When you engage an SEO service to 'do SEO' for your website, you are  investing in techniques to obtain a high ranking placement in search results. For instance, if you offer car repair services in Cape Town, SEO can rank your site higher than the thousands of other websites – presumably most of them your competitors – in response to search queries on Google, Yahoo or Bing. If your website is at the number one position in Google search results, you can potentially get 33% of search traffic.

The value of first-page results is not lost on businesses, a reason why 61% of marketers say improving SEO and expanding their organic presence is their chief inbound marketing priority ('pulling' customers towards you as opposed to pushing out ad messages through traditional outbound marketing).

To understand how SEO works, let's first see how search engines go about ranking websites

Search engines are concerned with two functions:

  • Crawling and indexing the enormous amount of content on the World Wide Web. This includes files, documents, pages, videos and other media.

Search engines use automated robots known as 'spiders' to find the billions of documents that are interconnected by links. The spiders read the pages' codes and store them in databases, so that they can be retrieved immediately in response to a search query. Needless to say, search engine companies have powerful data center capabilities all across the globe.

  • Serving answers to user queries, mostly by listing out pages that they have ranked after assessing for relevancy.

When a user types a query in the search bar, the search engine combs through the billions of pages and (a) returns results that are useful or relevant to the user's query and (b) ranks the results based on the popularity of the websites containing that information. So, if your website's content gives users the right answers to their questions or whatever they wish to know, and your site is also popular (regarded as a source of valuable information; ex: as indicated by quality links to your website from a number of authoritative websites/leading websites in their niche), your ranking is affected positively. SEO attempts to improve the relevancy and popularity of your site.

The next question you may have is 'how do search engines determine relevancy and popularity?

Search engines use algorithms that factor in several variables or 'ranking factors' as they are known. However, search engines also guard their algorithms closely, with their ultimate aim being to deliver the best possible experience to internet users. Businesses have the option to follow suit, but some choose not to, and land in hot water sooner or later.

The right and wrong way of optimizing your website

Title and alt -  Black hat and white hat seo

Dramatically differentiated as 'black hat' and 'white hat' SEO, the unethical and ethical (commonsensical too) way of doing SEO has a big impact on results. The former has a dubious track record of temporary results and the risk of a permanent drop in rankings. The latter is an accepted means of engaging in website optimization that delivers results in a steady and sustained manner, as well as growing with your business.

Black hat strategies include duplicate content, keyword stuffing, invisible text, getting links from sites with non-relevant content, and redirecting users to another page or website.

White hat strategies include adding relevant high-quality content (and updating it from time to time), labeling images, using relevant links, creating unique page titles that match the page content, and ensuring standards-compliant HTML and CSS based coding.

These SEO activities would have given you clues about what goes into a fully-developed SEO strategy. Heres a rundown.

Two categories of search engine optimization: On-page SEO vs. Off-page SEO

On-page SEO involves tweaking various elements of a webpage to make it more search-friendly and improve its readability and experience for the user. Off-page SEO involves enhancing your website's overall authority on the web based on signals from other websites. This is a long-term process that requires consistent efforts.

Let's briefly discuss the aspects of each type.

On-page SEO

  1. Nothing beats great content: Useful and engaging web copy and blog posts not only send positive signals to search engines but also help you build trust among your audience. As a foundational step, you should ensure that your webpages have professional, grammatically-sound and high-quality content.
  2. Keyword research: Identify high search volume keywords to sprinkle into your website copy. Besides using a keyword planner to build out and change/tweak keywords from time to time, you also want to see the keywords used by your competitors.
  3. Website and competitor analysis: An SEO company can review all aspects of your website to determine issues and suggest changes to optimize your site. They include ease of use, accessibility on multiple browsers, and other factors related to user experience and usability.
  4. Fresh content: Studies have shown that updating content and posting often has a positive impact on Google rankings. If you cannot make time for frequent updates, you can still maintain consistent results by posting long-form, comprehensive content.
  5. Meta tags, alt tags and header tags: Unique meta tags indicating the topic(s) discussed on your webpages can help in generating sitelinks during Google searches. Alt and header tags are also important in communicating what the images and webpages are all about, respectively. Another best practice is to create custom 404 pages to tell users that the particular page has a link that isn't working, and ideally delete the link.
  6. Site architecture: This is a part and parcel of a great user experience: fast loading times, easy navigation, interlinked web pages, duplicate content and mobile-friendliness are some factors to consider.

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Alt and title - Internal and external backlinks

  1. Google evaluates the trustworthiness of a website to ensure that it is sending users to legitimate sites. The overall trust attributed to a website is a sum of multiple factors. They include page authority (how authoritative is the content on the page?), bounce rate (how many people view only one page of your site before leaving it?) and identity (how recognized is your brand?)
  2. Getting a number of quality links from multiple domains in your industry is important to SEO.
  3. Social signals around content have gained significance, with Google viewing 'likes', Google+ votes, tweets and other social metrics as an indication that your business is popular and authoritative. Most businesses that have invested in SEO are also focused on growing their social media presence.
  4. Community posting is an excellent way of promoting your website or blog, demonstrating your expertise, gaining insights on audience needs and pain points, and soliciting comments and answers to your own questions.