I feel like I'm taking crazy pills every time I read something about SEO. I keep expecting there to be more to it or that I'm missing something. Other than that, SEO is just making sure you have reasonably semantic markup and clean URLS. Isn't that just plain old best practice anyway? What am I missing? I swear there must be something!
Do you know what keywords are generating the most traffic for your competitors, what keywords you'll most likely be able to rank for, what keywords have the highest conversion ratio, are you using video sitemaps, etc.
It sounds like your just constantly reading material aimed at beginners rather than diving in depth into the subject.
Semantic mark up and clean URLs are a big part of SEO. But there's a lot more to it. There is obviously the whole incoming links thing as a few other comments have mentioned.
The biggest issue that I see on client's sites is site architecture, organization and internal linking. Most commonly that means multiple pages with the same content and different URLs. Amazon is a good example of this:
Amazon is essentially passing internal link juice around to non-canonical URLs, then "fixing" it with a rel canonical hack. Not that amazon needs the link authority, it's just an example.
Another good one is folks who append things like ?ref=category to a URL to track visitors through the site. That's a unique URL to google, though you can specify what url parameters are legit in webmaster tools. If you really need to do something like that, use onclick events and keep the href attribute to a pretty, canonical URL.
Those don't seem like big issues individually, but imagine a 3,000,000 page site that never links to a canonical URL anywhere internally (this happens).
Internal anchor text can also play a roll in what you rank for. If you happened to make it through all that stuff up there, here's an SEO gem: use breadcrumbs, but your home link doesn't need to have the anchor text "home". Instead use a keyword that's relevant to your site's purpose. If you sell dog food, use "dog food" as the anchor text of "home" breadcrumb link.
An example: do a search for "online shopping" on Google. You'll probably see overstock.com in the top results. Why? Are they really more well known and authoritative than Amazon in that arena? Every home breadcrumb on overstock.com has the anchor text "online shopping". Millions of internal links with perfectly optimized anchor text pointing to a single page.
Ok, but what the hell does that have to do with building the site. Inbound links are obvious. Wow, really, is that all? And there are entire communities devoted to this? Seriously, I really want to know what I'm missing because I feel like I must be whiffing pretty hard here not to see it.
Backlinks are everything. Nowadays, I think you have to try pretty hard to produce markup that Googlebot can't interpret.
I rocketed my forum community to the top of Google by generating backlinks. Some people consider it grunt labor, but I found it a lot of fun, especially if you get a program that keeps track of your rankings. It's addictive.
And this is forum software that is rife with duplicate content, has URLs like `/?forumdisplay=22952920&v=92348232`, and is so unSEO that a third party company started up to sell an expensive product that SEO's the softwre via plugin.
Guess what, despite all the little marginal tweaks and SEO obsessions I don't sweat over, Google miraculously figured stuff out. Backlinks are obvious and they work. It's the reason why you can overtake encumbent #1 rankings that have no backlink campaigns.
That's sort of my point. I mean, getting links to your site isn't exactly a secret, this has been key since Google first came on the scene. Sure, it's hard work to have a reputable site and to promote it correctly, but it's not rocket science. In fact, it's pretty typical common sense.
I get the point about duplicate content, that's something I had heard but not really delved into because, well, decent architecture usually means not having that sort of stuff around.
The more I hear SEO "experts" go on about things, the more I think it's a bit of a scam. Scam is probably the wrong word, as I'm sure many SEO people are well meaning, but the more I look the more it all seems like snake oil.
I think what you're getting at is that the majority of SEO is pretty straightforward - I know what you mean about rarely discovering something new from SEO sites. The final x% is a bit more challenging.
At one point I put together a pretty basic site with one backlink and barely any attention to content and accidentally ranked #1 in Australia for "make money". One particular page on that site is four paragraphs I threw together and it's made $24k in four years for no effort since. I've had a few other events along those lines too, mostly leveraging the past property I built up and using that as a backlink.
the problem is there are so many hacky, cold-calling SEOs that the majority of people you're likely to run into in SEO suck. when you really get into it (obviously biased) i think the combination of statistics, data mining, creative content and competitive analysis of your position in a perpetually changing market is a fascinating blend and you can learn as much as you want and take your skills and strategies in a ton of different directions.
it'd be nice if we could be completely transparent with analytics while iterating a search strategy for a large site, because the learning experience would be great whether you're a big-name, experienced SEO, looking to get further into SEO, or an anti-SEO hacker looking to just call us all out for being full of shit :) it'd be cool. too bad the economic reality of releasing complete analytics data to the entire internet makes this an impossible dream.
It's not easy getting links. More importantly, if you have a great product where everyone else has great products, the marginal benefit of having the best product with the most amount of authoritative links is huge, because the # of clicks that come from the top result over #2 is monumental. So even if you get thousands upon thousands of links, like those that rank for "cheap flights", it's the site that gets thousands and thousands +1 that will win the day, and make millions more on a long enough timeline.
Agreed. In my experience, people linking to you is 90% of the work. Everything else (canonical URLs, etc.) doesn't really matter. Case in point: I now rank close to #1 for the terms "startup conference". Why? Because since I launched the new name for the conference, enough people linked to it. 6 months ago, I barely made it to the first page of Google results.
And by the way, there is one repeatable way to get high-ranked sites to link to you: produce quality content. So karma and SEO are not that far off.
SEO fundamentals: google is smarter than you are, and has invested a lot of effort into discovering the sort of websites that their users want to visit. If you make the sort of website that users want to visit (relevant content with clear navigation), google will send their users to it.