SEO: just another buzzword or a website essential?

If that’s what you’re thinking, we’re delighted to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth.

If you have a website, you’ve likely heard of SEO, and with good reason — it isn’t going anywhere. Understanding and implementing SEO fundamentals directly contributes to increased digital and business success, so it’s time you learned what SEO means and how it works.

In this guide, we’re covering the SEO basics you need to know to help optimize your website. We’ll discuss:

  • What is SEO?
  • Why does SEO matter? How will SEO help me?
  • The anatomy of a SERP.
  • How to track your progress.
  • Simple SEO strategies you can start today.
  • What not to do with SEO.
  • Where can I learn more on SEO?

Let’s jump in, shall we?

What does SEO mean?

SEO is an abbreviation that stands for Search Engine Optimization. SEO is the practice of positively influencing your search engine result rankings, thereby increasing the quantity and quality of your website traffic. To put it simply, SEO gets your website in front of more people on search engines (like Google, Bing, or DuckDuckGo) without needing to pay for ads.

Although search engine optimization sounds like you’d be making changes to the search engines themselves, the enhancements you’ll be making will be to your website, blog, or content.

Why does SEO matter, does it affect my business?

Need more convincing as to why you should implement a SEO strategy? Consider these facts gathered from Search Engine Journal:

  • 91.5 percent: The average traffic share generated by the sites listed on the first Google search results page.
  • 51 percent of all website traffic comes from organic search, 10 percent from paid search, 5 percent for social, and 34 percent from all other sources.
    • Over half of all website traffic comes from organic search — this is website traffic you AREN’T paying for, so refining your SEO strategy can save you money.
  • 4 in 5 consumers use search engines to find local information.
  • ~2 trillion: The estimated number of searches Google is handling per year worldwide. That breaks down to 63,000 searches per second; 3.8 million searches per minute; 228 million searches per hour; 5.5 billion searches per day; and 167 billion searches per month.
  • ~20: The number of times SEO has more traffic opportunity than PPC (Pay-Per-Click) on both mobile and desktop.

Does SEO affect your business? Without question, yes. But exactly how much it affects your business is up to you. If you don’t do anything to optimize and edit your website and content for SEO then it can’t work for you. But if you take a few minutes to optimize your website, you’ll reap the benefits of SEO — an increase in the quantity and quality of traffic to your site due to improved search result rankings.

SEO is uniquely different from other forms of digital marketing in that, with SEO, people are already searching for you. They need your services or products and they’re going to a search engine to figure out where they can get them. With SEO, you aren’t paying for ads in an attempt to woo fickle prospects back to your site — these people are already interested in what you’re selling, so help them find you by implementing an SEO strategy before your competitor does.

The anatomy of a SERP

What happens after you click “Search” on a search engine?

You’re taken to the SERP, or Search Engine Results Page.

(We’ve pulled the following SERP examples from Google because they dominate the search engine market worldwide with a 90.46% market share.) Depending on your search terms your SERP could include different types of results; however, there are some components on the results page that don’t change. Here’s what’s always included:

  • Paid Ads (or PPC, Pay Per Click): These results appear first because the businesses they advertise have paid money for their top placements.
  • Organic Search Results: Organic, or owned, search results aren’t paid for; instead, these results appear further up or down on the page depending on how well they’re optimized for SEO.

Both paid and organic results can also display as:

  • Basic search results
    • These results display as links with metadata (the description under the URL.) Basic results don’t include images, graphs, or shopping suggestions on the main SERP.

Pro tip: If you do decide to pay for ads, avoid clicking on those search results yourself. You’ll cost yourself money since you’re charged per click on those results.

  • Enriched search results
    • This is the most common SERP you’ll see, although it won’t always look the same. Enriched search results can include paid ads, organic results, sponsored links, local packs (local businesses that meet your search criteria), product carousels, and more. Google is always making updates and changes to its SEO algorithms to display the most relevant search results, so enriched search results won’t always show the same things.  

If you click on a local search result it will take you to a page where you can find out more about those businesses. It looks like this:

Pro tip: If you have a business, claim your “Google My Business” listing so you can control and edit information displayed about your business. “Add missing information” isn’t a good look when trying to attract visitors to your site.

Before we continue, when was the last time you performed an online search to see how your business or website ranks? If you haven’t done that in a while, we recommend doing so. It’s a good idea to know where you stand in search rankings so you can better gauge your SEO efforts and improvements.

Can I measure my SEO efforts?

You certainly can! And with Google Search Console — it’s free.

Google Search Console gives you deep insight into your website. You can discover how people are getting to your site — where they’re coming from, what device they’re using — and what the most popular, or heavily trafficked, pages of your website are. The Search Console allows you to submit your sitemap or individual URLs for search engine crawling, alerts you to issues with your site, and more.

If you haven’t used it before, don’t fret. Click this link to get to the Search Console. Then, click “Start now.” On the next page you’ll need to input your Domain(s) and/or URL Prefix(es.) If you choose the Domain option, you will have to verify your pages using DNS to prove that you’re the owner of the domain and all its subdomains.Verifying your site and pages is for your security. Google Search Console provides great insight into your website and that’s information only you should have. By requiring verification, Google ensures a competitor won’t have access to your website data. If you choose the URL Prefixes method, you’ll have a few options to verify your account; you can upload an HTML file (a bit more advanced, and requires access to a site’s root directory), or if you already have Google Analytics set up you can verify your site on Search Console that way. This beginner’s guide to Google Search Console by Moz walks you through all the ways you can verify your site.

What SEO tactics can I implement now?

Here are three ways you can vastly improve your SEO.

  • Write good content
    • Good content pays off when it comes to search engine results rankings. What makes for good content?
      • It’s linkable. Search engines like content that can be linked to from other pages. If you create content, but have it gated (i.e. – you can only access it once you’re logged in or completed a similar action) then search engines won’t rank it as highly. They’re in the business of providing information to those who are seeking it, so make your content discoverable and linkable.
      • Aim for at least 1000 words. Search engines reward robust content, so that 300-word blog post you’re hoping rises to the top of the search results? — that needs to be fleshed out, and with relevant, valuable content.
      • Valuable, informative content drives demand. Search engines reward in-demand content with improved search result rankings. So if all you’ve done is write 1000+ words that no one cares to read, and doesn’t address your audience’s needs, you’ve wasted your time as it won’t rank highly in. You can figure out what your audience wants to know and what’s in demand by looking at keyword research.

Use WordPress? There are many free SEO tools and plugins that can help you and provide suggestions as you work, like Yoast or ThirstyAffiliates.

  • Keyword research
    • Why is keyword research important? If you know what your desired audience is searching for, you know what words and terms to include in your content — thereby giving yourself a boost in results ranking.
    • There are a variety of free tools that exist to help you identify trending keywords, like Google Trends. This tool allows you to search keywords and terms (and compare them against one another) to discover how well-searched those terms are. This information can influence what keywords you use in your content. If there’s a term that’s searched a lot and relates to your content, use it. Here’s a list of 10 free keyword research tools put together by Ahref, many of which provide an even deeper level of insight into the keywords you should use.
  • On-page SEO
    • Moz describes On-page SEO as “… the practice of optimizing individual web pages in order to rank higher and earn more relevant traffic in search engines.”
    • So what are the optimizable components of your individual webpages?
      • Content, which we touched upon earlier.
      • Title Tag
  • Title tags are important because they dictate the display title on SERPs (search engine results pages). It’s likely the first thing people will see when they scan their search results, so a good title tag can draw them in and get them to click on the result.
  • Trying to write a good title tag? Avoid ALL CAPS, don’t stuff as many keywords as possible into it, and keep it under 60 characters. Some characters take up more space than others, so you can use free title tag preview tools to help visualize what your title tag will really look like.
    • URL structure
    • It’s easy to make sure your URLs are working for you on search engines instead of against you. How’s that? Make sure your URLs display page hierarchy. By doing so, your URL is easily read by search engines and explains where the content or page can be found on your site.
    • What does a good URL look like?
    • www.domain.com/domains/transfer and here’s the breakdown of the page hierarchy:
  • Now, imagine if the URL listed above looked something like “www.domain.com/int489/trans74087.” What does that tell the search engines? Not a whole lot, and definitely not where the page resides on your site.

For more information on On-page SEO ranking factors, take a look here.

What should I avoid when getting started with SEO?

For every piece of good SEO advice out there, there are a few bad pieces floating around. No matter whose friend’s cousin’s uncle tells you it’s a good idea, avoid the following practices.

  • Keyword stuffing
    • Search engines are constantly improving and refining their algorithms to make sure the most valuable content is surfaced first. You can’t fool them by stuffing your content full of keywords and calling it a day.
  • Duplicate content
    • When the same piece of content appears on the internet in various places using different URLs, it’s considered duplicate content. It may seem like having your content available in more places, with different URLs, is a good idea — more ways for people to find you, right? — it isn’t. Duplicate content confuses search engines. Which URL is the primary or correct one for the content? Should they split the results and show half the searchers one URL and the other half another? What page, or URL, ends up getting the credit for the traffic? Instead of dealing with all of that, chances are you’ll suffer a loss of traffic because the search engine won’t surface all of the duplicates.
  • Writing for search engines instead of people
    • Search engines are in the business of getting the correct and best information to the people who need it, or search for it. If you’re writing choppy, keyword-stuffed sentences they’ll be pretty painful for a human to read, so they won’t. If you don’t have people reading or interested in your content, there’s no demand. No demand = poor search result rankings.
  • Thin content
    • You should never create content for the sake of creating content. Make sure it’s quality content — relevant to your audience and at least 1000 words long — so search engines are more likely to surface it higher on SERPs.

Where can I learn more about SEO?

This introduction to SEO serves to get you acquainted with search engine optimization and lay down the groundwork, but don’t forget, the more you invest in SEO the better off your website will be. Once you’re familiar with the topics we’ve discussed here, challenge yourself to take it to the next level with these topics.

White Hat vs. Black Hat SEO

You know how in movies the bad guys are normally in dark, depressed colors while the good guys wear bright, or white colors? You can think of white hat and black hat SEO in the same way.

Black hat SEO tactics may seem to pay off at first, but just like with bad guys, what you do will come back to haunt you (like getting blacklisted from search engines!) Google, for instance, is constantly updating and refining its search algorithms. If it notices questionable behavior (like keyword stuffing) they’ll penalize those behaviors in their updates — so that “hack” you discovered that allows you to rank on page 1 of search results? That won’t work once the algorithm is changed, and you’ll lose your authority. Good SEO habits, or white hat SEO, won’t put you at risk of being penalized by search engines, so your authority will continue to climb.

Off-page SEO

Unlike on-page SEO, off-page SEO (or off-site SEO) consists of tactics to improve your search engine result rankings that aren’t done on your site. There are a variety of things you can do, but link-building is the most well-known. The more links that exist to your site and content, the better (within reason, if you spam every website you can think of with your links in comments that’s not ok.) Link building happens a variety of ways; naturally, when someone finds your content to be relevant and links to it in one of their posts or pages, manually, when you deliberately work to increase the number of links that exist for your site, say by asking clients or associates to link to your content, and self-created. Self-created links, including links to your site or content on random social media posts and blog comments, can be good in moderation. Too many spammy posts or comments ventures into black hat SEO territory, so tread carefully.

Putting it all together

If you work on improving your SEO tactics, your website and business will thank you. A good SEO strategy increases the likelihood of your content and pages displaying higher in search engine results. When your content shows up sooner in search results you get more website traffic and better quality website traffic, after all, those are people already searching for what you have to offer.

As you dive into SEO, remember to take stock of where your pages and content show up in SERPs today so you can gauge your progress and SEO results tomorrow. Use this introduction to SEO to help you write better content, create informative URL structures, and understand the SEO tactics to avoid.