SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” It is the process of getting traffic from the “free,” “organic,” “editorial” or “natural” search results on search engines.
All major search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo have primary search results, where web pages and other content such as videos or local listings are shown and ranked based on what the search engine considers most relevant to users. Payment isn’t involved, as it is with paid search ads.
Here are the topics that we’ll cover in this complete guide to SEO:
- Why Is SEO Important?
- How Search Engines Work
- What are keywords?
- SEO-Friendly Content
- High-Quality Content Examples
- On-Page SEO Basics
- Intro to Technical SEO
- Link Building Basics
- Search Intent
- Emerging SEO Trends
Why Is SEO Important?
In today’s competitive market, SEO marketing is more important than ever.
Search engines serve millions of users per day looking for answers to their questions or for solutions to their problems.
If you have a web site, blog or online store, SEO can help your business grow and meet the business objectives.
Search engine optimization is important because:
- The majority of search engines users are more likely to click on one of the top 5 suggestions in the results pages (SERPS). To take advantage of this and gain visitors to your web site or customers to your online store, your website needs to appear in one of the top positions.
- SEO is not only about search engines but good SEO practices improve the user experience and usability of a web site.
- Users trust search engines and having a presence in the top positions for the keywords the user is searching, increases the web site’s trust.
- SEO is good for the social promotion of your web site. People who find your web site by searching Google or Yahoo are more likely to promote it on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media channels.
- SEO is important for the smooth running of a big web site. Web sites with more than one author can benefit from SEO in a direct and indirect way. Their direct benefit is increase in search engine traffic and their indirect benefit is having a common framework (checklists) to use before publishing content on the site.
- SEO can put you ahead of the competition. If two web sites are selling the same thing, the search engine optimized web site is more likely to have more customers and make more sales.
How Search Engines Work?
Search engines work by crawling hundreds of billions of pages using their own web crawlers. These web crawlers are commonly referred to as search engine bots or spiders. A search engine navigates the web by downloading web pages and following links on these pages to discover new pages that have been made available.
The Search Engine Index
Webpages that have been discovered by the search engine are added into a data structure called an index.
The index includes all the discovered URLs along with a number of relevant key signals about the contents of each URL such as:
- The keywords discovered within the page’s content – what topics does the page cover?
- The type of content that is being crawled (using microdata called Schema) – what is included on the page?
- The freshness of the page – how recently was it updated?
- The previous user engagement of the page and/or domain – how do people interact with the page?
What is The Aim of a Search Engine Algorithm?
The aim of the search engine algorithm is to present a relevant set of high quality search results that will fulfil the user’s query/question as quickly as possible.
The user then selects an option from the list of search results and this action, along with subsequent activity, then feeds into future learnings which can affect search engine rankings going forward.
What happens when a search is performed?
When a search query is entered into a search engine by a user, all of the pages which are deemed to be relevant are identified from the index and an algorithm is used to hierarchically rank the relevant pages into a set of results.
In addition to the search query, search engines use other relevant data to return results, including:
- Location – Some search queries are location-dependent e.g. ‘cafes near me’ or ‘movie times’.
- Language detected – Search engines will return results in the language of the user, if it can be detected.
- Previous search history – Search engines will return different results for a query dependent on what user has previously searched for.
- Device – A different set of results may be returned based on the device from which the query was made.
Why Might a Page Not be Indexed?
There are a number of circumstances where a URL will not be indexed by a search engine. This may be due to:
- Robots.txt file exclusions – a file which tells search engines what they shouldn’t visit on your site.
- Directives on the webpage telling search engines not to index that page (noindex tag) or to index another similar page (canonical tag).
- Search engine algorithms judging the page to be of low quality, have thin contentor contain duplicate content.
- The URL returning an error page (e.g. a 404 Not Found HTTP response code).
What Are SEO Keywords?
Your SEO keywords are the keywords and phrases in your web content that make it possible for people to find your site via search engines. A website that is well optimized for search engines “speaks the same language” as its potential visitor base with keywords for SEO that help connect searchers to your site. Keywords are one of the main elements of SEO.
In other words, you need to know how people are looking for the products, services or information that you offer, in order to make it easy for them to find you—otherwise, they’ll land on one of the many other pages in the Google results. Implementing keyword SEO will help your site rank above your competitors.
This is why developing a list of keywords is one of the first and most important steps in any search engine optimization initiative. Keywords and SEO are directly connected when it comes to running a winning search marketing campaign. Because keywords are foundational for all your other SEO efforts, it’s well worth the time and investment to ensure your SEO keywords are highly relevant to your audience and effectively organized for action.
Settling on the right SEO keywords is a delicate process involving both trial and error, but the basics are easy to understand. Here we’ll walk you through researching what your customers are looking for, discovering those keywords that will help you rank on a search engine results page (SERP), and putting them to work in your online content.
Finding Your Best Keywords for SEO
Most beginning search marketers make the same mistakes when it comes to SEO keyword research:
- Only doing SEO keyword research once,
- Not bothering to update and expand their SEO keyword list, or
- Targeting keywords that are too popular, meaning they’re way too competitive.
Basically, SEO keyword research should be an ongoing and ever-evolving part of your job as a marketer. Old keywords need to be reevaluated periodically, and high-volume, competitive keywords (or “head” keywords, as opposed to long-tailed keywords) can often be usefully replaced or augmented with longer, more specific phrases designed not to bring in just any visitor but exactly the right visitors. (Who visits your site – particularly if they’re people who are actively looking for your services – is at least as important as how many people visit.)
And you’ve got to diversify. Here’s a tongue-twister that’s absolutely true: diversity is a key word in the keyword world. You’re not going to stand out if you find yourself using all of the same keywords as your competitors. Not only should you try new keyword search tools and keep track of the results, but you should feel free to experiment based on your own research – who else uses your keywords? And how do you make yourself stand out? By providing great content that truly answers the questions your prospective customers are asking with their keyword searches.
Using Our Free Keyword Tool
WordStream’s free SEO keyword research tools that help you find your best, most relevant keywords—keywords that will drive ongoing web traffic and conversions on your site.
Benefits of using WordStream’s keyword tools, including the Free Keyword Tool, for better SEO include:
- More SEO Keywords – Get FREE access to thousands of keywords plus keyword search volume data, mailed right to your inbox.
- Targeted SEO Keywords – Filter your keyword results by industry or country so you can focus on the keywords that will really work for your account.
- Grouping SEO Keywords – Learn how to organize your new SEO keywords into actionable segments using effective keyword grouping.
WordStream’s keyword toolset is also hugely valuable for PPC marketing – use the Keyword Niche Finder to identify new ad groups for your Google Ads (formerly known as AdWords) campaigns, and use the free Negative Keyword Tool to find negative keywords that will reduce wasteful clicks and save you money.
Making Your SEO Keywords Work for You
Now that you’ve found the best keywords, you need to put them to work in order to get SEO results (search-driven traffic, conversions, and all that good stuff).
So: how to proceed? On the one hand, SEO best practices recommend that you include relevant keywords in a number of high-attention areas on your site, everywhere from the titles and body text of your pages to your URLs to your meta tags to your image file names. On the other hand, successfully optimized websites tend to have thousands or even millions of keywords. You can’t very well craft a single, unique page for every one of your keywords; at the same time, you can’t try to cram everything onto a handful of pages with keyword stuffing and expect to rank for every individual keyword. It just doesn’t work that way.
So how does it work? The answer is keyword grouping and organization. By dividing your keywords into small, manageable groups of related keywords, you’ll cut down on your workload (significantly), while still creating targeted, specific pages.
For example, let’s say you were running the website of an online pet store. You might be wise to create one keyword grouping for all your dog-related products, then one for all of your parakeet-related projects, etc. The next step would be to segment each individual group into smaller subgroups (parakeet cages, parakeet toys, parakeet snacks) and then even smaller groups for each type of product (low-fat parakeet snacks, luxury parakeet snacks… you get the idea). Now your pet store can create individual pages optimized for each small keyword group.
A marketer attempting to optimize a web page for the “gourmet parakeet snacks” keyword group should consider doing most if not all of the following:
- Using the keyword in the title of the page
- Using the keyword in the URL (e.g., online-petstore.com/parakeets/snacks/gourmet)
- Using the keyword, and variations (e.g., “gourmet parakeet snacks”), throughout the page copy
- Using the keyword in the meta tags, especially the meta description
- Using the keyword in any image file paths and in the images’ alt text
- Using the keyword as the anchor text in links back to the page from elsewhere on the site
When optimizing your web pages, keep in mind that keyword relevance is more important than keyword density in SEO.
1. Use headlines and sub-headers
Using headlines and sub-headers does several things for SEO optimization.
First, it makes your writing skimmable and therefore easier to read for your readers. People are more likely to share things that are easy to read.
The same goes for search engine robots. When crawling through your site, they’ll recognize your headlines and use them to better understand your content, like which parts are the most important ones and so on.
Also, having headers and sub-headers increases the keyword saturation, but remember to not abuse this to game the system.
2) Add links to previous content
One of the ways search engines rank content is by the number of backlinks they get.
Good content tends to get a lot of backlinks – both external and internal.
If you want to drive traffic and rank your older content higher, then you can’t forget to link to them from your newer posts.
This helps the search engine robots – and people – to find your best articles.
Plus, links to high-quality, reputable websites increases the validity of your own website. The better the links, the higher your page will rank in search results.
Also, using credible sources within the body of your text creates trust with your readers
3) Optimize the length of your article
Back in the day, most blog posts you’d read would have up to several hundred words. It was a numbers game, the more posts you’d publish, the more traffic you’d get.
These days, it’s rarely the case. Even on the GetResponse blog you’re reading right now, you’ll mostly find articles that are 1,500+ words, and published less frequently.
That’s because in the last several years, Google has shown that it gives higher priority to longer, higher-quality content. They aim to provide their users with best-possible answers and this often boils down to having posts that provide the most thorough answer to the user’s query.
It’s not enough to write 300 word articles anymore. But it’s also not about watering down your content.
Take a look at your Google Analytics reports and see which posts generate the highest engagement for you. Which ones are visited the most and which ones are read for the longest amount of time. And then, which ones generate the highest conversions, e.g., newsletter sign-ups.
Then, use that information to find the approach that’s going to work best for your niche.
4) Choose your keywords wisely
Some marketers like to just sit down and start writing. They leave SEO optimization for the last moment.
Others start by writing down the keywords they want to incorporate in their content.
That’s the approach I prefer.
You start by identifying keywords relevant to your topic. You either come up with them off the top of your head, use the keyword planning tools like the one from Google, use a more advanced SEO tool like Ahrefs or SERPSTAT, or hire an SEO agency to do that for you.
If you haven’t started this process just yet, you should start with this guide to keyword research.
And once you start writing, use the keywords in the title, headlines, meta descriptions, ALT tags, and main copy.
5) Optimize your Images
Images are essential to making your content interesting and shareable. People are far more likely to purchase from a company whose website has attractive and relevant photos.
You can optimize the photos by adding keywords to the image files and providing the ALT tags.
Make sure you also optimize the size of the photo. Pictures that are too large will slow down the load time and hurt the SEO.
Make the image as small as possible without compromising the visibility or quality. Many image editors will let you do that with their in-built features. If yours hasn’t got it, an alternative is the Squoosh app, a free tool that lets you resize and compress your image files quickly.
6)Make the Content Shareable
So, you’ve successfully managed to write an SEO-friendly, content rich, interesting article that people want to read. The next step is to make it shareable. Websites like ShareThis and AddThis make it easy to add social media buttons to your website so people can share the content easily.
7) Write High-Quality Content
This one should be pretty self-evident, but it isn’t always applied. The best way to get people to read and engage with your content is to write content that is useful and entertaining. Search engines reward sites that have high-quality, relevant content. Quality is more important than almost every other factor on the list.
Once you have a strong idea in mind for how you’d like to write and format your content, consider using some of the following tools to simplify and improve the writing process.
On-Page SEO Basics
If you don’t get the basics of on-page SEO right, you have very little chance of securing top spots for competitive key phrases, even if you’ve got a fantastic outreach and PR campaign and an awesome link profile! It’s a common mistake to ignore the basics of SEO and focus on getting links instead of what’s in your control…the optimization of your own site. On-page SEO is the foundation to your campaign. Get it right and you’ll succeed on the search engines, get it wrong and you’ll never hit the top, whatever else you do.
With this in mind, here’s a brief guide to on-page SEO looking at the basics as well as the other essentials you need to ensure are in place if you want to outrank your competitors. SEO is constantly evolving, however this should set you right over the next few months unless anything unexpected comes along.
The below isn’t in any order of priority, it’s all important and should be used as a bit of a check list:
1. Title Tags
Ensure you place your main keyword and variations in the title tag of a page. Always ensure you target one main keyword and variations per page and don’t try and trick the search engines by optimizing multiple pages for the same keyword. Write your title tag in a natural way which uses your main keyword at the start with variations added too. Think about what looks natural and will entice searchers to click on your site.
Historically, Google would display around 70 characters of a title tag but since recent redesigns, they’re now displaying based on pixel width. There unfortunately no longer is a magic number for how long a title tag should be, but Moz has a great tool which lets you preview what title tags will appear like in Google’s latest redesign.
Spend time putting together title tags which include your main keywords for a page and also look natural, aren’t stuffed with keywords and read well! There’s nothing worse than spammy, over optimized titles!
2. Meta Descriptions
Meta descriptions don’t contribute as a ranking signal anymore, but they’re still an incredibly important aspect of on-page optimization. They’re the first introduction potential customers get with your brand, so it pays to get them right.
Meta descriptions should be well written, approximately 156 characters and essentially a sales pitch for what the landing page is about. As with title tags, don’t spam or over optimize and always think about what works for users before the search engines.
3. Heading Tags
If you’re not using H tags in a strategic way, you should be! Starting with your pages’ H1 tag, ensure you utilize headings correctly without over-optimizing them. Place your main keyword in a H1 tag, again making sure it works for users ahead of search engines, and split the rest of your content up with ascending H tags…H2 comes next then H3. You get the picture. One thing to remember is to only use one H1 tag. Others can be used multiple times if needed.
Don’t keep repeating your main target keyword in each tag, rather use variations which enhance the value of the content and help break it up into readable and easy to digest sections. These tags essentially signal the descending importance of page headings so think carefully as to which H tag should be used in each instance.
You’ve probably heard that content in king and that couldn’t be more accurate! With Google’s Panda algorithm, you can no longer get away with thin content and creating unique and informative content should be where you spend the most time. Content needs to be written primarily for users and secondly for search engines, however that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t mention core key-phrases. Just make sure you do so in a natural and organic way.
Keyword stuffing is a technique which has been long dead, so don’t even consider mentioning your main terms in every other sentence. Google’s algorithm works on latent semantic indexing, so simply writing naturally about the topic of the page should mean you are writing relevant content. So long as it’s unique and not copied from somewhere else, you shouldn’t run into any problems.
Think about the message you want to communicate and keep that at the forefront of all content you write. Are your primary goals to directly sell and drive leads, to inform, or to build brand awareness? Your goals should always dictate your style of writing and the way you structure your content. As above, don’t forget to use H tags to break up your content into easy to digest sections and always ask someone else to proof read for you before going live.
5. Canonicalisation Of Duplicate Content
It’s a common fact that many CMS’ (Magento as an example) allow pages to be accessible via a number of different URL’s, however from a search marketing perspective, it’s bad news! In such instances, you’re not trying to manipulate search results via having a page live on duplicate URL’s so you shouldn’t have a problem in adding a canonical tag to reference one main page for Google to index and assign PageRank to.
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Google themselves offer a great example on implementing canonicalisation here and it makes sense to spend ten minutes getting your head around it there rather than re-publishing. Getting canonicalisation right, however, is something which should be considered primary importance.
6. URL Structure
If your site uses query strings for page URLs, this is something you need to look at as a priority. It’s far bestter to use a search engine friendly URL structure such as www.domain.com/page-name/ as opposed to www.domain.com/index.php?id=1. It makes more sense to both users and search engines and should be regarded as a priority.
Always use hyphens rather than underscores and try not to have main pages sitting too many directories deep in your site. Don’t forget, however, to implement 301 redirects from the old URL to the new if you do make changes, otherwise you’ll see crawl errors pop up in Webmaster Tools and users being faced with 404 pages.
7. Crawl Error Resolution
Following on from the above, you should always check Webmaster Tools for crawl errors and find a way to resolve any showing. It’s not good from either a user or search engine point of view to have crawl errors and it’s usually a fairly easy job to fix with 301 redirects (assuming the pages are permanently removed. If it’s only a temporary removal, use a 302).
When it comes to deciding which page to redirect to, use common sense. Don’t redirect to a page just for the sake of it — try to redirect to the closest alternative. If there isn’t one, consider permanently redirecting to a 404 page.
8. Check Your Robots.txt File
When it comes to first optimizing your site, check your robots.txt file which will usually be located at www.domain.com/robots.txt to make sure no key pages are being blocked from being crawled by the search engines. If you see Disallow: / followed by any directory or page name, ask yourself whether it should be accessible to search engines. The best practice is to block admin panels and low quality pages which need to be in place but you don’t want search engines indexing, however if there’s anything you regard as a core page in there, take it out!
9. Multi-Device Friendly
Some may argue this technically isn’t an on-page SEO factor, given a site being multi-device friendly isn’t always a prerequisite of attaining top search positions, but it should always be looked at…if only from a conversion optimization perspective.
If at all possible, opt for a responsive version of your site which will resize to each device. There was a fantastic post by the team at Koozai who recently touched upon the importance of having a responsive site and how they’ve got a whopping 7 versions of their site for different devices.
We certainly live and work in a multi-device world and with rumours that mobile usage set to surpass desktop usage at some point this year, perhaps now is the time to start designing sites for mobile devices first and desktops second?
10. Page Speed
Take a moment to analyse your site’s page speed using the Page Speed Insights tool from Google to outline how fast they can load your site as well as receive a whole host of suggestions as to how you can improve things. As a general rule, try and get it as far above 90 as possible to ensure you’re not a search position lower than you should be because your site is sluggish.
There you go…a relatively in-depth guide on how to get the SEO basics right in 2014. What are your thoughts on on-page SEO? Do you have anything to add? Is there anything you’d place preference on over that listed above?