December 19, 2022

A few thoughts on SEO

Don’t stress. It’s easier than you think.

I get asked about SEO a lot, and it’s a topic I have a some pretty strong opinions about. So this morning, when my wife relayed a message from a friend asking for suggestions (the friend is starting a new business), I responded with the following text, and figured I might as well record it here also in the interest of giving my future self something substantive to link to.

Here’s what I said.

There are lots of things to consider, but these are the big ones:

  • Have good page titles and descriptions. These are sometimes called “meta tags”, and most website publishing platforms allow you to set them on a page-by-page basis. By “good”, I mean they (1) correlate closely with the content of the page and (2) correlate with the keywords you expect people to be searching by. Page titles are what show up as the link text in a Google search result, and descriptions are what (sometimes) show up in the text just below the link and in social-media previews. Craft these thoughtfully, and if you can, use the same keywords in your page URLs as well.

  • Write lots of good content into your pages. Short pages that don’t have much “stuff” in them generally aren’t as relevant (to humans) as longer pages are, and search engines know this. Having lots of textual content that search engines can ingest and index gives them more data to use to determine whether to show your page instead of someone else’s. The more content you have, and the more relevant it is to the visitors you want to attract, the better. It’s also a good idea to add new content regularly (daily, weekly), as this signals timeliness, and search engines tend to assume people are more interested in stuff that’s been updated recently than stuff that’s been sitting around unchanged for a while.

  • Get trusted domains to link to you. This is by far the the most important, and unfortunately the one over which you have least direct control. SEO is based primarily on two things: content and page rank. Content is the previous two bullets and something you have total control over. Page rank is basically the quantitative measurement of “how relevant you are”, and your relevance is directly related to how many other relevant websites link to yours. Note that they need to be relevant themselves; if you’re selling a book, and I link to your website from my low-traffic personal blog that’s mostly about about gardening, I won’t be improving your relevance as a bookseller as much as I would be if I linked to you from my popular, highly respected book-review website. Every link is like a tiny upvote, and while lots of upvotes is generally good, higher-quality upvotes matter much more, and lots of low-quality upvotes can actually damage your SEO credibility. (Which is why it’s a good idea to steer clear of most SEO firms, as they often attempt to manipulate this algorithm to boost your numbers just long enough to take your money and disappear when your page rank falls back to earth.)

Basically, just write lots of good-quality content and encourage people to link to you, and you’ll be fine. It can take a little time to build up that relevance, but it’ll happen.

As a content person myself, I know there’s a lot more to it than this — way more, in fact. But the impact curve to the right of these three points is a long tail that most people just don’t need to care about. If you get these foundational things right, you’re way ahead of the game, and the web will find its way to you. The rest won’t make nearly as much of a difference.