I already know why you’re here, there can only be two reasons. Either a) you’re a business owner and are beginning to look into what digital marketing can do for your business, or b) you’re a digital marketer or P.R. practitioner yourself, and you need a simple way to explain to your clients, friends, and family just what it is that you do for money to feed yourself.
I hate to tell you, but the latter doesn’t exist. There’s no simple way of explaining digital marketing, but I do firmly believe there’s a fun way. Over the next three articles (check the description for the link to our blog), I’m going to take you on a journey into the world of SEO. So saddle up, cowboy and cowgirls. Here we go.
IN THE BEGINNING…
An obvious difficulty in writing on the history of search engine optimization is the obscure origin of the internet. The term ‘search engine’ naturally implies a fairly recent historical context. After all, the internet as we know it was really only around as recently as the mid-1990s.
So let’s break this down. The first term you need to understand is called indexing. Really simply put, machines have a way of creating a chart for themselves which they refer back to when asked: “where did you save this information?” In the early 90s, text-based index tools were created to quickly search through archived data. The difference here is that all of this data was stored locally, but today it’s often stored offsite (or on a cloud). It was initially a way to more quickly browse the contents of your hard drive. Then, in 1993, a web browser called Mosaic was the first piece of software to take that text-based ‘search tool’ and add a pretty user interface in front of it.
As technology advanced, computers slowly went from being restricted local machines to only being able to communicate back and forth across large distances using ‘the internet.’ As innovation grew, so too did the amount of information that any one machine could access at any given time. From this rose the need to be able to ‘search’ through all of this information. We refer to this information today as the World Wide Web, or the internet, and the software that helps us search through all of this information as ‘search engines.’
GOT IT. SO IT’S LIKE A LIBRARIAN?
Exactly. A search engine is like a librarian, and the internet is like a library. While we’re on this analogy, let’s see it all the way through. Grab your popcorn, I’ll wait.
Okay, imagine you have a question: “How big does a German Shepherd get?” That’s a great question! Let’s imagine for a moment that the internet doesn’t exist. Instead, we have the world’s greatest library. So let’s visit this library.
Imagine we walk up to the giant library doors and with all our might, we push them open. As we enter the library (which doesn’t seem all that big on the outside) we are stunned by how deep this building goes. In fact, it’s so big that you can’t see the bottom. So watch your step! You walk up to the librarian’s desk and ring the bell. Before you know it, a nice lady twirls up and asks, “Hi, how can I help you?”
You clear your throat and posit your query, “I’d like to know how big German Shepherds get.”
“Great question!” she responds, “one moment please.” The librarian pulls out a sheet and on top of it, you see the words index. She scrolls down to G.. G.A., G.E., G.E.R, aha! German Shepherd. You catch a glimpse of what the index chart says: floor 437, section 5, row 3, book 118, page 83, paragraph 3. The librarian smiles at you and asks you to wait just a moment. She quickly hops in the elevator, zips down 437 floors, grabs a book, then zips back up. She cracks open the book as a plume of dust rises up. You try not to sneeze. She lays the book on the counter and you notice that it’s open to page 83, and she’s pointing to paragraph 3: male German Shepherds can grow up to 88 pounds, and females up to 71 pounds.
Well, that was easy! And you probably would have never found that information on your own. Either that, or it would’ve taken you a hundred times as long to search on your own. Thanks to the librarian and her knowledge of where all the information in the library is, she was able to deliver that message to you much more efficiently.
You probably understand the analogy already: the library is the internet, the books are websites, and the librarian is Google. Search engines do this exact thing when you ask them a question. They refer to their indexed information and quickly give you a result based on what they believe to be the best answer. But how do they do this?…
HOW DOES A SEARCH ENGINE KNOW WHAT’S WHAT?
Now that’s a great question. All you – the user – ever see of a search engine is the front end. The pretty Google colors just inviting you to ask a question. But did you know that there’s a whole back end component that works day and night reading every website in existence? This is called a crawler. A search engine’s crawler reads and reads and categorizes every important word into Google’s index of words. These words are called keywords and are the important words that make up any sentence.
Let me give you an example of how this works. If I wrote, “how big German Shepherd?” you could probably assume that I mean, “how big does a German Shepherd get?” The words that are left after you eliminate any unnecessary words are called keywords. Google’s crawler finds these important keywords and then tells Google where they are on the internet. This way when you ask Google to search, it matches your keywords with where it remembers they were online. Then like magic, it gives you a listing of where all of these results are! Please imagine me throwing confetti like a fabulous magician now.
So now that we understand how a search engine works, we can optimize the information on our website so that Google clearly understands what information is on our page, and lists our website whenever someone searches using one or more of our keywords. But thanks to competition, it’s not always so simple.
SECOND PLACE IS JUST FIRST LOSER
So now you have a good understanding of what SEO is, and really, if you read the above story, you have a fairly solid understanding of how the technology works. But because of the sheer amount of information available to us online, showing up in a Google search isn’t always as easy as bada-bing, bada-boom. Competition plays a huge factor in this.
A while back I was working with a client, Union Presbyterian Seminary. They’re great folks over there that offer a really great seminary program. The challenge we were facing was that they just weren’t being found. For some reason, Google just wasn’t ranking them very high when people searched for the keyword “seminary.” We did a little digging into this and we began to realize that in almost all of the information available online, Union Presbyterian Seminary was referred to as “UPS.” Now, wait a minute… If you searched Google right now for “UPS” the first million and a half results that you’re going to get is United Parcel Service. Lightbulb! There was no way in heck we were ever going to compete with United Parcel Service for the acronym UPS.
See, this kind of thing is referred to like competition. Google has to allocate importance of specific keywords to the websites that it recommends. This can be a problem when you have one website that dominates a keyword. But thankfully, keywords isn’t where the game ends. Keywords put together creates terms, and terms put together to create phrases. Would you believe that a website might not show up for one keyword, but if you put a few keywords together, that website might now be the first result? A lot of time, this can be something as simple as location-tagging (geotagging) a keyword. Adding a location to your search will almost always narrow down your search result and give you a more accurate list of websites.
The point I’m making here is that it’s not always as simple as one and done. It’s a game folks, and it’s a game that we’ve become exceedingly adept at playing.
HUMILITY IN VICTORY
“But wait,” you might ask, “what’s to stop people from stuffing their website full of a bunch of words that could artificially rank their page higher?” To that, I would say, “By Jove! You’ve been paying attention!”
Yes, that’s a very real problem that sometimes legitimate digital marketers have to combat. Depending on the industry, sometimes businesses (or just web designers) might not give two flying fudge brownies about the aesthetics of their website. So they engage in what we call “keyword stuffing.” And I know what you’re thinking, it’s not as delicious as turkey stuffing.
The reality is that generally speaking, this might work short term, but long term it’s going to get you into trouble. Techniques like keyword stuffing or hiding words on a website are called black hat techniques. Google frowns heavily on manipulating how search engines perceive the relevance of your website. In fact, Google dislikes it so much that if it catches you doing this, it will immediately delist your website and you’ll never be found in a search result again. How’s that for punishment!
It’s important to know that no one really knows how Google’s algorithm works. And that’s for good reason. The masterminds behind Google keep it under wraps so that it doesn’t turn into one person per industry dominating their market in terms of search results. The only thing that Google tells us is that it values “user experience” over keyword optimization any day. Take it for what it’s worth, but what this means to a digital marketer is that if people are enjoying your website, that’s the best thing you could hope for. And in case you’re wondering, ‘enjoying your website’ has a lot of different factors including how long visitors stay on your website and how deep into your website they go. We’ll talk more about these key factors in our next blog post.
DON’T HATE THE PLAYER
I say this not just because this is complex stuff, but because there are big players out here: I’d always recommend that you leave SEO to the data wizards. I’m talking of course about the dorks that nerd out over keyword telemetry, the guys that haven’t seen sunlight in twenty-four years, the guys that live on Hot Pockets and Mountain Dew… you get it. But if you’re going play this game with the big boys, be sure to keep it tuned right here for our next blog where we’ll get a little deeper with SEO.