What we’re talking about
Search engine optimisation, more commonly known as SEO, is the technical term for setting up your website so that search engines like Google can easily understand everything that’s on it – and then surface it in search results when it’s relevant. Whenever someone types in a question or terms into a search bar, the search engine they’re using ranks all the websites it knows of in terms of relevance to that search.
There are thousands of factors search engines use to rank results – and not even SEO experts know them all, no matter what they might promise – but these are a few key ones: if your website contains content relevant to the search; if your site loads quickly and efficiently; if your website has a good reputation (ie, do other websites reference it and link to it); and if users spend time on it once they arrive at your site. The websites the search engine decides would be most useful to the searcher appear first. If your website is relevant, it will probably appear somewhere within the search results, but taking the time to optimise it from a search engine perspective will help it rank higher.
Why it’s important
The better your SEO, the higher you’ll rank in search results. As you probably know, most people don’t get past the first few listings or pages when they search for something. So, putting in the effort to make sure you rank higher for relevant searches will mean that more people see your site when they are searching. That translates into more website visits, more engagement and, all being well, more sales too.
Things to note
SEO affects how your business appears in organic results. When you use a search engine like Google, there are a few different types of listings. The very top results on the page are paid listings, which are usually marked with the word ‘ad’. Businesses get here by bidding for ad spots. SEO techniques won’t affect these paid results, but instead determine your ranking in the organic listings that appear below.
Keywords are… key. The first and most important decision you’ll need to make is what keywords you want to improve your ranking for. Keywords aren’t just single words, but the words and phrases someone might type into a search engine. The key is getting the balance right between broad enough terms that people regularly search to find business like yours, and specific enough terms that you have a chance of ranking high. For example, it will be easier to improve your ranking for a term like ‘vegan cheesecake in London’ than just ‘cheesecake’.
Keep informational keywords in mind. People tend to use search engines for answers or solutions to problems they are having, and so tend to search using questions. Think about the last time you used a search engine – did you type in a question or the name of a product or brand? It was probably the former. These types of keywords are called informational keywords. To find informational keywords that might be relevant to your business, think about the kinds of questions your business, product or website might answer.
Search engines are smart. There are some general principles that will help improve your SEO that we’ll outline here but, above all, the key is to make sure your website and content is truly relevant to the search terms you are trying to rank for. Trying to fool a search engine using hacks or tricks won’t work – and might well result in your website ranking lower.
How to improve your SEO
1. Choose appropriate keywords. Decide what keywords you want to improve your rankings for. These should be terms that lots of people search for and that are relevant to your business. For ideas, type terms into Google and see what suggested results pop up for these popular search queries. You can also use free online tools like Google Keyword Planner and Ubersuggest to get data about how many people search for a particular keyword and how ‘competitive’ it is to rank for that keyword. Try to make a list of three to five keywords that you want to target and rank these by priority.
2. Update your web page titles and descriptions. Once you know what keywords you’re targeting, make sure that these keywords appear within your site’s structure. For this and the following step, you’ll need to make edits within your website editor or have the person who handles your website make them. You want to make sure that the titles and descriptions for each page on your website include keywords and explain what is on the page. Make sure that these edits are sensible and also reflect the content on the page – search engines are smart and will detect any ‘keyword stuffing’.
3. Use descriptive filenames. When a search engine reviews your website, it reviews all elements of it, not just the text on it. So, check your images – choose filenames for your photos and videos that describe what’s represented within them (including your target keywords, if appropriate). That way, search engines can pick those up as well as the copy accompanying them on page.
4. Craft relevant content. Think about what other content – blog posts, guides and copy – you can include on your website around your products and services that could be useful to a searcher. For example, if you’re making skincare products, you could write articles about treating acne. This type of content not only gives more reasons for someone to stick around on your site, but it also gives search engines additional relevant content to surface.
5. Get some good backlinks. Besides relevant content, one other major factor search engines consider when deciding how to rank your website is its reputation, measured in the number of quality backlinks to your site. A backlink is any link to your website from an external site, and the better the SEO on the site that’s linking to you, the higher-quality the backlink. Getting backlinks is another challenge, but one good way is to be mentioned in articles online – take a look at our guide to getting press coverage to help on that.
6. Make your site faster. We’ve dug into the more DIY aspects of SEO, but there are also some technical aspects that affect rankings as well, like site speed and structure. This is where external help comes in handy in the shape of a web developer with SEO expertise. Once you’ve got the basics covered, bring in that specialist know-how.
7. Track your progress. As the old adage goes, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Once you’ve implemented some of these SEO changes, see if they’ve made a difference by monitoring the number of visits to your website. It can take some time (days or weeks) for the search engine to re-review your site, so don’t expect changes overnight. And keep monitoring your target keywords, too, to make sure that they’re still the ones it makes sense to be prioritising.
• Search engine optimisation (SEO) is all about helping your website rank higher in the results pages for search engines like Google.
• When deciding what keywords and search terms to target, think about the kind of questions and issues that people might be searching for that are related to your product and business.
• You can make some basic but useful SEO improvements yourself, but at some point it could be useful to bring in an expert to handle more technical changes to the website.
Perspective. Shopify’s director of SEO Kevin Indig breaks down why SEO is worth investing in, especially for small businesses and early-stage startups.
Example. Ahrefs’ guide to SEO for e-commerce brands walks through keyword analysis and page-optimisation with lots of screenshots that make clear exactly how to do the same thing for your website.
Tool. Google’s Keyword Planner can help you identify keywords your business should target with its SEO.