SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization and is the process of optimizing your website to get organic, un-paid, traffic from the search engine results page.
If you own a website or a business that operates online you’re now probably taking SEO seriously or are at least ready to learn how SEO works and how you can apply basic SEO principles to your website.
This guide will cover a no-nonsense, jargon-busting education lesson, chapter by chapter so you can learn to understand SEO and how to apply it to your website.
What is SEO?
What is SEO?
SEO is the practice of optimizing your website and web pages to climb higher in Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). The aim is to, not only increase traffic in quantity, but also in quality.
Ranking high in the SERPs enables business and brands to draw targeted traffic with a vested interest in their products and services. More targeted traffic means higher Click-Through Rates (CTRs). The increased exposure means you’ll get more attention from prospective customers.
You can even drive customers straight to specific pages on your website by offering detailed answers to the questions they are searching. Applying basic SEO principles will allow you to drive targeted invited search traffic to;
- Your homepage
- Your product pages
- Your Blog Content
Why is SEO Important?
Firstly, we’ll take a look at why SEO is important for any business with an online presence.
Today almost 90% of consumers use search engines to research a new purchase. Search engines make it quick and easy for consumers to find the information they need very quickly.
Of those users, 75% will never look beyond the first page of a Search Engine and around 30% of all search engine traffic goes to the first organic result (i.e. the first result that is not a paid ad). A further 15% of traffic is drawn to the second and around 10% to the third.
We all take the path of least resistance, right?
Users search for the product/service/question they need answering, and the search engines spit back results to quickly and comprehensively answer their questions.
This is why the race to the top of Search Engines continues to grow.
It’s clear that a website will need to rank high within search results to engage with prospective customers. Your website won’t rank well if you don’t understand your customers. To be able to rank well in the SERPs, you must understand their wants, needs and buying behaviour. Understanding your potential customers in granular detail raises the chances of reaching that first page!
Understanding Search Behaviours (Micro-Moments)
The key to attracting new customers is to be in the ‘right place at the right time’. To do this, you need to understand your customer’s Micro-Moments.
Micro-Moments are the intent-rich moments where a search engine user will instinctively reach for their devices.
If they want to learn something, buy something or go somewhere, it creates an opportunity to engage them with helpful and relevant content.
Common micro-moments include;
- “I want to go” moments
- “I want to do” moments
- “I want to buy” moments
Presenting users with high-quality and highly relevant landing pages can position you as the answer to users’ problems.
So, what do these micro-moments look like for your customers? If you’re new to SEO, one of the best ways to discover this is through keyword research. We discuss this later in this article under How To Do The SEO Basics.
Local, National or International SEO?
SEO is like any other aspect of marketing. It needs a strategic and proactive approach that’s tailored to the needs of your market. As such, your approach will be slightly different depending on whether you’re trying to target local, national or international prospects. Let’s take a brief look at how the game is slightly different, depending on your target market.
Almost 50% of Google searches are for local business. If you run a cafe, restaurant or boutique highstreet shop, you’ll need to adopt a localised approach to SEO.
One of the most effective things you can do to improve your local SEO strategy is also the simplest. Simply make sure that your business’ NAP data (Name, Address and Phone Number) is kept up to date in your Google My Business page as well as any local directories where your business may be listed.
Local SEO is very relevant for mobile phone users. Over 80% of smartphone users carry out “near me” searches. If you run a local cafe, you’ll want to rank in local “coffee shop near me” searches. If your NAP data isn’t up to date, however, local prospects may not find you, or may be annoyed when you’re not at the location where they expect to find you.
Local directories are also important for SEO. It’s vital that your business is listed on as many as possible if you hope to gain prominence in your local market. This is yet another reason why it’s so essential to keep NAP data up to date.
Inconsistencies in names, addresses or phone numbers between directories can not only harm your local search rankings, they can create frustration and confusion for prospects.
Link building is also an essential part of local SEO. Search engines will rank you higher when trusted, high-authority local domains like local government bodies, local newspapers or successful local businesses link to your website. It does a great deal to lend your business and website legitimacy in the “eyes” of search engines. We’ll talk more about link building later.
Many SMEs will want to use SEO to try and conquer their local market. However, there are some that are aiming for a national reach. If you expect to achieve national SEO dominance, you need to be able to demonstrate to search engines that you’re among the most trusted businesses in the country.
Great SEO comes with time.
Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes when it comes to SEO at a national level. It’s simply a case of consistently adhering to best-practice and keeping a close eye on the basics. Don’t worry, we’ll explain those basics in much greater detail later!
Achieving SEO dominance in another country is challenging. Especially if that country has a native language that is not your own. Your first step should be to ensure that you localise content for international languages. This is about more than translating it into the language of your intended location. It means using geotargeting with international-friendly URLs.
Geotargeting is a paid practice which delivers content and information based on the current location of the user.
International-friendly URLs include short, easy-to-remember URLs that include the country code in the top-level domain, subdomain or subdirectory.
You may also choose to ‘label’ the language used on a particular site, if there are multiple. For this you can use the “content-language” meta tag in your HTML. Your web development team will be able to help with this, but this guide will help you if you prefer the DIY approach.
As with local link building, you’ll need to find and reach out to high authority sources in your chosen country to improve your international rankings. You should also install welcoming prompts to redirect users from your .com website to their country’s equivalent.
Whichever is best for your business, you’ll need to gain an understanding of how search engines operate if you’re to climb organically in rankings.
Let’s take a closer look into the inner workings of search engines…
How Do Search Engines Work?
How Do Search Engines Work?
The better you understand search engines, the easier it is to generate an approach to SEO that appeals to their priorities. Not only this, but you also need to provide value to new prospects and existing customers alike.
If you can spare 5 minutes, this video by Code.org does a great job of explaining how search engines work. It’s explained by senior figures in Google and Bing yet avoids getting overly technical.
Search engines don’t search the whole internet in real-time. If they did, SERPs would take forever to appear on your screen, where it currently takes only a fraction of a second!
When users perform an online search, they’re searching through information that has already been logged and indexed by search engines. This is why they’re able to respond to queries so quickly.
In order to retrieve results so quickly, search engines use a system of crawling and indexing. This enables them to draw from the ever-expanding network of information that is the internet.
Spiders and Crawling
The World Wide Web is easier to understand if we think of it as a giant spider web. Each of the billions of websites around the world is connected by hyperlinks, which are the delicate strands in our spider’s web.
Search engines use programs called spiders or crawlers in order to ensure that they draw from the entire internet to respond to search queries.
These spiders and crawlers are constantly moving throughout the internet, moving through links to view every single page in a website before moving on to the next. Before it leaves a website it logs all the data that might later prove relevant to searches.
It’s important to remember – Spiders can’t jump, at least not in this context
As spiders crawl a web, they can only get to the next page by following the links. If a link is broken they cannot jump. If a page isn’t linked to elsewhere in your site, the search engine won’t know it exists because it can’t follow a hyperlink to the page.
This is why you should always be on the lookout for broken links when making changes to your website architecture. Not only do they make it impossible for crawlers to access your page, their presence indicates that your website might be poorly maintained. And this may count as a red flag against your website in terms of rankings.
So, the spiders have crawled your website and have logged the data that may prove to be useful in search. The data is then logged by crawlers, and indexed. This means that the data is added to an enormous database called a Search Index.
Much like an index at the back of a textbook, when users carry out a search, the results that appear in SERPs are drawn from the Search Index rather than the internet itself.
The data collected within the Search Index will play a huge part in ensuring that the content displayed in the SERPs is relevant to the query. This is why SEO basics like keywords are so important. Keywords help a search engine identify the context of the article so that it understands the relevance of the content against a search query.
It’s absolutely essential that you ensure your web design is responsive. This means that it looks good and handles well on a mobile device as well as a desktop computer.
Search engines put major emphasis on the quality of the mobile version of a website. So much so, that Google has recently announced a switch to mobile-first indexing for existing websites as well as new websites. Although this deadline has been extended to 2021, if your pages don’t have a mobile version to index by then, you could miss out on an opportunity to climb in SERP rankings.
You can check whether your website is mobile friendly using Google’s free tool.
However, you can’t just create a mobile-friendly website and hope this rakes in the visitors! You need to be fully optimising all versions of the website. Check out these best practices suggested by Google to optimize your mobile website:
- Keep the content on the mobile site the same as the desktop version
- Put the same meta title and meta description for both versions
- Ensure images are correctly formatted
- Check that your ads aren’t contributing to a bad user experience
When you perform an online search, millions of listings are generated. A ranking algorithm is deployed to present users with what it thinks are the most relevant pages.
The crawl takes into account keywords in the search query, the sequence of the words in the search query and increasingly the context of the search terms used.
For example, if you do a search for “Best quality duvet” and the search engine finds a great quality, highly trustworthy page entitled “Best quality comforter” this may also be shown in your SERP.
Websites consider more than what’s just on the page. They’ll also consider how many other sources are linking to the page, as well. The more sites link to a page, the more trustworthy the algorithm considers the content on that page to be.
We often hear of businesses getting obsessive over their rankings. But, remember the original goal of appearing on page 1: to not only increase traffic in quantity, but also in quality.
Bear in mind that you may be ranking well for the UK keyword, but may miss out on the US searches. This is why it’s important to look past overall rankings and monitor the changes in traffic as and when SEO updates are made.
Search Engines Always Evolve
The internet, along with search engines, is always changing in order to provide a better service for their users. Because webmasters are always trying to exploit search algorithms, they must keep making constant changes to ensure that users experience good quality, trustworthy results in SERPs.
Indeed, search engines are changing at such an incredible rate that businesses can drive themselves to distraction trying to pre-empt how these changes will affect their SEO strategies and try to get ahead of the curve. As search engines make greater use of AI and Machine Learning it can be very difficult keeping up with the trivial details of how they work.
Rather than lie awake at night wondering about how you’re going to keep up with the changing nature of search engines, think about the following…
Search Engines Focus on Quality
It’s important to remember the big picture. Search engines are always evolving to provide better quality, highly relevant results to users.
Simply ensure that your content is of consistently high quality and stay on top of the basics. This is a far more sustainable long term strategy than making sweeping changes to your website every time Google announces a new algorithm.
To benefit from SEO, you need quality content with quality links. Everything else can be optimised by simply knowing the basics.
Which brings us very neatly to…
How to do the SEO Basics?
How to do the SEO Basics?
We’re sure you’re aware that a marketing agency can help you to up your SEO game. Using a combination of paid ads and organic strategies, agencies can draw more traffic to your site, keep a steady flow of new content coming in, fix technical problems that might prove SEO red flags and generally improve your chances of being recognised by search engines.
However, that’s not to say that you can’t take steps to improve your SEO on your own. In this final chapter, we’ll look at some of the basics that you’ll need to cover to improve your rankings and draw the right people to your website.
White Hat vs Black Hat
You’ve likely already heard terms like White Hat and Black Hat SEO used.
Mastering SEO is like being a Jedi Knight in Star Wars. Just like the force, there’s a light side and a dark side to SEO. Those looking to get ahead quickly may throw their honesty to the wind if it gets them fast and easy results. As such, they may resort to some dirty tricks in an attempt to game Google’s ranking algorithms. This is called Black Hat SEO.
There are many issues with this, not only that the quick gains you get are pale in comparison to the penalties. As Neil Patel explains here, Black Hat SEO can actually get your website banned from Google.
- Some examples of Black Hat SEO which you should absolutely never use include;
- Keyword stuffing (overusing keywords in ways that make your content illegible).
- Using invisible text that’s the same colour as the background for keyword stuffing.
- Content spinning (copying and pasting content from other websites).
- Linking to sites with irrelevant or poor quality content.
- Cloaked redirects that take users to another site or page.
Instead, focus on the following best practice or White Hat SEO techniques. It might take a little longer to see the results, but they’ll be much more sustainable and ensure that your website consistently ranks well on SERPs.
Keywords are one of the most powerful tools in your SEO arsenal. They ensure that your content gets noticed by the right people at the right time by signposting the relevancy to search terms. They also ensure that search engines continue to provide their users with high-quality and relevant results.
Knowing the right keywords to use at the right time can help you to engage your audience. In order to do this effectively, however, you’ll need to carry out a little keyword research:
- The first stage of keyword research is trying to understand the mentality of the prospects who are trying to find your products or content. As we’ve already mentioned, the better you know your customers, the easier this will be. Try to think about the kind of language that they’re likely to use in their searches and target these as keywords.
- Next, come up with some relevant search terms that you’d like to rank for. The best way to do this is to list 5-10 categories (known as topic buckets) and fill each with a range of keywords. Try to use a combination of short tail (one word) and long tail (phrases) keywords. For instance “boots” is a short tail keyword while “best boots for hiking” is a long tail keyword.
Keyword research should also include looking at how well your competitors rank for the keywords you’ve chosen. Highly relevant yet low-competition keywords are more likely to get your brand noticed.
For a more detailed how-to, check out our comprehensive guide to keyword research.
The content on the page counts for a goodly portion of your search engine rankings. Every time you write a product page, landing page or blog post you have the potential to improve your SEO. Let’s take a look at some of the on-site improvements you can make to your content and how they influence your search engine rankings.
Optimise Your Content
Plugins like Yoast can help you to tailor your content to be more SEO friendly. Such plugins can help you to advise you on proper keyword use and placement. They can also encourage you to write compelling meta descriptions that are more likely to ensure Click-Throughs.
These plugins also encourage you to write in ways that make your content more readable, thereby improving things like scroll depth and time on page. These are all metrics that search engines value, and indicate that your content is of good quality.
These plugins can also be something of a double-edged sword. They are not a magic bullet that will send your content skyrocketing in SERPs overnight. Sticking to their recommendations too much can be detrimental to the quality of your personality. We’ve all read content that is clearly designed to appease search engines rather than provide value for the reader. The result can be jarring. Remember who your content’s for- your customers and prospects.
It needs to be geared towards their needs, worries or concerns.
It needs to help them solve their problems and address common pain points.
It needs to provide real value.
When content is highly relevant and valuable to the reader it’s much more likely to encourage reading in full, repeat consumption, social sharing and even virality.
Even Neil Patel- one of the world’s foremost authorities on SEO- is a firm believer in the power of putting readers first.
The next time you sit down to write a blog post, just think “For readers. Not robots!”.
Adding Fresh Content
Search engines like expansive websites that are constantly updated with new content.
Because these are the websites that add value for users. They give users more relevant, high-quality content to enjoy. Hence, they keep coming back.
When you add new pages and posts to your website, you also create more hyperlinks to encourage users to move around more within your website. This is another signal to search engines that you have a high-quality, trustworthy site.
Sites with poor quality content tend to have low time-on page statistics and high bounce rates. The more time users spend on your website, the more likely it is to win the approval of search engines.
User Experience (UX)
Keeping users engaged with your website isn’t just about the content you write in your pages. It’s also about your website and how easy, intuitive and satisfying you make it for users to navigate through. You have to make it easy to access the content your users need. This means taking the time to consider your User Experience (UX).
UX can have a powerful influence on SEO. If your website has a nice flow and keeps users engaged, your bounce rates will be significantly lower. This may also mean that you take steps to improve your page load speeds, especially in an era where many users will engage with your website through a mobile device. Visitors are increasingly unlikely to wait around for pages that take more than one or two seconds to load. In fact, a page load speed of just 5 seconds can increase your bounce rate by nearly 40%.
Fortunately, there are lots of ways in which you can improve page load speeds without needing to become a technical whizz overnight. Even little things like saving images in lower resolutions can make a big difference. Given that your website will most likely be viewed through a mobile device, your images can still look great without needing to be super high resolution.
Off-Site Link Building
While internal links are important in encouraging users to spend more time on your site, you also need to invest in building external links. Ever since the late ‘90s search engines have used off-site links as a means to gauge a website’s quality.
The more trusted sources linking to a page, the greater the probability that it will add value to a user. As such, search engines will rank your content more highly in search engine results.
However, not all links are created equal. In an era where Black Hat opportunists are always trying to game the algorithms with link spamming, search engines need to gauge which links are of high quality and which aren’t.
In the eyes of Google (and where Google goes, the other search engines follow) a high quality link is one that is E-A-T or Expert – Authoritative – Trustworthy.
There are many factors that influence this decision but one of the most quantifiable is a site’s Domain Authority (DA). A high DA is an indicator to Google that a website is widely trusted and high value.
So, before reaching out to other businesses, bloggers, local journals and the like, be sure to use the online tools created by Moz to calculate the website’s Domain Authority. A score of 60 and above is considered excellent, 50-60 is good 40-50 is average and below 40 is considered fairly poor.
Keep in mind, of course, that websites can take steps to improve their domain authority. If you take steps to increase yours, you’ll be a more attractive prospect for businesses looking for reciprocal links.
Social Sharing / Links
Finally, one of the best ways to build off-site links is through social sharing. Social sharing does not directly influence SEO ranking for Google, but there’s evidence to suggest that it can improve rankings for other search engines like Bing. Moreover, social sharing improves your online visibility, increasing your rankings in less direct ways.
Sharing links to new product pages and blog posts on social platforms makes it easier for prospects and customers to engage with your brand and perceive the value you bring them. It also encourages users to keep coming back to your website and checking back for updates.
If a brand new prospect finds your website through your social feed, spends some time looking at your products, reading your blog posts and moving through your website, these are all encouraging behaviours for search engines.
SEO can prove something of a rabbit hole. No matter how much time and effort you dedicate to making yourself more visible to search engines it can feel as though it’s never enough. However, stick to the basics and carry on adding value to website users and you’ll already have won half the battle. A search engine’s job is to bring high-quality, relevant content to users.
Maintain your high standard and keep up your keyword research and you’ll find that SEO is E-A-S-Y!
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