SEO Basics Every Association Publisher Should Know

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Most association publishing teams know what search engine optimization is, but here’s a great primer to help you understand how it works and how your association can do better.

By Zach Wilson

SEO, also known as Search Engine Optimization, is the process your association can use to organically improve or optimize your site’s ranking on each respective search engine.This caveat of SEO — being rooted in organic ranking improvements — is the main distinction between paid search and SEO. Organic improvement of a site is largely related to how a site is being interpreted by search engine algorithms.

How Search Engines Work

According to Internet Live Stats, Google processes around 40,000 queries every second. Search is a seamless part of our digital experience, but few understand how it really works.

When users enter their keywords in a search engine, an algorithm is used to find the most relevant results for the specific keywords. Algorithms are constantly changing to improve the results users are getting, and to fend off black hat SEOs.

Before a website can ever appear for a unique query, it must go through the indexing process, where a search engine's crawlers/spiderscan each page of a website and follow both internal and external links. This indexing process categorizes websites into a large database that's used to pull relevant results from each time a search is made.

While crawlers analyze each site and its internal and external links, they don't see sites like we do. Instead of seeing the images and colors of a site, crawlers scan html code to understand its content. Now the question is: What are these crawlers looking for when they rank websites on a search engine results page, also commonly referred to as the SERP?

Search Engine Ranking Factors

1. Content. While it may seem like a given, creating relevant and useful content for your association's website is one of the best ways to work your way up to the top of a search engine's rankings. Is your association's website engaging visitors in a way that enhances their digital experience? If so, then you have little to worry about.

Long-form content has proven to rank well, but this isn't to say simply reaching that 1,500 word milestone is enough. Ranking well goes back to creating content that is useful and relevant, which in many cases requires in depth analysis and explanation through long-form content.

2. User experience. A search engine's goal is to provide the most relevant answer to a user's query, but what good is relevancy if a site is so unresponsive or poorly structured you can't get the information you need? This is where user experience comes into play. Examples that could lead to a bad user experience include slow page speed, hidden content, multiple 404 errors, poor organization, and more. When your site is optimized for an enjoyable user experience, you'll likely begin to see higher click-through rates (CTRs), lower bounce rates, and more shares.

3. Good use of keywords. Keywords can help users and crawlers know what your site will be offering. While keyword stuffing was a popular tactic in the early days of SEO, it’s now one of the many ways to get your site potentially deindexed. Today's SEO landscape sees keywords being used for indicators of relevancy. Properly used keywords should be used in the following:

  • URLs. A URL is the specific address for your site, with each page having its own unique URL. When the search engine displays your URL, you'll want it to act as a preview of the page's content. Using excessive subcategories and identification numbers makes URLs too long and complicated for users.
  • Title tags. Titles are the clickable links that display in a search engine results page. Google will most likely only display 55-60 characters for a title tag. It's important to keep your title within this range to avoid leaving out keywords that could help a user understand what your site is about. Use a title that concisely states the page's content while being unique enough to warrant a visit.
  • Meta descriptions. Meta descriptions are the bodies of text you find under the URL for a search result. These descriptions are another way to concisely (between 150-160 characters) inform users of the most valuable information to be found on your site. Choosing not to add a description into the <head> of your code will often result in google choosing a snippet of text from your site, which may not always be relevant to the user's search query.

4. Linking. Links are the gateway from site to site for our online digital experience. The two broad categories of links are internal and external links. Crawlers use both to determine relevancy and user experience for specific queries.

  • Internal links act as the network or architecture for users to bounce from page to page within a single domain. You’ll want to make sure all of your different pages are uniform in the domain's overall architecture so users and crawlers are getting a proper experience.
  • External links are those that, when clicked, will take you off the original site and onto a new one. For consistency purposes, use external links that would be valuable for visitors.

Furthermore, external links on other domains that link back to your page are called backlinks. Backlinks are interpreted by search engines as votes of confidence for the site being linked. These votes of confidence aren't all created equal. A backlink from Adweek, for example, is more valuable to crawlers than a backlink from a small, local agency.

If you're planning on going out and buying a bunch of new backlinks for your site, you won't see the same results as an organic link from an authority such as Adweek. And you're most likely on your way to being banned by Google.

5. Social signals. Social Media is a great way to get the word out about your new blog post, product launch, or any other information related to your association. Once your social media campaign starts to pick up steam, you’ll see the interaction and shares trickle in. Many claim social media metrics have no direct relationship with search algorithms. Even so, social media continues to grow in influence, and it's always a smart idea to promote your business through all available channels.

There's much more to SEO than just understanding how the search engines work and a few of the key ranking factors. Testing out what does and doesn't work for your organization's site will go a long way in curbing some of the more complicated aspects of SEO. The single best piece of advice that SEOs give to those just starting out is one that’s been stated time and time again: Make your site for users, not for search engines.

Zach Wilsonis SEO specialist at Zion and Zion, a full-service adverising firm in Tempe, Arizona. This brief guide to SEO was excerpted from a longer report on digital marketing. Wilson suggests Sidebar readers interested in SEO may enjoythis free more comprehensive guide.


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