In general, there’s two major forms of SEO: Technical SEO and Quality SEO. Let’s look at the difference, how each one works, and how you can use these.
Technical SEO (Meta-tags, Keywords, etc)
First, what is Technical SEO? This is the method of modifying pages so the search engine algorithms will find the page, index it correctly, and show it in the search results.
Technical SEO works for concepts and terms that your organization owns: the name of your company, your name, your trademarked products or services, books, videos, and so on. It also works for organizations that are the owners of parks, museums, cities, etc. The web page is the authoritative page for the concept.
20% of searches are navigational: people are looking for the official page for something. They are looking for the webpage for Justin Bieber, Yosemite National Park, or Honey-Baked Ham. If technical SEO is done correctly, a navigational search will bring up this result in the top position.
Why does this work so well? Because if you’re the owner of the concept, then your webpage should be the top result for a search. Competitors will never beat your page. (Of course, an organization may not bother to do technical SEO so you can show up higher than the organization, but eventually, either the search engines will figure this out or the organization will improve its SEO, and you’ll be knocked off position #1. So if you’re #1 for something that you don’t own, don’t count on it. The owner only has to wake up and your page will drop.)
(This is bad news if you’re selling something for which you don’t have the rights. If you’re selling the Nike Airflex TornadoMax shoe, you’ll never be #1 for it. Nike will get that. You might get position #5 if your company is Footlocker. Otherwise, you’ll need to pay for ads in Google. It’s much better to sell something that you own than to sell another company’s products.)
Technical SEO is fairly easy (if you know SEO fairly well…). You do the following:
- Make it obvious to the reviewer and the search engine algorithms that you are the rightful owner of the concept
- Use the top keywords for your page
- Use the TITLE and DESCRIPTION meta-tag. This means keywords, length of characters, etc.
- Use <H1>, <H2>, and <P> tags for content formatting. This also includes the position of keywords in those tags.
- Add links (with meaningful content) to other pages in your site
- Add links to relevant authoritative sites
- Use XML sitemaps, which includes normal sitemaps, global sitemaps, image sitemaps, and video sitemaps
- If relevant, use microformats
- If you have images, use keywords in the image file name and add captions under the images
- If you have video, follow the SEO guidelines for video
- If you have apps, use ASO (App Store Optimization). See my ASO Book (at Amazon).
- If social media is relevant to you, carry out SEO for social media to ensure your profile will show up in Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, WeChat, GleeBee (okay, I made that up), and every other relevant social site
- If you’ve written books, make sure both your author name and your books show up in Amazon and Kindle
- If you’re selling products that are available on Amazon, make sure your products show up by name and concept in Amazon
- If China or Russia is relevant to you, optimize for Baidu (China) and Russia (Yandex)
- Review your web analytics. Look at the section for organic, paid, social, and referrer traffic. See where your visitors are coming from and optimize for those sites.
- Tools include Google Adwords, Google Analytics, Google Webmaster Tools, and Bing Webmaster Tools
There are several more items, plus each of these has lots of details, but you can see that technical SEO can be a to-do list. The challenge is in the scope of the project: what if you have 50,000 pages? Technical SEO then becomes a matter of managing a bit of work.
Just to prove this works, I made a page for my cat. My cat’s name is Anaximander Katzenjammer. Go ahead and search for his name. See?
Where are the problems? If your content is hard to find by crawlers (such as infinite crawl spaces), poorly formatted (such as text in DIV or SPAN), or impossible to index (such as showing text as an image), it won’t get indexed because the search engine either can’t find the page or can’t deal with the text.
And just because your page gets indexed doesn’t mean it will show up in the search results. There are 165 million .com domain names and easily several trillion web pages, but most of that is junk that search engines will never show.
Okay, so what is Quality SEO? This is my name for the approach to making pages that will appear in informational searches.
What are informational searches? That’s where people are looking to learn about a topic. 80% of searches are informational searches. Informational search results are terms that nobody owns. Nobody owns topics such as pregnancy, credit cards, publishing, and so on.
Informational search results will show the ten best pages for that topic. However, since nobody owns the topic, and there are lots and lots of pages for that topic, how are those results selected? A team of humans at the search engines select the ten pages for the query.
That last sentence baffles many people. They think search engines use algorithms to index pages. Yes, but for any topic, there are tens of millions of pages. For pregnancy, there are 261 million pages. Let’s say 20% of those pages are garbage. That’s 50m pages. Let’s say 1% are very good. 1% of 261 million is 2.6 million. But we want the very best: the top 0.001%. That’s still 26,000 pages. To get it down to the very best 26 pages, a search engine has to select 0.000,000,01% of those pages. Algorithms can use rules to find the top pages, but at best, they may find the top 0.001%, which still leaves you with 26,000 pages. So the search engines use algorithms to sort the 261 million pages into poor, okay, good, and pretty good, and then search engines use people to find the ten very best ones.
And it’s not enough to be on page one. Your page should be at the top of page one. The first three or four links get 90% of all traffic for that topic.
Why? Because there are two ways when people make decisions. If it’s under $200 or so, people often buy immediately (an impulse purchase), without further thought. Just click and buy. However, if it’s over $200, they generally research the issue. They enter the buying cycle of research, consideration, and purchase. What can I get to solve my problem? Will this actually work? Is this the best product? Can I get it for less? The more expensive it is (several thousand dollars or more), the more time and research.
So… if 80% of searches are informational, and the first three links get 90% of clicks, then when people enter the buying cycle, the first few pages will heavily influence what they will buy. The value to companies is staggering. That’s why the large companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for SEO work to be on at the top.
However, technical SEO has zero significance for quality SEO. As part of my SEO work for clients, I review informational search results pages. I’ve often seen items show up on page one where the page had no SEO work, not even meta-tags or keywords. It’s the quality of the content, not the quality of the SEO, that counts. The Google manual states this in section 9.2: The Top Three Page Quality Considerations (p. 58): the three most important criteria are 1) quality of the content; 2) level of EAT (Expertise, Authority, Trust) (especially for YMYL pages); and 3) reputation of the site. Technical SEO issues aren’t in the list.
That’s the challenge. You’re not competing against search engines. You’re competing against millions of other very good pages. To get there, you have to convince a small team of people at the search engines that your page is one of the ten best pages for that topic.
If you want to get onto page one, your page has to be good enough to displace a currently-existing page. This can be very challenging: you have to write world-class expert content of a quality that attracts natural links from universities. It can take several months of research and writing to create such a page.
I’ve spoken at many conferences about SEO. Here are common objections and questions:
- Q: But this is impossible! Humans can’t evaluate tens of billions of pages!: A: That’s true, they don’t. They only evaluate the very best pages.
- Q: It would take millions of people! A: If you estimate on the back of an envelope, it can be done with only a few thousand people. Google started with ten thousand workers, but later, they improved the process and it’s now about 8,000.
- Q: Google says no Google employee is doing this. A: That depends on what the meaning of “is” is. In 2005, it was Google employees. A few years later, Google outsourced this to another company. So the workers aren’t hired by Google; they work for other companies, which are hired by Google.
- Q: How can people in the US evaluate pages in German, Danish, and Tamil? A: They don’t. Of the 8,000 humans at Google, about half are in the US. There are Google teams in Germany, Egypt, Denmark, and so on. They cover all languages, even Icelandic.
- Q: Why is Google doing all of this? A: Because algorithm tools don’t work very well at blocking spam/scam. Scams are very good at attacking the search engines. If a search engine is cluttered with junk or scams, people stop using it.
- Q: What about Bing? A: All the search engines do this. Google, Bing, Baidu, and Yandex all have human evaluation teams. There are differences in details, but in general, they have the same approach.
- Q: What about Google’s new AI? A: Google is using its AI to offer better replies to questions. These are written by Google, not websites. If you have the latest version of Google Chrome on your phone, try talking to Google. Say “Okay, Google, what’s the status on Southwest flight 2416?” “Okay, Google, will it rain tomorrow?” “Okay, Google, navigate to the nearest gas station.” These aren’t search queries for web pages. Google uses data from maps, airlines, weather, traffic, and many other resources to create one-time replies for you. Google collects every query, categorizes them, and looks to see which it can replace with its own own results.
- Q: But practically no SEO book, website, or blog talks about this. A: Because they don’t know. They focus on technical SEO because it’s easy to do (just add meta-tags) and clients don’t know any better. And if it doesn’t work, they say it’s up to Google. They’re not covering up; they really don’t know. I’ve met many top people in SEO; most of them don’t know about this or don’t understand it. Google also misleads people or doesn’t talk about this.
- Q: So how do you know about this? A: Because I started doing SEO before it was even called SEO. I’ve been building websites and working with search engines since 1994. I pay a great deal of attention to search engines; I know key people at the four major search engines. I was the head of Global SEO at Cisco (44 languages, 84 countries). I know about the internal tools they use, the companies that manage this for Google, how these people do the work, how much they’re paid, and so on.
So What Should I Do about Google?
Use search engines to bring visitors to your site, but don’t rely on search engines.
At Google conferences, Google VPs will say there are three actors in search: Google, the users, and websites. Google pays attention only to users. If users are happy, they return to Google. That’s what matters at Google. To put it clearly, Google doesn’t care about your website.
Note what I wrote above about Google’s AI. Google is evolving from a search engine into an answer engine. This means if Google can replace your site with their answer, they will.
You must develop as many paths as possible for your audience to come to you: websites, search engines, apps, digital advertising, social media, video, images, books, and so on. Don’t rely on search engines, because when Google changes its rules, they won’t announce it and they won’t listen. Your traffic can fall 60% in one day, and for many companies, that can put them out of business.
What Does It Take to Do SEO?
If you just do meta-tags, well, it’s harmless. That worked ten years ago, but not anymore. Be careful with “SEO experts” who edit meta-tags. It won’t do much for your site.
If your website has more than several thousand pages, you need to see how much of your site has been indexed by Google. I’ve worked with sites that have two million pages but only 300,000 pages are indexed. I know about a site with thirty million pages but only two million are indexed. To solve this problem, you use enterprise-level SEO. Yes, it’s possible to get all thirty million pages indexed.
If your organization is active in several countries and several languages, you use enterprise-level global SEO. That includes Google for the Americas and Europe, Baidu for China, and Yandex for Russia. You’ll need to use relevant languages for each country.
This means proper SEO has become complex and expensive. Small organizations don’t have the money, skills, or time to do this.
For More Information
- Read my SEO eBook (free PDF at andreas.com)
- Search Engine Marketing, Inc. by Mike Moran and Bill Hunt (IBM Press, 2014). This is the authoritative book on SEO.