A Beginner’s Guide to SEO and Why Search Engine Optimization is Easier Than You Think
Search Engine Optimization, or SEO as it’s more commonly referred to, sounds like a pretty scary and confusing concept. What’s all this talk about mysterious algorithms? What the heck is a SERP? Why so many acronyms?!? Well as daunting as it sounds, getting results in the form of improving your website’s search engine ranking is really not as hard as it sounds!
So What Is SEO?
That’s a very big question. I could probably write pages upon pages about all things SEO. In fact, many people do that every day. But for our purposes here (and your sanity), I’ll make this as concise and understandable as possible.
In the most general terms, SEO is the process of organically improving a website’s ranking in a search engine results page, or SERP, by optimizing ranking factors like content, tags or links. When you’re searching for something on the internet, search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo use formulas called search algorithms to find you the best results. How these algorithms work and what factors they view as more important than others is a closely guarded secret, though not a complete mystery. Through a combination of experimentation, educated guesswork and selective informational releases by the big search engine companies, those working with SEO have a decent idea of what it takes to climb the search rankings.
What matters in seo?
There are dozens and dozens of factors that search engine algorithms take into account when deciding whether a page should rank higher or lower in the results page. It might sound overwhelming, but there are a few key areas you can focus on to easily optimize your website and hopefully see some ranking improvements.
You may have heard people say “content is king.” Well, that’s pretty accurate. If you think about it, content is what most of your website is made up of and is therefore very important. Why do you think so many businesses have blogs like the one you’re on now? It creates additional content and SEO fodder (and in our case gives you helpful information while letting you get to know us a bit better)!
So what aspects of content should you focus on for SEO?
- Keywords: When people search, they search using search terms. If they want information on the best place to grab a drink Friday night, they’ll probably search something like “best drinks [city name]”. If your content includes some of those search terms, like “drinks” and the name of the city, it’s more likely a search engine will think it’s relative and display it as a result. But be careful, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing and it can have the opposite effect.
- Uniqueness: The more unique your content, the more a search engine will believe you’re offering users something they can’t find anywhere else and the more likely it is your site will rank higher. Just make sure that content isn’t too obscure and is useful to a wide audience.
- Freshness: Bread, chips, that joke you’ve been telling for years. Nobody likes things that go stale. The same is true for websites. Search engines like things that are fresh. So the more you are updating a site and adding new content, the more often a search engine will crawl and rank it higher.
Just like a good book, titles are important. The titles of your web pages are not only helpful to users, they’re also helpful for search engines and SEO. Where the title is used depends on the site, but at the very minimum it will appear at the top of the browser window and in the preview snippet on a search results page. Make sure it’s optimized by trying to include important information like target keywords and/or locations.
Similar to the page title, a site’s URL, or the address which usually begins with “http://”, can say a lot. First off, making sure it’s something users can understand and remember helps them find and share your page. It’s also another place search engines look to find relevant information and keywords. Be sure you’re using a URL that contains words separated by hyphens instead of a random series of numbers and letters.
This is something that’s been a very big topic of discussion recently. In fact, we’ve written a couple of other blogs about this exact topic, including one on why responsive web design is so important and how Happy Medium uses it. As of April 21st, 2015, Google began penalizing websites that were not mobile-friendly. The search engine wrote a blog post explaining its reasoning, but if you make sure your site is optimized for mobile viewing, there’s no need to worry!
It’s great if other people read and enjoy your content, but it’s even more exciting if other websites like it and link to it! A link to your website is like an endorsement and that’s just how search engines view them. As an added bonus, the more authority and traffic the site linking to you has, the more valuable that link. So if a site like NYTimes.com with tens of thousands of views a day links to your site, it’ll have much more impact than if your mom is linking to your site on her personal blog (though that is very sweet of her). Create content that creates backlinks and you should not only see more traffic, but also better search rankings.
Tools of the SEO trade
So now you know some of the basic factors that go into SEO and improving search rankings, but where do you start? What parts of your site need improvement? How do you know what keywords to optimize for? Well, there are plenty of tools out there that can help, but these are a few of my favorites when I’m doing research and analysis.
Moz.com is an amazing resource for everything SEO. Not only is the site a wealth of tutorials, blogs and general information, it also has some great free and paid tools. My favorite free SEO tool is Open Site Explorer. Simply pop in a site’s URL and get a bevy of information including the page’s authority, links and top performing pages.
Another great SEO tool from Moz is the MozBar SEO Toolbar. It’s a handy extension for Chrome or Firefox that lets you easily see some quick stats about any site you’re on. It’ll show you domain and page authority, links, alt text and meta information. It’s perfect for analyzing your own site or the competition.
When doing research on search engine optimization, why not turn to the search engine leader? Google has a number of tools and resources to help with anything you could need for your SEO research, especially when it comes to keywords.
When doing keyword research, I usually start with Google Trends. Trends lets you search for a term and see how it’s performing, expected future performance and similar search terms. You can narrow your search by location and even compare multiple terms at the same time.
Another Google tool I usually turn to for keyword research is Google Adwords Keyword Planner. I know we’re doing organic SEO here, but the research tool designed for paid search is a great resource for organic too. Type in a list of potential keywords and it will give you some great information like search volume and how competitive the keyword is. Again, you can narrow your results by location if you want.
If you have an established site and have been running Google Analytics on it, that can also provide invaluable information. Call me a nerd, but I can get lost for days in all that data! There’s really no end to everything you can learn from digging into Analytics, but the main factors I focus on are search terms, top pages/content, traffic and referrals. My advice: dig around and see how people are interacting with your site to figure out how to keep them coming and sticking around.
This last one might seem beyond obvious, but Google Search is a great tool. Yeah, that search you’ve probably used hundreds of times to stalk your latest crush (yes, Happy Medium makes the top page of results for that one) or check spelling. If you’re wondering what people are searching for, begin typing and you’ll get a suggestions drop down. Those suggestions make perfect keyword suggestions to add to your list or target!
Go Forth and Optimize!
By this point, hopefully you have a pretty good understanding of what SEO is, how it works and what you can do to begin making it work for you! As I said, this is far from exhaustive and I could go on for days with details, but who would want to read all that? Boring! However, this should at least get you started on your search engine optimization adventure and be a starting point for researching the topic further!
If you have any great suggestions or tools of your own, feel free to comment below or get in touch with me on social media!
Oh, One More Thing…
Want to see some simple SEO in practice? Just check out the blog you’re on right now! It only makes sense to optimize a blog about optimization, right? I’m doing so for “SEO” and “search engine optimization” terms. Here are a few things to look for:
- Run a Find search on this page (Command + F on Mac and Control + F on PC) and check how many times the terms “SEO” or “search engine optimization” are used.
- Bonus: How many of those are in a heading?
- Check the page URL and Title. Are they there?
- How about the alt text on links and images? Do the keywords appear in some of those?
- Is the page responsive? If you’re not already viewing on a phone, drag the corner of your browser in to make the window smaller. Does it still look good?
- Pop the page into Moz’s Open Site Explorer and check for backlinks. Are there any yet? (I have my fingers crossed for a few down the road!)
As you can see, with just a little effort, you can hit some major optimization factors and be well on your way to a better ranking. Good luck!