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People ranging from successful entrepreneurs to technology consultants, and sometimes those in a marketing department, understand little about how Google works, and what makes a good SEO strategy. I assume this is why I often meet people who have gotten burned by some snake oil SEO salesperson in the past.

Not everyone needs to know much about SEO, but this is what anyone running a business or working even tangentially with marketing should know about search optimization. This post is by no means the most comprehensive SEO guide available. But I believe this will give enough of an overview to slow the growth of snake oil ad agencies.

I’m keeping the focus for most advice on Google because they are the largest search engine, and most of what helps a site rank in Google will apply to Bing, Duck Duck Go, and any other web search engine.

As far as I can tell the top five factors to help a site rank and get meaningful traffic are:

Research Focusing On Business Value

Most talk about SEO, centers on how to rank, not what to rank for, but any optimization trying to get a website to a number one Google result that doesn’t focus on business value is a waste of effort.

Showing up as the number one result for a phrase in Google means very little unless that phrase is searched by people interested in the website and products. A friend once wanted to start a travel blog called “strategic travel info” because of the “SEO value.” We could easily have been the number one result for the term, but no one was searching for “strategic travel info.”

Even with highly searched terms, unless the intent of the searcher matches with your website, it will not add value to a business. For example, ranking for “watch TV free” when you sell TVs. You may get traffic, but it will not be relevant traffic. If you’re Nexflix, “watch TV free” is false advertising and not likely to drive sales.

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Technical Aspects Of The Website

A website should be fast and easy to use for humans, and readable to Google bot. Blocking Google from seeing your site is the most certain ranking killer. Having a sitemap submitted to Google Search Console is a simple way to improve how quickly new pages are indexed into search results.

Items like canonical URLs tell Google what the original source of content is, for example, differentiation of a blog post and several category pages that list the blog post. The actual structure of URLs, the information architecture of the website, and how the site functions on mobile all matter a lot. I could name many technical areas that help improve the way a website ranks in Google, but for the most part, these do not need to be understood deeply outside of web and search marketing teams.

However, understand, unless a rockstar set up the website, some aspect of SEO can improve via technical optimization. Unless an SEO agency can explain why they have no plans to change anything under the hood of your website, be skeptical.

Content Of The Website

It is virtually impossible now to rank a website for a term without some semantic relevance. A site selling TVs could rank for “watch TV free,” because Google bot doesn’t have high reading comprehension. But you will have a tough time ranking a local plumber for the term “watch TV free.” As mentioned above, this is a waste of effort for each business. But the content of your website limits and controls what you can rank for on Google.

The idea that content is king is prevalent, and to some extent, accurate, but content alone will not guarantee rankings. There is no perfect length for a webpage, and while guidelines exist, there is not a universally ideal keyword density. But by taking the research for terms having both search volume and relevance for a business, you can begin to craft content that will help your website rank for relevant, high-value terms.

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Often you can improve a website’s rankings by improving the content. But only adjusting content will seldom be enough for a massive boost. Content often acts as a sight, dictating what you’re aiming for, not whether you will hit the target.

Links To Your Website

I say this so much I start to sound like a broken record, but links matter for SEO. Furthermore, I cannot imagine a time when Google will stop using some variation the quality, quantity, relevance, and context of the links to a website as a beacon both of what a web page is about and how important that page is. Still, so-called SEO experts will claim link building is a waste of time.

Not all links are quality links, and that means having 1 or 20,000 links from websites without traffic, trust, or relevance to your site won’t move the dial. We use tools like Majestic, SEM Rush, and Ahrefs to help establish the most valuable link opportunities for ourselves and our clients. But an SEO expert who doesn’t believe links are a factor in search rankings is either lying about expertise or lying about how Google works.

Misinformation spread by “experts” is so common that I even know people in technical marketing who didn’t realize that they should want links from authoritative and relevant websites. At a minimum, you should want such links, because people can click them, sending valuable traffic to your site. But a high-quality link, even in old articles that have gone mostly unclicked for months on end, still offers some value for propelling a website up the search results page of Google.

Human Behavior

Since 2009 or so, Google also personalizes aspects of search based on factors that cannot be optimized for meaningfully. From an article on Search Engine Land at that time:

“For example, let’s say someone else prefers Barnes & Nobles. Over time, Google learns that person likes Barnes & Noble. They begin to see even more Barnes & Nobles listings, rather than Amazon ones.”

Starting in 2015, Google has used machine learning to let human behavior train the search algorithm. I’ve argued the use of this AI is so prevalent that even those working at Google no longer fully understand how pages are ranked. It’s possible factors like social engagement exist. It’s nearly certain that more people clicking a link, and spending time on the page without returning to Google is a factor.

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Making it even more important to research and understands not just what words and phrases have search volume but also what people are seeking when they search for something.

Rapping Up

None of these factors work in isolation. You could almost grade each of these factors as being worth a max of 20 points. If you score at least a few points for each element and knock one out of the park, that is sometimes enough to rank. Conceptually the same is true if you score 10 points on each factor, leaving room for improvement across the board.

But a poor performance at any element of search optimization can spoil all other efforts. When we optimize websites, we start with research and an audit of the existing content and technical aspects of the site. We correct as much as we can both behind the scenes and for visible content. After that, we work on building links worth having, as we believe the collection of all these factors leads to humans reinforcing a website as the best result to Google’s AI.