The Five Pillars of SEO in 2012

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Let’s face it, when we say Search Engine Optimization, we really mean Google Optimization .  And while we’re on the topic, are we really just optimizing our page, or are we actually trying to manipulate Google?  Optimization means creating a clean accessible website and all of the other stuff would not be considered for “White Hat SEO“.  But is that really all that is required to rank well?  And is that all that professional SEOs are doing?

For anyone who has been involved in SEO for any amount of time, we know that simply creating a page of great content is not going to get you any traffic from Google.  Unfortunately the relentless Coyote-vs-Roadrunner game that web masters play with Google has escalated to such a point that it requires a pragmatic appreciation for how the system really works, not how it should work, and if you’re not going to play by those rules, you might as well not even try.

So with that prelude, I’m going to take a more holistic perspective on what is required to achieve good search rankings in Google.  It means spending some effort optimizing your site for crawling and indexing, but also means spending some time promoting your site via external channels.  I would describe the effort by saying there are essentially 5 pillars to modern SEO campaigns, as I’ve listed below.  The first two (links and social) are external factors that could be described as “quality signals” to Google, instructing it how seriously to take the site.  The last 3 in the list are more related to true website optimization.  And yes, I put these in order of what I believe to be their significance, which should hopefully illustrate just how significant external quality signals are, relative to pure optimization activities.

i. Links – What really separated Google in the early years from other search engines was its use of inbound links to determine relevancy of a page.  Similar to how academic journals are more important based on the number of journal citations, the same could be said of websites.  There is even a quality metric called Page Rank (named after Larry Page) which expresses the amount of link power a page has on a 1-10 scale.  Not all links are created equal though – a link from CNN.com is worth way more than joes-moms-blog.info.  Each site has value based upon how much link power it has, and thus when it links to another site, it passes a fraction of its link power (“link juice”) to another site.  And so an entire cottage link building industry now exists in the SEO community, servicing the effort to build more and higher quality links to establish sites.  The more competitive the niche that a site is competing in, the more links it requires.

ii. Social Mentions – Social is the latest, greatest impact upon search results.  There have been numerous rumblings in the search communities recently that specific social signals are having an effect, not just any and all social activity.  Specifically, social mentions.  If someone ‘likes’ or ‘shares’ your article on Facebook, or if they retweet a post on Twitter, these serve as social validation similar to how inbound links work.  Also similar to links, not all entities in the social sphere are equal.  If you get a retweet from someone with 2 non-influential followers, that mention is worth much less than the guru of your field.  Thus social is actually shaping up to be quite a powerful quality signal.

iii. Content Is (not) King – We’ve probably all heard a million times that “content is king”.  I strongly disagree! A prince perhaps, but certainly not King!  Its one of those little fantasies that sounds great at the convention but then you go home and try it and, unless you have NO COMPETITION, it doesn’t work!  I’d rather use a plant as a metaphor.  Consider the content as your seed and inbound links as the water.  You can plant the most verile seed but nothing is going to happen without enough water.  Anyway, assuming you apply water and you have a fighting chance, great content should be driven by keyword research.  Find what your users are looking for and write articles about it.

iv. Accessibility – How easy is it to access your content?  Keep in mind that until very recently the Google bot could not access any content that was contained within a Flash file or fetched asynchronously with an AJAX call.  Those things are possible now but with heavy negative bias, so you’d never want to use these to create your navigation bar for instance.  But its more than that.  Having clean self-documenting “RESTful” URLs instead of something with an unreadable query string mess are important.  It is also important to consider how many clicks are required to reach a particular page that might rank.  If it takes 4 clicks from the homepage, Google will assume it is not significant content and will discount its value. It also inherits a lot less of the link juice that is going to your homepage.

v. Usability – Recently, Google began to track user interaction with search results and factor that interaction back into the search results, creating a sort of usability feedback look.    Let’s say that you are result #3 for a given search but your listing is getting clicked more often than result #1.  There is a good chance you will begin to move up in the rankings as a result of this.  Also, how long is the user staying on your site after clicking on it, before they return back to the search results to view another listing?  This would be a good indicator as to whether they found what they wanted on your site. To a lesser degree, indirect factors began to play into usability rankings too such as how long it takes for your page to load and if the page is dominated by advertisements above the fold.  The over-arching takeaway here is to focus on creating high quality content that a user would want to return to, and optimizing your meta description to make sure your listing seems interesting and is consistent with the content the user will find when the click to your site.

In summary, don’t get too fixated on content or simply optimizing your site.  It would be great to think that is all that is required to rank well, but in 2011/2012, there are just so many websites out there competing for rankings, that realistically you need to also consider promoting your site by obtaining inbound links and social mentions.  Without proactive effort to build these quality signals, it could take years for you to legitimately build these signals.  And thus, any serious SEO campaign must include an effort to establish strong quality signals as part of the effort.