To excel at SEO you need a strong understanding not just of individual tactics, but the big picture as well. Knowing how everything comes together and how much each piece matters will help you keep your efforts focused on the things that make the biggest difference. This is what will keep you from chasing pennies down the street where there’s gold laying around. It’s the difference between randomly pursuing tactics and best practices and developing a logical strategy.
This page is the 10,000 foot view of SEO; the broad structure that all our tactics are built around. Here we’re going to look at the five things SEOs can do that actually matter, and in the next page we’ll look at the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that we can use to measure progress.
The 5 Things SEOs Do
Obviously the goal of SEO is to get more relevant traffic from search engines. Ultimately just about everything we do in SEO falls into one of these five categories, because just about everything that can actually boost your organic traffic falls into these activities. If you’re doing something that doesn’t fall into these categories, odds are that you aren’t doing SEO.
- Increase Crawlability & Indexation
- Increase Topicality
- Increase Authority
- Increase User Metrics that Google Measures
- Decrease Risk of Penalties
Let’s take a look at each of these activities in more depth.
Crawlability & Indexation
It’s important to make sure that Google can find more pages of your site. This isn’t usually a concern for smaller sites, but sites with hundreds of thousands or millions of pages need to put some effort into making sure Google can crawl all of them, and include them in the index.
Modern Google is incredibly good at crawling and indexing sites, and it usually requires a pretty boneheaded move somewhere for this to be a major issue.
Topicality is making sure that a given page on your site matches what a user is searching for: at the most basic level, it’s making sure that the words someone is searching for are on the page, so that they are included in the database built by the Indexer. In the SEO world this is often referred to as relevance, but I prefer to use topicality because that’s the term Google uses (to Google relevance is the combination of all factors).
Topicality signals are more than just including keywords on the page, though that is certainly a significant part of it. Topicality centers around words, word count, and unique, quality content.
In the web today there are millions of pages that are topically relevant to just about any search query, and topicality signals are particularly easy to game. Moving beyond topicality to look at authority signals was Google’s huge contribution to changing the way search engines worked.
Authority signals pretty much mean links: a link from another site to a page on your site is an indication that the other site considers your page an authority on that topic. Authority signals are far more important than topicality signals, and more difficult to get. Work on authority can also involve the internal site structure, and how you flow authority through the site.
Google increasingly measures user behavior to determine the best sites to rank. This includes everything from the click through rate in the SERPs and how people are searching for your brand name to how long search users spend on your site.
User metrics did not used to be nearly as strong a factor as they now are, and much of this did not used to be within the purview of SEO. For modern SEO, these user metrics are vital, and cunning SEOs can realize huge rankings gains by understanding what user metrics Google pays attention to.
Risk & Penalties
Google has a myriad of algorithmic penalties in addition to a webspam team that applies manual penalties. Because computer algorithms can never be perfect, they sometimes catch innocent sites in their algorithmic penalties. As a result, in addition to playing by the rules, SEOs have to be aware of the kinds of things that can trip a penalty and take steps to avoid them. It’s not just enough to be innocent: your site also needs to look innocent. This typically involves things like reducing duplicate content and proper use of canonicalization (more on this in Tactics; Authority – On-Site).
These activities aren’t directly related to improving your traffic; instead they’re defensive moves to prevent losing traffic in the future.
Degrees of Separation
It’s worth noting that it’s often worthwhile for SEOs to pursue one of these activities through actions a step or two removed. For example: building up a large and engaged Twitter following won’t actually increase your Authority; however, when you have something awesome to share on your site, that Twitter following can help spread the word — and hopefully some bloggers or news sites discover and link to it as a result (of course data suggests that using social following to generate links doesn’t actually work).
Thus building that Twitter following was an authority-building activity, but was a couple steps removed (and of course a social media presence has other business benefits outside of SEO).
In general when you’re starting out you want to focus on activities that directly relate to one of the 5 things SEOs do, and possibly some things with one degree of separation.
Unless you really know what you’re doing, only start working on things several degrees away, like growing your Twitter following, once you have your basics in place. Otherwise you’re likely spending larger amounts of effort on things that will see disproportionately smaller returns.
Google’s Goals & Philosophies
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KPIs for SEO