation signals build bridges between the pages on your site and tell the bots how to find the way.
Structured data, aka Schema: These bits of markup provide even more context for search engines, so they can surface more comprehensive results. One example Google gives is with a recipe page. The page contains a list of ingredients, the cooking time, detailed instructions and more. Structured data helps Google understand each of these elements, so your recipe for Apple Brown Betty shows up in results for questions like “dessert recipes apple.” Schema is a widely known vocabulary for structured data.
If these elements are all in order, the crawlers can traverse every nook and cranny of your website, just like ants, and make sure it appears under the most fitting search terms.
P.S. For more on these factors, and the SEO mistakes we see time and time again, check out this blog where we go in-depth on the topic.
Site Experience: Should Visitors Stay or Should They Go?
The Clash couldn’t decide, so Google did. It wants visitors to stay where it sends them. And as Skynet becomes more and more sophisticated, the technology behind Google has figured out a way to quantify site experience and turn it into a ranking factor.
In fact, the latest major Google algorithm change is all about improving your website experience to entice visitors to stay. (you can learn more about that here)
When those Google Bots™ are crawling your site, here’s what they’re looking for to determine whether or not your website provide a good experience to visitors:
1. Site security: If readers trust your website enough to give you their personal data, is that trust misplaced? Just as you wouldn’t trust an email from a Nigerian prince (unless you’re Michael Scott), Google doesn’t trust a website that doesn’t follow basic security procedures.
2. Page speed: When someone taps a link to land on your website, does it load like lightning or molasses? The answer determines how likely they are to stay or go. For example, DoubleClick by Google found that 53% of all mobile website visitors jumped ship if the page took longer than 3 seconds to load.
3. Mobile optimization: With 60% of all search traffic coming from phone searches, those people must be able to properly view your website.
4. No broken elements: Just as you repair broken windows and peeling paint on your house, the elements on your site (links, photos and even entire pages) should be intact as well. Google doesn’t want to send users to the website equivalent of an abandoned house with a bevy of broken windows and gallons of graffiti. And just as a yard overrun with tall grass and weeds obscures your otherwise gorgeous house, broken elements can obscure parts of your site that could actually give you the edge for SEO.
The Impact of Off-Page SEO
The final factor that plays into your SEO performance is what happens outside of your webpage. While even the best SEOs have little control over this area, known as off-page SEO, it’s nonetheless important to understand it.
Think of off-page SEO as the online version of PR. If you create some amazing, mind-blowing content that readers can’t find anywhere else, industry peers and media will (hopefully) cite your data as a source and link back to your website. All of those links and mentions of your amazing company contain signals that Google can understand and tie back to your website.
PR about your company also plays a role. If your pharmaceutical company creates the COVID-19 vaccine, everyone will be talking about you, and hopefully in a positive manner. These positive mentions are taken as signals readers want to hear from you, and will boost your website.
On the other side of this coin, if your company is getting a flood of negative reviews, these entries could actually outrank your website, depending on how influential the aggrieved writer is.
SEO is more than just finding the right keywords, using them a few times and appearing at the top of Google.
Where your website ends up is a product of how well it’s built, whether it’s easy to navigate, whether users have a good time, and what the Internet is saying about your company — and, of course, what’s actually on your site.
If you need some help making search engines fall in love with your site, we’d love to show you the way. Get in touch with us for a free website audit. Our team of humans (not bots) will take a look under the hood of your website and give you some solid recommendations to improve its performance.