How do some web pages rank higher than others on Google’s search result pages?
The answer is Search Engine Optimization, or SEO.
SEO is the optimization effort—or rather, a series of efforts—-to improve a web page’s relevance and visibility for the search engines and their users. While the actual execution can be quite complex, SEO is about applying various techniques and tactics to make the web page more attractive, relevant, and valuable for both human readers and search engine bots.
SEO is certainly not a brand-new thing and has actually been around for more than two decades. Yet, many people still misunderstand what SEO is, or worse, have incorrectly implemented SEO on their websites, so they are not getting the desired results.
This is unfortunate as when SEO is implemented correctly, it can offer various benefits: increasing organic traffic, improving the website’s credibility and trust, and ultimately, maximizing conversions and your chances of achieving your business goals.
In this guide, we will explore how SEO works and answer all the questions you might have surrounding search engine optimization.
You will learn:
- How search engines work. How Google crawl, index, and ranks websites
- How to perform a site audit
- How to optimize your website for SEO:
- Keyword research
- Optimizing your content
- Optimizing the technical factors of your website
- Enhancing your site’s user experience
- Off-site optimization (link building)
- How to measure the performance of your SEO campaign and optimize your strategy
- SEO best practices you should know
By the end of this article, you will have a solid foundation of how to implement SEO to your website, improve its ranking, generate more traffic, and achieve your goals.
Without further ado, let us begin this guide right away.
How does Google rank websites?
Before we dive further into how to optimize your website for SEO, it will help to understand how Google and the other search engines actually work to rank different web pages.
In general, search engines have three basic functions:
- Crawling: the process of discovering new web pages on the internet and fetching information about them. This involves the use of crawler bots, programs operated by search engines that are designed to automatically follow links from one web page to another to collect information from each.
- Indexing: the process of organizing and storing the collected information collected in the crawling process. The search engine index is, simply put, a huge database that stores all this information. In practice, Google and search engines use various techniques to analyze and categorize different web pages using various criteria, taking into account the website’s structure, content, and other factors.
- Ranking: the process of displaying the web pages stored in the index in the determined order according to the relevance of the search query given by the user. Google uses complex algorithms while considering hundreds of signals and factors to compare and rank websites.
What are the most important ranking factors?
As discussed, search engines use complex algorithms to evaluate web pages based on hundreds of factors—called ranking factors.
While this fact might seem intimidating at first, it will help to understand that all of these hundreds of factors will boil down to a single thing:
Providing the best and most relevant result for the user’s search query.
With that being said, here are just 7 of the most important ranking factors to consider when planning your SEO campaign:
- Relevant, high-quality content
With the objective above, it’s quite obvious that the website’s content and relevance is the most important factor considered by the search engines’ algorithms.
For Google to rank your page higher, your content should be unique and original (it hasn’t been published anywhere else), engaging, and valuable for your audience. The content should also meet the user’s search intent by providing a satisfying solution to the problem they are facing or a satisfying answer to their question.
Later on in this guide, we will further discuss how to optimize your content for SEO, but some of the most important things to consider are:
- Always conduct keyword research before developing your content
- Make sure your content is well-researched and has enough value for your target audience
- Structure your content with headings and subheadings to improve readability (for human readers) so to ensure more accurate indexing.
- Add images and videos to improve engagement
- Avoid duplicate or thin content
- Update your content regularly and refresh it with newer information
- Include internal and external links throughout the content. External links to relevant websites will show that your content is well-researched, while internal links is important to help with user navigation throughout your website and to improve your site’s structure in front of the search engine’s algorithm.
Backlinks, or inbound links, are links from other websites to your website.
Google and other search engines basically treat backlinks as votes of confidence. When a website links to another website, they are essentially saying that the linked website is authoritative, credible, and trustworthy.
So, the more high-quality backlinks you have, the higher your website will rank.
When discussing backlinks as a ranking factor, it’s important to understand that the quality of the backlinks is just as, if not even more important, than quantity. A single backlink from a popular blog from your niche, for example, will be worth more than 50 backlinks from brand-new websites that are totally unrelated to your product or service.
This factor evaluates whether your website incorporates a mobile-responsive design and that it is easy to use on mobile devices with varying screen sizes.
You can use Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test tool to check whether your website has been optimized for mobile devices.
- Domain authority
Domain authority refers to how long your website has been online (age), how reputable it is in your niche/industry, and how credible it is perceived by your audience.
In practice, domain authority is influenced by many other ranking factors, such as quantity and quality of backlinks, social signals, utilization of secure connection (HTTPS) and others.
- Website structure
Refers to how well your website is structured/organized. A good website structure can help both users and crawler bots to navigate the website and understand the context of your content easily.
Search engines will especially take into account how well your website is linked internally, but you should also optimize your content by incorporating clear categorization, subcategories, headings, and subheadings to properly structure each page of your website.
- Website security
This ranking factor measures whether your website has adopted adequate security best practices and measures to protect your website and users from various cyberattacks.
At the very least, your website should use HTTPS protocol and SSL certificates instead of regular HTTP to implement end-to-end encryption and protect your visitors’ data from being compromised.
You should also use firewalls, anti-malware scanners, anti-DDoS measures, and other security measures to ensure your website’s security.
- Page speed
How fast your website loads with standard connectivity on both desktop and mobile devices.
A faster loading speed can reduce bounce rate and improve your site’s overall user experience. Google will take into account factors like bounce rate and dwell time when ranking websites, so make sure to optimize your page speed by leveraging tools like Google PageSpeed Insights to assess and optimize your website’s speed.
How to implement SEO yourself?
In the previous section, we’ve learned the basics of how SEO work and the important most important factors that will determine your page’s ranking on the SERP. In this section, we will share some practical tips and best practices that you can apply to optimize your own web page.
In this section, we will cover several important steps in doing your own SEO:
- SEO site audit
- Keyword research
- Content creation
- On-page content optimization
- On-page technical optimization
- Off-site optimization
Each of these steps is critical for achieving a successful SEO strategy, and let us begin with the first step: site audit.
1. SEO site audit
Every successful SEO campaign should begin with a proper site audit.
A site audit is, simply put, the process of assessing your website’s current performance against SEO ranking factors, technical performance, and overall usability.
The objectives of an SEO site audit are:
- Identify any issues (technical, content, etc.) that may prevent search engine crawler bots from properly crawling and indexing your website
- Assessing your website’s user experience level and identifying any issues related to page speed, navigation, design, and accessibility, among other user experience factors
- Identifying any issues that might affect conversions, such as content quality/structure, layout, CTA placement, etc.
While ideally, you should assess every single aspect of your website in a site audit, you can start by checking the following:
- Page speed: you can use tools like Google PageSpeed Insights or GTmetrix to assess your website’s speed performance. Evaluate how fast your pages load on different devices (both desktop and mobile), OSs, and browsers. As discussed, page speed is both a ranking and user experience (UX) factor.
- Mobile-friendliness: use the Google Mobile-Friendly test tool or Responsive Design Checker to test and optimize your website’s mobile optimization. Make sure your website uses responsive design and test on as many screen sizes and orientations as you can.
- Broken links: broken links are links that lead to inaccessible or non-existent pages, and too many broken links can harm user experience, levels of trust, and your page’s search ranking. There are various broken link checker tools available to help you find and fix these broken links. Or you can also use the free Google Search Console for this purpose.
- Duplicate content: content that appears on more than one URL (on multiple pages on your website or on other websites) can confuse the search engines and may lower your ranking. You can use Google Search Console or tools like Copyscape to find duplicate/plagiarized content and fix the issue accordingly.
- Meta tags: Meta tags are HTML tags that provide attributes or properties to add information about your website’s content and its context. Some important Meta tags to evaluate include title tags, meta descriptions, and title/heading tags. You can use the Yoast SEO plugin (for WordPress websites) or Google Search Console to check and optimize your meta tags.
- Site structure: evaluate your website’s internal linking structure and XML sitemap. You can use Google Search Console or tools like Screaming Frog to analyze your current site structure and identify ways to optimize it.
- Content quality: assess the quality of your content, its relevance, and how engaging your content is for your audience (and the search engines.) You can use tools like SEMRush or Ahrefs to measure various metrics related to content performance and identify issues that you can address.
- Website security: use tools like SSL Checker or Google Search Console to identify potential security issues and the presence of proper security measures (SSL certificate, firewall, anti-malware, anti-DDoS, etc.)
2. Keyword research
Simply put, keyword research is the process of finding the words and phrases used by your target audience when searching for information related to your business or product/service.
The second step in implementing your own SEO is to conduct keyword research.
After you have identified these words or phrases, you can then create content that is optimized to this target keyword while also considering the target audience’s search intent.
How should you perform keyword research to ensure a successful SEO campaign? Basically, there are three basic principles to follow:
- The target keyword must be frequently used by your target audience when searching for information related to your product/service or your brand. You can measure search volume to determine a keyword’s popularity.
- The target keyword must be relevant to your SEO goals and your business’s overall objectives. Not all keywords that are popular will be relevant to your business.
- Depending on the available timeline, budget, and other resources, the competition for the target keyword must be manageable. It may not be worth it to pursue overly popular keywords that are too competitive.
While there are many methods and tools you can use to perform keyword research, you can follow these basic steps:
- Identify and understand your target audience: you won’t be able to perform proper keyword research if you don’t know who your target audience is and what they are looking for. Conduct market research and develop a buyer persona, as well as a buyer’s journey map, so you can get a better understanding of their goals, preferences, and pain points that can guide your keyword selection and—later on—your content strategy.
- Brainstorm a list of seed keywords: once you’ve identified your target audience, you can start listing your seed keywords. These are the main topics or ideas that relate to your industry, business’s niche, or product/service. For example, if you are selling a graphic design tool, then “graphic design” can be your main seed keyword. You can also input your seed keywords to tools like Google Keyword Planner, Ubersuggest, or others to get more keyword suggestions and ideas based on these seed keywords.
- Analyze the keyword metrics: analyze metrics like search volume, keyword difficulty (how competitive it is to rank for the keyword), cost per click (CPC), and others to measure how valuable a keyword is for your website and business. You can use tools like SEMRush, Moz, or Ahrefts to measure these metrics while comparing different keywords.
- Choosing and prioritizing keywords: based on the target audience’s search intent and the metrics you’ve measured, you can select the keywords that are most popular, relevant, and manageable (competition-wise) for your SEO campaign. Prioritize keywords based on their relevance and potential impact on your business’s overall goals. It’s also important not to focus solely on generic, short-tail keywords but also to consider long-tail keywords (more specific and less competitive keywords) that may help you attract more qualified and specific traffic.
3. SEO content creation
Once you have your list of target keywords, you can use them in your content strategy and start developing your content.
In creating content for SEO, here are some principles and best practices you can follow:
- Above anything else, content creation for SEO should focus on providing value to human readers. Avoid putting too much emphasis on “pleasing” search engine algorithms.
- Content can come in various forms and mediums: blog posts, articles, infographics, ebooks, videos, and more. Consider the audience’s preferences, your goals, and your available resources when choosing the best types of content for your website.
- Use headings and subheadings to make the content easier to read (by humans) and scan (by crawler bots.) Use shorter paragraphs with blank spaces, and incorporate numbered lists and bullet points to improve readability.
- Include the target keyword and related phrases throughout the content in a natural and meaningful way. Make sure to include your target keyword (and related phrases) in your titles, headings, Meta description, URLs, and the content’s body.
- Maintain optimal internal linking structure by linking to relevant pages on your site. This will also help in improving your site’s navigability.
- Link to reputable websites to cite your sources. This can help you in building your website’s authority and show that your content is well-researched.
- Add images, infographics, and videos to enhance your text-based content, but optimize these images and videos with alt text that contains your target keyword. Alt texts will also help with accessibility.
- Focus on creating content that is both original, engaging, and stands out from your competitors.
- However, keep in mind not to perform keyword stuffing, which is the practice of including too many keywords by repeating them unnaturally throughout the content. Keyword stuffing is considered inappropriate by Google and other search engines and may result in a penalty, not to mention it can hurt your site’s user experience.
- Consistency is key. Various studies have suggested that websites that publish 2 to 4 posts per week tend to get higher traffic.
4. On-page content optimization
Above, we have briefly discussed how you should include the target keywords naturally throughout the content. This is the basic principle of on-page content optimization.
The objective of on-page content optimization is to show the search engines’ algorithms the relevance of your content for specific (targeted) search queries. On-page content optimization involves optimizing various elements on your website, including:
- Title tags: your content’s title. On search results and browser tabs, your title tag will appear as a clickable headline. So, title tags will significantly affect the page’s click-through rate (CTR) on the search engine results page (SERP.) The title tag should include your main target keyword but must also be compelling to attract searchers to click it.
- Meta description: similar to title tags, your site’s meta description will appear as the informative snippet for your page in the SERP. Write an informative and compelling meta description that includes your target keyword and a compelling call to action (CTA), encouraging potential visitors to click on your result.
- Body: it’s critical to use your target keyword in the first 100 words of your content’s body. This will help the search engines understand the context of your page and give more weight to your target keyword. Then, use your keywords naturally throughout the body in a meaningful way.
- Content structure: use clear headings and subheadings (with appropriate H1, H2, H3 tags, etc.,) bullet points, and lists to make your content easy to read (by human readers) and scan (by crawler bots.)
- Non-text content: optimize non-text content like images, infographics, and videos with descriptive file names, alt text, and captions. Include your target keywords naturally. Also, make sure your files are in appropriate sizes and formats.
- URLs: use short, descriptive, and SEO-friendly URLs. Readers should easily understand what the URL is about and what type of pages they can expect by reading the URL. Include your target keyword in the URL, and make sure it clearly reflects your page’s hierarchy on the website.
- Internal linking structure: use internal links to connect your pages and structure your website by establishing topical relevance. Internal links can help your users navigate your site and consume more content, which may help in reducing the bounce rate.
5. On-page technical optimization
When performing on-page SEO optimization, always keep in mind that you have two main objectives:
- Making sure your content is readable and valuable for your target audience while also ensuring optimal user experience when interacting with your website
- Ensuring the search engine crawler bots can scan, accurately understand, and index your web page
Above, we have discussed how to optimize your content, and in this part, we will explore how to optimize the technical aspect of your web page to ensure optimal user experience and indexability.
Technical SEO optimization is a pretty deep subject on its own, and you can check out our previous checklist on this topic to help you get started. However, at the very least, you should focus on optimizing the following areas:
- Page speed: optimize your site speed by using a fast and reliable hosting provider, compressing image and video files, enabling caching, minifying codes, etc.
- Mobile-friendliness: use a responsive design (use a responsive Theme on WordPress or templates on visual builder platforms like Squarespace), avoid using pop-ups, use large fonts, minimize form fields, etc.
- Canonical tag: an HTML tag that tells the search engines which version of a web page is the original and/or preferred version. Use canonical tags to specify URLs on your page if you have multiple versions of the same content to avoid duplicate content issues and consolidate link authority.
- Robots.txt: robots.txt is a file that tells search engines which pages (or parts of pages) of your website the search engine crawlers can or cannot crawl and index. Configure your robots.txt properly to block access to pages that are not relevant to SEO, like admin pages, login pages, duplicated pages, low-quality pages, etc. Crawler bots work on limited resources (crawl budget), so limiting access to unwanted pages can improve your site’s visibility.
- XLM sitemap: use XML sitemap (a file that lists all the pages of your website and their metadata) to help search engines crawl, discover, and index your page more accurately and faster.
- Security: use HTTPS (SSL certificate) to secure your site’s connection, use malware protection, anti-DDoS measures, firewall, etc. Also, keep at least one backup of your site so you can quickly recover your site from any technical or security issues quickly.
- Social media tags: these are HTML tags that help social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) display your site’s content properly when it is shared by social media users. Use social media tags to provide relevant information about your page, such as title, meta description, image tags, etc.
6. Off-page optimization
Off-page optimizations refer to the process of improving a website’s relevance, authority, and popularity with activities and efforts outside the website.
There are several key objectives of off-page SEO optimizations:
- Improving the site’s credibility and trustworthiness in front of the search engine’s algorithm
- Generate more traffic and exposure for the website, which will indirectly affect SEO performance while benefitting the business as a whole
- Build lasting relationships and networks with other websites and influencers in your niche, opening more collaborations and opportunities in the future
Below, we will discuss some of the most popular and effective off-page SEO efforts to help you achieve these objectives:
Link building is the effort of getting other websites to link to your site.
As we’ve mentioned, the quantity and quality of backlinks are one of the most important ranking factors in SEO: more links coming from high-quality, relevant sites will signal to search engines that your site is valuable and trustworthy.
There are many methods and tools that can help you get more backlinks to your site, but here are some of the most effective ones you can try:
- Creating high-quality content: above anything else, high-quality and relevant content will get those links sooner or later. On the other hand, no tactics and “holy-grail methods” can help low-quality content sustainably get more backlinks.
- Incorporating link hooks: assuming your content is already good quality, then you can improve its chance to get backlinks by adding “hooks,” essentially elements or features of your content that will attract other websites to link to it:
- Informational hook: providing unique, valuable, and useful information that other websites can cite or reference, such as statistics, original data, survey results, guides, etc.
- Emotional hook: interesting/inspirational stories, humor, and even controversies that can invoke strong emotions in your audience that will compel them to share or link to your content.
- Ego hook: typically comes in the form of mentioning a brand, website, or influencer in your content and then notifying them. The idea is to appeal to their ego or pride so they’ll link to or even promote your content. Ego hooks can be simple mentions (i.e., in a top 10 list), reviews, testimonials, giving awards, interviews, et.
- Incentive hook: This is when you offer something valuable (i.e., discounts, free trials, giveaways, coupons, etc.) to influencers or other websites in exchange for a link.
- Widget hook: Creating a widget or tool that can be embedded (technically, linked) by other websites. Widget hooks can come in the form of infographics, calculators, quizzes, charts, etc.
- Broken link building: another common and effective technique is to find broken links (that return 404 error messages, for example) on other websites, then offer your content as a possible replacement. You can use broken link finder tools like Ahrefs or Screaming Frog to find broken links on websites related to your niche and then contact the webmasters to inform them about these links and offer your content.
- Guest posting: as the name suggests, this is where you write and publish content on other websites as a guest contributor, then link back to your website. You can do guest posting by finding high-authority sites related to your niche that accept guest contributions, then pitch them your content ideas while following their guidelines. When done right, guest posting can also be effective for establishing your thought leadership in your niche or industry.
- Skyscraper technique: this technique is about finding popular and high-ranking content and then publishing better, more in-depth content with the hope of outranking it. You can use tools like BuzzSumo or Ahrefs to find popular content in your niche, preferably those with a lot of backlinks. Then, you can create and publish similar but better content with more depth, more information, more value, etc., and ask the sites linking to this content to link yours instead.
- Resource page link building: getting backlinks from pages that are designed to list useful sources for a certain topic, like data roundups, pages publishing statistics on a certain topic, etc. To use this technique, you can do a Google search using queries like operators such as “keyword + inurl:resources” or “keyword + intitle:resources,” to find potential resource pages. Then, you can contact the webmasters and pitch your content for them to add to their pages.
How to measure and improve your SEO performance
In understanding how SEO works, it’s also critical to understand that SEO is not a one-time activity but rather a long-term game.
Even after you’ve optimized your content and your page for SEO, it can take months or even years before this page can climb to the first page of Google SERP. During this long period of time, constant monitoring and optimization are required, and without consistency, all the efforts can easily go to waste.
It’s crucial to first establish a system that can help you keep track of and analyze your SEO performance, and to do so, you can leverage these tools and platforms:
- Google Analytics
Google Analytics is a free tool from Google that lets you measure various metrics related to website traffic and visitors’ behaviors when interacting with your website.
In relation to monitoring SEO, you can use Google Analytics to keep track of how your SEO efforts are currently affecting your website’s performance, especially metrics like organic traffic, bounce rate, average session duration, pages per session, etc. You can also set up and track conversion goals from organic search and organic traffic with Google Analytics.
- Google Search Console
Google Search Console is another free tool from Google, but rather than monitoring metrics related to website traffic, it is designed to help you monitor your website’s presence on Google’s SERPs.
You can use Search Console to assess:
- How is your website indexed and ranked by Google
- What keywords are driving traffic to your website, and which aren’t very effective
- Whether there are any indexability issues
- Whether there are any issues or errors affecting the site’s overall usability
- SEO audit tools
SEO tools like SEMRush, Ahrefs, Screaming Frog, and others can help you assess technical factors like page speed, mobile-friendliness, duplicated content, meta tags, structured data implementation, etc.
The aim is to identify any technical and content issues as soon as possible so you can fix them immediately and improve your site’s SEO performance.
- Keyword research tools
Tools like Google Keyword Planner, Ahrefs, SEMRush, Ubersuggest, and others, can help you discover new keyword opportunities and gaps (i.e., keywords your competitors are already ranking on but haven’t been addressed by our website. You can then use this data to adjust and update your SEO efforts accordingly.
A successful SEO campaign is a continuously evolving and updated one, and updating your target keywords is also crucial.
- Link analysis tools
With backlinks—as discussed above—being one of the most important SEO ranking factors, monitoring the changes in your website’s ranking profile is highly important. You can use tools like Ahrefs, SEMRush, or Moz Link Explorer to monitor your website’s number and quality of backlinks, anchor texts, referring domains, and your website’s overall domain authority.
The idea is to continuously remove bad/spam backlinks and find/acquire new backlink opportunities. Keep improving your website’s link profile, and its SERP ranking should also rise steadily.
Leveraging these tools can help you monitor and improve your SEO efforts over time. However, you shouldn’t rely on data from these tools alone. Another valuable place where you can gather information is your own users and customers. Actively gather feedback from them and use the collected insights to improve your SEO strategy.
- Send surveys and feedback forms to directly ask your customers about their satisfaction with your content and website in general. Also, include questions that can help you understand their needs, preferences, and pain points better. This can help you create more relevant and valuable content for your target audience.
- Encourage website visitors and customers to leave their reviews, ratings, or testimonials on your website and relevant third-party platforms. You an analyze these reviews to check out what your visitors think about your content quality, which can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses so you can act accordingly.
- Monitor mentions and conversations on social media platforms and online communities to understand the language and terminology they use when discussing your brand. You can also use these platforms to directly engage with your users or customers, answer their questions or concerns, share tips/resources, etc. Not only can this help you gather valuable insights into how to improve your SEO campaign, but this can also help you establish credibility and loyalty with your target audience.
Leveraging data and feedback from both your target audience and relevant tools/platforms can help you make informed decisions on how to adjust and optimize your SEO efforts.
We hope this guide has helped you understand how SEO works, how you can use it to get more organic traffic, and boost your visibility and implement it to grow your business.
Again, we’ll reiterate that SEO is not a one-time thing but rather an ongoing long-term effort that requires constant monitoring and adjustment.
By following the best practices we’ve shared in this article, you can improve your site’s traffic, visibility, and conversions.