SEO has never left me with a warm fuzzy feeling inside. As a web designer and developer, I’ve dealt with plenty of SEO specialists over the years. Some of them were pretty good, but most seemed to leave me with a bad taste in my mouth. Why is this?
The problem stems from this idea that everything having to do with SEO is always “Google First” or “What does Google want?” and never “What do our visitors want?” It’s always a guessing game as to how Google’s algorithms work and what has changed. The end result always seems to be a never-ending stream of complicated procedures in an attempt at guessing how a massively complicated system works. What is missing is the human element.
Thinking Like a Human
Google’s search algorithms are indeed a massively complex system. But if you take a step back and consider the problem they’re trying to solve you’ll understand why it’s so complex.
Consider what IBM did with Watson, a computer system that beat the top two players in Jeopardy. If this sounds trivial, it’s not! The goal was to create a computer that could parse through millions and millions of documents and information in seconds and return the correct answer to a question. Watson needed to get down to the context of the questions it was being asked, including the subtle nuances and variances in meaning. And it had to do this at the speed of thought – faster even! Watson has gone on to tackle other problems in areas including health care and cybersecurity.
So what does Watson have to do with Google? While Watson’s goal in Jeopardy was to find a single answer to a question, Google’s goal is to find many answers. And, like Watson, they have to do it with human beings in mind. With every web search, Google has to interpret every query in an effort to understand what a person is searching for. That means digging into the query itself, maybe even the queries before it, and get at the heart of what a person is looking for. In other words, they’re trying to think like a human would when it comes to delivering relevant search results.
To get an idea of what I mean, try this. Do a search in Google for “bomb.” Most likely, you’ll get results with the definition of the word “bomb,” maybe something for Bomb Magazine, perhaps some news stories about people who got recently bombed (not cool Google!). It’s a single word so the result is quite generalized.
Now let’s get more specific. Do a search for “bomb pop.” Most likely you’ll get results related to the actual Bomb Pop ice cream treat. What’s interesting about this is one of context. I bet in the past Google probably didn’t give results like this one. It’s possible that back in the day you might still get some results related to bombs. Google’s algorithms probably weren’t savvy enough to understand the context of these two words put together. Fast-forward to years later, and Google’s algorithms have a much better understanding of the content and meaning of the words being entered.
Now do a search for “How do I make a Bomb Pop?” (Note: Don’t do a search for “How do I make a bomb?” unless you want to cringe. Just don’t.) Because you’re entering it in as a question the search results end up being completely different. This time, instead of the results being about Bomb Pop, the ice cream, they’re about Bomb Pop, the drink. Why is this? Context! Based on trends and the context of the search query, Google assumes that you want to know how to make a Bomb Pop cocktail. There may be one result for how to make actual homemade Bomb Pop ice cream but that’s about it.
This human-centered approach to search results isn’t new. Google has been making refinements to their algorithms for years with a huge emphasis on how real human beings interpret search results. What Watson did with Jeopardy, Google is doing something similar with search results. And it’s why all the same ‘ole SEO tricks no longer work.
So what’s the secret to good SEO? Well, Google has been telling you for years. It’s right there in their Webmaster Guidelines: Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines. In short, take a “Humans First” approach, not a “Google First” approach. Concentrate on delivering a great experience with great content for your visitors. That starts by developing a solid content strategy right from the start. You can’t think about a good content strategy and SEO after the fact. You have to develop it from the very beginning of any website project.
That includes consideration on how pages of your website might appear in Google and other search engines. SEO specialists have known this for years but seem to always recommend the same old approach by stuffing keywords into headings, meta titles, and meta descriptions. That’s not really what Google wants because it’s not what visitors want. Instead, concentrate on informing visitors and give them an idea of what to expect when they hit your website.
Most search results are made up of just three things: a title, URL, and a description. Stuffing any of these with keywords doesn’t do your visitors any good. A proper title is one that tells visitors exactly what the page is all about. A good URL is one that informs visitors about the structure and organization of your site as it relates to the page itself. And a thoughtful description is one that gives visitors just enough information to ensure them that the page has the information they are looking for. Again, think Humans First and not Google First!
Along with a good content and SEO strategy, you might also consider adding schema markup to help Google and other search engines better understand your content. Schemas are little bits of markup added to the HTML of a web page that gives search engines more information about the content of your website. This is another area that I think gets overly abused. Be smart about what schemas you use on your website. The purpose of schemas is to describe the content and meaning of your website. Using them out of context can actually hurt you more than it helps.
For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the WebSite schema being used globally. Contextually, this is wrong. By definition, yes, the WebSite schema technically describes the website itself. The problem is that this schema was meant to describe content that pertains to a specific website. If you had, say, an “About This Site” page then this schema would be perfect. The proper schema to use for every page on your site would be the WebPage schema. Technically, you can assign this one globally to every page and then use various other properties to point out various parts of the page: breadcrumbs, primary image, author, date, etc. If your web pages are relatively simple though you can leave it out, because Google already assumes that it’s a web page (duh, right?).
A Good Experience Means Everything
Aside from how your website shows up in search results, the most important factor for any website is the experience visitors have with your site. Google has placed a huge emphasis on the User Experience (UX) of websites. These days people use all kinds of devices to view websites. It’s not just desktops, laptops, and mobile phones. It’s tablets, phablets, big screen TVs, kiosks, and more. The experience visitors will have with your website depends on how well designed it is.
By far the most important factor of the experience visitors have is the content itself. After all, that’s what they are there for. I believe that Google looks at all the content of your site, not just the page, to determine search relevance. Like Watson, Google considers how all of the content on your site relates to the page a visitor will land on. Thus, it’s incumbent upon you to deliver content that is well written, well thought out, well structured and organized.
Along with your content, how your website is designed is extremely important. A poorly designed website can have a detrimental effect on how long visitors will spend there. Throwing a ready-made WordPress template up and calling it a day isn’t a good idea. There’s a lot going on under the hood of any website. A ton of mistakes are made with many of the ready-made templates you’ll find. A good designer knows how to get around these problems and design a website that allows for proper HTML markup with a great design that can deliver your content in the best way possible. When in doubt, hire a good designer.
Beyond that, Google also considers things like page speed, optimization, and security. How fast your website loads can have a dramatic impact on the experience your visitors have. You typically have about 5 seconds before a visitor will grow impatient and leave. Reducing page loads usually means optimizing things like images and other assets on the page so that they are as small as possible while retaining quality.
Lastly, when it comes to security, there’s really no reason not to use HTTPS on every site. SSL certificates are cheap these days and, in some cases, absolutely free!
What Makes for Good SEO These Days?
An understanding of how people use search engines, that’s what. Much of that entails understanding the content and underlying goals of a website. Thus, good SEO requires a specialist that understands what it takes to develop a good content strategy. You could say that good SEO really isn’t about SEO but instead, more about Content Strategy created by specialists with SEO and UX in mind. That seems to be the trend with SEO these days.
Instead of just bolting on some sort of SEO strategy, a good SEO specialist will come in at the very beginning of a project and will help stakeholders in developing an overall content strategy. This would include not just content but also contexts and actions. What kinds of visitors will this site have? What actions will these different visitors take? All of this will translate into goals, some of which are measurable and trackable.
Competitive website analysis and keyword research is still required, but the goal of this research is to gain a better understanding of how people are using the web as it relates to the content strategy they are developing. The development of sets of keywords and phrases shouldn’t be the end goal but instead, part of a larger content strategy that involves describing the overall structure of a website, not just what keywords and phrases to use on this page and that page.
SEO is Dead – Long Live a Humans First Approach
I tend to believe that the way most people think of SEO is largely dead. The goal of any SEO strategy should never be “Give Google what it wants!” That’s a losing strategy. Instead, think Humans First. Think about who your visitors are, what they are there for. A modern SEO strategy has a lot more to do with content strategy and good UX than anything. Again, SEO is no longer something you can just bolt on. You have to consider it from the very beginning. In order to do that you have to collaborate with everyone involved. That collaboration starts with stakeholders, a content strategy specialist, designers, developers, content writers, and more. All of these roles need to have a place at the table from the start.
If everyone goes in with a UX mindset and thinks “Humans First” then you will walk away with a winning strategy.
Remember: think Humans First!
Are you thinking humans first?