Q&A: Moz's Cyrus Shepard on Optimizing for Search Engines

By James Knutila on Thursday, January 15, 2015

Tell me about Moz and yourself.

Moz makes software specializing in search engine optimization. We're a Seattle company and 150 people strong. There's a huge data and analytics component to what we do, and our mission is to make web- marketing data available to all. My own job at Moz is heading our Content Marketing Team, and I also lead most in-house SEO efforts. In effect, I do the same marketing job within Moz that our software is targeted for.

Let's start with the basics. Can you tell me a bit about how search engines work? Why are they important?

This is a big subject that I could never do justice here. (For a more complete explanation you might want to check out How Search Engines Operate.)

What's important to know is that search engines crawl, process, and store much of the known Internet to return those websites in search results. If your site is popular, Google likely visits your site several times per day. Huge, complex algorithms developed over many years process your webpage in order to determine if and when it is a good fit to answer search result queries.

For people who own a website, it's important to understand that in order for this to happen, Google first needs to crawl your site, and they also have to understand it in a way that only computers can. This means in order to show up in search results, your website should be formatted in a way that's easy for computers to read, and you should also follow certain SEO best practices to boost your chances of rankings.

For example, computers aren't very good yet at reading pictures the same way a human can. So if your website is all photos with pictures of text, your mother may be able to understand everything fine, but Google will have no idea what your site is about, and therefor won't rank you in search results for relevant queries.

Okay, I've built a brand-new website. What's the first thing I should do to get it to appear in search results?

First things first, submit your site to Google's Webmaster Tools (and Bing too.) You likely want to setup analytics, so you can see if you are getting any visitors and where they are coming from. Google Analytics is a popular choice for this.

Two of the standards search engines use for determining what sites to show in search results arerelevanceandpopularity.

In many ways, these both can be determined by the links pointing to your website. A site with a lot of links pointing to it is often popular and considered an authority, so it makes sense to show these sites in search results.

Without links, it's very difficult to gain significant traffic in search results. So even though search engines are aware of your site by using the processes I've described above, they still don't "trust" you much if other trustworthy sites aren't linking to you yet. So figuring out a way to earn high quality links from authoritative sites is an important first step in gaining search traffic.

Unfortunately, many people have a "build it and they will come" mentality. Google is very smart, but they rely on many external signals, including links, to ensure their results maintain high quality standards.

I've heard a lot about keywords. Any tips on deciding what keywords are best for a website?

Ultimately, search engines are trying to match the words people type into search results with webpages that answer those questions, so keywords and topics are very important.

When choosing what type of content to create for your site, think about the questions people may be asking search engines to find you. If your business is called "Bob's Car Fixit Shop" and you want to generate new business, the people you want to attract are not the folks looking for Bob's Fixit Shop. Instead, they are using keywords like "Affordable Car Repair in Houston Texas."

Let's take it to another level. If someone is searching for "Affordable Car Repair in Houston Texas" ask yourself what else do they want to know? They likely want to find about rates, hours, business reviews, car makes, car models, and contact information.

All of these provide keyword and content opportunities for your business. The richer the information you give to Google, the more Google understands about your website, and the more search results they can match you for.

A word of caution: Google is very good at reading text and determining if content is "stuffed" with keywords. The best advice is to write for humans-not search engines. Content should be useful and natural. Stuffed or artificial content can even be penalized if Google believes you are trying to manipulate search results.

I've heard that blogs are important to help drive traffic. How does that work?

Blogs can be important, but they aren't appropriate for everyone. If you can create content that your audience finds helpful, is shareable, and has the potential to earn links, then a blog is a great way to do this. The links and engagement your blog earns is a strong signal to search engines that can benefit content across your entire site.

The mistake people make is blogging for the sake of blogging because they heard it was good for SEO. No one likes boring, cookie-cutter, keyword-stuffed content. From a business point of view, it's a waste of energy and resources.

On the other hand, creating content that's worthy of sharing on a consistent basis is a recipe for success, and a blog provides a means of doing that.

To read the rest of the interview check out our free Ask the Experts eBook!

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