SEO Basics: What You Need to Know to Get Started
It’s a harsh fact: if you want to build a successful business, you simply must be familiar with some SEO basics. You’ve probably heard a thousand times by now that SEO is not only the cornerstone of digital marketing but also a key factor for driving traffic to your website. In other words, learning how to properly conduct SEO greatly raises the chances of people finding you online. And more eyes on your website means more potential sales.
Chances are you already know that SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. You’ve probably heard people talk about keywords, and you might even know there’s this thing called link building. But right now you still have no idea how to put any of that into practice.
Well, today we’re gonna fix all that by covering the fundamentals of SEO. By the time you’re done reading this article, you’ll have a clear idea of what SEO is, how it’s done properly, what techniques and tools are used, and how all this newly acquired knowledge can help you increase your website ranking. If you’d like to skip to any specific part of the article, just click on one of the links below:
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In short, SEO is a set of techniques you can use to optimize your website for search engines.
It’s really as simple as that. And yet, I can almost hear you screaming: “No! Not simple at all! What does optimize even mean? What do these search engines want from me? Exactly what techniques are we talking about here?” So, we’re going to backtrack a little and explain everything, step by step.
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. But the term itself may be a bit misguiding. When you do SEO you’re not optimizing search engines, as the name seems to imply. Instead, you’re optimizing your own website. You’re fine-tuning your content so search engines like Google and Bing can find it, index it, and then perform the final, most important action of all – rank it. Thankfully, today we have a whole range of SEO tools, many of which are free, that can help with this seemingly daunting task.
When done right, SEO helps your website soar past other, similar websites and appear in higher positions on search engine results pages (SERPs). We all know that people basically only click on the first few website links that appear on the first page of Google search results. So, if you want anyone to visit your website and discover your amazing products or services, it’s pretty clear why SEO is important.
Obviously, SEO involves catering to the needs of search engines. We’ll take a look at exactly what those needs are later on, but right now we need to make one thing clear. Search engines used to be the alpha and omega of SEO and SEM (Search Engine Marketing) and they still are, to some extent. But in 2019, SEO is actually starting to be more about the users – the real people – than it is about the machines.
If you have a website, no matter what kind and in what line of business, it means you’re trying to communicate something to your users (visitors, prospective clients). Your goal might be sharing your knowledge with them, or showcasing your work, or getting them to buy your products or services, or maybe even simply entertaining them and keeping them coming back for more.
Whatever your objective, in order to achieve it, your users first need to be able to find you, meaning you need to rank well on SERPs. And one way to achieve that is to make sure you fulfill their user intent. Or in simpler words: you’ve got to give them what they’re looking for. Back in the day, you could write just about any kind of article and stuff it with keywords, and it would rank well. That’s why, back then, we had pages with copy like “Cheap shoes here! Do you want cheap shoes? We have cheap shoes for you! Cheap shoes are the best and we have them. Click here for cheap shoes.”
However, Google would penalize you for this sort of thing today. Websites need to be better, content needs to be relevant, well-researched, grammatically correct and truthful, and keyword choice and placement should feel natural and unobtrusive.
And that’s precisely what sets SEO in 2019 apart from SEO in the previous years. Search engines are no longer favorable towards content that seems to be made for machines. Forget keyword stuffing and similar techniques and focus on providing your users with the best possible online experience. If you manage to do that, search engines will reward you.
In order to learn how to make search engines work in our favor, we first need to understand exactly how they interact with our websites.
Search engines perform three primary functions: they crawl, index and rank.
- Crawling: Search engines use special programs called spiders, spiderbots or simply crawlers (yikes!) that roam around the web visiting websites. These crawlers go through all the pages of a website, jumping from link to link and collecting data about the site’s structure and content.
- Indexing: In this phase, search engines store and organize the findings fetched by the crawlers. This is a crucial step, since a website cannot be ranked and displayed on SERPs unless it’s previously been indexed.
- Ranking: The final, and arguably most important task of search engines is ranking. Once they’ve collected and indexed all the data on a website, search engines process the results and order the pages, ranking them against similar pages on the web. The pages that best answer a user’s query are considered the most relevant and therefore get ranked higher.
There are certain things you can do to help Google discover, index and rank your pages faster. For instance, you can manually submit your website to the Google Search Console tool. Providing sitemaps is also important here, as well as the use of appropriate meta tags. However, the crucial factor in the ranking process is the quality of the content on your pages.
As we already mentioned, the SEO landscape has changed significantly over the years. That change isn’t only reflected in what search engines expect from websites, but also in what users expect from search engines. As the demand for more accessible and more relevant data grew, search engines began introducing a variety of SERP features that made it easier for their users to quickly get what they’re looking for.
SERP features represent a special way of displaying search results. They are enriched, more informative, and more convenient than traditional organic results.
Some of the most common SERP features include Featured Snippets, Rich Snippets, Direct Answer boxes, People Also Ask boxes, Local Packs, Knowledge Panels, Site Links, and so on. You’ve probably seen and even interacted with most of these features when conducting Google searches, whether you know it or not. You can find examples of a few of the most common ones in the images below.
It’s important to remember that only organic search results can actually be influenced by SEO. The paid results are a whole other ball game.
While we’re on the subject, now might be the right time to explain the difference between paid and organic search.
Basically, organic search results are the results search engines display because they are relevant to a user’s search terms. In other words, when a user types in a query, they get a list of results that are shown because the search engine recognizes them as relevant to that query. Your chances of appearing among these results depend on sticking to the essentials of good SEO. If you know your SEO basics and implement them with care, you’re going to rank better in organic search results.
Non-organic search results are essentially paid advertisements. These results have to be clearly marked as ads (for example, on Google, there’s a little yellow sign saying “Ad” next to paid results).
Paid search results are there because someone paid to have them displayed in prominent positions on SERPs. This is part of search engine marketing in the narrow sense of that term, as it focuses only on pay-per-click advertising. As such, paid results are not affected by SEO, which, again, focuses on improving organic traffic alone.
SEO is a complex combination of various techniques that work synergistically. There are too many techniques to cover in a single article and, of course, you’re not required to use them all. Still, over time, some of them have grown to become essential and are today considered as SEO basics – methods everyone should use when optimizing their website for search engines.
You’ve probably heard about keywords, right? In case you don’t quite understand what they are, here’s a simple definition: keywords are the terms people search for. For example, if you were planning on creating a website for your design portfolio but had no idea where to start, you’d probably type something like “how to create a design portfolio website” in Google search. In this case, “how to create a design portfolio website” is the keyword. Google will take that keyword, look for the most relevant pages in their database, and serve them to you on the first search engine result page.
That’s how you use keywords as a search engine user. As a website owner, on the other hand, you need to think about what your website is about and what keywords your potential clients, readers, or users might type into Google (or any other search engine) to find you. Then you need to adjust your content accordingly.
But it’s a bit more complex than that, to be honest. There are various factors that influence your keywords’ performance. These include search volume (how many people actually search for a specific keyword), relevance (whether the keyword is relevant to a user’s goal) and competition (how many other websites are trying to rank for that same keyword). You need to research these factors before you proceed to optimize your site content for the keywords you’ve chosen.
That’s what keyword research is for – to find out which keywords are the best for your particular needs.
Mastering keyword research and how to do it properly is one of the key principles of SEO and it really isn’t as complicated and time-consuming as it sounds. Plus there are some excellent tools you can use as well, such as the free Google AdWords: Keyword Planner, the excellent but pricey SEMRush, user-friendly Ahrefs and the quirky Answer the Public.
Link building is the practice of getting other websites to publish links to your own website. We already talked about how search engines crawl the web, using links to discover and index new pages. But links are good for much more than just crawling. See, search engines also take the number and the quality of links to a specific site (as well as the authority of the linking sites) into account when determining the overall rank of that site or page. So it’s obvious why link building is so important.
Successful link building requires several things. First of all, link quality. It’s a bit tricky to define exactly what makes a quality link, but it’s safe to say that links coming from the main content of major, well-established websites count more than links from random blog comments. On the other hand, some links not only lack the required quality and reputation, but quite the opposite – linking to them, whether they lead to a page on our own website or some undesired page on an unknown site, can harm our own link juice. Fortunately, there’s a remedy for that – you can easily add nofollow links that the crawlers won’t look at. You keep the link for whatever reason it matters to you – and your link juice remains unharmed.
Another factor to consider is the link text, also known as anchor text. This text is used by search engines as a signal used by one site to describe the other. If you’re selling shoes, you want the link to at least have the word “shoes” in it. Otherwise, it will be of little use.
The third essential factor in link building is the number of links to your site. You’d think that the principle here is “The more, the better,” regardless of the link source. However, today it’s more important to get a solid number of links from a variety of websites than to get tons of them from just one or two websites. Also, you shouldn’t spam websites with requests for links or use any automated software in your link building efforts. These things can easily backfire and get you temporarily (or even permanently) banned from search engines.
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It’s often said that SEO and quality content are like oil and water. Content creators tend to dislike SEO because it forces a rigid set of rules and best practices upon them. But the truth is, the two can actually go hand in hand quite well. In fact, this symbiosis is one of the pillars of successful content marketing, and, by extension, of successful digital marketing, too.
It’s important to remember that, in addition to playing your keyword game right, you also need to create content that fulfills the users’ intent. In other words, you need to provide useful and actionable information that directly relates to whatever query the user typed into the search engine.
Good content should be:
- Written for your target audience, not your peers
- Properly structured so that users can scan it quickly (the use of headings is particularly important here)
- With just enough naturally placed keywords
- Shareable, if not viral
- Well-written and grammatically impeccable
- Linked to reputable websites
- Better than the competition’s
On-site optimization (a.k.a. on-page SEO) refers to all the elements of SEO that are performed on the actual website and its individual pages, as opposed to external linking and other off-site efforts. On-site SEO primarily involves your website’s content (we’ll get back to this one in a moment) and the HTML source code of a page.
A properly optimized website lets a user instantly decide whether they’ve come to the right place. It answers the user’s questions quickly and directly, without too much beating around the bush. This is also what search engines take into consideration when ranking a web page. In essence, they do their best to view a website as a real-life user would.
Here are a few good on-site SEO practices that are easy to apply and that are guaranteed to boost your page ranking:
- Placing the keyword you’re aiming to rank for in the title tags, URL, and page content (but be careful, you need to make sure it makes sense in the context of your page. Randomly stuffing keywords throughout your content will have a negative effect on your ranking).
- Adding a meta description to your page
- Linking to other relevant pages on your website
- Using appropriate anchor text for your links
Together with link building and content marketing, technical SEO is one of the fundamentals of good search engine optimization. It allows crawlers to find, crawl, render, and properly index your pages. While this might sound the same as any other basic SEO practice we already mentioned, the key word (pun sort of intended) here is “technical.”
This area is very complex and involves a broad range of actions, but the most important ones include:
- Making sure your website is fast enough
- Assuring a proper site architecture (with both HTML and XML sitemaps, content grouped into silos, elimination of crawl errors, etc.)
- Creating mobile-friendly pages
- Proper redirecting and custom 404 error pages
- Eliminating duplicate content
- Using structured data
Tracking and Measuring SEO
After you have applied all the recommended SEO principles and best practices, it’s time to measure the effects of your efforts. That’s where the analytics kick in. Before you start crunching the numbers, you need to take a big step back and remember what your goal was, to begin with, and establish some KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). After that, take a good look at what the metrics are showing you and measure your distance from your goal.
Some of the most important metrics for organic SEO include:
- Website traffic
- Bounce rate (the number of visitors leaving your site after viewing just one page)
- Conversion rate (the number of visitors performing your desired goal)
- Top exit pages (exit page is the last page a user sees during a visit)
- Keywords ranked in search engines
- Click-through rate (CTR, or the number of users who click on a link versus the number of total users viewing a page)
Just keep in mind that if you’re using Google Analytics, certain metrics are only visible if you connect your Google Analytics account to your Google Search Console account, so make sure to do that.
In addition to analyzing these metrics using an analytics tool, it’s always a good idea to have your website undergo a site audit.
A website audit is an in-depth analytical check of all the factors that are relevant to search engines. It’s often done by third-party SEO specialists, unlike regular analyses which most of us can perform using easily accessible tools. The metrics we discussed above should be monitored quite often, but a site audit can be performed more sporadically – depending on your website size and scope, you can do one annually, biannually or quarterly.
Oh, SEO… can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Well, actually, only the second part is true. Your survival in the hyper-competitive online ecosystem depends on search engine visibility, which, in turn, depends on well-executed SEO practices. Now, as for the “can’t live with it” part, let’s be honest: SEO is hard, but it’s not that hard. It’s somewhat frustrating at times, it can be complicated and confusing, and it is definitely time-consuming. But it is not impossible to do properly.
Hopefully, this article managed to offer a useful glimpse at the basics of SEO and provide some essential practices and key principles you should always try to stick to. Stay tuned for more in-depth insights into each of the SEO practices and techniques discussed here.
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