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What Is Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and How it Works

Table of Contents

What is SEO?

SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” In simple terms, it means the process of improving your site to increase its visibility when people search for products or services related to your business on Google, Bing, and other search engines. The better visibility your pages have in search results, the more likely you are to garner attention and attract prospective and existing customers to your business.

How do Search Engines work?

Search engines such as Google and Bing use bots to crawl pages on the web, going from site to site, collecting information about those pages, and putting them in an index. Think of the index as a giant library where a librarian can pull up a book (or a web page) to help you find exactly what you’re looking for at the time.

Next, algorithms analyze pages in the index, taking into account hundreds of ranking factors or signals, to determine the order pages should appear in the search results for a given query. In our library analogy, the librarian has read every single book in the library and can tell you exactly which one will have the answers to your questions.

Our SEO success factors can be considered proxies for aspects of the user experience. It’s how search bots estimate exactly how well a website or web page can give the searcher what they’re searching for. 

Unlike paid search ads, you can’t pay search engines to get higher organic search rankings, which means SEO experts have to put in the work. That’s where we come in.

Our Periodic Table of SEO Factors organizes the factors into six main categories and weights each based on its overall importance to SEO. For example, content quality and keyword research are key factors of content optimization, and crawlability and speed are important sites architecture factors.

The newly updated SEO Periodic Table also includes a list of Toxins that detract from SEO best practices. These are shortcuts or tricks that may have been sufficient to guarantee a high ranking back in the day when the engines’ methods were much less sophisticated. And, they might even work for a short time now — at least until you’re caught.

We’ve also got a brand-new Niches section that deep-dives into the SEO success factors behind three key niches: Local SEO, News/Publishing, and Ecommerce SEO. While our overall SEO Periodic Table will help you with the best practices, knowing the nuances of SEO for each of these Niches can help you succeed in search results for your small business, recipe blog, and/or online store.

The search algorithms are designed to surface relevant, authoritative pages and provide users with an efficient search experience. Optimizing your site and content with these factors in mind can help your pages rank higher in the search results.

Why Is Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Important for Marketing?

SEO is a fundamental part of digital marketing because people conduct trillions of searches every year, often with commercial intent to find information about products and services. Search is often the primary source of digital traffic for brands and complements other marketing channels. Greater visibility and ranking higher in search results than your competition can have a material impact on your bottom line.

However, the search results have been evolving over the past few years to give users more direct answers and information that is more likely to keep users on the results page instead of driving them to other websites.

Also note, that features like rich results and Knowledge Panels in the search results can increase visibility and provide users more information about your company directly in the results.

In sum, SEO is the foundation of a holistic marketing ecosystem. When you understand what your website users want, you can then implement that knowledge across your campaigns (paid and organic), your website, your social media properties, and more.

 How Can I Learn SEO?

How to learn SEO

For a helpful dive into SEO, our Periodic Table Of SEO Factors will introduce you to all the key concepts you need to know, including the elements for successful on-page and off-page SEO, plus the “Toxins” or tactics that can hurt your rankings.

The table and accompanying report also look at three niches of search:

  • Local SEO
  • Publishing/News SEO
  • Ecommerce SEO

The Periodic Table of SE O Factors serves as the foundation of this Guide to SEO. Together, these resources will help you learn about SEO and inform your strategy for success.

Mach 1 Design’s Guide To SEO:

As a companion to our Periodic Table of SEO Factors, Mach 1 Design’s Guide To SEO walks you through the fundamentals of optimizing for search so you can develop a solid strategy to drive organic traffic to your site.

In the guide below, we explain these factors in more depth and highlight tactical tips from experts on search engine optimization that will help your website get more visitors from organic search.

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Types of Search Engine SEO Factors

There are four major groups covered by Mach 1 Design’s SEO Periodic Table:

  • On-page SEO: Content, Architecture, HTML
  • Off-page SEO: Reputation, Links, User
  • Toxins
  • Niche SEO

The elements within each group or subgroup are factors you need to consider if you want to increase your site’s organic visibility and rankings. In the top-right corner of each element, there’s a value to help you understand the weight or importance of that particular element — the higher the number, the more weight it carries.

The on-page and off-page SEO groups each have several subgroups, and each chapter of this SEO guide is dedicated to helping you navigate that particular facet of SEO.

SEO Factors Work in Combination

SEO factors do not exist in a vacuum. Well-optimized HTML titles won’t compensate for thin content. Blazing fast site speed won’t help if search engines can’t easily crawl your pages. Simply put, having several positive factors can increase your odds of success, but negative factors can worsen those odds.

On-page SEO Factors

SEO factors

On-page search ranking factors are almost entirely within the publisher’s control. This is also where it’s critical to balance serving the needs of your audience with making your pages search engine friendly. 

The title of the page or article, the depth of research, keywords used, and so on should all be used with your specific audience’s needs in mind. HTML headings, anchor text, and more should provide clues for both search engines and your audience about the relevancy of your content. Your site architecture should help search engine crawlers navigate your site and help users find what they’re looking for.

Off-page SEO Factors

off page SEO

The search engines don’t just evaluate what’s on the page and visible to users. Off-page ranking factors are typically out of the creator or publisher’s direct influence. Search engines evaluate reputation, the quality of a site’s backlinks, the user’s geographic location, and many other factors to deliver the most relevant results. 

Although these factors aren’t as easy to control on a per-page basis, they must be taken into account when optimizing your site for search.

Toxins

When done well, SEO benefits the search engines just as much as it benefits sites. SEO helps search engines provide users with better search results. However, using SEO techniques that aim to manipulate ranking signals to gain an unfair advantage over the competition can backfire.

We group spam and shady techniques into “toxins.” Using them can result in your pages receiving a ranking penalty or even getting banned from the search results entirely.  

SEO Niches 

New for 2021, we’ve added the Niches section to our SEO Periodic Table. No matter what vertical or industry you’re in, following the main Periodic Table can help improve your search visibility. However, there are some niches where SEO includes different or added elements. In this new section, we go over how to improve your Local SEO, New/Publishing SEO, and e-commerce SEO.

 Content and Search Engine Success Factors

Content should be your priority when thinking about SEO. Quality content is how you engage, inform, support, and delight your audiences. Creating authentic, valuable content is also critical for search engine visibility. Indeed, that’s why the Periodic Table of SEO Factors begins with the content “elements,” with the very first element being content quality.

Whether it’s blog articles, product pages, an about page, testimonials, videos or anything else you create for your audience, getting your content right means you’ve got a foundation to support all of your other SEO efforts.

 Qu: Quality

“Just think about what the users want and think if you were in the shoes of the search engine, would you feel comfortable sending users to your website?” says Frédéric Dubut, senior program manager lead for Bing. “Would you feel proud to vouch for that website and put that at number one for a given query?”

“If the answer is ‘yes,’ then that’s where a lot of the more technical work and more traditional SEO may come into play. But, if the answer is ‘no,’ then that’s probably a sign that you need to add more value for users before you start thinking about technical stuff.”

Providing users with substantive, useful, and unique content is what compels them to stay on your pages, building familiarity and trust. What constitutes high quality will depend on the nature of the content and varies based on the type of content and industry.

Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines (section 5.1) break down the characteristics of high-quality content by type:

  • Informational content should be accurate, comprehensive, original, and professionally presented. 
  • Artistic content should be original, unique, and convey a high degree of skill. 
  • News content should be in-depth, well-cited, accurate, and contain original reporting.

Brands creating Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) content need to pay particular attention to these standards as Google’s algorithms may give more weight to authoritativeness, expertise, and trustworthiness (E-A-T) signals.

Content is the cornerstone of your SEO efforts and not a place to skimp. Creating — and investing in — a clear content strategy is critical to your SEO success as nearly all other factors depend on content quality.

For the latest content news and tips, bookmark Mach 1 Design’s SEO: Content and Writing section.

 Rs: Research

Researching the keywords (the search terms your target audience is using) is perhaps the most important SEO factor after creating good content. It will help you develop content that “answers” what people are searching for. Keyword research can also carry benefits beyond ranking for those queries.

“Understanding the language that customers are using is incredibly important,” says Eric Enge, longtime SEO, and general manager at the consulting firm Perficient Digital, “it makes you so much more relatable when you talk the way they talk, and that’s not going to change. So, keyword research for me is very, very important and there are new offshoots of it where the way you might apply keyword research might be evolving, but the need for it is not.”

Keyword research can provide you with insights on the nature of your audiences’ pain points and needs — whether that’s navigational, informational, or transactional — their interests, the amount of interest out there (indicated by search volume), the level of competition for those queries, and even the format in which they prefer that information.

Once you’ve evaluated which keywords are viable, use them to inform your content creation and include them within the content itself so that your audience has a higher chance of finding you in the search results. 

“Consider classifying keywords by their intent: informational, transactional, navigational, or local. Cross-reference your potential keywords with what currently ranks in the search results to see the types of results Google chooses to display for each query. Google may assign a different intent to the keyword than what you expect; for example, typing “sandwich” generates mostly local results — so a local strategy may be required to compete for that keyword. Understanding what type of content Google displays for the various keywords you’re researching helps clarify what type of content you’ll need to build and which of your pages will be eligible to rank for those terms.” –Lily Ray, SEO director, Path Interactive

For more, see our SEO: Keyword Research section and these resources:

Kw: Keywords

After you’ve researched the keywords your audience is using to find you, include those keywords within the body of your content, your subheads, and your titles — but not at the expense of readability or other compromises that prioritize search engines over readers. 

To put it simply, consider the words you want your page to be found for and use them naturally. 

“The trick is not speaking in terms of what the searcher is going to type into the search box, but speak in terms of what the searcher wants to read,” News Editor for Mach 1 Design Barry Schwartz explained, touching upon the difference between the language used in search queries and the content users expect their queries to surface.  

“I think that you don’t have to necessarily think about what the query is. So, for example, I wrote a story about Google Search Console adding notifications around removing the no index directive for the robots.txt file,” said Schwartz. “Back in the old days, I probably would have included the subject line of that Search Console notification directly in the title because people are going to be copying and pasting that line of text and trying to search for it to find more information. Now, Google is a lot easier and smarter about this and you don’t have to worry about doing exact keyword matches on the query — Google’s much smarter to expand that beyond.”

Always keep in mind that you’re writing for users first and that search engines are getting much better at understanding natural language. Throw out any notion of “keyword density” formulas to improve your rankings. 

Fr: Freshness

Search engines love timely, up-to-date, “fresh” information.

This does not mean you can make minor updates to your pages, update the publish date or continuously churn out new, low-quality pages to get a freshness boost.

If you have a library of aging content, you can update it or retire obsolete and expired pages. Doing so will make your site more useful to viewers and also indicate to search engines that your content is well maintained.

Google has also long applied what it calls Query Deserved Freshness (QDF) is a content ranking factor for certain types of queries. If a search query suddenly becomes popular — “hurricane” when there is an active hurricane, for example — Google will apply QDF to those searches and the results will change to reflect the stories, news, and information about the topic. This is true for featured snippets as well.

You may be able to harness a freshness boost to increase your visibility on the results page by creating content relating to popular trends, upcoming events or holidays, and breaking news. Be aware, though, that a QDF-related boost may subside over time and your page may get shuffled deeper in search results. 

“Looking at the news, Google alerts — things like that can help give you topic ideas that are fresh for your industry. When news is fresh, most likely not all of the topics/areas have been covered as usually the story is developing. That allows you to write about a specific angle that hasn’t been covered. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a very controversial opinion, but rather giving people more things to think about. This can be useful for getting engagement and potentially some nice backlinks.” –Itamar Blauer, SEO and video marketer

An: Answers

There is tremendous value in explicitly answering users’ questions on your pages. For one, you’re creating content specifically designed to meet your audiences’ needs. Two, search engines are increasingly trying to show direct answers in the search results. If you answer questions well enough, your page may be displayed as a featured snippet or returned as a voice search result on Google Assistant. 

Research indicates that more than half of Google searches end without a click to other content, and that’s partial because search engines are looking to satisfy users by resolving their searches right on the results page. Some of those answers are licensed (as is the case with music lyrics) and some are drawn directly from web pages with a link for attribution.

A featured snippet is sometimes included.

Optimizing your content for featured snippets and direct answers may yield more visibility than a standard organic search result, and doing so may also increase the chances that it gets returned as a voice search result.

“Some of my clients have said that when they get [rich results], they do get clicks,” says Jessica Bowman, owner of enterprise SEO consultancy SEO In-house. “I think that there is some strategic thinking that needs to be applied to the keywords that you’re trying to rank for rich snippets to determine, ‘Does it look like I’m going to get a click or should I focus on something else?’”

“Sometimes, you want that rich snippet — that box at the top — because whatever their intent was, they’re going to need to get deeper,” says Bowman. “But sometimes, a user intends to get a quick answer and leave Google. If that’s the intent, it may not be such a great query.”

The decision to invest in content that can be turned into answers on the search results page should be determined by what the increased visibility means for your brand. If you’re looking to increase brand awareness, that investment may be justified; if you’re looking to drive more traffic, you’ll have to evaluate whether users are likely to click through after viewing the answer.

“Whenever I write a post relating to a specific question, I try to make the answer as accessible as possible to the reader by adding an H2 within the post. Accessibility is important, but making sure the reader sticks around is where it counts. I recently wrote an article titled Google’s solution to search results dominated by FAQ Schema. I investigated the constraints around the SERP treatment appearing in search results, with the key takeaway being that Google will only display a maximum of 3 rich results, appearing on the first page only. The answer was provided quickly, but I added in a couple of lines directly after to encourage the reader to continue. 

Hard to say if this worked well because I don’t have access to the Analytics for SEL, but it was pleasing to see Google display some of this text within a Featured Snippet. If only this was the default text to be included for all results…” –Brodie Clark, Brodie Clark Consulting

Dt: Depth

“The content on your site should be deep enough to answer the user’s question in a ‘substantial, complete or comprehensive’ manner, as the Google core update advice post says,” advises Barry Schwartz, news editor for Mach 1 Design. 

“Are you providing ‘insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?’ Does it contain original information? Is that information researched and factual? You want to make sure your content provides substantial value when compared to other pages in search results because that is exactly what type of content Google wants to rank at the top of its results.”

The tricky part is figuring out how thorough your content should be. As mentioned above, you’ll want to provide more value than your competitors, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should throw more words at it to achieve an arbitrary word count. Some queries, such as “what is the fastest land mammal,” have a relatively straightforward answer, as where other questions, like “why is the cheetah the fastest,” may warrant a more in-depth explanation. Take the query, your audience’s preferences, and your competitor’s offerings into account when deciding how deep to dive.

Mm: Multimedia

Text is the foundation that the internet is built on, but that doesn’t mean it’s universally the best medium for your content. Other formats can also provide added exposure to the search results. Consider using images, video, audio, or other formats that appeal to your audience and set your brand apart from competitors.

After you settle on the format that’s best for your users, optimize your multimedia as well as the pages you embed it within to make it more discoverable. One way to do that is by using a content delivery network (CDN) to serve your multimedia and take some of the load off your servers. This can keep load times down, which is great for site speed and your user experience.

Whichever formats you go with, you’ll still want to use descriptive text to supplement your content and provide context to search engines and users alike. If it’s a video or a podcast, you can add a transcript. If it’s an image, make use of alt-text and captions. You can also mark up your multimedia with structured data to increase the chances that it gets returned as a rich result.

Don’t go overboard, though. Too much of a good thing — like GIFs, for example — can be obtrusive, which ultimately works against your goals.

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Site Architecture & Search Engine Success Factors

Content depth for SEO

The next major on-page group in the Periodic Table of SEO Factors is site architecture. It plays a critical role in SEO effectiveness. These factors affect the findability and usability of your site.

Good architecture makes content easier for search engines and users to access and navigate. Take the following architectural factors into account as you develop or evaluate your site. 

 Cr: Crawl

Search engines use web-crawling software — Google’s is called Googlebot and Bing’s is called Bingbot — to read your site’s pages and compile copies of them within a searchable index.

When searchers enter a query, the search engine scans its index to filter and rank the relevant pages. If your site isn’t crawlable, it’s not going to get included in the index and therefore won’t be visible in the search results.

Most sites don’t encounter serious crawling issues; however, you should still be aware of the factors that can facilitate or hinder this process.

Improper internal linking, slow page load speeds, URL errors, user access prompts, blocking search engines with the index value, and showing web crawlers something different from what you’re showing users can all inadvertently prevent your site from surfacing in the search results. 

“An effective information architecture and corresponding navigation system make web search results and site search results more accurate.” Shari Thurow, author and founder, and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive.

Now that Googlebot supports Chrome 74, more JavaScript apps can get crawled by Google. But, Detlef Johnson, the SEO for Developers expert at Mach 1 Design, points out, “The Chromium update to the Googlebot only is relevant for Google. There are other search engines that you want to perform well on, and the future may turn the tables on Google at any point like the times turned the tables on AltaVista when Google came around.”

“In terms of crawlability, even while Google can now crawl JavaScript links, you’re still better off just adhering as closely as possible to plain HTML for the most important code for your website, which includes, of course, navigation, so the crawlers can discover all your pages,” he says.

Conversely, there are measures you can take to make the most out of your “crawl budget” (the number of resources a search engine will spend crawling your pages).

Making use of robots.txt, telling search engines not to crawl pages with certain URL parameters, and verifying that all your links work properly can help improve crawl efficiency. Keeping clean, up-to-date HTML and XML sitemaps can also make it easier for search engines to crawl your site.   

Mo: Mobile

Mobile-friendly doesn’t just mean that your site is viewable on phones and tablets, it means that your site is built for the humans that own those devices — and they should be able to access everything desktop users can access. 

Your website should adapt to the device it’s being viewed on. Source: Google.

The majority of searches originate from mobile devices, and search engines have adjusted the way they index to respond to this trend. In March 2018, Google began broadly implementing mobile-first indexing, in which it uses the mobile version of the web as its primary search engine index. 

Many CMS support mobile versions of websites, but simply having a mobile site isn’t enough: take care to avoid common mistakes including, but not limited to, faulty redirects, slow loading speeds, inappropriate font sizes, touch elements being too close together, and interstitials that impede users from accessing what they came for. Many of those considerations factor into your user experience, which is essential to mobile-friendliness.

Some publishers also offer a mobile app. If that includes your brand, make use of app indexing and linking to enable users to click on your search result and view the content in-app. Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) can also be implemented to swiftly deliver your content to mobile users. 

For more, on making your site more mobile-friendly see:

Dd: Duplicate

“Duplicate content is everywhere,” Patrick Stox, SEO specialist at IBM, pointed out during an Insights talk at SMX Advanced. You only want one version of a page to be available to search engines. This is where canonicalization comes in.

If left unchecked, duplicate content may make it more difficult for search engines to figure out which page it should return for a query. It can also lead to people linking to different versions of the same page.

That dilutes the value of those links — a measure of trust and authority — and paints an inaccurate picture of how valuable and relevant a page may be to searchers.

“In Google’s mind, they’re trying to help people by folding the pages together,” said Stox, explaining what search algorithms are likely to do when they encounter duplicate content. “All these various versions become one. All the signals consolidate on that one page. They’re trying to help us by doing that.” 

It may be of comfort to know that search engines try to figure out canonicals for you, but when your client or your own brand’s success depends on optimizing for search, using canonicals tags, redirects, and effective pagination strategies may offer a more precise degree of control as well as a more fluid user experience.  

“No matter what, Google will try to figure it out for you,” says Mach 1 Design News Editor Barry Schwartz, adding, “The question is, do you want Google to figure it out for you or not? Or, do you want to control what Google defines as your canonical URL?”

Sp: Speed

Optimizing for site speed “will never go to a point where you just have a score that you optimize for and be done with it,” Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Martin Splitt said last year.

Your site should load quickly whether visitors are viewing it on mobile or desktop. And, since speed is a Google ranking factor, faster sites will have an SEO advantage (all other factors being equal). 

A few months after Google’s broad rollout of mobile-first indexing in 2018, it launched the “Speed Update” for mobile search. 

Like many other SEO factors, speed is intertwined with the user experience. Maintaining a zippy site may help prevent visitors from bouncing and improve your engagement and conversion rates. Use tools such as Google’s PageSpeed Insights to identify areas of your site to improve.

For more, see our SEO: Site Speed section to stay up-to-date.

Ps: HTTPS

Google has pushed websites to migrate to HTTPS servers to provide better security to searchers. It’s forced the issue in a couple of ways, including rankings. 

In 2014, Google started giving a small ranking boost to secure HTTPS/SSL sites. In July 2018, the Chrome browser began marking pages that don’t use HTTPS as not secure, effectively making HTTPS part of a user’s experience on your site.

Some browsers, such as Chrome (shown above), will display a warning when users visit non-HTTPS sites.

“Google will typically index HTTPS first over HTTP,” Patrick Stox explained at SMX Advanced. “So, if you have both and you don’t have a canonical . . . typically, they’re going to choose HTTPS when they can.”

“Using HTTPS is mostly a user experience issue,” Detlef Johnson adds. “However, that user experience issue is important because people who might want to conduct e-commerce with your site — if they’re faced with security warnings, you may have just lost the sale.”

“One thing that I see a lot actually — and this is true mostly for WordPress — there are assets that were uploaded into the content management system before the site owner switched over to HTTPS, and so a lot of the images that might be a part of layout or part of older posts are hosted with spellings that are for previous, ordinary HTTP. Even though those assets might resolve and you might get them to display on the page, served over HTTPS, you’ll still get a warning that says some assets of this page are not secure, which is similar to ‘Uh-oh, you’ve got insecure pages.’”– Detlef Johnson, Mach 1 Design

Ur: URLs

This is not a major ranking factor, but it’s good practice to use descriptive words in your page URLs for search engines and users. 

Your URLs appear on search results pages, so having an easy-to-understand URL may give searchers a better idea of what’s on the other end of the link. 

Here are some tips to help you create a URL structure that’s easy to understand for humans and search engines.

Do Avoid 
Include keywords within your URL. Use hyphens to separate words (as in the example above).Stuffing keywords numerous times in your URL. Remember, having a domain match for a given query does not guarantee that you’ll show up at the top of the search results.  
Name your pages using words that describe your content.Using incomprehensible strings of characters and numbers in your page addresses.
Make use of directories to organize your pages. Directories can describe your content as well as your site’s structure. For evergreen content, avoid including a date within your URL. 

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HTML Code & Search Engine Success Factors

These elements in the Periodic Table of SEO Factors encompass the HTML tags that you should be using to send clues to search engines about your content and enable that content to render quickly.

Are you describing movie showtimes? Do you have ratings and reviews on your e-commerce pages? What’s the headline of the article you’ve published? In every case, there’s a way to communicate this with HTML.

Tt: Titles

HTML titles have always been and remain the most important HTML signal that search engines use to understand what a page is about. Your titles convey what your pages are about to users as well as search engines, so they must be unique and descriptive.

Titles are specified through the HTML title tag. This is typically what shows as the clickable link in a search result. Your titles should be concise, accurately reflect your page’s content and feature the keywords you wish to rank for — without keyword stuffing (a Toxin).

There might be times when search engines opt to present searchers with another title if they deem it more appropriate and descriptive. To increase the odds of the title you created getting shown to searchers, consider the terms you want your page to be found

“In most cases, Google will use the title in the meta description for their snippets, but sometimes they don’t and we’re seeing that if they don’t like the title for one reason or another, they would pick the H1 [instead]. 

A page can rank for a lot of different terms and when somebody’s searching for something, that title might not be a good fit . . . That’s the main driver for Google to be overriding what you do on the titles and the snippets — because the snippet that is going to come up is not going to be a great match for this specific query.

That’s why the idea of ‘Oh, you have to have the same title as the H1,’ makes no sense. It’s better to have them different so that you’re giving Google a better backup. So, when users search, Google can use the title, but if they’re searching for secondary terms — because a page can rank for hundreds of keywords — they can use the H1 as a backup.” -Hamlet Batista, CEO, and founder of RankSense.

Ds: Descriptions

The meta description tag is an HTML element that can be used to suggest how you’d like your pages to be described in the search listings. Descriptions to appear below the headlines in the search results. 

Although it is not technically a ranking factor, it’s a “success” factor. Adding a well-crafted description can help entice users to click your result over the others on the page.

Meta descriptions that contain the keywords searched for may appear in bold.

As with titles, the search engines may not always pick the description you provide. 

“I think we have a very similar approach to Google in the sense that we will pick something that is not your official description if we think it better represents your document or your page,” says Frédéric Dubut, senior program manager lead for Bing.

“My top advice would be, if you want your title and your description to be used in the search results, make sure that they are representative of what the document is about.”

“Don’t try to go out of your way to even just slightly misrepresent things,” Dubut advises. “If we think your title and description, as written in your meta tag, are not 100% accurate of what your page is about, then that’s when the system is going to look very closely at other parts of your document and going to extract a caption that it thinks is more relevant.”

St: Structure

“Structured data gives search engines a better understanding of the content on your page,” Jessica Bowman, owner of enterprise SEO consultancy SEOIn-house, explains, adding, “For users, it enhances the listing to give them more insight into what’s available on that page. From a brand perspective, it gives eye candy.” 

Structured data is a code format that lets you tell the search engines what your content is about in their one “language.” Specific schema markup (code) can make it easy for search engines to digest and understand the page content and structure. Bowman says SEOs need to master how to properly implement schema on their sites wherever appropriate.

The result of structured data often translates into what Google calls a “rich snippet,” a search listing that has extra bells and whistles that make it more attractive and useful to users.

“Structured data are tremendous for search results because your result can be filled with rich media, images, pricing information, ratings, and so on — and in a carousel versus just the blue link,” says Detlef Johnson. 

For example, let’s say you run a music publication. One of your articles is a review of Taylor Swift’s album 1989. Using structured data markup, you can inform search engines that you’re referring to an album and not the year 1989. 

Although the use of structured data is not a direct ranking factor, it may yield some advantages on the search results page. Compared to standard search results, rich results offer additional information or functionality that may be more attractive or useful to users. Rich results often appear prominently on the results page, which can increase brand awareness and drive traffic to your content. 

There is concern that rich results eliminate the incentive for users to click through to your page, which limits marketing opportunities. All other factors being equal, a rich result is still more likely to get clicks than a standard result.

For more, see SEO: Structured Data & Schema.org and Google: Google Rich Snippets sections. 

And these resources: The full hierarchy of Schema, Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool.

Hd: Headings

Headings are a hierarchical way to organize and identify key sections of your content. A page will typically have a headline. Behind the scenes, in the HTML code, the headline is wrapped in an H1 tag. This page has a headline and several sub-headings to break up the copy into sections. Those sub-headings use H2 tags, the next “level” down from H1 tags. 

Wrapping your headings in header tags is what generates the special formatting. For example, the name of this section, “Hd: Headings” is wrapped in an H2 HTML tag, as follows: <h2>Hd: Headings</h2>.

“You have to first think about the experience of the user — how do headings improve it?” Hamlet Batista, CEO, and founder of SEO platform RankSense says. “If you just put a blurb of text from start to finish, it’s going to be very difficult for the user to read and follow it. That’s what the purpose of headings is: to make sure that you can quickly scan the page, understand what it is about, and even know whether you want to spend the time to read it completely.”

Using multiple H1 tags (or none at all) is not going to trip up Google’s algorithms, Webmaster Trends Analyst John Muller has said. However, he also notes that having clear, semantic headings is useful for search engines to understand pages and makes your content more accessible to users

It is good practice to use keywords in your H1s and H2s to give search engines a better idea of what your page is about. Do not spam your headings with keywords. Use them to make your content easy for users and search engines to navigate.

CLS: Content Shift

As Google has removed the AMP requirement, we’ve gotten rid of that element and added two new ones: Image ALT (ALT) and Content Shift (CLS). Content Shift (CLS) focuses on the elements of visual stability. Cumulative

Layout Shift, which is part of the Core Web Vitals and overall page experience update, refers to unexpected changes in a page’s layout as it loads — it’s annoying for users at a minimum and can cause real damage depending on the severity of the shift and content of the page.

“Have you ever been reading an article online when something suddenly changes on the page? Without warning, the text moves, and you’ve lost your place. Or even worse: you’re about to tap a link or a button, but in the instant before your finger lands—BOOM—the link moves, and you end up clicking something else! Most of the time these kinds of experiences are just annoying, but in some cases, they can cause real damage,” said Philip Walton, Engineer at Google, and Milica Mihajlija, Chroiumum Developer. To provide the best user experience, Google recommends a CLS score of 0.1 or less.

ALT: Image ALT

Known by many names (ALT tags, image ALT, ALT descriptions, etc.), Image ALT text is HTML that describes what an image is and what it’s on the page for. While many SEOs use ALT text to help with image search, the main purpose of these image descriptors is accessibility.

“ALT text is the written copy that appears in place of an image on a webpage if the image fails to load on a user’s screen. This text helps screen-reading tools describe images to visually impaired readers and allows search engines to better crawl and rank your website,” explained Braden Becker for Hubspot.

While it can help with your SEO, the key for image ALTs is that it provides a positive user experience for users of all ability levels. It’s not a requirement in terms of being indexed and ranked, but it should be a part of any SEO audit to-do list.

Sc: Schema

Another new addition to the HTML section this year is Schema (Sc). Schema “is a semantic vocabulary of tags (or microdata) that you can add to your HTML to improve the way search engines read and represent your page in SERPs,” according to Moz’s SEO Guide. It’s not just for Google, either. Many search engines use Schema data to help them interpret content on the web: Bing, Yandex, and more.

There’s lots of discussion about whether structured data like Schema improves rankings, but most SEOs agree that, at a minimum, it does help with more comprehensive rich snippets. As many SEOs are implementing and experimenting with Schema nowadays, it’s become table stakes for most industries.

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Trust, Authority & Search Rankings

Trust Authority Search Rankings

If search engines can decide to trust links or social accounts, can they learn to trust websites? Absolutely. Several factors go into establishing a site that both users and search engines will deem trustworthy.  Here we dive into the Trust elements of the Periodic Table of SEO Factors.

“Just to frame what we consider to be trustworthy, imagine you have an e-commerce website, and a user is coming to your website,” says Frédéric Dubut, senior program manager lead for Bing.

“The first question you need to ask yourself is the question they’re going to ask themselves: ‘Can I give my credit card number to that website and be confident that it’s going to be in good hands?’ You can see the extreme where there’s a very famous e-commerce website operating in Seattle [Amazon] and everyone is going to give their credit card number to them; you know that your credit card number is in good hands.”

“And then, you get a bunch of websites that have blog articles that have been rushed and they have a lot of typos and the links to TrustPilot, for example, are not working and there are a lot of these small signs that make you think, ‘Well, something is not right here. I don’t feel comfortable giving my credit card number to this site.’ As a webmaster, as a site owner, you just need to think, wherein this scale, are you? Are you closer to Amazon or are you closer to that website with a lot of typos and whose help links are not working?” asks Dubut.

Au: Authority

Being an authority typically means being a widely recognized leader in your field or business sector, and that’s very useful when the goal is to rank well organically. 

Sites in your money, your life (YMYL) niches that offer financial or medical advice are particularly scrutinized. In 2019 Google confirmed that for YMYL queries, it will “give more weight in our ranking systems to factors like our understanding of the authoritativeness, expertise, or trustworthiness of the pages we present in the response.” 

“Google said, ‘Hey, if we’re going to recommend this content to people, we need to make sure it’s trustworthy, authoritative and an expert’s writing it,’” says Mach 1 Design News Editor Barry Schwartz. 

Google primarily assesses authority on a per-page basis; however, sitewide signals may also be used to supplement individual pages. The types of links your pages receive (particularly from reputable websites and other sites within your niche), the words used within and surrounding those backlinks, engagement metrics, how long your site has been operating, and even reviews may be used as signals for search engines to measure authority.

Google also contracts human raters to evaluate the quality of pages that appear in the top results and the guidelines they follow reference expertise, authority, and trust (or EAT). Raters do not directly affect rankings, but their feedback is used to improve Google’s search algorithms, so learning how they assess pages may help you create authoritative content that better serves users and search engines.

(Note that tools that attempt to evaluate “page authority” or “domain authority” are simply guessed by third-party companies based on how they think search engines are scoring things — those metrics aren’t used in search engine algorithms.)

En: Engagement

High-quality web pages should elicit meaningful interactions with users. Aspects of those interactions may be quantified through engagement metrics such as time on page, bounce rate, average session duration, and so on. 

Search engines are typically reluctant to divulge how, or even if, engagement metrics are used in their algorithms. And, just because a search engine has a patent on how engagement could be used to inform search rankings doesn’t necessarily mean it’s currently putting it to use. 

Nevertheless, quality content and user experience are a big part of SEO, and prioritizing them should have a positive effect on your engagement and conversion rates.

You can encourage more engagement by keeping user intent in mind, introducing user-generated content, and improving your internal linking, among other tactics. We believe engagement is measured and if search engines are factoring engagement metrics into their algorithms, your rankings will be better for it.

Re: Reputation

It can take time for publications to establish a reputation by adhering to rigorous standards for fact-checking and original reporting. That reputation carries a lot of weight in the minds of readers, and the same is true for search engines.

The exact signals the search engines use to evaluate reputation aren’t known but think about the people, sites, and institutions whose reputations you hold in high regard. They have probably established that reputation over time by providing reliable and steady information, are cited by others as experts in their field, and spoken well of by their colleagues or customers. 

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Link building & ranking in search engines

Link building ranking in search engines

Here we get into the link-building elements of the Periodic Table of SEO Factors. Links were the first major “off-page” ranking factor used by search engines.  Google wasn’t the first search engine to count links as “votes,” but it was the first search engine to rely heavily on link analysis as a way to improve relevancy when it introduced PageRank (as in Google co-founder Larry Page) in 1998.

Links, along with content remain one of the most important external signals for Google’s search rankings. That said, much has evolved, including how links are interpreted and treated by search engines.

Va: Value

Links are not created equal. After all, the sites that link to you may vary in quality as well as relevance to your industry. A link from a news publication with a strong journalistic reputation is going to be more valuable than a link in the comments section of a blog that has nothing to do with your industry. 

Links from trusted, quality websites and sites that are relevant and reputable within your industry are likely to carry more weight.

Sites have long used the nofollow link attribute, first on comments and then to flag sponsored or advertising-related links, to keep those links from being counted for rankings. Some publishers went as far as to nofollow all outbound links in their content to avoid the appearance of being involved in link schemes.

This meant that any nofollow backlinks to your site would not pass credit through to your site. Now, though, Google treats the nofollow link attribute as a “hint” for ranking purposes and nofollow links to your pages may be used for ranking signals.

Ac: Anchors

Anchor text refers to the clickable text used in a hyperlink. It will typically be a different color (blue, most commonly) than normal text and underlined. Here’s an example: this anchor text links to the Periodic Table of SEO Factors. The words used in the anchor test are seen by search engines as the way a website describes the content or site it is linking to.

“Anchors absolutely impact your SEO,” says Julie Joyce, director of operations for link building agency Link Fish Media. “They tell search engines what the associated link targets are about, but they have definitely been overused and spammed up in the past. They also give context to users, as they ‘should’ tell the user what the target they’re about to click on is about.”

“Although this is not always a top consideration (but it should be), anchor text is also used by visually impaired individuals who use screen readers. It’s difficult to balance using anchor text for SEO and for usability. Once SEOs overused exact match anchor text, we all got scared and started using anchors like ‘click here’ which are very bad for usability in some cases. It’s definitely a tricky thing to get right.” -Julie Joyce, director of operations for Link Fish Media

Of course, you often can’t control the anchor text others use to link to your site. You do, however, get to control anchor text on your own internal links. “An optimized internal linking structure is critical to link-building success,” writes Andew Dennis, content marketing specialist at Page One Power. 

Here are some best practices for link anchor text that can provide your visitors with a better experience.

Do Avoid 
Use natural, grammatical language in your anchor text.Spamming keywords in anchor text.
Use relevant words and terms.Using keywords unnaturally within anchor text.
Stick to the highlighted, underlined anchor text users are accustomed to.Generic anchor text (i.e., “Click Here”).
Keep it concise.Using misleading anchor text to trick users into clicking.

Ba: Backlinks

Backlinks, also referred to as inbound links, are links pointing back to your pages from other sites. They send signals to search engines indicating the relevance and quality of your content. 

A lot of links can add up to SEO success. Even more so if you’re getting links from many different sites. All things being equal, 1,000 links from one site will mean far less than 1,000 links from 1,000 sites. But what about quantity versus quality?

“It’s said that quality [of backlinks] matters over quantity, and that is ideal. But I have seen too many cases where sites with more links rank when that’s all they have going for them in comparison to the competition,” Julie Joyce, director of operations for Link Fish Media says. “In some cases, you can get away with having just a few backlinks though, especially when it comes to smaller industries where the competition isn’t as fierce. Sometimes you lose quality when your goal is more, more, more.”

Avoid comment spamming, link buying, guest posting schemes and link exchanges. You can expect to be penalized by search engines if you’re caught resorting to these or other so-called “blackhat” tactics. For more on schemes to avoid, head to the Toxins section at the bottom of this page.. 

When doing link building outreach, “Be concise. Don’t write emails that are five flowery paragraphs long where you go into great detail about how amazing the site you’re reaching out to is. You do need to research your targets though, as many emails are sent to completely irrelevant sites who will never give you a link, and even if they did, it wouldn’t be a good link for you.” – Julie Joyce

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Chapter 7: User context signals & search engine rankings

User context signals search engine rankings

Search results for a given query can vary from user to user. It’s not that everyone sees completely different results. Instead, everyone sees many of the same “generic” listings. But there will also be some listings appearing because of where someone is, who they know or how they surf the web.

Search engines also try to match the results they provide with the intent driving the user’s query. Google’s go-to advice to SEOs has been to design your content with the user in mind, and that goal is reflected in the User elements of the Periodic Table of SEO Factors.

Co: Country

Users see results relevant to the country they’re in. A user in the U.S. searching for “last night’s football scores” will see results from American football games, whereas someone in the U.K. will see results for the type of football games that American’s call soccer.

Taking the geography, language and culture of a region into account will help ensure that your content speaks to users in the areas you serve. If your site isn’t deemed relevant to a particular country, then you’ve got less chance of showing up when country personalization happens. If you feel you should be relevant, then you’ll probably have to work on your international SEO. For example, you’ll likely want to use the appropriate country code top-level domain and apply the hreflang attribute to indicate your site’s language.

If you have content in multiple languages, it’s best to use different URLs for alternate language versions of your pages. You can then use the rel=“alternate” hreflang tag to inform Google about the language and region variants. Doing so will help search engines understand the relationship between your pages so that they may more accurately crawl and index them.

For more, see International SEO and search trends: How does it all work? and International SEO: How to build a global footprint.

Lo: Locality

If you’ve ever searched for “XYZ near me” or even just “local news,” you may have noticed that search engines provide results tailored to the town or metropolitan area you’re currently in. 

If you want to appear in city-specific results, you’ll need to make your site relevant to the areas you service. Adding your business’ address to your site and configuring your Google My Business listing is a good place to start. 

Establishing a presence on industry-specific verticals such as Yelp or TripAdvisor may also help. If your brand has multiple locations, it’s also a good idea to mention those neighborhoods or cities on your site as well.

For more locality information, bookmark our sections on local search:

Hs: History

In addition to location signals, Google may also personalize results based on the immediate context from a recent search. For example, if a user had been searching for rock music-related content, a search engine might use that prior query to contextualize the results for their next search, “queen,” and provide results related to the band and not a monarch.

With regards to history as an SEO factor, this means that there isn’t low-hanging fruit to optimize for. Instead, improve your content and user experience to make a meaningful first impression that fosters brand loyalty. Over time, this may encourage users to seek out your domain in search results even if it isn’t the top result.

Ux: User Experience

Search engines don’t just want to direct users to the most relevant results, they also want to send them to pages where they’ll have a positive experience. After all, how useful is a relevant page if the user is bombarded with ads or has trouble finishing a transaction?

User experience (UX) encompasses everything from your site navigation to the quality of your content to site speed and more. From a structural standpoint, you’ll want to make it intuitive for your visitors to find whatever they’re looking for.

That means easily accessible navigation, a clear hierarchy of pages and content structure that’s easy to follow, whether they’re on desktop or mobile devices.

Satisfying your users’ search intent will also do wonders for your UX. This is where first impressions matter — don’t make site visitors do guesswork. Visitors should be able to quickly discern whether you’re offering what they’re looking for. 

Since audiences’ expectations vary greatly, so too will UX from site to site. Home in on your audience’s preferences and tailor your pages to meet their needs.

If your research indicates that many of your visitors have visual impairments, consider using larger fonts and improving your accessibility for assistive technologies. If your target audience is centralized in one geographic region, make sure your language and content reflect that you service that area.

Watch out for unnecessary widgets or plugins that slow down your page speed. Broken links and even typos and bad grammar all factor into your users’ experience. 

Here are a few additional resources to help you optimize your user experience:

In: Intent

“Search engines continue to become more sophisticated and better at measuring how well a page matches intent, and pages that rank well are pages that best answer the query posed by searchers,” said Mach 1 Design columnist and content marketing specialist at Page One Power Andrew Dennis. 

Different pages on your site are likely tailored to various stages of your customers’ journey. Understanding how your target audiences search in different stages of their journey will help you craft content and keyword strategies that ensure you’re addressing their specific needs. 

Search intent can typically be categorized as:

  • Informational: These tend to be upper-funnel queries, meaning users are beginning their research and looking for more information about a topic or solution to a problem.
  • Navigational: These queries usually include brand or company names or specific products or services. Users may be searching for a particular model, product or service or are interested in the latest news about a company or brand.
  • Commercial: Think of these as middle-funnel queries. Users are deeper in their research and consideration process and typically looking for more information, including product or service pages. 
  • Transactional: Now they’re ready to buy. These are bottom of the funnel queries — think [buy], [sale], [pricing].

Words are useful clues, but intent goes beyond what appears in the search box. A user searching for “height tower Paris” is probably conducting an informational query for the length of the Eiffel Tower, and with machine learning advancements, search engines are able to infer such intent without the user explicitly typing in the name of the landmark.

“We are trying to understand very deeply what our users want,” says Frédéric Dubut, web ranking project manager lead for Bing. “That’s where deep learning comes into play: there are many different ways to express the same intent; we don’t want to rely only on keywords to do the matching. So, we’re trying to determine what the intent of the user is with their query, what the purpose of the specific document is, and we’re trying to match the two not only on keywords, but really on the intent.”

That said, keyword research isn’t going away just yet. As Google’s John Mueller recently said, “… even if search engines are trying to understand more than just those words, showing specific words to users can make it a little bit easier for them to understand what your pages are about and can sometimes drive a little bit of that conversion process.”

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Toxins and Search Engine Spam Penalties

Toxins and Search Engine Spam Penalties

Anyone entering the realm of search engine optimization is likely to encounter some questionable (aka “black hat”) tactics, or Toxins, as we call them in our Periodic Table of SEO Factors

These are shortcuts, or tricks, that may have been sufficient to guarantee a high ranking back in the day when the engines’ methods were much less sophisticated. (They might even work now, at least until you’re caught.) We recommend staying far away from these tactics, because employing them could result in a penalty or ban. 

Rest assured, it’s hard to accidentally spam a search engine, and the engines look at a variety of signals before deciding if someone deserves a harsh penalty. That said, let’s talk about things not to do.    

Cl: Cloaking

Showing search engine crawlers something different than what you present to users is called “cloaking,” and it can potentially be used to trick users into visiting irrelevant or harmful pages.

Unlike some of the other Toxins, cloaking is not something that can happen by accident — it’s a deliberate attempt to manipulate search results, and if you’re caught doing it, you can expect a very heavy penalty.

What about JavaScript issues? “Cloaking is specifically against Google guidelines, but those guidelines are murky at the moment because of JavaScript,” says Mach 1 Design’s Detlef Johnson. “One server-side rendering (SSR) solution offers it only dynamically in concert with spider spotting. When you handle a request from Googlebot, you can opt to do SSR whereas all other requests are handled normally, delivering scripts for rendering in the browser. That, technically speaking, is cloaking, but Google looks the other way because they’re aware of the intent.”

“As long as your intent is not suspicious, you can do this and expect to not get banned. It’s when you reserve some content for spiders that you don’t display to users that things start to cross the line,” explains Johnson.

For more, see our articles on SEO: Cloaking and Doorway Pages.

Sf: Stuffing

You might assume that the more times a keyword shows up on a page, the more relevant search engines will consider the page to be to the query. Nope. Inserting keywords more often than is natural or useful to users is called “keyword stuffing.” It’s one of the oldest spam tactics out there and it can still get you penalized.

Don’t repeat keywords over and over again in your headings, copy, footers — anywhere — to try to improve your rankings. There is no magic formula for keyword frequency, and keyword density is a myth

Instead, focus on addressing the user’s intent. Whether that results in a keyword occurring only a couple of times or over a dozen times is far less important than the quality of your content and the value it provides to your audience.

Ar: Piracy

Ripping off someone else’s intellectual property — an article, song, graphic, photo, video, etc. — and passing it off as your own is illegal. That’s not the only reason why it’s bad for SEO, though: users generally want the original source of the content, and search engines want to provide it for them.

Google’s 2012 “Pirate” update took aim at sites infringing on copyright law. Sites are subject to Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) takedown requests. Plagiarizing or hosting plagiarized or illegal content can get you delisted from search results. Check your Google Search Console notifications if you suspect that a DMCA takedown request has been filed against you.

Sc: Schemes

Seeking backlinks is an essential aspect of SEO, but the rules change when money is involved. Paying for links that pass link equity violates both Google and Bing’s guidelines, and doing so can have dire consequences for your organic visibility.

“You could be penalized or banned by Google, and neither is a good situation,” says Julie Joyce, director of operations at Link Fish Media. “Depending upon how bad the problem is, it can take anywhere from a few months to a few years to get back to where you were.”

To be clear, you can pay to have a backlink placed on another entity’s website (as would be the case with ads), but those links cannot pass link equity. Paid links should be indicated with either a rel=“nofollow” or rel=“sponsored” link attribute.

Schemes aren’t just limited to buying links, either: large-scale guest posting services with keyword-laden anchors, link exchanges, blog spamming and other illicit practices may also result in penalties from search engines. There are numerous examples of brands getting busted for attempting to manipulate search algorithms using these methods — even involving Google itself. If you choose to ignore Google’s rules, be prepared for little mercy if caught. And don’t believe programs that tell you their paid links are undetectable. They’re not, especially when so many of the cold-call ones are run by idiots.

It’s far better to see your rankings gradually rise over time than take shortcuts and have to claw your way back after a penalty.

For more, see our articles on Link Building: Paid Links and SEO Spamming

Hi: Hiding

Site owners who stuff keywords into their pages may also try to obscure those attempts by hiding the text. Whether it’s by matching the font color to the background, positioning text off screen, decreasing font size to zero or any other method of concealment, hiding text is a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can result in a penalty.

Links may also be styled in a way to make them invisible to users, which some site owners might do to visually obscure paid links while attempting to pass link equity. Whatever reason you may have, hiding elements isn’t something that users benefit from and is unlikely to improve your SEO.

There is, however, the case of expandable content that reveals itself when the user interacts with it; for example, mousing over a link within a Wikipedia article may reveal more information.

Iv: Intrusive

Whether the obstacle is an interstitial, a deluge of ads or some other intrusive element, making visitors jump through hoops to find what they’re looking for can hurt your user experience as well as your organic visibility.

Often used in attempts to extract revenue or manipulate site metrics, these types of bad practices are what Google’s Page Layout algorithm, also known as the Top Heavy Update, was created to address.

For better or worse, interstitials are now a common part of the mobile user experience. In 2017, Google rolled out the mobile intrusive interstitial penalty to discourage site owners from abusing such elements. 

More recently, Google updated its Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines to address this trend, stating, “A single pop-over Ad or interstitial page with a clear and easy-to-use close button is not terribly distracting, though may not be a great user experience. However, difficult-to-close Ads that follow page scrolls, or interstitial pages that require an app download, can be truly distracting and make the MC [main content] difficult to use.” 

Source: Google

Not all interstitials are liabilities. If “used responsibly,” interstitials pertaining to legal obligations (such as privacy or age verification), login dialogs and other banners that use a “reasonable amount of screen space and are easily dismissible” would not be affected by Google’s mobile intrusive interstitial penalty.

“There is a lot of chatter around ‘is CTR a ranking factor? Is dwell time a ranking factor?’ And it leads some people to try to artificially increase the time people spend on the page, but for bad reasons . . . Interstitials, that’s one way, essentially, to waste the time of your users. Sometimes, we’ll see some pages that are not going to load the content fully and then you click on the button and it’s going to say, ‘Oh, wait a second, time for us to load the content,’ as if it took 10 seconds to call a database and build the content.

These are all tactics that clearly are made to artificially increase dwell time. It sounds very petty because that’s just wasting time of the users for the sake of fulfilling an SEO urban legend. But also, it is harmful to our [search engine] users. So, this is something that we definitely recommend against and that we reserve the right of taking action if it is really abusive.” –Frédéric Dubut, senior program manager lead for Bing

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Emerging Verticals in Search

Emerging Verticals in Search

Search has expanded well beyond the traditional results page. New to Mach 1 Design’s Periodic Table of SEO Factors is a look at emerging verticals within search. Voice, image, local and video search offerings provide users with options for locating information in the manner they prefer.

These emerging verticals do not require a completely different set of SEO skills — many of the core techniques you’ve learned from this guide are applicable across verticals. However, there are unique characteristics and nuances that you need to consider.

Voi: Voice

Digital assistants, such as Google Assistant, Siri and Alexa, have made their way into mobile devices, cars, wearables and smart home devices. 

“There’s two schools of thought,” says Mach 1 Design’s Greg Sterling. “One is that you just do all the SEO best practices and you get your data into Google and you mark it up [with structured data] and that’ll take care of the results. So, if somebody searches for a local cafe or dentist or whatever, if you’ve done everything right on the back end, you’re going to show up. “Other people will say, ‘Well, you really need to optimize for the featured snippet — you need to think about how users might formulate queries differently with voice when they speak a query versus typing a query.;”

“The conventional wisdom is that voice queries are longer, they’re in the form of a question, as opposed to a more condensed set of keywords that may not be grammatically coherent,” adds Sterling. “So, there’s a slightly different thinking around that and some people will say, ‘Well, look at your call logs, look at the kinds of questions that people are asking you in different media channels and turn that into content on your website. Create FAQs, create content pages that reflect the common questions that people will ask and then, when people do ask those, whether via the keyboard or voice, you’re going to rank.’”

On the Amazon environment, it’s called an Alexa Skill; in the Google environment, it’s called an Actions on Google app. The Actions on Google app allows you to develop … any manner of different things. Generally speaking, most people believe — and for most people, this is true — that the app will only be useful if the user knows to invoke it. However, with the Actions on Google app interface, working through dialogflow.com, you can enable implicit queries, which allows Google to serve up the answers from your app, even to users who are unaware of your app. So, let’s say you have an app on housing prices, “What’s the average price of housing in Boston?” Even though the user didn’t invoke your app, Google might pull the answer from your app and serve it, so that becomes like SEO. –Eric Enge, general manager, Perficient.

For more resources on optimizing for voice search, bookmark our Google: Voice Search and Search Features: Search By Voice sections.

Img: Image

“Google has been hinting that SEOs should be focusing a bit more on image search over the past few months,” Mach 1 Design’s Barry Schwartz wrote in an article detailing the increased prominence of images on the Google search results page. 

With an image box appearing above organic listings and image search previews that direct users to the page hosting the image, image optimization should be a regular component of your SEO regimen.  

“Using original images, alt text, having good neighboring text that is descriptive underneath the image, having the image on a relevant page and on a relevant site — all these things are our ranking factors for image search.” –Eric Enge, general manager, Perficient.

In addition, consider the impact that images have on user experience. Try to get your file size as low as possible without sacrificing the quality that users expect; this will help keep your load times under control. If your images also appear below the fold, consider implementing lazy loading so that users don’t have to wait for all your images to load before they can begin engaging with your content.

You’ll also want to stick to common file formats such as JPEG and PNG for standard images, SVG for vector graphics, and GIF for simple animations so that search engines can index your images. You can even mark up images with structured data to give search engines more information.

Loc: Local

We know that online visibility can drive offline foot traffic and purchases at brick-and-mortar locations. Optimizing for local visibility in search is more important than ever. 

“You can say that local search is about Google primarily, then Yelp, and Facebook and maybe a vertical,” says Mach 1 Design Contributing Editor Greg Sterling. “So, if you’re in hospitality, or in restaurants or some specialized area, then there’s typically going to be a directory site or a couple of sites that people will use — TripAdvisor is an obvious one — to find information.”

The Google My Business platform continues to add features. Claiming and optimizing your listing will help establish your presence on Google Search and Maps. You can update your business information, upload photos and manage reviews — a local ranking factor. 

Having a presence on Yelp (or directory site that’s most pertinent to your industry) may drive traffic directly to your door. “But, from a Google SEO perspective, the reason you want to be built out on Yelp and those other directories is because they’re going to rank — they’re going to outrank your own website in most instances and get the benefit of the authority that those domains have,” Sterling says.

Within the Amazon Alexa ecosystem, Amazon is getting data from multiple sources, one of their chief sources of local data is Yext, but they have other sources as well. Yelp is another one. With that in mind, Sterling says, you need to make sure that your data is in Yelp, to some degree, and Yext as well, to be discoverable on the Alexa devices.

In Google Home and also on the Assistant for smartphones, if you’re a service professional, they’re only going to feature you if you have a Google Guaranteed badge or you’re coming through one of their authorized partners, says Sterling.

“So far, we have not found that the content used in the Google Post has any impact on ranking, (for example: posting about “dog bites” doesn’t make you rank higher for “dog bite lawyer) so I would suggest focusing your posts on keywords you’re already ranking for that could use a boost in click-through-rat,” – Joy Hawkins, owner Local Search Forum and Sterling Sky Inc.

For more, see:

Vid: Video

“If you are pursuing video, you can not only do things to try and get your video to rank in Google search, but YouTube.com is actually a very significant search engine,” says Eric Enge, general manager at Perficient Digital. 

Google surfaces video results on its main search results page as well as within the video tab. While some video ranking factors overlap between Google and YouTube, there are unique considerations that you should keep in mind when optimizing video content.

If your audience is on YouTube.com, average watch time is a crucial ranking factor — especially if you want your content to show as a suggested video. To help viewers find your videos, make sure to insert the keywords you’ve researched in your title, description and tags.

Instead of relying on YouTube’s automated closed captions, add your own transcripts to provide YouTube with more information about your content and ensure that your transcripts are accurate for your viewers. You’ll also want to create an original thumbnail image that resonates with your audience, convincing them to click through and raise your view count.

Engagement is also a consideration for YouTube SEO, so you’ll want to find creative ways to encourage your viewers to subscribe, share, comment and give your video a thumbs up.

If the primary aim of your video content is for users to discover you through the main Google search results page, do your research and verify that the video carousel appears for queries you wish to rank for. Even if it doesn’t, your content may still surface within the video tab. 

“In Google, the ranking algorithms for videos are startlingly like it is for other web pages. It looks like the same sort of relevancy algorithms are in play. Does your page with the video have links to it? Does it accumulate some level of PageRank and these sorts of things?” says Eric Enge. “The ranking algorithms are different [between YouTube and Google] because Google’s success is driven by the degree of satisfaction, they deliver to users based on the results they serve, and that correlates really well to Google for maintaining or growing market share and ultimately driving the most ad clicks.”

But, there’s more you can do than simply embedding your video on a relevant page and then optimizing that page: you can also add a transcript directly on the page and mark up the video with structured data to give search engines more context and increase the odds that your video surfaces as a rich result.

Regardless of length, your primary goal should always be to create content that is right for your audience. However, search engine algorithms may not favor overly concise videos:

“What they’re looking for is high-quality, long-form content that will allow them to run more ads and keep users on the site for longer,” wrote Stephan Spencer, columnist and author of The Art of SEO, Google Power Search, and Social eCommerce. “Videos that are at least five minutes in length tend to perform better and have a higher chance of ranking in Google searches.”

Keep tabs on your video performance through YouTube’s analytics and Google Search Console’s video reports. For more assistance with your SEO needs and establishing an SEO strategy for your digital platform, contact [email protected] or call (469) 536-8478 for a free consultation.

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