The topic of SEO is an eternal cause for buzz and discussion – something you read about SEO two or three years ago may not be valid today. SEO strategies evolve quickly, are highly mercurial, and are often complex. You need only venture to blogs and forums to view the variety of endless discussions, research, opinions, and trends. The word “SEO” itself has evolved too, and perhaps even become a little derogatory in more recent times because of the tendency of some people who perform SEO in a grey manner, or at worst, employ black hat techniques.
As such, not much information about SEO is evergreen in nature, but fascinatingly enough, the heart and soul of SEO is “eternal”. As far as we know, this will never change, and understanding these core principles of SEO will well prepare you for almost any change that will happen.
So herein I will give you a key that will never rust by answering the question, “What is the heart of SEO?”
Imagine for a second, two concentric circles, the inside is what search engines are trying to achieve, the outside is how they achieve this. The ‘What‘ never changes – it is constant and firm. The centre circle remains rigid, however, the ‘How’ is constantly in a state of flux or evolution.
This is one way to illustrate the crux of it:
I will explain SEO in terms of those two circles, let’s start with the core/heart of SEO: the intent of search engines.
WHAT is the purpose and intent of search engines?
Why do search engines exist? What are they trying to achieve? They want to sift through the countless number of sites on the internet and index them (arrange them into particular categories). In turn, these websites can be found through searched queries.
To draw an analogy, imagine a vast library of books, except they are in complete disarray, randomly all over the place, referring to each other, and talking about an almost infinite array of topics. A search engine is like a librarian who will go through each and every book, analyse what it is about, and identify what other books it references. He/she then arranges all of that information so that when you ask a question, they can guide you to the best resource. Search engines have the best intentions for users. To play on the analogy further, you would not be a very good librarian if you were helping a visitor find a copy of Harry Potter, and gave them Dirty Harry instead. The result for the user would be inappropriate and need to be resolved. Results need to show the relevance to a search query.
If you asked the search engine for something less specific, like “an inspirational novel”, it now has a tougher job. There may be many inspirational books, but which one should it return to you first? One would hope it will first return the most inspirational book, then the second most, then the third, etc. (this is called ranking). In other words, once something is determined as being relevant, how do you rank them up against each other and which one do you return in the top position?
So put quite simply, the intention of the search engines is to return: a) the most appropriate (relevant) answer and b) the highest quality answer. This is really good for user satisfaction. If you think about it, we are all treated like kings by search engines – no matter what we ask them, they strive to return the most appropriate and best answer to our questions.
In our diagram, what I just described is the heart of SEO. Relevance and ranking – no matter what other changes occur, you can bet that they are simply trying to achieve a better outcome for users.
HOW do search engines strive to achieve this goal?
Going back to our librarian analogy, it would be impossible for a librarian to manually review millions or billions of books to build a library index. Similarly, search engines must look for an automated method of achieving their goal via the use of algorithms.
A search engine algorithm is a set of computer programs that are used to evaluate the quality and content of a site. Currently, Google’s algorithm has over 200 ranking factors which determine the relevance and quality of websites.
Search engines are constantly changing and updating their algorithms to try to achieve their goal better; and this is the changing part of the landscape of SEO.
What does this mean for me, a person doing SEO?
Quite simply, try to make your site the best and most appropriate result for people searching for your product, service, or content (I.E focus primarily on the “what”), however, at the same time this can be achieved by maintaining a general understanding of the “how” of search engines algorithmically to ensure that you are found properly — Some great websites have genuinely not performed well in search engines because of technical reasons, but for the most part, search engines are on your side. As they refine their techniques, SEO will require less and less technical expertise, and other sites that aren’t as good as yours, but currently rank better because they use the “how” to their advantage in an inappropriate way, will slowly be whittled down by search engine algorithm evolution.
Many SEO’s go astray because they are too busy chasing the algorithms that search engines use to rank websites. They are so focused on reaching the top of the ranking that they forget the heart of SEO and the intention of search engines: to return the best and most relevant results of their users’ queries. This may sound ridiculously simple, but is your site genuinely better than your competitors’ site? Do you have on your site the most appropriate result for the keywords you are trying to target? Until you answer these affirmatively, don’t waste your time chasing the search engine algorithm, because as soon as they update it again, you will watch your rankings fall.
The possible future
We can’t fully foresee the future of SEO, but we can give some predictions based on historical evolution. Perhaps one day SEO will all be about the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ won’t really matter anymore because they have done it so incredibly well – but at the moment there is still some room for knowledge of the how, and that knowledge must be used wisely.
Written by Shawn Powrie