Search engine optimization is one of the most popular paths to digital marketing success out there.

More than two out of three search engine users focus exclusively on organic search results and ignore paid listings. The same percentage of marketers say that SEO is more effective than pay-per-click advertising.

But that doesn’t mean SEO is easy. To get top-ranking results consistently, you have to pay attention to many different metrics – like traffic, backlinks, and social shares. Google uses over 200 factors to rank websites, and its algorithms get more sophisticated with every release.

Every time those algorithms change, SEO best practices change along with them. Whether you’re starting out fresh or looking for solid ways to upgrade your SEO strategy, you can take a proactive approach by first understanding search engine principles, your target audience, and how to create quality content.

SEO: keywords, optimization, ranking, backlinks, traffic, search

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The Foundation of a Successful SEO Strategy

Search engines exist to help people find answers to their questions. Since they make money serving ads, they all have a vested interest in delivering the best possible responses to their users’ search queries. Better query results mean more frequent users, leading to more ads served (and better ads more closely tailored to users’ actual wants) – everybody wins!

But how do search engines determine which web pages to show? When a search engine ranks your web page according to someone’s search query, it looks for three main characteristics above everything else:

  1. Authority. Authoritative content is valuable content. Nobody wants to waste their time learning half-truths from unqualified sources. Search engine crawlers read through web page content and verify links to gauge the level of authority that page has. Outgoing links are good, but incoming links (called backlinks) are even better – they show that your page is the authority on its subject.
  2. Relevance. Search engine users want content that is relevant to their search query. While it sounds simple at first glance, measuring and improving relevance can be a hard thing to do. Fine-tuning relevance will be an important part of your SEO strategy. Since search terms are ambiguous, you have to qualify users to find out if they are accessing the most relevant content.
  3. Trust. Trustworthiness is not an explicit SEO ranking metric, but it informs the thought process that goes on behind ranking. Google penalizes websites that sell backlinks, hide content, and plagiarize other websites. If you have to use artificial schemes to earn traffic, it’s safe to say you don’t have your users’ interests at heart.

So what about those 200+ factors that Google uses to rank websites? You don’t need to optimize for every single one. Instead, you need to focus on creating great content that is authoritative, relevant, and trustworthy for your target audience.

The vast majority of ranking factors fall into one of two categories. The most important things to base your SEO strategy on are:

  • High-Quality Content. Search engines want to serve their users great content. Ranking factors like dwell time – the amount of time users spend on your web page – help tell the difference between good content and bad content. If website visitors go to your page and then click away after a few seconds, they probably did not find what they were looking for. Your ranking will change as a result.
  • Authority-Generating Backlinks. Citing your sources is good form, but there is nothing better than being the source. If authoritative, relevant, trustworthy websites are linking to your pages, the search engine crawlers will notice. Many of the best-ranking websites achieve their status by publishing original research and conducting studies that ensure a healthy number of backlinks.

If you consistently create high-quality content that industry authorities use as a reference, you’re already well on the way to SEO success.

Take Action: Kick off your SEO strategy by identifying what your top-ranking competitors are doing. Get a feel for how authoritative, relevant, and trustworthy they appear to be and look for opportunities for your brand to present a better alternative.

Next Up: Continue developing your SEO strategy by learning how to present your value proposition to your target audience.