Every business with an online presence should implement search engine optimization strategies to gain better rankings in Google, Bing, and Yahoo search pages. You’ve probably heard whispers of the ubiquitous SEO practice before. You have most likely Googled it and found an extremely complicated Wikipedia definition that lead to even more questions:
- How will SEO help my business?
- How much money & time should I invest in SEO?
- How can I find someone to optimize my website for search engines?
Basic SEO knowledge is fundamental to the growth of your website as it will allow you to be found at the most critical points of the buying cycle.
According to a recent report published by Statista, over 18 billion core search queries were processed by the United State’s top 4 online search engines in January 2016. That’s 18 billion opportunities that you’re missing out on if you aren’t optimizing your website for SERPs.
Search engine optimization may seem intimidating & extremely complicated to beginners, but its basic practices are not that difficult to understand. By the time you reach the end of this beginner’s guide, you will have a strong understanding of search engine optimization techniques.
Google put together an SEO starter guide that you should check out before we delve into any more details.
What is Search Engine Optimization & Why is it important?
First things first: what is search engine optimization? The text book search engine optimization definition is that it is “the process of affecting the visibility of a website or web-page in a search engine’s unpaid results – often referred to as natural, organic, or earned results (…) SEO may target different kinds of search, including image search, local search, video search, academic search, etc.”
As a business owner or employee you should find out how you can leverage SEO best practices to drive more traffic, leads, sales, and ultimately revenue, to your website. Search engine optimization is an extremely vast practice that encompasses many terms. Below are some of the most important ones:
- Local SEO is the process of optimizing pages and websites for the local results of search engines. In other words, local SEO is focused on providing results that are relevant to searchers based on their location. This practice has grown significantly over the last few years due to the rise of mobile device usage (4 out of 5 smart-phone owners use their devices for local queries) & improved connectivity while on the go.
- Mobile SEO is the process of optimizing website for mobile searches. The primary reason why businesses focus on mobile SEO is that it is the number one web-based activity on mobile devices. Furthermore, through many of its algorithmic updates (including Mobilgeddon), Google has made it clear that mobile-friendliness for sites is imperative for organic rankings. The good news is that basic mobile SEO principles are remarkably similar to those of general SEO.
- International SEO is the process of optimizing pages and websites so that search engines can quickly identify which countries they are trying to reach. Businesses can target multiple locations and languages with their websites for multiple countries through geotargeting.
- On-site & On-page SEO refers to techniques that you can implement on your domain or individual pages of your website to rank higher in search engines (e.g. adding meta-descriptions, optimizing content for keywords, interlinking pages, etc.)
- Off-site & Off-page SEO refers to techniques that can be implemented on other websites to improve your site’s rankings (e.g. link-building, social media marketing, etc.).
Recommended Read: Moz’s Beginners Guide to SEO
Basic Search Engine Optimization Tips
Search engines want to offer relevant results to user queries. Because the web is teeming with millions of resources, they use a series of ranking factors (e.g. authority, performance, user experience, content, reputation, etc.) to sort through the clutter. The goal of basic SEO isn’t to cheat search engines, but to create a seamless user experience, and clearly communicate the intentions of a site.
With these things in mind, let’s take a look at some basic search engine optimization strategies.
1. Keyword Research
The first step to search engine optimization is uncovering relevant phrases and keywords that people are searching for. Sounds simple? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. You will have to use a series of tools, like Google’s Keyword Planner (free), SemRush, Wordstream, Ahrefs, LongTailPro or Ubersuggest (free), to get started.
Most of these tools will display key factors, like search volume, cost-per-click, competition level, or number of results that you need to take into account when you assess possible keywords for your site.
- Search volume shows you how many people are actually searching for a given term. The bigger the volume, the larger the audience.
- Competition refers to the number of advertisers who are trying to rank in paid search for the given keyword. It will also help you determine how difficult it will be to rank for your desired phrase.
- Keyword difficulty. SemRush displays this metric to help SEOs determine their chances of ranking organically for a given keyword.
- Keyword length refers to the number of words in a key-phrase. Short keywords (e.g. “laptops”) are commonly referred to as short-tails, while longer keywords (e.g. “best laptops for college students”) are known as long-tails. Long tail keywords generally have lower search volumes & lower competition levels. Ranking for them is extremely important because they cover very specific niches and lead to increased click-through-rates (CTRs) and conversions.
- Related phrases. Google uses semantic search to improve the accuracy of its results. In other words, the search engine understands the contextual meaning of a page. Using phrases that are related to your focused keyword will add value to your pages and improve your rankings.
- Number of results.
Beyond these clear keyword metrics, you must also try to get into the mind of the searcher:
What types of things is he/she interested in?
What are his/her pain-points?
What words to they use to describe their problems/the things they do?
How can I answer his/her questions?
With this information & the help of tools, you can create an initial keyword seeding list. A great way to find profitable keywords is by analyzing similar websites or competitors and scraping their keywords (you can do this with SemRush). This will help you identify content ideas that work.
If you want to dive deeper into the topic of keyword research, I strongly recommend Backlinko’s definitive guide to keyword research.
2. On-page & On-site SEO
Now that you have a list of keywords you can start inserting them in your site’s content. Before you publish any content, you must ensure that all the on-page and on-site SEO elements of your page are in order. Rand Fishkin created a great overview of the “perfectly optimized” page.
Here are some critical on-page SEO elements that you should take care of:
- Title tags. The title tag is one of the most important on-page SEO elements. It is the first thing that users see in the search engine. Title length is calculated in pixel-width, so you should use a snippet optimizer to see how it will be displayed in SERPs. As a general rule, the title should be between 55 and 70 characters long.
- Meta Descriptions. The meta-description appears under the title tag in the search-box. This 140-160 character description should summarize the content of your page and persuade users to visit your site.
- URL structure. URLs should be user & search-engine friendly. Use a classification system that is easy to understand & recognize (e.g. yourdomain.com/category/sub-category/page-title/)
- Page content. The actual content of your page is, of course, extremely important. Different types of pages have different goals, but the basic principles of content creation remain the same: craft thick & unique content that engages visitors and answers their questions. Your keywords should appear several times in your content. The focused keyword should also appear in your meta-description and title-tags.
- Headings & sub-headings. Web content can be organized with the help of H1, H2, H3, H4, H5, H6, and H7 tags. You will usually use H1, H2, and H3 tags. The H1 tag is one of the most important elements of your page, second only to the title tag. Search engine crawlers use it to understand the content on your page, so you should never have more than one H1 tag per page.
- Image attributes. Search engines cannot see images the same way users do. They will only see a string of text and HTML attribute that is indicative of the media file. To help crawlers better understand the content of your image, and improve site usability, you should add relevant alt attributes, and title attributes. This can be done in HTML or with the help of SEO plugins.
- Schema & Mark-up. Once all your standard on-page elements are taken care of you can add schema mark-up to your pages. Schema can increase CTR by showcasing extra information (e.g. reviews, location, etc.). For more information about SCHEMA, you should check out Wordstream’s guide.
3. Navigability & Internal Linking
Another important SEO element refers to the way you organize pages on your website. Your goal should be to make pages and sub-pages easily accessible to users and crawlers. Information architecture is an extremely complex topic, especially for large sites, so I will only share some basic tips:
- List important search pages “high-up” in your information architecture. This will help you create more interlinks.
- Keep the pages that you’re trying to rank for on search engines a few clicks away from your home-page & other relevant pages. This practice is referred to as “flat information architecture”.
- Use many relevant internal links to improve the information architecture of your site.
The more links pointing towards your site, from other authoritative online sources, will help you improve your standings on SERPs.
Matt Cutts said that links should not seem organic, they should be organic. The problem is that good links don’t just happen. Google’s algorithm is still widely based on page and domain level link signals, so creating a number of high-quality ones pointing to your domain/pages is crucial. On-page SEO & keyword research won’t be enough to help you show up in competitive search listings.
Building high-quality links is possible with the help of guest-posting, broken link building, forum commenting, and other techniques. Please keep in mind that aggressive link-building tactics can result in severe algorithmic penalties. Your goal should be to create links that add value to your business, not links that manipulate search engines. A sustainable approach to developing an organic link profile will take a lot of time and effort.
If you want to dive deeper into the topic of link building, I suggest reading Backlinko’s guide.
5. Additional SEO Best Practices
Technical SEO is its own discipline. As a beginner, you don’t have to understand everything that happens unless you’re willing to take on the mammoth task of optimizing your site yourself. For starters, you should keep an eye on common SEO issues & best practices:
- Improve Page Speed: “Search engines are placing an increasing emphasis on having fast-loading sites.” You can use Google’s Page Speed Insights to check performance and fix errors.
- Monitor Redirects & Broken links. Permanent & temporary redirects should only be created when necessary. Broken links (404 errors), should be monitored and resolved using a link-building tool.
- Upload your XML Sitemap. You should upload the sitemap through your Bing or Google Webmaster Tools to help crawlers index your pages more quickly.
- Verify Robots.txt. The Robots.txt. file tells search crawlers how to index and navigate your site.
How to Track & Measure SEO Results
There are several metrics that you can use to measure the results of your search engine optimization campaign. These metrics generally refer to organic traffic, keyword rankings, leads, sales, and conversions.
SEO results can be tracked with the help of various tools. I will list my top four tools:
- Google Analytics (traffic, demographics, acquisition, behavior, etc.) provides a wealth of information that web-masters can use to monitor the performance of their site.
- SemRush (competitive analysis & keyword rankings)
- Ahrefs (link-profile & keyword rankings)
- Google Webmaster tools (search queries & site issues)
Other tools: Moz, RavenTools.
Search Engine Optimization Companies & Blogs you Should Follow
- The Moz Blog: One of the best online sources for beginners and advanced SEO practitioners. Moz shares in-depth guides and the famous white board Friday hosted by Rank Fishkin.
- Search Engine Journal: A great source for social media, paid search, SEO news, and content marketing articles written by the industry’s leading experts.
- Backlinko is owned by Brian Dean, a link-building mastermind and the inventor of the “Skyscraper technique”. On this blog, you will find scary-long guides that will show you everything you need to know to rank organically and improve your site’s SEO.
- Search Engine Land is the go-to source for search engine news.
- The Ahrefs & SemRush blogs. These two companies offer amazing SEO tools. They have recently ramped up their blogs and are publishing incredibly valuable guides and case studies that will help you better understand the inner workings of SEO.
The world of SEO is less volatile that it was ten years ago. Search engines are becoming increasingly intelligent & new algorithmic updates are rolling out every other month to improve user experience. The market is extremely competitive, and it takes a lot of hard-work and dedication to see positive results. Search engine optimization companies that promise the moon and stars (e.g. #1 rankings on SERPs in two weeks for focused keywords) are most likely scams. Stay away from them.
Enterprises that have an actual grasp of SEO know that the practice goes hand-in-hand with other strategies (e.g. social media promotion, branding, content marketing, etc.). They are not trying to deceive SERPs by implementing shady strategies (gray-hat or black-hat SEO), but rather to improve user-experience by adding value to the web.
Google’s 200 Ranking Factors (Backlinko)