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When I was growing up my parents used to say that you could never trust a mechanic; that a mechanic was always going to find something wrong with your vehicle, even when it was in prime operating condition. While that certainly wasn’t true, mechanics everywhere were painted with the same brush.
SEO has, in recent years, gained a similar reputation. I hear horror stories from small business owners who have spent thousands of dollars and achieved nothing in terms of new business or improved rankings. While things have started to improve, there are still victims of SEO and digital marketing scams and lingering myths and misconceptions that cause companies to hesitate or not risk another failed attempt at SEO and content marketing.
You can mitigate the risk of failure with an understanding of how Google and SEO work. This post is going to provide you with a 30,000-foot view of how Google and SEO work for small businesses. Like the photo above, we’ll try to boil it down to the essentials – the land, sea, and air of SEO.
The Goal of SEO
Search engine optimization (SEO) is a process that helps businesses elevate their rankings in search results. It is about “optimizing” websites and web pages for search, not optimizing the search engines themselves.
SEO is not black magic. It is not a trick. It is hard work involving every aspect of your website – the technical architecture, the content, backlinks, and who talks about you and links to your website on the Internet. Even the security of your website needs to be in order. To earn, maintain, and grow your rankings on Google, you need to take a holistic approach to SEO and make sure the entire user experience is one that is differentiated and outstanding.
In the United States, the only search engine you really need to worry about if you are a small business is Google. Google commands 65 – 85 percent of the search market depending on who you ask and what they measure. Remaining searches are done on country-specific search engines (like Baidu, Yandex, Naver, and Yahoo Japan) or specific Auto, Finance, Food, Entertainment, Shopping and/or Sports sections of the Yahoo / Bing sites.
Google’s Ranking Algorithm
Google decides who ranks where in search results using a top-secret, artificially intelligent, and continuously-updated automated ranking algorithm.
Google says its ranking algorithm takes into consideration roughly 200 different ranking factors. I think that number is grossly underestimated but, for ease of explanation, we are going to boil it up into just four main ranking factor groupings:
- Architecture – Can Google find and index your website? (If Google does not know about you, you will not show up in search results.) Can humans understand, at a glance, what it is about and quickly find what they came looking for? Is it robust, secure, lightning-fast, scalable, and responsive (able to display on any device)?
- Content – Is your content relevant and useful? Does contain the unique, timely, accurate, specific, engaging, and valuable information your audience is searching for? Are you promoting it on online venues where your audience is likely to hang out?
- Links and Online Mentions – If you’re doing all of the above, your website will earn SEO backlinks and online mentions. Google views backlinks and online mentions as votes of confidence from external, 3rd party sources. The best links are links from sites with a high link authority themselves. It’s like the difference between a high-powered endorsement and an anonymous vote. A celebrity endorsement is worth more than hundreds of votes from unknown sources. A link from an authoritative source (like a recognized brand, university, charity, hospital, or news outlet) is far more valuable than a link from an unknown website.
The image above shows the overlapping relationship between these groupings of ranking criteria – architecture (air), content (sea), and links and exposure (land). Together they form an SEO ecosystem that allows you to earn worthwhile website leads and sales.
The Olympic rings in the middle of the venn diagram are supposed to represent the sweet spot where all these things come together and allow you to “win the competition”, the race to the top.
More details below.
Architecture has to do with the way your website is structured and built.
When people enter a search query into Google, Google does not search the Internet. It would take too long and people don’t have that much patience.
Instead, Google searches its own proprietary index of the Web – a vast series of geographically distributed computers that house data about all the content Google has been able to find on the Web. The index contains things like:
- your domain name
- your page and blog post URLs
- the words, images, and links on those pages
- the addresses of other websites and pages that link to you
- the words used in the links
- the speed at which your content renders
- and so on
The point is – if your website and content are not in Google’s index, you will not show up in search results.
One of the main purposes of SEO is to ensure you get completely and accurately indexed.
Once you are in Google’s index, the next gate you have to get thru is ensuring your content is relevant to your search audience.
Google determines relevance, in part, using your content. If my Mother is searching for “a mechanic”, she does not want to see search results for an SEO company or plumber.
If your website does not help your search audience, you will not show up in search results.
One of the goals of SEO is to discover the things (keyword phrases) your audience is searching for and why, and to craft content that satisfies the intent behind their search query – the thing they want to do with the information they find.
Links and Online Mentions
Your site is indexed.
Your content is relevant and useful.
Now you have to prove to Google that you deserve a high ranking.
You do that by demonstrating evidence that past visitors to your website have found your content useful. That “evidence” primarily consists of backlinks and online mentions. Links are clickable references to your content from external sources. Online mentions, also known as citations, are references to your business website, name, address and/or phone number. Both lend credibility and legitimacy to your business and help your rankings. They communicate how much your website is trusted by others, who it is trusted by, and how authoritative it is in your niche.
If your website and content has earned few or no incoming links or mentions from worthwhile sources, it will not rank on Google. If it has fewer and /or less authoritative links and mentions than your top-ranking competitors, it will not rank well as them.
Earning valuable backlinks and online mentions is the hardest part of SEO. You have to hang out in the same online venues as your target audience and become an active, contributing member. That is how you get exposure to the audience that cares most about your content; the audience that is most likely to mention you online or link to your content from their own website.
E-A-T and YMYL
E-A-T stands for expertise, authoritativeness, and trust – a concept first introduced and discussed in great detail in the Google Search Quality Rater Guidelines (SQRG) in 2014. Google explains:
“Remember that the first step of PQ [page quality] rating is to understand the true purpose of the page. Websites or pages without some sort of beneficial purpose, including pages that are created with no attempt to help users, or pages that potentially spread hate, cause harm, or misinform or deceive users, should receive the Lowest rating.”
Here Google is saying fluff content or content built with the sole purpose of link building should not be considered high quality.
“For all other pages that have a beneficial purpose, the amount of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-A-T) is very important. Please consider:
● The expertise of the creator of the MC [main content].
● The authoritativeness of the creator of the MC, the MC itself, and the website.
● The trustworthiness of the creator of the MC, the MC itself, and the website.
Keep in mind that there are high E-A-T pages and websites of all types, even gossip websites, fashion websites, humor websites, forum and Q&A pages, etc. In fact, some types of information are found almost exclusively on forums and discussions, where a community of experts can provide valuable perspectives on specific topics.”
Google is providing guidance to its raters when there are two or more pages that serve the same intent. It asks Quality Raters to assess the expertise, authority, and trustworthiness of the main content, it’s author, and the website on which it is published.
Google Quality Rater Guidelines are considered a bellweather (predictor) of future Google ranking algorithm changes. They don’t necessarily tell us how the algorithm works today. More recently though, in a 2019 white paper titled How Google Fights Disinformation, Google admitted E-A-T is part of their automated ranking algorithm.
So expertise, authoritativeness, and trust are very important ranking considerations. It’s not enough for your content to just serve a useful purpose. It must also demonstrate evidence of having come from an authoritative (respected, useful, consistent high-quality) source, it must state verifiable and accurate facts, and exhibit trustworthiness with published privacy guidelines, terms of service, and an online reputation for protecting visitors and customers from harm.
YMYL is also referenced in the Quality Raters Guidelines (Section 2.3). YMYL stands for your money, your life. It represents the notion that some content is important enough to warrant extra scrutiny by Google because, if mediocre or bad, it could potentially have a negative impact on a person’s life, income, or happiness. Examples include sites offering health, legal and financial advice and even hobby pages that require expertise.
All that to say, if you own a website that offers consequential advice to your readers, you’re going to be held to a higher standard.
Lastly, make sure you’re maintaining your website and monitoring your progress so you’ll know what’s working (and what is not).
Putting It All Together
Google dominates the US search market. Its purpose is to provide highly relevant and useful search results so it can “allow people to get things done” while continuing to rake in billions of dollars in ad revenue.
SEO specialists can help you discover the words and phrases (keywords) your audience searches for so you can demonstrate relevance to Google. They can help you craft content and acquire backlinks and online mentions so your site is deemed worthy of a high ranking.
All of this is, of course, a gross oversimplification of the SEO and Google ranking processes. It should, however, be a good enough guide for decision-making when it comes to whether an SEO company is doing busywork, harmful work, or work that will translate into increased rankings and conversions.
My Dad was an airline mechanic by the way. A very good one.