What is Search Engine Optimization? 

You can have the most fantastic website, but no one will ever use it if they can't find it. That's where search engine optimization (SEO) comes in. 

SEO is a practice of taking steps to make a webpage more likely to be ranked highly by search engines. That sounds simple, but SEO quickly gets complicated. Here's the basic principles behind search engines and SEO.

The goal of a search engine (whether that's Google, Bing, Yahoo, Baidu or DuckDuckGo) is to provide the user (searcher) with the best answer to their question out of all the billions of webpages out there on the internet. 

To achieve this goal, the search engines use little computer programs (a.k.a. "bots" or "spiders") to index as many webpages as they can find (a.k.a. "crawl the web"). The bots quickly assess each and every webpage to assign it a score for a variety keywords.

Keywords are the text that people type into the search bar or say in a voice search. They can be a single word or a phrase, which are increasingly presented in a full question like "How do I apply for scholarships?".  The search engine uses keywords as clues to deliver the most relevant content. 

So when you search for a topic, Google takes your keywords and checks them against those indexed webpage scores. Then it provides a ranked list of the most potentially helpful websites on the search results page (SERP), usually listing 10 per page.

And all of this happens in seconds for billions of searches every day across the world.

By optimizing a webpage for SEO, it's a sort of like giving the the search engine bots a set of instructions for assessing the website. SEO allows you to be intentional about what keywords your page should rank highly for.  

Why is SEO Important?

As a digital communicator, your goal is to be that best answer -- and then prove that you're the best to Google, Bing and other search engines so they naturally put your webpage at the top of the search results page (SERP). The techniques to achieve this is called "organic SEO".

The SERP displays organic search results from 1-10 per page. On average, people click on the very first result (Page 1, Spot 1) about 30% of the time, while the result in Page 1, Spot 3 gets just 15%. Any links lower on the list are clicked through less than 10% of the time. Think about it: when's the last time you clicked on a webpage that wasn't in the top 3 results? 

When it comes to students, they expect to learn about a college via the website. The 2018 Ruffalo Noel Levitz E-Expectations Report stated that for prospective students:

  • Nearly 9 out of 10 juniors and seniors found college through a web search
  • 34% of seniors and juniors used a search tool on a college website
  • A bad website experience -- including struggling to find desired information--  will cause 1 in 3 students to go elsewhere

What this means is that without good SEO, your webpage is far less likely to rank in one of the top three spots. In turn, this means that most people won't be convinced that your webpage has the answers they want. Plus, the WSU search engine is also powered by Google and uses the same criteria to rank WSU webpages against each other. 

SEO is a Long-term Bet, Not a Guarantee

In the early days of the web, it was a lot easier to manipulate search engines to make them rank a site highly. This opportunity was abused, of course, and made it hard for people to find information they wanted. 

So search engines have become incredibly sophisticated over time to keep malicious sites and misleading information out of the top rankings as much as possible.

Furthermore, the search algorithms are top secret and constantly evolving. Here's a rough idea of how many times Google modified it's algorithm.

While we all can appreciate a better experience when we search for thing on the web, these technical factors make it tougher for legitimate websites to rise up the rankings and reach the coveted place of Page 1, Spot 1.

Then you have to consider all of the competitor websites that want to reach the same audiences that you do. There are nearly 200 colleges and universities in Minnesota, let alone across the Midwest. Plus there are third-party ranking sites, news organizations, blogs and more trying to get college students' attention. These competitors are also going to be optimizing their sites for many of the same keywords where we want to have WSU webpages top list.

All this is to say that proper SEO makes it more likely that your site will appear higher on the SERP for certain keywords. It's not a guarantee-- even if you have an expert engineer the perfect SEO. 

The impact of optimizing a webpage won't be immediate either. You won't see a page leap from Page 1, Spot 10 to Page 1, Spot 1 overnight, or even in a few weeks. Often it takes several months to see even a modest rise of a few spots in the search rankings. 

 The only "guarantee" to get a website at the top of the search results page for a period of time is through a Paid Search advertising campaign. However, this can be extremely expensive depending on the keywords purchases and time frame.

How the Web Team Supports SEO

Making improvements for SEO will require collaboration between departments and the Web Team. 

As new website are developed, the Web Team will discuss SEO opportunities with the clients and plan site structure and content accordingly. We will also work to improve content on existing websites, starting with top-level websites that have the most need. Your web representative will reach out before any changes are made to your department website.

We will recommend a variety of SEO best practices, including these key methods for optimizing webpages: 

1. Make a webpage that's useful for humans first and foremost

Robots don't enroll in college courses, choose a major, attend campus events -- or participate in any of the other services and experiences at WSU. Students, faculty and staff do those things, so the goal is always to make a webpage that works for the human being on the other side of the screen. The SEO benefit of this is that search algorithms reward well-built webpages that provide useful information. 

It's especially important to write web content in a natural style that is similar to the way most people actually think and speak about a topic in their everyday lives. Doing so makes it easier for them to understand the information once they reach your page, and it makes it easier to weave in good keywords without sounding too forced. 

2. Choose the right keywords, not all the keywords

There's as many keywords as there are literal words in human language. But there's no reason to target all of them because perhaps only one person ever used that exact phrase in a search. 

On the flip side, targeting a really generic term like "scholarships" is a futile effort. Even though a lot of people search for scholarships, there's also a lot of competitor websites with information on scholarships. You might have better luck targeting a phrase like "first generation student scholarships" because it's more specific and some competitors may not offer those types of scholarships.

Choosing the right keywords means finding the sweet spot of a worthwhile frequency of searches but reasonably low competition for those terms. The Web Team will help you figure out the best keywords to target for a specific page.

3. Place keywords in important areas on a webpage

Once an important keyword is identified, we'll want to include that word or phrase in the following areas where possible: 

  • Page title
  • Headings and subheading 
  • Throughout the content, preferably within the first few sentences
  • Photo alt text, if it makes sense and adheres to photo accessibility requirements

Again this is where natural language is really useful to work important keywords into a page without being stilted or annoyingly repetitive. Search engines have gotten pretty good at associating synonyms and other phrase variations back to the core idea behind the searchers' question.

It will be a long process, but improving SEO will be worthwhile in the end. An optimized website is a more usable website that more likely to be discovered by our audiences.