Strategy Series 2021: Mastering SEO – What is search?

The eternal question – what is SEO?

Whenever I’m asked what SEO is or how to achieve optimisation for search engines I want to go right back to the search part. I really don’t think you can understand how to improve your search ranking without understanding how the search part itself works.

I’m not going to explain Google’s search algorithm, even Google can’t/won’t do that! But I will aim to explain the basic functionality behind a search engine with a view to delving deeper into improving results over the next few posts in this Strategy Series.

I’m aware that this analogy is going to seem strange, or worse, but bear with me!

Search is a matchmaking service.

Yes, you read that right. No, I (hopefully!) haven’t lost my sanity!

Let me explain.

When a user performs a search they enter a word, phrase, question. Google then goes about doing its best to match that user with the best content for their needs. Like a matchmaking service, if they don’t provide users with the most suitable matches for their needs then people will stop using the service.

Over time the algorithm that Google uses has improved and become smarter at understanding what people are actually looking for, and what each piece of content on the internet is actually about, so search matches have improved.

So let’s start with the search engine side of this equation.

Google sends spiders out to crawl the internet, these are continually checking all of the net for new content or updates to existing content which they then add to Google’s database. This database contains a full listing of each web page out there, along with information on how relevant it is to different topics and the quality of the content.

What happens when we search?

When we submit a search to our favourite search engine, it goes off and compares that search term with all of the content in that database.

It does a few things from there.

Content match

This is possibly the simplest to understand, in this part it checks the words or phrases you’ve searched for against the full database and pulls out every piece of content that contains those search terms.

Context match

This is a little harder to define as well as being one of the parts that is ever changing. From the results that match your search term the search engine checks for entries that match what it thinks you are looking for. This can be based on your location, search history, the way that you phrased the term and the way that the term is used in each piece of content.

Quality check

Again this is a tricky one to fully define. The search results are checked for quality, based on things like how long other users have spent on the page, how well the site works on mobile, how fast it is, how accessible it is. The search results with lower quality may be displayed, rather than omitted, but they will be pushed down the ranking on the results page.

Relevance check

This is similar to the quality check but it is where the search results are checked against what the search engine thinks will be most relevant to the specific person searching. This will take the user’s search history, location, submitted Google reviews etc into account and these will be used to determine the order that results will be displayed.

And all of this takes a matter of seconds, it’s a pretty impressive feat when you break it down.

How to optimise for search (SEO)?

This is ever changing as the search functionality is, but the core elements of good SEO remain unchanged.

Tell Google what your content is about.

Use keywords to let search engines know which search terms your content is a good match for.

High quality content

Provide content that is high quality, useful and relevant to your target audience. Write content that your ideal client will love to read and share, if it is seen as quality by users then Google will see it as quality as well.

Keep your website up to date.

Google will be less likely to return your content if it thinks that it is old and out of date or if it thinks that your business no longer exists. Keep things up to date to make it clear that you are still alive and relevant.

Let Google know where you are.

This used to be a difficult one, adding a list of places on your site in hopes that it would match the places searched for by your users.

It’s a lot simpler now! List yourself on Google My Business and tell Google where you operate. Google knows where the user is who is searching and will automatically match if you are in the right area.

Make it easy for Google to navigate your site.

Is users find it tricky to find their way around your website then chances are that a search engine will as well, bearing in mind that they are effectively feeling their way around blindfolded.

Make your site structure clear and easy to understand, your users will appreciate it and search engines will reward you for it.

Make sure your website works on mobile.

Every website should work on all devices, it is the smart thing to do to accommodate the majority of people who will use the site on mobile but is also one of the biggest things that can impact your search engine performance.

If your website is not mobile-friendly then Google will not show it in the search results, not just on mobile but in general.

Make sure your website is fast.

Users are no longer tolerant of a slow website, especially if they are on a mobile device as they are generally on the move and want to quickly perform a task before carrying on with their day.

SEO fast website

Checking your site speed and taking action to improve it will also improve your search results. It is one of the factors Google uses to determine quality.

Make sure your website is listed as safe.

Google checks sites and detects whether they are unsafe. These may be legitimate sites that have been compromised so this can happen without you knowing. They will warn users in search and on the site if visited in Chrome.

Google Safe browsing web security

Some things to check to get started…

Check your site speed using Pagespeed Insights or a similar tool.

Check your mobile friendliness using the Google mobile friendly tool, or similar.

Check whether your site is safe using Google’s Safe Browsing tool.

All of these tools are linked on our Resources page.

Check that there is a logical layout and flow to the pages on your website, viewing it as an impartial user, or ask someone to check this for you with fresh eyes. Drawing a flowchart or diagram can help to visually see if things are more complicated than they need to be.

Run the same search in your usual browser and in another browser or in an incognito window (where you are not logged in to your Google account and have a clean slate in terms of the history of searching and visiting sites). There can be a significant difference, we’ve seen clients who were shocked that they were only listed high on search when they searched themselves because Google will prioritise sites you’ve already visited.

We will look at some more tools to enhance search performance as well as some of the more technical elements to consider over the next few posts in the series.

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Strategy SEO Search

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