SEOs, Pull Up a Chair to the Development Table

If you’re in marketing, you know that sometimes departments don’t align. This becomes especially true when SEO works on a web development project. As SEOs, we look to search engine guidelines to determine how a site should be constructed. Unfortunately, this typically hasn’t reflected what a developer must keep in mind in terms of building a site off of dazzling creative and excellent UX.

A developer’s job is to bring something to life: to build amazing sites, web apps, and platforms that are remarkable. An SEO is responsible for bringing the user and search engine together to drive traffic to what the developer has built. Traditionally, SEOs leave web development to the developers and then come in to optimize after a site is built.

But development is becoming increasingly important to the SEO process. Search engines are evolving and are beginning to consider user experience in the algorithm, which is incorporated and brought to life by developers. All this means SEOs also have to evolve.

It’s time for us to get techy and consider how development can become a core component of our SEO skillset.

Let's Rewind 10 Years

SEO has always been complicated, especially when done right. But back in 2006, it was far less complicated and far easier to game the system.

Webmasters were giving advice on how to generate dynamic title tags, people were selling 10,000 links for $5 and SEOs were still trying to figure out the best way to stuff their keywords into the page as many times as possible. Google Analytics had launched just one year before, so as long as you could scrape rankings and claim that #1 spot was generating traffic, you were golden. SEO was almost easy. Stuff a keyword: check; build 100 links: check; template all of your title tags: check; then you’re done. You have “SEOed” a website.

Flash forward to 2016, and things are completely different. Search engines caught on to the cheap tricks that were manipulating results and not only devalued those sites, but penalized them and completely removed them from the search results pages. Clients got smarter too. They realized those #1 rankings were driving completely irrelevant visits that weren’t converting into leads. Not only did the tactics that worked in 2006 stop working—SEO as an industry stopped working.

It's All about the User

Now to be successful in SEO, you have to put each user at the center of the strategy, which isn’t exactly news. As SEOs, we all know it’s crucial to understand the hopes, dreams, fears, likes, dislikes, and ultimate goal of the user to get them to our websites. Until recently, that’s been the main focus: get a qualified visitor to the site.

Where SEO has fallen short, and where search engines are forcing us to pick up the pace, is in the fact that we don’t really care what the user does after they’re on the site as it relates to our strategies. The list of what comprises an SEO strategy is heavily weighted toward what we know impacts rankings: keyword research, content audit, meta data audit, link building campaigns, and anything else we’ve tested enough to know search engines consider it to be a ranking factor. These things have been at the forefront of our strategies and the focus of our ongoing efforts because it had to be.

That is, until now.

The Algorithm Shifts

We’re starting to see a shift in what search engines focus on during algorithm updates and consider to be ranking factors. Up until 2012, updates were primarily focused on closing spammy loopholes that were allowing low quality sites to rank. Essentially, search engines cared if the page you hit really answered your question or if it was manipulated to appear to answer your question.

The first sign of experience as a ranking factor really came in 2012, when Google devalued sites with too many ads above the fold. Whether or not there are too many ads on a page doesn’t really impact whether or not the content answers your query, but it does make it harder for you to find the answer. Suddenly, your experience outside of the content itself had become a factor.

Jump to 2014, and we’ve seen Google consider HTTPS a ranking factor. In essence, an insecure site can answer your question just as effectively as a secure site, but now Google clearly cares about the user’s experience on your site and making sure it’s a safe one.

Then in 2015, there was Mobilegeddon, where Google decided if your website isn’t providing an experience suited for mobile searches, you shouldn’t be in the mobile search results. There has also been speculation that Google monitors whether or not you click on a result and go right back to the search results, because if you do then the site has provided a poor user experience and should be devalued.

Search engines are trying to consider the experience of the user over direct on-page factors and are actively working this into the algorithm, making our jobs as SEOs a bit more complicated.

Great, Amazing, Wonderful, Exciting Content Isn't Enough

As SEOs, we now have to optimize for search engines that are optimizing for user experience. What’s important to a search engine has to be important to us if we’re going to keep up, and all signs point to search engines caring how the user experiences your site.

Soon, it will no longer be enough simply to know how to build links, do keyword research and write great content. The way a website is structured, the page speed, the responsiveness and the layout are all factors in how well you can rank; and that’s just today. Think of how things can evolve if Google or other search engines are able to monitor page depth, conversion rates and ultimate user experience satisfaction; SEO then gets really, really hard. We hear time and time again that content is king, which is true for now, but if your content king is in a castle that’s falling apart, pretty soon it won’t matter how impressive he is.

We have to work more closely with our developers and expand our wheelhouse to understand more about development if we’re going to keep up. Developers are always going to be the experts on coding, building web applications, understanding user experience and bringing creative to life, but if SEOs don’t have a seat at the table when web development decisions are being made, a website could be built that isn’t living up to it’s full potential in the search engines—which is our area of expertise.

Jack of All Trades, Master of One

To be a master of SEO in 2016 and beyond, SEOs can’t silo themselves into one skill. To implement an effective SEO strategy, we have to understand the on-page, off-page and technical elements of a website. And it starts with dabbling in development.

We’re not developers by any means, but we do have knowledge that can help developers build better sites that rank higher because they offer users an excellent user experience.

It’s time for us to build our technical toolbox. We need to work to further understand the aspects of development that create an easily indexed site, and we need to have meaningful relationships with the developers building those sites so the goal of the website and the SEO strategy can be fully aligned.

Written by Sarah Lively on April 6, 2016

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Hear, hear! Since I started doing SEO in the dark ages, I have lived through a lot of these changes. I found your musings about search engines potentially using conversion rates in ranking algorithms to be really fascinating. I mean, Google Analytics knows conversion rates for any site that has set up goals or ecommerce tracking. Maybe it's already happening...?!?

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Written by
Sarah Lively
Director, Social Media Marketing