Search engine optimization is all about “signal” and “amplification.” The signal is simply using relevant keywords. Amplification is about how to use those keywords and encourage linking and sharing. Think of the keywords as the voice of a site and the amplification as a megaphone. The site shouting the loudest and most relevant signals at the search engines will win better rankings for a search and potentially win new customers as well.
Keyword research is critical — I addressed it previously, in “Optimizing a Page for Search Engines, Part 1: Keyword Research.” But keywords are useless until they are used in some way on a website. How those keywords are used to optimize the content makes the keywords either whisper or shout to search engines.
Content Optimization: Unmuting the Keywords
To give keywords a voice, simply place them on a website. Cramming all the keywords onto a single glossary page will make each keyword whisper so softly as to be inaudible to search engines. But placing a single keyword at the beginning of the title tag for the page for which it’s most relevant turns the signal for that page up to polite dinner conversation level.
To increase the signal further, use the keyword in the anchor text of the internal links pointing to the page, the heading on the page and use the keyword in the textual content on the page. For more specifics on content optimization, see “Optimizing a Page for Search Engines, Part 3: Keywords to Content,” my article on that topic.
Now the keyword signal for the page is about as loud as it can get, relying purely on on-site optimization tactics. We’re talking about college party volumes, where the page can be heard when it shouts but it doesn’t really need to use any external amplification like a megaphone or a public address system to be heard.
But can the search engines hear it? It depends on how many other college parties are raging that night. In other words, how competitive is the keyword about which the page is shouting? If the keyword isn’t very competitive or if the site the page sits on has some strong amplifying effects, shouting loudly enough to be heard inside the confines of a single loud room may be enough to win rankings for that keyword. But if the keyword is very popular or the site the page sits on has few amplifying links coming into it, chances are that Google and Bing will be hitting other parties and bypassing this one. That means other sites are winning the rankings and potential customers for which this site worked hard to optimize.
Links: External Amplification
When competition for keywords is moderate to high, external amplification is needed. A highly searched and competitive keyword phrase like “dog supplies” needs a public address system to make its page heard. But a moderately competitive keyword phrase like “big dog supplies” might only require a megaphone. So where do sites get these amplification devices? In-bound links and shares to social media sites act as signal amplifiers to increase the volume a page can shout for its keyword relevance.
But just like all relevance signals aren’t created equally, each link has a different level of amplification. Links that are topically relevant to the page they’re linking to turn the volume up higher. But links from sites that are poor quality or don’t have a lot of links themselves barely turn up the volume or even not at all. So to help a page amplify its keyword signal as loudly as possible, identify ways to increase links to that exact page from other sites that share the same topic and are influential or rank well themselves.
Amplification happens at a deeper level, too, however. Just as a page benefits from links coming in from other relevant sites, the entire site benefits from the links coming in to every page on that site. So when I mentioned the site having an amplifying effect to help a page rank, it was this concept to which I was referring.
If, for example, the site selling dog supplies has optimized a page for “big dog supplies,” and if that site also had a lot of links coming in to other pages on the site but not our “big dog supplies” page, that page might still have enough amplification to rank based on the strength of its domain’s links. Of if not, one or two good links into the “big dog supplies” page might tip the scales and amplify the keyword signal enough that it outranks the competition and wins the click.
Social Media: Broadcasting the Signal
Social media plays an interesting role in this signal and amplification metaphor, somewhere between amplifier and party promoter. Some social networks influence rankings in some search engines: Google+ influences Google’s rankings and Facebook influences Bing’s rankings. In that manner Google+ and Facebook act as signal amplifiers, with shares on those networks turning up the volume on relevant searches in those engines.
But social media also plays the role of a party promoter in that it broadcasts content that has been shared by one person to that person’s network of followers. The more people exposed to a piece of content, the greater the likelihood that some will reshare the content or link to the original content source. This act of sharing on most social networks like LinkedIn or Pinterest isn’t really an amplifier in that it doesn’t strengthen the keyword signal a page sends. It does, however, broadcast the signal of the content thereby increasing the chance that one of the signal receivers will create a link that then does amplify the content’s keyword signal.
This extended metaphor of keywords as relevance signals and links as amplifiers grew from a conversation I had with a colleague who was having trouble understanding why links, not visits, are more important to a site’s SEO strength. It’s a common misunderstanding that the more visits a site has, the better SEO it must have, and it’s difficult to persuade those people that it’s links, not visits, that matter more to SEO strength. Yes, more links will most likely lead to more visits, but more visits do not equate to better SEO. Perhaps this metaphor will help you explain it to your colleagues as well.