Are You Over-thinking SEO?

no-inspirationYou might be a little shocked by the time you finish this article. You might even refuse to believe me. But I’m telling you straight: when it comes to SEO, you are almost certainly over-thinking it.

Let’s take a quick poll. Are you reading every SEO article you can get your hands on? Are you constantly tweaking your page title and meta tags to see if your site moves up the rankings? Are you running daily search queries to see how your site ranks for certain keywords? Do you break into a cold sweat every time Google rolls out a new algorithm update?

If you’re guilty of one or more of these actions, you are totally over-thinking SEO and you need to stop. Right now.

I’ve been in the Search Engine Optimization business for 18 years – long before the acronym SEO was even coined. I’ve witnessed the birth of Google, the death of AltaVista and more algorithm tweaks than Yahoo’s had CEOs. With all the changes the search industry has experienced over the years, I can tell you that the key to SEO is this: understanding your audience. That’s IT. That’s all you need to know.

You don’t need to understand latent semantic indexing, you don’t need to know HTML, you don’t need to know Google Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird, Pigeon or any of the other latest algorithm changes. You just need to KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. If you don’t know your audience you need to get to know them. Quickly. Talk to them, talk to the staff who deal with them most often. Find out what makes them happy and what is turning them off. Look at their purchase history, their feedback, their interaction with your brand on social media. Survey them.

There is a lot of talk these days about the Semantic Web and how this is changing SEO best practice. Well guess what? SEO has always been about semantics. The main purpose of the Semantic Web is to enable users to find, share, and combine information more easily. Just like it has always been, the Semantic Web of today is based on searcher intent.

Every search is a question in disguise. When deciding what web content to rank highest in search results, Google compares the content of your pages with the original search query to see if they match semantically. In other words – does your content answer the intended question posed by the searcher?

Let me give you this example:

  • Oil
  • Hammer
  • Spaghetti
  • Car
  • House
  • Toothbrush

Take these six items and mentally put them into either two groups of three, or three groups of two, based on the first grouping that comes naturally into your mind. My initial grouping was:

  • Oil / Hammer / Car
  • Spaghetti / House / Toothbrush

My justification was that the first group was outdoor related and the rest indoor related. Did you group the items the same way as I did?

Now, if you give this same exercise to someone else, their groupings would likely be different to yours. I regularly present this exercise to my SEO training workshops and the outcome is almost always different for everyone. Some people group the items based on assets and consumables, others might group based on the number of letters in the words and there are always different assumptions about whether *oil* is the edible kind or the motor kind.

What does this tell you? Everyone is DIFFERENT. Depending on what time of day you did this exercise, or even whether you were hungry at the time, it might change the outcome. What does this tell you about the way people search? Everyone searches with a unique mindset and question in their head. Different day, different mood, different mindset, different question.

So how do you identify searcher intent? How do you use the semantic web to your advantage? By understanding your audience. By studying the search terms that your target audience uses to find the goods and services you offer. Once you understand HOW they search and what questions they are asking, you can optimize your content to ensure you answer their questions. Doing that will give you a much better chance of Google, Bing and Yahoo ranking you above your competitors in the search results.

Another SEO shortcut is to create user personas for your main customers. Track what pathways they take through your site. Notice what pages they visit most often and what content they share. Publish more of that type of content. Create unique and distinct marketing campaigns for each persona you identify. Your ROI will hit the roof.

Call your best customers on the phone, buy them a coffee. Get to know them, reward them. Show them you care. They are your advocates and should be your best friends. Turn them into brand evangelists and they will do half the marketing for you.

Spend less time looking at algorithms and more time looking at your analytics and customer feedback. Publish content that your audience is asking for. Publish content that your audience is searching for. Publish OFTEN. Internal Site Search is your best friend. Don’t have internal site search? Get it fast and review what people are searching for within your content.

Re-purpose and re-package your content in different ways. That newsletter that you sent out via email last week? Publish it on your web site – and I don’t mean a PDF – put each individual article on it’s own page. Search engines love fresh content. Ask your best customers why they like your product. Write an article about that. Create a Q and A blog post out of a help-desk ticket. Publish your customer testimonials. Write a case study with the help of your favourite client. Turn your Knowledge Base into several white-papers for download. Republish your blog posts on your Facebook page. Tweet the links from your Twitter account. Add the images to your Pinterest boards. Embrace social media and cross-promote your social channels.

You can do this. Everyone reading this article can do SEO. Everyone. It is NOT a specialist skill. It takes a holistic approach, but primarily it comes down to 3 words: KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE.

So stop over-thinking SEO and just get on with it.

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About Kalena Jordan

In my day job, I'm Director of Studies and tutor at the online training institution Search Engine College. In my spare time, I'm a search engine agony aunt and SEO to global clients. I've been marketing websites online since 1996 and blogging about search since 2002. To learn more, visit