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There’s no denying that now when most people want to find something, their reflex is to go looking for it online. Using a telephone to call up information, or even resorting to the old standbys like the thick "Yellow Pages" phone books are things of the past. Why go through all that when you can pull out your smartphone and type or even verbally ask a question and get an instant answer from a search engine like Google?
For businesses, you’re not the only one searchable on the internet, so are millions of other businesses around the globe. You've gone from having a small, local business that was only accessible to people in a town to be able to service anyone on the planet. So how do you make sure people can find you in a crowded virtual marketplace? With SEO!
If you’re new to search engine optimization or you want to refresh your skills, we’ve put together a guide to help you maximize your SEO potential. But first, let’s go over the basics.
How Search Engines Identify the Best Results
Before you can begin to optimize your website and other content for search engines, you need a basic understanding of search engine functionality. Google, as the most common example, conducts 40,000 searches per second. It's not doing that by having a staff of humans conducting manual searches, so how does Google manage?
Search engines use an automated system that relies on an extremely complex set of mathematical formulas known as algorithms. Algorithms are, at the simplest level, conditions or rules that then build on each other to become more sophisticated and produce the desired results. At the start of the internet age, search algorithms were much simpler, and unfortunately, open to exploitation or abuse.
A “good” web page, back in the day, was defined by algorithms as using a relevant keyword a lot of times. So, if a financial services website used the word “accounting” five times, and another website used it ten times, the website that used it more was defined as “better” and got a higher position on search results. Unfortunately, this resulted in some people simply copying a word thousands of times and stuffing it into their website to get higher rankings.
Today’s search algorithms are much more sophisticated and nuanced. Algorithms won't fall for simple keyword stuffing techniques anymore. In fact, they're actually quite good at identifying artificial, automated efforts. Algorithms look at the searcher's terms and match them with many qualified websites, and then they take other users' data into account on those sites. Did previous searchers find that suggested site useful or bounce away quickly? Overall, a search engine pores over a lot of data to submit the optimal results to searchers.
SEO Is Mysterious, But Not Impossible to Understand
The biggest challenge with finding ways to increase your ranking on search engines is that Google isn’t telling anyone exactly what works and what doesn’t. While Google itself has some suggestions on how to improve search rankings, the key pieces of information, such as what their algorithms are and what they are looking for, are trade secrets that Google won’t share with anyone. So while they provide good, general advice, such as “focus on quality content,” they do not tell you precisely what variables will raise or lower your ranking.
That is where testing comes in! Not only does Google not reveal the details of their SEO algorithms, but they are also constantly improving and updating the algorithms. So SEO is a constant “arms race” of discovering new trends that seem to be producing better results and then putting those trends to use for your own content. So what works now may not work next year, and you’ll need to start tweaking your SEO practices to stay relevant and keep or improve your search rankings.
For people who have the luxury of dedicated marketing teams and IT staff, you can assign SEO tasks to your professionals and leave them to it. But if you don’t have the company funds or qualified staff to do this, that doesn’t mean that you’ll never know how effective your SEO efforts are. It’s quite feasible for any business, medium, small, or otherwise, to conduct a test for the effectiveness of SEO practices. It just comes down to a willingness to learn and an investment in the time required.
If you want to test the effectiveness of your own SEO strategies, you’ll need the right tools and methods or guides to follow for the type of protocol and results that you’re interested in.
The Software for SEO Testing
Since search engine optimization testing is all about comparing your results with what’s showing up on searches, you’re going to need a few different types of software to begin your tests. There are some essential tools you should immediately add, with a few optional suggestions, depending on your preference and your budget.
Google Search Console
The best thing about Google Search Console also known as the Google Web Master Tools is that it’s free! So you have absolutely no excuse not to have this essential toolset at hand. Just create your account, and you’ve got access to some very useful guides. The search console gives you an oversight of your website and content, showing its SEO performance, effectiveness, linking errors, and other operational data. All of this is good basic information that you’ll need for any test you want to conduct.
Developed by Screaming Frog, SEO Spider comes in two versions: a free “Lite” version and a more robust, $160 annual subscription. It is essentially an SEO optimization virtual intelligence. It scans your website and gives a breakdown of where you are deficient and which areas you need to work on. If you don’t want to hire a human expert to constantly evaluate your website’s SEO readiness, SEO Spider is a fair substitute.
An important part of good SEO is having good links. The more you are linked to by others, and the more you link to another website, the more valuable or content-rich your own website is ranked. BuzzStream is an excellent tool for managing your links and getting linked. It has a 14-day free trial, with an option to buy into a monthly subscription for $24.
SEMrush SEO Toolkit
The SEMrush SEO toolkit is free and addresses another important aspect of SEO: keyword usage. The use of the right keywords and the frequency of use is another major factor in SEO that remains a cornerstone of rising in the ranks. If you want to make sure your keyword usage and frequency are in good shape, SEMrush is a good tool to use.
Testing Your SEO Efforts
If you’re not relying on a professional consultant to test how well your SEO efforts are doing, there are a few things you need to keep in mind.
First, you are not trying to figure out the Google algorithm. Testing isn’t about “gaming the system,” but it is about getting better results.
Second, you are experimenting, so that will mean you may get some success as well as some failure. But all of this data, whether positive or negative, ultimately helps you navigate the right SEO tactics for your business.
The best way to conduct an SEO test involves having time and a "test area." You don't want to severely hurt your main website since that would harm your potential business. So, if you can designate a part of your site as an area where you can conduct tests, that is a safer option. The other thing you should be willing to do is to invest time. The more time you devote to a test, the more data you will get and the better your results will be.
Conducting a Split Test for SEO
In an ideal, lab situation, you would have two identical samples. You would conduct your test on one while leaving the “control sample” alone, to use as a basis for comparison and see what differences occur. But that’s not practical in the real world with a live website.
So the next best thing is to compare and alternate. If you have similar web pages, such as a cooking website with many recipes, you can see what happens if you leave one web page alone, with your standard template, and tweak another web page with the updates you want to test. Then, over time, compare the data.
Though that method works, the ultimate test would be on the same webpage. So look at the results for your cookie recipe webpage before you begin. Then enact your changes, and use your tools to measure rates of visitation, click-throughs, and other factors. Alternate between the original and tweaks for a week or two at a time to carefully observe your metrics. Doing this in different configurations should eventually give you a much clearer idea of how your SEO tactics are working, or not working. Now, it's just a matter of finding the right balance, them implementing it on a wider scale.
Periodically testing your SEO effectiveness is something every website owner should be doing on a regular basis. That is especially true once you have made changes or are adding new content. Every change you make can affect your rankings.