With all the information out there, it's very easy to get lost and start focusing on things that don't matter much. So if you are just starting out marketing your website, here's a quick beginner's guide to SEO.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of getting your website placed as high as possible in search engine results, also known as “page rank.”
There are some definite steps you can take to do this, but there's also an awful lot of FUD and radio static out there when you start searching for SEO information.
The rampant BS in SEO can be traced all the way back to the roots of the industry, which coincided with the rise of Google.
As Google became synonymous with internet search, the first SEO specialists largely developed spammy and unethical tricks to vault their pages to the top of Google's listings.
Google has gradually fine-tuned their search algorithm over the years to eliminate most of these tricks, but it took them the better part of a decade to really stamp everything out.
During that time, a lot of SEO agencies and “experts” built their careers and business models on the unethical way of doing SEO.
When Google locked their “black hat” tactics down, they apparently felt it was too late to pivot to doing legitimate business. So they still exist, pushing outdated solutions that will probably harm businesses more than they help.
They're able to hang on because SEO is a concept that isn't taught in schools, and that most businesses owners know nothing about and don't have the time to spare to learn.
Thus this relatively brief and easy-to-understand guide.
What Exactly Should SEO Be Doing For Your Business?
Legitimate SEO is a series of steps you take in adding and arranging content to your web presence. Your website is obviously the centerpiece, but you also need to take social media and your general reputation with other entities into consideration.
If you do these steps right, when potential customers search for terms related to your business, they'll be much more likely to end up at your site instead of somewhere else.
Google is the biggest search engine by far, and should be the center of your attention. There are some more minor players in the search game (like Bing, Ask.com and DuckDuckGo) that may be worth considering, but since most of the world uses Google as their default search engine, that's the one to focus on getting right first.
1) Make Sure The Search Engines Know What You're About
The first and most important thing to do is to make sure that search engines are categorizing your site properly and sending the right keyword traffic to you.
This is mostly straightforward. If you have a page detailing what your business offers, Google will usually figure out what you're about through context.
There are some things you can do to help it along, however. One is targeting search terms that are relevant to your business, and making sure they are present on your pages.
It isn't a matter of just ham-handedly repeating your desired keywords in your pages, however. That's called “keyword stuffing” and it died out a long time ago. Instead, the best approach is to have informative pages that relate to your desired keyword. The keyword can be mentioned several times, ideally with semantic derivations here and there, but you don't want to overdo it.
Instead, focus on blending it into content that is genuinely useful to the reader with no strings attached. That's the kind of thing that Google looks upon most favorably. For example, if you owned a hardware business and wanted to target traffic searching for a particular type of tool, you might create content that mentions that tool in the context of some DIY tips for using it.
Exact placement of your key phrases in each page used to be really important, but it isn't all that important anymore. It doesn't hurt to get your key search terms into the title and into headers throughout the page, but Google doesn't rely on that information to identify pages the way they used to.[bctt tweet=”It doesn't hurt to get your key search terms into the title and into headers throughout the page, but Google doesn't rely on that information to identify pages the way they used to.” username=”nicolasfradet”]
Instead, Google takes in the whole page to determine context and displays a preview snippet that appears to them to be most relevant to the search term. So as far as word placement goes, you'll want the text around your target phrases to really be incentivizing the viewer to click through.
Now you might think that all of this only applies to articles or blogs but that's not true. Even if your page is part of a sales funnel meant to sell a product or a service, or is an optin landing page, and is a bit more “salesy”, you should still always be thinking “how can I make sure visitors are happy with the content, but search engines too”.
2) Fine-Tuning Your Target Keywords
The issue with keywords is that there's tons of competition out there for all of the common ones already.
For this reason, keyword SEO is more helpful the more locally-focused your business is. On a national or international stage, you're competing with anywhere from thousands to millions of similar businesses. In the local area, however, you just need to outrank your handful of nearby direct competitors.
It's still important for all types of businesses to effectively communicate what they are about to Google, but if you're trying to draw traffic from all over the country or all over the world, you probably won't want to worry too much more about keywords unless you have a very specific niche that there isn't already much competition in.
If you want to get into advanced keyword SEO, the next big step is to target long-tail keywords that aren't as competitive as generic, shorter searches.
Let's use the hardware business example again. If someone searches for “tools,” you're up against an overwhelming amount of competition, so there's little point in targeting that search.
However, you would probably face less competition if your business caters to people searching for “specialized tools for the scandium industry,” so it's worth focusing on related search phrases throughout your site's content.
There are a lot of tricks for finding long-tail keyword ideas and measuring how thick the competition already is for them.
This is one area where hiring a legitimate SEO company can really help if you don't have time to learn and play around with unfamiliar tools, as the learning curve is a bit steep.
If you want to DIY, you'll want to look into a bulk keyword tool like SEMrush, which helps you quickly identify relevant search terms based on a description of your business. You then feed these terms into keyword analysis tools to get an idea of how many people are searching for them and where they are winding up.
3) Populating Your Site With Good Content
If manipulating Google's algorithm was all that mattered, the “black hat” SEO industry would still be thriving. Google also considers the quality of your content. Basic things like good spelling and punctuation are important, but the key is making it genuinely useful to the reader.
While Google's algorithm is pretty advanced in terms of processing context, it's still far from being able to beat a pair of eyes and a brain. So Google hires thousands of brains to perform manual reviews of websites. Their ratings play a large role in where your site winds up in the search rankings.
Google's algorithm is shrouded in mystery, but the reviewer guidelines provided to their contractors are regularly leaked to the internet. The style and format don't matter so much; just that they determine it to be legitimately helpful and informative to someone searching for the target term, while also being readable (and not plagiarized).
Authority and trust are also major factors in how your content is ranked. Formal credentials are nice, and you should definitely present them if you've got them, but they aren't always necessary.
Google only wants to see credentials if you're covering a highly technical or potentially sensitive topic (like medicine or the law). If it's something that doesn't require formal training, you can demonstrate authority just by having thorough informative content that is well-written and accurate.
The most important principle in your content development strategy should be “do no harm.”[bctt tweet=”The most important principle in your content development strategy should be: do no harm.” username=”nicolasfradet”]
That means not referring customers to known scams, malware sites, inaccurate medical information, “fake news” or anything else that can potentially harm them.
If Google determines your site is promoting harmful or unethical things, you'll take a very heavy page rank penalty.
4) Looking Into Link Building
Backlinks are an area in which you have to be very careful. This was the original method of scamming search engines, because Google's original algorithm basically ranked pages based on how many other pages were linking to them.
Things are much more sophisticated now, but there is still value in links from the right sources. The approach here is “friends in high places,” links from sites that Google views as a leading authority help to boost your page rank.
The best way to get links is completely organic. Provide good service at fair prices, and get lots of happy customer reviews and references. Get good press coverage from legitimate journalism outlets for the good things your business does. Post quality content that gets shared and referenced by your customers.
SEO agencies that prominently advertise link building or backlinking services are the ones that have to be approached with the most caution and skepticism. There are some legitimate ways to do it, but this is also the area in which most of the scams take place.
5) Disavow Bad Links in Google Search Console
While good links from respected sites help your page rank, bad links from low-quality sites hurt it.
Unfortunately, you can't control who links to you. And it is possible for competitors to purposely put links to you on questionable sites to devalue your page rank. Some of the unethical SEO agencies even advertise this as a service.
Fortunately, Google gives you a defense mechanism against this. Through their free Search Console feature, you can view all the sites that link to you, and opt to disavow any that you think may be hurting you. Any site you have disavowed will no longer be counted toward your page rank.
The Ins and Outs of this Beginner's Guide to SEO in 2018
SEO is not tremendously complicated, but it's a lot to of unfamiliar material to digest for the newcomer, and a lot of the helpful SEO tools do not have the most helpful or intuitive interfaces.
It's often more economical for a business owner to hire an SEO expert or agency to handle these details for them. If you make sure that their basic approach lines up with the principles outlined here, you can avoid having your page damaged by unethical techniques or wasting money on a service that does nothing.
So I would recommend you take your time learning the basics of SEO, and simply apply the main concepts that will help your pages rank in the search engines.
It will certainly pay off! 🙂