6 Analogies to Help You Understand SEO
There is no denying it: SEO can be an abstract field.
We who specialize in search spend our lives wrestling with an algorithm that is too big for any single person to fully comprehend. Whether you’re an SEO who wants to try and better explain how our leviathan of an algorithm behaves, or a website owner looking for more insight into how Google works, sometimes an analogy just puts everything into perspective.
Some of these analogies I have been using for 15 years, and they still stand the test of time. Here are the questions I think a good analogy can help you answer:
- How does Google work?
- What about links?
- What’s the role of technical SEO?
- What’s up with redirects?
- What are silos?
- Why did my site drop off the first page?
How Does Google Work?
Google is a simple creature in that it just wants to provide the best answer to a user’s question, from a reputable source. How hard can that be?
Imagine your boss asks you to get information on England in the 15th Century. They give you no more background than that. So, you head to Amazon (in the first iteration of this analogy, this was a library, but we’ve evolved), and you start looking at books. You finally narrow it down to two: the first is a booklet written by a high school history teacher, 30 pages long. The second is a four-inch thick encyclopedia of England in the 15th Century, written by the British Museum.
Without knowing more about your boss’s needs, which do you choose? You would probably pick the book that is most likely to answer any question your boss has. Do they want to know about the kings, the wars, the life of common folk? Without knowing the specifics, the safe choice is to get whichever resource has breadth of information on the topic. That way, you can be confident all questions can be answered. This, in almost all cases, will be the big, comprehensive resource from a trusted source.
What about Links?
To understand the role of links, let’s head to the local chamber of commerce.
There are two realtors who are members. Realtor 1 has been a member for a long time; they feel like they are “top realtor” and therefore don’t have to prove anything else. However, their position as “top realtor” is largely imaginary, because if you ask the chamber for a recommendation, you get sent to Realtor 2.
Realtor 2 just wants to be genuinely helpful; they will take you out to coffee and talk about the market. They expect nothing from you, but will send referrals your way when they find them. Realtor 2 makes you feel special, and you recommend them to every one of your friends.
SEO analogy takeaway: Those recommendations on the web are links. We need to be like realtor 2. We need to be genuine in our efforts to make people’s lives better, through our tools and our content and our culture as a company. We need to reach out and find ways to make it about our customers and our social media followers.
What’s the Role of Technical SEO?
This next analogy can be used for lots of situations, but let’s start with technical SEO.
Imagine you build a beautiful house at the top of a hill, but you don’t build a driveway, you lock all the interior doors, and it’s always snowing outside. Visitors are never going to get to see your beautiful house. The ice, mud and potholes make visitors’ tires just spin. Those lucky few who manage to trek on foot up the hill may enter your beautiful house, assuming they can get past the front door, but then find themselves stuck in a hallway with nowhere to go.
SEO analogy takeaway: This is the situation you present to Google when your site is not technically sound. You make it hard for bots and users (in almost all cases, what is good for Google is good for users and vice versa) to access and navigate through the site. Technical SEO is vital because without it, Google simply cannot see the beautiful site you have created.
What’s Up with Redirects?
Redirects seem to be a big problem. Ah redirects, what a quagmire of confusion.
Let’s go back to our big, beautiful house. The first thing we might do after moving there is let the post office know so that our mail can be forwarded to the new address.
But you ask for a temporary redirect, so the post office keeps both property addresses on file for you. Not a major issue per se, but it’s sloppy. It would be less confusing to let the post office know that you have moved forever.
A few months later, you go on vacation. You want your mail redirected to a neighbor’s house. We would, of course, ask for a temporary redirect for that.
But then say you have information out there telling people where you live, but you never updated it. So instead of your new address, you keep giving people your old address and expecting them to be redirected.
SEO analogy takeaway: The first issue here is using a 302 temporary redirect instead of a 301 permanent type. Yes, yes, Google says it can deal with that now and pass PageRank properly regardless. But why be sloppy? It’s not like one is significantly easier than the other. (By the way, here’s how to do a 301 redirect.)
In the second analogy, every link on your site that points to an address that is then redirected is like giving out your old address. It’s unlikely to break anything, but it causes housekeeping issues. Many broken links and long redirect chains are the result of poor redirect housekeeping, and when you find 15 years later you have half a million redirects with no hope of understanding where they came from, you will kick yourself for the day you didn’t update your links.
What Are Silos?
This is the abstract concept to end all abstract concepts. Veteran SEOs still get this one wrong. I can’t fully explain how to silo a website in this article. In fact, we have a 10,000-word article on siloing for that. But I can make an analogy to help you understand what a silo is.
Say you get to the grocery store and you have a shopping list. You need some fruit, some baking supplies, dog food and cat food. But when you walk into the store, everything is a disorganized mess in one big room. There are pecans next to the dish soap and wine next to the toilet cleaner. You walk around with your list, trying to move from one item to the next, round and round in circles, until you leave with only half of what you wanted.
Grocery stores are the kings of siloing. They have everything arranged based on theme. If they think that product A and product B should be bought together, they place them next to each other. Anyone in the world, walking into any grocery store, can understand how to shop there. They can walk around and locate items simply browsing by theme.
SEO analogy takeaway: Without silos, your site is a wide open store with an assortment of disorganized topics. You are not maximizing your sales, and you are not providing visitors with a straightforward way to find what they want. More than that, you’re diluting your relevance for search. If your customers can’t find it, then Google can’t find it either.
Why Did My Site Drop Off the First Page?
There are more potential reasons than I can count if you want the specifics of why your site is no longer on the first page of search results. But the cause can be summed up in that Google is like a department store.
In a department store, there are lots of unrelated products. For each product group, they have a buyer whose job is selecting the best products for the customers of their department. But having your product chosen by that buyer doesn’t guarantee that the store will always have your product in stock. If your product doesn’t sell, or there are too many returns, or something bigger and better comes along, you will be off those shelves lickety split.
SEO analogy takeaway: Google is that department store and the SERPs are the showcase windows. You have to not only prove you’re awesome enough to be put on that shelf, but also fight for your right to keep that spot — because the store will replace you with a better product at any time.
Wrapping It Up
I love analogies for SEO. In many ways, they are how I process all of the SEO information I take in on a day-to-day basis. For those of you who like detail and accuracy, no, these analogies are not how Google really works. But these broad brush ideas will help get you thinking about SEO in a way that you, or your clients, can better understand.
They also help me to demonstrate SEO concepts in a relatable way that clients find helpful. This in turn improves implementation as clients are able to understand the why behind the what.
In the comments, I would love to hear how you think about Google and process the overwhelming amount of information that takes up a day in SEO.
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