The Beginner’s Guide to SEO

By Kate Loyola | Last Updated: November 17, 2017

Websites everywhere are abuzz over SEO, and if you’re new to the scene, it can be a struggle to keep up. After all, what does SEO even mean? And more important, what does it mean for you?

In this guide, we’ll give you the rundown on this pillar of online marketing. From what it’s for to how it works, we’ll take you through the fundamentals of SEO and get you started on making SEO work for you.

What is SEO?

SEO stands for “search engine optimization,” and it’s a convenient umbrella term for the many different measures a website can take to boost its visibility on various search engines. Simply put, SEO is all about making it easy–and likely!–for potential visitors and customers to find you.

Why SEO Matters

Let’s put direct marketing tools like ads and affiliate links aside for a moment. If you consider your website by itself, without the auxiliary material you’re putting out there to promote it, then it’s basically an inert entity. That is, without visitors already knowing your domain name, there’s little chance of your website finding its way to your target audience.

Search engines change that. They create a way for people interested in related topics or products to find your website, even if they have no idea it exists–all thanks to the powerful ability to search. In fact, search is generally one of the biggest sources of traffic for content websites.

That carries some important implications for you:

  1. People who search for topics, questions, or keywords related to your website are already interested in your content in some way. That means they’re much likelier to be receptive to your website than other random users on the internet.
  2. Search engine results create new opportunities to easily expand your audience. They can bring your website to the attention of those interested users who might not have otherwise heard of your site.
  3. Appearing on the top of related search results can start a virtuous cycle of trust and traffic. A high ranking implies trustworthiness and popularity to users doing the searching, which in turn makes it easier for you to draw in more users and cultivate a regular audience who trust your content.

Search engine optimization gives you the tools to make search engines work in your favor. But any tool is only as good as the one using it, and to succeed at SEO, you’ll need to understand how search engines work.

The Basics of Search

Search engines like Google build indexes on all kinds of topics, trying to aggregate all possibly relevant content they can reach. They collect that information through technology called crawlers, which sift through various websites. Whenever someone types a query into the search engine, any index of related information gets fed into an algorithm. That process, in turn, searches for results that best match your specific query–giving you your list of ranked results.

There’s no way of knowing the exact weight each factor carries in a search engine algorithm’s calculations, nor will you get comprehensive lists of determining factors from Google and other search engines. Still, thorough studies from companies like Searchmetrics look at a wide swath of successful websites and analyze what factors and practices they have in common. Data like this gives you and other website owners valuable insights on what it takes to get to the top of those search results.

Getting Started with SEO

SEO is all about responding to the changing landscape of search engine algorithms and user behavior on the internet; it’s a highly mutable field by nature. The winning SEO techniques of 2004 probably won’t get you far with the current iterations of Bing and Google. Keeping up with the industry’s constant developments is a full-time job, and in fact, there’s a whole range of positions out there dedicated solely to SEO.

Should You Pay for SEO?

Does that mean you should simply hire an SEO team or offload your SEO work to an external service? That’s entirely up to what your site wants to achieve. Outsourced or not, your SEO work will need to be guided by a credible marketing strategy, and that will come from you and your long-term goals.

Bear in mind, though, that SEO teams and external services can be costly. You’re looking at creating full-time positions or underwriting operations of significant scale. As important as SEO is, if your budget or your site’s resources can’t handle the whole range of available SEO services you’d like to pull in, then your efforts might bring more harm than good.

Luckily, skipping out on expensive SEO tools, services, and personnel doesn’t automatically doom your website to obscurity. If you’re willing to put in the time and elbow grease, taking the DIY route is a reasonable option.

Here are a few tips to get you started.

Tips for SEO Beginners

  1. Use Headers and Meta-Tags

Remember how search engines “crawl” through websites to index content? Page headers (H1 tags) give both search engines and potential visitors a quick idea of what your content will be about. Meta-descriptions, meanwhile, provide an at-a-glance summary that shows up on the search engine results page (SERP). A unique header and comprehensive, eye-catching meta-description can convince users to click on and visit your website.

  1. Know What Brings Users to You

When people search for something, Google or Bing or another search engine analyzes the keywords in that query to dig up relevant results. Those keywords are usually 1-2 words referring to a broad topic or category, like “basketball,” “shoe store,” and so on. Lately, though, these search engines have been refining their analyses to account for user intent, boosting the importance of “long tail keywords.” These are longer (3+ words), more specific phrases that typically produce narrower search results. “Shoe stores in Tucson,” for example, is a long tail keyword.

This means search results don’t just zero in on broad keywords; they also delve into related themes and concepts. You don’t have to be confined to writing solely based on a few key phrases. Instead, you can broaden your content to cover more themes and topics that are relevant to your main keywords. But how do you know what keywords to focus on in the first place?

  • Use website analytics.

These will tell you what words and phrases currently bring users to your site. From there, you can choose to double down on those keywords and hopefully increase traffic, or you can also use them as a starting point to find related terms that can also widen your potential visitor pool.

  • Use keyword tools.

These will help you pinpoint which keywords and phrases are popular in your field, as well as which ones aren’t already saturated with results from you and your competitors. This is how you find space and opportunity to maneuver for better keyword coverage. Tools like Searchmetrics’ Keyword Analysis and Google’s Keyword Planner are your friends here.

  • Identify long-tail keywords that fit your niche.

More specific search phrases mean narrower results, and that, in turn, spells less competition on the results page. With search engines’ growing emphasis on natural language search, long-tail keywords can present more opportunities for good results placement and less competition.

  1. Use Keywords, But Produce Content

Smart keyword usage and density will bring in the search engines, but only if you write with human audiences in mind. Search engines have refined their algorithms to emphasize content and relevance, so the days of writing short articles stuffed to the gills with search keywords are over.

Instead, aim to produce in-depth, quality content that delivers real value to potential visitors. Here are some ways to do that while incorporating signals of relevance and quality that search engines will understand:

  • Be comprehensive.

Searchmetrics’ recent studies into search engine ranking factors indicate word counts of 1,100 – 1,300 for top-ranked content. Remember, search engines are looking for value, and article length indirectly signals more holistic and detailed topic coverage.

  • Pepper your content with keywords.

However, be natural about it–don’t just force phrases into your paragraphs for the sake of keyword density. Pay particular attention to your opening and ending sections, headers and subheaders, and of course, your title.

  • Embrace essential terms.

There are certain words or phrases that you can’t avoid in any substantial discussion of a topic. An article on libraries, for example, is unlikely to be useful if it doesn’t contain the word “book.” Search engines know these words as “proof terms,” and they’re taken as a signal that your content is delving into a topic in a way that’s thorough and valuable.

  • Use images, video, and other media.

These have more of an indirect effect: multimedia content generates more interest from other users and websites, boosting your own site’s relevance and credibility within your sphere. Search engines will pick up on that, and your rankings will benefit accordingly.

  1. Fix Your Site Architecture

Good, logical site structure makes it easier for search engine crawlers to make their way through your website and index your content. Plus, it makes for more pleasant navigation and usage for your visitors.

  • Have a site map.

An overview of your site’s main sections, sub-sections, and categories will help search engines and visitors orient themselves. This will also help them reach more of your site’s content, instead of staying on the page or section they initially landed on.

  • Use internal links.

Like the site map, links between related pages within your site encourage further exploration of your content. These also help direct search engine crawlers to the rest of the content you’ve produced on connected topics and themes.

  • Format content into easily digestible sections.

Use bullet points, sub-sections, and more so that your content is easier to parse.

  1. Establish Quality Links

This no longer means directly exchanging links with other websites and online directories, unless you want to take a hit for being mistaken as a node in a link farm. Instead, search engines now try to gauge the overall clout of your brand by weighing mentions, references, and other indirect links to your content from other websites. You’ll want unsolicited linkbacks from people and other websites that cite the usefulness of your articles.

In that sense, your best bet is to generate enough high-quality content to establish yourself as a reliable source on your core topics. Aside from straight-up articles, you can also post attractive infographics, create useful web apps or similar tools, or even run promos and events that will help you become an active figure in the relevant communities.

We’re also entering the age of social media, where the concept of “content curation” is on the rise. Likes, shares, commentary, and other forms of engagement across various social networks are now important indicators of the breadth and degree of impact that your content has.

While raw numbers of likes, retweets, etc. probably don’t feed directly into your search engine rankings, the expanded audience and increased activity that you get from social media says a lot about your content’s relevance. This means social media promotion can also be an incredibly effective way to generate buzz, draw in a bigger audience, and cultivate valuable inbound links and citations.

  1. Improve Site Performance

Of course, increased traffic and attention can’t be sustained if the website itself isn’t up to par. A page that loads quickly can spell the difference between a new patron and an interested user who got bored and went somewhere else. Tools like Google’s PageSpeed Insights can help you gauge how well you’re doing.

  1. Be Mobile-Friendly

As early as 2015, Google was already reporting that mobile searches had outstripped their desktop counterparts in sheer volume. In response, the search engine giant and its competitors have retooled their systems to cater to mobile audiences better, and you’d do well to follow suit. Not only will a mobile-friendly site raise your profile with users who are browsing your pages on the go, it will also boost your rankings with search engines that now care more about responsive design.

The Bottom Line

The SEO rabbit hole goes down deep, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Thanks to the necessarily adaptive nature of search engine optimization and marketing, there’s always something new to learn and implement. Nevertheless, we’ve given you these basics with emerging trends in mind, so they’ll serve as a good foundation for you regardless of how the SEO landscape might shift in the next couple of years.

After all, no matter how the search engines change, the bottom line is to create useful, valuable content that users can easily find and navigate. Hopefully this article helps you make that happen!