What is SEO?
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the art and science of getting found on Google, Yahoo and Bing. With SEO, you improve your website’s visibility in the free, organic search results. In turn, website traffic increases — as do sales.
Anatomy of a Google Search Listing
Before we dive into SEO, it’s important to clarify what real estate we’re going to be talking about on Google.com.
Search engine results pages (SERPs) have many layouts. You can think of a search results page as being built out of blocks. Depending on the search intent of the search phrase entered, you’ll see a different combination of blocks. Your location, perceived intent, personalization (past search behavior), and other factors all influence what you see on a SERP.
Let’s look at an example:
In this example, there are several sections of results, which include both paid and free opportunities. Those with teal arrows are paid results. Those with orange arrows are free opportunities. Those with black arrows lead to more Google searches.
Paid Ads — Google Ads power these results Google Ads allows advertisers to purchase real estate on www.google.com on a per-click basis. This type of advertising is often described as pay per click (PPC). Google runs an auction to determine which ads appear in this section of the search engine results. Advertisers define what keywords they want to bid on, how much they are willing to pay, and what ad text they would like to display. There are many other controls — like geographic targeting — making paid ads highly targetable.
Featured Snippet — Each result is called a snippet. A featured snippet is a result where Google extracts information from the featured webpage and shares it directly on www.google.com. A featured snippet may be at the top of the free or organic space (as it is here), or it can be lower on the page. When it is at the top, we call the snippet a “position zero result”. Featured snippets can be lists, paragraphs, or tables.
People Also Ask — Many search engine results pages include a “People Also Ask” section. This is free real estate that features questions and answers. The content is automatically extracted from your webpage.
Organic Search Results — In this example, the traditional organic search results start halfway down the page! In today’s world, this is common. Each organic search result includes the URL, a title, and a short description. Some of these results also include rich snippets, where Google has pulled in information about price, availability, reviews, and more.
Suggested Products — This example includes a suggested product block because the search query has eCommerce intent (meaning the user wants to buy something). Clicking on these listings leads to another Google search for the products listed. Google is usually invested in getting us to search again while staying on Google.
Local Search — In this block, Google features three local businesses. It’s often referred to as the “3 pack”. Local search gives related businesses the opportunity to compete on a more level playing ground with large websites.
Search Engine Optimization is focused on building your visibility in all of the “free” blocks — organic search results, local search, People Also Ask and featured snippets.
How Search Engines Work
Now that we know what SERPs are, let’s explore how search engines work. Search engines have crawlers (also known as bots and spiders) that continually explore the web. They create an index that you can think of as a modern take on an old-fashioned Rolodex.
When a person enters a keyword or keyphrase, the search engines use an algorithm to calculate how well a webpage matches a search query. If the webpage checks all the boxes, it could appear at the top of page one. If it doesn’t, it could appear at the bottom of page ten.
Search engine algorithms are complex and ever-changing. Still, we believe SEO is simple because the goal of the search engines is simple - to deliver relevant, quality results. You are great at your business. To get your website found on Google, we need to ensure Google understands this greatness.
Websites that excel in the following three areas excel in organic search:
- Expertise — Sharing your expertise online is the foundation of SEO. To do so, you need content — text, video, images. And that content needs to be featured on a user-friendly and engaging website.
- Authority — To amplify the notion that your content is truly “expert,” others need to be linking to your website. Links on the web act as votes of endorsement. Google is always watching these links to measure your website’s authority and credit you accordingly.
- Trust — We want to visit trustworthy websites and do business with trustworthy businesses. Thus, search engines value trust. Online trust is built via online reviews, being accessible (being mobile-friendly and having your contact information available on your website), and authorship.
Good news — what the search engines really value is real-world marketing. SEO doesn’t reward tricks and quick fixes; it’s about long-term, sustained good marketing. And we can do that!
The Goal of SEO
The goal of SEO is to increase sales, leads, and conversions. Growing the traffic to your website and improving rankings are secondary goals that help you achieve the most important objective — growing your business!
For some businesses, the following goal may be small, but it’s essential — ranking #1 for your own brand (as shown here):
Once this baseline is achieved, then the fun starts — improving visibility for non-brand keywords. This is how we reach a new and bigger audience.
It is important to set goals when you are getting started with SEO. Defining an immediate goal (something we can strive to achieve in a month), a mid-term goal (something we can achieve in a few months), and a long-term goal (something we can strive for in a year) ensures we are always headed towards a destination.
When we first launched Pathfinder SEO, our goals looked like this:
- Short-Term: Rank #1 for our brand.
- Mid-Term: Drive traffic to our blog posts for long-tail keyword searches like “how to connect Google Search Console and Google Analytics” or “is Yoast Premium worth it”.
- Long-Term: Drive traffic to our homepage and product pages for competitive phrases such as “WordPress SEO” or “DIY SEO”.
What are the Benefits of SEO?
The benefits of SEO are many. Here are a few:
- Grow Your Reach — 93% of online experience begins with a search engine query and 70% of the links clicked on by search users are organic search results.
- Create Long-Term Value — SEO campaigns carry long-term value. The work you invest today pays dividends down the road.
- Positive Impact on All Marketing Channels — Search engine algorithms value user-friendly websites. A user-friendly website is impactful for all of your marketing channels. There is a positive feedback loop here.
Common Approaches to SEO
As you get started with SEO, pause to consider which approach best fits your unique business. There are three common approaches:
Hiring an Agency — Outsourcing your SEO to an agency allows you to rely on experts. Some agencies like ours focus only on search engine marketing, while others offer a full suite of services — from web design and development to email marketing and more. Agencies can save you time, but they always come at a cost. Because SEO is a long-term initiative, most SEO services need to be managed via a monthly retainer. They also don’t occur in a vacuum; they require active collaboration with you and your business. We liken this to an 80/20 rule. The agency can do 80% of the work, but you’ll need to contribute 20%.
Do-It-Yourself SEO — A DIY approach saves money, but costs (a lot of) time — most businesses that engage in DIY start by learning SEO before doing SEO. There are a lot of online resources to learn SEO — courses, blog posts, and tutorials. The primary value of DIY SEO is that you already know your business and audience, which is required. The downside is that you probably don’t want to become an SEO expert just to grow your business.
Guided SEO — Guided SEO is the middle ground between DIY and hiring an agency. It gives you a process without asking you to become an expert in SEO. It offers a series of lessons with specific homework assignments so that you can start to get your site ranking in just a few hours a week. It also adds monthly coaching to keep you accountable and answer all your critical questions. Pathfinder SEO offers this kind of guided approach.
Getting Started with SEO
Now that you understand the value of SEO, how it works, and common approaches, it’s time to get started.
The first step is growing your awareness. What are your website’s strengths? What are the weaknesses? Our goal is to help you turn those weaknesses into opportunities and growth.
An SEO audit is how most businesses get started. Automated SEO audits are typically free and done by scanning tools. They spit out a laundry list of warnings and errors that you can tackle individually. On the other hand, SEO audits done by an SEO professional deliver actionable and custom insights (for a price).
If you’re looking for a happy medium, get an SEO score from Pathfinder. Our coaches will review your website (for free) and will deliver a graded assessment of how your website stacks up against the four pillars of SEO.
Lindsay Halsey is a co-founder of Pathfinder SEO. She has over 10 years of experience working in SEO with small to large businesses. Lindsay focuses on teaching business owners and freelancers how to get found in Google, Yahoo, and Bing via a guided approach to SEO. Stay in touch on Twitter - @linds_halsey.