Hey Google! A beginner’s guide to SEO and topping page 1 on Google

Getting your content found in search engines is a constant challenge, but there are some key steps any business can take to achieve better results

Grabbing online attention can be an expensive business. The search engine is the gateway to products and services for many customers, with 71 per cent of B2B buyers starting their research with a generic search. That is why $136 million was spent on search advertising worldwide in 2019. However, it isn’t always necessary to pay; a smart search-engine optimisation strategy can help your business do well in unpaid results, known as organic search. Google sees more than 15 billion hits per month, from the UK, so there is plenty of traffic to go around.

The Chelsea Knee Clinic in London, for example, focused its SEO strategy on creating detailed pages about procedures and publishing regular content to answer patients’ questions. The approach saw the clinic increase traffic by more than 10,000 per cent. But it takes patience – this was not an overnight boom, but the result of two years of steady work.

The best strategy is one that regularly checks for, and adapts to, changes in customer behaviour – and the rewards for SEO success are significant. The number one result on a Google page gets around a third of all clicks and is 10 times more likely to be clicked than the page in the number 10 spot.

That makes the question on everyone’s lips, of course, what can a business do while creating a new website or refreshing an old one to give it the best chance of reaching that hallowed spot?

Taking it to the top

There’s no sugar-coating the fact that getting to the top is a tricky proposition. Delivering what Google views as content which best meets the needs of readers – a thorough piece that answers a range of questions on the topic at hand – is a very good start, but will get you only so far. If you are competing with lots of big names, then you will often be squeezed out. Search results for ‘grocery deliveries’, for example, are dominated by major supermarkets and media articles, so you’ll have a much easier time ranking highly for something more specific, such as ‘artisanal bread delivery london’.

Here, Google would search your website for content – pictures, articles and keywords – that match its database entry for ‘artisanal bread’. To help identify these, search for companies that rank highly for this term and see how they explain what they do. What do they have in common? How are the pages laid out? How do they use sub-headings, related links and so on? You can get a sense from these about what Google likes. Whatever they are doing is working, so use it to inspire your own content strategy.

This is also an opportunity for some keyword research. There are plenty of free tools online, such as Google’s own Keyword Planner, that allow you to see which terms are most searched for, along with alternatives. Do people search for ‘artisan bread’, ‘artisanal bread’ or just ‘handmade bread’? Once you have ensured that the relevant keywords appear prominently on your site – in headlines on relevant articles, your site description and so on – you will want to do the same to demonstrate that you offer delivery and that you are in London.

The idea is to create a suite of content to draw people in that lives up to the promise of what they have been searching for. While every company is unique, SEO experts say around 10-30 pages is a good website size. Thorough and informative articles on what you do should be at least 300 words and perhaps over 1,000 – though, again, every website varies. And you should update regularly – at least every six months – because Google’s rules, and your rivals’ websites, constantly change. Choose the search keywords to target, develop your content accordingly and your artisanal bread should rise through the rankings.

What the search engine wants

Your efforts, says Louise Merry, Head of Commercial SEO at Telegraph Media Group, will be boosted if you get other SEO basics right. Good SEO, she says, is all about understanding intent – what visitors are looking for – then delivering authoritative content that satisfies them.

That in itself isn’t as easy as it sounds, because search engines are constantly changing the rules. “Google updates or tweaks its algorithm thousands of times per year and doesn’t say what has changed,” says Merry. “As SEO experts, our job is to try to understand what the search engine expects to see.”

A modern search engine doesn’t just hunt for keywords, but also considers the whole page. A search engine such as Google – and we’re mostly talking about Google in the UK because it has around 85 per cent share of the market – sends small software programs called crawlers to analyse every detail of a website and even the sites that link to it.

The results are stored in Google’s index and, when a search is made, an algorithm looks for high-quality content that answers the customer’s query. A quality page is one with features such as quick loading, that isn’t crowded with ads, doesn’t hide the answer behind multiple links and has an easy-to-read layout.

Businesses trying to make their content easier to find, then, must constantly tweak their approach to take account of new rules, how well their site serves up its content and other factors that affect how people look for material online, such as behavioural change related to Covid.

Search in an age of pandemic

Covid-19 has had a big impact on search, according to Google. People searched for different terms – ‘nature reserves’ and ‘staycation’, for example – as well as what was open near them. With lockdowns and remote working the new norm, online behaviour has changed significantly. Some companies have seen more visits to their website from mobile devices, perhaps from people who were at home without access to a work computer. For pages to work well on mobile, says Merry, content needs to be concise and layouts uncluttered. The desire to simplify layouts for mobile, for example, was a main reason why Facebook began a major redesign in 2019.

Google offers a free mobile-friendliness test to check features such as whether the site fits properly on screen, loads quickly enough and doesn’t deliver heavy-bandwidth content, such as high-production video, that might not be easy to download on the move.

But the effect of the pandemic on search was not universal. Other businesses found that people who weren’t commuting or leaving the house at all preferred not to go online from their mobiles. Desktop search can appear very different, but is simply presenting information or searches in distinct ways. Some readers may prefer longer, more detailed reads, rather than quick answers, because desktop visitors are likely to spend longer on the site, and Google may recognise that.  To further complicate matters, some tablet device screens can be as big as laptops, for example, but use mobile search settings.

Individual strategies depend on your audience’s behaviour, which is easy to research. There are lots of tools you can use to analyse search habits – many of which are paid-for – but you can also use tools you have already, such as Google Analytics or similar for measuring traffic to your site. For example, SEMrush will tell you the keywords you are already ranking for, where your traffic is coming from and who is linking to you. It will even examine your competitors’ websites and tell you what they are doing well.

Searching for quality

Analysing search terms and traffic can be quite sophisticated, but once again there are simple ways to gain useful information just by looking at a page of search results

“Some of the features on the results page are a goldmine,” Merry says. Google often shows a ‘People also ask’ box, for example, and a panel of related searches. These give important clues about what to cover, because Google is signifying that these are relevant themes. The next step, she says, is to study the pages in the results, because Google considers them to be satisfying the query.

Searching for ‘How to create a content strategy’, for example, says that people also ask, ‘How do you create brand content?’ and that related searches include ‘types of content strategy’. Anyone writing about creating a content strategy might want to include answers to those questions if they wish to be near the top of the search results.

Seeing what Google sees

Authoritative content doesn’t have to be long. Merry says that a thorough business article is typically no fewer than 800-900 words, but the best way to determine length is to look at what is appearing in results already. Are these articles long or short? Are they short phrases compiled into lists or deep dives into the detail? “Google likes to see a good user experience and will drop pages that present reams of unbroken text,” she says.

‘Thin content’, a dreaded, catch-all term denoting anything that doesn’t provide the kind of quality measures mentioned above, can result in a website being removed from search rankings entirely. The only solution is to apply to Google and show that the offending content has been removed or replaced. Fortunately, various tools can track down thin content by analysing a site’s pages as a search engine might and applying their best approximation of the rules to identify content that might be penalised.

Pictures are important, too, because Google can ‘see’ them. “Google knows if you’re using stock images,” says Merry, “and it doesn’t rate them as highly as original photography. It is good at understanding how well the images relate to the words as well.” To go back to our bread example, using your own pictures rather than stock imagery will help you rank higher. Using ‘Our famous Westminster Loaf’ to describe the picture in alt text – the words that replace an image for visually impaired users or when a picture fails to load – for example, would be a better caption than ‘Bread’.

Creating good SEO can feel like an overwhelming task, but any improvements are better than none. In any case, the task is never complete because the rules keep changing to adapt to modern consumption. Some of the change in search behaviour brought about by the pandemic will be permanent if, for example, people ending up working remotely more often than they did before. But search behaviour will continue to evolve.

As nothing in SEO stays the same for very long, the important thing to remember is to repeat all the steps mentioned regularly to pick up on any differences so your strategy can continue to evolve along with user behaviour. It wasn’t that long ago, for example, that typical SEO advice was to pack relevant keywords into your articles, but today’s search engines are likely to consider that to be a sign of badly-written content.

“We’re already seeing a move to voice search, as more people use smart speakers,” says Merry. “They’re more likely to ask questions, rather than use keywords.” How this affects SEO will become clearer over time, but it’s likely that pages providing concise, straightforward answers to questions will do best for these users.