SEO Basics: Complete Beginner’s Guide to Search Engine Optimization
Last updated: September 25, 2020
WordStream has come to be known mostly as a PPC destination. But we also know a thing or two about SEO, and people ask us all the time for a primer on SEO basics. So we’re delivering: This article will be an introduction and overview of search engine optimization (SEO), a mandatory marketing tactic if you want your website to be found through search engines like Google.
In this guide to SEO for beginners, you’ll learn:
- What is SEO & Why is it Important?
- Keyword Research & Keyword Targeting Best Practices
- On-Page Optimization Best Practices
- Information Architecture Best Practices
- How to Execute Content Marketing & Link Building
- Common Technical SEO Issues & Best Practices
- How to Track & Measure SEO Results
- Additional SEO Considerations (Such as Mobile, International & Local SEO Best Practices)
By the time you reach the end of this SEO basics guide, you’ll have a strong understanding of what search engine optimization is, why it’s valuable and important, and how to get great results in an ever-changing SEO environment.
Note: If you're looking for SEO tips specific to COVID-19, check out our post 13 SEO Strategies for SMBs During COVID-19
1. What is SEO & Why is it Important?
You’ve likely heard of SEO, and if you haven’t already, you could obtain a quick Wikipedia definition of the term, but understanding that SEO is “the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine's unpaid results” doesn’t really help you answer important questions for your business and your website, such as:
- How do you, for your site or your company’s site, “optimize” for search engines?
- How do you know how much time to spend on SEO?
- How can you differentiate “good” SEO advice from “bad” or harmful SEO advice?
What’s likely interesting to you as a business owner or employee is how you can actually leverage SEO to help drive more relevant traffic, leads, sales, and ultimately revenue and profit for your business. That’s what we’ll focus on in this guide.
Why Should You Care About SEO?
Lots and lots of people search for things. That traffic can be extremely powerful for a business not only because there is a lot of traffic, but because there is a lot of very specific, high-intent traffic.
If you sell blue widgets, would you rather buy a billboard so anyone with a car in your area sees your ad (whether they will ever have any interest in blue widgets or not), or show up every time anyone in the world types “buy blue widgets” into a search engine? Probably the latter, because those people have commercial intent, meaning they are standing up and saying that they want to buy something you offer.
People are searching for any manner of things directly related to your business. Beyond that, your prospects are also searching for all kinds of things that are only loosely related to your business. These represent even more opportunities to connect with those folks and help answer their questions, solve their problems, and become a trusted resource for them.
Are you more likely to get your widgets from a trusted resource who offered great information each of the last four times you turned to Google for help with a problem, or someone you’ve never heard of?
What Actually Works for Driving Traffic from Search Engines?
First it’s important to note that Google is responsible for most of the search engine traffic in the world (though there is always some flux in the actual numbers). This may vary from niche to niche, but it’s likely that Google is the dominant player in the search results that your business or website would want to show up in, and the best practices outlined in this guide will help position your site and its content to rank in other search engines, as well.
Regardless of what search engine you use, search results are constantly changing. Google particularly has updated lots of things surrounding how they rank websites by way of lots of different animal names recently, and a lot of the easiest and cheapest ways to get your pages to rank in search results have become extremely risky in recent years.
So what works? How does Google determine which pages to return in response to what people search for? How do you get all of this valuable traffic to your site?
Google’s algorithm is extremely complex, and I’ll share some links for anyone looking to dive deeper into how Google ranks sites at the end of this section, but at an extremely high level:
- Google is looking for pages that contain high-quality, relevant information about the searcher’s query.
- They determine relevance by “crawling” (or reading) your website’s content and evaluating (algorithmically) whether that content is relevant to what the searcher is looking for, mostly based on the keywords it contains.
- They determine “quality” by a number of means, but prominent among those is still the number and quality of other websites that link to your page and your site as a whole. To put it extremely simply: If the only sites that link to your blue widget site are blogs that no one else on the Web has linked to, and my blue widget site gets links from trusted places that are linked to frequently, like CNN.com, my site will be more trusted (and assumed to be higher quality) than yours.
Increasingly, additional elements are being weighed by Google’s algorithm to determine where your site will rank, such as:
- How people engage with your site (Do they find the information they need and stay on your site, or bounce back to the search page and click on another link? Or do they just ignore your listing in search results altogether and never click-through?)
- Your site’s loading speed and “mobile friendliness”
- How much unique content you have (versus very “thin” low-value content or duplicate content)
There are hundreds of ranking factors Google’s algorithm considers in response to searches, and they are constantly updating and refining their process.
The good news is, you don’t have to be a search engine scholar to rank for valuable terms in search results. We’ll walk through proven, repeatable best practices for optimizing websites for search that can help you drive targeted traffic through search without having to reverse-engineer the core competency of one of the world’s most valuable companies.
If you’re interested in learning more about how search engines work, there are a ton of great resources available, including:
Now, back to SEO basics! Let’s get into the actual SEO tactics and strategies that will help you get more traffic from search engines.
2. Keyword Research & Keyword Targeting Best Practices
The first step in search engine optimization is really to determine what it is you’re actually optimizing for. This means identifying the terms people are searching for (also known as “keywords”) that you want your website to rank for in search engines like Google.
Sounds simple enough, right? I want my widget company to show up when people look for “widgets,” and maybe when they type in things like “buy widgets.” Onto step three!
Unfortunately it’s not quite that simple. There are a few key factors to take into account when determining the keywords you want to target on your site:
- Search Volume – The first factor to consider is how many people (if any) are actually searching for a given keyword. The more people there are searching for a keyword, the bigger the audience you stand to reach. Conversely, if no one is searching for a keyword, there is no audience available to find your content through search.
- Relevance – If a term is frequently searched for that’s great: but what if it’s not completely relevant to your prospects? Relevance seems straight-forward at first: if you’re selling enterprise email marketing automation software you don’t want to show up for searches that don’t have anything to do with your business, like “pet supplies.” But what about terms like “email marketing software”? This might intuitively seem like a great description of what you do, but if you’re selling to Fortune 100 companies, most of the traffic for this very competitive term will be searchers who don’t have any interest in buying your software (and the folks you do want to reach might never buy your expensive, complex solution based on a simple Google search). Conversely, you might think a tangential keyword like “best enterprise PPC marketing solutions” is totally irrelevant to your business since you don’t sell PPC marketing software. But if your prospect is a CMO or marketing director, getting in front of them with a helpful resource on evaluating pay-per-click tools could be a great “first touch” and an excellent way to start a relationship with a prospective buyer.
- Competition – As with any business opportunity, in SEO you want to consider the potential costs and likelihood of success. For SEO, this means understanding the relative competition (and likelihood to rank) for specific terms.
First you need to understand who your prospective customers are and what they’re likely to search for. If you don’t already understand who your prospects are, thinking about that is a good place to start, for your business in general but also for SEO.
From there you want to understand:
- What types of things are they interested in?
- What problems do they have?
- What type of language do they use to describe the things that they do, the tools that they use, etc.?
- Who else are they buying things from (this means your competitors, but also could mean tangential, related tools – for the email marketing company, think other enterprise marketing tools)?
Once you’ve answered these questions, you’ll have an initial “seed list” of possible keywords and domains to help you get additional keyword ideas and to put some search volume and competition metrics around.
Take the list of core ways that your prospects and customers describe what you do, and start to input those into keyword tools like Google’s own keyword tool or tools like Uber Suggest or WordStream’s keyword tool:
You can find a more comprehensive list of keyword tools below, but the main idea is that in this initial step, you’ll want to run a number of searches with a variety of different keyword tools. You can also use competitive keyword tools like SEM Rush to see what terms your competitors are ranking for. These tools look at thousands of different search results, and will show you each search term they’ve seen your competitor ranking in Google for lately. Here’s what SEM Rush shows for marketing automation provider Marketo:
Again: this doesn’t just have to be something you look at for competitors. You could look at related tools that are selling to the same market for content ideas, and even look at the major niche publishers who talk about your topic (and that your prospects are reading) and see what kinds of keywords those sites are driving traffic for.
Additionally, if you have an existing site, you’re likely getting some traffic from search engines already. If that’s the case, you can use some of your own keyword data to help you understand which terms are driving traffic (and which you might be able to rank a bit better for).
Unfortunately, Google has stopped delivering a lot of the information about what people are searching for to analytics providers, but you can use SEM Rush (or similar tools, such as SpyFu) on your own site to get a sense of the terms you’re ranking for and their estimated search volume. Google also makes a bit more of this data available in their free Webmaster Tools interface (if you haven’t set up an account, this is a very valuable SEO tool both for unearthing search query data and for diagnosing various technical SEO issues – more on Webmaster Tools set up here).
Once Webmaster Tools is set up, you can navigate to this link when logged in and see the search queries that are driving traffic to your site:
These could be good terms to focus additional content promotion and internal linking around (more on each of those topics later), and could also be great “seed keywords” to help you get more great ideas about what to target.
Once you’ve taken the time to understand how your prospects talk and what they search for, have looked at the keywords driving traffic to your competitors and related sites, and have looked at the terms driving traffic to your own site, you need to work to understand which terms you can conceivably rank for and where the best opportunities actually lie.
Determining the relative competition of a keyword can be a fairly complex task. At a very high level, you need to understand:
- How trusted and authoritative (in other words: how many links does the whole site get, and how high quality, trusted, and relevant are those linking sites?) other entire sites that will be competing to rank for the same term are
- How well aligned they are with the keyword itself (do they offer a great answer to that searcher’s question)
- How popular and authoritative each individual page in that search result is (in other words: how many links does the page itself have, and how high quality, trusted, and relevant are those linking sites?)
You can dive deeper into the process of determining how competitive keywords are in Backlinko’s in-depth guide or by using WordStream founder Larry Kim’s competitive index formula (tip number 3).
There are also a variety of different tools (most of them paid) that offer keyword difficulty scores:
And while it’s more advanced in nature, Nick Eubanks’ post about understanding rank potential offers a great in-depth look at not only understanding but creating an actionable formula for determining keyword competition and your own site’s actual likelihood of ranking for a term.
If you’re looking to dive even deeper into the topic of keyword research and keyword targeting, there are several great resources on the topic:
3. On-Page Optimization
Once you have your keyword list, the next step is actually implementing your targeted keywords into your site’s content. Each page on your site should be targeting a core term, and a “basket” of related terms. In his overview of the perfectly optimized page Rand Fishkin offers a nice visual of what a well (or perfectly) optimized page looks like:
Let’s look at a few critical, basic on-page elements you’ll want to understand as you think about how to drive search engine traffic to your website:
While Google is working to better understand the actual meaning of a page and de-emphasizing (and even punishing) aggressive and manipulative use of keywords, including the term (and related terms) that you want to rank for in your pages is still valuable. And the single most impactful place you can put your keyword is your page’s title tag.
The title tag is not your page’s primary headline. The headline you see on the page is typically an H1 (or possibly an H2) HTML element. The title tag is what you can see at the very top of your browser, and is populated by your page’s source code in a meta tag:
The length of a title tag that Google will show will vary (it’s based on pixels, not character counts) but in general 55-60 characters is a good rule of thumb here. If possible you want to work in your core keyword, and if you can do it in a natural and compelling way, add some related modifiers around that term as well. Keep in mind though: the title tag will frequently be what a searcher sees in search results for your page. It’s the “headline” in organic search results, so you also want to take how clickable your title tag is into account.
While the title tag is effectively your search listing’s headline, the meta description (another meta HTML element that can be updated in your site’s code, but isn’t seen on your actual page) is effectively your site’s additional ad copy. Google takes some liberties with what they display in search results, so your meta description may not always show, but if you have a compelling description of your page that would make folks searching likely to click, you can greatly increase traffic. (Remember: showing up in search results is just the first step! You still need to get searchers to come to your site, and then actually take the action you want.)
Here’s an example of a real world meta description showing in search results:
The actual content of your page itself is, of course, very important. Different types of pages will have different “jobs” – your cornerstone content asset that you want lots of folks to link to needs to be very different than your support content that you want to make sure your users find and get an answer from quickly. That said, Google has been increasingly favoring certain types of content, and as you build out any of the pages on your site, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Thick & Unique Content – There is no magic number in terms of word count, and if you have a few pages of content on your site with a handful to a couple hundred words you won’t be falling out of Google’s good graces, but in general recent Panda updates in particular favor longer, unique content. If you have a large number (think thousands) of extremely short (50-200 words of content) pages or lots of duplicated content where nothing changes but the page’s title tag and say a line of text, that could get you in trouble. Look at the entirety of your site: are a large percentage of your pages thin, duplicated and low value? If so, try to identify a way to “thicken” those pages, or check your analytics to see how much traffic they’re getting, and simply exclude them (using a noindex meta tag) from search results to keep from having it appear to Google that you’re trying to flood their index with lots of low value pages in an attempt to have them rank.
- Engagement – Google is increasingly weighting engagement and user experience metrics more heavily. You can impact this by making sure your content answers the questions searchers are asking so that they’re likely to stay on your page and engage with your content. Make sure your pages load quickly and don’t have design elements (such as overly aggressive ads above the content) that would be likely to turn searchers off and send them away.
- “Sharability” – Not every single piece of content on your site will be linked to and shared hundreds of times. But in the same way you want to be careful of not rolling out large quantities of pages that have thin content, you want to consider who would be likely to share and link to new pages you’re creating on your site before you roll them out. Having large quantities of pages that aren’t likely to be shared or linked to doesn’t position those pages to rank well in search results, and doesn’t help to create a good picture of your site as a whole for search engines, either.
How you mark up your images can impact not only the way that search engines perceive your page, but also how much search traffic from image search your site generates. An alt attribute is an HTML element that allows you to provide alternative information for an image if a user can’t view it. Your images may break over time (files get deleted, users have difficulty connecting to your site, etc.) so having a useful description of the image can be helpful from an overall usability perspective. This also gives you another opportunity – outside of your content – to help search engines understand what your page is about.
You don’t want to “keyword stuff” and cram your core keyword and every possible variation of it into your alt attribute. In fact, if it doesn’t fit naturally into the description, don’t include your target keyword here at all. Just be sure not to skip the alt attribute, and try to give a thorough, accurate description of the image (imagine you’re describing it to someone who can’t see it – that’s what it’s there for!).
By writing naturally about your topic, you’re avoiding “over-optimization” filters (in other words: it doesn’t make it look like you’re trying to trick Google into ranking your page for your target keyword) and you give yourself a better chance to rank for valuable modified “long tail” variations of your core topic.
Your site’s URL structure can be important both from a tracking perspective (you can more easily segment data in reports using a segmented, logical URL structure), and a shareability standpoint (shorter, descriptive URLs are easier to copy and paste and tend to get mistakenly cut off less frequently). Again: don’t work to cram in as many keywords as possible; create a short, descriptive URL.
Moreover: if you don’t have to, don’t change your URLs. Even if your URLs aren’t “pretty,” if you don’t feel as though they’re negatively impacting users and your business in general, don’t change them to be more keyword focused for “better SEO.” If you do have to change your URL structure, make sure to use the proper (301 permanent) type of redirect. This is a common mistake businesses make when they redesign their websites.
Additional URL resources:
Schema & Markup
Finally, once you have all of the standard on-page elements taken care of, you can consider going a step further and better helping Google (and other search engines, which also recognize schema) to understand your page.
Schema markup does not make your page show up higher in search results (it’s not a ranking factor, currently). It does give your listing some additional “real estate” in the search results, the way ad extensions do for your Google Ads (formerly known as AdWords) ads.
In some search results, if no one else is using schema, you can get a nice advantage in click-through rate by virtue of the fact that your site is showing things like ratings while others don’t. In other search results, where everyone is using schema, having reviews may be “table stakes” and you might be hurting your Google CTR by omitting them: