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It's hard to believe, but those three letters, SEO, could make or break a business. In today's digital world, where business is increasingly conducted online, a strong SEO strategy is absolutely essential. We'll look into this in more detail later, but first, we need to start with the basics to get a better understanding of the subject.
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. In its simplest terms, this basically means that a website is enhanced using certain tools and processes to make it more visible. It is optimized in a way that makes major search engines more likely to find it when search queries online use a particular set of keywords. This means that the website will rank higher in the list of search results that will send relevant 'traffic' to your site, increasing the chances of potential customers or clients clicking on the link and visiting the website (known as the click-through rate).
For example, if someone searches for 'used cars in Kent', the search engine will look for websites containing those terms and return the results for the user. This will take less than a second, and will provide millions of results.
There are billions of websites out there, many containing similar information. If your website doesn't appear high enough in the ranking, then it will be lost amongst all the other results. Studies show that very few people ever look further than the first page of results when they perform an internet search. Over 75% of internet users stay on the first page, and 25% of them only click on the first website listed. This means that your website is in danger of being virtually invisible unless it is optimized to boost its ranking.
With our example (used cars in Kent), as we've seen, hardly anyone is going to click on the second page of results. And as these search results run to dozens of pages, a used car business in Kent that doesn't have an optimized website really doesn't stand a chance of being seen online if it gets pushed down to page 10 or beyond.
However, a competitor, who has taken SEO seriously, will have a good ranking and be visible to anyone who performs this search.
Although it sounds straightforward, and in some senses it is, it can be a complex subject. We're going to go through the world of SEO in minute detail, breaking it down into manageable pieces to help you get to grips with it.
By the end of this guide, you'll be well equipped to plan and design your own SEO strategy, or at least understand what the experts are talking about when you hire a professional web design company or SEO specialist. As a business owner, it's never a comfortable feeling to be in the dark on any subject that may affect your business in any way. You don't feel fully in control, and you could be vulnerable to unscrupulous people who will take advantage of your lack of knowledge.
So, let's go through things one at a time to give you a greater knowledge of the subject, and the peace of mind that comes with that.
If we're optimizing our website content so that search engines can find it more easily, we should really explain what a search engine is. If you already know this, great. But don't feel patronised, as we are going through the basics here to ensure that everything is covered and nothing is missed.
Search engines are special software systems designed to trawl through the World Wide Web and find information based on a series of keywords. The World Wide Web (or simply, the Web) is a collection of electronic pages (websites) that can be accessed via the internet.
You might recognise some of these major search engines: Google, Bing, Yahoo, and DuckDuckGo. There are other search engines, but these four are the most popular at present. Of these, Google is by far the biggest and most popular, responsible for 86.64% of search engine traffic in 2021. By comparison, Bing took less than 7%.
Many people believe the Web and the internet to be one and the same thing, but this is not the case. The internet is a massive collection of computers that allows people to access information on web pages that are linked together, using a web browser. Think of it in terms of the web being a series of towns and cities, and the internet as the roads that link them.
You'll probably be familiar with some of the popular web browsers, such as Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Edge (previously Internet Explorer), and Safari, by Apple.
Web browsers and search engines are not the same things either: a search engine finds the information on the web and holds it in one place, while web browsers are software programs that use the search engines to retrieve and view those search results.
Search engines use computer programs called web crawlers (also known as spider bots, crawler bots, web spiders, or bots) to search through the billions of web pages that are publicly available. The crawlers then index these sites and display them in order, filtering and sorting them so that the search engines understand exactly what each page is about.
How do they know which search results are relevant, or what order to place them in?
Crawler bots, like the Googlebot, will crawl from page to page searching for keywords. When you type anything into the search bar, whether it's Google Chrome or any other web browser, the crawler bots get to work. Using specially designed algorithms (a set of specific instructions), they look for anything related to the search. They do this by looking at the URLs for each page, as well as any other markers you have placed, such as meta tags and meta descriptions.
We'll explain these last two later, but first, let's deal with URLs to see why they're important.
Often referred to as a web address, URL stands for Universal Resource Locator. These addresses are usually displayed above the website in the address bar, and will typically show a protocol (either HTTP or HTTPS), a hostname (for example, www.thisisanexample.com), and a file name (something like index.html).
This address specifies your website's location within the Web, and this is vitally important to SEO as it can help your target audience to find your website. And with more than 3.5 billion Google searches a day, you can see why they might need some assistance.
While the URL is the address, your domain name is the actual name of your site, and this appears within the URL. So, to put things simply, the domain name is the name of the website, the URL is its address, and the website is what they see. It's a bit like a shop in the street. The shop has a name (domain), a physical address (URL), and the goods on the shelves for you to browse (the web pages).
SEO-friendly URLs impact your website's ranking, making it easier to find and increasing the chances of visitors staying longer. And the longer they stay, the more likely they are to interact, return to your site, or buy services or goods. Search engine crawlers use these URLs to link through to other pages, making connections to relevant content.
Opinions are divided on the subject of multiple URLs. This is when a company buys several domain names and uses more than one URL to direct more traffic to their main website.
Some businesses use this as a way of protecting their trademark and cutting down the chances of user error: people make spelling mistakes as they type, so they might not find your website. By buying domains using various spellings of the company name, you can increase the chance of people finding your site. You will also reduce the risk of someone using your brand's reputation or a name that's very similar to draw business away from you.
A meta tag is a piece of information that tells the search engine what your website is all about. It is also sometimes visible to anyone searching for a specific subject, although this text doesn't generally appear on the website itself. Most websites are built using the computer code called HTML (hypertext markup language), and this is usually where these tags are placed.
There are different types of meta tags, including:
Search engine optimization works by using relevant keywords in a website to make sure that it appears on the search engine results pages (SERPs) and ranks highly (that is, the website is visible in the top handful of results on the very first page). Keywords are essential to SEO success, as they drive more search traffic to your websites, which potentially increases your conversion rate, where visits to your website are converted from leads into sales.
But how does it do this, exactly?
There are several types of keywords used in search engine optimization:
These are generally between three and five words long, although they can be much longer. They are more specific and are used to target niche demographics. They have a lower search rate, but a higher conversion value. And because they are less competitive, they rank higher in search results. While fewer people might use them, they know what they're looking for. If your long-tail keyword matches this, it increases the chances of your target audience engaging (i.e. buying goods or services, or seeking further information). Statistics show that around 92% of all keywords get 10 monthly searches or less, proving that most people use long-tail keywords. This has increased as voice searches have become more popular in recent times.
Here's an example of how a long-tail keyword might be used: if you search for 'running shoes' it returns about 2 billion results. However, if you search 'men's best waterproof running shoes UK, that figure drops to 16 million. While that's still a huge number, it's nowhere near as high as the first. If your business sells waterproof running shoes, you stand a better chance of a good ranking in the search results.
As you might have guessed, these are usually one or two words long. As a result, they are highly competitive and therefore have a higher search volume. Take the term SEO, for example. If you Google this, you'll get around 3.5 billion results. If you owned an SEO business, you would not have a hope of getting a high ranking. However, if you amend the search to Search Engine Optimization SEO beginner's guide 2021, the search volume drops to about 7 million.
This doesn't mean that short-tail keywords should be avoided, as they will drive most of the search traffic to your site. They are more useful for brand awareness, as your website will pop up in general searches, whereas the more valuable traffic will come from long-tail keywords.
The first two types of keyword on this list take their names from the graph that measures search volume over conversion rate. Short-tail keywords appear at the head of the curve as they have a high volume and low conversion rate. Long-tail keywords appear in the tail of the graph that stretches off to the right.
This usually relates to educative and informative content where the information is unlikely to change. The keywords remain relevant over time but may need to be updated occasionally. Although the page won't attract high numbers of visits, they tend to be slow and steady. This adds to your authority, which eventually increases your ranking on the search engine results pages (SERPS).
These are the exact opposite of long-term keywords and need to be updated regularly. They are often connected with trends and fashions, such as the latest diet, film, news items, and so on. These have a short lifespan but a high conversion rate.
You can tailor these keywords according to an imaginary customer profile aimed at your target audience. These have a low competition rate and a low search volume, but they usually have a high conversion rate.
The best thing about these is that the customer knows precisely what they are looking for. They will be further along in the buying process and right on the point of buying. They are familiar with the product and will search specifically for this. Again, competition will be low, but the conversion rate is very high. If you can steer them towards your site, you stand a good chance of making a sale.
Different terms that customers use can signal their intention to make a transaction. The more aware you are about this, the more you can design your website experience to secure a conversion.
Geo-targeting keywords are very helpful for small local businesses as they attract relevant customers in the local area. Google does this to an extent anyway as it recognises your location from the IP address. However, this isn't perfect and some less commonly searched businesses may miss out, as the results will include websites from elsewhere.
Because of this, it's wise to use your postcode, town, and general area as keywords. There's less competition but an increased chance of finding customers at the final stage of their 'buying journey'.
These are just a few of the more common keywords that an SEO expert will recommend.
Keyword research is vital to SEO success. You can use a keyword tool, like Google Analytics, to choose the best ones for your website, then check the results to see how much traffic you are getting for each one.
Links (sometimes called hyperlinks) are simply gateways from one website to another. Search engines crawl through these to navigate from site to site sorting, filtering, indexing and adjusting the directory as they go.
A blog post might contain links to other sites when referring to a product they've been promoting. This link will allow readers to click through and view the product, and possibly lead to a sale.
Journalists and authors use links to show their sources or allow for further research. Social media accounts are frequently used to create backlinks to pages, drawing custom from a potentially vast market (Facebook alone has around 2.8 billion active monthly users).
Although you can use internal links* within your own website to allow easy navigation, external links (backlinks) are best for SEO purposes, especially those that you haven't requested. Some websites are so appealing that other site owners will place a link to them from their own site. If you provide excellent content on your site's pages, then others may wish to link through to them.
*Some experts dismiss internal links, but these are important tools that help search engines find new pages that can be stored on the directory.
They are regarded as a sign of credibility, a vote of confidence in a website. Anyone who links their site to another is essentially indicating that they acknowledge the authority of that website in a given field.
However, it's not good practice to buy backlinks or to cram your website with too many. It's all about quality rather than quantity. Having several good quality links will boost your ranking in search engine results, bringing more traffic to your website.
Anytime an internet user performs a search, results are returned based on the keywords present on each website. Organic search results are essentially free results, in the sense that they don't involve any paid advertising. These are the result of searches based purely on the algorithms, without you having to pay to boost your ranking.
As you can imagine, this is the preferred option, unless your business has a big SEO budget and is prepared to pay for something like Google Ads, which puts your website above the organic results. You'll see these at the top of the search results page, usually separated from the organic search results by the people also ask section on Google Chrome.
It's interesting to note that surveys show these to be largely a waste of time, as very few people respond to the paid adverts that appear on a Google SERPs.
Even so, a sound SEO and digital marketing strategy don't come for free. However, it is a good investment and, when implemented and maintained properly, will result in increased revenue.
Google (and other search engines) are looking for high-quality content that gives a positive user experience. So, your first task is to do some housekeeping. Polish up your website and make it look great. Don't ignore those pages that you don't regard as important, as it's vital that you look at the entire site.
All broken links need to be removed and you must create content that is fresh, authoritative, relevant and up to date.
You then need to focus on your keywords. There are several free keyword research tools that can guide you as to which are the best ones to use: Google Keyword Planner; SERP Checker; Keyword Generator; Keyword Difficulty Checker, and so on.
It's worth investing the time in using a keyword research tool, as this will help you to find relevant ones that will boost search traffic to your site.
This is all about making your website stand out. Keywords are important, but your content has to be relevant. Google searches for all relevant content on your page that matches with a particular query. If there's not enough of it, you'll be overlooked and the bots will move on to find other sites.
SEO is fluid and dynamic, so you need to keep on top of any changes. For example, Google updated its algorithm more than 4,500 times in 2020 to improve its search engine and return relevant results.
Your on-page SEO will include working on:
As mentioned above, these should be short, lower case, and need to mention the primary keyword as far left as possible. You should also use hyphens in place of the underscore character.
The HTML code that links to your website. It appears in the browser title bar at the top of the search page and shows the name of the page. This should be clear and readable so the search engines and humans can see exactly what is on offer.
As the first glimpse of what your website is all about, this snippet is vitally important. It should contain your primary keyword and be no more than 155 characters long. It must be clear and readable, convincing the customer that your site offers what they are looking for.
It's been mentioned a few times, but it's important! A good keyword tool will help you find the best ones. Google Analytics is a good place to start and will help you determine the right keyword density. Google Search Console is also a useful tool.
If your website lists items of any kind, search engines can sometimes struggle to understand them in the HTML code. We're talking about things like lists of events, recipes, prices, books, movies, etc.
This data should be displayed in a format that can be easily understood, both by humans, Google, and other search engines. Google will sometimes grab this data when it appears in a table and use it as a rich snippet on the results page, making it more likely that a client will head to your site. For this reason, structured data is an important tool in your on-page SEO. To help you out, there are tools that will sort out the data structure for you, such as
H1 and H2 headings are very important to SEO as they use HTML code to ensure that your keywords are visible. The H1 heading is usually in the form of a title, and this should be the same as (or slightly different than) the page title. Don't make the titles too long, but do try to fit good keywords in so they read naturally.
There's an art to good SEO copywriting, and when it's done properly it will have a positive effect on your website ranking. It's an entire subject in itself, but here are some tips: introductions should be concise, clear, and compelling, offering a solution to a problem. Sentences and paragraphs need to be short but should still flow. Any section longer than 300 words needs to be broken up using subheadings, bullet points, tables, and images. Keywords should flow naturally throughout the text. You should use stories and emotion, and bridge phrases (it's no wonder, here's the thing, you'll never guess what, and so on) to appear human and catch the reader's interest. Finally, all content should be aligned with search intent.
Creating content that is relevant and appealing will always boost your chances of a high ranking as Google understands that you are trying to deliver a positive user experience. It should be as accurate and authoritative as possible, as this will earn you back-links from other sites that respect your expertise.
These are important as they help Google (and other search engines) understand the connections between your pages. They're are also important for helping your clients navigate easily around your site and discover important pages or features such as a blog post. Using a keyword as the anchor text (a highlighted link) will help with ranking, but take care not to use the same keyword too many times as it may be seen as keyword stuffing.
This important step is often overlooked. Images sometimes have long, confusing titles consisting of numbers and letters. Changing these to short, descriptive names and separating each word using hyphens will optimize the images, resulting in better visibility.
If your existing site has many images (especially high-resolution images) it may take too long to load. Various studies show that 53% of people will not wait any longer than 3 seconds for a page to load before clicking elsewhere. You need to choose an appropriate file type (i.e. PNG, JPEG, etc.) and consider compressing the files to make them load quicker.
Here's where you can make a difference without needing any technical knowledge, as off-page SEO is any activity away from your website that helps to boost your ranking on search engine results pages.
This is essential for improving your website's authority, relevance, and trustworthiness, as it directly affects your Domain Authority score (DA). The DA score runs from 1 to 100 and determines your website's potential to rank in the search engine results pages. While it doesn't necessarily boost your actual ranking, it is a good way of measuring the effectiveness of your off-page SEO strategy.
Building links is another off-page SEO activity. In fact, it is right at the heart of any good SEO and digital marketing strategy. Again, don't use too many, and always use trusted sites, and never pay for backlinks! You should also avoid sites that don't have content that's relevant to your site, link farms, or link wheels. Not only will they damage your reputation, but they fall foul of Google's guidelines and you can be penalised.
Google determines the quality of your website using a range of methods, but your link profile is an important factor in this.
Google search console is a handy tool for checking backlinks, and this will help you to use links that will boost your site.
Aside from building links, there are a few things that you can do in off-page SEO that will have a positive effect on your website:
Writing a guest blog shows that you are willing to share your knowledge and expertise. It also shows that others trust your judgement and opinion, and will give your website better exposure.
These can be linked or unlinked. That is, you might find that your brand or product is mentioned on another website, either with a link to your own website or possibly without one. Google does use unlinked mentions to some extent when calculating your ranking, but linked mentions are far more valuable. There are several tools that will help you find them, like the one created by SEMrush.
People love to know that there's a human behind a brand. If you connect with them it forms a relationship that can result in loyal customers and build a positive image around your brand.
At any one time, there are around 4.5 billion people interacting via the internet, and more than 2 billion people bought online in 2020. Even in the USA, where shopping in a physical location is traditionally preferred, around 80% of the population shopped online in 2020, and this upward trend is set to continue.
In the UK, around 87% of the total population made an online purchase in the last 12 months. Again, this trend doesn't show any signs of slowing down.
Worldwide e-commerce sales (buying and selling goods online via computers, laptops and mobile devices) for 2021 are predicted to hit around $4.9 trillion. That's almost double the figure for e-commerce sales in 2017.
This offers huge market potential, but without search engine optimization, website owners will miss out, as their own site will be way down in the search result pages.
Smartphones have revolutionised internet use in recent times, allowing users to browse and make transactions for goods and services. In 2020, more than 68% of all website visits were made using a mobile device, up 63% from the previous year.
Why does this matter? Not all websites are optimised for mobile pages, and if potential clients can't view your website on their smartphone then your business will suffer as a result.
It is essential to future-proof your website by ensuring that it is accessible to all smartphone or mobile device users. This should be a major part of any SEO and digital marketing strategy.
Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) is a useful tool, stripping down the HTML code to force pages to load quickly. AMP is free, open-source technology that will increase traffic and lead to conversions, which ultimately results in increased revenue.
This should definitely form part of your SEO strategy if you want your business to remain relevant in the future.
Now you have a better understanding of the subject, SEO success is in your hands.
Knowing the SEO basics puts you in a better position to create and develop an effective strategy that drives valuable traffic to your website. This increases your click-through rate (CTR), giving you the advantage over other websites with similar content.
Over the years, various sources have claimed that search engine optimization is outdated or obsolete. Each time, they have been proved wrong. SEO is dynamic and the rules change all the time, especially when the major search engines change their algorithms and rules.
This is why it is essential to keep up to date with new developments and adapt your SEO strategy accordingly.
You are already at an advantage as you understand how search engines work to find, index, and present the information on search engine results pages. Using this foundation, you can continue to build on this knowledge to create a healthy, practical, and effective SEO strategy.
The main point to remember is that Google and other search engines rank pages according to SEO efforts that provide a positive user experience, as well as boost the page ranking.
Finally, although these are SEO basics, they are vital to the survival of any modern business. It's worth learning more and engaging the help and advice of professional SEO experts, as they can boost your ranking even further over other websites, perhaps putting you in the coveted #1 position.