Learning the SEO game—and the plays that help you win

Learning the SEO game—and the plays that help you win

Published: October 15, 2020 by Sean Griffin
Categories: Content and SEO

SEO is a complicated and nuanced game. And unfortunately for those who want to play, the rules are constantly changing. The good news is, the general foundation remains—and we’ve got the plays for success. Or, in other words, the factors that affect a web property’s search rankings and traffic, why they’re important and how they apply to your marketing efforts.

The game

The (general) rules

  1. Content
  2. Mobile
  3. Technical factors
  4. Backlinks
  5. User Experience (UX)
  6. Online Reputation
  7. User engagement signals

The game

As the web grew, so did the need to organize all its information, develop technology to understand language processing and become smarter about building connections between words and things. With millions of data points to reference, search algorithms can identify whether a user wants to consume information or make a transaction, for example. Therefore, search engines tailor results to meet specific intent and users are served unique results based on what they type in the search field.
And when the smartphone was introduced, users could access the world's information on the go. But more importantly, the smartphone changed how we searched for information. Users began to type or speak long tail keywords (phrases of 3+ words), which were more conversational in nature.
Search engines strive to help people find the information they need when and where they need it. This is why Google is considered the new homepage and why search engines are one of the most powerful tools in the world.

The game is to beat the competition to the top of the results page by ensuring web properties and experiences send the signals search engines need to determine if a site is answering the question well. To achieve this, search engines go from link to link using what are called web crawlers to scan webpages, discover content, assess performance and index.
So why should you care? Not only does a top ranking page earn more clicks and traffic, but also more brand exposure, or impressions. By calling the right plays and putting players in the best spots on the field, you can be #1 (or at least on the first results page!)

The (general) rules

The search engine algorithm updates change constantly and often without official notice. More significant updates, which have historically happened once a quarter, may be announced after they’re done. These updates are focused on thousands of factors, but really come down to quality, trust and user experience. While your search appearance is determined by many factors, it can ultimately be broken down into three main categories: optimizing web pages, planning and executing an effective content strategy and building reputation and authority.

It’s become more and more clear over the years that the goal of the search engine is to recognize user intent and serve the best results. You might say these refs don’t need a trip to the eye doctor; they already have some of the best eyeglasses in the world.
The team

With any team, it’s important that as many of the players are prepared to work together towards winning before hitting the field. SEO isn’t all that different. To win the SERP (search engine result page), it’s important to have as many factors coordinated as possible. The better they work together, the closer you’ll get to the top of the page.

1. Content

Content is no longer just a blog post, and results have evolved past a simple list of blue hyperlinks. SERPs now include features such as ads, content features, frequently asked questions, videos, images, and the list goes on.

You’ve probably heard of keywords; working them into content was once the name of the game. While they’re still a factor, intent, quality and relevancy are the golden tickets nowadays. In other words, to achieve the highest rankings and various SERP features, and to be read by voice assistants, content on webpages should answer popular queries as directly and thoroughly as possible.

Key factors

  • Topic depth, quality and freshness (good)
  • Keywords in body (avoid keyword “stuffing”—use keywords as naturally as possible while still ensuring your target keywords appear a few times throughout.)
  • Keywords in title, description and H1 (good)
  • Keyword density and variations of target keyword (good)
  • Duplicate content (bad)
  • Expertise, authoritativeness, trustworthiness or E-A-T (good)
  • Variety of content types – mix of text, images, videos etc. (good)

2. Mobile

Up to 70 percent of web traffic happens on a mobile device. What does this mean? Moving forward, companies need to adopt a mobile-first approach. To push organizations to adopt to this consumer trend and serve the best results for its user, search engines updated the algorithms to emphasize the mobile experience of web properties. Therefore, mobile-first indexing is the standard for determining search results. Mobile-first indexing means crawlers examine the mobile version of the site’s content before desktop. In other words, they prioritize mobile over desktop format in ranking results.

Key factors (when crawlers visit mobile sites):

  •  Legibility of content
  • UX/UI
  • Content prioritization/hidden content
  • File size
  • Mobile-friendly and responsive design

3. Technical factors

It doesn’t matter how awesome the content you produce is. If the site is not working properly, users will not find the information and potential sales are lost. Therefore, you cannot have a complete SEO strategy without the technical side. Technical SEO is the structure of your website and focuses on how well search engine spiders can crawl a site and index its content – a prerequisite for good rankings. While search engines are getting better at crawling, indexing and understanding information, they are not perfect. This is why it’s nice to have SEO experts and programmers on the team.
The three most important elements of technical SEO are performance, crawlability and indexation. Through a series a monthly technical audit scans, we monitor our clients’ sites to ensure these above elements are met.

Key factors

  • Loading time and file size
  • On-page optimizations such title tags, meta descriptions, heading structure (h1, h2s, h3s etc.)
  • 3xx, 4xx, 5xx errors
  • Crawl budget
  • Security (HTTPS encryption)
  • Internal links, i.e. from one page to another within the site
  • Page architecture
  • Page speed and load time
  • Broken links

Authority is one of the most important determinants of search rankings. One way to build authority is to have other websites link to your site and content. These are called backlinks. To search engines, they are votes of confidence that indicate trust and authority. But it’s important to note that in the SEO game, quality reigns more supreme than quantity. The best way to get backlinks is to organically acquire them by creating relevant content, an engaging social media presence and good PR outreach.

Key factors

  • Number of .edu or .gov backlinks
  • Number of domains linked from the URL
  • Number of external links from the URL
  • Authority and trust of backlinks and domains
  • Anchor text (the text used in a hyperlink linking to our URL)
  • Nofollow, sponsored and user-generated content directives

5. User Experience (UX)

The main aspects of user experience relate to design and usability of a website. Improvements in user experience are part of on-page optimization. Google likes well-designed and well-coded pages with proper navigational structures and relevant internal link structure. Pages that contain more menus, buttons and other interactive elements and provide good user experience consistently rank higher in search engines. On the other side if you have too many advertisements above the fold Google will push your rankings down.

Key factors

  • Number of internal links
  • Navigational structures
  • Font size and page layout
  • Image-to-text ratio
  • Interstitials and pop-ups
  • Ads
  • Layout shifts

6. Online Reputation

Since search engines can’t determine if a product or company is reputable, they look for signals from independent resources and sites. This can be in the form of user ratings, reviews and social media activity. Thus, if other users view a site or its owners as quality, it’s a strong signal to search engines that the site is satisfying search intentions and deserves to be highly visible in organic results.

Key factors

  • Reviews and star ratings on third-party sites such as Google, Yelp etc.
  • Reviews, references and recommendations by third-party experts or news outlets
  • Awards or professional society memberships
  • Wikipedia pages
  • Better Business Bureau or Amazon ratings

7. User engagement signals

Search rankings are determined by more than just how a site works or what’s on it. How people interact with a site is a factor too. If they do so in ways that indicates they are getting what they are looking for, then the site is rewarded. These are based on user interaction and machine learning, so they cannot be manipulated in any technical way. Following best practices in terms of user experience (UX), technical execution and content creation is the way to engage and satisfy users.

Key factors

  • Click-through rate (CTR)
  • Bounce rate
  • Time on site or dwell time
  • Direct and repeat traffic

Ready to play?

Chances are, you already have some sort of basic SEO strategy in place as a part of your overall marketing efforts. But there are always ways to up your game. As the great Michael Jordan once said, “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.”