Question: Is search engine optimization (SEO) still important in today's online landscape? What makes for good SEO?
Andrew Allen; Co-founder, iMarket Solutions:
On the technical side, a lot of things have changed with search engine optimization (SEO). Just a little bit of historical perspective, 10 years ago, SEO algorithms were relatively unsophisticated. Translated into digital marketing terms, that means they were easily manipulated. We were able to manipulate search engine results with back-of-the-house programming, key word stuffing, and lots of tricks, which was a lot of work, but you could manipulate the way that search engines presented results. To combat that, Google has put in a lot of effort to decide who gets to rank for SEO. As we know for contractors, that translates into whose phone is going to ring the most, because if you’re not on the first page, you’re probably not going to get contacted. Now, SEO has really become an earned media. You have to earn your placement on those front pages by doing several very particular things. One is structuring your website properly. It’s only 15-20% of search engine optimization but the scheme data – which used to be called meta data – needs to be structured properly. The code has to be written properly so an algorithm can read the page easily. There’s also a whole laundry list of stuff you can’t do from a technical perspective, like keyword stuffing, hidden links, links that go to places they shouldn’t, links that go from one page to another that have no connection from a content perspective. Google Is working on algorithms to dismantle and disabuse anyone from trying those old manipulative techniques and taking steps to penalize people that are trying to manipulate the search engines. SEO really is still the foundation, it’s the entry. After that 15-20% of site page structure, there’s a whole host of other things that help you rank for SEO and obtain the coveted top ten spots on Google search. A lot of the first page ranking is being handed over to the paid model but organic SEO is still important. In this earned media – that’s the other 80-85% – you need to do things like have a good user experience. If a customer lands on your page and quickly goes to a different site to get their information, that tells Google you haven’t written a very good page. So, you did a good job earning a page view, but they didn’t like the page once they got there and left. That actually hurts you from an SEO perspective. A couple of other big factors are authority and time – how long your website has been online and how long it’s been publishing content specific to a search term. Also, the amount of links that help people navigate to your website matters. It helps your SEO ranking if anyone else in the world has linked their website to your page saying, for example, “Hey, if you’re looking for information on mini splits in Toledo, Ohio, this company has information that with answer your query.” It tells Google that other people have landed on your page, gotten the information they wanted, and taken action. We got penalized early on in the SEO side of things from a contracting perspective because a lot of people landed on the home page of our website, then picked up the phone and called. From a marketing perspective, that’s a huge win. However, Google’s algorithm read it as someone getting to the page and then leaving quickly. This hurt us because most of the time Google is looking for “stickiness.” They want people to spend time on the website, view multiple pages, read revues, etc. If you’re in the middle of an HVAC emergency and it’s 100 degrees, you’re going to pick up the phone and call right away. Google finally measures that as good for SEO, but it took them several years to get there. So, the websites that are converting and providing good content are still able to dominate the SEO landscape. Outside of those things, Google has added new tools. You have to have an SSL certificate, so your entire site needs to be encrypted to provide a certain level of security. How quickly a website page loads is now a really large factor because it contributes so much to user experience. If your website visitor has to wait 1.5 seconds, you’re going to be penalized by Google. The algorithm says your page is loading too slow, it’s bad for user experience, and your ranking will go down. These are all things that are hard to measure because Google doesn’t announce them. We have to consistently look for pages that are slow and make them load faster. SEO is measured in months and quarters, so over time, you can improve. The biggest thing to focus on is consistently publishing content that contains the key words that you want your company to be cataloged for. That hasn’t changed and I don’t think it ever will. We often describe it as the lottery – for every new piece of content you publish on your website, it’s like you’re getting another lottery ticket. If you’re not publishing any new content and your competitors are, your chances of winning the lottery go down. SEO is the foundation of anything you do in online marketing. You have to do it right and there are no shortcuts. Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You have to publish content, earn links, remain consistent and dedicated, and eventually you’ll see results. Make sure you’re measuring the results of your SEO, which is the second part of this question. Measure the number of phone calls you get, find out where customers came from to make that phone call, and measure the success of those phone calls.