Usability and Quality, Not Gimmicks, are Key to SEO Success

We are delighted to present today’s post, which was written by Randall-Reilly’s SEO Manager Tye Odom, in conjunction with legendary linking luminary Eric Ward. Search Engine Optimization is a notoriously knotty, complex topic, yet developing a winning SEO strategy is absolutely vital for success in today’s business world. That’s why we’re grateful to Tye and Eric for providing this sweeping overview of all you need to know to achieve SEO success.

By Tye Odom and Eric Ward

Search Engine Optimization (SEO), if done properly, can catapult your business to the top of the industry you serve. It can bring your business sustainable success that will pay off many times over if maintained correctly.

In order to reap the benefits of SEO year after year, you need to go further than simply using a few tips or tactics. You need a precise, tactical plan for the design of your website, as well as content that will make your website stand out to search engines.

SEO should be a priority from the very start of creating a website, as well as during site redesign or while making changes to the site. This includes new pages and blog posts.

While it’s possible to ‘retrofit’ a site’s optimization, it is much easier to optimize as it’s being created, rather than optimizing once it’s live. You may be saying, “I want to please the people who visit my site, not search engines.” Well, a white hat SEO (or ethical, honest, organic) will look at both perspectives to determine what is optimal for the search engines without sacrificing the user experience.

Website Structure

One of the most important characteristics Google uses to evaluate sites is a website’s structure. It’s important to have a structure that makes it easy for a search engine’s web crawler to crawl (or analyze) the site. This allows the ranking algorithm to understand what search queries are best for your site (and business).

Navigation and URL structure link together to form an important piece of the SEO puzzle. If you have this done correctly, your site can leapfrog the competition, and your business will be set up for long-term success and profitability. User-friendly, organized site structure is like Google gold.

Optimal site structure is based on a number of different criteria that are specific to your business and the industry you’re in. It’s important to work with an SEO expert who understands the importance of optimal site structure and knows how to squeeze the most SEO value without sacrificing on user experience. On-site optimization, for instance, is not about stuffing keywords in as many places as possible.

There can be serious technical issues that can prevent the crawler from accessing pages on your site, especially your most important pages, as well as issues that prevent Google from indexing those pages. You may have an incredible piece of content that can’t be found because of underlying technical issues.

Proper site structure and on-site optimization also requires in-depth keyword research before anything is built or redesigned. You have to know what people are searching for, and the variation of the search queries being searched, to set up your site for organic success.

Keyword Research

The first step in developing an SEO strategy is in-depth keyword research. You have to find what people are searching for that is related to your site and what words get the most search volume every month. There are plenty of keyword research tools out there for your perusal.

You can use this keyword research when setting up your navigation and URL structure, to inform how and what words you link off of to other pages on your site.

While doing keyword research, SEO consultants will look at a website from the perspective of a searcher and a web crawler, along with the algorithm that works with the web crawler to determine what words need to be present to satisfy both.

Usefulness Vs. Usability

Usability is something Google values, however, usability and usefulness are two different things. No matter how useful your content is, if the end user cannot understand how to interact with your site’s navigation and menus, what they are supposed to click on, or how to find what they’re looking for, this is a poor usability experience.

Google has stated that when the user is using a mobile device to view content, Google favors mobile-friendly sites over sites created for desktops. Likewise, when a user is on a desktop computer, Google favors sites designed for the desktop.

Google knows what type of device you’re using because the moment you load Google’s search page, they’re able to determine the “user agent” of your device. User agent is a technical term that tells Google whether you are using an iPhone, tablet, Macbook, or PC.

Google has stated a preference for responsive web design over having a separate mobile version of your site. This means you don’t have to have two different versions of your site. A responsive site is located at a web address that does not change based on the screen it’s being viewed on (phone, tablet, desktop). This maximizes cross-device user experience.

If you haven’t developed a responsive site, but instead chose to make a completely separate mobile version of your site, that’s fine. You won’t automatically lose visibility in Google, and thousands of sites have done this. The most important thing is providing a seamless mobile-friendly experience.

Mobile browsing has surpassed desktop in the past few years, so Google wants website owners to give their visitors a mobile experience one way or another. For example, Major League Baseball has a mobile version of their site at http://m.mlb.com/ as well as a desktop version at http://mlb.com. You can see examples below of how both sites display on a smartphone. While the differences may seem subtle, the mobile version provides better usability.

MLB’s mobile site renders Bartolo Colon in flattering, proportional detail.

You’ll have to scroll to the right for a while to see all of Bartolo using the desktop version.

Quality Content

Quality content is another important piece to the SEO puzzle. You must have highly relevant, quality content in order to rank well for competitive search queries. However, if your site has issues with its structure and crawlability, Google won’t find your awesome content and give you credit for it.

When an SEO specialist audits your site, they analyze the content that’s already there. They also figure out what content needs to be added so your site signals Google it is relevant for pertinent search queries in your industry.

This is the only way a non-human, web crawling algorithm can associate a website with specific search queries and industries. Using valuable keywords in your content is really important, but you must produce unique, high quality content in order to lift your site and rank.

Getting Found: The Right Recipe

According to Google, more than 200 factors are considered for ranking a site or page in the search results for any given search term. Here’s what they have to say:

“For a typical query, there are thousands, if not millions, of webpages with helpful information. Algorithms are the computer processes and formulas that take your questions and turn them into answers. Today Google’s algorithms rely on more than 200 unique signals or “clues” that make it possible to guess what you might really be looking for. These signals include things like the terms on websites, the freshness of content, your region and PageRank … PageRank looks at links between pages to determine their relevance.”

It can be overwhelming trying to understand how Google works, especially when there are over 200 “signals” involved and Google does not share what those signals are. However, we can simplify Google’s algorithm into two basic components: on-site signals, and off-site signals.

On-site signals refer to your site’s content. More specifically, the code that you create that allows someone to see your pages in a web browser, a tablet, or smartphone. This code determines much more than just what the users see, though. The search engines use this code to better understand what your site is about, such as what types of content your site contains (i.e. text, video, images, products), which sections are for navigation, and which content has been recently updated, etc.

Off-site signals refer to references to your site that originate somewhere other than on your own site. The classic example of an off-site signal is a link to your site from another site. A simple example would be if your site consists of a database of trucking jobs, and if another trucking industry site linked to your site. This represents the type of off-site signal Google puts a high value on.

Links, Search Engines, and Getting Recognized

Way back when Google was first created (1998), you could break SEO into a few important signals, and that alone would get traction. However, Google’s and Bing’s algorithms have changed tremendously over the years. They’ve gotten a lot smarter in determining which websites should be ranked the highest. “Getting found” by a searcher is not quite as easy as it once was.

Google’s original algorithm placed a huge emphasis on how many links were pointing to your website from other websites. Links are thought of as ‘votes’ for a site. Links were, and still are considered a signal of quality to Google’s algorithm.

Google is invested in sending searchers to websites that satisfy their needs. Links are a way of helping Google recognize your site is useful and of high quality because other sites have linked to it.

Links are still the single most important external factor in getting found by searchers. However, links as a signal have changed over time. It’s no longer simply a numbers game. Google now looks and places more value on high quality links from sites that are relevant to your site and industry. A link used to be just a link. It didn’t matter where it was from. But those days are long gone.

Links From Other Sites Validate Your Site

Here’s a great example. Randall-Reilly owns a trucking job search site called Careers in Gear. Here’s what it looks like below.

There are many trucking schools throughout the U.S., and those trucking schools often have websites with resources and links that are helpful for their students. One such college, Lincoln Land Community College, has a job search section that links to careersingear.com.

You can see the link here http://www.llcc.edu/career-training/truck-driver-training/job-search-websites/

This link is the type of inbound link Google finds credible. If Google finds enough of these authoritative inbound links (also called off-site links), Google will rank the site being linked to higher. This means your content has a higher likelihood of being found by searchers.

While this is a simplification of how Google values links, the key takeaway is that your site must be able to attract links from other credible sites in order to be found — especially from sites related to your industry.

Another benefit of links from related sites is they can send you referral traffic, meaning a person clicks on the link to get to your site as opposed to doing a search. This is known as referral traffic. Referral traffic is also a signal of quality to the algorithm. Many marketers make the mistake of thinking that links are only for Google rankings, when in fact the original intent of links was to give people a way to share useful content with each other.

Remember, the web was invented years before Google even existed. The millions of links that were created between thousands of sites and pages in those pre-Google days served an altruistic purpose of helping steer people to great content.

This was a large part of why Google succeeded. Google’s founders recognized that the existing collection of links, which had not yet been polluted by link spammers, represented a massive tapestry of quality content. This was the basis of Google’s first algorithm.

Unfortunately, as Google became more dominant, people started trying to game the system through linking tactics and schemes that were not based on quality, but on weaknesses in Google’s early algorithm. Today, Google does a much better job of recognizing which off-site signals — including links — are credible and natural, versus manipulated.

Seeking and Earning the Right Kind of Links

Since links are still the single most important off-site factor that affects a site’s ranking, the search engines spend a tremendous amount of time, money, and brainpower making sure their algorithm can detect when a link is natural or manipulated. In a perfect online world, every link to your site would exist because someone happened to see your site and decided to link to it on their own without being asked.

This is unrealistic and Google knows it. The web of today is so large that even if you’ve spent your entire career in the trucking industry, and you maintain a site devoted to all the companies and resources related to the trucking industry, you still could not possibly keep up with all the content related to the trucking industry. This is why people still need to share useful new resources, tell peers about new sites or apps, new white papers, podcasts, and webcasts.

Or links.

Unfortunately, people also pay for links. People exchange links like currency.

Companies create private networks of thousands of sites and sell links by the hundreds to other sites — all trying to rank higher on Google. This is the dark side of link building. In this world links are a commodity, not earned based on merit, but rather bought and traded in an effort to beat Google.

Google has fought back with algorithm updates and penalties against sites that attempt to “fool” the algorithm, as opposed to earning links based on quality content. It’s an ongoing battle, and the stakes are high. If you’re going to attempt to trick Google, you have to accept the consequences if caught.

If your business model is based on fooling Google, you are making a strategic mistake that could cost you a lot more than a few spots in ranking position.

The Wise Approach – Linking Strategy Development

One of the most overused cliches about the web is borrowed from the movie Field of Dreams. “If you build it, they will come.” It worked in the movie, but it doesn’t work on the web. You can’t build a site or launch an app, tell nobody, and sit back and expect people will find it and link to it.

At the same time, there are certain SEO, promotion, and linking tactics that should be avoided, given that the search engines are continually getting smarter. Today, getting found means developing a content linking strategy that utilizes a combination of skills, including public relations, marketing, and advertising.

The appropriate strategy for your brand should be based on the caliber of your content, combined with selective outreach to the people who are most likely to value that content. It’s not easy — it takes time, research, and patience, but the payoff is greater, and the results have proved to be more sustainable.

About the authors

Tye Odom has been working in SEO for more than seven years. He works on Randall Reilly’s internal brands, and offers SEO consulting and training to Randall Reilly’s clients. 

Eric Ward has been helping companies develop and execute content linking strategies since 1994. He works with clients in the trucking and transportation industry, and has also worked with WarnerBros, The Discovery Channel, National Geographic, TVGuide.com, and Weather.com. Eric also offers linking strategy consulting, training, workshops, and M/A counsel.