SEO, i.e. Search Engine Optimization, is about creating web pages that are favorable to search engine evaluations.
Technically, what the search engines want to know is what your site and pages are about.
This is needed so that the engines can display the most valuable pages to people when they search for information.
So ultimately, SEO serves the search intent of your actual and potential customers.
For example, if your page is about cast iron frying pans, you, of course, write about cast iron frying pans in the page copy.
But in SEO you don’t leave it at that.
You need to know what places exactly do the search engines check when analyzing your site, and make sure “cast iron frying pans” is mentioned in all of those places.
If you do this well, your site will have chances to rank high on their search results page (SERP).
I say “will”, because several other factors affect ranking, too. The rules also change several times a year so you need to make SEO a continuous activity.
Here’s a good summary of SEO basics:
How to start with SEO?
The actual optimization begins by identifying the keywords that the people you want to attract to your site actually use, and then adjusting your website to match those keywords.
You can increase this relevance by doing technical, on-page and off-page SEO improvements.
That is the basic level.
On a level that actually makes a difference nowadays, you need to deliver real value continuously to your customers. You also need to build digital relationships i.e. links between your site and other quality sites. They, in turn increase your Domain Authority.
Not convinced? Consider this:
- There are more than 1,2 billion websites online today
- Each day, about 140 000 new ones are born together with 2 million new blog posts being published.
If not for anything else, then do SEO to stand out just due to this sheer volume, because there is a lot of noise out there and you want your signal to be heard.
Search engine optimization is mostly optimizing for Google
Although both Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and the rest all have their internal search functionalities, optimizing a web page is in practice optimizing for Google, because it is the most popular search engine in the western world.
And when you optimize, you need to take into account Google’s algorithm, the set of rules they use to valuate a site.
Rather than taking it as an annoyance, do consider the algorithm as your friend, because it also makes sure that when you search for cast iron frying pans, your search results will include links to websites about cast iron frying pans and not cat videos.
For the same reason, the most popular results appear at the top of the list and the less relevant on the following pages. This usually means that the ones appearing at the top have done their SEO and the others have not.
The search result page (SERP) of Google consists of the advertisements at the top and the so-called organic results below them.
You can buy advertisement space at the top as a temporary means to increase your visibility, but you have no business among the top organic search results unless you keep doing your SEO. SEO affects especially these organic results.
Meanwhile, Google itself is getting increasingly sophisticated in understanding the overall context of a page. This has caused more pages to rank among the top search results without, for example, the target keyword mentioned in the content. This means that you no longer have to obsess about exact match keyword usage in every single SEO element if you can manage your context.
Still, until you yourself have proven facts (through your analytics) that an element has an impact on your ranking or it doesn’t, my suggestion is to follow the basic SEO rules and then start testing them one by one to see what makes a difference in your case. Each audience is different.
Finally, SEO does pay off, because reaching a position in the top ten results guarantees a 90% probability for the users to click on the link to your site while the top three get 61% of all the attention.
And now for the actual stuff.
- It may sound obvious, but create a page title that describes the page content. Take no artistic freedoms here. One day, Google’s artificial intelligence will be able to interpret sarcasm, poetry, and meaning in high context cultures. Until that, keep it simple.
- Place your target keyword at the beginning of the title or as close to the beginning as possible. This is important due to the SEO rules, but also because humans skim internet content in a so-called F-pattern, where the top left area of the screen gets the most attention.
- Keep the title length between six words or 150 characters. This is the amount that Google shows in its search results page.
- Make sure the title is in between the H1 tags.
- Clear content structure: title, paragraph, level 2 headline, another paragraph, CTA, conclusion, another CTA is the rough pattern here.
- Your target keyword among the first 100 words.
- You may have heard about an optimal keyword density, but as long as you keep the text flowing naturally, you don’t need to do keyword stuffing or calculate the keyword frequencies.
- Longer content tends to be better. For example, according to this research, the average length of the best articles out there is nowadays approaching 2000 words. If that sounds like a lot, you can very well start with 500 and keep increasing the length later. But it really depends on the keywords, industry and your audience.
- Pages with images in them tend to rank higher than those without.
- However, more pictures does not automatically equal better ranking. Valuable content dictates success.
- Make sure you have your target keyword in the image ALT text. This is because the search engines do not yet understand image contents well so the ALT text tells them what the image is about.
Brian explains on-page SEO well in his video:
Page address (URL)
- Avoid these: sitename.com/p=123 and sitename.com/blog/2017-03-12/article-title-and-then-some. Content management system IDs and other fluff do not help here.
- sitename.com/your-keyword is the best format.
- The title is the blue link and text that Google shows about your article or page in its search results. The title is also shown in the tab names when several browser tabs are open.
- You can help the reader decide whether your page is what he/she is looking for by creating titles that are to the point.
- Google shows the Description of your page in the description section in its search results. Together with the title and address, the Description is the three elements that help the reader to decide whether your page is what he/she is looking for. That’s why keep all of them very informative. You can simulate all of them with portent.com/serp-preview-tool.
- Keep the Description between 115 and 155 characters (due to mobile and other device limitations).
- If you manage your website with a content management system (e.g. Squarespace or WordPress), you may not be able to edit the three elements directly. But, for example in WordPress there is a very handy plugin called Yoast SEO that guides you in creating optimal titles, addresses and Descriptions.
Links from other pages
- Now, this is one of the factors really making a difference in today’s SEO. It means the number and quality of the links pointing to your site and to your pages from other internet pages.
- You can strive to create a lot of links, but even one link from a high quality (=with a high domain authority) can bring you a lot of valuable traffic.
- You can create links for example by guest blogging, but the best method for link creation is to simply create great content that people will want to link to. What is great really depends on your industry and your specific audience.
- The page and site loading speeds are related to the general usability of your content. Other factors include typography, visual imagery, overall design, and navigation. The speed is one of the most important SEO factors because the human attention span has decreased to eight seconds due to the usage of the modern digital devices.
- You can check your site speed for example with GTMetrix. They produce a very detailed and free report that you can use to improve your site’s performance.
- If you are operating in a specific geographical area, it really pays off to complete Google’s local SEO process.
CTR (Click through rate)
- CTR is a measure that tells you how many people that saw your content clicked the page link. By improving your CTR, you can significantly improve your site ranking.
- You can improve your CTR by writing better and more informative page titles and Descriptions and by using certain expressions in them. Here’s a list of things that you can check out:
- A research about effective words: blog.bufferapp.com/the-most-popular-words-in-most-viral-headlines
- “25”: create 25 versions of a title. The 26th may be what you were looking for: coschedule.com/blog/write-better-headlines
- 33 other ways to write a good headline: coschedule.com/blog/write-a-headline
- Go to Medium.com and check out their “Top stories” to see what kind of headlines the best writers out there have recently used.
- Even if your CTR is high, it does not automatically mean a high ranking. The reason might be your high bounce rate. BR is the number of people that left your site or page immediately (=after less than thirty seconds) after landing on it (out of all people that visited your site per month).
- There might be several reasons for a high bounce rate, but most often it is because your content did not match what the visitor was looking for (=their search intent). That might be, because your Title, URL, and Description were not really informative or did not match what your page was about.
- You can decrease your bounce rate by creating longer content. Another great tool is video. Both of these keep users engaged longer than great design or short articles.
SEO in short
The following picture describes in a nutshell what SEO is about (thank you Moz for the idea!). In short
- Choose the keyword
- Include it in the Title
- Include it in the URL
- Begin the first chapter with the keyword, or, at least, include it within the first 100 words.
- Add the keyword in the image “ALT” tag
The best SEO articles
Ok, those are the very basics of SEO.
I’m not even attempting to beat the best articles out there and have instead listed them below.
A very thorough, 16-chapter package by Search Engine Land about all things SEO. Read it to get started.
A 205-point list of elements affecting Google ranking: blog.mytasker.com/google-ranking-factors.
A thorough article by Ahrefs providing original research about keyword dependent SEO (including keyword in domain name, URL, Title, Meta Description, Headline, Subheading, Content, in the first 100 words and in image ALT tags), general on-page SEO (age of the page, HTTP vs HTTPS, page load time, content length, URL length, outbound links, broken links and social shares) as well as relevance & exact match keyword optimization.
A 21-point list of actions you can take elsewhere to optimize your page. These include posting stuff and engaging people on other sites, forums and social media.
Other proven techniques
A 16-point How-to type of article including most of what Ahrefs discussed plus a few more. The page begins with a nice infographic about on-page SEO factors that you can use as a checklist.
Another 200-point list of changes by Ahrefs that you can implement right now to start getting results.
A list of 22 technical, on-page and off-page techniques by Styla to optimize a page.
A long article by Matthew Barby about various SEO techniques.
Not convinced? There are opposing views to SEO, indeed
You need to deserve a high ranking, not perform tips and tricks to get poor content up there. I agree. Overpromising and underdelivering will only increase your bounce rate when they realize your content is in the wrong company.
Google is optimizing for users. That includes you, too. That’s why, SEO must be about optimizing your presence across the web for where the users are. So, understand first who your target audience is and where they spend their time, then optimize for those platforms and build organic presence.
How to measure SEO success
Planning to embark on an SEO journey? Great! Set a goal first. Here are some ideas:
Not the rank only
A simplistic way to measure SEO success used to be your page rank in search engine results page (SERP).
However, today it may not be relevant because no position is static. Quite the contrary, there are several factors making the rankings dynamic:
- First of all, Google keeps changing their algorithm several times a year. What works today may not work tomorrow.
- Also, Google is getting increasingly sophisticated in interpreting what you actually want and how to personalize the results just for you. Based on my recent projects I can confirm this myself: a customer of mine sees a different ranking for his website than I do. He’s using desktop and IE, I’m using Safari and iPhone. We are 40 kilometers apart. That matters today.
- Third, you probably have more than one Buyer Persona and they have different needs depending on whether they have just become aware of their need, whether they are comparing options or have decided to buy. Thus, their first search might be about “widgets”, their second about “green widgets” and the last about “best <location X> green widgets”. Finally, they might look for “experiences with <location X> green widgets by <your company>”. Thus, you must not strive for one keyword, but manage several of them as a long-term investment portfolio.
Instead: traffic, CRO & keyword portfolio
“But I want to measure my success!”
Sure! Do this:
- Traffic: measure the increase in organic traffic compared e.g. to the year before and/or last month.
- Conversion rates: how many visitors downloaded gated content and ended up buying?
- Ranking: create a ranking index for the keywords and manage them like an investment portfolio.
- CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost): calculate how much does the acquisition of a new customer cost you?
These should get you started.
In any case, absolutely search engine optimize.
But first, create great content.
You might also need to pay for ads in the beginning to gain visibility.
Every now and then you can do an SEO audit to check the health of your website.
And do consider your whole digital presence.
How long does it take for SEO to have an effect?
In our experience, it takes about ten weeks for your website to start improving its ranking.
However, there are several factors that are involved. SEO Plus has a good article that highlights these.