Many clients and prospects ask SEO (define) professionals to prioritize their organic optimization strategies. What’s the most important component of an SEO campaign? Is it keyword selection and placement? Link development is certainly essential. But where does it fall in the list of SEO priorities?
Every SEO expert will give you a different answer.
The Foundation of Successful SEO
The foundation of a successful SEO program consists of the following building blocks:
- Keyword-rich text. The majority of a site’s pages should contain the words and phrases the target audience types into search queries. Pages should appear somewhat focused on these important keyword phrases, and the phrases should be featured prominently on the page. Otherwise, the page won’t convert well or receive consistent search engine traffic over time. Keyword research and copywriting for individual HTML tags are a part of this building block.
- Information/site architecture and page layout. Search engines and end users must be given easy access to keyword-rich content. How text, graphic images, and multimedia files are arranged on a page tells search engines and site visitors which content the site owner believes is most important. URL structure and technical architecture figure into that as well.
- Link development. Commonly referred to as link popularity, this is the number and quality of objective, third-party links pointing to a URL or Web site. Of course, not all links pointing to a site are objective, third-party links, but those types of links aren’t always the most credible.
For all the new technology that’s emerged in the past 10 years, these building blocks still form a solid foundation, even with video, audio, and other multimedia search optimization. What’s fascinating, however, is the different SEO opinions on which is the most important block.
Since optimization is centered on query-based searches on the Web search engines, many SEO professionals feel SEO’s core is text. It’s a logical conclusion, since searchers must type text into a search box to receive document information.
Sometimes, a document isn’t text-based. Some documents (or files) are graphic images or multimedia files. Therefore, the document surrogate, or a text-based substitute for a non-text file, must contain text search engines can crawl and use to determine relevancy.
As much as I understand the use of text-based, keyword-focused documents and document surrogates for information retrieval, however, I don’t believe keyword-rich text is the most important component of a successful SEO program. Text without context carries little meaning to searchers.
Information Architecture and Interface
I consider a site’s information architecture and page layout to be the most important component of an SEO program. Since I’m a Web developer with a background in user-centered design (UCD), my opinion shouldn’t surprise anyone.
In 1995, when I built my first Web site, I felt a Web site’s information architecture was the foundation of successful information retrieval. And not just for commercial Web search engines either. Search engines are only one part of information retrieval. A scent of information and sense of place are also key areas of information retrieval. As I’ve reviewed more Web analytics data, my opinion has only grown stronger.
If a house has a strong foundation, it will be around for a long time. Without one, the house will collapse rather quickly. It’s the same for a Web site. SEO should be about building that strong foundation, not chasing algorithms and exploiting search engines. Start with a strong foundation. Accoutrements can always be added, refined, and removed.
Every time I analyze a site for search usability, I find the most expensive, time-consuming SEO solution involves modifying the site’s information architecture. Any beginner SEO can place keyword phrases in HTML title tags and meta tags. But creating site navigation and cross-linking with a labeling system that users understand? Identifying page types and assigning the most appropriate cross-links? Knowing when to use text-based documents — and when not to? Optimizing for site visitors as well as search engines? These aren’t quick, easy tasks to complete.
Additionally, a target audience’s search behavior often varies by site type (B2B, B2C, publisher, education, etc.), age, gender, education level, and so forth.
Nonetheless, once a strong information architecture is in place the site sees vast improvements in qualified search engine traffic and cost savings. It’s easy to modify Web copy when the foundation is solid.
Sometimes, a site receives qualified search engine traffic due to link popularity. In fact, if a site type (such as a Flash-based site) is unable to have the aforementioned on-page criteria, link development is often the only organic SEO solution.
As a side note, I understand black hat SEO professionals do link development, albeit low-quality, spam link development. They fill a niche. Web site owners don’t like to accept the fact that their sites aren’t as great as they think, and they fall prey to the black-hat SEO sales pitch: “You don’t have to change your site. We can get your site instant link popularity.”
Web site usability and link development go hand in hand. People tend to link to sites whose content they find useful and informative. In addition, if Web site owners make that content easy to find through a solid information architecture, they pack one of the most powerful one-two punches: unique, useful content that’s easy to find.
I admit I’m biased. As a Web developer, I naturally lean toward the information architecture and interface as being the most important components of successful SEO. Copywriters might claim text is the most important component, and black-hat SEO professionals might claim link development is the most important.
Maybe all three components are equally important, with one no better than the other. What do you think? Which component of SEO gets your site the best results?
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