Introduction to SEO: Getting started with SEO to reach your business goals
Updated: Feb 14
Section 1: Introduction to SEO
What's SEO and why it's important?
Search engine optimization (SEO) refers to techniques that help your website rank higher in organic (or “natural”) search results, thus making your website more visible to people who are looking for your product or service via search engines.
SEO is part of the broader topic of Search Engine Marketing (SEM), a term used to describe all marketing strategies for search. SEM entails both organic and paid searches. With paid search, you can pay to list your website on a search engine so that your website shows up when someone types in a specific keyword or phrase. Organic and paid listings both appear on the search engine, but they are displayed in different locations on the page.
So, why is it important for your business‟ website to be listed on search engines? On Google alone, there are over 694,000 searches conducted every second. Think about that. Every second that your website is not indexed on Google, you are potentially missing out on hundreds, if not thousands of opportunities for someone to visit your website, read your content, and potentially buy your product or service. Practicing SEO basics, as well as more advanced techniques after those, can drastically improve your website‟s ability to rank in the search engines and get found by your potential customers.
What about paid search? Yes, you can pay to have your website listed on search engines. However, running paid search campaigns can be quite costly if you don't know what you‟re doing. Not to mention, about 88% of search engine users never click on paid search ads anyway.
Because the sole purpose of a search engine is to provide you with relevant and useful information, it is in everyone‟s best interest (for the search engine, the searcher, and you) to ensure that your website is listed in the organic search listings. In fact, it is probably best to stay away from paid search altogether until you feel you have a firm grasp on SEO and what it takes to rank organically.
How do search engines work?
Search engines have one objective – to provide you with the most relevant results possible in relation to your search query. If the search engine is successful in providing you with information that meets your needs, then you are a happy searcher. And happy searchers are more likely to come back to the same search engine time and time again because they are getting the results they need.
In order for a search engine to be able to display results when a user types in a query, they need to have an archive of available information to choose from. Every search engine has proprietary methods for gathering and prioritizing website content. Regardless of the specific tactics or methods used, this process is called indexing. Search engines actually attempt to scan the entire online universe and index all the information so they can show it to you when you enter a search query.
How do they do it? Every search engine has what are referred to as bots, or crawlers, that constantly scan the web, indexing websites for content and following links on each webpage to other webpages. If your website has not been indexed, it is impossible for your website to appear in the search results. Unless you are running a shady online business or trying to cheat your way to the top of the search engine results page (SERP), chances are your website has already been indexed.
So, big search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo are constantly indexing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of web pages. How do they know what to show on the SERP when you enter a search query? Search engines consider two main areas when determining what your website is about and how to prioritize it.
Content on your website: When indexing pages, the search engine bots scan each page of your website, looking for clues about what topics your website covers and scanning your website‟s back-end code for certain tags, descriptions, and instructions.
Who’s linking to you: As search engine bots scan webpages for indexing, they also look for links from other websites. The more inbound links a website has, the more influence or authority it has. Essentially, every inbound link counts as a vote for that website‟s content. Also, each inbound link holds a different weight. For instance, a link from a highly authoritative website like The New York Times (nytimes.com) will give a website a bigger boost than a link from a small blog site. This boost is sometimes referred to as link juice.
When a search query is entered, the search engine looks in its index for the most relevant information and displays the results on the SERP. The results are then listed in order of most relevant and authoritative.
If you conduct the same search on different search engines, chances are you will see different results on the SERP. This is because each search engine uses a proprietary algorithm that considers multiple factors in order to determine what results to show in the SERP when a search query is entered.
A few factors that a search engine algorithm may consider when deciding what information to show in the SERP include:
The geographic location of the searcher
Historical performance of a listing (clicks, bounce rates, etc.)
Link quality (reciprocal vs. one-way)
Webpage content (keywords, tags, pictures)
Back end code or HTML of the webpage
Link type (social media sharing, link from media outlet, blog, etc.)
With a 200B market cap. Google dominates the search engine market. Google became the leader by fundamentally revolutionizing the way search engines work and giving searchers better results with their advanced algorithm. With 64% market share, according to Compete, Inc., Google is still viewed as the primary innovator and master in the space.
Before the days of Google (circa 1997), search engines relied solely on indexing web page content and considering factors like keyword density in order to determine what results to put at the top of the SERP. This approach gave way to what is referred to as black-hat SEO tactics, as website engineers began intentionally stuffing their webpages with keywords so they would rank at the top of the search engines, even if their webpages were completely irrelevant to the search result.
What it takes to rank"
It is not difficult to get your website to index and even rank on search engines. However, getting your website to rank for specific keywords can be tricky. There are essentially 3 elements that a search engine considers when determining where to list a website on the SERP: rank, authority, and relevance.
Rank: Rank is the position that your website physically falls in on the SERP when a specific search query is entered. If you are the first website in the organic section of the SERP (don't be confused by the paid ads at the very top), then your rank is 1. If your website is in the second position, your rank is 2, and so on. As discussed previously in How Search Engines Work, your rank is an indicator of how relevant and authoritative your website is in the eyes of the search engine, as it relates to the search query entered.
Tracking how your website ranks for a specific keyword over time is a good way to determine if your SEO techniques are having an impact. However, since there are so many other factors beyond your control when it comes to ranking, do not obsess over it. If your website jumps 1-5 spots from time to time, that‟s to be expected. It‟s when you jump 10, 20, 30 spots up in the rankings that it makes sense to pat yourself on the back.
Authority: As previously discussed in the How Search Engines Work section, search engines determine how authoritative and credible a website‟s content is by calculating how many inbound links (links from other websites) it has. However, the number of inbound links does not necessarily correlate with higher rankings. The search engines also look at how authoritative the websites that link to you are, what anchor text is used to link to your website, and other factors such as the age of your domain.
You can track over time how authoritative your website is by monitoring a few different metrics. There are a variety of tools to help you keep track. SemRush tools will show you how many domains are linking to your website, another tool from Moz SEO. MozRank is SEOmoz's general, logarithmically scaled 10-point measure of global link authority or popularity. It is very similar in purpose to the measures of link importance used by search engines (e.g., Google's PageRank).
Relevance: Relevance is one of the most critical factors of SEO. The search engines are not only looking to see that you are using certain keywords, but they are also looking for clues to determine how relevant your content is to a specific search query. Besides actual text on your webpages, the search engines will review your website‟s structure, use of keywords in your URLs, page formatting (such as bolded text), and what keywords are in the headline of the webpage versus those in the body text.
While there is no way to track how relevant your website is, there are some SEO basics you can practice to cover your bases and make sure you are giving the search engines every possible opportunity to consider your website. We‟ll get to that in just a bit.
Search engines are extremely complex. Bottom line: search engines are trying to think like human beings. It is very easy to get caught up in modifying your website‟s content just so you rank on the search engines. When in doubt, always err on the side of providing relevant and coherent content that your website‟s audience (your prospects) can digest. If you find yourself doing something solely for search engines, you should take a moment to ask yourself why.
Long-tail concept and theory:
In order to get your website‟s content to rank on the search engines, you need to take the path of least resistance. Although trying to rank for highly trafficked keywords and terms may seem like a logical approach, it will most likely lead to a lot of frustration and wasted resources. Also, even if you end up getting traffic from these types of keywords, chances are the quality of the traffic will be low due to disinterest in what you specifically have to offer.
Think of every search query as being like a snowflake - they are all different. There are billions more unique search queries than there are generic ones. In fact, if you were to add up all search engine traffic that comes from the most popular keywords, it would not even come close to the amount of traffic that comes from searches using those more unique queries. This is called the theory of the long tail.
A critical component of SEO is choosing the right keywords for optimization. If you sell shoes, you may want your website to rank for “shoe store,” (a head term), but chances are you are going to have some trouble there. However, if you optimize multiple pages on your website for each specific pair of shoes that you sell, you are going to have much more success and it will be easier to rank on the SERP. A keyword like “red tennis shoes with Velcro” (a long-tail keyword or term) is a good example. Sure, the number of people that search for this keyword will be much lower than the number that search for “shoe store,” but you can almost bet that those searchers are much farther down the sales funnel and may be ready to buy.
Why are long-tail keywords are so effective?
This is why long-tail keywords are so effective. They target people who are looking to perform a specific action, like buy something or looking for a specific piece of information, like a how-to or a service that can solve their problem. By choosing to optimize with long-tail keywords, you will find it easier to rank on the search engines, drive qualified traffic, and turn that traffic into leads and customers.
Content is king!
We‟ve all heard it - when it comes to SEO, content is king. Without rich content, you will find it difficult to rank for specific keywords and drive traffic to your website. Additionally, if your content does not provide value or engage users, you will be far less likely to drive leads and customers.
It is impossible to predict how people will search for content and exactly what keywords they are going to use. The only way to combat this is to generate content and lots of it. The more content and webpages you publish, the more chances you have at ranking on the search engines. Lottery tickets are a good analogy here. The more lottery tickets you have, the higher the odds that you will win. Imagine that every webpage you create is a lottery ticket. The more web pages you have, the higher your chances are of ranking in the search engines.
As you already know, search engines are smart. If you create multiple web pages about the same exact topic, you are wasting your time. You need to create lots of content that covers lots of topics. There are multiple ways you can use content to expand your online presence and increase your chances of ranking without being repetitive. Here are a few examples:
Homepage: Use your homepage to cover your overall value proposition and high-level messaging. If there was ever a place to optimize for more generic keywords, it is your homepage.
Product/Service Pages: If you offer products and/or services, create a unique webpage for each one of them.
Resource Center: Provide a webpage that offers links to other places on your website that cover education, advice, and tips.
Blog: Blogging is an incredible way to stay current and fresh while making it easy to generate tons of content. Blogging on a regular basis (once per week is ideal) can have a dramatic impact on SEO because every blog post is a new webpage.
While conducting SEO research, you may come across articles that discuss being mindful of keyword density (how often you mention a keyword on a page). Although following an approach like this may seem technically sound, it is not recommended. Remember: do not write content for search engines. Write content for your audience and everything else will follow. Make sure each webpage has a clear objective and remains focused on one topic, and you will do just fine.
How to approach your SEO strategy?
When developing an SEO strategy, it is best to split your initiatives into two buckets: on-page SEO and off-page SEO. On-page SEO covers everything you can control on each specific webpage and across your website to make it easy for search engines to find, index, and understand the topical nature of your content. Off-page SEO covers all aspects of SEO that happen off your website to garner quality inbound links. Let‟s dive into on-page SEO first, and then we‟ll tackle off-page SEO in the next section.
Section 2: On-Page SEO
There are multiple elements on your website that you can control to make it easy for search engines to index your content and understand what it is all about.
Website content: As mentioned in the Content is King section, you want to write content that your audience will find valuable and engaging. Aside from the topical nature of the content, the way you format your web pages can have an impact on how search engine bots digest your content. Every webpage you create should have a thought-provoking headline to grab the reader‟s attention, and should also include the keyword or phrase that the webpage covers. Other body formattings, such as bolding certain keywords or phrases, can help stress the importance of phrases you are optimizing for.
URL Structure: The actual structure of your website URL can have an impact on the search engines‟ ability to index and understand your website‟s content. Opting for a more organized URL structure will have the greatest impact. Some website creation software will insert arbitrary numbers and code in the URL. Although this may be optimal for the software, it serves no other purpose. If you can edit the URL to include the title of your webpage, you should do so. In fact, some website creation software, like HubSpot, will automatically create URLs based off of your webpage content in order to eliminate this issue.
Pictures: There is nothing worse than landing on a webpage and being faced with mountains of text. Not only picture a great way to break up sections of text, but they also serve as an opportunity to communicate with search engines. Because search engines cannot tell what a picture is by scanning it, they look for clues in two places.
Every picture you upload to your website will have a file name. When the picture is inserted on your website, the picture‟s file name actually lives in your website‟s source code, or HTML. Since the search engines scan your website‟s code, you should use file names that describe the picture. For example, „red-tennis-shoes-velcro.jpg‟ is much more useful than „pic12345.jpg‟.
Additionally, you can give the search engines an extra hand by including alt tags on all pictures on your website. Alt tags are short snippets of code that allow you to tag each photo on your site with a short text blurb.
Title Tags and Meta Tags: Besides an actual text headline on your page, every webpage you create has a title tag. This is the text snippet that appears in the upper left corner or on the tabs of your web browser. Also, the title tag is the blue link that the search engines show when they list your webpage on the SERP. Title tags max out at 75 characters, so choose your words wisely.
Meta tags are snippets of code you can include within your webpage‟s HTML. The meta tags are usually located near the title tag code in the head of your HTML. There are two meta tags – meta description and meta keywords.
The meta description is a text snippet that describes what your specific webpage is about. Meta descriptions are usually the first place a search engine will look to find text to put under your blue link when they list your website on the SERP. If you do not have a meta description, the search engines will usually select a random piece of content from the page they are linking to. The meta description is limited to 150 characters.
Meta keywords consist of an additional text snippet in the HTML that allows you to list a few different keywords that relate to your webpage. Back in the day, search engines used this field to determine what keywords to rank your webpage for. Now, most search engines claim they do not even use meta keywords when indexing content. Some small or niche search engines may still use it though. As a best practice, it is recommended to put 5-7 keywords in the meta keywords, but don't spend too much time thinking about it.
Headline Tags: When search engine bots scan your web pages, they look for clues to determine exactly what your webpage is about. Keywords that are treated differently than most others on the page show the search engines that they are more important than other keywords on the page. This is why the use of headline tags within your page is so important. By using various headline tags (each tag will produce a different size headline), you not only make your webpage easier to digest from a reader‟s standpoint, but you will also give the search engines definitive clues as to what is important on the page.
Internal Linking: Up until this point we have only referenced inbound links, or those links coming to your website from other websites. When creating content for your website on your blog or on specific web pages, you may want to reference other pages on your website. You can reference these other pages by inserting a link to another webpage within a specific webpage‟s content. The use of anchor text is recommended when linking to another webpage or even another website. When the anchor text is used, it implies that the page you are linking to is about the keyword or phrase you use as your anchor. This is yet another way you can help out the search engines.
Section 3: Off-Page SEO
Compared to on-page SEO, off-page SEO can certainly be more difficult to execute. Off-page SEO entails building relationships with other websites through the creation of attractive content, or reaching out to the people who run the websites. This process of building relationships is called link building. Who is linking to you, how they are linking to you, and how your content is shared in social networks and across the web are all factors that can have a significant impact on your ability to rank on the SERP.
Who's Linking to you?
Do you know? As discussed in the What it Takes to Rank section of this book, you can use free tools to determine what websites are already linking to you, something the search engines are very concerned about. Although twenty inbound links from your friends‟ websites may be a good start to link building, garnering one link from a major publication or educational website (with a .edu address) could be worth more than the power of those twenty links combined.
Since the Internet is essentially an interlinking network of pages and websites that make up the World Wide Web, not every link is created equal. Links from major publications and blogs usually provide more link juice because they are visited by millions of people each day. Therefore, they have an incredible impact on the ability for a webpage to go viral.
It is in a newspaper website‟s very nature to link to authoritative websites that relate to current stories and trends. Therefore, these websites are most likely more valuable than others. The same goes for education websites with a .edu domain, since these are reserved for educational institutions. As such, the search engines realize that links to your website from these websites equate to you having more authority.
Who are they linking to you?
Just like when anchor text is used to link an internal webpage to another one of your web pages, the use of anchor text when another website links to you can be extremely helpful in creating relevancy to certain keywords and phrases. If you have the option, always request keyword-rich anchor text for a link that uses your domain. That said, if you have no other option, still take a link with anchor text to your domain. All link juice is good.
A common practice in linking building is link trading, or “I will put a link to your website on my website if you put a link to my mine on yours.” These types of links are referred to as reciprocal links. Since all link juice is good link juice, reciprocal links are not prohibited, but their value is certainly not as good as a one-way link to your website. There was most likely a time when reciprocal links were just as good as any other, but search engines are always getting smarter in determining how much juice a link should receive.
Just like any other aspect of SEO, throwing money at link-building is bad. Paying others to link to you is strictly prohibited by search engines. In fact, all paid links must include a tag, called a no-follow tag, which tells the search engines not to give those links credit. If you‟re caught with un-tagged paid links (the linker or the linkee), your website could be suspended from the search engines or blacklisted for good.
Links to your website from advertisements are not counted as inbound links by search engines. If they discover paid link relationships that are not classified as advertisements, you risk having your website suspended from being listed on the SERP, or even blacklisted if the instance is deemed severe enough.
Using Social Media to Spread Content:
Use of social networks like Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and LinkedIn has exploded over the last few years. In fact, the latest figures from ComScore suggest that 16% of all time spent online is spent on a social network.iv With hundreds of millions of users across these social networks sharing content they find online with their friends and followers, search engines have begun to take notice.
According to SEOMoz, the amount of social activity that a webpage has on social networks (shares, recommendations, likes, links, +1‟s, etc.) is an important factor in that page‟s ability to rank on the SERP.v Simply put, search engines have realized that content shared on social networks is extremely influential, and should therefore rank higher. Beyond using social networks to engage new prospects, drive leads, and build brand awareness, businesses should consider all of the SEO benefits they miss out on by not having a brand presence.
In order to capitalize on the boost to your SERP rankings from social media, you need to make your content easy to share. Implementing social network buttons across your website is the easiest way to accomplish this. Installing the buttons is easy if you use a service like AddThis.
Using Email Marketing to Spread Content:
Almost any business these days uses email to nurture relationships with their current leads and customers, and utilizes promotional email blasts to attract new ones. It is no surprise that with the death of direct mail over the past few years, email marketing has exploded. It has never been easier to set up an email program, upload your leads, and send them communication. Obviously, the extreme rate at which businesses have adopted email has deteriorated its effectiveness industry-wide. There is so much noise out there that you need to make every email send count.
Just like you need to make the content on your website easy to share in social media, you need to do the same for email. Aside from having clear call-to-action in your emails to nurture your list, drive leads, and convert them to customers, you should also make it easy for your email readers to share the content with friends and post it to social networks. This will increase the reach of your website content and make it easier for you to get inbound links for SEO.
Section 4: Identify Keywords
How to identify long-tail keywords:
As discussed in the Long-Tail Concept & Theory section of this blog, the key to successful SEO is concentrating on long-tail keywords. Although these keywords get less traffic than more generic head terms, they are associated with more qualified traffic and users that are most likely further down their path of intent. The good news is that choosing the right long-tail keywords for your website pages is actually a fairly simple process.
Relevance is the key factor to consider when choosing the right keywords for SEO. Remember, the more specific you are, the better. For instance, if you own a company that installed swimming pools, which keyword do you think is more likely to attract qualified prospects for your business?
“swimming pools” vs. “fiberglass in-ground pool installation”
Obviously, if someone is searching for “fiberglass in-ground pool installation,” his brain is in research mode. They are looking for information on installation or someone to perform the installation - that could be you! Optimizing for “swimming pools” has its place, but there is no doubt that this keyword will attract a much more generic audience that may not be looking for what you have to offer.
Another factor to consider when optimizing for the right keywords is location-based searches. When looking for contractors and services in their area, search engine users will usually include their location in the search. So, “fiberglass in-ground pool installation” becomes “fiberglass in-ground pool installation in Boston, MA.”
If you operate in one geo-location, you may want to consider adding location-based keywords to all of your pages because traffic from other locations is not going to be that much help to you. If your business operates in several geo-locations, it is a wise choice to create a separate webpage dedicated to each location so you can make sure your brand is present when people in those locations are searching.
Figuring out where to start when it comes to keywords can seem challenging. Guessing is not a recommended practice for obvious reasons. Instead, there are many ways to research and find long-tail keywords that are right for your business. We‟ll cover these in the next few sections.
Check out your Website Analytics:
Web analytics tools like Google Analytics will allow you to see what organic search keywords are already driving traffic to your website. These keywords will provide a good baseline of core keywords, and provide you with a list of keywords and performance which you can benchmark your future SEO efforts against.
Keyword Research Tools:
Google has a few tools that make it easy to conduct keyword research. The Google Keyword Planner Tool is a great place to start. You can insert one keyword, multiple keywords, or even your website address, and Google will then return a list of related keywords along with simple metrics to gauge how fierce the competition is around each one and how many searches it gets on both a global and local search level.
Another tool worth checking out is Google Insights for Search. This tool allows you to enter multiple keywords and filter by location, search history, and category. You are then given results that show how much web interest there is around a particular keyword, what caused the interest (press coverage), where the traffic is coming from, and similar keywords.
Search for Keywords:
Besides looking at your web analytics data or using a keyword research tool, there is a lot to be said for simply going on the search engines and conducting a few searches. Using the search engines can help you answer critical questions like:
How much competition is in the space? See how many search results there are. If there are hundreds of thousands or millions of results, ask yourself if it is really worth the time and effort to play in that space.
Where do your competitors rank? Pick a keyword you would like to optimize for and look at the top 20 results. Are your competitors anywhere to be found? Where do you rank? Are you ranking at all? This information will guide you in making a decision to carve out a niche for yourself with keywords where your competitors are not playing, or you may find a keyword you think is worth picking a battle over.
Is Google providing other recommendations? When you type a keyword into Google, it will automatically populate the search results as you type. This feature is called Google Instant. This is Google‟s attempt at trying to anticipate what you are searching for. Google is giving you results based on previous search data. You can use this data to your advantage. Simply start typing in a keyword and see what keywords Google populates under your search result. This is a quick way to get keyword ideas.
Section 5: Measuring Success
SEO can take a lot of time and effort. What good is spending all this time and effort if you can‟t see the fruits of your labor? There are many metrics you can track on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis to keep your SEO plan on track and measure your success.
Traffic: Measuring overall traffic to your website from organic search is something you should look at on a weekly basis. This will help you determine if the changes you made in the previous weeks or months have started to have an impact.
Leads/ROI: Web analytics tools like Google Analytics and inbound marketing solutions can make it easy to see how many conversions have occurred on your website as a result of organic search traffic and keywords. These tools will also allow to you set up multiple conversion definitions (visits, leads, customers) so you can really get a sense of how much return you are getting on your SEO investment.
Indexed Pages: Measuring how many pages the search engines have indexed for your site is an easy way to measure the growth of your SEO efforts and your website. The more pages that are indexed, the easier it is to rank for more keywords.
Inbound Links: Inbound links are the easiest way to determine how successful you have been at off-page SEO.
Keywords: Keep a list of the keywords that are driving traffic to your website from organic search. On a monthly basis, dive deeper into your organic search traffic and analyze what keywords were responsible for driving the traffic. Your brand keywords are usually going to be responsible for the bulk of it. If possible, separate out brand keywords and pay close attention to the non-branded keywords that are driving traffic to your website.
Ranking: Select a list of the top 10 keywords for which you want to rank. Every month, go in and conduct a search on Google and see where you rank. Record your rank and you will be able to see if your SEO efforts have helped you improve. Make note of jumps of over five spots, because those changes are usually not the result of normal search engine updates and changes.