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So you’re trying to get a handle on what you need to do to “improve your SEO” – reading about meta tags, content, backlinks… becoming suddenly afraid of animals like Penguins and Pandas when you’ve never even seen either of them, apart from that one time you visited the San Diego Zoo. It seems like things are changing so quickly, it’s impossible to catch up; to know what matters from what does not. To the inexperienced, SEO can sound a bit like trying to keep up with the latest fitness or diet crazes – one minute it’s the latest and greatest way to lose weight, the next it’s giving you cancer.

It doesn’t need to be so difficult. If you’re trying to figure out what’s good for your website, just remember these 3 Golden Pillars of SEO and it all becomes a lot simpler.

Virtually everything in SEO relates back to one of 3 things: RelevanceQuality, and Authority. Virtually anything that improves your site in one or more of these areas is either directly or indirectly going to help your SEO. Concentrate on these 3 Golden Pillars, and it is difficult to go wrong; when considering certain tactics or changes, test whether they relate back to one of these categories. If the change is a genuine improvement to these areas, it is probably a good idea.

1. Relevance

What is the purpose of a search engine? It’s to return the information that somebody is looking for. Search engines answer questions and queries. Therefore for your site to be a contender for the results of a search, it must be relevant to that search. In other words – your site needs the answer to the question, the information for the query. To a large degree, this is where your content comes in. How informative is your website? Do you describe your products and services effectively? Forget for a minute about “keywords” – search engines are smarter than that. Sticking some favorite keywords into your content is a basic step, but it does not automatically make you relevant. Your site’s content is the information that it has to offer the world – you need to cover more than just keywords, you need to cover the entire topic that your products or services relate to.

Let’s take the topic of SEO itself – a site that wishes to rank highly and attract traffic in the area of SEO, needs to do more than put up some pages that mention “Search Engine Optimization” a bunch of times. The site needs to build out deep, rich content that really proves that it is relevant to the entire topic itself. Typically the more competitive the area, the higher the quality of content you should aim to have. Sadly it is still not quite the case that the best quality content always wins – Google is still working on that –however, it is rarely a bad strategy to aim to have the best quality content in your industry.

Beyond your content, relevance is also built by utilizing other on-page factors of your website that help the search engines understand what your site is about. A page’s meta title is a place to essentially summarize the page topic in one line; headings on the page help to further name the topics and sub-topics. Basically any opportunity that exists within a page to build and prove relevance, is worth doing (note: unless it involves “tricks” like hidden content). But remember the over-arching rule to all of this: you aren’t just trying to prove relevance to a search engine, you are proving it to a human user too.

Extra hint: a single, detailed page of quality, relevant content is good – but an entire series of pages that flesh out the details of the topic is better.

2. Quality

Quality is an interesting metric, because the idea that a computer algorithm can determine quality is a relatively new concept within SEO. Some definitions of “quality” are somewhat subjective, and indeed when Google first started releasing the Panda algorithm updates in 2011, it became clear that it was going to do it’s best to both measure and anticipate how a user would respond to the overall quality of a website. This came to mean that a site’s content depth and uniqueness was a bigger factor than ever – Google essentially asked the question of a website “what makes you great? why should we serve up your page of content over any of the millions of other options?”. This meant that a page had very thin content, too much duplicated content, or was perhaps difficult to read, then the chances of it ranking highly became very low. Other factors, such as how many advertisements are on a page, became something that Google seemed to punish if the algorithm believed that it was detrimental to a user’s experience on that page.

What can you do to monitor and enhance the quality of your website? The following metrics are a little easier to track, define and fix –
• Page Speed – how quickly do your pages load? Google gives preferences to faster sites, as it knows that users prefer faster sites. We like this tool from Pingdom for testing Page Speed.
• Time On Site & Bounce Rate – how are people responding to your site? Are they spending large amounts of time looking around, or do they come and quickly go? Remember that via Google Analytics, Google is able to track the traffic behavior of an extremely large number of websites, including your own if you use it. If visitors are not responding well to your site, Google is watching.
• Website Errors – there are a multitude of ways your site may appear to be low quality through the coding itself. Things like broken links and images, missing pages, scripting errors, malware – will all be noticed by Google’s crawlers. A quality site will have minimal errors and therefore have a better chance at performing well with the search engines. One place to start is check your site against the W3C standards here.

3. Authority

Years ago, most SEO professionals would tell you that the factors that contributed towards rankings were dominated by the Authority metric – sites with relatively poor relevance and quality could achieve rankings simply by building Authority via links – links acquired by fair or foul means. Unfortunately, this was true, and is one of the major reasons that the SEO industry started to get a bad name, but also a major reason why some sites have seen major fluctuations in rankings and traffic. This is the area that has been under the most refinement from Google over the last 1-2 years, at least in the eyes of most SEO professionals. So what exactly is Authority?

Authority is your presence on the internet, or perhaps more accurately, your power and influence on the internet. Google’s original algorithm was based around the concept that the internet is a bit like a popularity contest – pages on the internet all refer to each other via links, therefore a link is a bit like a “vote” for another website. Websites that are mentioned frequently by other websites, appear to Google as an “Authority”, as they are being used as a reference point by other sites.

However, given how easy this part of the algorithm could be “gamed”, Google has had to tighten up the rules in this area. The Google Penguin updates are largely targeted at ensuring that only real, quality links are counted as “votes” for a website to influence it’s rankings – so old techniques that effectively involved spamming the internet to get links are now being aggressively punished by the Google algorithm.

So how do you become an Authority? Well, forget about SEO for a moment and ask yourself the same question. How do you become an authority within your industry? Typically it by being well-known, well-respected, such as by being a subject matter expert. The theory we would promote is that if you do remarkable things, people will remark about you! This holds true on the web – in fact, the internet is an incredible accelerator to this concept, because of the ease with which people can find and share information. If you can therefore do remarkable things on your website, the “remarks” you attract will often be in the form of inbound links to your site – thereby increasing your authority.

For the most part, this is exactly what Google publicly tells websites to do – something along the lines of “just do great things, and great things will come to you” or “if you build it, they will come” if you’re into Kevin Costner movies. However, while this might hold true at the tip of the iceberg, it is not entirely true. If you broadcast incredible music on a radio station that nobody is listening to, you’ll never get any listeners and you’ll never sell any records. The process typically needs to be seeded and encouraged. Basic steps you can take are to start participating in online blogs and forums; further steps would be to get aggressive with Social Media, to build yourself an audience. More advanced steps will lead you to general marketing and publicity concepts about how to make your brand stand up and be noticed – but we’ll have to cover that another time.

So remember – any time you are wondering whether something is “good for SEO” – or, you are looking for a way to improve the SEO for your site – think back to these 3 pillars