A Deep Dive into Search Engine Optimization

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SEO is the practice of optimizing your website to get organic traffic from a search engine results page (SERP).

SEO helps you increase the quality and quantity of traffic coming to your site, which means it helps you target people who are genuinely interested in the products or services you offer. SEO is all about improving a site’s rankings in the organic (non-paid) section of a search engine results page. It’s an integral part of a well-rounded inbound marketing strategy.

In this in-depth article, we’ll explore the ins and outs of all things SEO.

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A brief history of SEO

To better understand how SEO came about, let’s take a look back at where it all began — the search engine’s invention.

The story starts in the early ’90s with the launch of the first website (which, by the way, is still up and running two decades later). As more websites emerged, there came a need for structure and accessibility. In 1990, a McGill University student named Alan Emtage created Archie (short for ‘Archives’), the world’s first search engine.

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What is a search engine?

A search engine is an online tool that helps people find information on the internet according to the user’s query. Search engines use robots called web crawlers to explore hundreds of billions of webpages. These web crawlers travel through the web collecting data from multiple pages and sites to create a World Wide Web searchable index. When a user types in a query, the search engine searches a database of information and provides results that best match what the user is trying to locate.

There are three fundamental principles that search engines use to gather data for a user’s query:

  • Crawling: The process of finding new pages on the web using small programs called web crawlers (commonly known as search engine bots or spiders) that follow links from recognized pages to new ones that still need to be discovered.
  • Indexing: When the bots work their magic, and a page is crawled, the data is processed and indexed. Indexing is the process of validating and storing the data from the webpages in the search engine’s database called “index.” Think of it as a storage space for all websites. To appear on a search engine results page, your website needs to be indexed. Once the data is processed and saved in the index, it can be accessed when a search is performed.
  • Ranking: To finish off the search process, the search engine determines where a particular piece of content or a URL should appear on a search engine results page. This is called ranking. Web pages that rank well will appear at the top of the list for search results.

 

Back in the day, Archie didn’t have very advanced capabilities, but this early technology cleared the path for many more search engines, like Excite (1995), Lycos (1995), Yahoo (1994; reborn 2002), and, of course, Google (1996) — which has dominated the search engine space ever since.

Early SEO tactics

There was a problem, though. In the early days, the only way to optimize your site for search engines was through on-page activities. There weren’t really any rules or criteria at the time — people just wanted their website or content to rank high on a search engine results page; they didn’t care how.

Because “SEO” tactics were limited to matching words from user queries on search engine results, this often led to keyword stuffing, which is the practice of repeating keywords over and over again in the text to improve rankings and drive traffic to a site. People were also using excessive backlinks to improve their authority. Using keyword stuffing and spammy backlinks to rank higher in SERPs is known as black hat SEO.

Because the ultimate goal of black hat SEO is to rank at all costs, this often meant a major compromise in websites’ quality. By the time a search engine was able to roll out algorithmic changes to penalize these tactics, it wouldn’t be long before a new black hat SEO practice was discovered that the most recent updates didn’t address.

When Lawrence Page and Sergey Brin set out to create Google, unethical SEO was one of the first issues they wanted to fix. In their paper “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine,” they introduced PageRank, the technology that Google uses to help rank search results based on quality and not solely on keywords. This is one of the significant sea changes that paved the way for SEO as we know it today.

The search engines of today

Archie may lay claim as the first search engine ever invented, but today, there are many search engine options out there. Obviously, Google is the most well-known search engine, but other popular search engines include Bing, AOL, DuckDuckGo, and Yahoo.

While there are quite a few choices out there, the two brands that come to mind when people think of search engines are Google and Bing. To the average internet user, they’re not all that different when it comes to primary search results. Let’s briefly discuss the history and merits of each one.

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Google

Being the world’s leading search engine, Google is undoubtedly the more popular one. The phrase “Google it” speaks for itself.

Google Search has been around since 1998, and Google is constantly updating its platform with new and advanced features and integrating with other Google products.

As of January this year, 91.45 percent of all search queries are performed through Google Search.

Google is known to give more relevant search results, and its instant search feature boosts efficiency. If you have a technical query, Google is known to dig out very detailed information. It also has an impressive reverse image search and a smoother image search interface.

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Bing

While Google remains the dominant search engine choice for most people, Bing is still an attractive alternative and shouldn’t be ignored as it has many enviable features.

Bing is owned and operated by Microsoft and was launched in 2009, though it was previously known as “Live Search” and “MSN Search” before that. Between June 2019 and June 2020, Bing saw 2.75 percent of the world’s search share — making it a distant second to Google. Today, the Microsoft Bing app has over 10 million downloads in the Google Play Store alone and accounts for around 30 percent of all US searches.

What are Bing’s strengths? Bing’s video search is often considered to be stronger than Google’s. Instead of a vertical list of videos with small thumbnails, it presents you with a grid of large thumbnails that you can click on to play without leaving. Bing is also a lot more open about its algorithms compared to Google.

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DuckDuckGo

DuckDuckGo is a search engine that is actually very similar to Google; however, it was designed to respect user privacy.

The search engine does not track user data; it does not follow your IP address or your search history. Google, however, tracks everything you ever search for and sells that information in targeted advertising. The advertising displayed on DuckDuckGo is not specifically targeted at the user but instead based on popular search topics.

As privacy concerns mount and remain in demand, search engines like DuckDuckGo will continue to rise in popularity and use. In 2020, DuckDuckGo grew by 73 percent year-on-year, and its mobile app is the seventh-ranked app in both the Apple App Store and Android Play Store. In 2021, the search engine recorded 100,000 searches per day, and it is expected to outrank both Yahoo! and Bing in the near future.

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On-page SEO

On-page SEO (also known as on-page optimization and on-site SEO) refers to all the actions taken directly on your web pages to rank better on a results page.

Standard practices include optimizing meta description and title tags, as well as optimizing internal links and URLs. Even though Google has become smarter over the years, on-page SEO is still important today as the search engine still crawls your site for keywords. If you put effort into on-page strategies and take care to track your progress with marketing analytics, you’ll see an increase in organic traffic and a rise in your search presence.

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Keywords

Keywords are unique identifiers (like words and phrases) that lead users to a specific topic on a search engine results page. They help search engines identify the topics that your content covers. Basically, anything typed into a search engine is considered a keyword. Keywords are the link between the query a user has and the content to answer or solve it.

So when users type specific words or phrases into a search engine relevant to your business, you want your website to show up at the top of the results page for those keywords. Using the right keywords in your content could lead to an organic flow of website traffic.

For example, if you sell women’s athletic footwear, you might start with some basic phrases that customers would use, like “women’s sports shoes.” You can also add “women’s sneakers.” If you want to target a specific customer, you could use “women’s tennis shoes.” Just be sure not to make your keywords too straightforward, as this might minimize your audience and affect the number of people you reach with your content.

On-page components

Adding a few keywords onto your page isn’t enough for your site to be a top SEO contender; your page’s ability to rank is also affected by how your page is optimized. Here are some of the important components of on-page SEO:

Title tags

Title tags are crucial in helping search engines understand what your page is about, and they are essentially the first impression many people will have of your page. They’re used in three key places: search engine results pages (SERPs), web browsers, and social networks.

Internal links (and external too)

How do you make your website crawlable? For starters, you could optimize your internal linking structure and link to other pages on your website. This way, users can easily navigate through your website, resulting in generating higher engagement. If you link externally, make sure to link out to high-quality authority websites or sites that offer value or elaborate on the answer you are trying to provide.

URL structure

URLs should have the relevant keywords in them to be more SEO-friendly. When optimizing your URL, stick to a single logical structure and keep it on the shorter side.

Images

People are attracted to visual elements, so it’s important to include images on your site. Search engines have also started improving the ranking of sites that use media elements, like images, videos, and graphics. To get the most out of your images, make sure to use your targeted keyword in the descriptive titles and alt tags.

The importance of content

Content is the heart of your website — and possibly the most important factor of on-page SEO. Content is why a user would type a query into a search engine — if you do not have content related to that query, there won’t be a match.

As such, it is important to create good, SEO-friendly content. When you create high-quality content, you can establish your organization as thought leaders in your field. Your content should clearly communicate your message, answer your readers’ queries, and persuade them to purchase your products and services over your competition. Whether people glance over it or actually read the text, it is important to have it as a powerful SEO resource.

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Off-page SEO

SEO techniques are often segregated into two segments: on-page SEO and off-page SEO. We spoke about on-page SEO above (factors you can control on your own website), so what is off-page SEO? Off-page SEO refers to activities done beyond a website to increase the site’s search engine rankings.

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Components and techniques

Here are some of the important components of off-page SEO:

Backlinks

Building backlinks is undoubtedly the most significant factor of off-page SEO. When sites link to your content, you’re seen as an expert in your field — which could lead to Google granting your site more domain authority and thereby boosting your ranking.

To build backlinks organically, you could: do a guest blog and link to your site, reach out to industry influencers who’d be happy to share your content, and of course, create good content so that people would want to link out to your page naturally.

Social media

Even though there isn’t a direct tie, there’s a strong correlation between the social shares a piece of content gets and how well the site or page connects to ranks in search results. Comments, likes, and click-throughs on images all correlate with higher organic rankings.

Influencer marketing

Influencer marketing is a great strategy to build your brand, boost your content, and reach new audiences. It’s the process of joining forces with famous and influential bloggers or social media users to promote your product or service. It’s an effective way to tap into a diverse audience and produce intriguing, shareable content.

Search engine algorithms 101

The standard definition of an algorithm is a set of rules for solving a problem in a restricted number of steps. In the computer science sense, an algorithm is a set of clearly-defined, step-by-step instructions given to a computer to complete a task.

When we refer to ‘algorithm’ in the SEO sense, we’re not talking about mathematics, but you can look at it from an arithmetic perspective. Almost every task you carry out has an algorithm to it — you perform a series of steps to arrive at an end goal. Whether you’re baking a cake or doing a complicated math equation, It’s important to carry out the steps in a specific order, or you’ll get an incorrect outcome.

 

 

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How do algorithms impact SEO?

Understanding the structure and methods used by the algorithm is a key aspect of being effective at SEO. Knowing all the ingredients and quantities needed to bake a cake gives us the ability to improve and make the best version of that cake. The same goes for SEO. If we know all the search engine requirements, we can customize our content, URLs, and links to cater to a broader audience; thereby driving more traffic to your website.

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Google search algorithm updates over the years

Over the years, search engines like Google have been continuously improving their algorithms to give users the best possible search results. In the last decade, Google introduced several life-changing updates, and each of them has had a huge impact on how we do SEO. Let’s take a look at three algorithms that changed SEO forever.

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Panda update (2011)

Remember when we spoke about the importance of quality content? Panda is a Google algorithm update created to reduce the amount of low-quality, sparse content in the search results and reward unique and captivating content. Like Panda, algorithms assist Google in judging, filtering, penalizing, and rewarding content based on specific characteristics.

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Penguin update (2012)

Another algorithm named after an adorable animal, the Penguin algorithm, was created to combat the increasing practice of manipulating search results (and rankings) through spammy link building techniques. Penguin’s goal was to ensure that the websites with natural, relevant links were rewarded, while black-hat spammy links were downgraded.

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Mobile update (2015)

It is said that Google’s mobile-friendly update basically ushered in the mobile-first era. The mobile update (also known as Mobilegeddon) was created to improve mobile-friendly pages’ rankings in Google’s mobile search results. This means that non-mobile-friendly pages were negatively impacted in mobile search and had a lower ranking in the SERPs.

The evolution of Google, a timeline

Let’s take a look back at the history of the most powerful search engine on the internet.

1996 – Larry Page and Sergey Brin, two Stanford University students, developed a search algorithm called “BackRub” (now fortunately named Google).

 

1998 – Google was launched, and the very first SERPs were displayed. Before Google, there was a prevalence of search engines and information in the ’90s, making it increasingly difficult to find relevant content.

 

2000 – The launch of Google Adwords, the pay-per-click advertising product in SERPs. It was originally only available to 350 advertisers.

 

2000 – Google launched in 10 new languages – French, German, Italian, Swedish, Finnish, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Norwegian, and Danish.

 

2001 – Google goes visual. Image Search arrived, and users could search through over 100 million images in its database.

 

2004 – Google Local was launched, and users could now view relevant business listings, maps, and directions in their neighborhood.

 

2005 – The launch of Google Maps. A web mapping service that helps people navigate new areas and find a location without getting lost.

 

2006 – The Google Plus box was added to search results — a package that could expand and show more information when clicked on.

 

2007 – Google Universal Search is launched, and images, video, and news are all integrated within the main results on a SERP.

 

2010 – Google launches Place Search. A feature that adds listings address, phone number, and the number of Google reviews on a SERP.

 

2012 – Google launched the Knowledge Graph —  a panel on the right-hand side of the SERP that displays a summary of information the user is searching for.

 

2013 – SERPs now include an interactive Local Search Carousel.

 

2015 – Google launches its first mobile algorithm.

 

2016 – Google launched Featured Snippets — a quick summary answer to the search query, displayed at the top of search results.

 

2017 – Google launches its Jobs page, making it easier to filter through jobs posted online.

 

2018 – Google began including videos in a carousel. Previous video results had been displayed with a thumbnail in organic products.

 

2019 – The launch of FAQ and how-to snippets

 

2020 – Google SERPs highlight the efforts business owners are taking to keep visitors/customers safe from COVID-19.

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We hope you enjoyed this deep-dive into the wonderful world of SEO.

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Search Engine Optimization FAQs

 

  • What are rich snippets?

    Before we get into what a rich snippet is, we first need to understand what a snippet is. Most Google search result snippets will include a URL, description, and title tag. Rich snippets, however, are search results with a bit of extra information gathered from the website. This can include a star-rating for a recipe to make it more eye-catching and increase the chances of the link being clicked on.

  • What is a SERP?

    Short for “search engine results page,” a SERP is a page that a search engine displays after a user submits a search query. SERPs retrieve both organic search results and paid search and pay-per-click (PPC) ads.

  • Is SEO still important today?

    With the increasing demand for having an online presence and global marketplace of the internet, SEO is more important today than ever. The need to stand out and appear at the top of the search results list is paramount for growing and sustaining a business in this digital era. Good SEO can be the difference between running an effective marketing campaign or even driving daily traffic to your local laundry. Search engines rely on keywords to specifically find what you are looking for. It is impossible to find important information, businesses, or websites that the user is searching without SEO. SEO ensures that search engine users can find the answers to their queries in a matter of seconds. One could even see it as a natural online order. Without it, the internet would be chaos.

  • Does SEO require coding?

    You don’t need coding skills to practice SEO, but having critical analytical skills might improve your approach. While keywords and content are often the principal aspects of the SEO conundrum, there are other factors such as comments, HTML tags, and metadata. Having a basic understanding of HTML could give you a deeper understanding of how the entire process works more integrally and effectively.

  • What is the Google Knowledge graph?

    Google’s knowledge graph is an extensive collection of facts — over 500 billion to be exact. That is like having the world’s best ‘30 seconds’ player on your side. Google references this database to generate certain elements of search results. Google’s Knowledge Graph is responsible for developing the boxes shown for queries about people, places, and things. These key pieces of information are designed to help you quickly understand more about a particular subject by showing key facts and to make it easier to decide if you would like to explore a topic in more depth.

  • What is E-A-T?

    E-A-T stands for Expertise, Authority, and Trust. It is a method that Google uses to rank websites. Think of it as a credit score for your website. For Google to deliver credible information to you, they require a method of ensuring that information’s accuracy. This is particularly important when searching for information on prescription drugs, for example.

  • What is a content cluster?

    A content cluster strategy is primarily an architecture or theme modeling strategy that groups related content. This is achieved by creating internal linking within a webpage to improve the user’s experience and improves your search performance.

  • Does social media affect SEO?

    Although social media does not directly affect SEO, it does, however, impact traffic to your website. Social media affects your website by making your content more available to people. As more people share your link and drive traffic to your site, the higher your ranking will become with Google.

    Social media sites do not operate in isolation. By creating a social media presence, your brand becomes more visible in the search results, which drives more traffic to your website.

    On search engines, people will only see your content if they search for specific keywords. Social media has created an avenue that allows your content to reach so much further with high-quality traffic.

  • Does link building still matter?

    Google’s algorithm cleverly uses links to rank websites. A variety of variables are considered; however, some of the factors that are considered by the Algorithm are whether it is from a trusted and relevant source. The ideal link sends relevant, targeted traffic from one site to another.

    Links are one of the top three ranking factors. To create a good SEO strategy, it is important to consider that it is not the quantity of the links that matter, but rather the quality. The ideal link-building strategy should aim to include as many quality links as possible.

  • What is the average title tag length?

    Although there is no specific number of characters required in a title tag, Google usually displays the first 50 to 60 characters when delivering search results based on the screen size you are using. If the title tag is longer than 60 characters, important elements of the title might be lost, such as the keywords or a call to action.

    Traditionally, title length was measured in character length; today, search engines measure the length of a title tag in pixels, the smallest building block of your screen. The minimum suggested length of a title tag is 285 pixels; this would equal rough 30 characters. In terms of the maximum length, 575 pixels would be the max, which equates to 60 characters in length.

  • Should I include my brand name in all title tags?

    Including your brand name in a title tag could help create title tags, as long as it’s short and catchy. This allows people to see consistency and builds brand awareness. That said, don’t include your brand name on every title tag; these are called ‘boilerplate titles’ and aren’t always needed.

  • What are the most commonly used search engines?

    There are roughly seven search engines that are used today across the world. These range from sheer numbers to be the only search engine available. These are the most commonly used search engines:

    1. Google
    2. Bing
    3. Baidu (Chinese search engine – This is due to the large population in China)
    4. Yandex (Russia)
    5. DuckDuckGo
    6. Yahoo!
    7. Contextual Web Search

    Another to mention would be Yippy Search. This search engine is focused on uncovering or locating hard-to-find information typically located within the deep web.

  • Should I optimize only for Google?

    SEO aims to improve your search rankings and drive more traffic to your website, ultimately converting that traffic to leads or sales. As an SEO professional, it is important to create content that finds the balance between delivering great content to your audience while ranking up in SEO searches. With Google being the world’s largest search engine, the easiest way to drive organic traffic to your site is to optimize your content for Google.

  • What are long-tail keywords?

    Long-tail keywords are terms that contain three or more words. The intention is typically more transactional in nature.

  • How often should I update my blog?

    The answer here is to focus on quality over quantity. Freshness is a factor that search engines consider, but the quality is far more important in the long run.

    To better understand how often you should be publishing content, you need to review what your competitors are doing. How often are they publishing content, and can you match the same amount of posts per day or week? If not, ensure that you are creating valuable content as often as time allows you.

  • What is a good length for a post or article?

    Again, review what your competitors are doing in terms of content length. Studies have shown that the top ten sites ranking on page one have an average word count of 1,447 words on average. However, this is not the rule. The more direct answer is how long it takes to answer the question as directly and concisely as possible. It’s also important to think about how much value you can add with a longer-form piece of content.

  • Where do I start my SEO strategy?

    The starting point is understanding what people are searching for (keywords) and how you can solve their problems.

  • Is SEO dead?

    No, SEO is not dead. Tactics and methods within the search engine optimization field have changed, and new tactics are available, but as long as people use search engines, SEO is still going strong.

  • Can you help me fix negative SEO?

    Yes. Negative SEO can hurt your website for years to come, but our team can help you fight back against these attacks by disavowing malicious backlinks, creating great content, and making sure you are employing white hat tactics going forward.

  • SEO glossary of terms

    Domain authority

    A metric that predicts how successful your site is on search engine result pages

    Inferred links

    Lexical terms that connect topics and keywords to a brand, website, or page.

    Latent semantic indexing

    Latent semantic indexing focuses on how machines interpret human language. This is achieved by grouping words with similar meanings or have relationships between them.

    Page authority

    A metric that predicts how well a specific page will rank on search engine result pages

    Page rank sculpting

    A technique used to control how PageRank flows through a website by manipulating “no follow” meta tags.

    Schema markup

    A piece of code that helps search engines determine the type of data it is looking at to help them display your content’s best representation.

     

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