The world of digital marketing is full of acronyms, and it feels like there’s a new one every day. You’ve probably at least heard of CPC (cost per click) and CTA (call to action), but what about SEO (search engine optimization)?
In case you didn’t already know, SEO is a series of practices that increase a website’s visibility and traffic quality by utilizing organic search engine results. Typically, SEO aims to have pages within a business’ website rank highly for relevant search engine queries.
If you’re brand-new to SEO, we’re here to help. In part 1 of our beginner’s guide, we’ll cover exactly what SEO is, why it’s important for small businesses, and give an overview of the main SEO areas and activities.
Once you’ve finished reading this article, you should feel confident in your SEO knowledge to start implementing some of SEO strategies of your own. To get you started, we’ve curated an exhaustive SEO glossary, with 250 terms and definitions written in simple language.
What is SEO?
Put simply, SEO is the art of ranking high on a search engine in the unpaid section, otherwise known as the organic listings. In more human terms, it’s the process of optimizing online content so a search engine shows it as a top result for relevant searches.
It’s all about understanding what your target audiences are searching for online, the kind of solutions they’re seeking, the words they’re typing into the search bar, and the type of content they prefer. While many people focus on the technical aspects of SEO, it’s important to remember that it’s just as much about consumers as it is the search engines themselves.
What SEO is not is a series of techniques meant to “trick” search algorithms. It’s not a quick trick that will rank your site first and help you make money fast. Deceptive SEO practices are commonly referred to as “black hat SEO”, and engaging in it runs the risk of being punished and/or de-indexed (removed from search results entirely).
SEO is best used as a long-term, ongoing business tactic. In fact, the earlier you implement even the most basic SEO principles into your website and content, the better.
We’ll focus on “white hat SEO,” which describes techniques, best practices, and strategies that follow rules set out by search engine rules and focuses on providing the most value to users.
Typically, most websites focus on SEO optimization for the Google search engine, since it accounts for the vast majority of desktop (76%) and mobile (86%) searches. Following that example, we’ll also be focusing on SEO for Google.
SEO is a fast-paced and multifaceted field, and many business owners find it intimidating. It doesn’t have to be! We’re here to lay out why SEO is important for small businesses, and how even a little bit of SEO work can positively impact your business.
Benefits of SEO for Digital Marketing
If you feel like SEO is too difficult and not worth your valuable time, it’s time to reconsider. SEO can be as simple or complex as you make it. You’ll be surprised how much influence even a basic understanding of SEO can have across your business.
In a 2020 survey, 70 percent of marketers saw SEO as more effective than PPC (pay per click) advertising. This is primarily because ranking highly in organic search engine results is the Internet’s equivalent of word-of-mouth marketing.
Consider the following statistics:
- Search engines generate 90 percent of all overall web traffic.
- 81 percent of consumers use search engines to research big purchases.
- Of the roughly 4.54 billion Internet users worldwide, 64 percent depend on search engines to make purchasing decisions.
Unlike other digital marketing channels, a strong SEO strategy can continue to earn results over time. If you create a solid piece of content that deserves to rank highly for the right keywords (search terms), traffic can increase over time. Contrast this with the constant costs of advertising, and good SEO is a downright bargain.
Engaging in SEO practices will also reveal opportunities to improve or refine your audience research, content creation, and more. That’s because the concept of SEO is to make your website relevant to both search engines and your target audiences.
It’s also important to note that SEO also plays important roles in unexpected places, such as Pinterest marketing and Pinterest Ads. Although every search engine uses different algorithms and ranking factors, the general principles apply across the board. Basic SEO skills can help you increase visibility on a variety of online platforms, not just search engines.
Most importantly, it’s simply not enough to create a great website in today’s world. Businesses intent on growing must implement even the simplest of SEO techniques so their website and content can appear in the right search results.
In fact, many website owners have absolutely no understanding of SEO, which means that even mastering the basics could potentially provide a major competitive edge.
Three Areas of SEO
As you know by now, SEO is a broad series of practices and involves many distinct activities, some of which don’t even happen on your website. There are three major areas of SEO— technical SEO, on-page SEO, and off-page SEO. Let’s learn a little bit more about each of them now.
1) Technical SEO
If you found SEO intimidating in the past, you were probably thinking of this particular discipline.
Broadly defined, technical SEO involves anything that affects how your website is accessed by search engines. The goal here is to make your site easily found and crawled (scanned for information) by search engines.
Technical SEO often requires an understanding of website building, because it deals with factors such as page speed, site structure, URL structure, HTTPs, and mobile responsiveness.
You might need the help of a web developer or SEO professional to check and improve your technical SEO. There are also websites online that will perform basic SEO audits to identify any major problems hindering your SEO ability.
Page speed (how fast page content loads) is a crucial element to technical SEO, and it’s incredibly difficult to accomplish. As you build your website, make sure your web designer achieves a page speed close to 2 seconds. Google recommends a page speed of less than three seconds, so meeting that goal can really help your SEO efforts.
Most websites have a much slower page speed, especially sites built with WordPress templates. If you can beat the page speed average (22 seconds) and meet Google’s recommendation, you’ll already have a major SEO advantage.
Technical SEO serves as the foundation for the other two, because if the search engines can’t find your website and/or content, it’s impossible to rank in results.
Ideally, technical SEO is implemented from the earliest stages of website design and construction, although websites can always be updated and optimized. To save you some time, we’ve put together the top 10 SEO-friendly web design guidelines, to help direct your website design and/or optimization.
2) On-Page SEO
On-page SEO deals mostly with your website content, like your text, images, audio, and video elements. On a more technical level, it also involves optimizing elements only visible to search engines, such as HTML tags, structured data, and alt text.
Keyword research is a major element of on-page SEO. Once keywords have been discovered and analyzed, the next step is to strategically incorporate relevant keywords into the locations we listed above.
3) Off-Page SEO
You might be surprised to learn that some of the most important SEO activities happen outside of your website, and involve the more old-fashioned task of building relationships.
Off-page SEO refers to any SEO activities that happen outside of your website. It’s focused on demonstrating your website’s authority, relevance, and building an audience. Common off-page SEO activities include social media marketing, PPC marketing, collecting user-generated content, and link building.
Hopefully by now, you’re starting to see that simple SEO is accessible to any entrepreneurs willing to learn the best practices and commit to implementing them. Despite what many people believe, SEO relates just as much to your business and audience as it does to search engines themselves. In the next section, we’ll examine the roles of these three major players, and their overall impact on SEO.
The Three Characters in SEO
SEO requires you to keep track of and thoroughly understand your business, your audience, and the search engines themselves. Each of these characters have important roles to play, and balancing the needs of all three of them is crucial to SEO success.
1) Your Business
It’s important to think of SEO as an important way to build relationships with your audiences.
The immediate goal of SEO is to help your audience find your content at their moment of need, want, or curiosity. The long-term goal is to establish your brand as a trusted industry authority, to the point that searchers are looking specifically for your site, either through direct traffic or branded searches.
Before you can reach either of those goals, you must have a clear mission and vision for your business. Go beyond the products or services you’re selling.
- What resources will our website provide?
- What problems will we help solve; what questions will we help answer?
- What type of content supports our products, services, and overall mission?
- What do we want visitors to feel when they arrive on our website?
- What kind of voice will we use to communicate with our visitors and customers?
- How will we communicate our ethics and values through our content and website?
All of these considerations help build a sense of authenticity, which modern SEO and consumers increasingly demand from brands. Just like in life, it’s important to understand yourself and what you offer in order to create meaningful relationships with your audience.
2) Your Audience
Just like every other part of business, SEO is also about truly understanding your audience, what they want, and how they search for the solutions, ideas, and resources that your business provides. When SEO is centered around the right audience, targeted traffic increases, therefore boosting conversions.
First and foremost, make sure you’ve got a detailed customer persona. Customer personas are documents that help marketers research and organize audience data in order to guide other marketing functions. If you haven’t done the research to develop a comprehensive customer persona for each segment of your audience, get started with our customer persona worksheet.
Once you’ve found as much information on your target audience(s) as possible, you can move on to a more SEO-specific form of audience research: keyword research.
As you might have guessed, keywords (and keyword phrases) are the words and phrases people enter into search engines. Keyword research will help you find the words and phrases (a) used by your target audiences to (b) find ideas, content, products, and services like yours.
Keywords are just as much about your audience as they are about your content. Your target audience might define (and search for) your content differently than you’d expect. Keyword research helps you better understand your audience’s need, and reveals the natural language they use when searching for solutions.
You might think you “know” what keywords your business wants to rank for, but more often than not, you’ll find your audience is searching differently. That’s why it’s important to invest in good keyword research to refine your audience insights, rather than focusing on arbitrary keywords.
Once you’ve found your keywords, the next steps are to include them authentically on your website and in your content.
When we say to use keywords “authentically”, we mean to avoid throwing them into a headline, at the end of an article, or otherwise forcing them where they don’t naturally belong. That strategy might have worked in the early days of search engines, but in recent years, algorithms have become smart enough to recognize — and penalize — that kind of trickery.
At the very least, use relevant keywords in your page content and URL. If you’re able, it’s also good to include them in the meta description and alt attributes of images.
Keyword research can happen either before or after content creation. If you’ve created content with a keyword or phrase in mind, it’s quite easy to integrate that keyword throughout the process.
However, if your content already exists, the task is to discover appropriate keywords for it. You can use a content to keyword map to match keywords to pre-existing content, as well as identify new content opportunities.
More Audience Research Tactics for SEO
Once you’ve filled out your customer personas and conducted your keyword research, you can move on to other audience research methods. Not all of these will be appropriate for every business, but we recommend conducting as much research as you’re capable of.
If you’ve already set up a Google Analytics account, you can enable Demographics and Interest reports to learn more about who’s visiting your website. This information can provide perspective on how well you’re reaching your target markets and could even reveal possible new audiences you hadn’t considered.
Competitor brands are also great resources, especially if your business is still in the early stages. Analyzing other businesses can help you identify gaps in your audience research, possible new keywords, and link building opportunities. There are plenty of online tools for competitor research, many of which offer free trials or tools (YouGov, Quantcast, Alexa).
Google increasingly shows answers to questions directly in search engine result pages (SERPs), making it extremely helpful to identify common questions in your audience/niche. Again, there are online tools that usually give limited access to this kind of data with their free tools (AnswerThePublic, BuzzSumo, SEMrush). With this information, you can create content to answer common questions, and potentially compete to appear as a direct answer on Google SERPs.
Finally, research secondary data to fill in any blanks. Diving deep into published research addressing topics like decision-making processes, media consumption, and communication preferences can provide valuable audience insights.
Audience research is an essential part of SEO, and lays the groundwork for generating content ideas and engaging in the long-term, “white hat” SEO practices that will best grow your business.
3) Search Engines
Although you’re probably very familiar with search engines as a user, it’s important to develop a more detailed understanding of exactly how search engines work. As we said earlier, we’ll be focusing on the Google search engine, since the wider SEO industry does the same.
Think of search engines as “answer machines.” They examine billions of content pieces and weigh thousands of factors to determine which results to serve up to any particular search.
Search engines’ primary goal is to be helpful to users.
They make their money from advertisements, which means the higher the search volume, the greater their profit. The better the search results, the more likely a searcher is to stay on a search engine result page (SERP) and return for their next search.
Search engine result pages (SERPs) refer to the pages search engines display in response to a user search. SERPs have evolved greatly over time, and SERP features can vary greatly on a search-by-search basis.
For example, a local product or service search on Google (like “pizza San Francisco”) will typically include a location pack featuring a map, relevant businesses, and their name, address, and phone numbers.
The two most basic SERP elements include sponsored results (ads) and organic search results, although ads won’t be visible for every search.
But just how do search engines scour massive amounts of content, weigh thousands of ranking factors, and serve up user-friendly result pages in mere tenths of a second? Read more about the three major functions of search engines: crawling, indexing, and ranking.
Crawling is the discovery process, in which search engines use a team of robots (called “crawlers” or “spiders”) to find new and updated content. These crawlers comb the internet, reading the code and content for each URL they find.
Most importantly for our purposes, these crawlers find links on webpages to find new content.
We’ll talk later about the importance of linking and backlinks in an SEO practice.
Indexing: Once the search engine has discovered new websites and content, it stores that information in an index. For example, the Google database, Caffeine, houses a massive database of discovered URLs.
Ranking refers to the way search results are ordered by relevance to a particular search query. When a user performs a search, the search engine scours their index for relevant content, and then serves up those results in order of perceived usefulness. Generally, the higher a site is ranked, the more relevant and trustworthy the search engine believes it to be.
Ranking is done by search engine algorithms. Search algorithms analyze search queries, content relevance, page authority, and hundreds of other factors to determine ranking.
While the full details of search engine algorithms or ranking factors has never officially been released to the public, we know some of the most important ranking factors in the current Google algorithm are site trustworthiness, subject authority, backlinks, and freshness.
Search engine algorithms are constantly updating—especially Google. For example, Google’s “BERT” algorithm update went live in October of 2019, and has already announced another core update as of January 2020. The search engine giant rolls out hundreds of updates a year, but some have far greater effects than others. Herein lies one of the biggest challenges of SEO: keeping up-to-date. It sounds scary, but it really doesn’t have to be intimidating. As long as you’re not trying to trick search engines, and you’re using keywords in natural language, you only have to keep an ear out for major algorithm changes. Trust us, if you’re paying any attention, it won’t take long for news of a significant update to reach you.
There’s always more to be said on SEO, but we hope we’ve given you the basic understanding you’ll need to grow your SEO knowledge and skills.
You won’t see SEO results overnight, but you will hopefully see them grow over time as your brand awareness, subject authority, and relevancy increase. Since its benefits grow over time, SEO has a far higher ROI than PPC advertising (like Facebook Ads and Instagram Ads).
Remember: SEO is an ongoing process, not a one-time thing. The sooner you start implementing SEO, the more powerful results you’ll see.
Don’t forget to refer back to our comprehensive SEO glossary to keep on-hand as you continue your SEO journey.
Now that you can answer the big-picture SEO questions, you can confidently start implementing basic SEO practices to start ranking in search results. We’ve put together a list of the 10 most important SEO-friendly web design guidelines.
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