Search engines have become the golden standard for finding products, services and expertise. Who doesn’t look things up on Google? Around 6 billion searches take place everyday. Competitors all fight to be the website everyone clicks on. This can make the prospect of SEO seem overwhelming to beginners.
But the truth is…you can still rank high on search engines with only the SEO basics. Just knowing the information I’m about to tell you will skyrocket your chances of reaching the top of search engines like Google. This guide will reveal everything you need to know to get from zero to hero.
- 1 Understanding Search Engines
- 2 What are the different types of SEO?
- 3 Writing good content for SEO
- 4 Basic On-page SEO
- 5 Basic Off-page SEO
- 6 Technical SEO made simple
- 7 Relevance
What is SEO?
SEO stands for search engine optimization. This is the practice of driving visitors to your website through ‘organic’ search engine results. Organic results are web pages that rank without paying to be on the first page. The paid results, known as PPC (pay per click), are ads. They are less likely to get clicked on because they’re not as trustworthy. They also disappear once you stop paying.
The most popular search engines are:
Google is the dominant search engine with a staggering 91.98% market share worldwide and 92.72% in the UK. Naturally, it makes sense to focus your efforts on Google where most people are searching.
The purpose of SEO marketing is to rank first on search engines to get more visitors to your website. These visitors are called “traffic“. To reach the top spot on Google, you need to at least know the basics of SEO. Reading this beginner’s guide from start to finish will arm you with enough knowledge to beat most of the competition. You can always bookmark it now for future reference.
SEO Marketers can get jaw-dropping results from ranking anywhere on page 1 of Google. It typically displays 8-12 website links so you can succeed without coming first. But realistically, the top 3 search results get you most of the traffic. Check out this graph on web ranking positions.
Source: Smart Insights
The percentage of total people who click through to a website for any given search term is called a click-through rate (CTR). This graph shows, in most cases, the top 3 positions combined get over 50% of all click-throughs to websites. By position 9-10 the CTR is less than 2%.
Then after the first page, traffic looks a little something like this:
So what exactly are you “optimizing” for search engines to get to page 1?
You want to rank for relevant keywords, which are the queries people search for to find an answer. You are optimizing content to be that answer. Learning about keywords and how to research for the right ones is key to your success. We’ll cover this in a brief moment.
But first…It’s important to understand a few fundamentals about search engines. Learning how they function will give you a strong foundation for what follows. Believe me, it’s like shooting in the dark if you skip this part.
Of course, you can skip it if you want to use an SEO service instead.
Understanding Search Engines
What is a search engine?
A search engine is software programmed to find, understand and organize information across the web to serve the most relevant results to user queries. It forms a hierarchy of results on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) based on different ranking factors.
Over the years, Google’s search engine has advanced like crazy! In October 2015, they introduced new AI called RankBrain, which was a game-changer. Before that, Google was largely limited to matching up keywords between search queries and web pages. Changes in their algorithm were hand-coded by engineers in periodic updates.
RankBrain uses machine learning (AI) to understand meaning and semantics in language. It’s always learning how different words relate to each other to get a deeper understanding of content. In 2019, Google took this a step further with its BERT update.
“BERT can consider the full context of a word by looking at the words that come before and after it—particularly useful for understanding the intent behind search queries.”
This means using keywords out of context in your content to rank higher may do more harm than good. Similarly, overusing or using irrelevant keywords will penalise you. On the other hand, because Google understands semantics, you can now easily rank for dozens of similar keywords in one blog, which is like getting 10 for the price of 1!
How search engines work
Content on the internet is made up of ‘code’. To beginners, code might look like something out of The Matrix. Luckily, much of it is easy to understand.
Learning basic HTML and CSS helps with SEO. We recommend Sololearn for free coding lessons. But in this guide, all you need to know is these elements form content.
This is how search engines like Google work:
- Crawl – Bots are sent to browse the internet, reading the code that forms content as they go along.
- Index – Crawlers store and analyze parts of the content such as titles, headings, images, and links to make sense of it all.
- Rank – Search engines match indexed content with search queries. Rankability of the content depends on competing page results.
Think of search engines as spiders crawling the web, consuming data, and moving on through links.
You can make the best content in the world and never show up on Google because web crawlers could never find you.
That’s why it’s crucial to know how to format your website and content. Ideally, your site should be routinely crawled by search engines. Optimize so that important content can automatically go through the process of getting indexed and ranked.
With this in mind, basic SEO goals should include:
- Making your website visible to search engines so you show up in SERPs.
- Formatting content to help search engines understand its structure and substance.
- Creating relevant and high-quality content to match the needs of search users.
A simple way to check if your web pages are already being indexed is to type site:yourdomain.com into Google. You will also need a sitemap, which we’ll cover when showing you how to improve your technical SEO (the easy part of it!).
Are you getting hungry for results yet? Good! We’re about to dig into E-A-T Google.
What Google really wants
Long gone are the days of writing content and simply appearing on the first page of Google. To thrive, you need to play the long game to gain expertise, authority and trustworthiness. Luckily, a lot of this is improving your brand reputation and user/customer experience, which you’re likely looking to do anyway.
Understanding the importance of websites will set the perfect foundation.
A good chunk of great SEO is just making content your audience loves. Understand what your audience is searching for and why they are searching for it. Why people search is called search intent. Once you know this, meet and exceed their needs with your answer.
But what does that really look like? Here’s an example of a local business ranking high with expertise.
Neil, one of our clients, runs Ferndale garden centre in Dronfield. He’s knowledgeable about plants and an engaging writer, so it’s no surprise that his blog on winter pansies always ranks in the top 3 on Google. ‘Winter pansies’ is a highly competitive keyword which gets 2.9K searches each month. This shows how important writing high-quality content is to supplement the basics of SEO.
Do a quick search and look out for Ferndale with a UK ‘winter pansies’ Google search.
Good content is your best weapon to get ahead of big companies in SERPs.
Quick tip: You can usually figure out search intent by looking at existing page 1 results.
Authority isn’t quite as important as it used to be — but still important. It’s largely a numbers game. Google takes into account the number of links back to your site, mentions, social media followers. In recent years, though, they have started to focus more on quality over quantity. This helped prevent people building lots of poor quality or irrelevant backlinks to their site to boost authority.
These tricks are blackhat SEO. Avoid it because Google will penalize you.
With so many spammy websites on the internet, you need to convince Google that you are legitimate. A trustworthy site will have high-quality content and reputable backlinks. If a popular website Google already trusts links back to you then you gain more credibility. So build your trust score. We will talk more about building the right backlinks when we discuss ‘off-page SEO’. In the meantime…
Find out your website’s authority and trust score in a free backlink report, and join our growing digital marketing newsletter community!
Bonus: We included some simple but powerful advice about ‘relevance‘ at the end of this guide. It will help smaller businesses to dominate search rankings in their local area.
But this particular acronym isn’t R.E.A.T so let’s move on to the exciting bit.
Congratulations! We have the fundamentals down and you’re ready to get into the step-by-step SEO tips to improve your Google ranking.
What are the different types of SEO?
There are 7 main types of SEO:
- On-page SEO
- Off-page SEO
- Technical SEO
- Local SEO
- Mobile SEO
- Ecommerce SEO
- International SEO
On-page, off-page and technical SEO techniques give you the best search engine results so you’ll mostly learn about them today. Let’s get started!
Writing good content for SEO
Remember we mentioned earlier that good content is your best weapon? And picking the right keywords is key for success? Well, here are some tips to help build these skills.
First, you need to know what you stand a chance to rank high for on search engines. Keywords are search terms so that’s what we’re looking into before writing content.
Doing keyword research is important because otherwise, one of three things could happen:
- You never rank on any first page because the keyword is too competitive.
- You rank for a keyword nobody searches for and don’t get any traffic to your website.
- You rank for the wrong keyword so the traffic you get leaves as fast as they came.
When selecting keywords, it helps to know the who, what, when, where, why and how of your audience. To give you an example, a British short-haul travel agency may ask themselves:
- Who’s searching for short-haul holidays? (families, friends, someone on a budget or short on time)
- What type of search are they making? (cheap holiday packages, travel ideas, best hotel resorts, etc.)
- What are the search volumes of those searches every month?
- How competitive are the search terms?
- When are they searching? (Are searches seasonal, temporary, trending or ‘evergreen’ searches?)
- How do people phrase similar search terms? (‘holidays Spain’ vs ‘where to visit in Spain’)
- Why are they searching? (Are they searching ‘Bermuda’ for a holiday or because of alien abduction conspiracies?)
- Where are your ideal customers located? (Search engines have different databases for each country.)
Now replace these travel examples with your own business and industry. This will give you a good starting point. Let’s take a look at different types of keywords so you know your options.
Here are the different types of keywords to choose from:
Head-term keywords – A head term is a 1-2 word keyword that drives high search volume. This makes them extremely competitive. As they are broad search terms, it’s more difficult to understand the user’s search intent. Example: ‘solicitor’.
Long-tail keywords – Long-tail search terms are longer key phrases that have a lower search volume but are less competitive and more specific. This makes them easier to understand the user’s search intent. Example: ‘will writing solicitor Sheffield’.
Source: Neil Patel
Transactional keywords – These are keywords that help potential customers find a product or service they are looking for. Example: ‘buy Belgium chocolate online’.
Informational keywords are keywords that help a user find information for a particular topic they are interested in. Users typically look for step-by-step tutorials, how-to videos, facts, news, blogs, & research.
Navigational keywords are keywords used to locate a brand, place, product or service or website. For example, instead of looking for ’email’ they search for ‘outlook’ or ‘Gmail’.
Those are your options. Optimise for most of them if you can, but focus on less competitive, low volume keywords. As you grow, you will gain the E-A-T advantage to compete for more search traffic.
Tools for picking keywords
Most tools for getting accurate keyword information are now paid services. Nonetheless, there are still many tools out there with free options. Here are some of the best keyword research tools.
The easiest way to ensure you’re getting up to date search volumes is to go straight to the source — Google. Sign up for their ads (Pay per click results) You don’t need to keep running ad campaigns to get access to the keyword planner. Type your keyword into the search box and you will get a keyword list, average monthly searches, and competition metrics. Ignore the competition tab for now as it may cause confusion for SEO.
Use Google trends to find seasonal keyword fluctuations. If keywords you want to rank for peak in certain months, push optimization for those keywords a few months in advance.
Questions are your best friend to achieve high Google rankings for long-tail keywords. Luckily, AnswerThePublic has a database for questions related to keywords you’re targeting.
4. Google search
Notice in a Google search, there’s a “People also ask” section near the top of the page and a “Searches related to” at the bottom. These are good indicators of keywords with search volume.
Open the “People also ask” question tabs for answers and look for smaller websites Google are linking to, analyse their content, then write an improved article.
If you want a heavyweight, Moz has an extensive database of keywords and their related search terms. They give you 10 free search results and a trial but after that you will have to pay.
Another high-quality keyword research tool to extract some more free results. Again, there are restrictions to prevent access to many other great results to rank for.
Get a feel for keyword competitiveness by looking at the first page of Google. Generally, when there are all huge websites like Healthline who have high domain scores, you’re unlikely to overtake them. If there are some unknown or smaller websites, investigate further as you might stand a chance.
Another indicator of whether you can rank high on Google is the number of links of the URLs on the first page. Check links with a free backlink checker such as the one from Ahrefs. They have the best SEO tools when it comes to backlink and competitor analysis. But access to 16 trillion backlinks, 7 billion keywords and 1 billion pieces of content is going to set you back around £143 per month.
Unless you’re fully dedicated to SEO, it’s much cheaper to buy keyword reports or stick with free tools.
There may also be SEO tools you can add as a browser extension, especially on Google Chrome.
Keyword research is your first and most important step for search engine optimization. It’s needed to provide a clear direction for website content to focus your time and effort on.
Supercharge your keyword research with a comprehensive keyword report for any topic or 1-to-1 online training with an SEO expert.
Simple tips and tools for writing
“This is SEO basics, give us the SEO tips!” We understand…but writing IS optimizing. We’ve kept it short but take a minute to learn this part.
Follow these writing guidelines:
- Delve into popular books on writing such as ‘Elements of Style’ or read George Orwell’s 6 rules for writing to nail the fundamentals quickly.
- Explore new definitions, synonyms and word games on Merriam Webster.
- Look up your target keywords on Google and read the content on page 1.
- Most first drafts are awful so proofread and make edits — several times.
- Google say grammar isn’t important but you won’t find many top results with bad grammar. Better safe than sorry! Try using a free online writing assistant like Grammarly.
- Trim the fat by cutting out unnecessary words. Sure, you can inject some personality into your writing. It may even help SEO if you’re keeping readers engaged. But avoid waffle as much as possible.
- Write in short sentences so they are easy to follow.
- Spare people from looking up complicated words like ‘obsequious’.
- Appeal to the general reader instead of your college professor and you’ll improve readability.
These are only guidelines so don’t feel you have to obey them all the time. Write naturally like you’re having a conversation.
More easy ways to improve your writing skills can be found here.
Basic On-page SEO
If you nailed the keyword research, you should already know the search intent for web pages you want to optimize. Once you know what someone is searching and why, it’s time to make sure your pages are optimized in the same format as other pages Google is ranking high. For example, if you search “how to cook noodles” you’ll find results full of recipe pages.
Some different web page formats to look out for:
- Long-form articles
- Recipe pages
- Product pages
- Category pages
- Local map listings
- YouTube videos
Once you know what Google favours, that will give you a template and a benchmark for content expectations.
Look for success patterns on page 1. If the top 3 Google results are lists with “40 ways to” then you’re best off writing a long list.
Long-form blogs tend to perform better on Google. This is especially true after the 2019 BERT update. Since BERT, high quality, long blogs have gained ranking for tonnes of new keywords. Many get over 100 keywords. The more content you write about, the wider the scope of queries you answer.
Just make sure everything in the blog is closely related so you don’t dilute search intent too much.
Include ‘evergreen’ content in your SEO strategy. This is timeless website content that won’t die out over time. Generally, they’re long, informative articles with constant search traffic and plenty of keyword variety.
Use Google trends and rank early for low volume searches which could improve in the future. Check out this blog on the future of voice search. We rank 3rd/4th on Google as it continues to become more adopted among SEO marketers.
Make your page load faster
According to Neil Patel, 47% of consumers expect a web page to load in 2 seconds or less. A huge component of page speed depends on what server your website is hosted on. That’s why we give customers the option of our shared hosting service or a more expensive dedicated container.
Small, brochure-style websites with low search traffic don’t get as much value from dedicated servers. Medium-sized eCommerce and information sites may need them to prevent slow loading times.
Here’s what else you can do to reduce page load times:
First, check your website speed with Google PageSpeed Insights. This will give you a score on your web performance for mobile and desktop devices. Mobile will always have a lower score and slower load time and is more important for SEO.
PageSpeed Insights highlights many of your opportunities to increase speed (phew..), but some of it requires technical SEO knowledge. You can get a quick win by reducing the sizes of images. If your website is on WordPress there are plugins to help compress images. Try Shortpixel for image optimization or PDF compression.
“What’s a title tag and meta description?” I hear you say.
They are HTML elements in the header of your web page and so don’t appear in the body of your text. Title tags and meta descriptions help search engines understand your page content. They provide information specific to the search engine and browser.
Typically, you keep the title tag between 50-65 characters long and the meta description up to 150 characters. Include your focus keywords in both but never stuff keywords in. Once is enough.
Meta descriptions are a key part of increasing search traffic click-through rates. They need to be enticing.
How to use headings to structure your site
Headings go within a web page. Your text editor should give you the choice to format H1, H2, H3, H4, paragraph etc.
Most top performing pages only use H1 once. H1 is the main topic that addresses the search query.
Break your content down into sub-headings using H2’s. Sprinkle a few keywords in where it’s natural. It’s more important that your heading describes the paragraph below it and relates back to the H1. An H2 example is “benefits” within a blog about ‘the health benefits of blueberries’ (H1).
Alternatively, headings can be questions people ask on search engines. That gives Google a clear indication you intend to answer a search query, which minimises the guesswork.
When in doubt, spell it out.
H3’s are sub-headings of H2. They are commonly used for lists with text. In this blog, ‘SEO basics’ is H1, ‘On-page SEO’ is H2, and ‘Structure your page properly’ is a part of ‘on-page’ so we have given it an H3.
Here’s an example of heading structure:
- H1: Choosing the right dog
- H2: Where to buy your perfect dog
- H3: Rescue a dog from the kennels
- H3: Use a reputable website like pets4homes
- H3: Check the local papers for recent litters
- H2: Where to buy your perfect dog
When you move on from listing the ‘where to buy dogs’ H3’s, go back to an H2 for your next section. This tells Google the next paragraph doesn’t belong to the previous heading.
H4’s onwards aren’t used on most pages.
Search engines analyse all aspects of your content, including the names of images. Name your images accurately. Keep them short and to-the-point.
You will find an ‘alt tag’ section in your WordPress media library or most other content management systems. If your image fails to load or someone with a visual impairment visits your site with a screen reader, your alt tags need to describe the picture for them. If relevant, you can put a keyword in.
They are many other equally as important on-page SEO tips but we can’t fit everything into this guide.
Download this on-page SEO basics checklist for 20 more actionable steps to rank higher + free tips in our newsletter. It’s on us.
Basic Off-page SEO
We’ve discussed the importance of gaining quality backlinks. They are links from one website to another. Search engines use backlinks as ‘votes’ for a web page. The vast majority of first page results on Google have more links going to them than results on other pages.
Relevance plays a key part in deciding the weight of a backlink. Think about it. If you’re a beauty salon and your website has links coming from fishing websites, Google is going to see that as suspicious. When they crawl your site, they know roughly what topics are relevant to you.
Your products, services and area of expertise should be the focal point and getting links from sites covering similar topics qualifies for a credible link.
Websites with high authority and trust score serve you the most powerful links. That’s why some off-page SEO marketing can actually be considered digital PR. Getting press from reputable media sites will boost your ranking and they are generally safe options. Keep in mind that the media is looking for a story. This may involve offline company activity to help your efforts.
The name of the game is link building and so having a list of link opportunities saves a lot of time. If you requested the backlink check earlier, that’s a great start. A full audit to identify thousands of relevant, opportunities Google trusts is 10x more effective to accelerate results.
Are you interested in a full backlink audit to reveal lucrative opportunities? (Yes. no, I’ll try myself first)
You can get links by doing the following:
- Request to replace broken links
- Request to replace outdated links
- Request to replace competitor links
- Guest blogging
- Influencer marketing
- Get brand mentions
- Social media marketing
Find link opportunities by looking for websites linking to a competitor page for the keywords you want to rank for. Explain how that page doesn’t meet the reader’s search intent and how replacing it with yours will improve user experience and satisfaction.
Also, look out for broken or outdated links where one of your web pages can replace that. Then you can point out their error and offer a solution.
Note: While social media can bring traffic to your website to indirectly boost SEO, in most cases search engines don’t count them as backlinks.
Link building also involves bad practice called blackhat SEO, which has led to Google penalizing poor quality links. If you get links from untrustworthy websites you can ask Google to ‘disavowal’ them. This prevents them from affecting your site but it should rarely be used. Too many disavowals can also damage you.
Technical SEO made simple
It’s about as exciting as it sounds. Fortunately, the benefits you’ll get from it across your whole site has made it well worth the wait.
What is technical SEO?
Technical SEO is the process of optimizing the technical aspects of your website for search engines to crawl and index without encountering problems. In technical SEO, you may work on fixing errors, and improving website speed and structure to enhance user experience.
Fundamentals of Technical SEO
Look at SEO like a pyramid. Your web pages go through a series of steps from getting discovered right through to the main goal of gaining clicks.
Technical SEO focuses mostly on the foundations: crawlability, indexability and accessibility. They can’t be ignored because they are blocking factors for your rankability and clickability.
Start with your domain URL. Google likes secure and clean websites that remove unnecessary information for it to process.
Today, internet users can search for URL’s without the ‘www.’ Get rid of it if you can.
You may see HTTP at the start of some URLs. Use SSL to get ‘https://’ instead. HTTPS (Hypertext transfer protocol secure) is a safer version of HTTP. The extra ‘S’ stands for ‘secure’. HTTPS encrypts the communication between your website and browser and makes life harder for hackers. Using your web host, set up an SSL certificate on your website.
Google PageSpeed Insights is your go-to tool when it comes to technical SEO. Use it regularly to monitor and increase your page speed. Simply go through all their recommendations.
Set up a Google Analytics account and verify your website as well. It will also become your best friend. It gives you mountains of data about the traffic coming to your site and how it performs. You can see which individual pages load slower compared to the average load speed across the site.
To check, log in to Google Analytics, then go to <behaviour < site speed < page timings. Now improve the slower pages!
Congratulations, you’re almost at the end!
Let’s quickly go through the foundation steps to conquer the SEO pyramid.
The Google spiders that crawl your website will only do so if web pages are visible. Here’s how you can become easier to find:
XML Sitemap – A sitemap is like your website’s table of contents. All the links are located in one place to make it easier for search engines to understand your site structure.
If you downloaded our on-page SEO checklist, one of many actions included getting the free Yoast SEO plugin. That will come in handy right now. Yoast will create your sitemap for you. All you need to do is submit it to the search engines.
Ok, that’s the finicky bit out the way
Get used to search console because it’s your central hub to find out how you’re performing on Google. It gives you:
- best performing pages on Google
- how many clicks and impressions (views) you receive
- most of your site errors that need fixing
- information about when pages were last crawled and indexed
- ability to manually submit a request to add or remove pages from Google
- sitemap submissions
- information on your top internal and external links
Crawl Budget – Since there is so much information out there, Google will only crawl and index a limited number of pages within a time frame. So, prioritise your important pages and lose unneeded ones.
Site Architecture – Making the important pages visible to crawlers is a matter of reducing the number of clicks needed to reach those pages. This is called ‘crawl depth’. If it takes more than 3 clicks to reach a page, that”s bad news. Structure your site menus and content so that everything from the homepage can be reached, ideally within 1 or 2 clicks. This improves navigation and gives your visitors a better experience.
Remove duplicate content – Avoid copy and pasting text across different pages. Make the same point in a different way. If you need duplicate content on pages, look up and use canonical URLs to indicate preferred content to search engines.
Mobile Responsiveness – Google indexes mobile-friendly sites first so test and improve your performance with their mobile-friendly tool.
Fix HTTP errors – 400 and 500 errors when pages cannot be reached. The 500 issues are related to your server so contact your web host provider. The 400s relate to your website and browser.
Fix broken links – Make sure if you change or relocate a URL, you place a redirect from the old URL to the new one. If you don’t you will get 404 errors. Remove links to out-of-date or removed content, and old URLs.
Fix broken images – Just replace the image to a new pathway for browsers to find the image.
If your server performance is weak, you’re gonna have a bad time. Your site will go down more often so the bots crawling can’t see it.
To make your pages accessible, you will need to create an internal linking around your site. The crawlers move through pages with links so embed them sparingly. This links with on-page and some good practice is included in the SEO checklist.
That’s enough technical SEO for one day!
One last thing we promised…
Earlier we mentioned the importance of relevance for local businesses. This is because many searchers are looking for local solutions. Niche and other small sites should take advantage of this to rank high for contextually relevant keywords.
Local SEO helps a lot here. Get your business listed on Google maps, fill out all your information so your location and key topics of interest are known. Increase the Google reviews to add credibility to your local listing. Prompt customers to give you feedback by sending review links to them.
Use the techniques mentioned for on-page SEO but include your target locations across different pages. If certain places appear more in crawls, Google will start to get the hint.
You made it…Take a well-deserved break, bookmark the page and come back later if you need to.
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