Getting Started with SEO Basics

Tablet with Google homepage displayed on the screen.
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You’ve heard the acronym SEO. Maybe you know it stands for search engine optimization. And you’ve likely heard something to the effect of it being the unicorn strategy that will magically flip the script on your struggling website, improving its discoverability and effectiveness a hundred-fold. But what exactly is SEO and how does it work?

Search engine optimization (SEO) means to optimize your site and the content on it to improve the chance of it appearing as a top result for strategically chosen keyword queries on search engines. Basically, you’re trying to get search engines to like your site and recommend it to the most relevant users. To do this, though, you first need to understand a little about search engines themselves.

How Search Engines Work

There are over 1 billion websites in the world today. Navigating this amount of content and finding what we need would be nearly impossible without search engines. There are many you can choose from, including Google, Bing, Baidu, Yahoo!, and DuckDuckGo, but Google is by far the most popular with a market share of over 90% of searches worldwide. 

Search engines do 3 primary things that impact your website’s appearance in their results: 

  • Crawling
    Search engines use robots, sometimes referred to as crawlers or spiders, to find and look at the content of pages on the internet. This discovery process is called crawling because these bots crawl through the code of a webpage to identify what is on the page and find links to more pages.

  • Indexing
    Once bots find content, they must index it, or store and organize it in the search engine’s database so that that content can be retrieved later and placed on search engine result pages (SERPs) for users

  • Ranking
    Since there’s so much content on the internet of varying quality, search engines must examine the content on a page and rank it in terms of how good of a source it thinks that page would be for relevant queries. The higher quality the search engine thinks a page’s content is, the higher it will place the link to that page in a SERP.

What this means for your site

Hand holding up phone with question mark drawn in red on the screen.
Photo by olenka sergienko at pexels.com

The most important thing to remember for SEO is that the goal of search engines, above all else, is to be helpful to their users. That should be your primary goal with your website and its content as well. Excelling at SEO for the sake of winning the SEO game is not a goal you should bother with as it doesn’t really achieve much. Instead, SEO efforts should be seen in the context of assistance to larger goals like improving your click-through rate or increasing conversions on your site.

Never create or edit your site or its content exclusively to please search engines. User experience (UX) should outrank SEO in your decision-making because UX is more likely to help you succeed in your goals. Search engines will drive users to your site, but if it’s not built in a way that makes users stay, then your SEO efforts will have been for nothing.

Now, if you want to improve your SEO there are a lot of things you can do to help search engines crawl through your site to discover your content, make them want to index it, and have them rank it higher in SERPs. However, doing everything correctly does not guarantee success in increasing traffic to your site.

Search engines don’t always share exactly what it takes for you to do well on their platforms. They tend, though, to be forthcoming because the better optimized your site and content is, the better results they can provide users. But in some cases, they may want to keep certain workings of their algorithms private for proprietary reasons or, in other cases, they don’t completely know themselves how results are determined.

Google’s algorithm has a machine-learning component called RankBrain, for example, that uses observations and data to continuously improve search results. Machine-learning means technology can teach itself so even Google’s experts can only guestimate the logic RankBrain uses today and they have no way of accurately predicting how it will make decisions in the future. This is why, despite the best SEO work, it might remain a mystery why your site ranks the way it does.

SEO gives you some control in determining the impact search engines can have on your site, but not all the control. By no means, though, does this signal SEO isn’t worth the effort. Different search engines have slightly different rules and requirements but here are a few areas to consider in order to give your site a leg up:

Keyword research, strategy, and usage

You must decide what searches you think are the best for your site to be ranked in and then incorporate the keywords for those searches in your content and even in page URLs. Building your keyword strategy isn’t always straightforward. You need to do an audit of keywords you’re interested in ranking for and do competitor analysis to see where your best opportunities are.

For example, if you’re a local car wash it might make sense at first to target the “car wash” search query but that’s a very broad selection. A search engine doesn’t know if someone making this query is looking for a car wash to take their car to, instructions on how to wash a car, products for washing cars with, or even the song “Car Wash”. Plus, this generic search may require more work to outrank competition from bigger, more well-known brands.

However, a search for “car wash near X city” is much more explanatory to the search engine and you’re likely to have less competition here so raising your rank in the SERPs will be easier. The keyword “car wash” is likely to already be in your site’s content but adding geo-location keywords can help your SEO in this query and get your site fed to more relevant users.

Just don’t add keywords to your content in an unnatural way simply for the sake of SEO. Adding certain words multiple times, highlighting keywords, or giving pages spammy looking URLs can negatively impact users’ opinions of your site.

Title Tags

The title tag in a page’s HTML is not seen by a user, but it is read by search engines. Because of this, you should refrain from using arbitrary or meaningless titles. Look at the first example below. “Page 1” doesn’t tell a search engine anything about what kind of content might be on this page.

<title>Page 1</title>

However, in this second example below “Lunch Menu” gives a little more context for the page content and how the search engine might categorize it. Adding further information like a brand name or location could provide even more context.

<title>Lunch Menu</title>

Meta dESCRIPTIONS

Meta descriptions are what show up below the blue hyperlink heading for each search result in a SERP. Optimizing these means making sure to use important keywords for that page early in this descriptive text and keep the description the right length for the search engine. Generally, you want to limit them to 160 characters or less, but still make them appealing enough to get users to click on your page.

Going back to our car wash search, here are 2 examples of meta descriptions I found when searching for “car wash” on Google. The first one ending in an ellipse has not been optimized for length or content in comparison to the second.

Screenshot of Google search result with Russel Speeder's Car Wash - Milford Prices in blue as the heading. Subtext lists prices and ends in ellipse indicating description is too long for the container.
Example of a non-optimized meta description
Screenshot of Google search result with Kleen N Green Car Wash - Milford & Bridgeport Connecticut in blue as the heading. Subtext read Environmentally friendly car wash in Milford Connecticut and Bridgeport Connecticut - Recognized in Connecticut Now's "Best of New Haven" Carwash.
Example of an optimized meta description

headings

Within the HTML of webpages, headings are denoted with <h1> through < h6> with the <h1>tag being the most important one on a page. These headings appear onscreen and search engines read them as well to understand the content of a page.

For SEO then it can be a good idea to include important keywords in your headings and, even though <h1> is the most important, try to include subheadings in your pages. Just be sure your headings still make sense and seem natural for users. If forcing a keyword into a heading is going to make it sound clunky, don’t do it.

Information Architecture

As mentioned before, search engines need to be able to crawl through your site to discover all your pages and content. If they can’t get to a page it might as well not exist. You need to make sure the information architecture of your site has every page you want to be discovered connected in a way that search engines can navigate.

You can assist search engines by providing them a sitemap in the form of an XML file. This lists all the pages and files on your site that you want a search engine to crawl, information about them, and their relationships. For example, you can provide Google with a sitemap using Google Search Console.

Loading Speed

I’ve previously discussed how you can speed up page load by optimizing images. This plays a role in SEO as well. Search engines know people like webpages that load faster, preferably in less than a couple seconds. Therefore, search engines take loading speed into consideration when evaluating pages and ranking results. The slower a page, potentially the harder it is to compete.

Any efforts to improve page load time, such as image optimization, compression, etc., can help SEO. You can use Google’s PageSpeed Insights to learn more about a page’s performance and opportunities for improvement.

Mobile-first

As the popularity of mobile devices has grown so has the prioritization of them by search engines. Google, for example, now says it uses mobile-first indexing. This means it mostly considers how your webpages appear on mobile devices and looks at the code provided to mobile devices to determine indexing and ranking.

Any differences in your site between mobile and desktop devices could cause a problem for SEO and should be examined. These may include differences in visible content, URLs, or navigation.

Security

In case you haven’t heard security is a big deal now in the digital world and that includes search engines. Pages can be ranked lower if a search engine thinks it is engaged in bad behavior or is unsecured and a danger to users to visit. Google even goes as far as putting red warnings on search results for pages it deems a security risk.

You definitely don’t want a warning scaring users away from your site so you should make sure your site has the latest security protocols in place, such as using HTTPS instead of HTTP and a valid SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificate. You can talk to your developers, engineers, or information security team to make sure these steps have been taken for your site.

Quality BackLinks

Search engines only want to provide users with trusted, authoritative sources of information because these are likely to be the most helpful. The more a search engine finds a page to be trustworthy and an authority on a topic, the more likely it is to index that page and rank it highly.

One of the best ways to establish trust and authority is to get other trusted authorities to link back to your site. Think of it as word-of-mouth marketing for search engines. If you’re a car wash and the Car Wash Association of America gives you an award and links to your site from theirs then that’s a pretty reliable source in the eyes of a search engine. The more quality backlinks your site can get, the better it will do.

Great Content

This may or may not be obvious, but the better your content is, the more users find it helpful and relevant, and the better your site will do with search engines. There’s no tricks or shortcuts to succeeding with this SEO necessity. All you can do here is put in the time and effort to understand your intended audience and create the best content you can.  
 
To get a base for what this means just look at competitors’ content and create content that 10 times better than that. If you can do this, then you will please users and search engines.

A Never-Ending Effort

Wooden Scrabble tiles spelling out Refine Pause Observe Consider Repeat against a white backdrop.
Photo by brett jordan pklbjhv1usy at unsplash.com

This was just a short, general list of the actions you can take to improve your SEO. There are many others. However, even if you accomplish everything listed here – which would be a large feat – you’ll never be done and likely you’ll need to repeat and revise some efforts regularly.

The algorithms of search engines are always changing, refining their understanding of what people want and what criteria matter the most. Plus, remember that your competition always has the opportunity to up their SEO game at any moment. You may be ranked number 1 in a search query one day and drop to number 6 the next.

SEO is not a one and done project but something you must continuously consider throughout the life of your website and regularly plan strategic efforts to bolster. Your site is only as relevant as Google deems it today. There is no status quo in SEO.


References

Manage your sitemaps. Google. Retrieved from https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/156184?hl=en

SEO made simple: A step-by-step guide for 2020. Neil Patel. Retrieved from https://neilpatel.com/what-is-seo/

The beginner’s guide to SEO. Moz. Retrieved from https://moz.com/beginners-guide-to-seo

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