A large part of my job involves helping clients make sure their websites are well represented in search engine results, what’s usually referred to as SEO (although, truth be told, I don’t like the term because it has spammy undertones). The main problem I have with this is convincing people of how simple it really is.
To most in the PR and marketing world, SEO seems like a dark art that involves all kind of arcane technical voodoo, and that’s largely thanks to many years of the industry doing a fine job of deliberately obfuscating its practices. So now it’s easy to look like you don’t know what you’re talking about if you try to explain that most of the stuff people think they know about SEO is smoke and mirrors bullshit. Especially if other SEO ‘experts’ have done a good job of blinding the client with pseudo-science.
The simple truth is, if you want to build a website that consistently appears highly in the search engine results for the kind of search queries that are relevant to your business, you only really need to do two things:
1 – Publish great, on-topic content
Forget about flimsy 300-400 word blog posts that don’t really say anything – these have been a staple for low-rent keyword-focused SEO for too long, but they just don’t work anymore. Invest resource in producing well written, in-depth articles that offer the audience genuinely useful insight around topics that are closely related to your offering.
Written content should form the core of this, but support it liberally with infographics, imagery, video, interactive tools and any other material that you think your audience will find valuable. Forget all the crap you’ve heard about keyword density and ideal article lengths, just produce strong, well-written articles of whatever word-count is necessary to do the job.
There’s an argument that people don’t read long-form content online, which is nonsense. In the world of tablets and smartphones, people are more than happy to read lengthy articles, so long as the content is compelling. Ask yourself, what’s more valuable to the average human being: 400 words of fluff, stuffed with keywords and designed purely to appeal to search engines, or a 2,000 word, well researched, in-depth article that explains a topic properly?
As well as being what people actually want to read, a good long-form article will also give search engine spiders plenty of content to work with when they’re figuring out what topics your site is focused on.
2 – Get other websites to link to your content
If content tell the search engines what your site is about, links tell them how important your site is. The more links that point to a website, the better that website is likely to perform in search engines. A link is a vote, and the more votes a website has, the more important it is considered to be. But not all links are created equal. Links from high quality, well respected sites (like the BBC, Wikipedia, government or academic sites) will usually have a lot more value than links from small, low end sites that nobody has ever heard of.
Nevertheless, for the most part all links to your own site have some degree of value although a simple rule of thumb is that the hard it is to get a link, the more value it will have for you. There are a wide variety of tactics for persuading people to link to your site, but the simplest thing to do is publish great content and share it with people. By and large, good content attracts links and bad content does not.
Sharing your articles on social media channels is a good start. If you’ve created something truly informative, useful or entertaining, other people will soon start to share it too. You can share links to your content with webmasters of relevant websites in your sector, the media (this is how public relations can play a key role in SEO), discussion forums, and any number of places where people will see value in it.
Acquiring links to your site is not always easy – people need a good reason to link to your site. But the best way to convince people to give you a link is by building content that they’ll love.
Accepting the simple answers
Those two things are really all you need to do if you want a site to do well in search engines. Before SEO specialists start screaming for my head on a pike, I’m not discounting the importance of proper site structure and on-page factors, but we all know that strong content and inbound links are 90% of the job, everything else is just fine-tuning.
But marketing people often aren’t prepared to accept that answer and I think there are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, although the overall principle sounds simple, it’s actually very hard and resource intensive to consistently produce high quality content and build links to it. Few businesses have the stomach for that.
Secondly, it just doesn’t sound as complicated as they want it too. When you talk about SEO to non-digital people, it’s almost as if they want it to be technical and difficult to understand – they’re often unwilling to accept a simple explanation because it doesn’t seem plausible after they’ve spent so long believing that this stuff is supposed to be a dark art.
Another reason that few people are willing to believe SEO is this simple, is that if you accept it’s all about creating great content and then promoting that content to the right audiences, then you also have to accept that it can largely be done by the public relations team. Those are precisely the kind of skills the PR specialise in. A lot of old-school SEO consultants are not happy about that and will work hard to convince clients that it’s not the case.
It’s not always easy to win them over, but for what it’s worth I find the best way to illustrate the point is to pick a few search terms that are relevant to the client’s business and then analyse the sites that perform well for those queries. Show the client what kind of content those sites have, how many backlinks they’ve got and where those backlinks come from. This usually provides a clear demonstration of what really works – whether or not the client chooses to believe it is a different question.