Search Engine Optimization: In-Depth Beginners Guide -
Search Engine Optimization (or SEO) is a vital aspect of Digital Marketing, one that only seems to get more important over time.
This practice can either make or break your entire digital marketing plan. If you're not using SEO correctly, your website may not have as many visitors, leads, and conversions as it could, which would be a missed opportunity for your business.
But how does SEO work exactly and how can you use it for your brand? In this post, I will cover the basic fundamentals you need to know to make your site rank higher on search engines.
How This Guide Can Benefit You
I have been involved in Search Engine Optimization for many years and pride myself on specializing in the subject.
I have discussed this topic with businesses and entrepreneurs for a long time now, but even more so over the past year. More and more people are now creating their own path in life by starting up their very own businesses, and as they do this they are always hearing the term SEO and how important it is for their digital marketing. I get asked about it all the time, I teach classes on the subject, so now I have decided to compile my own knowledge with additional research to create this in-depth guide. The aim of this guide is to enable you to understand and undertake SEO tasks yourself. With this guide, you won't need to pay to get optimized!
I will be covering the following topics (Click the links to skip to a section):
- How Do Search Engines Work?
- What Is SEO?
- Different Types of Keywords and How to Use Them
- Keyword Research
- What Are Backlinks and How to Use Them?
- What Is Metadata and Why It Is Important?
- URL Structuring
- What Are Heading Tags and How They Provide Structure?
- Writing Content For Your Website
- Other Technical Aspects of SEO.
How Do Search Engines Work?
When you want to look for information, products or services within a search engine such as Google or Bing you type specific words known as keywords into the search query box. Once your keywords are entered you at then presented with the search engine results page also known as ‘SERP’.
Search Engines take the entered keywords and match them with keywords within the content of indexed websites or keywords used within an AD group of an advertising campaign. It’s the search engines job to provide the searcher with the best and most relevant search results.
The more specific the keywords are, the more accurate the results will be, in theory, but sometimes being too detailed-oriented in searches can leave you with fewer results.
Search Engines use what it’s called 'web crawlers' to add more sites to their database or index. Web Crawlers visit pages constantly looking at their links, information, keywords and all relevant resources and then store them within an index.
Search engines don’t actually index every single website on the internet but do index a good portion of what is found. Search engines can choose not to index some websites and/or its pages, and website owners can choose not to have a website or certain pages indexed.
What Is SEO?
SEO refers to the process of improving where your website ranks in searches organically (without using ads), the ultimate goal being to appear as high as possible, and ideally ranking on the first page for specific search terms.
Showing up on the first page of Google is important because it will increase your website's visibility and chances of getting more leads or conversions. Statistics show that less than 10% of users advance to page two of search results.
However, due to how incredibly competitive the world of online marketing is nowadays, it's not an easy task to get to the first page. Note that no one can guarantee a position on the first page or any position in fact. There are several criteria that search engines take into consideration which should be followed for best practice and also following search engine research can lead to better results, including:
Different Types of Keywords and How to Use Them
One of the key variables in the SEO equation is keywords. Keywords are used to classify and organize the different kinds of content available on digital media and within digital platforms such as search engines and social media. Keywords make it easier to find things online since you can search for a particular keyword and find things related to it.
Web crawlers count the number of times that a keyword appears on the different sections of a page. Then, when a user conducts a search using keywords sites which contain those keywords have a chance to appear.
There are different types of keywords to take into consideration when optimizing your page's content:
These type of keywords are often considered the most important. Your focus keyword(s) will appear multiple times within a page's content and your entire page will usually revolve around a topic which will have a keyword to represent that topic. My focus keyword for this article is “search engine optimization” or “SEO”.
For example, if you're writing for a Spanish travel blog and your focus keyword is 'best areas to stay in Spain', then the keywords “Spain” and “travel” should appear multiple times throughout your content.
Keep your focus keyword(s) in mind when you're writing blog posts, captions for your photos and videos, about us section, and so on.
Keyword Phrase vs Long-Tail Keywords
Keyword phrases and long-tail keywords are very similar and are often associated as the same thing. The main difference being that long-tail keywords usually contain more words and are very specific.
Keyword Phrase: SEO Websites
Long-tail Keywords: Best SEO Websites 2018
Search terms can be very competitive and hard to rank for which is why tapping into long-tail specific search terms can be a beneficial content strategy. Although the more specific you get the lower search volume there will be. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as specific search terms can be considered as ‘high-value search terms’ due to the lower amount of competition.
Using multiple long-tail keywords can often help to increase a page's position, and long-tail searches are more likely to lead to a sale or conversion, this is because the person searching is looking for something very specific. When using specific search terms within your content you are honing in on a niche area which can be highly targeted and can help to attract a particular audience.
Shorter keywords can often be too broad and harder to rank for which could mean that you have to compete with lots of sites that are also using it. You could also potentially rank for unintended search terms.
Imagine you are a pizza takeaway using the keyword ‘pizza’ as your focus keyword. You might actually show up for search terms such as ‘pizza recipes’.
This is not ideal, but luckily search engines are smart and as time passes search engines will learn more and more about your website, its main subject and the topics of its pages. Search engines will eventually learn not to provide your website links within results for search terms that are irrelevant to your websites category or page topics.
LSI ( Latent Semantic Indexing) keywords
These are the other type of keywords you can incorporate into your SEO strategy. LSI keywords gather synonyms or terms that are related to your focus keyword.
Let’s say that you are writing an article about ‘how to repair a mountain bike’ You focus keyword might be ‘mountain bike’ but you would also use keywords such as chain, handlebars, tires and so on. Because search engines acknowledge this it’s a good idea to write in-depth and well-researched content. By doing this you will be giving search engines more information about what a particular page is about and therefore opening up your content to more relevant search terms.
Google's algorithm would take LSI terms into account since they are in the same context or subject as your focus keyword(s). Keep this in mind whilst you are creating your written content so that you can avoid keyword stuffing of your focus keyword(s).
Keywords Mentioned in Passing
One more thing to take into account are keywords mentioned in passing. You will have noticed that I mentioned a few terms that are not related to the topic of this article, such as “Spanish travel blog” and “how to repair a mountain bike”. Because these keywords are talked about in passing you have less chance of ranking for them, which is a good thing. But don’t worry If you do rank for them, search engines will learn over time not to rank you for them if they are not relevant.
Here are some tools and methods for finding the best keywords for your website's content.
This is by far one of my favorite tools and has been right under your nose without you even realizing it. Google suggest is the autocomplete suggestion feature within the search query box of Google’s search engine.
You type in your keyword or keyword phrase and then you are presented with some suggestions. Those suggestions are the most searched for terms after the words you have already typed. Let’s put this into practice: Type ‘mountain bike’ into Google and you might find that one of the suggestions is ‘shoes’ (mountain bike shoes). This will also help to find popular long-tail keywords.
What I like to do here is to type a keyword or keyword phrase into Google and then use the alphabet to assist me. By this, I mean typing the letter ‘A’ after my search term and potentially making my way all the way to ‘Z’. This gives me suggestions of the most search terms after the last letter that I entered. Again, let’s make this practical, type ‘mountain bike’ followed by an ‘A’ (mountain bike a) into Google and you should see the suggestions for ‘accessories’ (mountain bike accessories) and ‘adventures’ (mountain bike adventures).
The Google Suggest tool and the methods I just went through are really good ways of expanding your written content which in turn provides in-depth and well-researched content that your audience will love and appreciate.
Google Adwords Keyword Planner
Another tool from Google. The Google Keyword Planner is part of Google's advertising platform, ‘Google Adwords’. This tool has many features but only two are relevant to your SEO. The first is search volume, Search volume gives you average monthly search data for keywords. The second is other related keywords. Type in your chosen keyword or keyword phrase and the Keyword Planner will provide you with related keywords that might be useful when included in your content.
One of the best keyword tools out there! This free resource by Neil Patel allows you to find all sorts of keywords for your business, taking into consideration platforms, location, and language. Ubersuggest uses a combination of Google suggest and the Google Keyword Planner but without the need to login to Adwords or create an Adwords account.
Yet another free tool provided by Google. Google Trends allows you to see Google’s search engine ‘search data’ in the form of graphs. It provides search data over time and allows you to look at days, weeks, months or years of data, and by geographical location.
You might be thinking that this is a similar tool to one of the previously mentioned, but you would be wrong. Search data over time will allow you to see if keywords are used at a particular time as opposed to monthly search volume.
To demonstrate this go to Google Trends, set your geographic location (I’ve set mine to the United Kingdom) and then type ‘vodka’. What you will see next is graph data and spikes within that data. And by analyzing the data and its spikes you will find that vodka is being searched for the most on Fridays and Saturdays.
With Google Trends you can also compare search terms. So if I compare vodka with the search term ‘hangover’ then I can see spikes that appear just after the vodka spikes. From this data, I can see that hangover is being searched most often on Sundays or Mondays. Hangover is most likely being typed into Google at this time due to users searching for hangover cures, etc.
Let's use a fashion boutique as an example business. You could search for terms related to your products and see when they trend the most. Winter wear will trend mostly towards winter, and summer wear will trend mostly towards summer. You can use Google Trends to see if a particular type of product is increasing or decreasing in popularity.
What Is Metadata and Why It Is Important?
The function of metadata function is to send extra information to Search Engines about your pages.
Some metadata can have an influence on your site's overall ranking because it includes keywords and relevant information about a page. There are many types of metadata, some to embrace and some to avoid. In this article, I will only be discussing the meta title (title tag), meta description (description tag), image data, and meta keywords, and leaving all other metadata for a future advanced SEO article)
Also known as title tags, meta titles are the first thing that users see when they do a search and are presented with the search engine results page (SERP). They are the title of each search result and are colored in blue.
Additionally, meta titles are the first thing that web crawlers see when they go through your page. They're one factor used to tell Google what a particular page is about. It can be good practice to get some of your keywords written into the title tag but it’s much better practice to write for the user.
Your meta title needs to describe to the user what that page is about and what they expect to find if they click your search result link, therefore each page should have its own individual title. When writing your meta titles you need to consider what will catch the users attention, what will make a user click your website instead of being lured by another search result.
As its name suggests, it describes your page and with 160 characters to use you have more opportunity here to grab the users full attention. This meta description shows directly under your meta title in the SERP so it needs to be attractive and tell them exactly what to expect to find if they click through to your website. Much like the meta title, each of your pages should have a description tag.
Both title and descriptions need to be accurate and not click bait. Avoid clickbait methods at all costs as this will only affect you negatively.
Depending on what type of builder or platform you have used to create your website you may have seen an option for meta keywords. Often my advice is to not waste your time filling this section out. A fair few years ago this was one of the most abused features which had great success for many in dominating the SERP. Google has since updated how it ranks websites and meta keywords is no longer a ranking factor. Other search engines such as bing may read the meta keywords section for a better understanding of your website but they also do not use it as a ranking factor.
An image is a powerful tool that provides visual stimulation to users visiting your website and consuming its content. Images help by adding to the structure of a website and it’s content whilst making it easier to read for all users, and they help to increase concentration and engagement. Many studies have shown that using images within written content increases user retention and engagement.
Now that you know images are important for your written content from the user's perspective, you should also know that it’s also important for search engines to understand what your images are displaying. Images can’t actually see your images visually, so when adding images to your website don't forget to give them meta values such as an alt text or title with keywords included.
Alt Text, in particular, is especially important because it is utilized by screen readers to help those who are visually impaired to know what an image is for and whether it has a call to action or not.
In case you haven't noticed until now: Everything related to SEO is like a science and nothing should be random. URLs and domain names are no exception.
If you have a brand new website or just starting to create one then it really is imperative that you use best practices when it comes to URL structuring. Deciding to change your URL structures later on can come with consequences, such as losing traffic, SERP positioning and redirection issues. Sometimes it’s best to receive these consequences for future progression.
Three important things to keep in mind when creating your URL paths:
- URLs are a minor ranking factor so having your keywords within them can be somewhat beneficial.
- Think about the user experience. If a user reads your URL path they should be able to identify what that landing page is about. This also means that you should use dashes in between each word instead of mushing all your words together.
- Good URL structure should provide ready-made anchor text allowing for more relevant use when others decide to link to you.
Here's a good example:
Here are some bad examples:
Structuring your URLs properly helps your users and gives search engines clues about your site's content. You can make URLs as specific as you want, but try to keep them short and sweet. Shorters URLs are easy to share on Social Media.
Writing Content For Your Website
Although I have talked about content many times so far I feel that it still needs its own section.
Yes, you do need to remember headings, keywords, links and other SEO terms while writing, but in the end, and as I keep emphasizing, what matters the most when it comes to content writing is to write for users, not algorithms.
Give your readers great, high-quality content that either entertains, educates, advises or is informative or a combination of these whilst providing shareable value. Don’t make your content a sales pitch. If you have products are services to sell then great content will sell itself. With great content you are building relationships, trust and are positioning yourself as an influencer and expert in your field, people will respect this more and will be more likely to make purchases. Also by creating great content you are reaching out and increasing traffic. With increased traffic, you might increase sales (dependant on many other factors).
Keep these questions in your train of thought when writing content:
- Why would someone stay and read my content?
- Is there value to be gained if this content is shared around the internet?
- Is the content just sales pitch? (It shouldn’t be)
Make sure you conduct lots of research when writing your content. In the “Keyword Research” section of this article, I explained how to expand your content, use my methods. Well researched content doesn’t only open your websites and its pages to more search terms and a wider audience, it will also allow you to create amazing, accurate and in-depth content that your readers will appreciate and establish a relationship with. By researching, you will learn about new things, and aspects you may not have known about, have forgotten or not considered.
Another best practice to always follow is to write for one person and not for the entire internet. Don’t cast a wide net. The internet is best designed for targeting specific groups of people, and by writing for one person you are creating content that people within your targeted audience can connect with. Writing for one person will make your audience feel special like the content was written for them and them alone.
How much content is enough?
Here is a question to ask yourself, how many words is enough for a piece of content?
300? 500? 1500? 4000?
If you picked the lower end of the scale then I have some bad news for you, it’s not enough. Far too many times do I speak to bloggers who write between 300 and 500 words. With content this short you really are missing out on so many opportunities. You could rank for far more search terms by spending the extra time required to create longer, expansive content.
If you need more proof that more content is better then just read the Backlinko study on how they “Analyzed 1 Million Google Search Results” and found that on average content was 1890 words long. Whilst you're at it also read Neil Patels study on “Why 3000+ Word Blog Post Get More Traffic”. The fact is, long-form content provides better results and there has been tons of research conducted to prove this.
The question I get asked all the time: Will people actually read it all?
The answer is no. But you don’t need them to read it all. If you follow my earlier guidance on content structure (in the headings section) and put that structural advice into action then you are opening up your content to a wider audience by allowing those who want to read the whole thing to do so, and for those who just want to read certain parts to scan through the headings and find the bits they want with ease. Don’t make your readers (or try to make them) read an entire long-form article by not structuring it with headings and subheadings because they most likely won't read it, they will just look elsewhere.
Now, all that being said I still rather you write 500 words of amazing content than 2000 words of junk. Quality over quantity, always! And of course you won’t be able to stretch every piece of content into long-form content, and that’s fine. You will even find some short content on my websites and that's ok. Just don’t make the majority of your content 500 words. Try and aim for the majority to be at least 2000 words as standard practice.
Don’t let this put you off blogging or writing content. Once you get into the swing of it, it will be a breeze, and well worth the effort. Thousands per month from writing amazing content. The rewards are there, you just have to be willing to push yourself to get there. A great resource that I have used to guide my writing efforts is Income School. Read the Income School blog or watch videos on the Income School YouTube channel to get an in-depth understand of content writing for the internet.
Other Technical Aspects of SEO
While you may not be a tech expert, there are some things you need to be aware of for SEO purposes:
Site loading speed
Your pages shouldn't take that much to be fully loaded unless you don't want to rank higher in SERP (which, since you're still reading, I assume is not the case). A few years ago Google announced that page load time was a ranking factor. This doesn’t mean you get a ranking boost. it actually means you may lose rank or maintain a low position if your site takes too long to load.
I’ve come across quite a few people who have been blogging for years and after looking at their content it was clear that something was up. The content was well researched, in-depth and engaging (at least in most cases), but still they were not getting much traffic or high search engine position. After brainstorming and testing I found that page loading speed was the problem for most of them. We fixed these issues and each time it felt like overnight everything changed and traffic started to flood in.
Here are some tools to help you assess and fix website speed issues:
Using Google's PageSpeed Insights, you can find out how long it takes for your site to display and, in case it takes too long, you could get some technical assistance. Google recommends that your website should load at around the 3 to 5-second mark based on a 3g connection whilst trying harder to hit the 3-second mark or better. Google's PageSpeed Insights is a great tool if you are not at all tech savvy but really you need a better break down of the issues that plague site loading speed.
Online security is a subject that's gotten more relevant over the last couple of years, as users have complained about certain websites keeping their personal information and websites getting hacked for their data.
To help fight this, Google announced in 2014 that HTTPS was a ranking signal. HTTPS stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure and it provides secure connections for users that share details about credit cards or any other personal data with a website.
What you need is SSL Security (Secure Socket Layer) A free service that provides this is Cloudflare (free version not suitable for larger websites). I highly recommend doing this from the start as soon as possible. Learn More About SSL Security.
Mobile Responsive Website
From research to shopping and entertainment more people now use their mobile devices than desktop computers, There really is no excuse not to have a mobile responsive website as all reputable platforms provide responsive options. If you needed a solid reason to make the change then here's one: On 26th March 2018, Google announced that they are Rolling Out Mobile-First Indexing.
Look around you, if you’re on your phone right now then look up. What is everyone doing? Most are using their mobile devices. Not only is being mobile ready important for search engines but it's also important for you. Millions of people are using their smart devices and you have to find a way to tap into them.