What Actually is SEO Today?

Search engines reward content that directly answers a search query (and little else)

What Actually is SEO Today?

Originally published on Medium.

Search Engine Optimization is a familiar acronym that many businesses ask for but few understand.

In its simplest form, SEO is creating content on the web that search engines are likely to recommend.

The best SEO we can do today is 1) answer questions with well-presented, focused content, and 2) get credible, relevant sites to link to it. People are looking for an answer, so search engines reward the best answers.


In the past, search engines weren’t smart enough to find the best answers across the unstructured internet, so they over-relied on keywords and other website tags for clues. Obviously, businesses found ways to cheat.

Today, search engines are smart and much harder (impossible?) to cheat.

As time goes on and search engines get even better at context, language interpretation, and intent, the algorithm stuff will be unimportant to the average business.

The only thing that will matter? Organized, quality content.

Search engines will find it everywhere, understand it, and serve it up. Here’s my take on SEO today. While there are less tricks and tactics than before, there’s still a lot we can do to improve our search engine rankings.

On-site SEO

Keywords are out

I’ve been doing SEO for clients since 2004. I remember when keywords had an enormous effect on search ranking.

SEOs (the people implementing SEO, who were not called that in 2004) stuffed keywords into titles, meta tags, and the first two sentences of each paragraph. Some even filled their footers with white-on-white lists of keywords (so humans wouldn’t see them but search engines would).

These tactics worked until search engines started penalizing it. SEOs would then disguise keywords into text “naturally,” often creating less-readable content. This, too, worked until search engines stopped it.

Today, most of my clients still think of “keywords” when they hear “SEO.” Google and other search engines, however, don’t. They can understand complex subjects and topics from more natural (and harder to cheat) clues.

If you want to rank for a specific topic today, write/record/create good information about the topic. If your dermatology-focused content is worth showing, search engines might show it whether someone searches “dermatology,” “skin doctor,” “skincare,” or even “how can I look younger?”

Content hubs are in

Today’s version of keywords (something technical to nudge the search engines) is the “content hub.” Content hubs are content organization models that make site structure and content hierarchy very clear for search engine crawlers.

Content hubs also help humans. Humans actually need content organization to find information more than computers do!

Hub models split content into chunks by topic, so each topic gets a unique landing page and URL. Search engines love this, because they’d rather provide a link directly to an answer. They don’t want the searcher to click anything extra or even read through an irrelevant paragraph to get their answer.

Off-site SEO

Gone are the days when we could get listed on directory sites, drop our link in comments, or even trade links with other SEO-hungry websites.

Today, if a link to your site comes from a less than credible or unrelated site, it may be as good as no link at all.

Furthermore, websites and publications with a lot of outgoing links use the “rel=nofollow” attribute generously these days. Larger sites use them to discourage things like spammy blog comments (with a link stuffed in).

Instead, focus on links from sites that are natural and relevant to your site. The better the referring site, the better it is for your SEO, but first it has to be both natural and relevant.

Once again, search engines have gotten smart enough to more accurately pick up on these quality signals.

If other website authors, especially those with large audiences, link to your content in related content they write, it’s proof that your content enhances the information, and it’s likely similar or better quality.

There’s not really a way to cheat this, which is why it’s a good system. In order to get reputable sources to link to your content, it just has to be good enough.

What’s left on the technical SEO side?

If writing good, organized content that directly answers search queries isn’t enough for you to do, there are a few technical SEO practices that will help your chances of ranking. Maybe. They definitely won’t hurt.

Structured data

Structured data is code in a universal format that tells search engines specific details about your content.

Product reviews, for example, can be coded in a number of ways, but using structured data, all reviews can be standardized and displayed directly on search result pages.

Business information, recipes, job listings, product info, events and more have structured data standards. Using structured data is smart because as more businesses do it and the datasets grow, more products and services will be built on top of them (which means more chances to be found/seen).

And as Google puts it:

“In general, defining more recommended features can make it more likely that your information can appear in Search results with enhanced display.” (link)

Sitemap

Sitemaps are another way to guide search engine crawlers. Sitemaps lay out the pages on a website, how frequently they change, and how important they are relative to the rest of the site.

Sitemaps follow a standardized format, like structured data does.

Encryption

It’s generally understood today that all web traffic should be encrypted. That’s the “https” instead of “http” and the lock in the url bar.

Google has officially started penalizing sites that are not encrypted(previously the norm), but there is an open-source, free security certificate option called Let’s Encrypt that allows any site to meet necessary encryption requirements. It also shows respect for your website visitors.

Site speed

Part of serving people the perfect answer as quickly as possible involves the load time of the content. If two pieces of content answer a query and one loads faster, it will rank higher.

Site speed was less important in the past, but with cellular connections (and mobile data plans), the “weight” of content now factors into search rankings.

Responsive (or at least mobile-friendly)

Some industries are as high as 80% mobile traffic, so search engines reward sites that display well on mobile devices.

Responsive design is website code that adapts to screen size (as opposed to a separate mobile website or a poor experience on small screens). Search engines like responsive design because there are no surprises and no redirects. The same link in the search results on desktop will work equally well on mobile.

That means search engines also discourage interstitials. If the link works on desktop but blocks content unexpectedly on mobile, that’s not a good experience for the searcher.

AMP and syndication

Lastly, there are other SEO-related technical tweaks that might get more eyes on your content. Businesses can create AMP versions of their content by adding specific code to their site. AMP pages load lightning fast, and because that’s a better experience for the searcher, Google will show AMP-ready content first. There are some compromises to this one.

There are other syndication formats, too, like Apple News and RSS/Atom feeds. I’d consider syndication a form of SEO, but we’re getting to the edges of the SEO discipline with this one.


SEO used to include a lot of “tactics,” but today it’s really more of a content/education/marketing/community initiative.

If it sounds kind of hard, that’s because it is. Think about this. If it were as easy as changing some keywords, everyone would show up as the first result. But there can only be one first result.

SEO today means creating the best answer, across the whole internet, for one specific question at a time. Once you have some credibility- when it’s shared and referenced by other humans- search engines will have the proof they need to confidently display that answer.

Easy peasy, right?


Cover Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash