I’ve been thinking a lot lately about something that might strike some marketers and web developers as a radical concept. Here it is:
More than keywords, more than backlinks and guest blogging, more than H1 tags and image tags, I am convinced that the best thing you can do to improve your online presence is provide your users with high-quality, easy to navigate content that makes their lives easier.
It sounds like a trap, right? Too simple? But as I continue working with small businesses, learn from other creative professionals, and collaborate with savvy web developers who really know their stuff, I’m convinced it’s true.
Let’s take a step back and talk for a moment about the ever-mysterious concept of SEO, or Search Engine Optimization.
What Exactly is SEO?
SEO is a practice that began in the mid-90s and involves tailoring websites to rank as high as possible in search engine results. At that time, search engine algorithms were much simpler, and the search engine landscape included players like AltaVista, Ask Jeeves, Yahoo, and Hotbot. In fact, the Google.com domain wasn’t even registered until 1997 and company wasn't officially incorporated until 1998. Can you even remember what the world was like before the phrase “Google it” became embedded in our vernacular?
Anyhow, these search engines routinely “crawl” sites throughout the web, analyzing each page as they go and following links to decide where to head next. The search engines use this information to determine how to present results in response to a user query. So, if you typed “Best nachos in Massachusetts” into Google, you’d see a page of website results (called a SERP) that Google thinks would offer you the most relevant nacho-related information.
As search engines took hold, businesses began to recognize the value of their pages coming up high in search results. It was a way of getting in front of more potential customers and ideally increasing web traffic and revenue.
SEO Practices: Then and Now
In response, webmasters and site owners began adopting practices to convince search engines that their site pages were the most authoritative on a particular topic. Some of these practices were legitimate, like making sure that the headlines and content on the page matched the target topic. However, some practices that developed were a little . . . questionable. These included things like “keyword stuffing” or overusing keywords in the page copy in a way that isn’t serving the reader. There were even instances of web developers using invisible keyword-laden text to try to trick search engines.
The problem with these sort of practices, besides being just plain icky, is that search engines are smart. Google’s complex algorithm changes every day—and you better believe that it punishes spammy websites. Think about it: Google’s success hinges on its ability to provide the best search experience to the user. It wants to make sure that the user is finding relevant, useful content easily.
The additional hitch in this whole SEO quagmire is that increasingly, Google and other search engines are becoming pay-to-play arenas. Even smaller companies invest thousands of dollars a month in paid search advertising to ensure a higher ranking in the SERPs. So, no matter how clever your SEO practices, there’s a good chance someone with the big bucks will bump you out of a first page ranking. The takeaway: never trust an "SEO Expert" who guarentees they can get your site to rank #1 in the search results.
This is why I think we need to stop focusing so much on SEO and start focusing more on what your audience will experience once they get to your site.
Serve Your Users First
You want to be seen as a site with integrity, one that solves problems and provides valuable information to your audiences. Quality content and copy builds trust and engagement. Yes, you need to get people to your site for them to experience your brand, but you better believe that exceptional content is going to keep them there far longer than copy tricked-out for bots.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for using relevant keywords where appropriate; making sure page titles and descriptions are clean, accurate, and helpful; regularly publishing useful content on your site; and tagging images appropriately to ensure all web users can understand your page. But, I think it can be done and has to be done always with your audience’s experience in mind.
It boils down to this: if it’s good for your readers, it’s good for your SEO and it’s good for your business. User-friendly content always wins.