I have been providing SEO services for the past 20 years and during that time have learnt many things. In that time I have seen the profession cast into disrepute by people who say that they can get a website onto the first page of Google for just a few dollars, and others that charge huge amounts and do nothing.
I have also listened and learnt from many ‘SEO Gurus’, most of which have been hugely knowledgeable, although it has been interesting to see two offering the opposite advice to another. There is also no doubt that some have been giving bad advice, but thankfully these are few and far between.
The fact that the advice is different is not surprising to me. My favourite saying, is “If you ask a group of six SEO professionals a question, you will get seven answers.”
But saying all this, what can an SEO company do for a business, and as importantly, what can it not do?
What Search Engine Optimisation CAN do
The main aim of any SEO programme is to increase the traffic to a site. Not just any old traffic of course, but traffic that is most likely to result in a conversion, be that a purchase, a newsletter sign up, or a telephone call.
This increase in traffic is achieved by winning prime positions for relevant search phrases on the search engines, Google being the one everyone wants the best rankings on. There are two issues ‘hidden’ in the last sentence, one ‘relevant search phrases’ and the other ‘everyone wants to rank’. The first is vital in that it is pointless getting a good rank for a term that is never used, whilst the second warns that the task is not going to be easy, as others are also after those same prime positions.
The process of finding those relevant phrases is called Keyword Research, and is the subject of another article. Carried out correctly, this will reveal a whole host of keyphrases, with varying levels of competition, together with those that have yet to be fully targeted by the competition.
Mapping Keywords onto the pages of a website
With the keyword research done, a site can be ‘optimised’ so that the individual pages of the site are more likely to be picked by Google for a given set of target phrases. The optimisation stage of the SEO process starts with ‘mapping’ the target keywords onto the pages of a site, each page being capable of properly covering about 3 phrases at the most. The page will also win rankings (and traffic) for other keywords – as you can see if you check the data in the Google Search Console – and indeed this is a main aim, but it is those 3 phrases that are the main targets. This means that they will be used in the important areas of a page, the places that Google expects to see them – and it is always best to do your best to ‘please Google’. Indeed that is what SEO is all about, helping Google to understand what a page is about and impressing it with the content of that page.
There are other matters that need to be covered in, the ‘On Page’ stage of SEO, and these actions need to be paired with work to ensure that Google also ‘believes’ a site is worth listing. This, more often than not, also requires a domain has enough ‘back links’, that is links to that site from others. These links are treated in much the same manner as votes in an election, the number being required to win varying for each keyphrase and market place. Like On Page SEO, the subject is quite complex – any linking optimisation process has to be carried out with great care – and is covered in greater detail in other articles.
The issue of Technical SEO is another area where the SEO professional can earn their corn, covering areas like ‘Page Speed’, ensuring that there are no broken links or ‘mixed content issues’ for secure sites. Adding correct Schema code could be considered to be a part of Technical SEO too.
So, having covered, in brief, how SEO is done, what can it really achieve?
There is no doubt that it can result in a large rise in traffic to a site, rankings for a huge number of terms being gained on Google. However, this could take some time to achieve, requiring time for any site to gain traction so to speak, especially in the case of new domains.
One of the main advantages of the SEO process is to raise awareness of a business. A large number of potential customers suddenly becoming aware of its existence. This new market could result in a large number of sales, ones that without SEO would never have been made.
There you have it, SEO can do wonders for any business by bringing in traffic and hence new customers.
What SEO Cannot do….
You may have noted that the SEO is all about targeted traffic. However, even the most highly effective SEO campaign cannot guarantee conversions. There is no doubt that this traffic, being targeted is more likely to convert, but it is not a definite. That is down to the product or service, it’s quality and of course price.
Conversion is also affected by the layout of the page, how convincing the copy is and how trustworthy the business appears to be. These are the domain of the copywriter and website designer, both having to ‘deliver’ if a business is to get any benefit from the increased traffic that SEO brings.
The Limitations of SEO
The biggest limitation, the biggest barrier to success is Google itself. The sad fact is that you can do everything right and Google can still not grant your website the rankings that it deserves. It can also get it wrong by ranking the wrong page for the keyphrase you want positions for, this potentially means that the ranks gained are not as good as they could be (you having optimised another page for that term).
SEO firms and their customers also have to face the fact that a lot of the time, Google do not even keep to their own rules. I have seen sites on page one that have a linking structure that should have cast the domain into the pit of doom, whilst others have little content or break various other ‘you should not do’ commandments. We cannot expect Google to be perfect, but it does represent another limitation as to what can be achieved.
In some instances there are ways of overcoming Google’s error (lack of judgement), but it is not an easy to task and can take some time to correct.
Also, besides the limitation of not being able to guarantee sales, there are limits to the increase in traffic that can be achieved. The major issue here is that, most of the time, there will be quite a lot of competition for any give phrase. The higher the competition, the harder it is to get on, or near to a first page placement on Google. There are ways to achieve increased traffic even in high competition areas, but in such instances, there will be a limit as to what can be done.
SEO takes time
It must also be reiterated that SEO can take many months to effectively kick in. I have seen examples of sites moving up the rankings very quickly, but in most cases, a business must be willing to wait at least six months before they will see any real increase in traffic. They must also be willing to invest the required amount of time, money and effort in the process.
So what can be done to increase the likelihood of success?
In order to win better rankings and the traffic that these bring, a site and its pages must in effect ‘win the approval’ of Google. Without this, Google will not give any site a prime position in its results.
Gaining this approval requires more than the optimisation of the words on the pages, their layout, their content, and the number of links to a domain. It also means that a business has to ‘prove’ their trustworthiness, especially in the case of ‘Your Money and Your Life’ businesses like Financial advisers or Health service providers. This is known as the EAT process, Expertise, Authority and Trustworthiness. This is another area that is covered in greater detail in a different article, but suffice to say, the website of a business in these ‘sensitive’ areas is subject to more scrutiny by Google and require extra work by all the parties involved in creating, optimising and running the site.
A domain also has to be seen to be active, in that the content, maybe its blog, is being changed and added to all the time.
Include Videos and Images
Google is known to be ‘impressed’ by the inclusion of images and videos (especially if the latter are placed on YouTube and are embedded in the pages of the site). So making sure that these are used , that the file names of images are descriptive i.e. picture-of-dog.jpg rather than image123.jpg and that correct ALT tag text is assigned are all important factors.
There is also a belief that Google is watching how users react when on the pages of a site. Here they are believed to take into account how long people stay on a page (dwell time) – one good reason to have a video on a page. They also keep a close eye on the Bounce Rate, that is where a user does a search for a term on Google, visits a site and then quickly comes back onto Google. If this happens too often it is a signal to Google that that page is not a good fit for that search term, which can result in lower rankings.
Does the site really deserve to be ranked?
This means it is really important to make sure that the pages of a site really ‘deserve’ any ranking they are given, as if not, users may well arrive on the site (through the efforts of SEO) but will not stay for long. This defeats the whole purpose of SEO and the website itself.
Businesses must therefore be willing to ask and answer the important question ‘is my website really good enough, does it put across the right message, does it answer the questions my customers have and in enough detail?’ They must also ensure that the site is easy to use, that the navigation works and any onsite Search system provides the right results.
The process of Search Engine Optimisation, when properly done can result in increased traffic to a website. In turn, if the message and proposition that the site gives is ‘good enough’, then more sales and conversions should follow.
However, it is vital to understand that the SEO process can take some-time to work and that any business taking this route to higher sales must be willing to invest enough time, money and effort, and above all be willing to answer the question ‘Does my website really reflect just how good my products and services are, does it provide useful information, and is it easy to use?’ and if not be willing to make all the changes that are needed.