Fundamentals of search engine optimization: What? Why? How?

This is a knowledge base article. It would answer your questions on search engine optimization (SEO) and  supplement other SEO posts on this website.

In the area of search engine optimization, you will find the same set of tips, with one less here and one more there, on most expert websites (and thousands of websites that copy-paste them). I would advise that you go through the present post in full before you look for actual tips. Why? Because reading tips does not lead to success unless we know the 'why' and 'how' behind the tips. 

    What actually is SEO and how to improve search engine ranking?

    SEO or search engine optimization is the sum of all the actions you take so that your webpages (or blog posts) appear high on search engines when someone searches on the web for something related to the webpage.

    So, SEO has two important aspects:

    1. Content's relevance is very important.

    Search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo!, DuckDuckGo, etc) must be able to relate your website with the search query. If someone searches for 'yoga', your site will be shown by search engines only if it has content on yoga. 

    Take care that your website/ blog has enough content, and of good quality, on the subject on which you want the site to come up in search pages.

    2. Website's authority is equally important.

    For deciding which website to give a higher position on the search pages, Search engines must rank the websites according to their authority. Authority comes from quality of content and how other authoritative sites talk about this site.

    For getting a high ranking for your website in search engine's index, you must ensure high-quality content and also have links (=backlinks) and recommendations from other good websites, and people should talk favorably about your website, on social media. 

    Thus, search engine optimization or SEO is mostly the actions we take for improving relevance of a website and its authority

    Does search optimization matter, now that most website traffic comes through social media?

    Social media is important for getting traffic to a website, but search remains one of the top sources of traffic. What actually happens is that if the content is relevant and of high value, SEO and social media work in synergy: people share the content on social media, which gives authority signals to search engines, website starts coming high on search pages, and the virtuous cycle moves on and on.

    Search engine optimization remains very important, and its importance has only increased over the years - because now people do not remember URLs or ask others for references; they just type their search query on Google and then click on search results.

    Since search engines as well as searchers have become smarter, many of old-type SEO techniques do not work well now. In fact, if we apply some of these techniques in 2019, it hurts the websites. So, what is important is that we apply SEO techniques that are natural and keep in mind searchers more than search engines.

    We hear of frequent Google algorithm updates. What are the latest developments in this field?

    What new developments the search engines, especially Google, carry out is anybody's guess unless they themselves announce a major update. However, there are some companies that spend hours in analyzing search data of different websites and then deciphering what Google might have secretly done. Based on both these, these are the updates as of September 2019:
    • Google keeps updating its algorithms (=formulae) now and then. Such small changes can sometimes be done on daily basis! In a post in July, Google shared that in the preceding one year, it had made 'more than 3200 small changes to its search systems'. 
    • Once in a while, Google comes with 'broadcore' algo updates, which are important and may upset a website's search rankingGoogle's latest core algorithm change seems to have occurred in June. In June, Google also did a change relating to how multiple listings come up in search; in September, it made a change relating to how search results show 'rich snippets'.
    • Google advises that website owners need not worry if their search volume suddenly goes down due to algorithm updates, unless the webmaster himself has taken undesirable SEO actions. Yet, many sites lose traffic badly when major updates take place. 
    • It is believed that other search engines follow Google and carry out their own algorithm changes now and then. 
    • Search engines now use machine learning and other artificial intelligence techniques for finding the exact intent of a search query (e.g whether it is for data, finding location, buying, comparing or something else) and serving the most relevant results. 
    • Mobile search has gained priority. Google now tags its indexed pages also for mobile so that pages with mobile optimization are served when somebody searches on his mobile phone.
    • Video and image are getting importance as web content, and search engines are finding ways to rank them high. Google has started showing videos on top of search pages.
    • Search pages are now full of content that is not organic or naturally obtained. Advertisements or paid search results often come on top of search pages, and thus even the top organic search results come below paid content.

    Do unethical, black-hat SEO techniques work?

    Frankly, they work. But only some of them work and they work for a short time. They badly harm the website in the long run.

    Please remember that all SEO is not natural; some of it is technical and most of it is forced. But that does not make it unethical. Good SEO is like advertising your website and its webpages to search engines. Problem comes when people take undesirable actions, e.g. fooling search engines into believing that a poor quality content is of very high quality.
    Such actions are called 'black-hat' SEO. 

    Google is known to slap penalties on websites when it finds them using black-hat techniques of SEO. It is reported that many SEO guys promise quick rise in search rankings through such techniques. One should not fall prey to their allurements. Even Google has itself said that attempts to instantly raise search ranking may lead one into trouble.  

    Should I go for an SEO service? Will it quickly multiply my search traffic? 

    Part of this question has been answered in the previous reply: be wary when choosing someone who calls himself an 'SEO expert'. There are numerous fake SEO experts all around. In fact the Australian ombudsman on small businesses has recently called SEO 'a minefield of dodgy practitioners' and cautioned businesses against hiring SEO experts mindlessly.

    When you do not know  the tricks of the trade, or you find some actions too technical and confusing, or you fear that a small wrong step might hurt your website, you can sure think of hiring an SEO expert. If you run the website for earning purposes and need a stream of traffic, the need is much more than when you run a personal/ hobby blog.

    If you have time and inclination to learn, you can learn SEO fundamentals from the web or take an online course. You can also make use of free and paid tools, but do not get swayed by their jargon and the enormous data they generate.

    What top SEO strategy would you suggest to a blogger who is not too tech-savvy?

    All major search engines advise web publishers to focus on quality of content and updating the content regularly. At the same time, at least some SEO techniques tactics is essential because in the enormous crowd of websites, a website cannot come on top only on the strength of quality - it must apply some SEO techniques to show to the search engines that it is a website worth being shown on top of search results.

    In fact, Google and Bing themselves suggest some technical actions that website owners should not ignore, e.g. relevant URL, title and description; proper site structure; use of ALT attribute with images; linking with authoritative references; proper use of keywords; and so on.  

    However, if you feel that you need a regular stream of search traffic and you are not too tech-savvy, you can go for an SEO expert.  As mentioned above, be careful when choosing one.

    Why is my blog not coming high in Google search results? 

    Many bloggers get frustrated when they find that their blog is not coming high in Google search results despite all their SEO efforts. If you are one of them, you might be wrongly taking one or the other SEO action. For example, your content might be of poor quality, or it may be good but not useful. Your content may be of top quality but not relevant to what people are looking for. 

    Have you optimized your individual posts for visitors as well as search engines? For example: Have you given the post a great, interesting, heading and sub-divided text into sections with sub-headings? Have you added keywords in the post's URL, introduction, body, search description etc? Have you put alt attribute to images? Have you added a compelling description to the post? If you are on Wordpress, have you installed a SEO plugin (e.g. Yoast) and optimized the post according to its suggestions?

    If your blog and posts do not come high in search pages in spite of all your efforts, look closely at the competition. You might be optimizing your posts for keywords that are highly competitive: what it means is that there may already be other webpages with very high authority and relevance for those keywords. 

    One mistake bloggers and website owners usually make is to try to optimize the website but not individual posts and pages. Google and other search engines show individual pages more than websites when someone makes a search - so individual web pages need to be optimized. Page-level optimization helps greatly in improving relevance (while site-level optimization is more effective in improving authority).

    Also remember that SEO has to be continuous process; it is not done once in five years and then forgotten. You need not - and should not - go overboard with SEO but it always helps to  optimize main posts when publishing them and also re-visit site-wide SEO once every 6-months or so.

    Best SEO techniques are simple but focused.

    How good are Google and Bing webmaster tools, from SEO point of view?  

    Both Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools are good as they give data on which keywords rank high, from where your site gets traffic, technical issues that might be hurting your website's SEO, etc. There are some good inbuilt tools for analytics as well optimization, and they give genuine and practical technical SEO tips. 

    Go for either of the two. Do not get bogged down with technicalities. Just see if your website has some serious issue and if your search graph is progressing positively. Take the actions that they suggest.

    If you are attracted towards SEO tools available on the web, start with free and trial versions of one or two top SEO companies. Only after that should you take a final decision whether to buy one.

    In general, you should not go for such tools, if
    • You are a hobby blogger.
    • You find that these SEO tools are complicated and useless.
    • You do not have much technical expertise and you dislike technology.
    • You already have an SEO expert by your side.
    You can think of buying SEO tools, if
    • You have time for technical actions that SEO tools require.
    • You do not hate doing technical work yourself.
    • You do not want to spend money on hiring an SEO expert but would like SEO strongly implemented on your website.
    • You find the available free SEO tools useful and think that you would have more options in the paid versions.

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