What Is SEO?
SEO, which stands for Search Engine Optimisation is the process of optimising your website (On-Page) and building legitimate links (Off-Page) in order to rank high in search engine results and attract relevant, organic traffic (the one you don’t have to pay for as opposed to using paid ads). In the below picture, you can see typical Google search results page (SERPS), with distinction between paid (orange) and organic (blue) ones:
The first page of Google search results usually consists of up to 4 ads at the top and up to 3 at the bottom. In the sample search, I used a general keyword “digital marketing” - no wonder that the first organic result is Wikipedia. Usually, you will want to rank for more actionable or so-called “buyer keywords” which are much more profitable. But before you know what keywords you want to rank for, you have to do the research. Let’s take a look at how you can do that, using a pen, piece of paper and Google Keywords Planner.
Keyword Research – Finding Your Golden Nuggets
When it comes to SEO, keyword research is one of the fundamental things you need to do. In fact, all the other steps are not as important as finding the right keywords. The keywords can either help you attract visitors ready to spend money on your products and services or casual visitors, who came to your website by mistake. You want keywords that are best suited for your business and are in line with the way of thinking of your average customer. Before we go on to brainstorming keyword ideas, let’s take a look at a few types of keywords you want to pay extra attention to.
- Buyer Keywords
These are the keywords people use when they are searching with an intention to find a solution to a problem or even make a purchase. Commonly, they can be divided into three groups:
- Keywords such as “Buy (…)” or “Best deals for (…)” that indicate the will of making a purchase now.
- Product keywords which are focused on gathering information about a product or service – these include brand names, “Best (product/service)” or “Product/Service review”.
- Keywords focused on gathering more information, for example, “How to get rid of (…)” or “Best ways to (…)”.
While they are usually hard to rank for, they also bring you the best visitors that are ready to spend money or are actively looking for a solution to their problem, find more here for the SEO expert.
2. Long-Tail Keywords
These keywords are usually at least 3 to 4 phrases long. In fact, some of the buyer keywords are at the same time long-tail. They account for the majority of all searches. Because there are so many of them, it’s much easier to find a bunch of converting long-tails, which are most of the time much easier to rank than shorter keywords. Hence, they are often called “low-hanging fruits”.
Of course, the traffic from one long-tail keyword is very small, but if you combine a lot of long-tail keywords on your website together, you can get a flood of converting traffic. The below graph shows the distribution of online search & keyword competition in relation to the length of the keyword:
The best thing about long-tail keywords is that there are millions of them out there. Even today, one in fifth Google searches is unique every day. Because it’s impossible to find all the possible long-tail keywords without using a professional software, (even Google Keywords Planner, which we will use in just a second, is not a perfect solution in the long run), it’s worth investing in X or Y (my personal favourite) to avoid leaving money on the table.
3. LSI Keywords
Google uses latent semantic indexing in order to get the overall understanding of the content and connect keywords that might have a similar meaning. LSI keywords are those that are related to the main keywords. While they are not exactly the same, Google and other big search engines are capable of differentiating between synonyms. For example, if you type in Google “how to make money online” you can get “how to earn money online” in the results (and Google will highlight these synonyms as part of results) and so on.
Now that you know which keywords you should focus on, let’s get to the actual keyword research process.
4. Start by Brainstorming Ideas
To start your research process, all you need is a pen, a piece of paper, and a little bit of creativity. Start writing down words and phrases that you could associate with your business. Try to think in the way your customers would if they were searching for your product or service or a solution to their problem that your offer happens to deal with. If you need some ideas, go to Google.com and start typing. In the below example, you can see sample keywords, people who are in need of “lawn mowing” service type in Google on a regular basis.
While you could add your keywords into a spreadsheet right during brainstorming, I believe writing them down on a piece of paper makes you more creative and allows you to come up with more ideas. Once you write down all possible ideas, type your keywords into an Excel (or similar) spreadsheet.
5. Use Google AdWords Keywords Planner to Grow Your Keyword List
After you have manually created a list of keywords, it’s time to use automated tools to get as many of them as possible. While the best tools don’t come free (but they allow you to find extremely profitable niche keywords), Google Keyword Planner is more than enough to get you started. To access it, go to https://adwords.google.com/KeywordPlanner and sign in to AdWords.
If you don’t have an account yet, you will be asked to create one - it’s a very simple process, and the account itself doesn’t cost you anything.
Because we are not going to set up a complete AdWords campaign, and just want to research some keywords, you can skip the guided set-up:
Don’t worry about the currency & stuff – you are not going to pay anything unless you start actual AdWords campaign – but we’re not going to do that now. Use an email that’s associated with your existing Google account – otherwise, you’ll have to create a new one:
You will be taken to the AdWords main dashboard. Click on “Tools”, and from the drop-down menu, select “Keywords Planner”:
You will be presented with three different options:
- In the first one, you can generate a list of keywords from an initial seed keyword (or a list of them), a website or a category.
- In the second one, you can upload an existing list of keywords to get search volume and trends
- The third option can be used to create a huge list of keywords by combining smaller lists.
Let’s focus on the first one, marked with a red arrow. Once you click on it, you will be taken to a page that looks like the following:
Depending on your market, you should adjust location and language. Leave the “Google” thing unchanged. You could add negative keywords to exclude the things you are not interested in and which are appearing in your research results (you will know that once you run the tool at least once). In the keyword filters, you can exclude keywords that are less than 300 or so monthly searches (some will even suggest keeping keywords that have at least 100 searches per month). The rest of it should not interest you as it applies to AdWords only:
Once you click on “Get ideas”, Google will generate a set of keywords which you can later sort and download. If it’s your first search, you will most likely want to apply a few negative keywords to get rid of a few unwanted results - you can modify the search right in the results panel.
Now that you know the basics of doing your keyword research, experiment. In the meantime, let’s move on to actual optimisation - so that you can rank for the keywords that you want.
Search Engine Optimisation in Practice – On-Page and Off-Page SEO
Numerous metrics are taken into consideration by search engines when ranking your website. The most important ones include keywords on your site, links pointing to your website, their relevance and quality; traffic, social media metrics, time spent on site, website speed, and much more - each search engine has its own algorithm which is used to generate results anytime someone performs a search. Let’s take a look at everything you can do on your website to increase your rankings and CTR (click -through rate) to your site once someone sees it in the search engine results.
On-Page Optimisation – Do the Ground Work on Your Website First
Although it’s impossible to rank for keywords that are competitive based on the On-Page SEO alone, there are still some phrases that can be ranked without a single backlink. Of course, that’s not our goal here - the aim is to optimise your site to help it rank for as many profitable keywords as possible.
Your Website Meta Tags – What is Your Site About?
The first thing you should start your optimisation with are your meta tags - HTML elements that inform search engine and visitors what your website and pages are about. There are two primary tags each page should have - title and description tags.
Title Tag - Probably the most important tag on each of your pages is the title tag - make sure that it’s as close to the keyword that you want to rank for as possible. The title of your website will usually be your brand name; hence you should be able to rank for your brand out of the box after you do the proper on-page optimisation. Check out the below example of The New York Times:
Of course, most of the time you want to rank for many different keywords - the ones that are most important for you, you should include in the title tags of your pages and blog posts. Imagine you were looking for dog training tips for beginners and used a keyword... “dog training tips for beginners” (quite an obvious choice). As you can see below, the title of the blog post includes the whole keyword you used in your search:
The next important tag is meta description. Some SEO “gurus” will try to tell you that it doesn’t matter anymore, but don’t let that discourage you. It’s still worth putting in a few extra minutes to create compelling, and SEO optimized meta descriptions. Even if their influence on rankings is minimal, many people click on search engine results based on what they see when looking at the title and description tags!
Okay, but let’s get to the point - what exactly is meta description? It’s a snippet of information below the title and tagline that appears on search results. Its primary goal is to provide information about the content of a given page to the reader and search engines. If it contains keywords, they will be bolded. Take a look at the below quick guide to writing an SEO-optimised and converting meta description:
- Make it between 135 and 160 characters to fit in most search engine results. While sometimes Google will show even longer meta descriptions, around 135 characters in length is usually considered a sweet spot.
- Include a call to action - while most people focus on adding keywords to meta descriptions, they quite often forget about a call to action which in the end encourages people to visit the site.
- Write it using a warm, welcoming tone and use an active voice. Unless you’re an admin of Wikipedia or a similar page, you should always convey a little bit of personality into your meta description.
- Naturally, it should contain your desired keyword or related ones if you already put your main keyword in the title tag.
- It should be unique and fit your audience - because of its impact on SEO, your meta description should be unique. Don’t forget to structure your description in a way that best suits your audience (language, relevancy – it should clearly state what’s on the other side).
As you could see in the “dog training tips for beginners” example, the meta description was very long, not concise enough and contained way too much unstructured information with no clear call to action. In fact, it was more of a summary of what’s on the website rather than an invitation to click. Let’s take a look at two other examples of meta descriptions of websites ranking for two different keywords:
“how to make more money” (who wouldn’t like that):
This meta description is to the point and clearly shows what the reader will find on the website (44 best techniques to improve money situation). Take a look at how Google has bolded LSI keyword (make more vs. earn more):
“how to lose weight fast”:
The next meta description has everything to both help rank the site and invite the visitors. A long-tail keyword, a question that sparks curiosity, encouraging call to action (though it’s not as direct as it could be – for example “visit the page to learn more about one simple change…” would be even better), and a benefit related to the search query.
Of course, meta descriptions are also used by social media site, which usually pull one or two sentences from the content or use the meta description. By having an active and actionable description, you can increase the number of shares and boost your click-through-rate among people who see your page on their social media feeds, which is more applicable, if you use The Marketing Heaven for better visibility. Below, you can see a sample from the New York Times - unfortunately, the meta description has not been optimised, and Twitter just pulled the first two sentences from the article.
Rich Snippets - Make Your Website Stand out in the SERPS
The rich snippets are an extra piece of data that website owners can add to help search engines better understand the type of content that is shared. It’s quite common for products, reviews, events, music, videos and businesses or organisations. A review article with rich snippets added usually looks like the below:
And a YouTube video:
Use of rich snippets is extremely beneficial to both search engines and their users – the former can easier categorise your content, and the latter get an incentive to visit the page and can quicker determine whether the results are relevant to what they are looking for.
Featured snippets – The Ultimate Way to Distinguish Your Website in SERPS
Everyone wants to rank #1, but what if you could do even better and claim spot #0? While it’s not a formal term, that’s exactly what some people name the featured snippets - the coolest looking thing in Google SERPS:
To get your page to the top spot and benefit from the featured snippets, it should answer a question. Commonly, featured snippets appear in three different styles:
To increase your chance of ranking, you should optimise your page for a given keyword and design it to fit one of the above styles. Of course, if you could turn it into a list it’d look much cooler compared to a paragraph (see the below example).
Luckily, there are numerous questions and problems that people ask Google every day and which can be turned into featured snippets. They don’t even have to be actual questions with a question mark. Keywords using prepositions such as “to” - “best ways to earn money online”, as well as “for”, “like”, “with”, “without” and a few others are a great choice for featured snippets. In fact, even search queries such as “hosting cost” that omit the preposition can be shown in a featured form:
Featured snippets are beneficial not only because they distinguish website on top of the SERPS for a given keyword (which is often a buyer keyword). Potential customers tend to ask questions when they are looking for answers to their problems. By claiming top spots for most popular questions in your niche, you can gradually introduce your brand to your customers, and help them go from the “awareness” to the “decision” stage.
Keyword Density – Use Your Keywords in Moderation
Because I have already mentioned the importance of keywords a few times, some people might be thinking “why not just put as many keywords as possible into the page so that Google thinks it’s the most relevant page on the entire Internet?”. While this practice, known as “keyword stuffing” used to work (at least to some extent) 10 or so years ago, today it will not give you any boost. In fact, it will lead to a penalty for your website which may result in a complete deletion of your site from the search results.
What counts today is the overall relevance of content. Of course, you still want to use keywords so that Google knows what to do with your website, but depending on the type of keyword, you should not go above 1% to 3% in density. To calculate your keyword density, multiply the number of times you used the keyword by the number of words it has, and divide the result by the total number of words in a given article. Multiply the number you get by 100. For example, a page of thousand words with a keyword “digital marketing course” appearing 4 times, has a keyword density of 1.2%
Of course, this is just an indicative density - there are many different things that Google takes into consideration when analysing your website. Even when it comes to keywords – according to some, your keyword should appear in the first 100 words of the article at least once, and its variation should be included in the subheadings, which in turn should be wrapped with <h2> tags. Speaking of tags, let’s take a closer look at those which you should add to your images.
Alt Tags & Title Tags – Give Your Images Slight SEO Boost
If you present your readers with an unreadable wall of text, they will quickly run away. That’s why every article that you write should contain relevant images. Moreover, by adding special alt and title tags to the image, you can use it to help your content rank for specific keywords. To do the latter, all you need is the below HTML image tag:
Note that the alt tag is especially important for search engines, while the title tag is visible on hover (and, in case your image doesn’t load correctly, your visitors will see the text from the alt tag). Now imagine, you have a website in the golf niche, and the below is an image that you want to add to one of your articles:
The sample HTML tag you could use is:
Of course, you should experiment and preferably include a relevant LSI keyword in it. Once you’re done with images, it’s time to link your posts and pages together.
Internal Linking – Make Your Website Easy to Navigate
An internal link connects two pages of the same site. There are a few different reasons why people use it:
- To connect important parts of the website.
- To establish a proper hierarchical structure of the site.
- To give search engines robots a simple way to crawl the website.
- To increase the time spent on site by allowing the users to navigate between articles easily.
- To distribute SEO authority that search engines give to the website (so-called “link juice”).
- To promote paid products – linking to a sales article from within a non-sales one is one of the most basic tactics of online marketing.
Check out the sample internal linking structure. The below outline clearly defines levels of pages and shows search engines which pages are important:
Internal linking is one of the most important aspects of on-page optimisation. Not all pages will rank equally, and by interlinking, you can help those that do not appear this high in search engine results. When linking to other pages of your website, make sure that:
- The link is natural - you want to add it to help your reader find more relevant content, not because you believe it will be good for search engines. Providing your readers with convenient navigation is critical as it can increase the time spent on site, which is an important SEO factor.
- Use a keyword in the anchor text. Of course, make sure that it’s relevant to the content to which it’s linking. Using a phrase such as “these 5 awesome ways to make money online” mid-sentence, to link to an article describing different ideas of earning money on the Internet will work a lot better compared to a simple “click here”.
- If you measure your traffic correctly, you should see which websites generate the most traffic. Make sure that you link those to the ones that sell your product or service.
- You can link from new to old pages and posts on your website (and vice versa). This way, you can increase traffic to the parts of your site that are relatively new or have already been forgotten.
Mobile Optimisation - Make Your Website Load Fast on Any Device
With the rise of mobile devices, a mobile friendly website has become a necessity. In fact, beginning April 2015, Google penalised all non-mobile optimised sites. While today, almost all new websites are responsive out of the box, it wasn’t that way just a few years ago.
Moreover, responsiveness is just the beginning. Your website has to be fast - speed is nowadays one of the top on-page ranking factors. To make sure that your site loads quickly and is comfortable in use for the user, ensure that you:
- Use rich snippets where possible (they look great in the mobile SERPS).
- Design all the buttons and navigation with “fingers” in mind.
- Don’t use flash - switch to HTML 5 instead.
- Make sure that your images are not too big and suit both desktop and mobile users. You don’t want to eat up all data of your visitors.
Slow website on mobile will lead to high bounce rate which has a negative influence on rankings. To test your current site and see what things you should change to make it faster (both on desktop and mobile devices) visit http://tools.pingdom.com or https://gtmetrix.com. Below, are sample results from the latter:
As you can see, it grades a variety of different factors and gives you information on what could be improved. In the chosen example, the website received almost perfect scores from both PageSpeed (Google) and YSlow (Yahoo) score - no surprise, it’s owned by Google itself.
High-Quality Articles - Content Is Still the King
The last thing is maybe the most important (and many people will tell you that it actually is) of all SEO factors. Without great content that people will link to, share with others, and stay on your site to read it, it will be hard even to think of ranking - especially in competitive niches. Compare the two below articles. The first one is just a small part of a highly detailed article full of pictures and examples (source: ElegantThemes.com):
The other one is just a wall of text with no structure or images. While it’s a satirical article regarding the “walls of text”, many “professional” blog posts are actually quite similar. Please don’t read the below – I used it just as a visual example. (source: Uncyclopedia.wikia.com)):
There’s not much I could add as the type of content will differ, depending on your niche, type of business and audience (one of the course parts is related to content marketing). Of course, great On-Page SEO and compelling articles alone are not enough. You can’t forget about links to your page - or so-called “off-page SEO”, which we will now move on to.
Off-Page SEO – Let’s Build Some Links
While On-Page SEO referred to everything that is related to optimising your website and its structure, Off-Page SEO is all about activities outside of your site that are related to link building. Of course, there are many ways in which you can get more links to your site:
- Link Exchange
- Social Media Activity
- Guest Posting
- Forum posting
- Social Bookmarking & Social Media Activity
- Press Releases
And many more. Naturally, you don’t want just links. You want them to come from quality websites. Anyone could just spam thousands of links to a site hoping for quick Google boost. Of course, it could happen - for a day or two. But after that, your website would be kicked off from the SERPS forever (or at least until you got rid of the bad links). In fact, let’s take a look at what makes good links:
- Come from trustworthy websites that are relevant to yours or authority sites (or, preferably, both). For example, from an article featuring a story about a company in relevant industry media (source: Bloomberg.com):
- Are naturally inserted within the content and do not break the flow of it. All the highlighted phrases are links to related articles (from the same and other websites; source: Wordstream.com):
- Are do-follow (though it’s best to mix do-follow and no-follow links). If a link that is pointing to your site has rel=“nofollow” assigned, it has no value for SEO purposes.
- Come with good anchor text (again, mix it). It’s good when it’s a keyword you’re trying to rank, but it’s even better when you have a lot of mixed links – just like in the example above.
Just in case you wondered what anchor text is – look at the above image once again. The anchor text is the visible part of the link. Check out the below link structure – as you can see, the rel=“nofollow” is there. The structure can be slightly different depending on the website; hence it’s worth discussing the issue with web owner or inspecting the whole page.
Before we move on to the next section, let me quickly toss in two sentences on low-quality links. Simply speaking, they usually are exactly the opposite of what has been shown above. They come from websites considered by search engines as low-quality or “spam” sites, with little to no authority. Some of them have over-optimised anchor texts or are placed in strange places on the site - those on pages with little to no content are worth a lot less than links appearing naturally in a long-form content.
Now that you know all the basics of on-page and off-page SEO, let’s take a quick look at one other important aspect of SEO (especially for small & medium businesses).
Local SEO – Rank Your Local Small Business
Ranking a website that is geo-targeting its visitors is a little bit different compared to a standard ranking process. While almost all of the above principles remain the same, there are a few things you should do in order to get the most benefits. First, let’s take a look at how the SERPS for local SEO look like (I cut out the ads as they are not important in this section):
As you can see, local businesses that rank high for a given keyword (in the above example I used “lawn mowing Christchurch”, are highly distinguished, with convenient access to contact information, directions and website. It’s worth fighting for as almost all customers prefer businesses that appear high in search engine results. And if you’re business has positive reviews, just like “Dan’s Mowing”, it will attract even more clients.
In order to get to the top spots in local SERPS, you should focus on a few things, that are paramount for small businesses when it comes to SEO:
- Sign up for Google My Business. It’s free and allows you to edit your business contact information, work hours and directions on Google Map & Google Search. To do that, go to https://www.google.com/business/ and register for an account. You will need to provide your business details and wait for a Google confirmation code.
- Your NAP – (Name, Address, Phone Number) which should appear consistently across your whole website in the same format. This is critical for the next thing – citations. Check out how it looks on the website:
and in the code:
- Relevant citations of your NAP in local directories, in the same format as on your website - the best is, they don’t even have to include a link to your site. The below one keeps the address format, but the phone number and name are different so it will have little to no impact on SEO:
- Links from local sites, relevant to your industry and business. When it comes to local services, you don’t need to target huge, authority websites (what would be very hard to achieve). Local links are a lot more important.
- Keywords that include your city or region, for example, “Lawn Mowing Christchurch” or “Flower Delivery Sydney” (what’s interesting, almost all meta titles and descriptions are highly optimised. As you can see, Google bolded LSI keywords such as “florist”):
- Reviews of your business (both Google ones as well as on Yelp and other big players in the business listing industry). They have a positive influence on both your SEO and customer trust and acquisition. And the more, the better – a listing with “stars” is much more appealing compared to the one without them:
Understanding the fundamentals of both standard and local SEO is essential to get access to one of the most important traffic sources. Don't forget to try out my FREE SEO Audit tool.If you have any extra questions, or would like to discuss some of the things that have been shared, don’t hesitate and send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.