This article will introduce SEO, and explain and explore key SEO concepts on a simple, introductory level. This guide is aimed at both SEO beginners and those who are already familiar with SEO, but want to truly grasp the fundamentals.
What is SEO?
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation (spelled Optimization in American English).
Put simply: SEO is the process of increasing a website’s visibility in search engines’ result pages (SERPs). This entails increases a website’s ranking, so it appears higher in the search results. Broadly, SEO refers to the practices and methods used to achieve this increased visibility. That’s all there is to it!
Good SEO is important — if your website ranks poorly in search results, you’ll have fewer visitors, and your exposure is diminished; it’s not enough to merely create good content and expect visitors to arrive. If you utilise good SEO practices, you’ll naturally rank higher in search results, and more people will find your website.
In summary: SEO is the process of making a website appear higher in search results.
Audit your site
Before you begin putting SEO into practice, it’s a good idea to analyse your website as it currently stands. Analysing a website to grade its SEO is known as an SEO audit.
An SEO audit can consist of many things, but it typically checks:
- Major issues with your website — are there broken links on your website, pointing to pages that are not available (404s)? Are there multiple versions available (www and non-www)? Are your images poorly optimised and your CSS stylesheets not compressed/minified? Is there broken HTML?
- Simple issues that are easily fixed — this might include titles not in <h1> header tags, multiple <h1> tags, insufficient links for Google to assess your site’s relevance, no meta description, pages with very limited content, and so on.
- Analysing organic traffic from search engines — who’s coming to your site, and what search terms are they using to find your content?
- Backlink analysis — how many backlinks point to your website? Where are they?
You could do a lot of this manually, but there are many great, free tools available to help you audit your site effectively.
For starters, signing up for Google’s Webmaster Tools is essential. It provides speed insights, analytical information, and a wealth of free SEO information to help you audit your website and assess the impact of your SEO efforts.
Using Google’s Search Console, available through Webmaster Tools, you can see each page on your website that has been indexed by Google, and you’ll be alerted to any pages that become unavailable, due to 404s or other errors.
Using Google Analytics you can acquire key information about your website’s visitors, and you will be able to see every backlink pointing to your website that Google sees!
You can check for many problems, such as multiple header tags, images without alt attributes, absent meta description, as well as perform a simple keyword analysis, with the free audit tool from FOUND.
There are many other free SEO tools available.
Researching SEO keywords
Keyword research is crucial to SEO — it refers to finding out which keywords people search for when trying to find content similar to yours. You can then use these keywords to inform your SEO strategy; particularly, incorporate these keywords into your content so people discover your website when searching for these keywords.
Here is how to research keywords effectively for SEO.
- Compile a list of root topics relevant to your website or business — what might people search for when trying to find your content or website?
- Search for keywords based on these topics in Google or similar search engines — do you find content that’s similar to your own?
- Build a list of keywords you intend to focus on — this can be as many as 15 or as few as 1. Narrow down your list by considering the competition you might face for each keyword, and considering how relevant each keyword is to your website/content.
- Make sure your list of keywords contains both head keywords and long-tail keywords — head keywords are those such as “football” or “cars”, whereas long-tail keywords are those with three or more words, such as “football t-shirts coloured” or “where buy cars London”. Head keywords face a lot more competition, so it’s important to have a healthy mix of both head keywords and long-tail keywords.
- Utilise these keywords in your content — put together your content, utilising your keywords throughout, but not too often. Keyword density, as explained in our glossary of SEO terms, refers to how often a word or phrase appears in your writing; the percentage of your content that’s made up of your keyword. If you write a 1,000-word article, and your keyword appears 100 times, the keyword density would be 10%. While there is no agreed-upon percentage, and search engines have never published any precise figures, it is commonly said that a keyword density above 2–5% is likely to negatively affect a webpage’s search ranking, as it will be considered keyword stuffing. So keep your keyword density to under 5%!
You now have a list of keywords that are relevant to your website, which you can focus on and use sensibly in your content, and will help naturally drive traffic to your website.
Note that it’s important to re-evaluate your list of keywords at least a few times per year, and pay attention to the specific keywords you’re using on particular pages of your website.
Optimise your website
Now, optimising your website is what SEO is all about! Below we explore some simple ways to improve your website and its pages.
- Use header tags — Always have your page’s title in <h1> tags and any subheadings in <h2> tags.
- Never have more than <h1> tag — <h1> tags are for the page’s title only, so there must be only one for each page.
- Give images alt text — ‘Alt text’ is an attribute of the HTML img tag, and is used to describe images for those who are visually impaired. But alt text is also useful for signalling to search engines that your page is relevant for the keywords contained within the alt text you use. See our page on alt text for more info.
- Make sure your website is canonical — Have either a www version or a non-www version, and make sure whichever you don’t use points to the correct version. For example, if you run example.com you will need to pick between www.example.com and example.com; if you pick a www version, make sure example.com/example-page redirects gracefully to www.example.com/example-page.
- Make sure nothing on your website 404s — Search engines don’t like 404s, as they suggest content may be outdated. Don’t have links on your website that point to pages you have since deleted. If the content is gone, remove the link!
- Add links to other relevant resources — Google looks at the links on a page when assessing the page’s relevance to search terms. If you have a page discussing football, include links to the Wikipedia page for that football team, or to the football team’s official website or other, similar resources that are relevant to the page’s topic.
- Use your keywords throughout your content — Once you have performed your keyword research, make sure you use your keywords throughout the page’s content, but don’t overdo it; stick to a sensible keyword density.
- Write more — Research has shown that pages with more written content rank higher in search results. There is no precise word count you need to achieve, but don’t be tempted to create 100s of 200-word pages and expect your site to be #1 overnight! More is better.
- Write decent, sensible meta descriptions — An entire SEO topic in its own right, a meta description is an HTML tag that describes the content of your page. Google may decide to use this description as the blurb it shows for your page in result pages, so it’s important it’s appealing! Search engines also use this to gather information concerning the page’s relevance. There is a great article on writing good SEO-friendly meta descriptions on Yoast, available here.
- Heed any warnings or errors from SEO audit tools — There are many free SEO tools around, some more capable than others. Use them to assess your website and pay attention to what they tell you! If there are warnings or notices, investigate and see if you can fix them.
Things to avoid
There are a lot of myths surrounding SEO, and many ways to do SEO “wrong”. Here are 8 things to steer clear of when putting SEO techniques into practice.
- Spamming your website — This might seem like a tempting idea, but search engines will penalise your website and downrank it if you are caught engaging in spamming.
- Overusing your chosen keywords — Known as keyword stuffing, this is perhaps a tempting idea. However, overusing keywords is a surefire way to draw Google’s wrath. Keep to a keyword density of between 2 to 5% or risk the possibility of Google punishing your site.
- Using unoriginal content — Write your own original content! If you use others’ inappropriately, search engines will take note and your site’s ranking will suffer as a result.
- Using ‘blackhat’ methods — This could be spamming, deceptive redirects, inappropriately described links, clickjacking, and so on. While these methods may work in the short term, they never go unnoticed; Google is watching and has levied more penalties for deceptive SEO practices in 2018 than in any other year.
- Neglecting link-building — Link building is fundamental to SEO. Gathering good quality backlinks from relevant websites is important and will help to improve your website’s ranking. Building good quality links from reputable, authoritative sources is incredibly important and invaluable as part of good SEO.
- Considering only search engines — People are at the core of search engine optimisation. Write content for people, not search engines. Aim to write high-quality pages with engaging, informative content. User engagement is incredibly important to a successful website.
- Choosing the ‘wrong’ keywords — You need to select keywords that accurately reflect the topic of your page, or the topic of your website broadly.
- Failing to optimise title/heading tags — Try to include your keyword in <h2> and <h3> tags on your home page, and in the title of individual pages (<h1>) where possible.
Google offer a fantastic SEO Starter Guide which is worth a look, and some good tips to achieve a Google-friendly site. There’s another, more in-depth guide to SEO published by Moz, an SEO agency, available to read here.