As college students, we all know the importance of framing ourselves in the best possible light while creating our portfolios. Preparing ourselves for potential job opportunities by showcasing a wide array of skills is crucial to beating the competition.

Speaking, writing, and critical thinking skills will forever remain relevant, however they are no longer enough. Technological capability has crept its way in to be an essential skill in the modern-day wheelhouses of college students.

Excel used to just be for accounting majors, however data analytics has become increasingly imperative to all things business. Similarly, writing just used to be about developing clever copy, however SEO has changed the way that we as students must approach our writing… and it certainly isn’t going anywhere. Gone are the days of portfolios consisting of your most recently thought piece – your potential employer wants to see measurable results.

O.M.G. What Is S.E.O.

When was the last time you went to the second page of Google? Or scrolled down to the bottom of the first page, for that matter? Yeah, me neither.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is being intentional about decisions made for a website to better reach the intended audience by being ranked higher on the search engine results page, a.k.a. SERPS (see you’re learning already!). Although it sounds like technical wizardry, you can be less Harry Potter and more J.K. Rowling to achieve this goal.

It can initially sound quite daunting, but the basic concepts necessary to understanding SEO can actually be quite clear… and lucrative. Whether you are pursuing a degree in a digital media-based field, or are learning how to effectively market yourself as a job candidate, a few insights on optimization will allow you to advance past the competition.

You don’t have to be an expert, but knowing even just a little bit can help a lot. Here are a few takeaways that will help you sound like you know what you’re talking about.

Keywords Count

Let’s say you are trying to eat more vegan and want to find some sort of trendy milk alternative. What are you going to search?

I’d like to think that I would sound sophisticated in my search, but chances are I’d look up something like “milk substitute” or “non-dairy milk”. Ironically, even though those terms are looking for the same thing, searching those two different phrases bring up different results.

Why? Because of keywords.

Keywords indicate the overall topic of your content. They are a foundational piece of SEO, and with light research, you’ll see a drastic difference in viewership just by switching to another synonym, like above.

To choose your primary keyword, you must analyze both what people are searching for and how much competition there is for those phrases. Although subscription-based data-analytics programs offer in depth insights, there are many free alternative services for students just beginning their SEO exploration.

For example, Google Keyword Planner was built to support Google Ads, however it also allows you to enter in target keywords, then provides you with alternative queries, average monthly searches, and the level of competition (low, medium or high) for that keyword. Additional filters can be applied to refine a search.

What this means for you:

Maybe you don’t have a formal internship, but a family friend has a small business you could test your chops with. They’d be grateful for the help, you get material for the portfolio, and you might even be able to negotiate yourself some free product.

For a startup company or local business that hasn’t done much SEO before, it may be more useful to break into the market using a keyword phrase with a lower volume, but also a lower difficulty. For example, if you are working for a young beverage company, you’ll likely struggle to beat out big-name brands for the keyword “soda.” However, if you optimize for more specific keyword phrases like “organic cherry cola,” site traffic is inclined to grow.

Titles, Meta-Descriptions, and Images, Oh My!

Before anyone even sees your page, they have to first find it in the SERP and decide they think it is what they are looking for. Important note though: what shows up on the SERP is not necessarily what is on the site. Again, what people see when they look at the search results is meticulously crafted to entice you to the site.

Titles are most effective when they are enticing questions or vaguely resemble a non-invasive pitch. Is Lady Gaga Now A North Korean Citizen? Obviously, no. But the title is enticing enough to read on. Alternatively, something like Jade Rollers vs Rose Quartz Face Rollers is also pretty attention getting for someone interested in skin health. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s also what makes readers click on your article.

After titles, we typically read the meta-descriptions: the little summaries of the website found under the page title on a SERP. Unless this is strategically created on the page’s information, it’s like just a random text grab from the page, which looks cluttered and unkempt. Captivating descriptions that clearly answer the searcher’s question lead to more clicks.

Cover images, when they appear in the preview, provide value as an intriguing complementary medium to articles. However, if their high-quality resolution sacrifices the load time of the page, you may want to consider a substitute. This is especially critical with mobile search, as no one wants to waste time and data waiting for images to appear.

What this means for you:

When creating titles for your pages or articles, keep them short (55-60 characters), so they aren’t cut off in the SERP. Use your primary keyword in the title.

In meta descriptions, be sure to form one complete thought, and avoid explaining complex ideas here. The ideal length is around 150-300 characters.

For your images, reduce the file size as much as possible without sacrificing the quality. The maximum image size is around 200kb.

On Point On-Site

Once someone gets to a website, there’s no guarantee that they stay there. As a matter of fact, Google Analytics offers a measurement of “bounce rate” which shows how many people leave your site without clicking on anything. There is an entire metric dedicated to whether or not people think your page is terrible.

In the olden days of the word wide web, when the internet made weird screeching sounds that our parents laugh at on shows about the 90s, most search engines were pretty robotic in how they found results. Fortunately, we benefit from computer learning that helps the best results show up at the top, not just the most manipulated.

In 2013, Google implemented the Hummingbird algorithm, which works to understand the semantics behind queries. It focuses more on consumer intent and less on keyword overhaul, providing a more user-friendly experience.

Our search query length shows the impact of this shift; potential consumers are now prone to asking Google, “What does a high school graduate want for their gift?” versus, “teen gifts.” We ask more elaborate questions because we know Google is now equipped to supply us with fruitful answers.

What this means for you:

Hummingbird has further solidified the importance of appealing to the natural language of readers. Hence, the role of implementing SEO has shifted from solely a technical responsibility (scary html website things) to a communication responsibility. This means that a college student has more opportunities to see measurable results just by understanding their audience more than ever before.

Awkwardly stuffing an article chock-full with keywords not only confuses the audience but may also cause you to, somewhat ironically, rank lower on the SERP. Google’s Hummingbird works more like a human than a machine, so “keyword stuffing” is penalized and should be avoided.

In the same regard that a smaller business won’t win over the market for a difficult keyword, this business may not be able to rank well for a competitive semantic theme. Spend some time reviewing which semantic topics are found in your brand and pick a few to provide valuable content on.

Fight For Features

Again, SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) are the pages that flashes up on your screen upon pressing enter to start your search. Sometimes it’s an ad. Something’s it’s just a long list of websites. But sometimes, it’s actually something useful. Meet the Feature Snippet.

Google’s Featured Snippets are condensed pieces of information that appear at the top of a SERP to attempt to answer your question without even having to click through to a site. A snippet may take the form of a 2-3 sentence answer to “How much does a cantaloupe weigh?”, a list explaining “How to grow flowers,” or a table stating “Cucumber nutrition facts.” The “People also ask” box presents extensions to the original query.

How are these answers selected? To form these snippets, Google typically crawls the top five search results and chooses the information most relevant to perceived user intent.

Although these tools accommodate users, they hinder click-through rates immensely. Therefore, it’s increasingly important to position your website to either rank high organically or serve as a snippet itself.

What this means for you:

Format your website so that Google can easily extract straightforward information. If your website focuses on explaining a topic, such as remote work, strategically arrange information on the page to ask this as a question and then answer it. This way, Google will see, “What is remote work?” and it could pull your site to the top of the SERP as the featured snippet.

If your article then explains the benefits of remote work, use a list format to boost snippet potential. Instead of writing bulky paragraphs concerning your topic, break them up into numbered subheading slots. This way, searchers will have a higher chance of interacting with your content even if they don’t click through to your website.

It’s worth noting that if you are working on a new site or for a small brand, they aren’t likely going to rank for “What is remote work” but they might rank for things like “Euless TX Zipcode”. And it might not rank for anything. Either way, it’s important to understand the “how” and “why” of the Featured Snippet, if nothing else, to avoid getting frustrated that we aren’t there.

Backlinks Build Credibility

You might have a perfectly crafted website, with beautifly optimized keyword phrases and Google may never know it exists. What?!

Search engines have to find your site by effectively “clicking” on the link to your site from another webpage. If you and your best friend start blogs and link to each other, Google still won’t find either of them until at least one of them is linked to from somewhere else. “Indexing” is like one giant game of connect-the-dots, and if no one links to you, you aren’t in the game.

And if you think you’re going to just link to it from Facebook and call it a day, no dice. Google doesn’t “crawl” what are known as “NoFollow” links. But, that’s another story.

Quality backlinks are one of the principal ranking factors employed by Google. There are a lot of ways to build them; earning an author byline when writing guest publications, getting a link in a news mention, creating relationships with other local businesses, etc.

Backlinks build your domain authority and page authority. These are SEO marketing metrics that essentially establish the credibility of your site. The more quality businesses and bloggers that link to your website, the more authority you obtain.

What this means for you:

Some light research on how to obtain backlinks for your specific field may help you decide which route to take. Some possible solutions include building internal links to other articles on your site, contacting relevant bloggers to promote your product, earning an interview, and serving as a guest contributor on other sites.

When working with a small business, you’re not going to be featured in Forbes, but you might easily pitch an alumni profile to their college newspaper. Link. You could help them write a thought leadership piece for the local business journal. Link. They might sponsor a local youth event. Link and warm fuzzies. The more buzz you create around your business with backlinks, the more successful you will be — both on the SERP and in the community.

All of these things, whether they seem like PR, Advertising, Writing, Communications, or otherwise connect with SEO, so you’re smart to know how to measure that success and articulate it in a portfolio. Numbers say more than words.

You’ve done all the hard work. You’ve utilized college success resources and academic advising programs in order to improve your interpersonal attributes. You’ve put years into your education, preparing yourself for that dream career. You’ve built your personal brand through hours of commitment to reach perfection.

Now, with SEO, let’s make sure the right people see it.

Caroline Hughes is an honors student at Texas Christian University obtaining a Strat Comm degree with a minor in Business. Caroline is currently learning about SEO and Content Marketing at her internship with Magnus Opus

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