Search Engine Optimization: A Guide for the Perplexed

SEO 101

From the moment a blogger gets the idea into her head that she can create an income stream from blogging, the spectre of having to learn, know, and possibly pay for search engine optimization pops up. It may seem easy at first, but as I got into it, SEO began to appear very technical, potentially expensive and scary.  It also seemed burningly necessary.   The sellers of SEO tools and expertise assure us that it is all of the above. 🙂  But fear not!  You can learn the basics and get your blog off on the right foot.  If you’re going to go “full tinfoil” and establish an income stream, you may, eventually, need to invest in SEO tools, training, resources and even consulting.  I realize that this, for my own blog, but before I go that route, I intend to become an informed consumer and get my blog as finely tuned as I can in preparation to creating a good SEO plan.  I will cheerfully share that knowledge with you, dear readers.

This is part one of a series.  I expect to spend a great deal of time in the next few weeks and months learning SEO basics, absorbing tips and tricks that I’ll be sharing with you. I will also:

  • Review sites that provide guidance and learning resources for SEO;
  • Test and review whatever free tools for SEO I stumble upon;
  • Share my results and research so that you can see how all this works out in real life

This is a great deal of material to cover, so expect posts on it about one a week.  I’m also doing experiments and studying the whole SEO process–and experiments take time.

Starting with Moz

Moz is great learning resource for SEO. It has a good reputation as a vendor of blogging commercialization products related to SEO, and they are very up-front about it.  They clearly know that if you care about your customers and make them educated consumers, you can build a relationship of trust for the long term.

I have never used their products, but in my research on SEO, I have found their beginner’s guide to SEO and it is pretty awesome.   Moz explains that while bloggers often obsess about keywords, structure matters nearly as much.  Recall what I said in a previous post about free blogging and structure? Well, Moz confirms that SEO algorithms will reward bloggers with good structure–a coherent set of categories and tags that describe your content.

In this post, I’m going to discuss Chapters 1 and 2 in their brilliant, easy guide.  You can download the PDF for all nine chapters here. In the Guide for the Perplexed series, I will go a bit beyond these nine chapters, based on knowledge and experience gained from the ten years I’ve been blogging. I don’t claim expertise–I do claim experience in studying this off and on over the years.

Blog Structure Matters

Categories and tags are part of what search engines use to evaluate your site.  Moz explains that when your structure reflects your content, search engines will be able to understand it and bin you accordingly.  So far, better structure has had no impact on my search engine results; Bing referred someone on the 25th of December, the third day of operation–when my structure was blah. Google gives me two hits on the 31st of December, before I fixed the structure of my blog.  So, in addition to getting good structure together, one should get the structure right EARLY.  

Screen Shot 2018-01-07 at 8.14.40 AM
Stats from WordPress for Impractical Advice

One of the experiments I’m doing here will be to show how my blog grows through the various referrals.  Here we see I get one hit from, and another from in South Africa.  Interesting.  The hit in South Africa was likely from a Google data center.  It is highly unlikely that my blog has been accessed by an actual reader in South Africa (let’s get real here).  Datacenters exist to process the massive number of pages and links.   But from here on out, we’ll be sure to pay attention to Google referrals, to see if my blog gets any traction there.

How Crawlers Work

There are two kinds of scores in crawling algorithms that determine where your blog’s URL appears in the list of search engine returns to a search on a keyword or terms from a searcher: (1) the relevance of your blog (as described by the keywords that the crawler has attached to your blog)  to that searcher’s keywords and (2) the overall popularity of your blog compared to all the other websites and blogs that satisfy the requirement for relevance.

In Chapter 1, Moz explains that crawlers work by mapping and indexing. A crawler (or “spider”) links to your site and then scans it (crawls it) to look at its structure, keywords, tags, and links to describe your site.  From this, it constructs a map of your site that it can use to evaluate its relevance to searcher’s queries.

The popularity rankings are more subtle and harder for you, as the blog creator, to control.  Moz explains that the more backlinks you have (the more people link to YOU), the greater your blog’s “weight” in the search engine’s algorithm for popularity and to some degree, relevance.  A new blog will have no backlinks–but mapping and indexing is NOT a one-time thing.  The crawlers will return.  Currently, my blog’s weight is well, kind of like a Yorkshire terrier compared to other blogs, who may weigh in as dachshunds,  beagles, labradors, and Great Danes.  I’m hoping to get it up to “dachshund”  in six months. 🙂

Moz explains that this map is like a subway map of a city.  Imagine each link of the webpage as a “stop” on the subway–so my links on this page to Moz and their beginner’s guide would be one of those stops.  Links on the webpage to my other content will also register as stops.  The totality of links (including categories) are part of what search engines use to figure out what your website is about and match that to terms people use to search.

The totality of important terms and links that describe your blog creates a kind of weight in the algorithm; the “dogs” idea can be helpful here. If your blog is a big Great Dane, it will appear earlier in the search engines’ “hits” on search terms.  If it’s a dachshund or a Yorkie, it will appear at the bottom of the, er, dogpile.  This is what people mean when they talk about not wanting to be “buried” by the search engines!   The biggest, weightiest “dogs” (URLS) are on top.  But there are lots of dogpiles: the first is relevance, and the second is popularity.  The combined score of these is key, but there are hundreds of other factors that determine your ultimate placement in the search rankings.  Getting relevance and popularity scores the best you can get is important.

When you link to other blogs and websites, that also adds a small bit of weight to your blog’s overall score in the search engines’ massive databases.  The old blogroll ideas matter. Spammers use this technique to game the system.  No reason you should’t as well. That’s why getting educated about SEO and following the latest research on them is important.

Relevance and Popularity in SEO

When a searcher (a potential audience member) creates a query, the words that the searcher uses are matched against the words used that the crawler has determined describe your blog.  That’s the relevance score.  You can do something about the relevance score by knowing what keywords are popularly used and what terms people tend to use when making queries.  You can use those terms in the body of the text of your posts, in the slugs and excerpts, and in the tags.  Don’t go overboard. Confusing the algorithms doesn’t pay.

In the old days, spammers would attempt to confuse the algorithms by putting words like “sex” and “boobs” in the metadata.   Blogging platforms like don’t let you mess with the metadata (you can in a self-hosted blog), but search algorithm creators are on to that.

Most of the commercial tools and tricks out there trying to sell SEO to you, as a blogger, focus on finding the magic combination of words that will drive people to your site.

Since search engines use hundreds of factors to determine the relevance scores scores for a blog or website, it is possible to “game” the system and manipulate the algorithm so your blog appears toward the top of the pile in search engine returns. People are looking for that special formula of a commonly used set of terms that are not so general that your blog has to compete against the entire universe. So I have “blogging” (a huge universe of competitors) and tech tips (equally common) and “career advice”  (also pretty common).   In my research, I’ll try to find better techniques that I will share.

Twitter referrals are actually a part of that algorithm, so even though my current returns from Twitter are tiny,  it does pay to be on Twitter (and Facebook and Pinterest, etc.) in terms of having some impact on your blog’s weight. We’ll be looking at those later, too.

Part of the reason the Moz site is so important is that it conducts its own, highly regarded research on ranking factors. Here’s a link to their research.   More soon!

Update:  I had heard in a few blogs that Google had a Keyword Search planner that was free of charge.  I just discovered that the free version has been discontinued.  You have to sign up for Adwords, which forces you to create a campaign first — and so you’re going to get CHARGED for every click. Scary!   This blogger suggests that there is a workaround, sign up, start a campaign and immediately suspend that campaign.  Then you can use it for sort-of free.  I haven’t tried it. If you have, let us all know in the comments!


Author: Lola

Recovering academic, real-life, honest to cornflakes anthropologist (Ph.D. and fieldwork and everything), tech-head and social media researcher.

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