The State of SEO

‘Help me get to No.1 on Google’ is a common refrain from new and old website owners. The art of getting a website on the first page of Google’s and other search engine’s search results is, as many of you will know, known as Search Engine Optimisation or SEO. There are many techniques and tactics to achieve this, but over the last couple of years in particular Google has taken on those that use the dark arts or black hat techniques to get their site ranked highly.

In many ways, this has made it more difficult to get to No.1 as it is harder technically to play the system, but in other ways, it has made things simpler – it is the quality of the content of your site that matters most together with the quality of the incoming links to your site.

Key Words and backlinks

Not so long ago, if you could identify the right key words and phrases, and populate your web site with them, and also get a good number of backlinks – links back to your site from other sites – you were most the way to get your site high up in search results.

The problem was that lots of people soon realised this and started to abuse it. Google quite rightly decided to do something about this. For example, the Penguin update in April 2012 targeted sites buying links or obtaining them through link networks designed primarily to boost Google rankings. Cries of ‘help me get back on the first page of Google’ went up from many quarters.

Content is now King

Google wants the most relevant sites to feature in its search results. For Google, that currently means sites with ‘compelling’ content, trust and authority, and often sites that have been around for a while to prove their worth. Matt Cutts from Google said this a few years back and has been true to his word:

We are trying to level the playing field a bit. All those people doing, for lack of a better word, over optimization or overly SEO – versus those making great content and trying to make a fantastic site. We are trying to make GoogleBot smarter, make our relevance better, and we are also looking for those who abuse it, like too many keywords on a page, or exchange way too many links or go well beyond what you normally expect”.

Some people might think he underplayed this – ‘level the playing field a bit’ seems quite mild. The advice has generally been keep your site user-friendly – design for users, not search engines. A site that is clear and user friendly will probably be search engine friendly too.

Tactics that no longer work and may penalise your site

Keyword stuffing or loading. Some years ago, you could list your keywords in your website’s meta keyword code and Google would take notice. However, it did not take long for people to ‘stuff’ all sorts of key words in the meta keywords, often irrelevant to the site, to get traffic to a site, often on false pretences. By 2009, Google had announced it no longer takes into account meta keywords.

The focus then moved on to getting keywords into the visible content of websites – in headings and general content. Again, some took this to extremes with pages almost entirely consisting of key word content and no real content (‘content farms’)- stuffing or loading the page with key words. The Penguin update in 2011 targeted sites with low quality or thin content. Keywords are still extremely important but it’s best done naturally in the context of meaningful content otherwise you may get penalised.

Backlinks. For a while, it was all about back links. A successful website would surely have loads of links wouldn’t it? Suddenly a whole host of link exchange schemes, link directories and link ‘farms’ came into existence, some paid for. Just think of all those spammy links from blog posts that now exist. What are those links telling us about a site? By 2012, Google had decided that enough was enough, leading to the ‘Penguin’ update.

This has badly affected some sites as it is a difficult process to remove links to your site if there are thousands out there (you can use Google’s disavow tool) and some badly affected sites have strated again with new domains.

Guest Blogging – one way to get links to your site was to write a guest blog post and link back to your site. Again, something that started as a reasonable supposition quickly became abused, so that Matt Cutts from Google, recently wrote on his blog:

‘Okay, I’m calling it: if you’re using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop. Why? Because over time it’s become a more and more spammy practice, and if you’re doing a lot of guest blogging then you’re hanging out with really bad company’

Exact Match Domains – an obvious indicator as to what your site is about is its domain name so a domain name full of keywords such as must work right?, especially if it is containing hyphens to clearly delineate the words? As ever, it’s yes and no. Such a domain is known as an Exact Match Domain or EMD. Having noticed a correlation between EMDs and low quality spammy websites, there was a Google EMD update in 2012. Overall though, EMDs do not seem too badly affected as long as there is natural and meaningful content on the site – they no longer have such an advantage though. The best domain names will reflect your brand and specialist area, and not contain hyphens.

What to do for SEO in 2014?

On page SEO:

SEO still begins with key words and phrases. Do your research before writing the content for your site. Investigate which key words your top ranked competitors are using. See further information below for some tools to help you do this.

Create unique, accurate page (and post) titles – page titles tell search engines what a page is about. Try to include key words but keep it natural.

Make use of the ‘description’ meta tag for each page – make each description unique and meaningful, and not just full of key words. It tells users after all what the page is about.

Use Friendly urls and filenames – if your filenames and urls contain relevant words, this will convey meaningful information to users and search engines.

Use keywords in headings and keep headings in a hierarchy – headings are tagged H1 to H6 in HTML code. Use H1 as the main heading (and only once for H1) and H2 for the first main idea, H3 for the details of that idea, etc. (in WordPress, use the Paragraph Format settings). Headings are good for displaying content to users so keep it meaningful and use keywords sensibly.

Optimise Images – Google can’t see images bit it can read information about images, including the filename (don’t upload DSC0123, give it a meaningful name before uploading), image titles and most importantly the alt attribute or alternative text, which allows you to specify alternative text for the image if it cannot be displayed for some reason .e.g. by screen readers. It’s easy to forget about images or not to bother to do this, but they are an important part of optimising your site and considered important by Google (and to meet accessibility and relevant web standards, also good for SEO).

Ensure good navigation and internal links – make sure all pages on your site have at least one link either from the main menu or from an internal link form another page. Avoid ‘click here’ for internal links – try to include meaningful text and a key word or two (but don’t over do it) e.g. visit our Wedding Photos Gallery rather than Click Here to see our wedding photos.

Emphasize keywords to give them more weight – e.g. Dave is a photographer from London. Google tends to treat words wrapped in and tags as being more significant that their surrounding text. Don’t over do it though so it looks fairly natural.

Create sitemaps for users – also provides ‘good crawl coverage’ for Google’s search robots.

Create XML Sitemaps for search engines – make sure you create and submit one to Google, Bing etc – the best way to notify the engines of your site.

Add external links from your site to good sites with quality information.

Finally, keep content fresh – try to update your site with new content to keep it fresh, Google likes active sites

Off page SEO:

Backlinks are not dead – you just need to be careful and aim for links with plenty of juice. One good link from a trusted, authoritative site might be worth a thousand low quality links, whilst one link from a dodgy source and your site might do down the rankings. Focus on good quality links and avoid any link schemes.

Social Media – It’s actually a little unclear as to how important social media is in terms of search results. Matt Cutts has recently said that Google doesn’t take into account social signals such as likes and followers, but has been less clear on that in the past. Most social media sites use ‘nofollow’ for links (effectively instructing search robots to ignore them) to avoid spam and so there will be no gain for search rankings and no link juice. However, links to your site may get shared and end up on another site, so there may be indirect benefits. And it’s not just about SEO – social media can get visitors to your site too, and that is just as important for many businesses as SEO in driving traffic to a site. See SEO as part of your overall marketing strategy.

Google My Business is seen as increasingly important for establishing a site as a trusted site partly because Google will verify your site itself and it has full access to the data. Make sure your address and contact details are consistent and correct across the web.

Directories – use local directories especially if you are a local business. There may not be any direct SEO benefit (again ‘nofollow;’ links) but your business may appear in search results if it’s in Yelp or the iGroup of business directories (in the UK) for example. 

WordPress Plugins and Joomla

WordPress sites are generally good for SEO. Make sure you use tags and categories for your blog posts, and add the alt text for images. There are two plugins that can help further improve the site’s SEO – the All in One SEO Pack (17.5m downloads) and WordPress SEO by Yoast (8m downloads). The latter seems more favoured at the time of writing but they are both well established plugins with good track records.

For guides on using these plugins see:

Complete Guide to WordPress SEO by Yoast

Users Guide to the All in One SEO Pack

Joomla too has a good range of SEO settings and options – see Some Tips for SEO in Joomla 3.0 

Review Your Site

Increasingly, it takes patience to see your site rank highly. If you want to monitor your site use use relevant SEO tools; and sign up for a Google and/or Bing Webmaster account and Analytics accounts to find out more about how search engines view your site, how people are finding it and the search terms they are using, and for an analysis of its key words.

Google’s search algorithm is constantly changing. SEO tactics that are good now may not be in the future – just as many of those from a few years ago are no longer relevant today or even harmful. A few voices are convinced Google are driving us to using Google Adwords instead of SEO, but the majority of Google’s changes are focused on driving relevant sites with quality content to the top of the rankings which has to be the right direction.

Further Information

SEO guides

Google Search Engine Optimisation Starter Guide (PDF) -from the horse’s mouth

Beginners Guide to SEO by Moz – definitive guide

Google’s 200 Ranking Factors Infographic – all the nuts and bolts of SEO in one infographic

SEO versus New SEO Infographic – comparing and contrasting old and new SEO techniques.

SEO tools

Google Adwords Keyword Planner – excellent keyword tool.

SEOquake – handy toolbar for Chrome, Firefox or Opera

Screaming Frog SEO Checker

Moz Tools and Resources – try Open Site Explorer, Moz Bar

Majestic SEO – SEO suite with basic free option and premium packages

Webmaster Tools

Google Search Console and Analytics

Bing Webmaster Tools



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