Reverse engineering SEO

Table of Contents

Why SEO Matters

How Search Engines Work

How Search Engines Measure Their Success

How Search Engines Engage and Retain Users

How Search Engines Measure Search User Satisfaction

How Search Engines Rank Webpage Content

How to Get Your Content Discovered by Google

How to Give Search Engines the Context They Need to Include Your Content in Search Results

How to Give Search Engines the UX Results They Need to Move Your Content Up in Search Results

Why SEO Matters

If businesses can’t get in front of their target customers, they can’t persuade them to buy their products and services and grow their business.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the art and science of getting in front of your target customers when customers use search engines to find things that are related to your businesses products and services.

Businesses that fail to get in front of their target customers lose their business to the competitors who do. Lost customers are much harder and more expensive to reclaim [].

Most businesses don’t do a good job getting in front of their target customers.

Most content businesses create to reach their target customers, not only fails to get seen by its target audience, it barely gets seen by anybody.

Most business websites and blogs are ghost towns.

The average business blog

The way most businesses solve this problem is by investing in SEO.

Because nearly everyone who uses the internet uses search engines, ranking highly for search results that demonstrate purchase interest for the products and services you sell is an approach that works.

But most businesses fail in SEO by looking at it the wrong way.

They get distracted by the number of ranking factors. SEO is complicated and always changing. Google uses over 200 factors to rank content in search results.

They worry about small fluctuations in their search rankings. Content and keyword rankings continuously fluctuate.

They worry about the details when they haven’t done the basics.

Viewing SEO from the perspective of its complexity only makes it more difficult to decide what to do and take action that gets results.

Let’s not walk into the labyrinth that is trying to understand every SEO ranking factor and Google algorithm change.

Yeah, better not

Instead, let’s view SEO from a perspective that helps outline our choices so we make better decisions and create more impact.

The key to quickly improving search engine rankings for your target keywords is understanding search engines’ incentives and how they measure their success.

How Search Engines Work

Everybody knows how to use a search engine.

Users type their queries into the search bar, press enter, and instantly receive search results in a variety of formats depending on the context of their query.

Google created a page explaining how its search engine works that provides a useful quote:

As we speak, Google is using web crawlers to organize information from webpages and other publicly available content in the Search index.

Google organizes information. That’s what Google does, but we’re not interested in what Google does; we’re interested in how.

Luckily, we don’t need to fully understand Google’s search algorithm to execute an effective SEO strategy. We only need to understand the most important levers.

Search engine algorithms are extremely complicated, but your approach to work with them doesn’t have to be.

The Goal of Search Engines

Google's claimed goal: Don't be evil
Google's actual goal: make it rain

Google wants to make money. The primary way Google makes money is by ensuring it operates as the internet’s middleman. When you search on Google, businesses advertise to you through Google’s AdWords platform based on what you search for.

The more users search with Google for what they’re looking for, the more data Google has on users’ behavior and advertising opportunities Google has to sell.

That means that Google maximizes its search business revenue by engaging and retaining search users.

Google’s ultimate goal is to engage and retain search users.

Google wants people to use Google to search for any and everything: restaurant closing times, a business’s phone number, angry cat photos, that classic YouTube video you laughed at in high school. You name it…

If you want to find something on the internet, Google wants to be how you find it [].

How Search Engines Engage and Retain Users

To engage and retain users, Google’s results must be useful, reliable, and non-redundant.

Help users achieve their search user goals

Search user goals are the reasons why people use Google in the first place. To find an answer, to find content, to solve a problem.

Larry Page once described the perfect search engine as understanding exactly what you mean and giving you back exactly what you want.

Avoid delivering bad search results

Google doesn’t want to bring users to websites people don’t enjoy going to.

That’s bad for Google’s business.

Users who are unsatisfied with their search results might turn to use other search engines.

Instead, Google needs to make sure the top ranking content in search results satisfies users.

Provide search results that cater to different user goals

Search users don’t always know what they’re looking for. In a large portion of search queries, users search using general query and refine their query if unsatisfied with their initial result.

As a result, search engines benefit by providing search results that offer value to users with different search goals when users don’t exactly know what they want.

Google aims to offer diverse search results

How Search Engines Measure Search User Satisfaction

Google is fundamentally restrained in its ability to understand the satisfaction of its users.

Google doesn’t know if users are happy.

But Google does know how users behave within its search results.

Google tracks users behavior on search results pages and compares user behavior to predicted behavior to measure search user satisfaction.

Google tracks its users behavior and knows which search results users click on and when. By comparing search users’ actual behavior with their predicted behavior, Google can measure signals of user dissatisfaction.

Consider this simple Google search for “SEO”.

Google's SEO search query results

Search engines measure the conversion rate of search results

Search engines measure which links users click on when they are presented with search results. If links that rank lower in search results have higher than expected conversion rates, Google receives a signal these links should possibly rank higher and higher ranking links should rank lower.

Since the title and descriptions of search results provide users with the main context to decide which links they should click, title and meta tags provide greater context to search engines about the underlying user goals for each search query.

Search engines measure the bounce rate of search results

If users click on one search result and then quickly return to the previous page to click on another search result, Google knows the first result didn’t fully satisfy search users.

That doesn’t mean this search result is in the wrong position in search rankings or the search engine results page (SERP []). No search result satisfies everybody, but this behavior communicates a negative signal of search user satisfaction.

The key to measuring search user satisfaction is comparing search results relative performance.

By comparing the relative performance of search results to one another, Google can measure which search results led users to be most satisfied.

How Google Ranks Webpage Content

Now that we understand search engines incentives and how they measure search result satisfaction with user experience results, we can view the task of improving SEO in context.

Search engines rank content in search results using a three-step process.

  1. Find webpages by following website links using software robots called crawlers.
  2. Assess webpage content for context, relevancy, and similarity to high performing search results.
  3. Index content in search results and update how content ranks based on the behavior of search users.

Thus your SEO goals are:

  1. Get your content discovered by search engines.
  2. Give search engines the context they need to include your content in search results.
  3. Give search engines the user experience results they need to improve how your content ranks in search results.

How to Get Your Content Discovered by Google

Request Webpages Be Indexed

First, you get your content discovered by submitting it to Google. You can’t directly submit pages to Google [] anonymously anymore, but you can register your site ownership on Google Search Console [], build and upload a sitemap [], request your content to be indexed [], and submit your site to Bing [] (ranking in one search engine increases visibility in others).

Second, you get your content discovered by linking to it from your existing content that already ranks elsewhere. Google continuously crawls the web [] and finds new links from the content it already indexes in its search results. Internal links are a positive signal to search engines for page and domain authority. When building internal links from your existing content, make sure you use appropriate anchor text.

Third, you get your content discovered when search engines find your content by following links to it from other websites search engines already index in their search results. High-quality content is often linked to from other websites addressing similar interests. External links are called backlinks and investing in a link building strategy is one of the principle ways that businesses can build external links.

If content can’t be discovered by search engines, it won’t be indexed.

Content on social media platforms that isn’t publicly visible may not improve your SEO rankings.

But links on social media that are easily discovered by search engines and users do impact SEO.

Search engines currently discount social media links because it’s easy to create fake social media profiles and share links using them, but expect search engines to become agnostic to social platforms over time as search engines better understand which types of social content is useful and reliable for search users.

How to Give Search Engines the Context They Need to Include Your Content in Search Results

Search engines assess the quality and relevance of webpage content by what information those pages include and how the information on those pages is organized.

Your goal is to understand, include, and organize highly relevant and useful content for the queries and keywords you’re looking to rank for.

Understand what content is relevant and useful for your target keywords

Begin by understanding what content already ranks well for the keywords you’re looking to rank for.

Search for your target keywords how you expect users to search for them.

Top Search Results for "reverse engineering seo"

Look at each of all the top search results individually.

Identify the search user goals top search results focus on

What are the user goals for each search result?

For example, in the search results above, result #1 and #3 focus on reverse engineering how competitors execute their SEO strategy, while result #2 focuses on reverse engineering how Google’s search algorithm works.

These different search user goals affect what outcome is created by ranking for these search terms and the approach you should take to create content.

What keywords do these pages include in their page titles, search descriptions, paragraph headings, and image titles?

By analyzing the content of top performing webpages you will often come across similar content themes.

Analyze what top performing search results link to

Are the top performing search results for your target keywords highly linked to?

If the highest ranking webpages for your target keywords have a strong network of links pointing to them (domain authority [] and page authority []), it will be harder to outrank them in search results.

The quickest way to see the strength of links metrics for top performing search results is by using Moz’s Moz Bar Chrome Extension.

Moz Bar showing Page and Domain Link Authority of Top Search Results

The quickest way to analyze the quality of strength of links to your web pages is using Moz’s Link Explorer.

How to organize webpage content for SEO

The best way to organize webpage content is to structure content from the top down for both the perspective of search engines and search users.

Each stakeholder type, search engine and search user, begins by seeing certain information on your webpage first. It’s your job to ensure your webpage content aligns with how each stakeholder type expects useful and relevant content to look.

Both search engines and search users try to quickly decide whether the information they see is either useful or not useful. If the information they see in your content first doesn’t match their expectations, poor SEO performance will follow.

The science behind structuring information, information architecture, helps understand how to design and structure content. This science helps us create best practices for how content should be developed for SEO.

Make website content scannable by search engines

Do you give search engines the right context they need to assess your webpage content’s for relevancy to the search queries you want to rank for?

Search engines need the basic HTML structure of pages defined for them:

  • page title: <title>
  • page description: <meta name=“description>
  • content headings: <h1>...<h6>
  • text content: <body>
  • image titles: alt=“Smiley face”

The structure and syntax of HTML elements on your webpage should align with your target keywords, search user goals, and be easily understood by search users.

Make webpage content scannable by search users

Can search users easily find the content they care about on your webpage?

If users scroll down through your content they should be able to easily find what they’re looking for.

Make the content that’s important to search users easy to find.

  • label content sections with bold and large headings
  • enlarge relevant and useful quotes
  • bold important statements

Make webpage content easy to understand

Can search users easily read your content?

Readability is a factor in how search engines rank content in search results.

Ensure text written on your webpages is free of grammar errors and has clear punctuation.

Ensure text is easy to read by testing its readability using the Flesch Reading Ease formula or Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

How to Give Search Engines the User Experience Results They Need to Move Up in Search Results

After Google has found your content and decided your content looks relevant and useful for search user goals and queries, it then tests the content’s performance by placing it in search rankings where it will see if the content performs as well as expected.

The primary factors that determine how content shifts in search rankings:

  • alternative search engine result selection
  • median time spent on site before that happens

We can’t measure these signals directly, but we can measure two other factors that closely approximate them.

The primary webpage goals to improve SEO:

  • decrease bounce rate
  • maximize time on site

Bounce rate is simply the percentage of people who visit your website and don’t visit another webpage on your site.

How to decrease webpage bounce rate

Bounce rates are primarily a user experience signal back to Google.

If the bounce rate of your webpage is high, your website gives a poor user experience to the audience who currently visits it. Poor bounce rate may be a result of audience mismatch to good content, bad content for the right audience, or both bad content and bad audience targeting.

The content may be relevant enough to get ranked, but not useful enough to satisfy search users.

Common webpage issues leading to high bounce rates:

  1. Not mobile friendly: half of all searches (and growing!) come from people’s phones.

  2. Burying the lede: hiding the value-add content far down on webpages causes users to give up looking for it.

  3. Unclear writing: content must easily be understood to provide value to users.

How to maximize webpage time on site

Because Google uses the time users spend viewing your content as a major search engine ranking factor, maximizing time on site is hugely important.

Provide everything search users might need to satisfy their search user goals.

Provide relevant context around search users goals. Why this goal is important, how users achieve their search goal, and what results they might expect.

Include an exhaustive list of the most useful links on the subject your page targets or providing an in-depth guide that users can easily follow to accomplish their goals.

Work with a consultant who understands the biggest risks and mistakes companies make in SEO and has experience executing for name brand companies, contact.