Search engine optimization (SEO) is not an exact science. A lot of what’s known about how sites are ranked comes from years of observation, analysis and testing by the search marketing scene’s thought leaders. Ranking factors are kept secret by search engines for the most part, leaving webmasters with just enough knowledge to build strategies around with and just enough mystery to keep things exciting.
In GDI, we get asked a lot of questions by readers, friends and clients about SEO and digital marketing in general. We’ve listed down the most frequently asked questions along with definitive answers based on our research and experience.
What is SEO?
SEO is the process of improving a site’s visibility in the “organic” or non-paid results of search engines. To oversimplify it, SEO is done by increasing a page’s relevance towards a query through technical, promotional and editorial optimization techniques.
For most webmasters, the definition of successful SEO is getting on the first page of search results for non-branded keywords that it wants to be found for. In that regard, SEO is also a competitive practice where optimization specialists compete to determine whose sites can rank highest and lay claim to the majority of the keyword’s audience.
Why do I need to do SEO?
An estimated 92% of all online activities start with search. Google, which owns around 67% of the search market, processes an average of 3.5 billion queries a day. In most industries, that would translate to thousands of searches per month for keywords that describe products and services. What would it mean for your business to be on top of the search results, getting the best chance to be seen first by that kind of audience?
It’s not so hard to figure out.
Being ranked high on searches for your keywords attracts scores of new leads and customers who will grow your enterprise. Being considered first also gives you a greater chance to deny your competitors valuable targeted visits, negatively impacting their revenue streams and allowing you to outpace them over the years.
Good rankings help extend your site’s reach, giving you a louder voice in your market. This is particularly good to have if you’re establishing a brand and trying to boost your status as a thought leader in your industry.
What does it take to rank high on Google?
The short answer is relevance. Search engines want to position the most relevant listings to rank on top of the results that they serve up. The better the listings match the intent of users, the better the experience that they deliver.
Being relevant, however, is a complex matter. Search engines look at a myriad of signals to quantify a page’s relevance to queries. While not all the signals that search engines factor into relevance computations are known, we do know that every ranking factor can be grouped into these categories:
- Content quality – The breadth, substance and completeness of content in a site weighs heavily in how its pages perform in the SERPs. Content is no longer just an asset to please readers and attract links. Google is now better at deciphering semantics and determining how relevant a piece of content is to an incoming query. Studies also show that content variety and interrelation between pages have strong correlations to ranking power.
- Authority signals – Search engines favor pages created by perceived authorities because they’re more likely to create content that people gravitate to. There’s a wide group of authority signals but the most prominent ones are a site’s link profile, its domain age, its size and its citations from other sites.
- Brand signals – Search engines also seem to give established brands preferential treatment in the SERPs. This may be because brands are trusted to do what makes sense for their audience more often than not. Building up brand equity, therefore, is a big deal when it comes to optimizing a site for search.
- Usage data – Getting to the top of the SERPs doesn’t guarantee that you’ll stay there for a long time. Search engines utilize usage data to determine how searchers like what they see from your listings and what they find in your site. Click-through rates, bounce rates and average times on site are just some of the signals that Google uses to gauge the quality of experience that your site delivers.
- Code quality – How your site looks from a code level is a big deal in how it performs in search results. If the code is easy to read, fast-loading and well-structured, it gets extra props from search engine bots. If it’s cluttered and difficult to decipher, the pages tend to suffer in SERPs.
- Availability – Your site has to be online most of the time to achieve good rankings. If it’s always down, plagued by broken links and chock full of server responses that tell bots and human users that pages aren’t available, the site is in big trouble. Good technical health is a hallmark of quality websites. Maintaining a site that’s always ready to serve its users helps a site gain traction on the SERPs.
- Site architecture – How your site’s pages are organized matters a lot to search engines. Having a site hierarchy that groups related pages together and presents them in a streamlined manner bodes well for a site’s SEO program. This allows a site to put its content on full display, enabling search engines to understand exactly what a site is all about.
Is SEO bad?
Like most things in life, there are right and wrong ways of doing things. If your SEO program relies on deceptive, misleading and spammy tactics to fool the search engines into awarding it good rankings, then you can describe SEO as “bad.” If you build a site on a solid technical foundation, serve up great content and promote that content ethically, then your SEO program is good.
True SEO does not seek to game the system. To the contrary, it’s all about playing by the riles and putting user experience above all considerations.
What’s the difference between white hat and black hat SEO?
This boils down to intentions and methods. Black hat SEO’s primary goal is to get as high in the rankings as possible, guidelines and user experience be damned. It’s all about cashing in for as long as the site isn’t caught and penalized by search engines.
White hat SEO’s emphasis is on earning good rankings while abiding strictly by the rules that search engines set. While white hat SEO seeks to help sites move up the SERPs, it’s just as concerned with how good the experience it delivers to users is.
Black hat SEO uses tactics such as cloaking, link buying, comment spamming and content spinning to try and deceive search engine algorithms. White hat SEO tends to rely on technical refinements, quality content creation, natural promotion and editorial link attraction.
How much should I pay for SEO?
It depends on a lot of things. The status of your site, the competitiveness of your industry, the scale of the project and where you’re sourcing the work from are all factors in what your SEO spending will look like.
In the US, smaller SEO service providers can charge $3,000 or more. Marquee SEO agencies will ask for $20,000 or more per month. Conversely, SEO agencies in the Philippines who do white hat work will usually ask for $1,000-$3,000 per month.
Some shady companies from the Philippines, India, Costa Rica and Rumania may try and tempt you with rates of $300 or so. When you come across these sites, ask yourself what kind of employees would work for that kind of pay. You should also think about how much these people would care about the welfare of your business given the fact that you’re paying them peanuts.
How do I know I’m getting my money’s worth?
You need to make your key performance indicators (KPIs) very clear with an agency before signing a deal with them. SEO is about gaining more search engine visibility, but there’s a lot more to it than rankings. In GDI, we often use the following metrics to determine whether our services are moving the needle for our clients:
- Organic traffic growth
- Goal Conversion Growth
- Revenue Growth
At the end of the day, rankings are just a means to an end. Good SEO should translate into traffic, recognition, leads, revenue and a positive return on investments.
What Should I look for in an SEO Company?
Choosing the right SEO service provider is a critical decision that will have an impact on your business for several years. Selecting the right one should be taken very seriously by your company’s management. We’ve interviewed some of our clients and these are the qualities they looked for when they were in the selection process:
- White hat methodology
- An impressive track record
- A reputable brand
- Transparent practices
- A hands-on approach
One thing that wasn’t mentioned is the value of an agency that takes ownership of its clients’ online marketing interests. For a SEO program to truly jell, the agency must treat a site like its own and do everything in its power to help it succeed. In GDI, we understand that and it’s been our guiding principle since day one to think of our clients’ success as our very own.
How long does it take to see results?
Again, this is a function of your niche’s competitiveness, your site’s complexity, your SEO budget and the skill level of the agency you hire. In some cases, it can take as little as a few days to start seeing traction. In most cases, six months is a safe bet as the point when you need to start checking for results.