Search Engine Optimization: Beginners Guide
Whether you’re new to search engine optimization or just need a quick refresher, this beginners guide will bring you up to speed. This article provides an overview of fundamental SEO topics, in plain language, as well as recommend key industry tools to help you get started.
What is SEO?
Definition of Search Engine Optimization
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the practice of employing techniques to enhance a website’s usability in order to improve organic search performance in search engines, like Google, Bing, and Yahoo.
The Goal of Search Engine Optimization
The goal of Search Engine Optimization is to optimize a particular website for a target audience. The success of SEO activities can be measured by visibility, traffic and ROI.
How do Search Engines Work?
Search engines aim to give users the exact piece of information that satisfies their search query. There are two steps a search engine takes to produce this result. It first crawls and indexes and then provides relevant answers.
Index and Crawl
Crawling is the process by which new and updated content, pages and websites get discovered by the search engines. A “crawler,” also known as a “spider” or “bot,” determines which website to crawl by using a special algorithm. Search results differ on Google, Bing, and Yahoo, as each has their own crawling algorithms. How does it work? Once on the page, the crawler looks for the robots.txt file. The robots.txt file tells the crawler which parts of the website to archive or index. The crawler then crawls the areas of the website specified in the robots.txt. Generally, if the crawler does not detect duplicate content and believes the webpage will improve search results, it will catalog the text on the site. This process is called indexing. The outcome of crawling and indexing is a collection of information that search engines use to provide relevant results to users.
Provide Real Answers
When a user enters a search query, the search engine references its index for suitable information. It then displays the results in the SERPs and sorts them by descending relevance. Relevance is dependent on the search engine, as each has their own, unique algorithm. Search engines keep these algorithms secret so that no one can manipulate their rankings, but many industry leaders have cracked the code. Rand Fishkin has created a list of ranking factors for 2018.
Why is Search Engine Optimization Important?
SEO and Marketing Strategy
SEO is one of two forms of SEM or Search Engine Marketing. Search Engine Marketing is internet marketing concerned with increasing a website’s visibility in the SERPs or search engine results pages. The other form of Search Engine Marketing is SEA or Search Engine Advertising. The biggest difference between these two forms of Search Engine Marketing is that marketers need to pay for SEA traffic (see pay-per-click or cost per click) while SEO focuses on organic traffic, which is free.
Importance of Search Engine Optimization
In the most basic sense, SEO helps qualified users find your website. Without it, websites may undiscoverable or may be found, but by the wrong people. SEO orients webpages online, making it a fundamental part of any digital marketing mix. In addition to this, SEO provides a number of fringe benefits. If you’re not already convinced, find listed below some of the additional reasons you should start optimizing your search engine:
- Credibility – Users trust search engines to provide them with authoritative answers. Ranking high signals to users that your website is a credible source.
- Traffic – The general rule of thumb is that the higher your website ranks, the more clicks and traffic your website will receive.
- ROI – SEO is a cost-effective way to generate leads. SEA, like pay-per-click in general, provides short-term, costly solutions to drive traffic to your site. SEO, on the other hand, can be an inexpensive and long-term way to drive qualified traffic to your webpage.
- Customer Insights – SEO activities, such as keyword research, can provide valuable insights into your customer. It can help define your target audience, determine their interests and understand their needs.
- Branding – Not only does SEO help build a stronger brand presence online, but it also improves the user experience, and therefore, brand image.
Techniques and Methods for Search Engine Optimization
Within the SEO domain, we have two main approaches: Black Hat and White Hat SEO. There are also two basic types of SEO, On-Page, and Off-Page. A good marketer will stick to White Hat SEO and have a mix of both On-Page and Off-Page tactics.
White Hat SEO versus Black Hat SEO
To put it bluntly, if you care about your users, you will only consider a White Hat SEO approach. White Hat SEO is the correct and ethical approach to SEO. It complies with the search engines’ quality guidelines and focuses on searchers’ needs.
Black Hat SEO, on the other hand, refers to aggressive SEO tactics used to manipulate rankings. These tactics include keyword stuffing, hidden text, hidden links, link farming , comment spamming, and doorway pages. Some marketers use Black Hat SEO as it offers a quick path to higher rankings. However, these techniques detract from the user experience and are prohibited by search engines. They should be avoided at all cost. Search engines may punish offenders with penalties or banishment. White Hat SEO is not always as fast as Black Hat SEO, but it offers more stable, long-term results without the threat of penalties. More importantly, it puts the user at the heart of your SEO strategy by creating a web experience that satisfies their search intent. Search Engine Optimization best practice include:
- Conduct keyword research to choose a target keyword based on users’ need
- Craft original content that satisfies their query
- Include your target keyword in the title tag, body content, URL, alt images, and internal link anchor text
- Use related keywords in your body text
- Make sure your meta description and title are clear and descriptive and entices users to click through to your site
- Ensure that your Information Architecture is easy to navigate for users
As the name suggests, On-Page refers to the optimization opportunities on a website. By optimizing various components of your website, search engines can find, index, and categorize your content easier. If done correctly, On-Page SEO will positively affect your user experience and ultimately ranking in the SERPs. The following is a basic list of On-Page considerations for beginners:
Page Architecture and Internal Linking
- Ensure that anchor texts are the same if they have the same link
- Try to avoid more than 100-200 internal links on your website
Indexing and Cache
- Make sure your robots.txt file and XML sitemap are in the root directory
- Think mobile first! Ensure that your website experience is optimized for mobile devices
Page Load Time
- Make sure that none of your pages take more than 3 seconds to load. It has always been important for user experience and in July 2018, page speed will be an official Google ranking factor.
- Create unique and expressive titles
- Declare all descriptions
- Ensure only one H1 tag per URL
- Add relevant ALT tags to images
Status Codes and Redirects
- Ensure that your website does not show 4xx or 5xx status codes
- Check to see if your website has 302 redirects if so it is advisable to use 301 redirects instead, as 301 redirects transfer the search engine value and ranking to the new page
- Ensure your content is unique, especially above the fold
- Avoid duplicate content on different subdomains
- Create an international version of your URL
- Implement a hreflang/rel
Off-Page SEO refers to the optimization efforts done outside of a domain to increase a website’s reputation and authority. Whereas On-Page SEO entails making changes to the website itself, Off-Page SEO primarily involves building a page’s reputation through backlinks.Backlinks are links from other websites to the page in question. To search engines, backlinks indicate content quality. Therefore numerous high-quality links typically improve search rankings. Kissmetrics has an excellent article chronicling different types of backlinks.
In general, they can be broken down into two groups: links generated organically, without any effort from the page owner and links obtained through link-building, like social links. If you want to take an active approach to link building, one of the most important factors to take into account is the link equity or link juice. Link Equity is the value of a link. A number of factors that influence link equity include the linking domain authority, popularity and trustworthiness, number of links on the linking domain, the age of the link, link anchor text, and finally how similar the linking domain is to the domain being linked. It is important to keep these signals in mind when developing a link building strategy.
In addition to backlinks, there are a number of additional topics that are considered Off-Page SEO. These include guest blogging, influencer marketing and social media marketing. Essentially any mention of your brand outside of your own web pages can be considered Off-Page SEO. Check out Neil Patel’s article for a more in-depth look at Off-Page SEO.
Step-by-Step Guide: From Keyword Research to Analytics
This document, will teach you how to create an SEO strategy, identify keywords and analyze your SEO performance. With this document, you will have the tools and know-how to begin optimizing your website. A quick overview below:
- Conduct keyword research with Google AdWords Keyword Planner
- Analyze the competition to see if you can rank for these keywords
- Create deep, valuable content that utilizes your keywords
- Optimize your title and headlines
- Invest in good design
- Determine your content hub
- Employ on-page optimization techniques
- Add links to your content
- Devise an off-page strategy, such as promoting content on social media and with email marketing
- Review and learn with analytics
Advice for Success
Given search engines’ secretive algorithms, no one knows the exact recipe for SEO success. Thankfully, the search engines, themselves, share a few tips. Google, the search engine with the largest market share, presents the following Webmaster Guidelines to help marketers achieve high rankings.
Positive Ranking Factors
The following tips will help improve your organic search traffic on Google:
- Craft pages for users, not search engines
- Make sure your website has unique content
- Have a clear conceptual page hierarchy
- Monitor your website for UGC spam and hacking
- Provide a sitemap file, site index, and sitemap page
- Ensure that your server supports the If-Modified-Since HTTP header
- Manage your crawling budget by utilizing the robots.txt file
- Use a content management system
- Make sure all links lead to valid HTMLs
- Display important words in text, not images
- Ensure your website is optimized for mobile, tablet, and desktops
Negative Ranking Factors
The following techniques should be avoided:
- Dubious Black Hat SEO
- Links to expired web pages
- Content that is automatically generated or unoriginal
- Link Schemes
- Irrelevant keyword on certain pages
- Hidden content
More than anything else, it’s important to monitor and analyze the results of your optimization efforts with analytics to understand what works and what doesn’t for your website.
Whether you’re a local business or large enterprise, search engine optimization is essential to being found by the right users online. Improving the usability of technical elements and content on your website will improve your ranking on the search engines. This ultimately influences your organic traffic and helps drive more qualified users to your website. Marketing professionals and hobbyists alike should consider Search Engine Optimization an essential component of a successful digital marketing plan.