At least once a day, Google “improves” its search engine, which can have the effect of shuffling more than 60 trillion web pages like a deck of cards. Like a good magician, the company won’t explain the inexplicable and tell us how, precisely, a certain card rises to the top of the deck. (Though, like the best magicians, Google gives us a story to deepen the mystery.) And, like eager audience members, we all want to uncover the mechanics and learn how the trick works. Then, of course, the trick changes, ever so slightly, and we despair, then start the process over or resign in frustration.
A decade ago, search engine optimization was already a $1 billion industry, but “SEO” had not yet become the pervasive abbreviation it is today. We’ve grown more acquainted with the term with each passing year, but plenty of websites with worthy goals struggle to master techniques that will help them make a splash on search engines. For many web-based businesses and organizations, the struggle to improve search rankings can feel like chasing your own shadow. Your search ranking is a part of you, but you can’t quite get your hands around it.
The primary mistake, however, is to think of high-quality organic SEO principles as “tricks,” of the pursuit of a better ranking as a “chase.” It may feel counter-intuitive by now, and a little naïve, sure, but it’s true: Search engines, and the people that tend them, reach for instructive and beneficial content.
“The battle over SEO practices is over… and shady SEO agencies have been left to drag their wounded link farms and keyword-stuffed pages from the proverbial battlefield,” writes Nate Dame. “This doesn’t mean that SEO is dead (despite all the click-bait and misinformation to the contrary). It has simply, finally, matured.”
The tendency for many organizations will be to look for the easiest path to better search rankings, even as the path changes daily. But as search engines become more competent at dodging overzealous rankings hounds, they also make more room at the top of the deck for those webpages that know their purpose and curate the best content to fulfill it.
In this instance, as with many others, that old Robert Frost line applies: the path less traveled by will make all the difference. What does the path to better organic SEO look like? We’ll walk it with you.
1. Be authoritative—no matter how long it takes
The phrase “Content is king” is ubiquitous; it may as well be printed on t-shirts for SEO consultants. But the phrase should come with an asterisk, and another bit of text: Not all content is created equal. As search engines mature, so should your content authority.
Brian Dean and the crew at Backlinko recently published their report on factors that, as he put it, “correlate with first page search rankings.” Among his team’s findings was this: “We discovered that comprehensive content significantly outperformed shallow content.”
“In the early days of SEO, Google would determine a page’s topic by looking strictly at the keywords that appeared on the page,” writes Dean. “Today…Google now understands the topic of every page.” With that understanding comes an increased ability for Google and other search engines to evaluate how well a website explains its topic. Dean’s team found that both topical authority and length often correlate with high search rankings.
Refining your content authority is an ongoing process, so experimentation and careful review is crucial. At his Marketing Technology Blog, Douglas Karr provides this handy graphic for developing greater content authority:
As for the length of your content, long-windedness can make your site less useful to readers, who will begin to skip you over for other destinations that move swiftly to the point. Still, don’t fear length. Instead, you should only write as much as is absolutely necessary to show your expertise. And, as we’ve said here before, the best web writing is simple and straightforward. Now make that writing the vessel for your expertise.
2. Think like a search engine
Want better search rankings? Time to think like a search engine. It’s not an impossible task; in fact, Google relies on search engine evaluators—real, actual human beings—to determine how well pages accomplish their stated missions. Those evaluators review the “usefulness of individual results,” and Google helps them to determine usefulness with its 146-page “Search Quality Evaluators Guidelines.” Those evaluators receive advanced coaching we’re not privy to, but we get a few general hints from the guidelines. Here’s one:
Here are the most important factors to consider when selecting an overall Page Quality rating:
1. Main Content Quality and Amount: The rating should be based on the landing page of the task URL.
2. Website Information/information about who is responsible for the website: Links to help with website information research will be provided.
3. Website Reputation: Links to help with reputation research will be provided.
4. Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness: This is an important quality characteristic. Use your research on the areas above to inform your rating.
Why should you think like a search engine? Simple: Your ideas of expertise, or authority, or trustworthiness may differ from your audience’s ideas. Just as you review your analytics to see whether your content is effective, you should take note of how others evaluate content, and whether they would value your work on their terms.
How does a search evaluator think? SearchEngineLand ran an interview with an anonymous Google Search Quality Rater. “I can think of many tasks where it shows the map of what a user was looking at before they typed in a query, and we are then [asked] to rate the results of that query based on the map they were looking at,” the rater explained. “We also rated news based on how current it was, how relevant it was to the query, and if it came from a trustworthy source.”
Here’s an example: The same rater was told to evaluate search results for “Nike women’s running shoes” and rate 10 results on two versions of the search engine. This is how the rater considered the job:
With a recognized brand name like that, it wasn’t hard to determine quality. For example, I think the Nike site was one of the options, so that would get a “vital” rating. I remember a couple of sites sold the shoes, so I gave them a “useful” rating and the Wikipedia entry on Nike was giving a rating of “slightly relevant” because I believe not many people searching for Nike Women’s Running Shoes want a history of the company.
There’s a lot to glean from that short response. Authoritative content is helpful, but only if it fulfills the mission of the website and the search itself.
In the same interview, the Google Search Quality Rater said that raters would watch videos “to determine if it was a match for the query,” and then assign a ranking of “useful,” or “relevant,” or “off-topic.” Which brings us to our next tip.
3. Honor your principles across platforms
If search quality raters are watching your videos, then your videos should mirror your content: Be authoritative and generous with your information, but don’t let your content run away from you. Use as much audio and video as you need to fulfill your website’s purpose well.
Yum Yum Videos makes explainer videos, so naturally the company made a video to show its craft. It spent three months coaxing the video to YouTube’s first page of results for a “best explainer videos” search. More than one year later, the video still ranks at the top of YouTube’s worldwide results for that keyword.
At the time, wrote Yum Yum’s content editor Juan Jose Mendez, “YouTube is the 2nd largest search engine in the world, so you obviously want your videos to get to the top of the search.” In a post at Social Media Today, Mendez elaborated on how his team did just that, and offered seven tips for video SEO that cover everything form thumbnails to descriptions to calls for action.
Here’s the thing about Mendez’s tips: They all rely on the same principles that make for authoritative content. Titles should be short but explicit, thumbnails should be high-resolution and never misleading, and descriptions should move swiftly to the point. Yum Yum’s video clocks in at 2:14, and more than 40 percent of viewers watched until the end.
“But what’s the secret to getting a high audience retention rate?” he asks. “There’s only one answer to that question: make a great video. Don’t settle on poor animation quality, dull scriptwriting or boring content; in order to get the best ROI, your marketing videos need to be attractive, engaging and awesomely crafted!” As with authoritative content, multimedia content that explains and fulfills with style and grace will always reward your SEO efforts.
4. Make it mobile-friendly
Google’s most recent Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines is divided into four parts; one part is devoted entirely to mobile users. That may surprise the roughly 32 percent of you who don’t have smartphones or the 55 percent who don’t have tablets, but the rest of you know something they’ll know soon: While desktop and laptop ownership has leveled off, tablet and smartphone sales continue to rise.
Clay Cazier points out that, while Google devotes resources to explaining how it works with various design options on mobile devices, the company seems to encourage responsive design over other approaches. “The responsive Web design page distinctly says, ‘We [Google] recommend using responsive web design because…’ and then goes on to list six ways responsive design saves Google resources, delivers improved user experiences and avoids SEO pitfalls like bad redirects and fragmented link presence,” writes Cazier.
5. Learn from others’ mistakes
If you read the Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines, then it soon becomes clear that cynical SEO tactics won’t get you far—certainly not for very long. Copied content, insincere link building, and keyword stuffing aren’t exactly unknown quantities to search engines. Take the noble route: Learn to better understand and value your mission, and then fulfill it with your best quality content. We’ve got plans to help you do just that in the coming weeks. Until then, this infographic should help you keep in mind what to avoid.