Today I'm going to “coin a phrase” and explain how the future of SEO is going to look because the rapidly changing landscape of this industry is highly misunderstood by many web-masters.
Internet User Optimisation is the name I am giving to a new aspect which will play an ever more important role in where a page or site ranks. I'll be telling you what it is and how it fits into site optimisation.
SEO was once very much about pleasing the search engines and hence the name. Search Engines were fairly basic so they could only look at things like the number of links a website had, where those links came from, who you linked to, etc.
That was what they had in order to gauge its popularity and from there, where it should rank. And that was why many websites could spam themselves to the top by buying thousands of links in pointless directories or via link exchange schemes.
But the algorithms of the major search engines have become ever more complex and they are now able to take into account far wider aspects so here are the three key steps to top rankings today and going forward:
- On-page SEO (for new sites or pages)
- Internet User Optimisation
- Link building (at the competitive end of the scale)
When you first launch a website or page the search engine crawlers are going to come along and have a look over it. They'll then make a first stab at what keywords it should rank for and at what position.
So ensuring your title and coding are crystal clear for them is the first step. Note that once your page or site becomes established you can make changes here without affecting your rankings and I'll explain why in a moment.
Internet User Optimisation (IUO)
This is the newer part that now plays a critical role. The search engine has ranked your page for a keyword but do internet users (real people) agree?
Let's say Google thinks your new page is about “bicycle routes in Canada”. It will show your page once in every hundred times this search takes place. I use “once” - you can compare the number of impressions you are getting in Google Webmaster Tools with the number of searches that are actually carried out in Google Keyword Tool to see your approximate percentage.
If users behave positively to your site, and more positively than to those of your competitors, you will be shown more often and/or moved up the rankings.
What is positive user behaviour?
There are rafts of positive user behaviour traits. Here are a few obvious ones:
- They click through to your site from the search engine results pages at a high rate
- They stay on your site for a long time
- They visit multiple pages on your site
- They return to your site at a later date or time
- They create a link to your site (from their own site or from a reviews site or a social media site or wherever)
How does Google know about user behaviour?
Well the obvious answer is that if you have Analytics installed it knows everything. But if you don't it has a few holes to fill although as we're about to see that is not impossible.
First, if a site does not have Analytics it can still see your click through rate from the search engine results page and if users bounce (click the back button) along with how long it was before they bounced.
Second (this will require an example), let's call your website “Site A” and another one “Site B” which does have Google Analytics. So the internet user searches “bicycle routes Canada” and clicks through to Site A. After a while they click a link on Site A which takes them to Site B.
Right! Google now knows how long the user was on Site A. (It can tell from the Analytics on Site B that the user came from Site A and from which page on Site A the user come from). That's a lot of holes filled. Google knows:
- How often users click through from the search results to Site A (the CTR)
- How often users back out again from Site A and after how long (the bounce rate)
- How often some users spend on Site A and if they visit more than one page
- What percentage of users, after visiting Site A, go to Site B
How to do Internet User Optimisation?
So Google knows vast amounts about what humans are doing and how they are reacting to content. It's already using this data make decisions about rankings and it's ability to follow, analyse and understand user behaviour is going to get better and better.
As I've already said above when users like a site they will naturally create links for you. They might write a review, share it on Facebook, bookmark it in Digg, and so on.
Remember also though if users absolutely hate you or your company they may create links as well in the same vain showing that link building is not always a one way street! But we'll come to reputation management in a moment.
We can make this link building task easier for our visitors by adding Share buttons on the site's pages but this is a small detail. If a user feels inspired to do something positive then that missing “Tweet this” button is not going to be a stopper.
Bear in mind they're more likely to make those positive links if other patterns fall into line – they spend a long time on your site, they visit many pages, etc. This you can monitor with Google Analytics and this Google can also follow to spot unnatural trends – e.g. your site just got 100 new links but only ten people visited it in the last month and they all stayed for less than 15 seconds = something not right.
There is nothing new here in analysing user behaviour. This is very similar to the way large shops and supermarkets monitor and study their customer behaviour in order to switch around the layout of their products, change their interior design and even update their branding.
Google actually actively encourages such layout switches with one of it's own website design products where you can create several different layouts and it will tell you which one works best based on what visitors do. Easy enough for a small 5 page site, a little more tricky for larger scale organisations.
But almost everything you need to know in order to do your user behaviour analysis can be found in Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools from Visitor Flow down to goal or Ecommerce conversions.
It may require large amounts of analysis, often at spreadsheet level, to continually fine tune and improve their behaviour but it is this which Google will use to determine if your rankings should stay, go or rise.
And it is this work I am calling Internet User Optimisation. What are your users doing and how can you improve your site so they do more of the things you want them to do and less of the things you don't (namely leaving in a hurry!).
Good bye on page SEO
So let's say users search “bicycle routes Canada” they visit your site and they absolutely love it.
They stay, they share, they blog.
Now you change your website so that it is even more user friendly and easy to get around and in doing so you take out any references to “bicycle routes Canada”.
Do you loose your rankings? Not if user behaviour doesn't change. In fact if your revamp makes users behave even more positively your rankings will actually increase.
Hence on page SEO is only important initially to help search engines index you correctly.
What about link building?
As we've seen positive user behaviour takes care of this … partly. But don't forget how you run your business also generates links.
I recently met Ray Clarke of Ray Clarke Upholstery in London. I was so impressed by him and his business that I wrote a positive review about it on Yelp. Not only that, he didn't exist on Yelp before so I had to register his company myself.
But there you go, positive user behaviour from me and not inspired by his website. Inspired by him and his business offline. And a cheeky link in this blog as well for you Ray ;-)
Link building in competitive markets
Link building will remain an important part of SEO in two areas:
- highly competitive markets
- reputation management
Highly competitive markets
It's all very well to wait around while internet users create links for you but what if your competitor is doing the same and employing an army of link builders as well? He's going to get ahead.
So at the very competitive end you'll also need your own army of link builders to do battle. Many large corporations already have this. They don't work on large numbers of links but high quality ones such as:
- working with journalists to get the site (and a link) mentioned in news stories
- researching subject fields so they can add something useful to Wikipedia (which gets a link back as a reference) or other authority sites
- finding websites close to Google's seed sites and proposing links to those webmasters etc.
What they won't be doing is 1,000 directory submissions and 400 blog posts! If that raises your eyebrows it shouldn't, such practices have not worked for a long time now.
As I mentioned above links are not always a good thing when those links are from unhappy users. I'm not advocating outright manipulation here because that will always come back to bite you.
Here's an example of doing it wrong and doing it right. A couple of months ago I searched for “Virgin broadband problems” and the search results were full of angry customers in forums raging about … well … Virgin broadband problems.
I then searched “BT broadband problems” (BT being a competitor of Virgin in the UK) and the search results were full of BT troubleshooting advice guides and useful information on how to resolve various problems. Now that's reputation management.
From my own back pocket I rank in Google's top ten for “Vevocart SEO”. Vevocart is a shopping cart system for ecommerce stores which I slated in an earlier blog two years ago.
So anyone thinking about using Vevocart, but wanting to first check its SEO capabilities, will search “Vevocart SEO”. I know they do because that blog entry gets an awful lot of visitors who first search “Vevocart SEO”.
Why hasn't Vevocart created pages to move mine out of harms way? More bad reputation management.
So that's it. The SEO of tomorrow (and already happening today) will consist of on-page SEO for new sites and pages, Internet User Optimisation to improve rankins and – sometimes – link building.
Internet User Optimisation is simply about making the user's experience a better one, a purpose the internet was designed for in the first place but got hijacked along the way.
It will also mark the death bell for the endless websites that pop up every day hoping to spam their way to the top with pointless content that adds nothing to our lives.
The ones that generate endless comments on blogs like “Nice post, I will bookmark for the future” and forum comments like “I agree, very good points”.
Are you ready for it?