Trying to search-engine optimize your site can sometimes feel like reading a crystal ball. Every website owner wants to know what it takes to rank at the top of search results, but in spite of periodic communications by search companies and the best efforts of SEO experts, it’s always hard to tell exactly how it all works.
That’s because the algorithms search companies use to determine rank are complex, and they have only gotten more complex over time, as changes are layered on in an ever-changing game of cat and mouse between search companies and the website owners trying to uncover loopholes that help them achieve better rank. As a result, search companies are generally quite tight-lipped about how, exactly, their algorithms work.
Google has dominated search since the 1990s, and the company continues to be the largest player today. Moreover, forty-one percent of the world’s population — over 3 billion users — use Chrome browsers, according to a recent study by Atlas VPN.
More recently, concerns around privacy have shifted the landscape slightly, as less data-hungry search companies such as DuckDuckGo gain market share. But these shifts are small compared to Google’s dominance.
The role of the search engine optimizer itself has evolved as well, beginning as a mostly non-technical position focused on writing content and creating links, to one that is deeply technical, with a skill set closer to that of an engineer. In its current iteration, the field is more complex than ever, requiring workers to use their content skills alongside their technical abilities.
That said, there is plenty to be gained from getting some simple basics right. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
Quality Content Remains the First Pillar of SEO
Kate Neuens, who works as a search engine optimization manager at Beyond Identity, said there are three main pillars of SEO. The first pillar is content creation, called “on-page SEO.” When Neuens got started in the industry in 2012, she primarily focused on this area, creating content about a variety of topics for her company so its site would rank for different search terms.
Neuens started working in SEO at an interesting time. Google had just pushed one of its biggest search algorithm updates, changing its ranking criteria to discourage websites trying to game the algorithm. Prior to the 2011 update — called the Panda update, after its lead engineer — SEO work had been much more of a Wild West. People relied on cheap tricks to get their websites ranked, often to the detriment of providing useful results for the user.
“There was some plagiarism, people just stealing other people’s content and putting it on their websites to use to help them rank.”
One approach was to pack as many search terms as possible into an article, in the hope that rank would increase along with the number of keyword matches. This practice, known as “keyword stuffing,” often resulted in writing that was stilted and filled with repetitive keywords, and even hidden keywords embedded into the structure of webpages.
“People were just pumping out low-quality content,” Neuens said. “There was some plagiarism, people just stealing other people’s content and putting it on their websites to use to help them rank.”
The purpose of the Panda update was to devalue low-quality content and reward high-quality content, determined by the depth and breadth of the topics covered, she said. Tactics such as content plagiarism and keyword stuffing no longer worked, which made SEO strategies focus more on providing useful responses to user searches.
High-Quality Links Are Still Important for SEO
The second pillar of SEO is link-building, also known as “off-page SEO.” Initially, a website’s rank on Google Search was determined by an algorithm that measured its popularity by looking at the other sites that link to it — how many sites link to you, and how popular are those sites? The algorithm, called the PageRank algorithm, was Google’s first search algorithm, and it was developed as a research project by its founders during their time at Stanford University. The PageRank algorithm meant that, in addition to quality content, search rank was determined by the number and quality of other websites linking to yours.
But website owners were able to take advantage of PageRank and artificially raise their search rank by creating their own links — or purchasing links — to their site. Although the quality of those links may not be very good, quantity could still have a significant effect on rank.
“Links are still very valuable and very important, but they are only going to get you so far.”
In 2012, the year Neuens began working in SEO, Google launched its Penguin update, which adjusted how its algorithm considered links when ranking results. After the update, off-page SEO was still important, but it became harder to game the algorithm by purchasing links to websites.
“Whenever I talk to people who only have a little bit of understanding of SEO, they go, ‘You need links, right?’” Neuens said. “So I think there’s that historical association — SEO equals building links for your website. I don’t want to downplay it — links are still very valuable and very important, but they are only going to get you so far.”
Natural Language Processing Improved Keyword Search Matching
Google’s Hummingbird update arrived in 2013. It was another big update that changed the way user search terms were interpreted by the algorithm. Originally, search only took into account exact word matches, but the Hummingbird update used advances in natural language processing to match on the intent behind a user’s search, rather than the exact words. The algorithm became much better at using context to decipher what the user wanted to find.
“I remember, I’d be very focused, when I’m writing a piece, on a keyword — like I have to use that exact match of the keyword,” Neuens said about her work in SEO before the Hummingbird update. “And that was a really interesting shift in the algorithm… Google was getting a lot better at understanding that attorney and lawyer mean the same thing, basically, when people are searching.”
“Google was getting a lot better at understanding that attorney and lawyer mean the same thing.”
The improvement in the algorithm’s understanding of the meaning behind words meant that writing content for SEO wasn’t quite as boxed in as before. Neuens felt that the changes allowed her to focus more on making her writing better and more useful to the reader.
“So I thought I only saw positive behavior changes on my part,” she said. “It made you a little bit more focused too on, ‘Okay, what are people trying to actually get answered when they’re searching for queries?’ So you had to think a little bit deeper when you’re writing pieces.”
Technical SEO Is All About User Experience
The third pillar of SEO is known as technical SEO — instead of content or links, technical SEO has to do with the structure of websites and how websites are built.
“When I think about the future of SEO, I see technical SEO becoming more and more important.”
Technical SEO wasn’t an important consideration for ranking years ago, but that’s quickly changing. Last year, Google announced that factors such as page loading speed and content shifting will play a big role in search rank starting in June 2021. This means user experience related to the polish and speed of a website will be used to determine rank.
“When I think about the future of SEO, I see technical SEO becoming more and more important,” Neuens said. “I think they’re putting a lot more emphasis on that, which just requires a deeper level of technical knowledge.”
It can also be a good idea for SEO managers to keep an eye on the quality of web development, because messy code can have real repercussions on rank.
Mobile Experience Is Becoming More Important
SEO started shifting toward mobile search a few years ago. Last September, Google switched to using a mobile-first approach to determine rank for all searches, meaning the bots indexing websites would only be loading mobile pages.
Google made the change because more of its searches are done on mobile devices than traditional desktops or laptops. Some websites had to quickly adapt because the amount of effort put into user experience for mobile tends to lag behind other devices.
Around 2016, a new type of search result began to appear — image-centric “rich cards” that use more screen real estate and are prominently displayed at the top of the search result pages, often seen after searching for topics such as recipes. Google introduced this new type of search result to provide a more visually appealing experience for mobile users.
Rich cards forced SEO managers to consider a new factor: in order to be in the running for this type of prime search-result real estate, website owners have to provide specific tags — called “structured data markups” — to the bots that crawl and index the internet.
Ultimately, it’s just another way website owners need to think about how they are conducting SEO. Having a good rich card result can really affect traffic, and it’s an opportunity for websites to communicate directly with crawlers on what their content should be searched by.
Today, SEO emphasizes technical expertise and programming ability. SEO managers have to work closely with developers to make sure their sites are accessible to bots and to provide great user experiences. This trend will probably only be more pronounced in the future, as search engines continue to make search experiences faster, smoother and more accurate for users.