By the time you reach the end of this sentence, more than 100,000 searches will have been performed on Google. Because most online experiences start with a search, and traffic from search engines can generate a large number of customers, search results matter. It's how people look for online information, services and products and can be a cost-effective digital marketing strategy for sites to grow their online presence and their search traffic (without the advertising costs of paid search engine marketing). You'll learn the fundamentals in this beginners guide to SEO, featuring the most important criteria to take into consideration to grow your organic traffic.
What is SEO?
SEO stands for search engine optimization, which helps your page rank higher on Google and other search engines for relevant, targeted queries - and therefore, to attract more user clicks, as they tend to click on the first result - todrive more traffic to your site.
You can optimize your pages based on what search engines look for in a website, which changes as technology trends continue to evolve. And if you haven’t done so already, you can adjust your web presence to make sure it's useful and informative.
But SEO hasn't always been this way. In the early days of the internet, search engines ranked sites by how many times each site used a particular keyword. This led to a practice known as "keyword stuffing," and it meant that even high-quality sites could easily get buried. Now Google prioritizes quality over keyword density.
If you have a website, that’s good news, because you can invest time and talent to create a site that makes you more likely to rank highly.
To learn how, you need to understand how search engines work. We'll use Google as an example because it powers the most searches in the world.
How does Google work?
When you enter a search term, Google's algorithm determines which of the countless websites out there will be most relevant to you. It then lists the relevant sites taking into consideration their relevance and popularity -among other ranking factors - and shows them to you on what the industry calls a search engine results page.
Google is constantly searching the web looking for new or updated pages, simulating the bheavior os users. It uses programs known as web crawlers, which follow links across the internet, a process also known as crawling, and report what they find to Google's servers.
That’s why it’s fundamental to make sure that your pages are accessible to be crawled and your site architecture should facilitate navigation across all site pages, by the effective usage of internal linking.
Technical SEO is the aspect of SEO that will help to effectively configure your site to optimize its crawlability. There’s a variety of SEO tools that can help you with this task.
When Google's web crawlers return information about a website, a collection of internal servers analyzes each page's content to determine its topics.
If Google considers that the page information can be useful and relevant to be shown in search results, it will keep it in its index ready to be served whenever someone searches for a relevant topic.
That's why its important to:
- Make sure that each page is only shown through a single URL (avoiding duplicated content)
- Use concise and relevant page titles and headings for each page
- Feature unique, comprehensive descriptive text information in each page
- Add alt text, or text that shows in place of images, to help Google process video and image content
The clearer you are about the page's content, the more accurate the indexing process will be. That's why content marketing is key for SEO success.
When someone conducts a search, Google determines which pages appear first to provide the best user experience by considering factors such as:
- The words used in the search query
- The user's location
- The page's information relevance, trustworthiness, expertise and authority towards the searched terms
- The page's link popularity
- The pages configuration to provide a fast, reliable experience: such as its speed and mobile friendliness.
The ongoing challenge of SEO is making sure that pages on your site perform better than all others about the same topic, taking into account the above mentioned SEO factors, so a page can continue to perform better in search results, independently of algorithm changes.
What helps you rank higher today?
Since the 1990s, search engines have used algorithms to determine what sites should show up first on their results pages. What those algorithms prioritize, however, has changed—a lot.
Since the days of keyword stuffing, Google has been working hard to understand what makes a website relevant and informative. It applies this knowledge every few months when it releases a new update designed to rank sites more effectively.
Google still considers the usage and inclusion of the targeted keyword within the content when ranking websites, although the quality of the information matters too.
Google judges quality based on:
- Relevance to the search
- Expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness of the source
- Usability of the site
- Mobile friendliness and adaptability between browsers
- Page load speeds
Some of these factors are on-page, meaning that they're part of how you experience the website. Others are off-page, like other sites linking to yours. Links are seen as “votes” or endorsements by Google. Off-page elements strengthen your site’s reputation and popularity to improve its ranking.
Classifying the different areas to be optimized by whether they're on-page or off-page will help you develop an effective SEO strategy. On-page SEO and off-page SEO both help you rank more highly, but the ways to put them into practice are quite different.
On-page versus off-page SEO
The best way to differentiate on-page and off-page SEO is by the terms themselves.
On-page SEO refers to the elements that are included on the site, technical configurations as well as content, that search engines will take into consideration, including but not limited to:
- Title Tags
- Meta Descriptions
- URL structure
- Main page copy
- Image Alt descriptions
- Load speed
- Mobile friendliness
The more on-page SEO elements you address effectively, the higher your site will rank in organic searches.
That’s why it’s important to start the SEO process by doing keyword research, the research process that will help you understand how your target audience searches. Keyword research will help you to identify how to make sure that different areas of your pages are relevant and descriptive to the most popular and relevant users searches that you want to rank for.
There are keyword research tools that you can use, as well as the data provided directly by Google via the Google Search Console for free, to start with keyword research.
It’s also important to develop SEO audits to analyze your site’s technical configuration as well as content relevance towards the targeted keywords to improve your content accordingly.
Off-page SEO also helps improve your site ranking, since Google sees links as “endorsements” that will refer popularity towards your site, but it's harder to take action to directly improve it. That's because off-page SEO involves sites that aren't yours, but are linking to you. This may include:
- Blogs and articles that link to your content
- Video, audio, or image-sharing sites that host off-site content
- Directories and company review sites
If you run a local company, you can submit your company information to sites like Yelp and Yellow Pages to start improving your own off-page SEO. To make your presence even stronger, encourage your customers to leave reviews and rate your business on these pages.
The other big part of off-page SEO is attracting backlinks through link building campaigns. A backlink is any external link that brings users back to your site. The more backlinks you have, the more others consider you to be an authority in your industry.
Predictably, this area has caused problems, as it’s hard to build links. Website owners used to, and some still do, trade or buy backlinks in hopes of becoming more popular and ranking higher on search results. But today, any links built in an unnatural way, intended to manipulate a site’s ranking, can be considered a violation of Google’s guidelines and can actually negatively impactn and penalize your site’s rankings in search results.
These days, the quality of your backlinks is much more important than how many you have. Links that point to your site pages should come from relevant, and ideally, also authoritative sites. Every link on your page has to be relevant to your content and of interest to your audience. You can work to increase your number of backlinks as long as you follow Google's quality guidelines.
The best link building strategies rely on creating highly useful, attractive and shareable content in different formats, from guides, to interviews, infographics or videos(like webinars), that you can promote with your community and influencers via social media or newsletters, who will then decide if they link to them, if they find them useful.
Some effective strategies are:
- Submitting guest posts to respected blogs
- Creating shareable infographics
- Developing content that mentions influencers and trends in your field
- Posting multimedia content on sites like Vimeo, YouTube, SoundCloud, and Flickr
Your end goal is to develop a reputation as an authority in your field, and that will be reflected in link popularity.
Focus on your audience
Now that you’re familiar with SEO, you can work to improve your site’s ranking and visibility. And it’s easy to get started! The more valuable your content is to your audience—and the more you optimize the more technical aspects of your site—the better your results will be.