Search engine optimization (or SEO) has one major goal: to improve your rank in search engines like Google. When someone searches for a relevant term, you want your site to be recommended first, before any other. That coveted number one spot on a search engine results page isn’t always easy to grab. But there is much you can do to improve your search rank for free.

Much can be said about search engine optimization and search rank, but in this article, we’re going to cover a few ways that you can improve your search rank for free.

Understanding paid vs organic results

When we talk about search rank, we mean organic rank. Google and several other search engines do allow advertisers to pay to be listed near the top of the search engine results page (SERP).

Before you try to improve search rank, make sure you understand what a search engine results page looks like

For the above example,I’ve searched for “cars in Indianapolis.” As you can see, the first four results are paid listings. These are “search results” from advertisers who are paying per click.

Search results that are not paid are sometimes referred to as organic search results.

The goal of search engine optimization (or SEO) is to get the best organic search rank possible. Scrolling down on that page, we do see organic results – although after paid results.

Why improve search rank?

Why is it important to improve search rank? Simple. Traffic. Take a look at a Google search engine results page (sometimes referred to as a SERP.) Which result or results get the most traffic? Those at the top.

See, being listed on Google is great. But it won’t help you much unless your site is listed near the top. Why? When people search for a word or phrase, they aren’t likely to go past the first few search results. If they don’t find what they want, they’re likely to try another keyword or phrase to get different results.

In order to get real traffic from Google or other search engines, you need to appear in the first two or three results consistently. But that doesn’t usually happen without some work. 

While paid results get plenty of exposure and traffic, they cost their owners money. Organic results have no such monetary requirement. It doesn’t matter how many times someone clicks your organic SERP link. It’s free traffic.

We want to tap into as much of that free exposure and free traffic as possible, because free is an excellent price.

1. Write awesome content with SEO in mind

Every piece of content you create needs to be awesome. As you write, make sure you’re providing helpful, valuable information and presenting it in a way that search engines love. This is one of the most powerful steps you can take to improve your search rank for free.

Google and other search engines want content that:

  • Is helpful. Are you addressing a problem or answering a question?
  • Is free of mistakes. Typos will happen, but they can hurt your search rank.
  • Is keyword-rich. Understand what words and phrases people use to find content related to your subject, and include some of those keywords and phrases.
  • Is mobile friendly. Does it look right on all kinds of devices – including tablets and smartphones?
  • Links to other content. Search engines love content that links out to other relevant sites and helpful, related posts on the same site.

This is both bad news and good news. The bad news (for some) is that shoddy, poorly written content is less likely to rank well. The good news (for us) is that shoddy, poorly written content is less likely to rank well.

“Wait. What?”

Stick with me for a moment here.

Since the early days of blogging, people have figured out that they can write poorly-constructed content and expect to get traffic from Google. That’s changing. More and more, Google is taking into account each of the above factors when calculating search rank. Only helpful, valuable content ranks well in Google’s newest algorithms.

That’s a truth bomb for those who would game the system, but it’s great news for people like us who are dedicated to creating the type of awesome content search engines love to see. While that raises the bar for those of us who truly want to help others, it also gives us a leg up against the flood of content that helps no one.

2. Focus on your user’s experience

Put yourself in the shoes of your site’s visitors. Can you navigate easily? Is your content easy to read? Is any part of the experience difficult or confusing? If so, fix it. You want visitors to be comfortable on your site. When a visitor is finished reading an article, direct him to another. You want him to stay on the site as long as possible. Why does this matter for SEO?

Two words: bounce rate.

When someone visits a page on your site and then leaves your site entirely, this is called a bounce. If your bounce rate is high, Google and other search engines will start to understand that there’s not much on your site worth sticking around for, and your search ranking will suffer as a result. Therefore, it’s critical to ensure every visitor has a great experience and stays on your site as long as possible.

Note: If someone lands on one of your posts and then clicks to read another post, leaving the page he started on, this is not a bounce. A bounce occurs only when someone visits your site and leaves without visiting any other pages on your site.

A “bounce” could be likened to someone visiting your home, but only stepping into one room. Instead of staying and seeing the other rooms, he leaves to go somewhere else.

Don’t make it painful for people to visit your site. Provide great content, but make sure it’s accessible, easy to understand, easy to view, and quick to navigate.

3. Improve website speed

Nobody likes being stuck in traffic. Why? We want to go faster! We want to get where we’re going immediately. Right now. Let’s go!

In the same way, no one likes using a slow website. Google knows that. Other search engines know it. As a result, they have decided that slow websites will be ranked worse than their faster counterparts, all else being equal.

While this is not likely to affect you much if your site is full of helpful content, it certainly can if it’s slow enough.

PageSpeed Insights can help improve search rank by showing why your site is slow

Check your page speed with a tool like Google’s Pagespeed Insights. I love that this free tool provides actionable information. Test your site with various browsers and devices. If it feels slow, it probably is. Do everything you can to make sure the site experience is as quick and snappy as humanly possible. That’s a great way to improve your search rank and prevent future trouble.

4. Fix broken links

Links are the traffic lanes of the Internet. Ok, not the best analogy, but you get the point. They’re important. Sometimes, sites change. A page that once had several links pointing to it is now gone, or it’s been moved. All of those links are now broken. 

Uhoh.

Now, if those links are on your site pointing to one of your pages, that’s easy to fix. Either delete the links or update them so they point to the new page.

If you don’t control the outdated links (as in, they’re on someone else’s site) it gets a bit trickier. In that case, you’ll want to contact the owners of those sites and see if you can get the links updated or removed. If you can’t, don’t sweat it too much. But the fewer broken links there are out there, the better.

BrokenLinkCheck is a free tool that will scan your site for broken links. This is a bit easier than having to keep track of every hyperlink to every page on your site. That would get a bit tedious after a while!

5. Build backlinks

A backlink is a link from another website to yours. Search engines see these links as votes of confidence. If enough respected sites link to yours, search engines will sit up and take notice and wonder why you’re getting so much attention.

This is one reason networking with others in your niche is so important. Build relationships with other businesses and website owners to the point that they feel comfortable and confident linking to you as a helpful resource.

Some people pay for links to their sites. I can’t warn you against this practice enough. Don’t do it. Seriously. If Google catches wind that you are paying for a link to your site (or that you’re selling links), they won’t hesitate to penalize you, meaning this can have an effect exactly opposite of what you want.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to other bloggers and businesses in your niche and establish a relationship. If others find your content helpful, encourage them to give you a link back.

6. Use header tags (H1, H2, H3, etc)

Headers make your content easier to read and follow. But they also help search engines understand its structure. Google loves to see header tags. In fact, this is one of the best ways to improve search rank for free, and it takes almost no time at all. 

Break up your content logically. In the case of a blog or article, your post title should have an H1 tag. Your main points should be H2’s, and their subpoints H3’s and so on. 

For example, this post is broken up by heading tags. Each of my main points after the title has an H2 or (Heading 2) tag. This tells Google and other search engines that after my title, these elements are the most important things on this page and should be read.

This structure helps your content make sense both to your reader and to search engines, thus improving your search ranking for free. Sweet.

Unless you write your content in a plain text editor, chances are your platform of choice makes it easy to specify heading tags.

7. Optimize images

Images are great. They can breathe life into an otherwise dull topic. But if left unoptimized, they can slow down a website like one too many passengers in an overloaded car. If you don’t optimize your images, you’re asking your web server to do extra work – causing your site to load more slowly. 

Someone with a fast Internet connection may not notice the difference, but Google sure will, and this may make it more difficult for Google to recognize your image content, hurting your overall SEO and your search engine ranking.

Every image you upload should be optimized with a tool like TinyJPG or Kraken.io. These tools algorithmically optimize your images while attempting to maintain image quality. In other words, they look the same while not asking your web host to work as hard. Beautiful.

Though it may seem tedious, optimizing your images is an excellent way to improve search rank for free. You’ll make your website faster and can improve your Google rank with minimal effort.

8. Target local customers

Google loves local searches. More and more people are searching for nearby businesses. It has never been easier to whip out a smartphone and look for a business “near me.” Google knows this and favors businesses who make an effort to be visible to local customers. A great way to do this is to claim your Google My Business listing and get listed in local business directories.

Improving your local reach will improve your search rank because Google loves local businesses.

9. Consider voice search

Voice search is becoming more and more common. In fact, voice search is quickly catching up to text search. Today, we can pick up our smartphones and ask Google or Siri for an answer to a question. Anything we want to know is only a “Hey Siri” away. In order to tap into this growing phenomenon, your content needs to be structured in a way that is voice-friendly.

Make sure your content is written in a natural, conversational tone. Write as you would speak. Structure your sentences in the way you would like to have them read to you.

In the future, it’s likely that voice search will overtake text search as the dominant type of Internet query. We need to be ready. As voice search continues to grow in popularity, sites that are ready will enjoy better search rank.

10. Research keywords and use them well

Keywords are…key in search engine optimization, and using them well is critical for ensuring a strong Google rank. But getting to number one in Google requires a bit more than using a few keywords here and there. These keywords have to be precisely what your target audience is searching for.

This is where keyword research comes in. Keyword research is a large part of any good strategy to improve search rank. If we know what people are looking for in Google, we can adjust accordingly.

For example, if I know someone who wants a fitness guide is searching in Google for “free fitness guide for women,” I can tailor my content to include that phrase a few times. 

Now, this is where it gets tricky. Some people do something called keyword stuffing. Keyword stuffing is the practice of using as many instances of keyword as possible in a sentence or paragraph – no matter how unnatural it sounds. This is done to try to game the system and trick search engines into boosting a site’s rank. After all, the more keywords the better, right? Not necessarily.

Google Trends will help you discover great keywords to improve search rank for free.

It’s important to use your keywords in a way that makes sense and flows naturally. If you find yourself cramming them into everywhere you can at the expense of readability, there’s a problem. In fact, this has a very negative effect. Instead of improving search rank, keywords stuffing can get a site penalized by Google and other search engines, actually hurting search rank.

11. Use structured data

Google likes to understand your site. Not only do they want to read your words. They also want to understand the structure of each page. What are the main points and sub points? How does the information flow? And so on. While properly using heading tags (H1, H2, etc) does help with this, we have another tool called structured data.

Structured data essentially hands Google, on a silver platter, everything it needs to know about your page’s structure including things like post type, author, date, and so on.

While Google’s bots can usually pull some of this information without extra help, structured data gives them the extra little help that could win you the number one spot on Google.

If you’re using WordPress, you’re in luck as there are many great plugins that will help you prepare this needed information for search engines.

Can you still rank without consciously preparing this structured data? Yes. Of course. But you will have a better shot at ranking well if you do this bit of extra leg work. It doesn’t take long, and the potential payoff for your search rank is huge.

12. Write long-form content

Though it takes more time, more thought, and more effort, write long form content for your site. While there is a place for shorter articles of a few hundred words, search engines love articles that top 1,000 words or more.

Why?

They know searchers want answers. And they know that longer posts tend to be more complete – and thus more helpful.

I like my articles to be at least 1200 words. Sometimes more. While shorter articles can (and sometimes do) rank well, longer articles tend to perform better and get more attention.

But there’s another reason long form content is beneficial: session time.

Google likes to see people spending a little bit of time on your site. If the majority of your visitors spend only a few seconds on your site, Google may rightly assume that your site doesn’t have much of interest. On the flip side, if people are spending a minute or two (at least) reading your content, Google will sit up and take notice. “Ah. There must be something there…”

Google calls this “Session duration.” A low session duration is bad. Higher is better. In other words, if you can keep people on your page longer, you will improve search rank.

13. Use HTTPS instead of HTTP

HTTP stands for “hypertext transfer protocol.” For many years, this was the defacto standard for web pages. It’s purpose is simply to transfer simple data – like text and images – between a website’s server and a visitor’s browser. This protocol, however, is not secure. It offers no encryption or protection against hackers.

HTTPS (HTTP Secure)  is the new, secure extension of HTTP. Instead of serving pages without encryption, HTTPS ensures data is transferred using Transport Layer Security (or TLS for short.)

HTTPS is important for sites that collect and process customer information – like credit card info, names, and email addresses.

You don’t need to know all the technical jargon, but you do need to know that search engines prefer sites that use HTTPS over sites that don’t.

14. Link to useful, external sites

No matter your topic, be sure to link out to sites that are relevant and useful to your audience. For example, if I were to write an article about keyword research, I should link to a couple of keyword research tools or perhaps another external article about the same.

Doing this shows search engines that you’re serious about providing value and aren’t trying to hog all the traffic. Search engines want to see your site as a friendly neighbor that cares about helping visitors and not 

It also helps Google categorize your content properly. If a piece of content contains several links to articles about keyword research and keyword research tools, Google may rightly assume that your content is about keyword research. A fair assumption.

So, when someone searches for “keyword research” Google thinks, “Ah! This article is about that!” and suggests your page.

Search engine optimization is a cumulative effort

Each of the above items will have an impact on your SEO. But don’t expect to improve search rank by focusing on one factor alone. Each must be taken with the others. One is a note. The whole package is a beautiful symphony that Google will love.

That’s not to say you must address every SEO tip, but you will see the best improvement in your search engine rank if you do take a holistic approach.

How Google computes search rank

Google doesn’t tell us everything that goes into their secret sauce. With each algorithm update, it’s anyone’s guess as to what exactly Google considers when determining a search rank. However, we do know a few constants. Those constants are what these tips target.

We know that Google loves sites that:

  • Provide serious value
  • Offer a great user experience
  • Can be used on all devices, including tablets and mobile phones
  • Are fast and don’t make people wait
  • Don’t have a bunch of broken links
  • Other sites recommend / link to
  • Are structured in a way that makes sense
  • Are well-optimized
  • Target local customers (think “near me” searches)
  • Know what their target audiences are searching for and use keywords well

Hitting as many of these points as possible will help you improve your search engine rank. Neglecting them will hurt your chances of ranking well. But the best part? Even people will little knowledge of SEO can easily attack these points and improve search rank for free without much – if any –  outside help.

Improving search rank for free is possible. And easy.

Search engine optimization is a huge project. Done right, it can take quite a bit of time and tedious work, but these tips will help you improve your search rank for free, very easily. Each SEO tip listed in this article does require a bit of effort on your part, but each is backed by experience and data.

There are paid search engine optimization options as well. You could, for example, hire a digital agency like Magnetic Vector to assist with improving your search rank. However, I think you will find there is much you can do on your own without spending a dime.

The important thing is to educate yourself. Make sure you understand how each of these factors impacts your overall search engine optimization efforts.

But above all, put these tips to good use. All the knowledge you can hold won’t help if you don’t take action.

If you need help, please reach out. Magnetic Vector exists to help people like you build and grow their brands online and offline.

Let’s talk about your needs!