These days SEO, or Search Engine Optimisation, is a term recognised and thought to be important by many website owners. Why?
The simple answer to that question is that website owners want people to visit their website. If no one can find the website, then that is who will visit the website: no one.
An easy way to help people find your website is to make sure search engines such as Google and Bing know your website exists, and also what your website is about. When a person searches for something, a search engine selects a set of websites likely to be relevant, then ranks them according to how relevant. The higher the ranking, the closer to the top of the list that website is displayed.
What is SEO?
Essentially, SEO means ensuring your website is implemented in a way that makes it easy for search engines to work out what your website is about. The expectation is that this will translate to a high ranking for relevant searches, making it more likely that people looking for the sorts of things you offer will see and visit your website ahead of the websites of your competitors.
The Dawn of SEO
Once upon a time, SEO was an easy task, requiring mostly common sense and some objective thought. You made sure the site had a decent amount of well written text, and was organised sensibly. Search engines saw only text, so pictures were not helpful. Good grammar and relevant content laid out in a logical manner was easier for the search engine software to understand, so taking care in those areas greatly improved your chances of a search engine understanding when your site was genuinely relevant to the searcher.
The Dawn of the Arms Race
But this wasn’t good enough for some people. They wanted their website to be on page one of search results for as many different searches as possible. Relevance was not a consideration for them.
So they added lots of words to the website. Words that made the website look as if someone had scattered all over it words from a dictionary.
Of course, they didn’t want humans to see those hundreds or thousands of irrelevant words. That would confuse humans. The extra words were for the search engine, and only the search engine, to read. So they hid the words from humans by making them white, on a white background.
At first, that did confuse the search engines. Unscrupulous website owners literally did add every word from a dictionary to each page, all white on white and hence not readily visible to human visitors.
But the search engines soon realised what was happening. They reacted by checking the colour of the text, comparing it with the colour of the background, and if the colours were too similar the website was penalised by being assigned a significantly worse ranking. Overnight many websites dropped from a number one ranking down to rank at 1,000 or worse.
So the unscrupulous website owners then worked out another way to fool the search engines. The search engines soon worked out that one as well.
And the arms race was on in earnest.
At first, the only websites to be disadvantaged by this arms race were the ones trying to cheat (the black hats). But as the cheats became more subtle, the steps taken by the search engines to penalise them sometimes also penalised innocent bystanders: website owners trying to do the right thing (the white hats), whose website just happened to use a set of features similar to the latest way to cheat.
The other victim of this arms race was the simplicity of SEO.
Common sense and objective thought were no longer sufficient to achieve a good search engine ranking. The list of things you had to consider grew and grew. For example, a title that clearly described the purpose of a web page was no longer sufficient. That title had to be the right length. Too short or too long was bad. Links within your website had to use text that followed certain rules. A page shouldn’t have too many, nor too few, links. You must not have two pages on your website with essentially the same words.
Instructions invisible to website visitors but easily read by search engines were invented (microdata). These could be embedded in your web pages to help search engines better understand your web page.
At some time during all this, SEO also stopped being about just your web pages. Now the number of other websites linking to yours, as well as the reputation of those websites was also important.
Review websites arose, and search engines started to incorporate your website rating as awarded by these reviewers into their decision as to your website ranking.
So where are we now? Still headed down the same path.
The arms race continues. If you do something artificial to increase your website ranking, it is only a matter of time before the search engines realise and penalise you. That means your ranking 1 will become ranking 10,000 overnight.
Unfortunately collateral damage does still occur. Even if you do the right thing, there is a risk you will be accidentally penalised simply because your website appears that it might be using a black hat SEO technique.
Complexity is increasing, and keeping on top of the changes is now impossible for anyone trying to run a business unrelated to SEO.
The increasing importance to your website ranking of factors outside your website means SEO is now an ongoing task. Gone are the days when you could create a search engine optimised website then sit back and reap the benefits indefinitely. Now you need to monitor things such as whether sites that link to you are reputable, and take appropriate and sometimes time consuming action if not.
The results of good SEO changes do not come quickly. After you change something, it may take Google as long as 3 months to react, though sometimes you can be lucky and be noticed in a couple of weeks.
Modern SEO Providers
There are many companies offering SEO services. Because of the complexity of the task, the ongoing nature of the work, and the need to devote significant time to keeping up with changes introduced by search engines, a good SEO company will not be cheap. But a bad SEO company will probably cost you a lot more in lost opportunities than a good company will charge you.
How do you tell good (white hat) from bad (black hat) SEO? If an SEO company is offering any of the following:
permanent top ranking
immediate ranking improvement
pay once only
then you would be well advised to look elsewhere.
Unfortunately this is an area where you also need to be careful about accepting the recommendations of others. Bad SEO will typically result in a very big ranking boost… at first. The improvement will be much better than you would get from white hat SEO.
As a result, a website owner who has hired a black hat SEO company will initially be extremely happy with their decision. They hired the SEO company, ranking increased dramatically, and all is right with the world. Of course they will recommend that company.
But remember, this is an arms race. Eventually the search engines will notice the SEO activities were artificial and against the guidelines. When they do, the website will disappear from the search engines overnight. And recovering from a penalty like that is likely to take a lot of time and effort, costing a lot more than was paid to the black hat SEO supplier.
It used to be fairly simple to optimise a website so that a search engine could easily understand the site’s purpose, and hence place it near the top of the list when a person entered a relevant search. What’s more, although the SEO might need to be revisited occasionally as the website evolved, it was not a constant concern.
Unscrupulous website owners started an arms race with the search engines. These black hats keep finding ways to trick the search engines into giving undeserved high rankings. As these tricks are discovered by the search engines, websites using the tricks are penalised.
As a result, SEO has become complex and time consuming, requiring a specialist skill set and ongoing attention. No longer can SEO be thought of as a "set and forget" task.