Some 73 per cent of Google searchers don’t look beyond the first page of results. No wonder an entire industry – SEO – has sprung up around the means by which a company grabs a bigger share of the 40,000 search queries the web giant processes every second. Director asks the experts how to make search engines work for you
Back in that antediluvian era when people advertised goods for sale on the classified pages of their local newspaper, vendors’ determination to get their ad to the top of the page meant that the first column’s entries tended to read along the lines of: “AAAAAAAAAAAA gentleman’s bicycle for sale.”
Things have moved on – but the basic principle remains. With so much commercial activity having now emigrated to the vast swathes of cyberspace, constructing your company website in such a way that search engine algorithms will launch it to the loftier echelons of internet search results has become a highly sophisticated enterprise and an industry in its own right: hence, the emergence of the initialism SEO, which refers to both the concept of Search Engine Optimisation and those who professionally execute it (Search Engine Optimisers).
According to US digital marketing giant Fusion 360, an estimated 73 per cent of searchers never venture beyond the first page of results. Studies vary, but it seems likely that organic search results – those thrown up naturally by Google’s ever-evolving algorithms (the computer formulae that drive the search engine) – glean about 90 per cent of clicks, compared to 10 per cent for paid-for results, despite the latter being more prominently placed.
Complicating matters, in April, Google enforced a game-changer: in response to the rising use of mobile devices for accessing the internet, it began to consign websites that are not optimised for smartphones or tablets to lower page rankings for any searches made using these handheld devices.
In short, more than at any other time, any company that hasn’t already got SEO on its radar needs to sit up and take notice, or miss out on swathes of invaluable web traffic. Here are 10 things UK business leaders need to know, according to the experts…
1 SEO is growing in significance
“It’s increasingly important because of how quickly multiple aspects of search are developing,” says digital entrepreneur and SEO consultant Matt Bullas of Click Consult. “We hear a lot about mobile search becoming more popular, but desktop search is growing too – it’s just that mobile is growing exponentially faster.”
Bullas adds that web surfers are an increasingly impatient bunch. “If they can’t find what they want on page one, they usually search again using a more specific search query rather than looking to page two and beyond,” he says. “This means that businesses need to rank well for a large number of very specific [search] terms, as well as broader, more obvious ones.”
2 It’s a perpetual work in progress…
Back when Google was a fledgling start-up which could only dream of the global domination it now enjoys, SEO was a relatively crude endeavour. Techniques included stuffing pages with keywords and links and other methods now considered nefarious, such as hidden text, duplicate content and “cloaking” – presenting one pool of content to human users and another to Google and its competitors. The emphasis was all on wooing the search engines and not human consumers, which led to a lack of engagement. You can take a horse to water, as the expression goes.
Google has become the giant it is today, though, by catering for its user, and it was never going to stand idle while the quality and relevance of search results were being eroded by mischievous exploitation of its algorithms: “Ultimately, Google wants users to have good experiences,” says Martin Woods, director of Leeds-based SEO advisers Salt Agency.
“That means encouraging people to create great content and well-indexed websites, mobile-friendly updates and so on, because at the end of the day, in order for Google to make a profit on its other services – paid media and so on – it’s got to offer people a good product.” Bullas adds: “Cheap, quick and easy SEO that delivered unsustainable returns on investment is no longer possible.SEO now is all about creating a long-term online proposition that forms a significant part of your overall business, not making a quick buck.”
3 …because algorithms evolve
Google tweaks its algorithm around 500–600 times annually, and has rolled out major updates – including Google Panda and Google Penguin – throughout its history. On 30 August 2013, the world was introduced to Google Hummingbird – the algorithm which now, to an almost spooky degree, makes users feel like the world’s biggest search engine has read their minds before they’ve even finished typing.
“In the old days there was something called the Googledance,” says Woods. “Every time the algorithm changed, you’d scurry around making changes to x, y and z [on your website], constantly tweaking in order to, hopefully, get back up the top of the search results. Hummingbird is much more seamless. I was doing some work for a client yesterday, and they’d bought another company and were integrating and making best use of all their new assets for things like Google+ business pages. They were ranking at number-one position for this brand name within about 20 minutes. That wouldn’t have happened with the old algorithms.”
4 Anyone can do SEO
If you don’t have the resources to seek external help, there are simple measures you can take to improve your page rankings when creating or updating your online presence. “Firstly, you must understand how people search for your products and services,” says Bullas. “Second, produce high-quality, useful and engaging content that is relevant and interesting to your target market. Third, build sites that can be easily read and understood by search engines, which involves having all your content labelled and prioritised properly.
“Fourth, it’s increasingly important to engage online with the aim of creating signals that are important in the eyes of search engines, such as links and social metrics. Last but not least, you should report, review and re-evaluate [regularly]. This stage is vital if you’re going to hone your techniques and learn from past mistakes.” For more on how to DIY your SEO, Woods says Google’s Search Console, google.com/webmasters, contains “bucketloads of information and advice”.
5 It’s probably more important in the UK
SEO competition is stiffer in this country, Woods says, for the simple reason that so many people here are doing it so well. The more people try to influence Google results by SEO, the more penalties [a drop in search rankings for practices that go against its guidelines] Google dishes out. “Other countries aren’t as advanced in terms of the number of people doing it, the techniques they’re using, the investment they’re putting into it,” says Woods. “Looking at how many Google penalties get handed out, the UK is one of the largest markets.”
And, says Woods, companies are scrapping with each other to appear within the limited bounds of the first couple of result pages for a particular search term: “There’s limited space on pages one or two for organic traffic, and obviously with the apps coming out now and the ‘Buy Now’ button, there’s
a lot more competition.”
6 Device-friendly sites will thrive…
The impact of Google’s decision to favour device-enabled sites hasn’t quite had the apocalyptic effect that the newly minted term “mobilegeddon” implied, but nearly half of non-mobile friendly URLs dropped in rank according to a study by US digital marketing firm Stone Temple Consulting. And, with the number of people in the UK accessing the internet on mobile devices rising rapidly (57 per cent in the UK last year, up from 49 per cent in 2013, according to Ofcom), the value of being mobile-friendly is surely set to rocket.
“The aim of this update was to ensure people searching on a mobile are presented with text they can read without having to zoom in and out, and videos that can be played on the devices they’re using,” says Bullas. “To stay ahead of the curve, it’s important to not just have a mobile-friendly site, but to consider adding local content to get the most from the geo-targeting features of mobile. Creating more detailed content is also advisable as longer search queries become more popular with the growth of voice-activated search.”
Camille Palluat de Besset, network director at performance marketing company Tradedoubler, adds that, as web search becomes more device-driven, there’s effectively further to drop: “Given the fact that the number of results per page on mobile is much smaller than on the web, this could mean your site can move several pages down,” she says.
7 …and are easier to create than you think
“There are several options to chose from when you want to make your site mobile friendly,” says Palluat de Besset. “A dedicated mobile site with a separate URL allows flexibility as you can create and optimise its content without having to modify your website. A responsive design option also allows you to rebuild your website so that the content moves according to the size of your screen. This offers users an optimised experience on all devices.”
But she stresses the importance of not running before you can walk – especially if you have limited resources. “A mini, mobile-dedicated site with a short explanation of your business – such as a button to request a call back or subscribe to a newsletter, for instance – will be more effective than trying to display all your website content on a small screen.”
8 Google and SEO are not engaged in conflict
In fact, in an ideal world, they are united in an ongoing quest to improve the quality of the web. “Google has worked with and against the SEO market over the years,” says Bullas. “SEO that uses unethical methods to interfere with Google’s results poses a challenge to its business model, so it’s obvious that it’s going to crack down on it.”
As such, a dark phrase for SEO buffs is the aforementioned ‘Google penalty’ – which can be imposed either as the incidental by-product of an update to the algorithm, or as an intentional penalisation handed out by Google for employing ‘black-hat’ SEO methods (such as the hidden-text trick mentioned previously). “On the whole, Google is an open, transparent and helpful company, but people need to understand that it will only engage with and help the SEO community when it serves its own business purposes,” says Bullas.
Martin Woods adds: “Google’s not saying ‘don’t do SEO’. They just don’t like it when people manipulate their algorithms because at the end of the day it’s not fair, and it’s not offering quality results to the user. SEOs should add value, rather than manipulate.”
9 It’s better to SEO-boost your site from the outset
It’s much harder to implement SEO retroactively, says Woods. “We try to encourage people to start working on it at a very early stage of development. With one of our clients, we started talking to them about a year and a half before they built their website. “The SEOs need to be involved from a very early stage in the project, so they can say, ‘This is the rough framework of what you should do, these are the times you need to involve an SEO to help out, these are the sign-off stages’. It’s like a project manager’s role – to protect or grow organic traffic.”
For Woods, SEO is all about “eliminating risk and adding benefit. The more planning you can do, the quicker and more accurate the execution will be. It’s about taking a project right through and being a part of it – like a major stakeholder – for a long period of time.”
10 Other search engines are available
Google’s share of the UK market is thought to be around 88 per cent, but Woods believes that other search engines shouldn’t be ignored, especially if your target audience is a certain demographic, such as people likely to have older computers with pre-installed search engines. “I worked with one client and we started to make them about half a million pounds a month out of Bing from organic traffic,” he says. “It took a while to do but it was an invaluable source of revenue for them.”
So does optimising for all search engines follow the same basic principles? To an extent. “When you optimise for Google, you’re optimising
for Bing at the same time,” explains Woods. “Bing isn’t as strict about the type of links that point to you, but it does need [you to have] really strong technical architecture. Google prefers better content. It’s about making a mash-up of what search engines want and hitting the top spot everywhere – you need to aim high!”
SEO in numbers
36 million The number of UK adults (73 per cent) who use the internet every day, according to recent statistics from the Office for National Statistics
32% Brits who make a monthly purchase via their smartphone, according to Google TNS research this year
74% Internet users who are more likely to visit a mobile-friendly site, according to the official Google Search blog
67% How much more likely consumers are to purchase using a mobile-friendly website, according to the same source
Watch below for the basics of search engine optimisation