Contrary to popular belief, SEO isn’t all about algorithm updates, keywords and black magic. While the former is a small part of it, and the latter is up for debate, SEO really boils down to a simple equation that nearly anyone can follow:
SEO = Experience + Relevance + Authority
Following this simple SEO equation can help you make informed decisions about your digital strategy while chalking up some meaningful results.
Let’s break each area down.
Often referred to as technical SEO, experience includes all the elements of your website that affect how users and search engines interact with it. Experience can include site speed, broken links, redirects, mobile friendliness, navigation and a variety of other technical elements.
Experience is much more black and white than relevance and authority, with many decisions being objectively good or bad. For example, if you have broken pages on your site (404 errors), it will result in a poor user experience than a working page.
I typically advise my clients to focus on fixing any experience issues before jumping into a full-fledged SEO campaign for a few reasons:
- You have more control over experience than the other two pieces of the SEO equation
- You don’t want to drive traffic to a broken site
- This is low hanging fruit—you’ll often see improvements in less than a month
The best way to get started with technical SEO and experience is to perform a digital audit on your existing site by an experienced search marketer (ahem). This will give you an idea of what’s working, what’s broken and what’s missing completely.
Relevance refers to how close your page matches a searcher’s query (the keywords they type into a search engine) and intent (the results they’re really looking for).
To rank for a specific query, it’s best if your website has a page that specifically mentions that query by name and provides meaningful content about that topic. This is why Wikipedia articles tend to rank so well: They focus on a specific topic and offer many levels of insight about that topic.
Intent can be tough to judge, but search engines try to match the words someone is using with what they believe is the user’s goal. For example, let’s take a look at two terms: “Best Chinese Restaurant in Red Bank” and “Best Chinese Restaurants in Red Bank”. For the first keyword, someone is clearly looking to find the best Chinese food in town. If you’ve optimized your page for that, there’s a good chance you can rank.
But the second term is plural, focusing on “restaurants”. This means the person is probably looking for a list of local Chinese places, ranked in order. Google will likely not show your homepage in results, but may show a blog post or Yelp listing of the best reviewed Chinese joints in town.
When trying to build relevance on your website, you have to consider both queries and intent. Ask yourself, “What is someone really looking for when they want my product/service?” This is especially important for smaller and medium sized businesses who cannot afford to compete with the big budgets of large enterprises.
Authority refers to how likely a site or page will rank, based on how reputable search engines consider it to be. A site with high authority (think CNN) can rank for a keyword almost immediately, merely by mentioning it once or twice. All things being equal, higher authority sites will usually rank better than lower authority sites.
Built over time, authority can be tracked using free tools like www.opensiteexplorer.org. OSE will help you measure two metrics: Domain Authority, or how authoritative your entire website is, and Page Authority, which tracks the power of each individual page on a website. A site with high domain authority is extremely respected, and often has no trouble ranking (again, think Wikipedia and CNN.com). However, you could have a website with low overall authority, but one monster page that has dominant page authority that ranks very well.
Authority is built in a number of ways, but the most important things to keep in mind are links and social signals. The more diverse, respected links you have pointing to your website, the higher your authority will grow. And not all links are created equal either. A single link from Forbes.com may trump 10 links from different mom and pop blogs. When building authority, you should try to focus on both quality and quantity to see the best results.
Social signals have a lower impact on authority, but can easily make up for it with their viral appeal. The more people that like, share and repost your content, the more eyeballs it will continue to garner. And this makes sense—great content is often shared and this is rewarded in search engines.
Prioritizing the SEO Equation for Success
Now that you understand each piece of the SEO equation, it’s time to make each one actionable. Ideally, you’ll build each of these elements into your digital marketing mix—this is how leading companies compete in search.
But for most small and medium companies, you’ll need to prioritize. To do this, you have to consider your existing resources and see where they are best spent. Below are some guidelines:
When to Focus on Experience
Businesses that are new to SEO usually need to focus on Experience first. This means fixing broken links, improving site speed, prioritizing mobile, building internal links and making sure you have a strong technical foundation. Many of these tasks are one-time changes for smaller sites and can be handled by a technical SEO professional or developer. Because many tasks in the Experience portion are black and white, you can expect to see quick wins from investing in this first.
When to Focus on Relevance
Every site needs content, but you can prioritize this investment in a few scenarios:
- Your site has little to no content already
- You operate in a niche market with lower online competition
- You already have content professionals on your team that can learn the basics of on-page SEO and apply it to their writing
In less competitive niches or for longer tailed keywords, a strongly optimized piece of content may be all it takes to rank in the top five of search engines. Some businesses can succeed in search on this front alone—without worrying about the other two pieces of the equation.
When to Focus on Authority
Finally, focus on authority when you’re competing against established competitors or cannot produce enough high quality content to make a dent. I’d argue that authority is the most difficult piece of the SEO equation because you have the least amount of control in the process. You can’t force other sites to link to you—and it’s impossible to predict if your content will go viral in social.
Despite its difficulty, building Authority often yields the biggest gains. Companies that have an existing PR team are well suited to begin link building, as are those with dedicated guest bloggers and outreach teams.
Of course, all these recommendations are rough guidelines and there are plenty of scenarios where you’d want to adjust your focus on the equation. For example, large brands that naturally get a lot of press coverage and already have hundreds of thousands of content pages might turn their focus back to technical and experience —as small gains in speed or navigation can make a considerable impact across millions of visits.
Wherever you choose to prioritize, keep the SEO equation in mind as you grow. Nearly all long-term tactics fit into one of these three buckets and it can provide an excellent compass for businesses that need to choose the best route forward.
Need help? Lock me down for a 30-minute conversation to review your existing search presence and see where your business can benefit from the SEO equation.