We are constantly asked at EvenVision "how do I get my improve my SEO?"
The answer is fairly straight forward in many ways, but it's also a bit of a loaded question and one that we hope to dispel some of the surrounding mystery of. For those of you who are unaware of what SEO is, here's a basic description:
"SEO = Search Engine Optimization" which is the way that your website ranks on major search engines like Google. Typically speaking you want good SEO on your website so that you can appear higher up in the search rankings allowing people to find you with greater ease.The more people find you, the more people will come to your website.
However, SEO isn't just one thing like "having keywords" but a rather complicated equation that is made up of these key variables (ranking factors) which I've listed below:
On-site SEO - generally speaking the below variables are related to "on-site" SEo which means factors that are determined by your own website without regard to the millions of websites that exist surrounding it.
- Information Architecture - is it logical to move around your website and navigate to the right locations?
- Responsive Design - is your website easy to access across all devices, from a desktop computer to a mobile phone?
- Website Speed - is your website fast to load and quick to transition from page to page?
- Secure Website - is your website protected with SSL encryption providing a safe space for people to input data that they may send?
- On-site SEO - is your website rich with valuable "Good" content - defined as 1) authoritative, 2) relevant, 3) fresh?
Off-site SEO - generally speaking these ranking factors are related to actions that are primarily taking by people on websites that determine, in the broadest sense, whether or not your website is trustworthy and authoritative.
- Authority - do other websites confirm the quality and existence of your website's content and material as "Good"?
- Social Proof - is there general chatter and buzz on social media sites related to your website? Can other people confirm and verify the existence and quality of your business and it's online presence?
These seven variables are a brief overview of the various components under consideration by large search engines like Google. Long-gone are the days when you could rank high in results because you loaded your website full of simple keywords. The simple reality of the SEO landscape is that if you want to rank high you must consider the overall user experience of your website.
What is UX Design?
UX Design is a term that is typically associated with the large tech companies, but it's a term that we can also use for incredibly simple things as well. UX Design, or User Experience Design, is simply the practice of designing "stuff" (in this case "websites") that takes into consideration the end user's (people) that are arriving on your website and what they are attempting to accomplish. In many ways, we already do it intuitively when building a new website. We all have a certain internal gauge that can tell us when something just simply isn't right, which is built upon past experience. We know for instance that if the website does not have clear navigation people won't be able to move through the website with ease, likely get frustrated and leave.
UX Design determines how visitors will perceive you.
As noted above, we all have an internal gauge for "badness," in fact, we're significantly better at determining what's bad than we are at determining what is actually good. This is part of the reason designs exist in the first place - we help you make stuff good. Your website is an extension of your business, a living representation of your brand and thus tells people really quick whether or not you are reliable, trustworthy, and authoritative. Because of this, there is a need to make sure that your UX design doesn't inadvertently turn people away, but draws them in and inspires confidence in them about your brand, business, message, and value proposition.
Structuring your User Experience
But it's important to consider User Experience Design in a more structured fashion because the big titans of industry like Google which control how you rank online (and thereby the success of your website - and potentially business) consider UX in a structured fashion. Thankfully, we can actually pull a structure from the SEO variables and use that to consider our user experience.
Before we dive into a bit more information on SEO and UX, it might make sense to address one other key topic. Why should I care about the user experience of my website?
Why do Search Engines care about UX?
To understand this question and the context of it's answer perhaps it's best to start with a basic question. How does Search Engines Company make money? They make money through ad's that they show to people. If they have no people then they make no money off ads. It's really that simple.
That means that for Search Engines like Google it's absolutely critical that they can provide a good user experience to their users otherwise they will simply leave. But how does a search engine provide a good user experience? Well simply put the same way that any website provides a good user experience, they meet the users expectations for finding information that is relevant to them.
Consider for example, a physical store like a grocery store. Have you ever struggled to find something like chopped canned tomatoes? How frustrating is it searching through a grocery store trying to find that one thing that you need for dinner? Extremely frustration - I speak from personal experience.
You can think of a search engine's user experience in the same way, they are there to help you find what you are looking for. If you're looking for chopped canned tomato's then you most certainly do not want to see results for pickled pig feet - it simply isn't relevant. In other words for a search engine to provide a good user experience it should not only be 1) fast, 2) intuitive, 3) provide good results (I.E. Good content) that is relevant, authoritative, and fresh (more on this specifically below).
Now, even if a search engine can provide a good result that hits all the right topics, if a user leaves Google and lands on your website for Chopped Canned Tomatoes, but it never loads because it's so slow, Google will have actually provided a bad result. Therefore they consider the website's user experience that they are recommending in search results because it will affect the way that people experience their own system.
Because of this over the past decades, Google (in particular) has developed an extremely complex system for understanding whether or not the website that they are recommending on the first page will indeed fulfill the needs of their user's needs and leave them satisfied.
To put it simply: SEO is all about the User Experience.
And major search engines are constantly working hard to improve the results in their search systems to ensure that users are provided the best information and experience that they can. This is part of the reason there are always updates to their systems.
X Design SEO Structure:
As noted above, we can actually pull a structure from the SEO variables and use that to consider the user experience of our website. For the sake of simplicity, we will focus on the ranking factors specifically from the frame of on-site SEO.
Is it simple, quick and easy to navigate through your website? Doesn't the content structure encourage people to find not only pages of content but also information on a page? As noted above, if people simply cannot find stuff that will likely lead to confusion and frustration. People have a very low tolerance for poor information architecture and are very unlikely to slog through a badly structured website if they cannot find what they are looking for quickly.
Is your website able to be accessed in it's entirely on a mobile device? With the vast majority of searches now occurring on mobile devices major platforms like Google and even Facebook giving preference to mobile-friendly websites if you are not yet considering your mobile user base then you're missing out.
Do pages on your website load quickly? The first experience someone has with your business online is often how long it takes to load. If your website is bogged down with poorly considered compression methods for images, and rich content you're going to be losing people and ranking. As mentioned above, major platforms consider these metrics when positioning your website against competitors.
Do you have an SSL security certificate associated with your website that encrypts data input on your website? If you're an e-commerce business this is a must have to even process credit cards. If you're taking webform submissions major browsers like Chrome now warn individuals that they are submitting information on insecure websites. The very last thing that you want is for a user to feel like you're not going to provide them a safe and secure experience. Even if your website is not accepted input data, search engines are placing an emphasis on websites that have an SSL certificate, so you best acquire one or accept that you'll be left out of top results.
This particular element is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to considering it within the context of your UX Design, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't consider it. One great example is when making an update to your website. Authority is measured in multiple ways, but one in particular method is "backlinking" which is the idea that other websites will link back to yours because you're got either 1) great content or 2) a product/service of interest. If you're even updating your website with an entirely new platform, or simply changing the structure around on your website you may run the risk of creating new URL patterns which could essentially break legacy links providing a 404 error to anyone trying to get to your website from another website's backlinks. Simply put this is something that you want to avoid.
Does your website and business in the broader context exist on social media platforms? Social media, love it or hate it, is a big deal and only growing in value for search engineers. Without considering the value of the impact of it on your business you are going to be missing out on a large component. One thing to consider though is simply how your website can be shared online. Does your website have open graphs setup for easy social rich social media sharing?
Page vs Website Ranking
There is one last item of consideration when it comes to SEO and UX design, and that is the concept of page vs website ranking. A singular page on a website or even a singular piece of content on a website can receive it's very own ranking independent of
The discerning reading will have noticed from the list above that I left off On-Site SEO, and a lot of that is owing to the sheer weight of it in the scale of SEO. So let's take a closer more in-depth look at it.
On-site SEO and the User Experience
Quickly flying overview: Is the content relevant to what an individual is looking to find? Does the content provide rich information that details out your services, your products and what an individual can expect when you arrive or when they acquire your product? Content is King, but it must be relevant to the subject (think information architecture), and it must be authoritative (I.E. original and not plagiarized). Even more so your content must be "fresh" which means it must be up-to-date. If your competitors are sharing new relevant information about a product, and you're not, it's likely that they will appear higher than you.
More in-depth User Experience On-Site SEO:
Content is King. We know this to be true. If you're wondering where to get started on your website for helping it rank just start producing content. It's the lowest cost method for gaining results and ranking. One key principle behind this is that by producing content to share on your website you are actually creating what is known as a "Digital Artifact."
A digital artifact can be defined as any type of content that is shared: text, audio, video, images, animations. Typically when we refer to rich media, we're talking about a combination of text + images or video. The power of constructing and publishing a digital artifact on your website is that your website can become a living archive of this data which search engines can pull from.
Often times people construct really great material for marketing purposes and send it out via social media, or email. But the reality of these platforms is that content is hyper time sensitive. Either the intended user will see it within the next couple hours or even the next couple days, and then the content is gone. That is not the case, however, with content that is housed on your website. When content is published it can actually take time to bring people in, but if it's good and valuable content people will actually be able to find it for years to come. Furthermore, it can be updated to stay relevant to changes in the environment. We, for instance, update almost all of our insight articles every year as changes occur in the website environment.
Digital artifacts can be read (if properly tagged) and indexed by search engines which adds another weight to your website's overall measure and value. Typically the more content you the more weight your website has and therefore it will rank higher. However, it is important that the content you produce isn't just fluff but fulfills the requirements of "Good" content.
But focus on the principles of Good Content.
"Good" UX SEO Content is defined as:
The content that you've published, and produced is original. This means that you haven't copied content from another website. Yes, you can reference other website's that isn't the issue so much as stealing their images or even just copying their text verbatim. Google, in particular, is incredibly good at contextualizing content on a website, and even tracking the original source of content across the web. That said, if you're an expert in your field you have stuff that you can share which will be of value to your website visitors. This authoritative content can add value to the experience of coming to your website above your competitors.
This is rather intuitive, but if you're in the business of selling chopped canned tomatoes, then it's probably not appropriate for you to be talking about Unicorns, or North Korea - unless directly relevant to your brand. If you're in the business of selling chopped canned tomatoes then you'll probably have other products that you sell in a similar vein. Keep your content relevant to the business goals and objectives. If your business is far and wide reaching with its fingers in every pie, then make sure your information architecture is carefully throughout and planned to highlight the key difference. For example, if you're a clothing retailer consider separating out men's and women's clothing. It can be that easy. The primary idea here though is that relevant content provides a faster more valuable experience for the end user. Google can read your site and contextualize it's content so it's best to keep it all on point.
Now, this is a bit more subjective. If you're in a crowded market space, then, of course, you will be competing against people moving quickly all attempting to climb the leader board to rank above each other. This runs in stark comparison to other industries that are niches and simply do not have many competitors. As a rule of thumb that we use when talking about Fresh content we say that anything over one-month-old is considered old by a search engine. However, what is old for a search engine isn't necessarily old for the end user or "human" visitor that may arrive on your website, and this is where things get a bit more tricky. However, just keep this in mind, if you're not moving your business proactively forward you're actually moving back and losing ground. Don't let yourself wake up one day wondering where all of your clients went.
We will add this as a separate variable because of the importance of rich content is dramatically increasing as availability and access to high-speed mobile internet increases. In essence, a page full of pictures, video, animations, and interactive elements will dramatically outrank a page that is loaded with text. However, one key important element to note is that properly tagging rich media is essential, as major search engines are still struggling to contextualize the value of an image, or video. In other words, we don't recommend replacing all of your text with videos and images, but we do recommend making liberal use of them throughout your website as part of your brand strategy. As a final point, rich media has been proven time and time again to attract people's attention and hook them, which is a measure of a site's user experience.
Let's spend another moment talking about what makes content Fresh, because it's something that I coach clients on almost every week.
What is a Fresh User Experience?
Search Engine Defined Fresh Ranking Factors:
Below are the key ranking factors/variables, used by major search engine systems for determining if your content is Fresh. Remember: They determine that Fresh content is going to provide a better user experience and thus be more valuable to direct traffic too.
- Publication Date - Essentially when was the original page of content published. Typically over time, this ranking factor will go from Fresh to Stale.
- Percentage of Change from the Original - When you go in and edit the content later, is it a larger percentage that is changing or a small percentage? Typically speaking a larger percentage of change will result in a more Fresh ranking.
- Changes to the Core Content - Core content on a page is often defined by header tags: H1, H2, H3... etc. Changes to these core content elements often are a signal of Freshness. However, be warned that changes to Core Anchor text - or text that defines the brand - can result in negative Freshness simply because the site has lost course - sticking to the nautical theme. An example of this is if my URL (a great example of Anchor text) is Yachts.com, and while it originally started as a place to buy and sell boats, it slowly drifted from yachts to the publication of cat-related star wars memorabilia. This would be a clear indictor that it was time to shift the focus on your brand strategies online presence.
- Rate of Content Changes/Updates - The less frequent changes are made the less Fresh it is. Consider methods for boosting the rate of changes to content.
- New Page Creation - More of a site-wide metric, but if a website is receiving fewer new pages of content than their competitor during each period then typically the site that receives less attention will be deemed less Fresh.
- Rate of New Backlink Growth - This is a measure that falls under the umbrella of Authority, but is considered a component of Freshness for a page. Simply put, if a page is new it will likely be deemed more valuable by other websites and businesses to refer back to.
- Fresh Websites pass Freshness Along - If a website that is considered Fresh refer's back to an older more Stale website, they can actually pass along a Freshness value to that older website. An example of this phenomenon can be seen when a piece of content becomes more relevant, such as when vinyl recordings came flying back into the mainstream conscious. A website that talked about the value of vinyl years ago could suddenly become hot again when a Fresh new website refers to it as a source of good information.
- User Metrics signal Freshness - This can often occur when "date stamped" content (in other words content that is date specific) becomes more sticky for users that arrive on a site. Stickiness is a measure of how long individuals stay on a site and on a single page of content.
- The Older Content is Often the Best - Fresh doesn't necessarily mean brand new. Well-aged content that has been documented as authoritative and relevant can often be more than enough to overpower any measure of Freshness associated with a website's user experience.
Now that we have a brief understanding of how search engines measure freshness it is worth turning our attention to asking the question: "how does a human being define Fresh content?"
How Do Humans Measure Fresh Content?
There is a subtle difference between how humans measure fresh content and how search engines do. And it all has to do with when a person arrives on your site for the first time. Search engines will often crawl and index a new website within weeks, or even minutes depending on the inherent authority of the business. For new visitors to that site, they could arrive within minutes of its launch, or hours or even days.
However, what is more than often the case with small businesses is that once crawled by any major search engine their visitors might not arrive for some time. Meaning that the first time a person interacts with a website could actually be years after the site was first launched. This is important especially because the vast major of content on site's is not stamped with a date or time that is public to the end users like a blog system may. For example on EvenVision.com we didn't change the underlying structure of our services pages for two years, meaning that if someone found us after two years they would still be experiencing our site's content for the first time. For them, they would be experiencing Fresh content, well after Google or other major search engines had marked it Stale.
So when it comes to producing Good Content that will be Fresh for a human, it's more important to measure the value of the content based on the following ranking factors:
As noted above, stickiness is actually a term used to define "User Metrics that signal Freshness" for a search engine system. However, it can be incredibly valuable to have a better understanding of it from a human perspective.
Let's say that John Smith is looking for a plumber, and so he Google's "Plumbers in Eureka CA." Seeing a website for Jerry's Pipe's he clicks and arrives on the site. He looks around, checks out the services and decides to give Jerry's Pipe's a call. After the call he continues to browse and looks into the services a bit more closely. Google is now measuring the following variables of John Smiths visit to the website:
- How long did John Smith stay on the website, and on individual pages?
- How far down the page did John Smith go? Did he make it to the bottom?
- What pages did John Smith visit?
- Which pages did John Smith immediately leave without interacting with?
- Which page did John Smith exist the website from?
- Did John Smith return to the website? If so where did he go? And how long was it from his previous visit?
As a general rule of thumb, you want content that will keep people on your website longer. You want content that will keep people stuck to your website because this is content that provides a Good User Experience. This is all generally speaking. There are pages that fall within the information architecture that are not designed to keep people locked to the site, and search engines are pretty good at determining those.
For instance, a pathway page is designed to direct people from one area to another area and should be a quick jumping off point to explore other content in more depth. The value of the children pages (pages that sit under a pathway - parent - page), can actually help determine the value of the parent pages.
As noted before, rich media or rich content has proven to be a means of encouraging visitors to stay longer on an individual page. Even more so interactive content or content that a user can engage with is another means of encouraging a more sticky websites and overall user experience.
Perceived Freshness is a bit of a twist on Fresh as measured by a machine, or search engine system. As we noted before, a human might not visit a website until well after a machine has deemed a website's content Stale; meaning the human user is experiencing content that they perceive to be fresh (assuming no date specific content that ages it).
If we go back to the example of John Smith and Jerry's Pipe's, the first time he arrived on the site was 6 months after Jerry launched his businesses website. This means that John Smith is experiencing the content well after it was first deemed Fresh by a machine. But for John Smith, absolutely everything is new, his experience with the content is completely starting from scratch.
Now let's say that two years later John Smith is once again in need of a plumber and he arrives on the website. In this scenario, Jerry hasn't updated any of the information on his website. At this point, the content is now perceived to be Stale by John Smith. However, if we change the scenario around a bit, and say that John Smith visited Jerry's Pipes 6 months later, assuming that there were no changes the site would still be considered Stale. But let's change the scenario even more, and say that Jerry Smith arrives back on the site within two weeks, assuming that there were no changes to the site's content it would still be considered Stale. Within these various scenario's the passage of time meant very little to the perceived freshness of the site for the human visiting it.
The solution, of course, is to be proactively and consistently updating your website with Good content, therefore, minimizing not only the effect of decay associated with stale content on your website for a search engine but also for the human visitors you hope to attract.
However, when dealing with Perceived Freshness there are systems that can be designed which can capitalize on the initial production of good content without bogging you down as a small business owner which can be used to provide visitors with a Perceived Freshness even when you have stale content on your site that search engines would otherwise write-off. I mention this primarily because I know how hard small business owners work and while I'd like to believe it is easy and important to constantly be updating your website, it can, of course, be challenging to allocate time to it.
Below is a graphic that demonstrations a simple system that we've used in the past to create an environment that fulfills the need for a human visitor to Perceive Freshness.
It's simple for us to produce a system that accepts multiple entries, in the form of text or images and then randomly provide a combination of the two for a user who arrives on a site. This means that in the scenario where John Smith arrives on the site two weeks later he will see something slightly different, and thus deem it fresh. In the other scenario's where John Smith arrives later on the website (6 months, and two years) once again there is a Perceived Freshness associated with the site even though Jerry hasn't updated or changed a thing in years.
It's not a completely full-proof system, but it's a means of designing a user experience that provides value to the end user who you are ultimately trying to convert into a customer. We say this because people more often than not when people come to us asking to "increase their SEO" they've completely forgotten to take care of making sure that the individuals that are already arriving on the site have an experience that is memorable and worth having.
When asked "how do I improve my SEO?" I will almost always respond by telling you to follow the return on investment.
- Produce Good Content > Authoritative > Relevant > Fresh
- Have a Good Website > Information Architecture > Responsive Website > Fast Website > Secure Website
- Provide a Fresh User Experience = focused on Good Content
Ultimately when Search Engines like Google are reviewing your website they are doing a comprehensive examination of your User Experience to determine if you're website will make their own customers happy and satisfied with the results they are showing.
Final Advice for the Small Business Owner:
SEO can be scary, it can feel incredibly overwhelming. But it doesn't need to be. We recommend taking baby steps - learn to crawl. Everyone has to learn to walk before they can run, and that simply takes proactive consistency and a will to achieve success.