Understanding Search Engines and SEO
In case you didn’t catch it, we’re an SEO company. Part of being an online marketing company is learning how search engines work and learning to describe search engine optimization and Google to our clients (and of course curious friends and family members). Search engines are complicated. Although you probably use a search engine like Google or Bing regularly, you likely haven’t stopped to think about what’s going on, why you’re being shown specific results, and the amount of time and money businesses spend to be shown to you.
What is a Search Engine?
This seems like a rather obvious question to ask, as you’re probably familiar with sites like Google, Bing, Yahoo, or some of the old-school players like Lycos, Ask Jeeves, AOL Search, or Netscape. On the surface, a search engine is a place where you can type your query in and find the site, service, product, or information for which you are searching. Search engines index a LOT of pages. Google has over 30 trillion pages indexed taking up over 100 million gigabytes of space. You can see the power of Google’s index above your searches in the number of results. For example, in the image above, Google found over 600 million results in less than a second. Search engines are strong and fast at finding what you’re looking for.
Below the surface, search engines are just pretty advertising platforms (so is Facebook). Google generates about 75 billion dollars in revenue a year. About 96% of that revenue comes from advertising revenue. That means Google is bringing in about $72,000,000,000 a year from advertising. They generate this revenue by providing super relevant and cost-effective advertising; there’s almost nowhere else you can advertise only to people specifically looking for what you offer.
There’s a reason this aspect of advertising is important to understand. The more times a search engine shows you an ad, the more money they can bill their advertiser for. Search engines want you to use their site so they can make more money. The more ads they show, the more money they make. Furthermore, the value of ads increases as traffic increases. They provide high-quality search results and make their algorithm better and better in order to keep users using their search engine. If a site provides poor results, users will leave for other sites (see Ask Jeeves, Yahoo!, etc.). So why does Google index 30 trillion pages and sort them so quickly? $72 billion a year in revenue, that’s why.
How Do Search Engines Work?
So now that we understand a little bit more clearly what a search engine’s job is and what it does, we can jump into how they work. You may have caught that we used the word “algorithm” in the paragraph above. The algorithm of a search engine is the process that runs when you click ENTER on your search, right before the results pop up. An algorithm is like a formula, taking your query (the words you type into the search box), sorting through the index (the 30 trillion pages), and presenting you with a SERP (Search Engine Result Page) full of listings. The algorithm runs and decides what to show you. It dictates the rules, conditions, and process by which a query ends you up with the website you see. This is the reason that you don’t type in “marketing company” and end up with websites about organic gardening.
You may notice there are often some “sponsored listings” or ads in the search results. These are dictated by the search engine’s advertising platform and a bidding process, and we’ll talk about those listings in another post. For now let’s focus on organic search results, the ones that are NOT paid advertisements. These are the listings which are effected by said algorithm.
As far as we understand, very few people know the exact algorithm deeply. In fact, most people that do know the algorithm only know individual pieces of it which they’ve worked on. However, years of research, articles by employees of search engines, and case studies consistently lead us to a deeper understanding of the workings of the search engines. As people begin to understand the algorithm more, the search engine will update its algorithm. This is to prevent spam websites from showing up in search results. For example, if the algorithm simply gives preference to sites that are yellow, you could just build a yellow site and have it show up in search results. This doesn’t lead to a good user experience, so the search engine has to change/update its algorithm to prevent low-quality sites from showing up high in search results.
Google updates its algorithm with tiny updates almost every day. Every six months or so, it rolls out a big new update. It’s often an update that targets some spam techniques that are being used by grey-hat SEO’s. Remember, Google’s goal is to provide the best search experience in order to keep people using their site so they can generate advertising revenue.
Although there are a large variety of factors effecting where a site pops up in SERPs, there are a few key items to take note of. First, the site must be relevant, containing keywords, quality content, relevant images, etc. This is called “on-page SEO,” and refers to these factors that are on your actual website. The other piece of the puzzle is “off-page factors,” or pieces of the puzzle that are not contained on your actual website. The largest of these factors is quality and quantity of backlinks to your page and domain. If you’ve investigate SEO a bit, you’ve probably heard the term “links” or “backlinks.”
A link is something that takes you from one page on the Internet to another. For example, THIS is a link to Search Engine Journal, one of our favorite resources for marketing news. If you click the word “THIS,” you will be taken from our site to their site. This is a backlink to Search Engine Journal, and helps their SEO (you’re welcome Search Engine Journal). Creating quality backlinks means building links that are from relevant and trustworthy sites. For example, Mindful Marketing does not necessarily want a link from a spammy blog about gambling. We want links from reputable marketing sites. It’s crucial to note that quality and quantity matter here, and more doesn’t necessarily equal better. Finally, a good backlink profile contains links from many different sites, different types of sites, have different link text, etc. A backlink profile should be diverse and strong.
The pictures above and to the left show the backlink profile of One Mind Dharma. The top shows the amount of links, while the bottom shows the anchor text of the link. Anchor text is the linking text. For example, the anchor text of this link to One Mind Dharma is “this link.” The anchor text here is “here.” It’s a good idea to use keywords in anchor text when building links, and to build a diverse portfolio of anchor texts. All of these pieces come together, sorted and weighted with the algorithm, resulting in a page of search results.
What is Search Engine Optimization?
In its most simple form, search engine optimization is the process by which we bring a site up in Google’s search results. The goal is to climb the SERPs (the pages of listings) and reach as high up as possible on the first page. To be clear, SEO specifically refers to the ranking of pages in organic search results, not paid advertisements (although the two can perhaps be related). When you type your search into Google, it’s not just showing you random sites. It’s showing you relevant sites with relevant text and strong backlink profiles.
With an SEO campaign, a company or individual will address your on-page and off-page needs. Search engine optimization means fixing a website to make it relevant in Google’s eyes. Content must be optimized with the right amount of keywords (search terms), but not stuffed with keywords. Images should be tagged appropriately, as Google is just now learning to actually “see” images. What search engines want is a relevant, fast-loading, user-friendly website that will make its searchers happy that they landed on your page.
An SEO campaign also involves building a diverse backlink profile. This is done a variety of different ways. You can secure links on pages that list resources in your industry, in business directories like YP.com, or write guest posts for industry blogs. High-quality backlinks make a huge difference in where you rank, and low-quality backlinks can hurt your rankings. In an SEO campaign, the company or individual will use their deep understanding of the search engine and Internet to build backlinks they think will last in value for some time.
These days, many people in the SEO world are focusing quite a bit on content marketing. At its core, the idea of content marketing is that if you write a kick-ass piece of content that is super useful to the reader, it will be shared on social media, websites, and blogs. These backlinks will point back to your website, giving you an SEO boost (and additional traffic). This is one of many techniques to build backlinks and boost rankings.
Another important thing to understand about SEO is the keywords which you target. A good SEO company will target appropriate keywords for your industry and budget to help you get traffic. There are head terms and tail terms. Head terms are shorter, higher-volume search terms. Tail terms are the longer, lower-volume and more specific search terms. For example, the search term “guided meditation” has almost 100,000 searches a month on Google in the United States, but is incredibly hard to rank for. A tail term like “guided meditation for sleep” has only 10,000 searches, but is significantly easier to rank for. When we say “easier” here, we also mean cheaper. The higher the competition is for a term, the more it is going to cost in time, energy, resources, and money to rank for that term.
Why is SEO Important?
SEO is an important marketing method utilized by countless businesses across every industry. In general, sites don’t just pop up in search results without dedicated effort. People tell us regularly that they somewhat expected to build their business website and just show up in relevant searches. Although that would be awesome, it’s just not how it works. If you’re serious about ranking high up in the SERPs, SEO is an absolute must.
Let’s take the example of an addiction treatment center in Florida. Here are a few search terms along with their average search volume a month:
-drug rehab (6,500)
-rehab florida (200)
-florida rehab centers (100)
-florida alcohol rehab (100)
-florida rehabs (100)
-drug rehab in florida (100)
This is of course not a complete list. You can see the term “drug rehab” has over 30 times the search volume as the next biggest term. However, because of the high value and huge search volume, that term is going to be incredibly difficult and expensive to rank for. You’ll be going up against some of the biggest companies in the industry, directories with thousands of backlinks, and Psychology Today. The number of searches makes it seductive, but its going to take quite a bit of time to rank.
Looking at the chart, you can see that listings on the sixth page of Google receive about 0.2% of clicks. So the ten listings that show up on page six receive a total of 13 clicks a month. Not good. Targeting lower volume keywords with lower competition means you can climb the ranks faster. Listings on the first page for “rehab florida” receive about 91 clicks a month. Therefore, it’s better to be on the first page for “rehab florida” than page six for “drug rehab.” Same goes for page 5, 4, or 3; page one for “rehab florida” is still better.
If you add up all of the search terms we listed, excluding “drug rehab,” you have about 600 searches a month. If you’re the first listing on the first page of Google, you statistically would receive about 195 clicks a month. As we mentioned, these are just a few terms, and an SEO campaign would likely target more than just these few terms. However, you can begin to see the benefit. That’s almost 200 new people a month coming to your website because of your SEO campaign.
Search Engine Optimization takes time, takes money, and takes energy. Every time we meet with a potential client, we have to explain why SEO is worth their resources. The truth is that a successful campaign returns your investment and then some. Let’s take a few of our clients and their data. Client A is an addiction treatment center. The average value of a new client to them is about $30,000. When they began with Mindful Marketing, they were receiving about 0.2 clients a month from online leads and their website. They have spent $4,000/month on SEO campaigns with us for almost a year now. Let’s call that $4,000/month for 12 months, or a total of $48,000. Since March of last year, they have generated 59 admits from organic search, or an average of 4.9/month. That’s about $1.7 million they’ve generated from an investment of $48,000, or a return on investment of 3541%. Of course they have huge operating costs and this revenue isn’t all profit, so we must name that and recognize it.
Now, that’s a high-return industry of course. Let’s look at something where each client isn’t worth such a huge amount of money. Client B is a yoga studio in California. They weren’t even on Google when we started with them. They didn’t show up in maps, didn’t have a sitemap submitted, and Google did not have their site indexed. Needless to say, they generated no clients from the web. This yoga studio charges a monthly fee, and the average client coming from organic search is worth about $1,000 to them over the course of 12 months, or about $83/month. As they’ve climbed in the rankings for search terms in their area, show up on the map listings, and generate traffic from blogs and social campaigns we run, we can track where clients come from when they sign up online or place a phone call. Over the last 12 months working with Mindful Marketing, they’ve averaged just over 8 new students a month from our campaigns. That’s about $664 in revenue a month for those new clients, or $8,000 per year for those clients. At the end of 12 months at this pace of gaining new clients, they’re generating $96,000 a year from their online marketing efforts (SEO, social media, YouTube, email marketing, and all that we do together). Their spend has averaged about $1,500/month. So they’ve spent about $18,000 in the past year, and generated $96,000. In this real-life example, the client received a ROI of about 533%.
What all these numbers point to is the value of a healthy online marketing campaign. SEO is incredibly valuable, especially when coupled with email marketing, social media marketing, and branding. The reason so many companies are out there spending money to climb the rankings is that it works. It may look different for different industries, but showing up in search results has amazing value.
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