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A framework for thinking about SEO in 2014 | Chapter 1: The Changing SEO Landscape

If you’re just beginning to investigate the field of SEO, you’ve probably been inundated with conflicting messages. One on hand, you’re likely hearing how important it is to have a website and an online presence that helps you connect with new customers and rank well in search engine results. Conversely you’ve also heard that SEO isn’t effective, is outdated, or is “black hat trickery” which is the realm of spammers. How can you reconcile these opposing viewpoints?

Let us put your concerns to rest: SEO isn’t dead. However, it is evolving rapidly and changing daily.

At one time in the not so distant past, SEO referred primarily to a series of tactical approaches you could use to get your site into one of the top spots on search engines like Google and Bing. SEO gurus offered advice on how to build links, how to structure your website, how to select domain names, and a host of other topics designed to push you to the top of the search engines for specific searches. Competing successfully largely boiled down to mastering and implementing this body of knowledge.

Today, the reality of standing out in the digital seas is more complex. Tactics still have a place in 2014. But a high ranking site is largely a function of a well thought out strategy that integrates multiple aspects, from great content and quality links to an active social media presence and a deep understanding of your audience.

What SEO Really Means in 2014

Integration is an important concept. SEO now brings together a host of different disciplines: search optimization tactics, social media marketing, local marketing, copywriting, conversion optimization, and content development. In other words, in order to rank well and compete in the digital world, entrepreneurs and businesses have to embrace a wider range of online marketing disciplines than ever before. It’s not enough to think that one type of expertise will get you all the way. Instead, you have to become a student of digital marketing, establish a strong foundation, and then continue your education in more advanced and diverse areas that complement your core knowledge.

SEO today relies on authority positioning, having a strong brand, and creating real value for people interested in your niche. It’s a highly ethical discipline, where hard work and investment are rewarded.  Shortcuts get you into trouble, or even knocked out of the game. We’re no longer relying on dubious tactics or simply manipulating individual factors on a page. This is good news for businesses and SEO practitioners.

The Role of Organic Search

It’s helpful to bring a perspective on how search engines operate to the table when discussing SEO. Think about it this way: we’re quickly approaching one billion websites that exist on any number of topics. As a result, the internet requires tools that connect content with users. That’s where search engines come in, by providing an intermediary access point between searchers and all the content on the internet. Ultimately, a search engine’s goal is to provide users with a positive customer experience. In this case, a good experience would refer to high quality helpful content that links as closely as possible with what the user was looking for when she initiated the search.

The currency of search engines is keywords. Keywords are the way in which searchers tell Google, Bing, and other search engines what they’re looking for, and it’s one crucial way that search engines index and categorize content. But, with a billion sites out there, keyword categorization is hardly sufficient. Instead, the search engines have developed algorithms that become increasingly sophisticated, complex, and hopefully accurate in their categorization of content.

A huge number of factors drive search engine algorithms, ranging from the way a website is structured to how many links point to it and what the content actually says. But algorithms are proprietary and confidential, so a lot of time is spent in the SEO world gathering information, conducting experiments, and piecing together clues to inform our evolving understanding of what works and what doesn’t work when you’re trying to rank a site.

The net impact for site owners is simple: you have to create a website with your business goals and customers in mind. You also have to remember that search engines are a consideration in the way you do business digitally. An understanding of SEO best practices puts you in the best possible position to rank your site. Whether you do your SEO yourself or partner with an SEO firm or consultant, you’re ultimately responsible for the decisions that impact your business and your website.

Channels and Your Website

Organic search, or natural traffic from search engines, is one potential source of visitors to your website. There are numerous other potential drivers of traffic to a website. A quick overview of the types of the website traffic should include:

  • Organic traffic, as a result of search engine results from places like Google and Bing
  • Referral traffic, based on links from other websites sending through visitors that click
  • Social media marketing traffic, from participation and links on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn
  • Paid traffic, which results from advertising like banner ads and Pay-Per-Click advertising on search engines through programs like Google Adwords
  • Direct traffic, where customers type in your site’s URL directly into their browser

While SEO typically used to mean organic traffic, it’s now much more commonly used to refer to the universe of potential visitors from all these different channels. Optimizing for search engine traffic is important. But diversified traffic bases help make you immune to the fluctuations of search engines over time, and help you discover what traffic sources will send you your most profitable and engaged customers.

The Role of Competition in SEO

Another aspect to explore is the role of competition in SEO. It’s often misunderstood. What’s true at its most basic level is that there are only ten spots on Google’s first page for any given keyword term. One of the latest studies has shown that a site in the first position on Google receives 32.5% of the clicks, the second position 17.6, the third position 11.4, and so on. In other words, the more highly you rank, the more traffic and potential customers you’re likely to get. However, it’s not entirely that straightforward.

As we’ll look at in Chapter 4, today’s keyword strategies are infinitely more complex and yet more targeted than they were ten years ago. It provides hope for websites that are just starting out and competing in a niche with well-established competitors. However, competition does play a role in the SEO process and it’s helpful to keep that in mind when choosing your keywords, designing your SEO strategy, and sizing up other players in your niche.

What’s Driving All the Changes?

One common question that many people that are new to SEO ask is why are there so many changes in the field of SEO? Or stated differently, why do search engines want to make it so hard for marketers and businesses? This is the wrong mindset, although it’s a natural conclusion to draw. Remember the role of search engines in the online ecosystem: to create as positive an experience as possible for their users by connecting them with relevant information. The goal isn’t about creating roadblocks for sites. Instead, it’s about raising the bar as high as they can to find the best of the best content.

SEO is a field that has a somewhat shady history. Many pros in the field have exploited any and all available tactics to rank poor quality sites with a commercial goal in mind. As a result, search engines have pushed back hard against spammers and demanded quality sites and ethical practices. While it’s admittedly more work to build a great site, optimize the user experience, focus on quality content, and build great relationships with other sites and readers to attract links, it’s worth it. Not only will this benefit your site, but it will benefit your business and your brand in the long-term.

Understanding that SEO is a field that’s evolving rapidly can help you stay on top of the changes. We’ll now take a closer look at a general framework for helping you think about SEO in today’s context.

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