The Dos and Don'ts of SEO

Jun 14, 2022
Are you sick of the term “SEO”? Yes? Quite frankly, so am I. But if you’re in any way involved in websites, whether that be building, designing, maintaining, or making content for them, it’s a pretty important thing to know about.

What is Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)?


The way people go on about it, you’d think it’s this huge, complicated, mysterious thing. And it is when you go into detail, but at its core, it’s pretty self-explanatory: it is everything that goes into making your website appear high up on search engine results pages, i.e. optimising your website for search engines.


But wait: what is a search engine actually?


Most of us use Google every day, whether it’s to search templates for a difficult work-related email, how to make carrot muffins or the latest soccer scores. But we hardly think about what Google as a search engine actually is, or how it works. Or the fact that it’s not the only search engine - it’s just the most popular one.

In simple terms, a search engine catalogues all the web pages on the internet so that when we enter a search query into the search bar, it returns a list of the web pages it thinks are most likely to contain the information we are looking for.

Without search engines, we would only be able to visit a website if we knew its exact URL, which sounds like a nightmare, especially when you consider that the internet has over 1.9 billion websites (as of June 2022 - that number is growing by the day).

And how does the search engine know which pages are most relevant? It uses its algorithm, which is a complex, secret calculation that is constantly updated. SEO is the art of making sure the search engine understands what each page on your website is about so it will show that web page to the people who are searching for it.

 

How have people gone about SEO in the past?


It goes without saying that the top of the results page is the place to be. With few visitors visiting the second page of Google’s results pages, and many visitors not even scrolling past the first few results, it’s easy to get lost.

And how is your target audience supposed to appreciate your carefully crafted website or buy your life-changing product or service if they can’t even find it?

So, naturally, throughout most of the time that search engines have been a thing, people have been trying to figure out how to rank higher on the results pages. In the process, they have found legitimate ways to rank higher, but have also found ways to trick the search engines into believing their websites are more trustworthy and contain more relevant information than they actually do. These tricks are called “black hat” SEO tactics.

Many of these tricks could guarantee higher rankings in the past. However, it’s in the search engine’s best interest to give the searcher what they’re looking for, not whatever exploits the gaps in its algorithm to claw its way to the top of the results page. Therefore, it usually doesn’t take very long for the algorithm to pick up on these tricks and change to account for them.

Not only do these tricks stop working, but in many cases, they can actually count against you by bumping you to the second, third, or fifteenth results page (a.k.a. the abyss where nobody ever goes). All that work suddenly needs to be undone.

Google updates its algorithm 500-600 times a year, with varying effects on SEO, so keeping up with minute changes becomes far more effort than it's worth. And anyway, your optimisation efforts don’t show up instantly - it takes time for Google to notice that you’ve made changes and rank your website accordingly. So again: not worth it.

 

SEO dos and don’ts


So what is an honest website-haver to do to make their site findable by the people who need it? Remember that a search engine’s job is to deliver the most relevant web pages to a searcher. To do that, it needs to be able to tell:

  • what your website is about,
  • that your website is legitimate,
  • and that it contains valuable, unique information.

Because of this, there are some things you can do that will likely never be penalised.

 

Don’t: stuff or hide your keywords


The primary thing search engines use to determine whether your website is relevant to the searcher’s query is whether they contain the same or similar keywords. So you should try to put those keywords on your website as many times as you can, right?

Well, that used to work. The technique is called keyword-stuffing, and it’s like taking a giant basket of keywords and cramming them into every nook and cranny of your website. This includes using the keyword many times in the headings and body text on your page and hiding keywords in the website’s code or meta-text (things like alt text on images). People would even hide keywords by making them the same colour as the background or using a font size of zero.

They were able to stuff their website full of popular keywords just to improve their rankings, but often the keywords weren’t relevant to the website, so Google was serving up irrelevant search results. That wasn’t in its best interest, so the algorithm updated to penalise keyword-stuffing. Turns out, there is such a thing as over-optimising.


Do: incorporate keywords naturally


However, just like many things, keywords are good when used in moderation. Using keywords in a strategic, natural manner can go a long way toward improving your rankings. Search engines still use keywords to determine whether your website is relevant to search queries, after all. Plus, incorporating keywords naturally means the reader is less likely to get irritated and click away from your site.

And thankfully, Google’s algorithm has evolved to recognise synonyms and related phrases so that you can incorporate popular search terms into your content without being too repetitive and irritating readers.

 

Don’t: steal content


Google likes to serve up valuable, up to date, relevant content to its searchers. But what if you don’t have the time or energy to create your own high-quality content? You take someone else’s, of course. You can even write a program that automatically finds content on other websites and republishes it on your site without you even having to lift a finger.

That’s plagiarism, right? That terrible thing teachers told you to never ever do?

Well, yes.

And now it’s not only unethical, but it can be detrimental to your rankings because search engines also take the originality of your website’s content into account. It has become easy for the search engine’s algorithm to figure out when you’ve been stealing content, and to penalise you for it.

So don’t do it.


Do: produce your own unique, valuable content


Instead, produce your own up to date content (or pay someone else to do it for you).

Not only does this appeal to Google, but it also grabs the attention of your site visitors, making them stay on your site longer. Or better yet, if your content is interesting enough, they might even share it on social media (which also boosts your rankings).


Don’t: farm or buy links


Search engines determine whether your website is trusted in the greater community of the internet by checking how many times other websites link to yours (also called backlinks). So what black-hat SEO specialists used to do was build a network of sites that all link to each other, just to make them appear more trustworthy and reliable.

But wait: another update to the algorithm means the trustworthiness of the sites that link to yours is also taken into account. Suddenly, all those links aren’t worth much, and can even count against you. Similarly, you can buy links to boost your rankings, but that’s not likely to end well either.

 

Do: nurture valuable backlinks


Unlike the use of keywords or the quality of content on your own website, you can’t easily control what other people do on their websites.

There are various ways to collect backlinks and it can take a long time, but the best way to do it is by participating in the internet community. For example, you can create a piece of content (like a blog post or video) and allow another website to publish it, in return for a link back to your own site.

Luckily, Google also likes it when you link internally on your own website because that shows that your site is cohesive. For example, if you’re writing a brief description of a service you offer, you can include a link to a more detailed article on your site for those users who want more information. This has the added benefit of keeping users on your site longer.


Don’t: only build websites for search engines


So this isn’t a black hat SEO technique. Actually, you should take advantage of some SEO techniques that only the search engines can see, but if you want to optimise your website for the long term, you can’t only focus on those things. Luckily, search engine algorithms have learned to like the same things that people do, so most SEO techniques hit two birds with one stone.

 

Do: build websites for people


As I’ve already mentioned, Google likes to give the people what they want. And what the people want is a website that provides them with relevant information. But they won’t stick around for that information if the site is outdated, difficult to navigate, full of broken links, and takes ages to load. So here is a list of simple things you can check (and fix) to optimise your site:

  1. Keep it updated: We recommend a full reskin every three years, but little tweaks in between do help.
  2. Make it easy to navigate: People want to be able to find what they’re looking for on your site, quickly and intuitively. That means adhering to navigation conventions, such as placing your main menu on the top of the page. Bonus - search engines like it when you adhere to navigation conventions too.
  3. Fix all broken links: Instead of combing through your website and trying every single one, try using a tool like W3C Link Checker to check all the links on your site at once.
    Make sure it loads quickly: For example, check that the images or videos you’re using aren’t too large, remove or replace broken or outdated plugins, or change your hosting provider.

 

Sometimes SEO can feel like a game where the rules are constantly changing and you can’t see your progress until it’s too late.

As I said to a client the other day: there is no specific thing you can plug into a website that will 100% guarantee that it will appear a certain number of spaces higher on the results page. You simply cannot implement and measure it that easily.

However, from the above, it is clear that the best way to guarantee that your website is optimised for search engines, in the long run, is to keep it up to date, interesting, unique, and easy to use.

Even Google recommends building websites for people first, and search engines second.

Simple? Yes.

Easy? Not always.

Possible? Absolutely.

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