Understanding SEO + SMO (Part 1): Background

Ben Travis, Former Marketing Manager

Article Category: #Strategy

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The second post of the series is now live: Understanding SEO + SMO (Part 2): Specifics

The worlds of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and SMO (Social Media Optimization) are converging. We’re at a critical point where performing well in search and social media go hand in hand — the survival of your digital reputation requires a critical understanding of both. This series of articles provides a fundamental understanding of SEO and SMO, as well as specific instructions regarding what to focus (and not focus) on.

SEO Background
SMO Background

Before we jump into the nitty-gritty, let’s look at some background. At their core, SEO and SMO are about optimizing a digital entity — a person, idea, or organization — to reach an audience. Consumers discover content on the web in a number of different ways, but the two most popular methods are via search engine, which is a very intentional form of consuming, and social media, which encompasses many platforms and tends to be more passive.

These two methods affect each other, both directly and indirectly.

It may be helpful to take a step back and think about how you find content. A quick browser history check will likely show that almost all of your digital journeys start from a search or social media source. I’m willing to bet that’s how you arrived here, in fact. Getting users to consume content is a key goal, but it doesn’t happen without intentional planning and preparation. We all know the “build it and they will come” mentality hasn’t cut it online for at least the past 15 years, but the good news is that there are plenty of resources available to help you reach an audience. SEO and SMO can be enigmatic and intimidating at times, but the aim of this post is to help demystify them both.

Search engines and social media channels are incredibly complex and change rapidly. Policing of web spam has become much more aggressive. Search engines use far more inputs than just links and keywords, and it’s now all about earning your reputation. At this point, if you don’t think search engines look at social media and vice versa, you’re missing a huge piece of the puzzle. You’re one big tweet away from upping your search ranking. As Google's Eric Schmidt says:

“Information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification” - Eric Schmidt

You’ve got to know the rules of the game to succeed — what practices to follow and what to stay away from.

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) Background

Depending on your type of site, organic search is most likely your first or second most important source of traffic. Some experts say that up to 64% of web traffic comes from organic search. Suffice it to say, search engines play an integral role in our online world.

A search engine is essentially a service that returns a list of sites relevant to a search query. It ranks and prioritize those sites in order of importance, to identify which sites are the most relevant. It all started with “Archie” in 1990, which allowed users to search through FTP archives. In fact, you can still see how it works using one of the legacy servers hosted at the University of Warsaw. Whoever first tailored file names so that Archie could easily find them was the one who began the search engine optimization movement. The industry then moved to sites like Altavista and Ask Jeeves, until Google blew everyone out of the water. As it stands, Google is still the most popular search engine, followed by Bing, Yahoo, Ask, AOL and a few others.

Since Google is clearly the leader of the pack, let’s take a look at some recent updates to see what major shifts have occurred in its search algorithm and how that’s changed the world of SEO:


Google Panda

In February 2011, Google rolled out its major “Panda” update. They made numerous changes to the algorithm, but the overall objective was to reward relevant, useful content in search engine results and penalize sites with shoddy information. The new algorithm uses both on-page content and site reputation to determine the quality of page content.

With Panda, content is scrutinized more than ever. Well-structured content is viewed favorably, and results are docked for spelling and grammatical errors. “Thick” content is deemed much more valuable than thin content. There’s no specific number regarding length, but some SEO experts mention that pages with at least 1,500-2,500 words on a page received an increase in ranking. Design is also taken into account, and panda penalized sites with too much advertising, as well as poor navigation.

Google also takes several different steps to prevent plagiarism — duplicate content is frowned upon, making original content much more valuable. Sites found guilty of copying content are hit hard, as well as any sites that aren’t correctly using canonical tags. It’s not just written content, either. Have you ever tried Google’s reverse image search?

Reputation plays a more important role, as well. Google reserves higher rankings for trustworthy information written by someone deemed an “expert” in the field. Consistently publishing content around a subject is rewarded more than writing a one-off post on a specific topic without any additional context on the same site.


Google Penguin

Penguin, which launched in April 2012, was the next major update after Panda. Links are an integral way of determining relationships online, and PageRank is a major part of Google’s search algorithm. The goal of Penguin was to combat any “gaming” of the system. Sites using unnatural backlinks to artificially pad their reputation were penalized heavily. At its core, Google wants to level the playing field and discourage manipulative link building tactics, like purchasing links (though some people still find that useful), creating shallow content on pages to link back to a central site, and adding links to spammy comments.

Of course, webmasters can’t control all links, and some black hat SEO tactics use low-quality links to penalize otherwise trustworthy sites. To discredit any links that hurt ranking, Google allows sites to “disavow” specific links, although that should only be attempted by an expert, since doing so affects rankings.


Google Hummingbird

After Penguin came Hummingbird in August of 2013. It was lauded as the largest change to Google’s core search algorithm in ten years, but interestingly enough, few web properties noticed a change in search traffic. While many search rankings stayed the same, and updates from Panda and Penguin are still very alive, Google was using Hummingbird to "future-proof” its algorithm. Using Hummingbird, the underlying context around a query is more important than search query keywords, mobile-friendly content is rewarded, and personalization plays a larger role in search engine results.

The focus on contextual search shows that Google is looking to better understand user queries. It represents a shift from the antiquated “keyword” matching to “query intent” matching. The goal is to provide results that actually answer a question. That means content answering questions will be rewarded, especially any instructional content. Users’ search behavior is changing: people are utilizing voice search on mobile devices, and asking full questions rather than typing in a string of keywords, — Hummingbird is meant to address this shift in behavior.

In regard to mobile experiences, sites optimized for different screen sizes and allowing for easy consumption of content are also compensated with higher rankings. Many sites have already reached the tipping point where tablet and smartphone traffic has overtaken desktop. Sites without mobile-friendly design may perform well in desktop searches, but the Hummingbird update rightly docks cumbersome mobile experiences in mobile results.

Personalization includes location and other context of a searcher. For example, a search for “Giants” will be very different in San Francisco than in New York and depend on the time of year. A user’s Google+ account activity and history also play a large part in the returned results and order.


Google Pigeon

The most recent change to the Google algorithm, not yet given an official name by the Google search team, is referred to as Pigeon by the SEO community. Although not as major as the previous three updates, this algorithm update attempts to make search results more useful and relevant for people seeking local results. The change also lowers the number of results that appear on a local map, often called “map packs.” It also increases the focus on website authority as a ranking factor. This inherently rewards sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor who are more established and have more consistent structure and resources for SEO.

With the newest update, visual content is also quite important, as photos tied to a location will appear in the new top carousel. Businesses with an attractive, professional photo in their Google+ business profile will be rewarded as potential customers review options.

What will the next major update entail? Check out Moz’s Google Algorithm Change History for more info on Google’s algorithm changes.

SMO (Social Media Optimization) Background

Social Media usage represents 28% of all time spent online — if you’re responsible for managing digital reputations and aren’t using social wisely, you’re clearly missing out. Social media gives people and organizations additional platforms to interact with their audience, allowing them to connect faster than ever before.

Many services fall under the overall “Social Media” umbrella; this post will focus on how to optimize content for top social networking services like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and Pinterest, which make up the majority of social media activity online.

In order to better organize web content for use on social media, platforms pull information from a specific protocol, usually Open Graph (or Twitter Cards, in the case of Twitter). This allows webmasters to select the description, title, images, type of content, and many other characteristics of a page that appear and are classified when using social media. As an example:

Marketers often ask how to make content more “shareable.” The best way is to create valuable, relevant content. Sound familiar? You should also engage with your audience. Social media is a two-way street. You can do other things to increase your content’s sharability, but ultimately you need to provide value to the community and be tuned into your industry — you need to have a voice. Gone are the days of push marketing where the most clever message wins. Consumers expect to be heard by the brands and people they care about, and social media is the best way for you to listen.

In the next few days, we’ll be releasing our next post in the series covering SEO/SMO specifics, so keep an eye out!

Update: The second post of the series is now live: Understanding SEO + SMO (Part 2): Specifics

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