By Tom Dempster | July 2019
In a world where even the most discerning consumer can struggle to separate fact from fiction, it’s no surprise that the world of SEO is littered with its fair share of outlandish claims and downright falsehoods.
This article is perfect for you if you’re completely new to SEO, or if you’re simply in need of a refresher on the fundamentals. Read on to discover the amazing things SEO can do for your business, and the amazing things that, well, it can’t - no matter how much you wish it could.
The idea of optimising web content is not a new one, but algorithmic changes and tweaks mean our processes are constantly evolving to achieve results our clients are happy with. In this respect, SEO is more akin to clay pigeon shooting than archery - the aim is broadly the same, but it is a moving target which requires a mixture of knowledge and skill to be successful.
By contrast, outdated SEO techniques which may have worked twenty years ago (keyword stuffing, we’re looking at you…) are no longer relevant. Google is now so refined that it can easily spot manipulative intent and attempts to game the system. Despite this, there are still agencies and ‘professionals’ who try to sell these ineffective, outdated practices to clients as viable SEO solutions in 2019.
Even worse, not only will poor SEO strategies fail to unlock the full potential of your business, in some cases, they have the potential to harm your visibility in search results.
Toss aside exact match domains and keyword stuffing - they won’t work where we’re going. In this article, we’re discussing what good SEO practices can do for your business - and what even the best SEO strategy will be unable to deliver.
Assuming, then, that you’re putting in place a well-thought out, modern SEO strategy - what precisely can it achieve?
In certain cases, PPC ads can be an expensive exercise. Although there’s no doubt they can have a place in your overall strategy, paid adverts shouldn’t be the only tool at your disposal. Why? According to data from Ahrefs, paid clicks can account for as little as 6% of the clicks for a given keyword, with the majority of clicks going to the first five organic results in Google. Take the below example for a term with reasonable search volume - ‘fintech startups’ - which has only 5% of clicks going to paid ads. The other 95%? Going straight to organic results.
Figure 1 (via Ahrefs Keyword Explorer, retrieved July 2019)
On the face of it, this might seem peculiar. Surely people using search engines are most likely to click on the first result they see, regardless of whether it’s paid or organic - right? Not necessarily. Users are savvy, and searchers can spot the difference between paid and organic results - despite Google’s best efforts at subtlety - and, in general, users place greater trust in the natural results for a search term.
Investing in SEO is an effective use of time, money and resources. It isn’t going anywhere. More people are using search engines than ever before, and if your rivals are throwing money solely at PPC ads - good for them! And even better for you. As we’ve seen above, you’re far more likely to drive visitors to your website by featuring in organic results as opposed to just paid ads. Producing quality, engaging content which attracts users and boosts your presence in the SERPs will not only increase traffic, but it will help to build trust in your brand - and provide you with a sustainable platform for growth.
The deeper you dive with your SEO process, the more insights you’ll be able to discover about your existing customers - and potential ones - to help shape your product and service offering. For example, by conducting a thorough keyword research process, you can not only understand what your visitors are searching for - you can also discover how and why they’re searching for it. What questions are they asking? How far along the buying process are they? Do you have informational content to support the commercial aspects of your website? Are your meta descriptions sufficiently engaging to encourage searchers to click? This is just the tip of the iceberg - these are all questions which a data-driven and methodical SEO approach can help you answer.
The amount of data available - from the information you can glean from Google Analytics, all the way to SEO-specific tools from Ahrefs and SEMRush - are a treasure trove to identify the best way to reach your audience at all stages of your marketing process. By understanding the SERP features for a particular keyword term, you can inform the type of content you’ll need to create. Examples of SERP features you’ll have seen in Google include:
Let’s look at two real-world examples of how this works.
Firstly, let’s look at the results for the search term 'blue laptop bag':
Figure 2 - Google search results for 'blue laptop bag', retrieved July 2019.
We can see that the shopping boxes appear front and centre in the search results, with a selection of blue laptop bags. Underneath that is the image pack. Further below that is the traditional list of results - various retailers and comparison sites from which you can purchase a blue laptop bag.
In this instance, there is clear transactional intent in the search term - someone searching for the term ‘blue laptop bag’ wants to buy a blue laptop bag. They don’t want to know the benefits of a blue laptop bag, or read comparisons between blue laptop bags and other colours - they just want to buy a blue laptop bag.
Contrast this with a semi-related search term - still on laptop bags - ‘laptop sleeve vs bag’:
Figure 3 - Google search results for 'laptop sleeve vs bag', retrieved July 2019.
This example shows a completely different set of results. No shopping results, and no image pack - because the nature of the search term is clearly informational. Instead, we have a featured snippet at the top of the results; then ‘people also ask’ boxes; and then the organic results, each providing a comparison or discussion between laptop sleeves and laptop bags.
What does this show? It demonstrates the need to create content which will meet the searcher’s intent - not just a case of including the keyword in your text and hoping for the best. By understanding the type of results for a search term, it enables you to create content that is most likely to be featured near the top of the SERPs.
Now we know what SEO can do, how about a few quick points on what it can’t do - even with the greatest will in the world?
Of course, there are things you could do today to enhance the visibility of your website in search results - and you would probably see some benefit tomorrow. But SEO has moved away from quick fixes, and any strategy has to be a sustainable, long-term solution which can be built upon. In other words, you don’t put the roof on before you’ve laid the foundations. Be very wary of anyone trying to sell you an impossibly quick solution and ask them about the exact nature of the strategy they’ll be implementing. The last thing you want is for your website to suffer algorithmic penalties as a result of unethical, manipulative SEO tactics
Again, this falls in the quick fix category - but as we’ve already shown, there’s more to SEO than just adding a bunch of related keywords to your website and watching the visitors flock. Keyword research is an important ingredient of the SEO recipe, but just as important is being to implement them correctly. Keyword research informs many facets of an overall SEO strategy, including the type of content you should create and which format you should opt for. Using tools such as Clearscope can assist in ensuring you are making the most of the keywords you are using.
SEO is just one component of the marketing mix - and whilst it requires a laserlike focus to achieve good results, you should also think about how it fits in with your online and offline marketing strategy. SEO isn’t just about ranking #1 for a certain keyword - it’s about getting the maximum value from your website to help contribute to your wider business goals. Nobody starts a business and says, “I want to rank #1 for x in Google because only that will define whether my business is a success” - instead, it’s better to work from the basis of those who start businesses who are actually more likely to say, “I want my business to be a success, and improving my website, providing a great user experience and producing useful content that is discoverable can assist with that.
Remember the moving target we spoke about earlier? An initial audit may identify some of the issues preventing your website from reaching its ranking potential, but SEO requires ongoing work and development to really get the most out of it. One way to think of SEO is like a plant you’re taking care of. Sure, you can just dump a bucketload of food and water on it once every so often, and it might get a temporary boost - but after a while, it will simply die (or at best, wither) because you haven’t fed it properly. Instead, plan on feeding it regularly, nurture it, give it time to grow and you’ll see that in the long run, it will grow into a pleasing, sustainable and healthy plant...or website.
As you travail the Internet, you’re going to run into ‘SEO people’ who are offering you the magic wands and instant results we’ve shown simply cannot be achieved in 2019.
We work with brands across the globe who rely on us to be their guiding light for SEO and content. They know what works - and what doesn’t.
After reading this piece, we hope you’ll be better placed to reach an informed decision and spot the red herrings the next time you have a conversation with an agency purporting to be able to deliver the undeliverable.