How to Unleash Technical SEO as Your Website's Secret Weapon

    by Helen Overland

    Date

    February 28, 2014 at 2:00 PM

    466386085As marketers, we understand search engine optimization (SEO) as a highly important technique used to increase website traffic and help enter leads into the sales funnel. Great. Everyone should get on board, right?

    Not so fast.

    SEO can be a very lucrative endeavor, helping to generate leads and ultimately increase the bottom line. But why jump blindly into the melee? Marketers generally have a cursory understanding of SEO – it helps websites rank better in search engines, which gives the website more exposure and thus more traffic, and this rise in traffic leads to better sales.

    We may even understand some of the elements involved: keywords, high-quality content, providing a great user experience, etc. But it is much, much more complicated than this, and if you don’t equip yourself with the artillery necessary to help your SEO mission succeed, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

    We’re going to go over the more elusive, technical aspects of SEO that aren’t commonly talked about (don’t worry, we won’t use tech speak). They are your secret weapon, giving you the power to advance strategically and out-perform the competition.

    Understanding these aspects will help clear up confusion and nail down how SEO works. It will also make communication between marketing and your SEO team (internal or external) that much easier. The result: less time trying to understand each other and more time implementing actionable, precision SEO strikes.

    1) Terrain Recon: How Stuff Works

    To understand SEO, you really have to start with the basics: the search engine itself. How does it function? How are web pages ranked, and why are they ranked the way they are? Here’s an overview of what’s really going on behind the scenes.

    The algorithm

    This is the recipe for ranking. The algorithm is a mathematical formula used to determine which website is most relevant or useful in relation to a query that a user types into a search engine. Essentially, it is a scoring system.

    It works by measuring certain elements in order to determine how a page will rank in search engine results pages (SERPs). Google’s algorithm measures about 30% of the technical on-page factors and 70% of other factors like links and social signals. Some of these factors are quite clear to us – for example, we know that title tags are really important – while others are not so easily discerned.

    Nobody can say with any certainty exactly how algorithms rank content, as Google and other search engines don’t openly discuss how they function. Nonetheless, we are privy to some of the key elements used by the algorithms to determine rankings, which we’ll go into further later in this post.

    Penalties

    These are how search engines lower the authority of websites that have attempted to manipulate the way the algorithm views them by exploiting known ranking tactics. If hit with a penalty, traffic to a site can be reduced drastically (50, 60, 80% even).

    Penalties can be algorithmic or manual. Algorithmic penalties are when the algorithm detects that certain rules are being broken and penalizes your site accordingly. The entire process is automated.

    Manual penalties are issued manually based on human review. These happen when an algorithm can’t determine whether or not a penalty should be issued, so a human observer decides if a) a penalty is warranted and b) the severity of the penalty.

    Authority

    Authority is the perception of credibility or expertise given to a website or brand based on factors like:

    • Social shares and signals
    • The quality of inbound links
    • Site traffic
    • Quality of site content
    • Number of subscribers to newsletters, lists, etc.
    • Much, much more

    The higher authority your website has, the better it will rank in search results, plain and simple. As it stands, the only visible signal of authority (on Google at least) is PageRank, which measures the importance of a webpage in comparison to all others and assigns it a number from one to ten (ten indicating the highest authority).

    All other signals of authority are results-based. For example, your traffic, the strength of the brands or pages linking back to your website, or the number of times you are mentioned as a brand across the web. These indicators of authority are not so easily discerned, but nonetheless, they are very important signals of authority.

    2) Precision Strikes: Doing the right things based on How Stuff Works

    When you conduct SEO, in effect what you are doing is optimizing for search engine algorithms. The aim is to implement SEO practices that are: in line with the rules of the algorithm, do not put you at risk of being penalized either manually or algorithmically, and work to build the authority of your website. Here are the more technical areas to focus on that will help you do that.

    Building authority

    Authority is still mainly built through links, although old practices – link buying, article syndication, etc. – no longer work (in fact, they put you at risk of being hit with a penalty). Today, you need to focus on link attraction rather than link building. Attracting high-quality links will build authority, and this requires the creation and promotion of unique, valuable, high-quality content. Establishing yourself as a knowledge resource and thought leader in your industry through content, and promoting this content via PR and social media, will ultimately help you attract links from other high authority pages.

    Effective Site Architecture

    Site architecture describes how a website is structured from a technical, informational and functional standpoint. Effective site architecture considers both users and search engines in the development process, and is achieved through:

    • Establishing a clear, sensible site hierarchy
    • Having a usable, logical navigation menu that is accessible to both users and search engines
    • Providing a concise definition of what your company does
    • Keeping content crawlable (not hidden in images, iFrames or javascript)
    • Cleaning up broken links
    • Including compelling CTAs
    • Focusing on good user experience

    Websites should be structured in a way that makes it easy for search engines to crawl pages based on importance, but also provides a pleasant, seamless user experience. If both these goals are met, your website will perform better in SERPs.

    Optimized URLs

    URLs are the web address of a web page, and they are used to identify any resource on the internet, whether a page, document, file or image. From an SEO perspective, they are crucial because they describe a web page to search engines (and also to visitors). Their relevancy and accuracy are key to having the particular page rank well, and having an SEO-friendly URL structure throughout your website ultimately helps to positively impact rankings. Here are some tips on how to optimize your URLs:

    • Always use lower case characters
    • Use dashes to indicate spaces when you need to separate words
    • Ensure URLs are human readable
    • Limit the use of URL parameters

    On-Page Optimization

    On-page optimization is the area of SEO focused on making the structure and content of a website both user- and search engine-friendly. It describes the practices used to optimize the factors that can impact the performance of web pages in organic search results – title tags, web copy, Calls-to-Action (CTAs), keyword placement and density, and so on.

    On-page is crucial because it is an aspect that you have a high degree of control over, since it involves making changes to your own website. Failure to optimize critical components of your website is a costly mistake, as even simple modifications can result in significant improvements to site performance.

    Mobile Search Optimization

    Mobile is a rapidly emerging pattern of search behaviour where users conduct searches (and make purchases) via mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. On the web in general, and on consumer-facing websites in particular, we are seeing a shift towards mobile search. And given the rate at which mobile search is increasing, we will see mobile usage surpass that of desktop usage in the near future, even as early as the next year or so.

    In order to stay relevant, you have to deal with the mobile experience on your website sooner rather than later. Though we haven’t yet seen a significant re-ordering of search results from desktop to mobile, mobile friendly sites are beginning to gain advantages in rankings, and this trend will only become stronger.

    Canonicals

    Canonicals refer to both canonical URLs and canonical tags. A canonical URL is the official URL of a page in the event of internal duplication (if a single page with the same content has multiple URLs). The process of canonicalization is when Google or other search engine picks the URL that they think is the best.

    Canonical tags are items that allow you to ease the process of canonicalization, signaling to search engines that all authority should be given to one page over another. Essentially, they indicate that the duplicate pages should not be given any authority and should not be indexed.

    When necessary, you should use canonical tags in order to signal to a search engine which page they should pass all of the authority to. For example, if you have both http://example.com/page.html and http://www.example.com/page.html?tracking=yes for a page, be sure to include a canonical tag that indicates which of these pages you want all authority to be directed to.

    This will help avoid any split in authority across multiple URLs, which in won’t negatively impact the rankings of pages (keep in mind, however, that canonical tags are suggestions, not directives, and search engines can choose to ignore them).

    Final Debrief

    For many marketers, there is an absence of knowledge about technical SEO practices and techniques, which can complicate coordination between teams within your organization, or worse, see your marketing budget being used inefficiently for very little return. But it’s technical SEO that’s your secret weapon. In the digital marketing milieu, it’s important that marketers develop a more comprehensive, top-to-bottom understanding of SEO.

    Whether you do SEO internally or outsource it, knowing what each aspect is, why it’s important, and what you can do to make it work more effectively for your online presence can help you a) improve communication and b) better coordinate efforts between different teams in order to achieve your online marketing goals. The end result: a more effective, integrated SEO strategy that will drive traffic, attract customers and ultimately increase sales.

                                         

    Written by Helen Overland

    As VP of Web Performance at Search Engine People, Helen combines her tech savvy expertise with her marketing knowledge to create innovative, results based online strategies.

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