Whether you’re a business owner, marketer, or simply someone who wants to learn more about digital marketing, you’ve likely come across the term “SEO” at least a handful of times.
That’s because while it used to be a fairly niche technique used by only the most tech-savvy site owners, it’s now considered a standard marketing practice.
As consumers spend an increasing amount of time online, having a strong digital presence is essential for any business to succeed — and SEO a cornerstone in accomplishing this goal.
But what is SEO and how it works? How can you use it to reach your company’s goals?
The short answer is that SEO stands for search engine optimization, and it’s a set of tactics focused on improving a site’s rankings and visibility in the results of search engines like Google.
But as you may have guessed, it’s not quite as simple of a process as purchasing some advertising space.
Search engines like Google take many factors into consideration as they rank pages. These factors include both the elements on each page, as well as how other sites reference and link to them.
As a result, optimizing a site requires a clear, well-planned strategy and regular maintenance. It’s an ongoing process, and often a complex one.
But with the right SEO strategy, you’ll be able to improve your rankings in search results for keywords related to your business, attract qualified traffic, and convert that traffic into leads and customers.
And this guide is intended to help you accomplish each of these steps.
Keep reading to learn more about what SEO is, why it matters, and how to create a strategy that will improve your online visibility and help you reach your marketing goals.
What Is SEO?
Before we jump into the technical aspects of creating a strategy, it’s important to have a strong understanding of what, exactly, SEO is.
As we mentioned above, it stands for search engine optimization, and it’s the process of improving a site in ways that will help it rank well in search engine results.
When users search for specific words and phrases related to your business on Google, you want your site to appear in the results they see — and SEO is how you make that happen.
What are organic rankings?
As you optimize your site for search, it’s important to understand the different types of results that appear when a user looks for information.
The first, and arguably most important, type of results are organic. These are the pages that Google’s algorithm determines to be the best match for the user’s search.
They earn their spots on the results page based on relevance, quality, and a number of other factors that we’ll get into later in this guide.
But these aren’t the only results that appear in search. In many cases, you’ll also see advertisements. These listings look extremely similar to the organic results but are denoted by a small “Ad” tag.
These are pay-per-click, or PPC, ads run on Google’s AdWords network.
Not every results page will have ads. But when ads do appear, they’ll show up above the organic listings on the page — regardless of how relevant or high in quality the organic results might be.
As you optimize your site, you’ll focus solely on organic rankings.
And while you may choose to run PPC campaigns simultaneously, the goal of SEO is to get to the top of the results that Google’s algorithm selects.
Benefits of SEO
As you may have guessed, there’s a lot to gain with SEO.
But to make things a little clearer, here are just three of the biggest benefits of optimizing your site for search:
1. Attract qualified traffic
As an inbound marketing strategy, SEO is an excellent way to attract qualified traffic.
While traditional “outbound” marketing activities, like radio and TV ads, involve interrupting consumers, inbound tactics focus on making it easy for your target audience to find you as they’re actively searching for information related to your industry, products, or services.
This is not only much less annoying for consumers but will also help you focus your marketing budget on people who actually want to hear from you.
And with this approach, the people who see your marketing messages will be much more likely to become leads and customers for your business.
2. Earn a high return on investment
As we mentioned above, organic results are determined by Google’s algorithm.
That means that once you’ve created a page that ranks well, it can continue to attract traffic to your site for as long as Google considers it one of the best results for its target keywords.
And there’s no additional cost involved in attracting that traffic.
This is a huge advantage over PPC ads, which cost your business money every single time a user clicks one and visits your site.
To give you an idea of how much more cost-effective an organic ranking can be over time, consider that the average cost per click (CPC) across all industries is $2.32.
That’s over two dollars for each click to an advertiser’s website.
So, let’s say you invest $2,000 in creating a great piece of content for your site that ranks on the first page of results for one of your target keywords.
For the price of less than one thousand paid visits, you’ve created a resource that can potentially attract qualified traffic to your site for years to come.
And considering the returns you stand to gain, that’s an extremely high-value investment.
3. Achieve a high clickthrough rate (CTR)
So, what if money is no object?
What if you want to attract as many users who are searching your target keywords as possible, and you don’t mind investing whatever it takes in PPC ads to do so?
SEO is still worth it — because 71.33% of searches result in a click on an organic result on the first page.
So even though PPC ads appear above organic rankings, they only earn a fraction of the clicks.
And without strong organic rankings, you could miss out a ton of traffic for your most important keywords.
How Does Google Search Work in 2018?
It’s not absolutely necessary to have in-depth technical knowledge about how search engines operate, but a basic understanding can make optimizing a site a more straightforward process.
So with that in mind, we’ll go over the basics of how Google search operates.
Now, you might be wondering why this guide, and why virtually every article you’ll read about SEO seems to focus specifically on Google.
After all, there are tons of other search engines out there.
And to be clear, SEO is important for ranking in their results, too.
So — why the huge emphasis on Google?
The biggest reason is that as of 2017, Google has a global market search engine share of just under 75%.
That means that three out of every four searches in the entire world take place on Google.
In case you were wondering, that’s 3.5 billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion per year.
That scope alone is reason enough for most marketers to focus their efforts on ranking in Google. After all, if you’re going to base your strategy on one particular search engine, it makes sense to choose the largest.
A Brief SEO History
Before we jump into how SEO works today, it’s helpful to start with a basic understanding of how search engines began, and how they’ve evolved.
The earliest search engine, Architext (later Excite), was created by six Stanford students in 1993. Its results were primarily based on matching the keyword a user searched with pages that contained that keyword within their content.
Over the next year, several other search engines were developed and launched. The most notable of these, and the only one still widely used, was Yahoo! Search.
Like Architext, the earliest iteration of Yahoo! utilized keywords to match searches with relevant content. But it also used manually-written descriptions of each page within its index to more accurately classify content — a step that would be virtually impossible today.
Then, in 1996, Sergey Brin and Larry Page started building a search engine called Backrub.
This was the first the search engine that ranked sites not only based on the keywords they contained, but also on inbound links. In August 1998, they officially founded a company for their product — and changed its name to Google.
By this point, tech-savvy site owners were already looking for ways to rank more prominently in search engine results. But given that much of these efforts were done solo, and with a trial-and-error process, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact beginning of SEO.
In terms of large-scale discussion, however, SEO officially became a prominent topic with the launch of Search Engine Watch in 1997. This was the first news site focused on the search industry, and still covers major updates and changes today.
SEO in 2018
Some of the earliest ranking factors, like keywords and backlinks, still play a major role in search engine results today.
But while those core elements haven’t changed, Google has added dozens of other factors over the years. Today, the total number is over 200.
Naturally, some of these hold more weight than others. And while it’s difficult to say exactly how important each factor is, and studies like SEMrush’s Ranking Factors research provide helpful insight into which metrics most closely correlate with high rankings.
As you optimize your site, studies like these can guide how you prioritize different SEO strategies, and where you focus the bulk of your efforts.
But it’s important to recognize that Google is constantly improving and updating its algorithm to deliver the best results to its users.
This isn’t to say that it’s a waste of time to optimize your pages based on current best practices, though. It simply means that as you create your SEO strategy, it’s in your best interest to also keep your users in mind.
Instead of spending your time making insignificant edits in the hopes that they’ll boost your rankings, focus on identifying ways to provide an even better experience for your site visitors.
This way, when the next update rolls out, you won’t have to worry about any lost impact from your minor optimization efforts.
In fact, when you look for ways to prioritize users, you’re essentially working towards the same goal as Google — which can only help you in your goal to improve your rankings in their results.
Reasons Why Your Website Needs Search Engine Optimization
By this point, you probably have a general idea of what you stand to gain by optimizing your site.
With SEO, you can improve your online visibility, increase your rankings in search, and attract more traffic.
But what if you’re not concerned about achieving those goals?
What if it sounds like way too much work for something as insignificant as search engine results?
After all, rankings are somewhat intangible. You could get a more concrete return on your marketing budget by investing it into a direct mail campaign or a magazine advertisement.
Those are all valid objections.
But ultimately, SEO matters because it’s the only way to match how today’s consumers look for businesses, products, and services.
The majority of us rely heavily on the Internet for information regarding the products we’re considering buying and the businesses we’re considering hiring.
Just consider that 81% of shoppers conduct online research before buying a product. Whether you’re running an eCommerce store or a physical shop, it’s almost guaranteed that your customers look for information about your products and their alternatives before buying.
And although you might think that local consumers have a different buying process, that’s not the case.
In fact, 97% of consumers looked for a local business online in 2017 — meaning that even when it comes to local shops and retailers, they’re looking up information online before visiting.
This means that regardless of your industry or business model, your audience is searching for information related to your products or services.
And the majority of them are using search engines.
You could likely make this assumption based on your own online browsing habits, but today, 93% of online experiences begin with a search engine.
This means that an extremely large portion of online traffic is driven by search engines. And if you want a chunk of that traffic to come to your site, you need to be optimizing your site.
There’s a vast amount of information available online about virtually everything your target audience wants to know. And the only way to make sure that your potential customers find your site to answer their questions is SEO.
SEO is essential to every website
So, it’s clear that it’s in your best interest to rank well in search results.
But can’t you leave it up to search engines and their algorithms to find your content and rank it accordingly?
Google’s algorithm is advanced, but it still needs a bit of help to find and understand content. And SEO plays a big role in that process.
Plus, showing up in search results isn’t enough. To attract traffic, your site needs to appear on the first page for searches related to your business, products, or services — ideally, within the first few results.
Your position on a results page has a major impact on how much traffic you’ll attract from search. In fact, the first result alone for any given search gets an average of 20.5% of the clicks on the page.
That number drops to 13.32% for the second result, and 13.14% for the third.
Add these numbers together, and you’ll realize that the top three results get an average of over 47% of the clicks on a results page.
So if your site isn’t ranking within the top three, the chances of a user clicking through and visiting it are less than half — and SEO is the only way to climb up in the results and bring more searchers to your site.
SEO helps to solve your persona’s problems
You’ve likely already developed marketing personas that represent different parts of your target audience.
You might use them to write ad copy, guide your campaign placement, and even shape which benefits you choose to highlight in marketing new products.
These personas should also play a role in the planning stages of your SEO strategy.
And when they do, the content you create won’t just improve your rankings in search results — it will also help you solve your personas’ problems.
That’s because when you choose topics based on what your target audience searches online, you’ll be able to create content that directly addresses their needs.
This is especially true if you’re willing to spend the time it takes to identify the intent behind their searches.
For example, just take a look at this example of what the process might look like for a site targeting the keyword “semantic SEO” from Search Engine Journal.
In this case, they identified a few general concepts within the broader topic of semantic SEO.
Then, they broke those individual concepts down into individual keywords that have clearer search intent.
Using this information, a site would be far more effective in providing the information that their audience wants about semantic SEO than they would by simply targeting that broad keyword.
It’s a long-term strategy
SEO is not a one-and-done tactic.
It involves ongoing research, regular maintenance, and long-term consistency to achieve results.
And while this might sound discouraging if you’re new to SEO, the corresponding benefit is that it can earn long-term results for your business.
Unlike advertising campaigns, which involve paying for space on another website or platform, much of SEO is based on improving your own website.
This means that the content you create can live on your site and attract traffic, customers, and leads for years to come.
For example, just take a look at the search results for the phrase “how to yoyo.”
In this case, the top results are for content from 2010, 2009, and 2012.
The art of yoyoing has apparently not changed much over the past few years. Google’s algorithm still considers these pages and videos to be the most authoritative on the subject, even though they’re not the newest.
So even though the creators of these pieces of content likely haven’t had to make too much of an effort to improve or maintain them since their original publication, they continue to reap the rewards of their first page rankings — making them a valuable long-term investment.
It can help establish trust and credibility
Ranking well in search engine results for keywords related to your business is also a great way to establish trust in your brand.
That’s because when it comes to the research process, many consumers turn to search engines to find the information they need.
In fact, 62% of consumers use search engines to learn more about products and services, and 48% prefer to visit business’s official websites to learn about what they offer.
This means that when a user finds your site in search results, you have a prime opportunity to make a great first impression.
Unlike traditional advertising methods, which involve attempting to generate a sale as quickly as possible, you can start by helping them solve a problem or accomplish a goal.
So even if they’re not ready to make a purchase immediately, you’ll establish your brand as a helpful, trustworthy resource. And considering that trust is one of the most important factors in establishing a connection and brand loyalty with a customer, this is a valuable step.
Then, when a visitor is ready to make a purchase, they’ll already have positive associations with your company.
This graphic from CoSchedule does a nice job of illustrating how this process translates into sales.
It’s not quite as direct as the traditional concept of sales and relies more heavily on establishing trust.
But when you create pages based on the information-based keywords that your audience is searching, then provide the content that they need, your site can do a large part of the heavy lifting when it comes to building trust — making it a passive part of your sales process.
It’s essential for lead generation
Given that SEO is largely focused on attracting visitors that are actively searching for information about products and services, it should come as no surprise that it’s a great way to generate leads.
But what’s more important is that SEO is a great way to generate qualified leads, or leads who are likely to become customers and clients.
Leads from SEO have an average conversion rate of 14.6%.
And while this might not seem so impressive at first glance, just consider that outbound leads from traditional strategies like direct mail and print advertising have an average conversion rate of 1.7%.
This means that the leads you earn from SEO are over eight times more likely to become customers than the leads you earn from traditional ad campaigns.
So if you’re looking for a way to boost your total number of sales, SEO should be an essential part of your lead generation strategy.
What is Crawling in SEO?
If you’ve spent any time reading into how, exactly, Google operates, you’ve likely come across the term “crawling.”
In its most basic sense, this is the process by which the search engine finds new information online to serve to its users as results.
And while it’s not necessary to have extensive technical knowledge of how crawling works, having a basic understanding can help you approach your site’s optimization more effectively.
Crawling, Indexing, and Ranking
When a user performs a search, Google’s algorithm doesn’t actually sort through every page on the Internet to pull and rank results.
Instead, it pulls from its own database of pages, called its index.
Each search engine has its own index that it uses to select and deliver pages as results. Crawling, then, is the process by which search engines find new content online and adds that content to their index.
Here’s a basic overview of how that process works:
Google’s crawlers, also sometimes referred to as “spiders,” are automated bots that view web pages and find new content. Then, the content that the crawlers find is added to the index.
When a user performs a search, Google’s algorithm sorts through their database of indexed pages to find the most relevant content for that user’s needs.
This means that if Google hasn’t indexed your site, it can’t show up in search results.
And while a lot of the crawling process takes place automatically, you need to make sure that Google’s crawlers can properly access your pages.
If your site’s architecture is set up improperly, or your code prevents crawlers from accessing your content, your pages won’t get indexed. And if that’s the case, they’ll never show up in search results — regardless of how relevant they might be to a user’s search.
White Hat vs. Black Hat SEO: What is the Difference?
As you read industry blogs and various optimization guides, you’ll likely see references to “white hat” and “black hat” SEO.
To be clear, these aren’t true subsets of SEO. Instead, they’re more of a distinction between the right way to optimize a site and the wrong way.
White hat SEO is the process of optimizing a site in a way that’s in line with Google’s guidelines and helps users find content that’s relevant to their needs.
Black hat SEO, on the other hand, focuses on finding ways to game the system and achieve high (but often short-lived) rankings. It’s done with the goal of manipulating rankings, regardless of how it impacts user experience.
It should go without saying, then, that this guide will focus solely on white hat methods.
But to give you a general idea of the differences between the two, this graphic from Inbound Marketing Inc. breaks down what each one involves:
White hat SEO
To put it simply, white hat SEO involves optimizing a site in a way that Google would approve of.
But the benefit of this approach isn’t just getting on the search engine’s good side.
White hat SEO is the best way to build sustainable rankings and results, provide a great user experience, and see a positive long-term impact on your online visibility.
Black hat SEO
Black hat SEO refers to any tactic that breaks Google’s rules.
And to be honest with you, it can boost rankings. But in most cases, these boosts are short-lived, and the results are not typically sustainable.
That’s because Google is constantly updating its algorithm, and many of these updates are designed to close the loopholes that black hat methods exploit.
This means that when you center your strategy on black hat tactics, you may need to completely change your approach every time a new update is released.
Plus, if Google catches you using these practice, they can hit your site with a manual penalty that will prevent you from showing up in search results at all.
So although these methods might help you achieve short-term results, the risks simply aren’t worth it.
On-Page SEO & Off-Page SEO
Now that we’ve gone over the general idea behind SEO, it’s time to start looking at the factors you’ll need to consider when optimizing your site.
These factors fall into two main categories: on-page and off-page.
As the name implies, these factors are the elements that make up each of your pages.
We’ll go into more detail about the on-page ranking factors you’ll need to consider later in this guide. But for the sake of this distinction, what you need to know is that on-page optimization involves your content, page structure, and keyword usage.
Off-page factors, then, are the ranking signals that take place elsewhere online.
The most important of these are backlinks, or links from other websites pointing to your pages.
Search engines use these signals from other sites to determine your site’s credibility. After all, if a trustworthy, authoritative site is willing to link to one of your pages, Google can logically determine that your page contains valuable, high-quality content.
So as you optimize your site for search engines, don’t forget that the elements on your pages aren’t the only things they take into consideration. You also need to work towards improving the references to your site.
Keyword Research: What it Is and How to Do It
Keyword research is an essential step in the SEO process.
It’s how you determine which keywords you want your pages to rank for, and will shape a large part of your on-page optimization efforts.
And effective keyword research centers on identifying the keywords your target audience searches when they’re looking for information about your industry, products, and services.
After all, ranking in the top spot for a keyword related to your industry is certainly a great ego boost.
But if none of your target audience is searching for that keyword, that ranking won’t have an impact on your business goals.
So with that in mind, here are the five basic steps you’ll need to take to identify the best keywords for your site.
Step 1: Identify relevant topics for your business
The first step of effective keyword research is simply to make a list of the general topics you want your site to rank for.
This might seem like an unnecessary step since you’re likely well aware of the most relevant topics to your business. Maybe you can even list them off without much thought.
But as you get farther into the research process, you’ll dig into each of these topics to identify specific words and phrases — so this list is more of a starting point than a stand-alone document.
So with that in mind, create a list of your core products and services, any topics that are important to your business, and subjects that your site already contains content about.
Step 2: Create a list of phrases you believe potential customers search for
Next, expand your list with the phrases your target audience would logically search for to find information related to your most important topics.
These phrases can come largely from your own understanding of your target audience.
For example, let’s say you’re a jewelry retailer that sells watches. Searchers who are looking for these products would logically use the phrase “best women’s watches,” so you’d want to add this to your list.
From there, you can use Google’s suggested search feature to expand your list. Simply type one of your keyword ideas into the search bar, then scroll to the bottom of the page to see related search queries.
For example, here’s what shows up for the search, “best womens watches.”
These suggestions are based on what other users frequently search for — meaning that if you were trying to reach people as they search for information about women’s watches online, they’d be valuable additions to your list of keywords.
Step 3: Mix main terms and long-tail
As you create your list, aim for a mix of short and long keywords.
Having a variety of keywords is the best way to strike a balance between targeting extremely competitive, but highly rewarding queries, and achieving spots in less competitive, but lower volume, results pages.
Shorter keywords are often referred to as “broad” keywords, while longer phrases are referred to as “long-tail” keywords. Some SEOs also refer to a middle category of “middle-tail” keywords — but in this guide, we’ll stick to two main types.
You can see the main differences between each of these types in the following graph.
The main distinction you need to know is that shorter, broader keywords typically have extremely high search volumes. This means that if you’re able to rank well for a broad keyword that’s relevant to your business, you can expect lots of traffic.
But as a result, lots of sites want to rank for these keywords — so they’re also highly competitive and difficult to rank for.
Long-tail keywords, on the other hand, are much more specific. Technically, any phrase with three or more words can be considered a long-tail keyword, but they can also be much longer.
In the graph above, for example, “free responsive wordpress themes for blog” is a highly specific phrase. And while this keyword likely gets searched far less often than “wordpress themes,” the intent behind it is a lot clearer.
So when you target long tail keywords, you’ll have an easier time achieving the rankings you want and providing the content that users searching those keywords are looking for.
Step 4: Use SEO tools to see how competitors are ranking for keywords
You’re likely not the only site in your industry attempting to rank for keywords related to your products and services.
And while this means SEO can be a competitive undertaking, it also means that you can gain valuable insight based on what others are already doing.
One of the best ways to do this is simply to look at which keywords your competitors are ranking for using a tool like SEMrush.
Enter a competitor’s domain, and you’ll see a full report of all of the keywords they’re ranking for organically, as well as each keyword’s search volume and competition level.
If you notice any keywords that are relevant to your business but aren’t yet on your list, add them.
Then, repeat this process for each of your main competitors, so that you can be sure you’re not missing any valuable opportunities.
Step 5: Use SEO tools to identify the priorities and opportunities
By this point, you should have a fairly extensive list of potential keyword ideas.
And while each of them likely has potential to help your site, you’ll need to determine which present the biggest opportunities and how to prioritize them accordingly.
You can do this by using tools to find out how frequently each keyword is searched, as well as how difficult it will be for your site to rank for it.
If you’re already running PPC campaigns with Google AdWords, you can use their Keyword Planner tool to easily access this information.
Although this tool is designed to help advertisers evaluate keywords for their PPC campaigns, the information it provides is also extremely helpful for SEO purposes.
And if you aren’t running campaigns with AdWords, a great alternative is the Keywords Everywhere extension for Chrome or Firefox.
After installing this extension, you can use its Bulk Upload feature to evaluate lists of potential keywords.
Once you have this information, you can accurately assess how much potential each keyword holds for your site.
In general, the best opportunities are those with relatively high monthly search volume and relatively low competition levels.
How To Do SEO to Rank And Convert Better
There are many factors to consider when optimizing a site for search. Here are 18 of the most important:
Having an important keyword in your domain used to be a major ranking factor.
Today, it’s not quite as important. In fact, Matt Cutts announced via tweet in 2012 that Google released an algorithm update that was designed to reduce low-quality exact-match domains in search results.
That said, your domain name can still act as a relevancy signal.
Plus, since searched keywords appear in bold on the results page, having one of your target keywords in your domain name can help your site stand out.
Beyond your site’s main domain, your individual page URLs also play a role in those pages’ ability to rank.
First and foremost, your URLs should contain real words that are relevant to the content on the page – not random strings of letters and numbers.
But it’s also in your best interest to keep your URLs short and simple. In fact, one study showed that short URLs correlate with higher rankings.
So as you add new pages to your site, make sure that each one has a brief, descriptive URL.
As the name implies, a title tag defines a page’s title.
It defines what that page is about, and is the first thing to appear in search results.
So as you optimize the pages on your site, make sure that each one has a unique, descriptive title tag.
This not only helps search engines determine whether one of your pages is relevant to a user’s search but can also help searchers decide whether they want to click on your page in the results.
A meta description is a brief summary of a page’s content, and it’s what appears below the page’s title tag in search results.
Although meta descriptions don’t play a direct role in rankings, they can help users get a better idea of what to expect when they click on your page.
This means that well-written meta descriptions can increase your click through rates and help you attract more traffic from each of your pages that rank in search results.
Headings are HTML tags used to break pages into subsections.
They make it easier for readers to scan for specific information, and can also help search engines better understand the content on a page.
In fact, one study showed that pages with styled H1 tags ranked slightly higher than those without.
Although the difference in this study was minimal, every effort you can make to improve your rankings counts.
Images’ Alt Text
Alt tags are used to describe what’s displayed in an image.
Since search engines can’t “see” images like human users, these tags help them understand what visual files contain.
Alt tags are also important for accessibility since they’re how blind and visually impaired users access image files.
Content is what makes up the bulk of each page on your site. And while there are many different ways to improve your content for SEO purposes, there are three major aspects you’ll want to keep in mind: quality, relevance, and length.
Google wants to deliver high-quality results to its users.
This is a relatively straightforward concept, but if you’re not sure if your content could be considered “quality,” you can also think of it in terms of clarity.
As Google’s Matt Cutts explained, “If you’re erring on the side of clarity, and on the side of something that’s going to be understandable, you’ll be in much better shape.”
This is another straightforward, but important, consideration when writing and publishing copy.
The content on each of your pages should be in line with what a user expects after clicking your page in search results.
And while this will often happen naturally, as the result of creating a page around a specific keyword, it’s also helpful to consider the intent behind each keyword in your strategy.
The clearer an idea you have of what a user wants when they search for one of your target keywords, the more relevant your content will be to their needs — and the higher Google will rank your page as a result.
Considering that Google’s goal is to direct users to helpful resources, it’s not too surprising that lengthy pages tend to rank well in their results.
In fact, the average length of a first page Google result is 1,890 words.
And while this doesn’t mean you should arbitrarily “fluff up” your pages to hit a specific word count, it does mean that achieving high rankings often requires creating in-depth resources for your visitors.
A sitemap is essentially exactly what it sounds like: a map of your website.
This map isn’t intended for users, but helps search engines more effectively crawl your pages — so creating one can help ensure that your site is properly indexed.
Links from other sites signal to Google that other site owners believe that your content is worthy of citing as a source or directing users to.
This is an extremely important ranking signal, and pages with a high total number of links tend to rank highest in Google’s search results.
So as you optimize your site, don’t forget to look for ways to earn links to your new and existing content.
In 2017, mobile users accounted for over 50% of all web traffic worldwide.
And as more users access online content from smartphones and other mobile devices, it’s becoming increasingly important for sites to provide a great mobile experience.
You can use Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test to quickly tell whether your site meets Google’s guidelines for mobile-friendliness. And if it doesn’t, this is an important area to improve upon.
Users don’t want to wait more than a few seconds for a page to load. As a result, site speed can have a major impact on user experience.
In fact, according to Google’s most recent page speed benchmarks study, when page load times jump from one to three seconds, the probability of a bounce increases by 32%.
That means you could lose almost one-third of your traffic if your site takes just three seconds to load.
You can use Google’s Test My Site tool to gauge where you stand — and if your pages take more than a few seconds to load, you have some work to do in this area.
“Duplicate content” is when your site contains content that appears elsewhere online.
And while republishing certain chunks of copy (with credit!) won’t necessarily have a negative impact on your rankings, it’s important to note that Google focuses on providing unique content to their users.
This means that pages of duplicated copy won’t do you any favors in search results — so it’s in your best interest to focus on creating original content.
Featured snippets are special blocks that appear for certain queries and provide the information a user is searching for directly on the results page.
For example, if you search for “phases of the moon,” Google has a pretty clear idea of what you’re looking for. As a result, they show the following snippet:
There’s no established best practice for getting your site to appear in these snippets, but you can optimize the way you organize and present your content to increase the chances that Google will pull information from your pages.
Robots.txt is a file that tells search engines what they can and can’t crawl and index on your site.
When you create your robots.txt file, you’ll want to disallow any content you don’t want to appear in search results, like WordPress operating files and thank you pages.
The way that your site is organized and structured plays a role in how search engine crawlers access and understand your content.
Ideally, you should plan out a hierarchy that looks something like this:
This gives crawlers a better understanding of which pages on your site are the most important, and how they relate to one another.
You may have noticed that many of the sites you visit have a small lock icon next to their domain, with green text reading “Secure.”
This signals that the site is encrypted with HTTPS so that your connection between your browser and the site is secure
So if your site isn’t yet secure, making the switch could help you boost your rankings in search.
Usability and User Experience
As we’ve mentioned several times on this page, Google prioritizes providing a great user experience. And while page speed is one of the most straightforward user experience metrics to measure, it isn’t the only one to consider when optimizing your site.
First, you should aim to create a logical, easy-to-use navigation setup.
Ideally, your most important pages should be no more than one or two clicks away from your homepage.
Ease of use
When a user arrives on your site, they should know within seconds what they need to do to find the information or complete the goal that they want.
And although this might seem obvious to you (and your team), it’s important to recognize that your experience with your site makes you biased.
You can use tools like Crazy Egg to identify elements that are confusing, then adjust and improve them accordingly to provide a better user experience.
Schema is a set of tags you can add to your pages to improve the way that search engines read and represent them in search results.
For example, take a look at this result from Goodreads:
The star rating helps this result stand out on the page — and it’s the result of schema.
You can use Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper to add schema to your pages.
SEO Link Building: How to Get Quality Backlinks
Links are a major factor in how search engines rank websites. As a result, link building is an essential part of any SEO strategy.
In fact, pages ranking in the second position for a high-volume keyword have an average of 10,000 more referring domains than those in the tenth position, and 2.2x more backlinks lead to URLs ranking in the first position than URLs ranking in the second.
That said, effective link building involves more than attempting to earn as many links as possible from anywhere and everywhere online.
As you create your link building strategy, focus on earning links from trustworthy, authoritative sites.
While amassing a large number of links used to be the best way to achieve rankings, quality is now much more important than quantity.
This means that links from spammy, low-quality sites won’t help you reach your goals.
A handful of links from authoritative sites will have a much more positive impact than lots of links from low-quality pages.
In fact, links from high-quality URLs correlate with strong page one rankings in Google search results.
So as you determine the best ways to earn links for your site, focus your efforts on authoritative sources.
Although these sites will be more challenging to earn links from, the payoff will ultimately be much more significant and worth your time.
Link Building Strategies
Some of the best links are acquired naturally. When you create great content, other site owners may choose to link to it on their own accord.
And while this can be a valuable source of high-quality links, it can take a long time to show significant results.
Fortunately, link building doesn’t need to be a passive process.
Depending on the types of sites you want to earn links from, you can use a variety of strategies, including:
- Guest posts
- Broken link building
- Skyscraper content
- Compiled resources
- Competitor backlink research
And for the best possible results, you can combine multiple tactics from this list to create a well-rounded approach to earning links for your site.
Anchor text is the hyperlinked word or phrase that users can click to visit a link on a page.
SEOs used to focus on earning links with their target keywords in the anchor text. But today, this is unimportant.
In fact, only 3% of backlinks contain a keyword in the anchor text.
So as you earn links, don’t worry about the exact text other sites use when linking to one of your pages. As long as the link is incorporated naturally into their content, it will pass value to your site.
SEO Tracking Metrics
As you improve your site’s optimization, it’s essential to monitor your results and see what’s working — and what isn’t.
Here are eight of the most important metrics to track in order to gauge your success.
1. Organic sessions
This metrics refers to the total number of visitors you’re attracting from organic search.
And as you optimize your site, it should steadily increase.
You can access data about your organic sessions by navigating to Acquisition > Overview and then selecting “Organic Search.”
This report will give you an overview of how your organic traffic increases (or not) over time, as well as how that traffic behaves in terms of bounce rate, pages per session, and goal conversion rates.
2. Keyword rankings
Next, one of the most obvious metrics to monitor is your keyword rankings.
Since much of SEO focuses on increasing your visibility in search results, it makes sense that you’d want to track how your rankings for your target keywords change over time.
For some of your more important keywords, you might choose to monitor your results manually every few days by searching for those keywords and seeing where you stand.
But to get a more comprehensive picture of your site’s appearance in search, you can use a tool like SEMrush.
To access reports on your rankings, click “Organic Search Positions” in the navigation bar.
Then, you’ll see a full list of all of the keywords you rank for and their positions on the results page.
Monitoring this report on a regular basis can give you a concrete picture of how your SEO efforts are working, and whether you’re moving up in the rankings for the keywords most important to your business.
Your click through rate, or CTR, is the percentage of searchers that click on your site after seeing it in search results.
Naturally, you’ll want your CTR to be as high as possible — but it’s important to note that rankings play a major role in this.
For example, the result ranking in the first position sees an average of 31.52% of the clicks on a desktop results page, and 24.05% on a mobile results page.
Fortunately, a lower ranking in results doesn’t mean you’re doomed to have abysmal clickthrough rates.
If your title tags and meta descriptions are interesting enough to users that they decide to click on your page instead of a higher-ranking alternative, this is an excellent sign for your optimization efforts.
And monitoring your CTR can give you an idea of how compelling your pages are to users when they appear in search results.
You can access this information in Search Console by navigating to Search Traffic > Search Analytics.
4. Bounce rate
When a user visits a page on your site, then leaves (typically to return to the search results) instead of continuing to another page, this is considered a “bounce.”
Your bounce rate, then, is the percentage of visitors who bounce. And the lower this rate, the better.
By regularly checking in on your bounce rate, you can determine whether the content on your pages is in line with what visitors expect when they click on it in search results.
5. Time on page
As the name implies, the time on page metric indicates how much time, on average, visitors spend visiting any given page on your site.
This metric can give you an idea of how engaged visitors are with your content, as the longer the average user spends browsing your page, the more confident you can be that your site provides what users are looking for.
6. Domain authority and new backlinks
As you build new links, there are two main metrics you’ll want to use to measure your progress: domain authority and the total number of backlinks.
Domain authority is a number on a scale from 1-100 that rates how trustworthy your site is according to its backlink profile.
The more quality links you earn, the higher this number will climb — and the easier it will be for your pages to rank well in search results.
You can check your domain authority using Website Authority Checker.
And with a strong link building strategy, this number should continue to gradually increase.
Next, you’ll also want to keep an eye on your total number of backlinks.
As you can see in the screenshot above, Website Authority Checker will also provide this information next to “External links to domain.”
7. Page load times
Whether page speed is an issue for your site or not, you’ll want to keep an eye on your load times as you optimize your pages for search.
You can keep an eye on your page load times using Google’s Page Speed Insights tool.
Your goal should be to achieve “Fast” speeds on both mobile and desktop.
And if this isn’t the case, you can follow Google’s recommendations in the report to improve your load times and the user experience you provide.
8. Crawl errors
As you update your site, it’s a good idea to check in on how Google is crawling your pages regularly.
After all, your optimization efforts won’t make a difference if Google isn’t finding and indexing them.
Fortunately, this is easy to monitor using Google Search Console.
When you log into your account, one of the first things you’ll see is your crawl status report.
If Google’s crawlers are having any issues with your site, they’ll display here — so that you can quickly identify the source and fix it.
4 Common SEO Mistakes
As with any process as complex as SEO, it’s easy to make mistakes.
Here are four of the most common:
Optimizing and improving a site often involves moving pages, revising URLs, and updating links.
And while these changes can all have a positive impact on your site, they can also lead to redirect issues.
So if you make any changes to your site’s structure, you’ll want to make sure that all of your redirects are set up and functioning properly.
Here, you’ll see a complete list of all of the redirects on your site, along with their status codes.
If a redirect is functioning as it should, you’ll see a 301 status code. And if this is the case with all of the redirects on your site, you’re in great shape!
But if you see any 404 status codes, this means that certain links on your site are directing users to an error page — which is bad news for both your SEO and your site’s user experience.
2. Duplicate content
Having some of the same content on multiple pages, or republishing bits of content from other sites isn’t going to kill your SEO.
In fact, in 2016, Google’s Andrey Lipattsev stated that Google does not issue penalties for duplicate content.
Unfortunately, some SEOs took this to mean that they were free to copy and paste as much content as they wanted onto their site — but that’s not what Lipattsev meant.
While republishing content on your site won’t actively damage the rest of your site’s ability to rank in search results, it’s also unlikely to impact your site positively.
Plus, as Google’s John Mueller explains, if large portions of your content are copied, rewritten, or repurposed from other sources, “Our algorithms say we need to kind of ignore this website completely. We don’t need to focus on it in the search. The manual webspam team might even come in and say that it’s it’s a waste of our resources to even look at this website because it’s just pure copies of all of these other websites — maybe slightly rewritten, but it’s not there’s nothing unique here. And in those cases, we might remove a website completely from search.”
So if your site contains large chunks of republished content, this can signal to search engines that it isn’t worth their time to crawl and index your pages — and if you’re spending time optimizing your content, that’s the exact opposite of what you want to happen.
It’s also worth noting that duplicate content issues can also occur within the pages on your own site.
If you move a page of content to a new URL on your site, it might seem obvious to you that because the entire pages were moved, the old version is no longer relevant.
But unless you delete and redirect that old page, Google will crawl them both — then determine that the content has been duplicated.
This can create issues with how its algorithm categorizes and ranks your pages.
Fortunately, identifying these kinds of issues is easy.
Log into Search Console, then navigate to Search Appearance > HTML Improvements.
In this report, you can see if you have any duplicate title tags or meta descriptions.
This way, if you’ve missed deleting the original versions of old pages, you can quickly identify them and remedy the issue.
This isn’t so much a mistake as a set of bad practices to avoid.
As we mentioned above, “black hat” SEO tactics can occasionally produce positive results — but they’re unlikely to be lasting.
Unfortunately, some SEOs are still so tempted by the idea of short-term gains that they use spammy practices thinking that the temporary results will be worth it.
These practices include excessive blog commenting, paying for fake reviews, and publishing “thin,” low-quality content.
And while they might create a quick boost in rankings, you can be sure that Google will pick up on them — and in most cases, that will happen sooner rather than later.
So as you optimize your site, you might get frustrated by the amount of work involved in an upstanding SEO strategy and want to turn to black hat methods.
And you certainly wouldn’t be the first to fall into this trap — but this is our obligatory reminder that spammy practices simply aren’t worth a possible penalty.
4. Keyword stuffing
Keywords help search engines understand what each page on your site is about and rank it in search results accordingly.
As a result, you might think that it’s in your best interest to use your target keyword as many times as possible on a page.
But that’s definitely not the case.
Using keywords excessively and unnaturally is known as keyword stuffing, which Google views as a spammy practice.
In fact, considering how Google sees keyword stuffing, we could’ve placed it in the previous section.
But given that this is a particularly common mistake, and one that site owners often make without necessarily intending to break the rules, it deserves its own section.
So as you incorporate your keywords, focus on writing naturally and only using your keywords where they make sense.
Interjecting keywords for the sake of SEO won’t earn the results you want — and in many cases, it can wind up damaging your ability to rank well.
Search Engine Tools
SEO is a complex, sometimes technical, process. Fortunately, there are plenty of tools designed to help you identify keywords, create an SEO strategy, and monitor your results.
Google Analytics is Arguably the best Analytics platform available to site owners — and it’s completely free.
Once you install the tracking code on your site, you’ll be able to access in-depth reports about your traffic, audience, acquisition, conversions, and more.
Google Search Console
Google’s Search Console is a valuable tool for monitoring how Google crawls and indexes your site.
Unlike Analytics, which focuses on how users interact with your site, Search Console’s purpose is to provided data on Google’s crawling and indexation of your site.
Google Keyword Planner
Keyword Planner is Google’s keyword research tool intended for AdWords users.
If you run PPC campaigns on the platform, it’s completely free to use, and will give you a wealth of information about the keywords you’re considering targeting with your SEO strategy.
Ubersuggest is a free keyword research tool you can use to identify relevant keywords and phrases to target in your SEO strategy.
Simply enter a keyword, and you’ll see a list of related suggestions based on what Google’s users most commonly search. This will help you take a more data-backed approach to keyword selection.
Screaming Frog’s SEO Spider Tool
Screaming Frog is a great tool for crawling your site and identifying issues like redirect chains, duplicate title tags, and crawl errors.
Running a report on a regular basis is an easy way to make sure that your site is in good technical shape.
Plus, it’s free for up to 500 pages.
SEMrush is one of the best tools available for competitor research.
Enter a competitor’s domain name, and you’ll see a full report of the keywords they’re ranking for — which you can use to identify new opportunities for your own site.
Ahrefs is a valuable tool for backlink analysis, both for your own site and for your competitors’.
After you enter a domain, you’ll be able to see all of the links pointing to it, as well as the individual pages that they link to.
This can help you monitor the results of your link building strategy, then identify opportunities to build new links based on who’s linking to similar sites in your industry.
Tips to Increase Your Organic Traffic
There are many different factors that impact your site’s ability to rank in search results.
In fact, making your way through the factors we’ve listed so far on this page alone could take months.
But if you’re looking for more advanced tactics for improving your organic search traffic, there are always more methods to consider.
Latent Semantic Indexing
As search engine algorithms become more advanced, they don’t lean as heavily on specific keywords to classify information.
Today, search engines use latent semantic indexing, or LSI, to better understand the content on a page.
LSI is a mathematical method that identifies patterns in the relationships between concepts and terms in textual content and indexes the information for accurate recovery.
In normal human language, this means that it’s how search engines understand the content on a page and accurately match it with a searcher’s intent.
You can help search engines better classify your content by making sure that each page includes contextual information like keywords and phrases related to your main keyword, synonyms, and information about related concepts.
You can use Google’s related search feature to find LSI keywords for the pages on your site.
Then, you can distribute these keywords naturally throughout your pages to help Google better understand the topics you’re covering on each.
Use Google Search Console to Increase CTR
Rankings that aren’t the only thing that matter when it comes to increasing organic traffic.
After all, a page one ranking won’t do your business any good if no one clicks it and visits your site.
So as you work to improve your organic traffic levels, you’ll also want to look for ways to increase your CTRs in search results.
First, use Google Search Console to identify which of your pages have the highest CTR.
Then, see if there’s anything you’re doing differently with your title tags and meta descriptions to earn particularly high CTRs and use any insight you gain to improve lower-performing pages.
Optimize for Featured Snippets
In addition to optimizing your title tags and meta descriptions, another way to increase your CTR in search results is by identifying ways to appear in Featured Snippets.
One HubSpot study revealed that the site’s pages that appeared as Featured Snippets achieved double the CTR as those that appeared as normal results.
Fortunately, earning a Featured Snippet result doesn’t require ranking in the first position. In fact, 70% of snippets come from results that aren’t ranking in the first organic position.
Of course, achieving one of these spots can be challenging. But you can start by formatting straightforward facts and information on your site as lists or tables, as Google often pulls from these formats for Featured Snippets.
Why SEO Means Nothing If You Don’t Convert Your Visitors
The goal of SEO is ultimately to earn more customers and leads for your business.
That means that page one rankings and high traffic levels ultimately mean nothing if your site’s new influx of visitors doesn’t translate to conversions.
And unfortunately, an increase in traffic isn’t guaranteed to lead to an increase in leads and sales.
Ideally, when you see an increase in your number of unique visitors, you should see a proportional increase in conversions. So if your traffic triples, but you only see one or two extra leads, you know you have a problem.
And in most cases, the problem is that you’re attracting the wrong kind of traffic.
If your SEO strategy is based solely on increasing traffic quantity (and not quality), you’re bound to run into problems.
For example, let’s say you’re an electronics retailer and you want to increase sales of a popular “notebook” laptop.
You see that “best notebook for work” has a high search volume, so you optimize your product page for that keyword. And you end up ranking on the first page! Great, right?
And you’ll see why when you take a look at the following results page.
After scanning through the results, the issue with targeting this keyword is clear.
Though it has high search volume, most of the results are for pen-and-paper notebooks — not laptops. And if that’s what users are looking for when they use this keyword, there’s a serious mismatch between their intent and your page.
Of course, the problem isn’t always this obvious. But the basic concept is the same.
When you focus solely on traffic volume, you might succeed in increasing your total number of visitors — but unless you’re also considering the type of traffic you’re attracting, it’s unlikely to translate into conversions.
And that means that your efforts will be largely unsuccessful in helping you reach the goals that matter to your business, like increasing your sales and revenue.
How to Convert Your Organic Traffic Into Leads and Customers
As we mentioned in the previous section, your goal with SEO shouldn’t be just to increase your traffic. You also need to turn that traffic into leads and customers.
Unfortunately, that’s often easier said than done.
But there are a few steps you can take to make sure that your SEO strategy is designed to help you reach your most important goals.
1. Determine how conversions fit into your site
First, you’ll need to determine what kinds of conversions fit into your site.
This largely depends on your industry and business model.
For example, if you run an eCommerce store, your main form of conversions will be online sales. But if you run a B2B service-based business, you’ll likely focus on generating contact form submissions.
So before you can optimize your site for conversions, you’ll need to define what, exactly, those conversions are.
Then, you’ll be able to organize your site in a way that naturally moves visitors closer to taking these desired actions.
2. Allow your visitors to make multiple types of conversions
As you determine the conversions you want to generate, it’s also important to include options aside from your primary goal.
While it may seem counterintuitive to add less important conversion types that could distract users from taking major steps, it’s important to recognize that not all of your visitors will be immediately ready to make a purchase or contact you.
And if you don’t give them the opportunity to a smaller, lower-pressure action, you risk losing them as a potential customer.
These alternate conversions might take the form of signing up for an email newsletter, downloading a PDF guide, or simply watching a product video.
3. Optimize your pages for conversions
Finally, once you’ve determined how conversions fit into your site, you can work on improving your pages in ways that will increase the number of visitors that complete those conversions.
One of the best ways to do this is to use a tool like Crazy Egg to figure out what’s preventing your visitors from taking action.
Are they confused about how to take action?
Are they distracted by less important elements on the page?
Are there UX issues preventing them from using your forms or clicking your buttons?
Heatmaps, scroll maps, overlays, and other user testing reports can help you find the answers to those questions so that you can eliminate issues and increase your conversion rates.
How CRO and SEO Can Work Together
As you optimize your site, your goal should be to attract qualified traffic, then convert that traffic into customers.
And while this can be a seamless process, it involves two separate strategies: SEO and CRO.
By this point in the guide, you’re well aware of what SEO is. It’s how you improve your site in ways that will improve your visibility in search results and bring more users to your site.
CRO, then, stands for conversion rate optimization — and it’s the process of improving the percentage of your site’s traffic that converts in some way.
Fortunately, these two processes don’t need to compete with one another.
In fact, they’re most effective when used together.
What is CRO?
Much like SEO, CRO is a simple acronym that represents a complex, ongoing effort to improve a website.
And the exact steps and tactics it involves are different for every website.
That’s because every site targets a slightly different target audience, and each of those audiences have different browsing habits and preferences.
Combine that with the fact that every site also has slightly different goals, and you’ll realize that CRO is largely a trial-and-error process.
While there are a few best practices you can try, the best way to improve your conversion rates is with user testing.
This way, you’ll be able to make data-backed decisions based on your audience’s preferences — not what works for other site owners.
Identify the intersection of SEO and CRO
As you work on your site, you’ll want to look for ways that your SEO and CRO strategies can work together to attract and convert customers.
First, you’ll want to determine what the conversion process looks like for your visitors, and what kinds of content your visitors engage with before moving to the next step. Then, you can identify keywords at each stage of your conversion funnel.
From there, you’ll want to create content around each of those keywords.
This way, you can be confident that your site contains all of the information a visitor needs to be comfortable making a conversion.
How to use a tool like Crazy Egg to improve conversions
Determining how to optimize your site so that more users will take the actions you want can be a challenging process. Tools like Crazy Egg make it simpler.
First, you can use reports like heatmaps and scroll maps to see how users interact with your pages, and what’s preventing them from converting.
Then, you can run A/B tests to try out different variants of a page and see which generates the most conversions.
Using this process, you’ll be able to gain actionable insight into which elements and approaches generate the best results for your audience — meaning that the decisions you make based on this data are almost guaranteed to help you boost your conversion rates.
The primary goal of an SEO strategy is relatively straightforward: Earn high rankings in search engine results.
But as you’ve likely gathered from this page, the process itself isn’t exactly easy. It requires research, planning, and ongoing work.
So if you’re looking to increase your rankings and online invisibility, you’ll need to be willing to invest the time it takes to do keyword research, optimize your site’s on- and off-page factors, and create new content.
You’ll also need to regularly monitor the KPIs that matter to your business and look for ways to continuously improve your strategy.
Our goal is that with this guide, you’ll be able to create a strategy that works for your business — and achieve rankings and results that have a significant impact on your sales and revenue.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at a few of the biggest advantages of SEO for your website.