The Guiding Principles of SEO 2.0
I recently posted an item highlighting how the nature of search engine optimization (SEO) has changed out of all recognition over recent years. Once SEO was a questionable practice largely conducted in secret and actively discouraged by Google who would ban your site if it thought you were trying to game the system. Nowadays SEO, or rather an amended version of it (SEO 2.0), has come out into the open and is even actively encouraged by Google.
This change from SEO 1.0 to SEO 2.0 is perhaps most apparent when it comes to the use of meta tags…
In the distant past, the holy trinity of title, keywords and description meta tags were generally seen as the optimizer’s greatest weapons in the battle for high placement. The basic thinking was: Google only has the end user’s short search phrase to go on when trying to make a match so the best way to make sure that your page comes up on its SERPS (search engine results page) is by packing your meta tags with key search terms.
However look at what Google itself has to say about the meta tags in its own Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide and a very different picture emerges of what constitutes good SEO. To begin with, the keywords meta tag simply isn’t mentioned at all.
In fact this isn’t too much of a surprise. The problem with a list of keywords is that they are too easy to generate automatically and might not have anything to do with the page in question. Clearly Google wants to present the end user with truly relevant content so it’s the on-page use of keywords that really matters (how many there are, where and how they appear and so on), as well as their sensible use in the title tag.
However I have to say that I was surprised to see what Google has to say about the description tag and in particular to read the following on the Google Webmaster Central blog: “meta descriptions won’t affect your ranking within search results.”
So does this mean that the description tag is as irrelevant as the keywords tag?
Absolutely not. The description tag might not help ranking but, as the SEO Starter Guide puts it: “Description meta tags are important because Google might use them as snippets for your pages.”
At this stage you are probably thinking “you have got to be joking if you think I’m going to waste my time writing a description that might or might not appear and which has no ranking benefit. I’m not working for Google, I’m working for me! Let me get on with something more useful like sculpting my page rank or sorting out my 301s. Hey I even used to have a life before I got obsessed with SEO etc etc…”
But hold on. There are other ways to look at this.
To begin with, there’s an important lesson here: appearing on the SERPs isn’t the be-all and end-all of SEO – getting the click-through is. And the best way to do this isn’t via keyword packing but by putting your best case forward for end users to visit your site out of the ten matches on offer. That best case is likely to include the key words that the user is searching on (which are emboldened on the SERPs), but to produce maximum traffic you can do better than that by also including any attractive selling points – “free delivery” – or maybe a hint of humour to indicate that the page was created by a real human being and one that you might be interested in reading.
There’s another important secondary point. You often have to read between the lines with Google and while the description itself might not affect your ranking, that doesn’t mean that it’s irrelevant. In particular it would be very surprising – almost negligent – if Google wasn’t monitoring its own SERPs and using click-through rates to help deliver the most attractive options up-front. In other words, the content of your description might not affect ranking directly, but its click-through rate could be crucial. These days Google is almost certainly monitoring and using visitor behaviour information such as click-thru and bounce back rates alongside web page content and back links.
Both points effectively come down to the same thing and it’s the core difference both between first-generation and current search engine technology and between SEO 1.0 and SEO 2.0: a recognition that the web traffic that really matters is live human beings.
Ultimately you’re not producing your site for yourself, or for Google, but for the end user.