How Learning SEO Changed The Way I View Websites
Whenever I talk to my family or friends, school and careers will often come up and they’ll ask me what I’m doing for work. Recently my response has been, “I’m doing Search Engine Optimization (SEO),” which is often met with a blank stare.
You know what I’m talking about; we’ve all experienced this elevator stare before. It’s the kind you get when you step inside a confined room with an absolute stranger, and for the next few moments, you experience the most awkward of silences.
That is the stare I get when I bring up SEO, mainly because my family and friends have absolutely no idea what optimizing websites even means. I always have to start by breaking it down something like this:
“By analyzing the algorithm behind the search engine, I can discover how websites I’m working with can rank higher in the search engine and be more accessible to potential consumers. For example, if you have ever shopped online for furniture, you probably noticed that every search yielded the same big retail giants. Those companies are able to claim the top search results partially because of their website traffic, optimized keywords, backlinks, etc. There’s a method to the madness.”
Typically they act as though they understand, mostly just to move the conversation along, but they still have no idea how or why websites are built the way they are or how Google sorts rankings.
And understandably. Why would you even want to know that? Why is that useful?
A couple of months ago, I was in the same boat, however I can confidently say that picking up the basics of SEO has forever changed the way I view websites… and streaming services, the app store, and anywhere that there is a search bar. That’s right, you can even optimize for Amazon.
Most of it makes more sense when you get in the nitty gritty and get your hands dirty, however, here are a few insights from my personal crash-course in learning website optimization.
When googling a query into the search engine, the results page will list thousands of results. Each of these results is ranked based on how much Google values and trusts the content based on that word, question, or phrase.
For example, when entering the term “tacos near me” in the search engine, Google has indexed every taco restaurant in your area that has a digital presence based on hundreds of different factors that Google takes into account.
Some of these ranking considerations are related to website design (site speed, information structure, use experience, etc.), however rankings also depend on keywords and backlinks. More on that later. To get in the top 10 results, Google’s algorithms have to think that you are the authority on a topic or that you’re mostly likely what people are looking for based on search behavior.
Before learning the ins and outs, I thought the results Google pulled up were just the most popular. Although this is partially true, being the most popular is a lot of very intentional work; they have developed a lot of trust with Google by developing credibility.
The phrase “keywords” had zero meaning to me several months ago. I would read my favorite sites, naively thinking that the content that was created out of passion, choosing words for impact, clarity, and meaning. The idea of keywords had never crossed my mind.
Keywords are the words or phrases copywriters and developers will incorporate into their websites to help Google define what the page is about.
By scattering throughout their site, they can try and rank for them. These keywords help improve search visibility and can help generate traffic. Rather than just writing a sentence, they first use research tools to figure out what variation of a phrase people are most likely to search for, and then scatter those variations throughout their website.
For me, it helped to think about it like my resume. If I’m applying for a job that’s looking for skills in marketing or data analytics, I’d be sure to integrate those exact phases into my resume so that potential employers know that I can do the job they are looking for. “Excel” or “SQL” may be better signals than “Spreadsheet” because they are looking for something specific.
When we as searchers get on these engines, generally we’re looking for a pretty specific insight. I now better appreciate how much time has been spent to optimize those pages. Almost every sentence and every word could be strategically placed to help rank for different terms.
Be Intentional With Keywords
Once you’ve pulled back the inner workings of the internet, every small business owner in your network has questions. A couple of weeks ago, a family friend asked if I could help optimize his BBQ catering website. I was glad to take a look.
Although the name of the website clearly stated what the service was, which is helpful, he never specifically used the phrase “BBQ catering” anywhere on his website. Moreover, ranking for “BBQ catering” across the entire interweb isn’t nearly as useful as optimizing for “BBQ catering DC” since that’s where the potential customers would be and more likely what they are searching for.
Every statement that goes onto a website should at least be given some vague consideration because, with the right placement, search engines will understand the services you offer. This allows people to see you when searching a specific keyword… although not everyone searches things the same way. “DC Barbecue” may bring up totally different results than “Best BBQ in DC”. Make sure you understand variations of the term and try to include all of them on the site.
Today, I’m much slower when I visit websites because I always study how they optimized their pages— or didn’t in some cases. This thought exercise helps me think glean new insights on ways to potentially learn from their SEO work and apply it to any future projects.
I never knew these had a name, but we’re all far too familiar with them. It’s not uncommon for me to get sucked into the rabbit hole of clicking link to link to link. I may start off on a site taking quizzes, and then six sites later, end up on an article titled “How to read your palm.”
I never really thought of the behind-the-scenes of these links; I was too busy reading my palm.
After learning about the fundamentals of SEO, each link featured on a website is there for a reason. These links pass equity and help other sites generate traffic- they are referred to as backlinks. But not all links are created equal.
Links from higher authority sites (newspapers, company websites, subject expert blogs) give more credibility to your page than lower authority sites (personal blogs, local businesses, etc.) The greater volume of quality backlinks connecting to your site, the more trust Google sees in you.
It’s like being told secrets in middle school. The more secrets other kids told you, the more loyal and trustworthy of a friend you seemed. That trust came with power because you could guide the opinions of others based on the fact you at least seemed credible. Google is basically just another kid on the playground. It’s depending on other people to help figure out which sites have the best information or are the most trustworthy. Links are that equity being passed into your trust bank.
Whenever I see a business discussed on a news source, I naturally believe that it is more trustworthy than something linked to in my neighbor’s blog about her cat (although Mr. Bigglesworth is pretty adorable). I assume that the links in the news source have been properly vetted and attempt to be unbiased in the covering of the subject. Good content for the sake of good content.
Although that may be true on some level, I now start to explore and investigate “how” they knew about the story in the first place. Who has value in the coverage. I begin to recognize that there was likely intentional effort in getting that link placed there through a coordinated story-telling effort between PR and SEO teams.
Although news is the most obvious example of this, the same link building principals apply when earning links from blogs, non-profits, schools, business pages, and more. It’s typically a very intentional, strategic method of earning the right links from the right sites to accomplish the site’s goals.
Actually, “intentional, static method” seems like a pretty good way to explain most things in SEO. I’ll have to remember that for the next family gathering.
The “how” and “why” of a website’s ranking previously never occurred to me until I learned SEO. I knew that there was sort of secret wizardry that determined what showed up in my searches, but I never realized how much of that was an intentional effort by website teams, nor how approachable many parts of it can be. There are still other important factors to consider, such as dependable VPS hosting for site speed or well-structured data, however communicators can still have a big impact on the end result.
Websites not only need to gain trust with consumers (and Google), they have to have other websites backlink to them, and they need to place keywords across their site to even be considered for specific search engines results pages.
Learning SEO changed how I look at websites. Now, instead of just looking, I analyze websites. I like to figure out the maze behind their work.
This article has been published in accordance with Socialnomics’s disclosure policy.