SEO Thinking: Optimise how you think!

If you are engaged in SEO, optimising how you think is vital! SEO involves obtaining and analysing a complex array of changing information. Knowing how to apply knowledge requires the magnificence of human brain power! SEO practitioners need to be able to formulate plans and evaluate potential outcomes.

Photo showing a man thinking about SEO
Thinking about SEO

Effective SEO thinking is increasingly valuable to online marketers. Fortunately, you don’t have to be an Einstein in order to engage in worthwhile SEO thinking. You just have to use your mental powers to imagine scenarios from various vantage points. The more you get to do this the better your decisions will be.

Three basic viewpoints are sufficient for productive SEO thinking. You simply need to take on the perspectives of:

  • the search engine
  • the user, and
  • the scientist

To think from a particular perspective, you need to imagine you have motivations and concerns consistent with the adopted perspective. Taking on each different perspective brings up different sets of possibilities and potential outcomes. Seeing things from different perspectives leads to wiser choices and ultimately more productive digital marketing.

The Search Engine’s Perspective

Business Model

The search engine business model involves providing a free information retrieval service that attracts users. By attracting many search engine users, there is scope for gaining revenue through advertising. If that wasn’t good enough, search engines are ideal for advertising. Since people tend to search for what they’re interested in, search engines have information to facilitate well-targeted advertising. Because of this, popular search engines are able to supply potent advertising and earn a vast amount of revenue.

A search engine’s advertising appears in the form of paid search results. This advertising is typically delivered alongside the standard ‘organic’ search results! While a search engine’s revenue comes from its advertising, its popularity depends on it providing useful non-paid search results. After all, people mostly use a search engine for its non-paid search results. This is because the non-paid search results tend to link to higher quality informational web pages. Whereas, paid search results tend to link to sales oriented content.

Theoretically, if its non-paid search results are more useful, a search engine will attract more users. This point underlies the thrust of present-day SEO. Web pages with high-quality content tend to feature more prominently in the non-paid search results than those with low-quality content.

Lower-quality pages appearing in search results

The notion that search engines strive to deliver the best organic search results is not always true. It is apparent that lower-quality pages are tending to show up for sales-related searches. If you search for a product or service you might expect a list of relevant local businesses. However, you are likely to find your search results are largely populated by business directory or classified pages. Furthermore, when your search is sales-related, there are generally many ads as well. Surely this is not in the best interests of their users!

It can be speculated the search engines want to push users towards the paid search results. In addition, they would like business owners to invest in paid search ads rather than SEO. In the end, a search engine can play this game only so far since its reputation is at stake. If a search engine stops providing high-quality non-paid results for sales related searches its users may look elsewhere. For this reason, search engines will continue including some very good sales-related web pages in their organic results.


To fulfil the task of providing highly useful search results, the search engine must be able to efficiently evaluate the content found on web pages. Search engines endeavour to provide non-paid results that will be consistent with the evaluations of the human beings they serve, by ranking pages in terms of relevance to various search phrases. This sorting is done efficiently using computer algorithms. The algorithms analyse the content and structure of a website, the presence of links, social media activity and also signals provided by users as they interact with the search engine and the webpages its search results refer to.

Deception and Web Spam

One issue that search engines are concerned with is manipulation of their results through some kind of deception or web spam. Because obtaining search engine success is not easy, some people attempt to game the system in some way. There have been a number of instances where poor to mediocre webpages have gained high rankings even though they have not been worthy of them. This has led search engines to be on the lookout for signs of possible spamming and deception.

Link building

Since the number of links from other pages is a way for a search engine to evaluate the worthiness of a particular webpage, a strategy used to achieve high rankings was the creation of many spam pages for the sake of increasing the number of inbound links to a particular page. While this method used to work, the top search engines adjusted their algorithms to detect signs of unnaturally created links and sites making use of them receive unnaturally low rankings or may even be dropped from a search engine’s index, completely.

Camouflaged keyword rich text

Another example relates to on-page SEO. A search engine will look deeply at a website’s coding to make sure the text on pages is readable. An old strategy for fooling search engines was to camouflage keyword-rich text. By including text coloured the same as the background, humans would be unable to read it. However, the search engine algorithm would read it no matter the colour. A website owner can easily place a competitor’s brand name invisibly within the coding of a web page in order to rank for the competitor’s brand name. At one time such a strategy worked, however, the search engines are now able to detect this kind of deception and may penalise websites that try to do it.

As you can see, included within the search engine’s perspective is the need to detect anything that may resemble strategies designed to artificially inflate the worthiness of a web page or website for the sake of higher rankings.

SEO thinking from a search engine perspective

The search engine perspective leads an SEO thinker to consider known and suspected ranking factors and to avoid strategies that may give a search engine algorithm the impression that any form of deception is being employed as a means to higher rankings.

Questions that you might ask when you adopt a search engine perspective are:

  • What are the popular search phrases that relate to the products or services I want to market?
  • Does the title, meta description, URL, image alternative text, and my copy contain the keywords I am targeting?
  • What other words should I include on a page to reinforce the search engines the impression that my content relates to my target search phrases?
  • How should I structure my website in order to enhance how search engines view it?

When you take on the search engine perspective, you also realise that you don’t want to give any signs that you are doing anything that may be considered deceptive. You will, therefore, ask yourself questions like:

  • What are all the things I should avoid doing so that the search engines don’t apply a penalty to my site?

When the search engine perspective is not enough

If it was possible to completely understand the workings of a particular search engine, then a search engine perspective could actually be enough to guarantee high rankings. However, it is doubtful that even the individuals who design the algorithms have enough of a grasp to predict with great accuracy what is likely to rank well and what isn’t.

It is quite possible to create low-quality web copy that contains the right keywords necessary for ranking. Those using a pure search engine perspective may not feel inclined to check whether their web copy adequately conveys the information the keywords imply it does. Such a web page could pass the spell and grammar checker and produce a reasonably low reading age but may well fail in the long run readers do not be gain the information they are looking for.

By thinking from a search engine perspective, you will realise that the content needs to satisfy readers, however, a search engine finds this out in hindsight, which takes time. Waiting to find out whether a search engine evaluates a webpage as providing a good user experience could be a very slow process. It is clear then that when you are engaged in SEO, you need to be able to think from the perspective of human users.

The User’s Perspective

Since SEO practitioners are human internet users, they are in a good position to understand a typical user’s perspective. The behaviour of users is governed by a range of thoughts and emotions. There are many different people with different needs and concerns, so it is important to understand the kinds of people a page is targeting. An idea to provide web pages that will be well received by as many different users as possible lies at the heart of this perspective.

The user perspective is all about enhancing the visitor’s experience. When you think in terms of the user perspective, you need to reverse roles with visitors to your website prompting you to ask questions like:

  • Who might be interested in viewing this page?
  • What value can this page provide for the user?
  • Could graphical content assist the user?
  • Could the text on this page be more engaging?
  • Is the information provided accurate?
  • What other information might be helpful?
  • Could the navigation on this website be more intuitive?
  • How well does the web design perform on mobile, desktop and tablet devices?

When the user perspective is not enough

While adopting the user perspective is highly valuable for designing websites and their content, if you take this approach exclusively, your success in terms of search engines may be compromised especially when you are chasing high numbers of visitors. Unfortunately, there are some things you can do to improve the user experience that turns out to be counter-productive for attracting visitors via the search engines. Search engine robots can easily misconstrue your efforts due to their limited capacity to understand why you might employ a particular strategy when presenting content so it is important to keep these limitations in mind.

Hiding supplementary text

One way that can apparently lead to a better user experience involves hiding supplementary text when a page first loads and allowing visitors to request additional information through special links on demand. This approach is thought to be beneficial for readers, especially those who may not require the additional information your full article includes. However,  leaving it out altogether would not be helpful to those that would want to read it.

A large amount of text could conceivably overwhelm readers. By hiding supplementary portions so that a reader initially sees a condensed version of the article may well be a strategy for communicating your overall message more efficiently. For those who wish to gain more in-depth information, special links (typically plus signs [+]) that when clicked, reveal additional sections. This way of presenting textual content has been tested and apparently does provide a superior user experience but it turns out not to be the best of ideas for SEO.

The problem

Unfortunately, Google doesn’t like this style of page and will tend to rank pages like it lower than equivalent full-text pages. It is therefore important to evaluate decisions aimed at providing a good user experience with what you might understand when you adopt a search engine perspective. From a search engine perspective, hidden text on a page is a sign there could be some form of deception at play.

The least problematic outcome in relation to hidden text is that Google will evaluate only the text that is visible to a visitor when the page is first viewed. The better option, in this case, is probably to include all the text on the page, as the gains from ranking highly will generally outweigh the gains associated with a good user experience. Dan Petrovic explains this finding in this article exploring the merits of user behaviour data on ranking.

Sensible compromises

Improving a website with the aim of pleasing users and search engines is likely to result in the need to make sensible compromises. Rand Fishkin of Moz examines these issue in his blog post dealing with the tensions and trade-offs between optimising for the experience of users and search engines.

Unexpected outcomes

There are often situations that arise where adopting both search engine and user perspectives lead to unexpected outcomes. This is because it is impossible to understand everything all of the time. SEOs are largely in the dark in relation to how the search engines decide to evaluate web pages. The search engines are continually updating their algorithms so understanding what will work and what won’t, is never certain. This leads us to a third perspective in SEO which relates to taking a scientific and logical approach.

The Scientist’s Perspective

When you think from a scientist’s perspective, you have to try to be dispassionate about any particular outcome. Sometimes the evidence appears to defy common sense and logic. Nothing is stable or certain so it is important to take the evidence at hand seriously. It is, therefore, useful to approach your work in a similar way to scientific experimentation. It is important to keep track of what you do and when you do it and to note the outcomes.

If things don’t happen the way you expect, it is important to isolate the cause. Sometimes this involves undoing recent changes to see if your search results return to what they were before. Through the application of logic, you can uncover evidence to support certain theories and debunk others. In this way the strategies you employ evolve over time.

Like the other perspectives, the scientific approach has its limits. Keeping changes to your website simple enough to keep track of is very difficult and sometimes impossible, however, if you don’t take a scientific outlook, you will be operating in relative darkness. If you make no effort to validate your activities, you won’t be able to tell if anything you have done has any value.

Successful SEO

Ultimately, successful SEO is about knowing how to get the right visitors to your site. To achieve this you will need to optimise how you think when you approach SEO. Thinking from different perspectives helps you to see a broader spectrum of possibilities including negative ones. From a business perspective expanding your thinking will significantly improve your bottom line.

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