Search engine optimization, or SEO, is a critical piece of your overall marketing puzzle. If done right, search engine optimization can pull in tons of free traffic from Google and other search engines.

In other words, good SEO means free traffic. On the flip side, bad SEO can mean poor traffic.

Of course, everyone wants traffic, and free is a great price. So, let’s dive into search engine optimization and attempt to address some questions surrounding SEO.

Who is this SEO walkthrough for?

This SEO guide is for anyone who owns or operates any kind of website. Whether you own a large, thriving site or are just getting started on a small business site, the tips here will apply. 

It is not, of course, an exhaustive treatise on SEO. Much more could be said, but we will cover the highlights. My goal here is to give you a basic understanding of what search engine optimization is, why it’s important, how SEO (or lack thereof) affects your site, and how to optimize your site for search.

We will define our terms so we’re on the same page, cover keyword research, explain what Google is looking for, and look at best practices to ensure your content does well.

Nothing here will auto-magically make your site rank number one in search results, but it is my hope that you will find something here to help improve your overall SEO.

I have written this guide to be as accessible as possible for as many as possible – whether you’re new to SEO or have been working with search optimization for a few years. 

This article will focus primarily on SEO with Google, but the concepts here will apply to other search engines as well.

SEO definitions

Throughout this guide, I’ll be using words with which you may or may not be familiar. So we’re all on the same page, I’d like to define my terms. If I’m not clear or you have questions, let me know.

Index

Every website a search engine lists is held in an index. The index entry for a piece of content includes information about that content like it’s location (URL), topic and author.

When Google adds a site to this index, we say Google has indexed it. 

Example: It may take a few weeks for your site to be indexed.

Keyword

A word or phrase entered into a search engine to generate a list of results. We want to research keywords to ensure we target our content to the words and phrases people are searching for in Google and other search engines.

Example: Keywords are what people use to search for your content.

Crawling

The process used by search engines to look for, read and examine new and updated content for possible inclusion in the search index. 

Example: Search engines discover new content by crawling the web.

Crawler

Search engines use specialized automated software called crawlers to review websites and look for new content. Search engine crawlers look at a site’s text, images, links and other content, evaluating it for inclusion in the index. 

Example: Google’s crawler is nicknamed “Googlebot.”

Rank

How highly listed your site appears in a search for a given keyword. A perfect search rank means your site is listed as the first result.

Example: If you neglect SEO, you won’t have a very good rank on Google.

Search Engine Results Page / SERP

A SERP is what you see when you search for any word or phrase in a search engine.

Example: Some SERP’s have ads on them.

Organic traffic

Visitors who arrive on your site through unpaid search results. When someone searches for a keyword or phrase and clicks on your site on the results page, that’s organic traffic.

Example: Organic traffic is great because it’s 100% free.

Backlink

A backlink is a link from another website to yours. Each backlink is like a vote of confidence in your content.

Example: A site with more backlinks looks better to Google than one with only a few.

Search Engine Optimization / SEO

The process (or processes) of ensuring search engines love your website.

Example: SEO is important for getting a good Google rank.

What is Search Engine Optimization / SEO?

Search engine optimization is an umbrella term for any of many tasks designed to make your website more visible to search engines and to ensure the best possible rank. The goal of SEO is two fold:

  1. To get your website listed by Google.
  2. To get your website listed as the first result on a search engine results page (also called a SERP.)

Search engine optimization (SEO) usually involves making small changes here and there to ensure search engines find and index (or list) your site among other search results. These modifications are usually small and seemingly inconsequential on their own, but taken together, they can make a big difference in how search engines find and list your site.

The chief goal of search engine optimization is to help search engines like Google find, understand, and love your website.

Every aspect of a website is in view for SEO. Text, images, videos, even the code. Everything that Google can see can be considered. Proper SEO touches each and every part of the site – all the way down to the code that makes the site run.

Thorough SEO involves optimizing not only the contents of your site but its very structure.

Our job is to make sure every piece is built in a way that search engines can read and understand. Otherwise, we’ll see our search ranking fall.

Why is SEO important?

Why do we need search engine optimization? Can’t we just write content and wait for the organic search traffic to flow in?

Sure. You can. But that’s not going to be effective.

Let me tell you why.

Google has set criteria it wants to see  met in pages it suggests in search results. As awesome as your content may be, if it doesn’t meet Google’s criteria, you may not see much organic search traffic – if you get any at all.

When we optimize our sites for search, we look at our content through the eyes of Google and ensure we have what search engines want. Our goal is to create content that search engines will want to suggest when people search for various keywords and phrases.

I’ve seen sites with almost no SEO get a bit of organic traffic, so I won’t tell you it’s impossible to get search traffic without SEO. But that traffic was pitiful compared to sites that are well-optimized and built with search traffic in mind.

Organic search is a primary source of traffic for many sites

For many sites traffic from Google and other search engines outstrips traffic from any other source. This traffic brings in potential clients, business partners and colleagues. Without organic search traffic, many sites simply couldn’t survive.

If you’re not on the first page, you’re wasting time

If your site doesn’t show up on the first page of Google or other search engines, you can forget about getting much if any organic search traffic. And further, the first three results on any given search engine results page will receive the majority of clicks.

SEO aims to improve the odds and improve your search rank, giving you a better chance of getting traffic from search giants.

Depending on your niche, keyword, and other ranking factors, your content could easily appear in the top three results if properly optimized and promoted.

Optimizing for search creates a better user experience

Good SEO and good user experiences overlap. When we follow Google’s guidelines and optimize our content for search, we simultaneously improve the experience of our users. The opposite is also true. When we consciously work to make our sites easier to use, more logically laid out, and faster for our users, our search ranking almost always improves as well.

Google cares greatly about the experience your user has on each and every page. If your site is slow, clunky, and confusing, Google won’t like it.

Local search traffic brings in local clients

If you have a physical storefront or serve a specific geographical area, you need to be found in local search. This is called “local SEO.” 

Let’s say you’re selling antique guitars in Indianapolis. Properly done, local SEO aims to ensure your name pops up when someone searches for “antique guitars Indianapolis.” The goal of geographic search optimization is to make your business as visible as possible to your target audience – those in your backyard.

Good SEO helps you sell more

Three. That’s the number of times someone usually needs to be exposed to a product or service before he considers buying. Sometimes fewer. Sometimes more. As your target customer researches a product or service, you want your name to be front and center – right where he’ll see it.

I don’t care if you’re selling barbeque equipment or vegan food. When your target customer researches his options online, you want your offering right where he’ll see it. Even if he doesn’t buy from you today, ensuring your brand is where he can see it and associate it with the type of product or service you provide will make him more likely to make a purchase from you in the future.

SEO is inexpensive

Search engine optimization is one of the least expensive ways to boost your brand and bring in new customers. Depending on the tools you use or the company you choose to hire, SEO can be very economical, especially considering its awesome benefits: unlimited traffic and exposure.

SEO is a long-term traffic strategy

Just as a savings account or 401K are good for your long term financial strategy, SEO is important for your long-term traffic. As I’ll mention in a bit, search optimization isn’t an overnight thing. It does take time to rank in Google, but once you do rank, you’ve set yourself up for long-term success.

What Google says about SEO

According to Google, any site should be built with the user in mind. According to the search giant, every site should aim to provide real benefits to its users. In Google’s mind, a search engine is a user. Therefore, we want to do all we can to ensure our users have the best possible experience.

Google uses a specialized algorithm to determine which sites are worth ranking and in what order. While they don’t tell us what goes into their secret sauce, we do know a bit about what they look for and what SEO tips they give website owners.

To ensure that our sites rank well, we need to follow Google’s guidelines. While Google’s algorithm changes every now and then, we know sites that follow Google’s guidelines fare better than those that don’t.

Is your site indexed already?

Your site may already be listed in search engines even if you haven’t done any search engine optimization. An easy way to test if your site is listed in Google’s index is to search for “site:yourwebsitename.com

Check Google's index for your site to see how much Search Engine Optimization you have left to do.
This search will tell me how many pages on ListBootcamp.com are indexed by Google.

This search asks Google to show you everything it has for your domain name. If anything is listed – even if it’s just your home page – your site has been indexed. Now, this may not include all of your posts and pages, yet. We will address that. But this simple test will show what – if anything – Google knows about your domain.

If you don’t see anything listed for your domain yet, don’t panic. This can happen for a number of reasons, especially if your site is brand new.

You site might not show up in search results if:

  • Your site is brand new. Getting indexed takes time. Don’t panic if you don’t see a site you created yesterday. Give it a bit.
  • There are no links to your site from other sites. If you haven’t done any promotion of your site, this is likely.
  • Your design is difficult for Google to understand, and search engine crawlers don’t know what you’re talking about.
  • Google’s bot, Googlebot, encountered an error when it tried to visit your page. This could be caused by bad code or a down website. Unless you’ve done something funky with your code, it’s most likely caused by a slow or unresponsive webhost.
  • Your web host or configuration blocks search engine crawlers. This is extremely unlikely unless you have manually blocked them. If you have, you would know.

The most likely cause is the first or second. Unless you’ve done something strange with your design or back end configuration, the last three items most likely won’t affect you.

How to get your site indexed by search engines

Getting your site indexed by search engines usually requires little if any effort on your part. This process is typically automatic and hands-free. If your site is brand new, you usually simply need to wait a few days to weeks for Google to find your site.

However, there are a few things you can do to ensure search engines find your site and index it. For the moment, we’re not looking too far into how to rank well – just how to get indexed. As some like to say, getting indexed is showing up for the race. Ranking is running well. We’ll get into SEO proper shortly.

Create backlinks to your site

Get a few links out there to your new site. Post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Make sure a few different sites are pointing to yours.

Why is this important?

Each link is like a road. Google doesn’t like to teleport around the Internet. It follows roads – links. If my site links to yours, Google will see my link, follow it, inspect your site, and consider it for inclusion in the index.

Now, a site with no links to it can be indexed. There are lots of indexed pages that have no backlinks. But without backlinks, your site is far less likely to be indexed in anything resembling a reasonable time frame – if it’s indexed at all.

Write quality content

Search engines love high-quality, high-value content and will rank it more highly. But there’s an added benefit.

Content that is valuable and helps people is more likely to be shared. Content that’s shared – especially via social media – gets the attention of search giants.

Claim your local business listing

If your business is local, serving people in your immediate vicinity, head over to Google My Business and create your listing. Google loves local businesses and will be very interested in what you have to say on your website.

Add content

Google especially likes to see sites with consistently updated content. If your site currently consists of one or two pages and not much else, consider what else you might add. If feasible, add a blog section as this would satisfy Google’s craving for fresh material and would give you an ideal place to post updates, news, and more.

Ensure your Robots.txt isn’t blocking crawlers

Unless you’ve done some tweaking of your Robots.txt file, this shouldn’t be an issue. However, some plugins and web hosts modify your Robots.txt file. While it’s unlikely that any such modification would have blocked Google’s crawler (or a crawler of any search engine), it’s always good to check.

Look for any entries that match the code below:

User-agent: Googlebot
Disallow: /

Or

User-agent: *
Disallow: /

The first example tells Googlebot, Google’s crawler, that it may not see, scan, access, or do anything with anything on your site. When Googlebot sees that “no entry” sign, it says, “Oh. Okay” and leaves.

The second example tells all crawlers to not crawl any content anywhere on your site.

A Robots.txt file is a powerful tool if used correctly. But, don’t make any changes unless you’re absolutely certain you know what you’re doing.

Your search engine optimization / SEO journey

Hopefully by this point, you have a basic understanding of what SEO is and why we need it. As promised, we’ll cover a few things that Google looks for when ranking a site. What affects SEO? What can you do to ensure your content has the best chance to rank well?

SEO is a huge topic, and we won’t be able to cover every part of it here, but I do want you to have a general idea of what’s involved so you can make smart decisions with your own content.

Getting your site indexed by a search engine is only part of the story. A great many sites that are indexed don’t perform well and rarely – if ever – get any organic traffic. So, we need to go beyond simply being indexed and make sure our sites are optimized correctly so they rank well.

What kind of sites rank well?

While Google (and other search engines) don’t usually tell us precisely what goes into their algorithm’s special sauce, they do give us a few best practices to consider and follow. In order to rank well, we need to know and understand what kind of content Google likes.

Over the past few years, Google has changed and tweaked its search algorithm. This is essentially the system that programmatically decides what should rank well and what should rank poorly – if at all. While we don’t know exactly how Google’s algorithm works (because they don’t make that information public), we do know what best practices Google expects sites to follow.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Content that falls outside these guidelines can and does appear in search results, but it has a hard time doing so. When considering sites to rank, Google looks for the following:

Valuable content

Google loves sites that provide value. This content should answer questions and solve problems. In one way or another, your site needs to benefit your users. If it doesn’t, something is wrong.

Great user experience

Ensure your site provides a wonderful experience for your users. Everything from your theme, layout, navigation, font size, and so on should work together to make your site a no-brainer to use.

Group your content logically. Make sure your navigation is set up well. Use readable fonts. Consider everything about your site from the perspective of your user. Are you happy or frustrated?

Mobile optimized content

More and more, we’re browsing the web on our phones and tablets. Your visitor may be on a laptop at home, a desktop at the office, or on a smartphone waiting for a bus. Wherever your content is accessed, your site needs to look and work great.

Fast load speed

No one likes waiting. We want what we want right now. Google knows this, and they now consider page speed a ranking factor. All else being equal, your site may rank poorly next to a faster-loading site with similar content. It’s on you to ensure that no matter where your content is accessed, it loads quickly.

Incoming links

Search engines like to see other sites linking to your site. A link to your site is like a vote of confidence. If I link to your site, it’s as if I’m saying, “This site is good. Go check it out.” Google (and others) will interpret that as an endorsement and may rank your site more highly.

There is a caveat, however. Links from shady, bad sites may actually hurt your SEO efforts and sink your Google rank. It’s important to try to build backlinks from reputable, good sites with backlinks of their own.

Outgoing links

Link out to relevant sites. Don’t hog all the link juice for yourself. Google likes to see that you point your readers to other important, relevant content. By linking out to other relevant sites, you show to search engines that your goal is to provide valuable content.

I know. I know. This seems counterintuitive. After all, wouldn’t you want people to stay on your site? Why would you want them to leave?

Logical structure

No one wants to read a wall of text with little to no logical structure. Use headings and paragraphs to keep your content organized. Make sure your content is presented in a way that’s easily understood by your visitor. 

Follow these SEO best practices to boost your rank

These SEO best practices will give you a leg up and help your site rank better. By following these tips, you move beyond simply being indexed by Google and start running the race. Remember, being indexed is like showing up for the race. Ranking is actually running in the race. There’s a difference. Both are important, but you can be indexed without ranking.

These best practices are written with Google’s expectations in mind. Following them will give you an advantage over the competition.

Sign up for the Google Search Console

Google Search Console is an all-in-one dashboard provided by Google to allow site owners to see their websites as Google does.

Google Search Console and SEO go hand in hand.

Using the Search Console, we can check for any crawl errors and make sure Google can see every part of our site we want it to see. 

Google Search Console shows me what pages have been indexed and what else I need to optimize to show up in search.
Here I can see how many pages from my site Google has indexed – along with any possible errors that might be a problem.

It’s here that you can submit a site map, check the performance of any given URL and see just how much traffic you’re getting from organic search results.

Organic search traffic in Google Search Console

The Search Console can also be configured to send alerts if Google finds a problem on a site. This equips site owners to quickly address any problems before they grow into major headaches.

Tell Google what not to crawl

You may not want some of your content to appear in search engines. You can politely ask Googlebot (and other search crawlers) to disregard some sections of your site.

We do this with a file called a robots.txt.

Refer to Google’s guide on using robots.txt files for more information.

It’s important to note that some content blocked by a robots.txt file may still be crawled by crawlers who either disregard your request or were blocked incorrectly. In other words, a robots.txt file isn’t foolproof.

In an ideal world, any crawler that visits your site will check your robots.txt to see what you do and don’t want it to do. But, just like humans, some don’t care what you want. Rude.

These badly-behaved bots will blast their way through your site looking at everything whether you want them to or not. 

Why does this help your SEO?

By controlling what well-behaved search engines can and cannot index, we give the content we want to rank well a better chance. This also helps to improve the end user’s search experience. By disallowing certain pages from showing up in search, we can ensure that only the pages that are ready for visitors show up on SERPs, and thus we make sure that when we do show up, we direct people to where we want them.

Submit a sitemap

A sitemap is an XML file that tells a search engine how your pages are laid out and how each is connected to the others. Think of a sitemap like a road map.

Below is a map of Indiana from Geology.com. Using this map, we can see where each of the big cities is and how it’s connected to the others.

Think of a sitemap as a roadmap for your website. You want to tell search engines where to find what they want to see.

Using your sitemap, Google can better understand your content and how it all fits together. The map also helps search engines discover and index content faster, giving you a better chance to rank sooner. Sweet biscuits!

Sitemaps can be created with most of the major SEO plugins for WordPress like All in One SEO or Yoast.

Give Google access to your scripts

In order to see your page correctly, Googlebot needs to be able to see and understand your content just like a human would. In order to do that, it needs access to your back end code – like JavaScript, CSS, etc. Make sure you aren’t blocking access to anything search engines will need to see, read and understand your site just like a real human would.

If you do decide to block access to these resources, you may wind up with crawl errors and may not be ranked well at all. According to Google, disallowing access to these resources “directly harms” how well they can read and understand your site, and that will likely mean you rank poorly.

If you haven’t yet, go sign up for the Google Search Console and use the URL Inspection tool to see exactly how Google sees your content and correct any errors.

Create human and crawler friendly titles

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but Google sure does. Post and page titles play a big role in SEO, so it’s very important to get this right.

For each piece of content, spend a few minutes crafting a title that will help your long-term SEO goals.

Why is a title so important? Your title has two jobs:

1 – Tell users and crawlers what your content is about.

2 – Grab attention and make people want to click.

In order to make your content titles work for you, follow these best practices:

DO:

  • Create a unique title for each piece of content. No two pages or posts should share the same title.
  • Ensure your titles accurately describe your content. A title should give a visitor an idea of what’s on a page before he even clicks.
  • Try to create interest in your content with catchy titles.

DON’T:

  • Create vague, irrelevant titles that don’t have anything to do with your content.
  • Stuff keywords. Use keywords in your title as much as you naturally can, but don’t overdo it. Keyword stuffing makes your titles painful to read.
  • Write longer titles than necessary. If they’re too long, they may be cut off to fit on a search engine results page.
  • Reuse titles. Each piece of content should have its own. Otherwise search engines and your visitors may get confused.

Use meta description tags

Meta description tags allow you to tell search engines exactly what a page is about. This description is usually a sentence or two at most. The idea is to give a bit more detail than can fit in your title.

Depending on a user’s search terms, your meta description tags may be shown as the “snippet” that shows up in search results. Google says they “may” use meta description tags as snippets because they may also use another section of text to display in search results if it would match better with a user’s query.

Whether they are used as a snippet or not, meta description tags are important for your SEO strategy. Next to choosing a good title, writing a good description is high up on the list of important search engine optimization tasks.

Meta description on a search engine results page
Meta description on a search engine results page

WordPress makes creating these meta descriptions very easy. If you prefer, you may also use a third party tool like Yoast or All in One SEO.

When creating descriptions for your content, keep these best practices in mind.

DO:

  • Write descriptions that accurately describe your content. Give search engines and users a glimpse into your page’s content.
  • Create a unique description for each page. This helps users and search engines understand your content better – especially in cases when a single search returns multiple pages from your site. Which one should someone click to get what he wants?
  • Keep descriptions to one or two short sentences max.

DON’T:

  • Stuff keywords into your description. This puts a bad taste in Google’s mouth and may hurt your SEO efforts and ranking.
  • Reuse descriptions. Each piece of content should have its own. As with titles, reused descriptions confuse search engines and users.
  • Copy and paste a chunk of your content into the description. Write something unique and descriptive.

Use heading tags for main points

Nobody wants to read a wall of text. Break up your text with headings. This has two big benefits.

First, it makes your text more readable. A wall of text broken up into logical sections becomes something much easier to digest. No longer does your reader have to strain to find the main point of each section.

Second, it makes your content more understandable to search engines. Properly used heading tags tell Google and other search engines which sections are the most important. Essentially, you’re giving them a cheat sheet so they can understand your content better, thus improving your overall SEO and search rank.

When using heading tags, follow these best practices to ensure they work for you in your SEO efforts and not against you.

DO:

  • Break up your text into logical sections. H1 tags are more important, more emphasized than H2, H3, and so on respectively.
  • Keep headings to a few words at most. These shouldn’t usually be long sentences. Just enough to break up the text into a logical section.
  • Be consistent with sizes. I prefer my most important heading, my title to have an H1 tag. My other main points are H2. Their subpoints are H3. And so on. However you choose to set up your headings, be consistent across pages and posts.

DON’T:

  • Use too many headings. Add enough to make sense, but don’t make every other sentence a heading.
  • Use headings when italicized or bold text would make more sense.
  • Mix heading sizes. Keep a consistent size hierarchy.  

Set up structured data

Text and pictures are great, but sometimes search engines need a little bit more help to understand your site’s content. That’s where structured data comes in.

Structured data is code that you create that describes your page in further detail. Going beyond simple images and text, structured data adds another layer of information that can be displayed in search results. 

The below example is from a Google search for “Sony ICF-38.” Because of the structured data on B&H’s website, Google knows that this page features a product with a rating of 4.5 stars and 171 reviews.

Structured data is very helpful for search engine optimization (SEO).
Structured data goes beyond simple text.

This kind of search result catches user attention in a way that a regular search result couldn’t. Google calls this kind of result a “rich result.” This type of result grabs attention and makes people want to click. That’s exactly what we want.

If you have a physical store or operating hours, using structured data to mark up your operating hours will allow people to use Google to find out when you’re open.

Structured data can help optimize for local search
Structured data can help optimize for local search

This can be making this data public and easily searchable has all kinds of benefits – as you can imagine. 

Google supports several types of structured data including (but not limited to):

  • Products for sale
  • Open hours
  • Company logo
  • Events
  • Videos
  • And more!

Check out a list of all the types of structured data Google supports at the Google Developer site.

Implementing structured data is very easy with one of the many available structured data plugins for WordPress – or any CMS of your choice. To get the most out of structured data and to boost your SEO (since that is our topic), follow these best practices.

DO:

  • Test your structured data with Google’s Rich Results test. This tool will check your data to make sure it’s in a format Google understands and can use.
  • Use Data Highlighter in the Search Console
  • Track your pages with rich result reports in the Search Console.

DON’T:

  • Try to add structured data if you don’t know what you’re doing. Invalid markup is worse than no markup at all
  • Make any changes to the code of your site if you are unsure or uncomfortable. Otherwise you may damage how your site looks and functions.
  • Add markup data that isn’t visible on the human-readable page. In other words, don’t create markup intended to game the search results.
  • Create fake reviews / data to make your site more appealing than it is.

Use SEO friendly permalinks

By default, WordPress and some other content management systems use a permalink structure that is very unfriendly to search engine optimization.

Typical permalink structures.
Typical permalink structures.

I recommend using a permalink structure like the following:

Best permalink structure for SEO
This structure is best for users and search engines. It’s clean and descriptive.

This URL is far more human-readable and removes unnecessary characters like a date or post number. 

While uglier, more complicated URLs can rank in Google, the latter format keeps search engines and users happy for two reasons:

Clean URL’s look friendly and inviting, and they show something about the content. In the example 

Optimizing content for search

Content optimization is at the heart of a proper SEO strategy. Getting indexed is showing up for the race. Taking care of best practices will help you rank. But optimizing what’s on your site will help you rank well.

Create helpful, useful content

Keep search engines and users happy by creating awesome, valuable content. This is important for two reasons.

  1. Valuable content is sharable content. By writing content that rocks, we create SEO friendly material that people will want to share with their friends and colleagues. 
  2. According to Google, this word of mouth buzz helps to build your site’s reputation and thus improves your search rank.

In other words, if you want to rank well, you can’t churn out poorly written, half-hearted content. Every piece of content you produce should be phenomenal and helpful.

For the sake of your SEO, before you hit publish on that next article, stop to consider whether or not it’s actually helpful and useful content. If it’s not, something is wrong.

Research what your target audience is searching for

A large part of proper SEO involves finding out what your target audience wants and giving it to them. What’s popular in your industry? What do people want?

Let’s say, for example, that your industry is propane. You specialize in propane and propane accessories. How can you gauge interest?

One of my favorite tools is Google Trends. Using this tool, we can research a topic or phrase and see how much or how little interest there is.

Google Trends screenshot
Google Trends helps us gauge interest over time and by geographic region

In the above example, I’ve channeled my inner Hank Hill and searched for “propane.” It looks like interest has been pretty steady over the last 12 months or so. That’s great news for me. Scrolling down, I can see how the interest varies from region to region. This can be powerful if my target audience lives in a specific region.

For example, if I search for “propane Indiana” I can see – as we would expect – that this term is most popular in Indiana and surrounding states. If you’re in California, you don’t likely care about propane in Indiana.

SEO analysis using Google Trends
Trends lets us gauge interest by region.

Using Google Trends, I can gauge how much or how little interest there is in a given topic. If there’s a lot of interest, it may be worth pursuing. But if there’s not much, I should look into other topics.

Now, what does this have to do with SEO? Simple: If people don’t want the kind of content you’re producing, they won’t be searching for it, and you won’t be getting much if any organic traffic. It’s up to us to make sure that what we produce is actually what people want.

Once we’ve narrowed down our topic, we need to research keywords. A keyword is a word or phrase someone might type into a search engine to be shown a list of results that includes your site.

If we know what our target audience is typing into Google, we can create content that more closely matches their searches.

What would someone search for to find content like yours? Let’s imagine for a moment that I had a widget shop in Indiana. I want people to find me on Google, and I know that they are using the search terms “widget shop Indiana” or “buy widgets in Indiana.”

Armed with that knowledge, I can create content that has those keywords and phrases sprinkled in.

The three resources below are a few of my favorite

Google Keyword Planner (Free) is Google’s own keyword research tool. While not the most fully featured or user friendly, some people swear by it.

Ubersuggest (Free) is an offering of Neil Patel, a pretty well known marketer. This is a great resource for finding keywords that will work well.

KeywordTool.io (Free or Paid) is a decent option for those who don’t like Google’s Keyword Planner. This tool also allows users to use YouTube, Bing, Amazon, eBay, the Google Play Store, Instagram and Twitter for keyword research.

Much can be said about keyword research, of course. But for now I want you to understand the role this research plays in your overall content marketing strategy: If we know what people are searching for, we can tailor our content to match.

Demonstrate your expertise

A chief goal of your content is to demonstrate that you’re an expert. Prove that you know what you’re talking about.

Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re offering a managed IT service. You want others to pay you to maintain their servers, computers, and network. That’s not a low-knowledge, low-skill job. On the contrary, that requires an uncommon level of skill and knowledge.

Put yourself in your target customers’ shoes for a moment. You’re looking around for a company to manage your IT. Do you go with a company that has little to no knowledge? Or, do you choose a company that demonstrates its expert status? Obviously, you’d choose the latter.

You don’t want someone touching your IT who doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Show your reader that you’re someone who knows his stuff.

Why does this matter for SEO? Simply because Google cares. Google has moved beyond simply analyzing your text and images. Google wants to see sites that demonstrate expertise.

Write enough content to cover your topic

Whatever your topic, make sure you’ve written enough to cover it thoroughly. Google likes to see thorough, complete content. Does yours fit the bill?

What qualifies as “thorough?” That depends on your topic. At present, this article is over 6,000 words (and may be more by the time I hit publish). Is that thorough? Maybe. But we’ve only touched the surface of search engine optimization.

In general, I recommend content that shoots for 1200 words or more.

Why does this matter for SEO?

When Google decides which content to show to users, it looks for content that answers a question completely. The web is full of shoddy, poorly written articles and badly worded fluff. Ensure that your content is as complete as proper for your topic.

That way you’ll keep both Google and your visitors happy.

Keep ads to a minimum

Ads are a popular way to monetize a website. They’ve become part of the Internet experience. Facebook. Twitter. News sites. They all have ads. But ads that distract from your main content, interfere with your users’ experience, and detract from the site as a whole are bad news and can negatively hurt your SEO.

Use links well (and carefully)

Both users and search engines rely heavily on links. Links are the roads of the Internet. Used correctly, they can boost your search rank and dramatically improve your overall SEO. Used poorly, they can hurt your search engine optimization efforts and actually make your search rank worse.

Google gives us a few best practices to follow to ensure our links boost our SEO and help our users navigate our pages.

Use short, descriptive link text

Make sure any link is accompanied by descriptive link text. Link text is the visible text part of a link. This is the word or phrase someone will see and click.

This text tells Google and your visitors what’s on the other side of your link. More descriptive link text makes it easier for users to decide whether or not to click.

Why does this matter for SEO?

Google cares about the user’s on-page experience. If your navigation options are confusing, Google won’t like that. But further, search engines like to understand what’s on the other side of a link before following it. Sure, a crawler can “click” the link and find out, but it wants us to tell it. Googlebot doesn’t want to have to open the door to find out what’s on the other side. While it can open the door and probably will, it prefers to hear it from us.

Write short, descriptive, click-worthy link text. Give search engines and your user an idea of what’s on the other side of the door without being too wordy.

Don’t use non-descriptive link text like “page,” “click here,” “more information,” etc. This text doesn’t tell Google or your user much about what’s on the other side of the click.

Format links to look like links

Links shouldn’t look like the rest of your page’s text. Make sure your links stand out and are obviously links to something else.

Use styling to differentiate your link text from normal text. It should be obvious that your links are more than plain body text.

Create internal links

An internal link is a link from your content to another piece of content on the same site. As an example would be a link from this post to another blog post on this same site. Internal links help Google and users understand and navigate your site better.

As you write a piece of content, link to other content on your site. This does three things: 

It cross-promotes your content. A reader may land on your site to read about one topic and find himself reading another linked article.

It keeps your reader on your site, increasing your session time and reducing your bounce rate. Both are important metrics for SEO.

It shows Google that your linked-to post is related. Google wants to understand how your content fits together. How is X related to Y? If my post about email marketing links to another post about email marketing, Google will understand that the second post is also about email marketing.

Link to other sites carefully

A link is a vote of confidence. A “here, read this” if you will. A link to your site is a vote of confidence for your site. Similarly, a link from you to another site tells search engines you trust the site to which you link.

Normally, that’s a good thing. In fact, Google does like to see outgoing links in your content. But linking to low-quality content can negatively impact your search ranking and hurt your overall SEO.

Research every site before you link to it. Make sure it presents valuable, helpful information. 

If you need to link to a site that doesn’t pass the test, use the nofollow tag. This tells search engines, “Hey, I’m linking to this, but I’m not recommending it.” When Google sees that nofollow tag, it does not count that link as a vote of confidence for the target site.

For example, let’s say I want to refer to Ubersuggest (which is actually a great tool), but I don’t want Google to understand my link as an endorsement.

I would use a link that looks something like this:

<a href=”https://neilpatel.com/ubersuggest” rel=”nofollow”>Ubersuggest</a>

This format creates a link that says “Ubersuggest” but isn’t understood as an endorsement.

Why does this matter for SEO?

Good character is corrupted by bad company. Even if your site is top notch, linking to bad sites will associate you with the bad sites in the mind of Google. In other words, if you link to bad content, Google will lump you in with them, and your search rank will suffer.

This is important to remember if you allow blog comments with links. If someone leaves a comment with a link to a bad site, your reputation with Google can suffer. I recommend not allowing comments with links without approval by a moderator. If your blog receives lots of comments, I recommend ensuring comment links have the nofollow tag automatically applied.

This protects your site from comment link spam, and if a low quality comment does get through moderation, it won’t hurt your SEO nearly as much.

Some popular blogging platforms like WordPress ensure blog comment links are nofollow by default, but platforms that don’t can be configured to add the tag.

Images and SEO

Used properly, images add a little extra “pop” to your website and can also help your overall SEO, improving your search rank. Used poorly, images can have a negative effect on your site’s performance and search engine optimization.

Use the HTML image tag

Depending on your content platform (WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, or something else), images may be inserted on a page in a variety of ways. Some WordPress tools, for example, use their own code for loading images.

While these images may look great to human visitors, they can be difficult for Google to understand. To remedy this, make sure any image you insert uses the standard HTML <img> or <picture> tag.

These standard HTML elements are easy for Google to understand, and they still look great for your visitor.

Google recommends against using CSS to display images that we want search engines to understand and index.

Use “alt” tags

Alt tags or attributes can be displayed when an image fails to load or when someone hovers his mouse cursor over an image (depending on device type and browser.) 

An alt tag is also used by those using assistive technology – like screen readers – to browse your site. If a user cannot see your image, he should be able to hear your image via the alt tag.

While most users won’t see or care about an alt tag, Google does. Images with alt tags containing a relevant keyword can boost your content’s search rank.

Alt tags can also be used as anchor text for image links

According to Google’s best practices, make sure your alt tags are:

  • Short but descriptive. Make sure your alt tag accurately describes your image. Alt tags that are too long can be considered spammy.
  • Not stuffed with keywords. Use keywords in alt tags but only as is natural. Don’t use too many or Google will consider it spammy as well.

Name images appropriately

When saving an image for the web, give it an appropriate filename. Instead of picture2.jpg, pick a name that describes what’s in the image

A descriptive filename helps Google understand the content of an image. If your image is relevant to your content, this boosts your SEO.

Filenames shouldn’t be more than two to three words max. Names that are too long tend to look spammy and ridiculous. 

If you can do so naturally (and without keyword stuffing), use a keyword in the occasional filename.

Save images in standard formats

Images can be saved in any of a wide range of formats. Web browsers, however, only support a few. It’s important to make sure that your images are saved in a format that web browsers can understand and display.

Most browsers can display JPEG/JPG, GIF, PNG, BMP, GIF and WebP formats. There are others, of course, but these are the main contenders. 

By using one of the main file types, you can ensure browsers can display and search engines can understand your images – thus allowing them to help with your SEO.

Use an image optimization tool

While images can bring your site to life visually, they can also make it slow if not properly optimized. (Remember, site speed can affect your search ranking.)

In order to protect your search rank and boost your SEO, use a tool designed to reduce the file size of your images without reducing their quality. This is called image compression.

At the time of writing, my two favorite tools for this purpose are Kraken.io and TinyJPG. Both have served me very well. The former has a paid plan for those who need to compress large files.

TinyJPG makes images more search engine optimization (SEO) friendly
TinyJPG compresses images and seeks to preserve image quality

Some WordPress optimization plugins have image compression and optimization built in. SiteGround’s optimization plugin, for example, can scan and optimize every image on your site and automatically optimize any future image you upload.

Submit an image sitemap

If you want your images to show up in search results, submit an image sitemap. 

Like a sitemap, an image sitemap provides Google information about your images and how they fit together. Check out Google’s help page to learn more about creating an image sitemap.

Mobile sites and SEO

A large percentage of web searches today are done on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. Google knows this and highly favors sites that are optimized for use on the go.

Google is now crawling many sites with a mobile-first approach. Googlebot now evaluates many sites as if it were a mobile user. Whatever someone would see if he were to visit your site with a smartphone is what Google will see.

Even if your site looks great on a desktop or laptop, it may not rank well if your mobile site is unusable.

Your desktop site is very important. Clearly, we don’t want to neglect such a major platform. But for the purposes of SEO and search rank, we need to strongly consider how our sites look on mobile devices and ensure our users have a great experience.

Making a site mobile-friendly

Fortunately, preparing a site to work well on mobile devices isn’t difficult. However, it does require a bit more planning

Responsive design

This is my preferred method. In responsive design, elements on a page adjust based on several factors, including the type of device, screen width and browser. Using this method, our site asks our visitor’s device, “What are you? How big is your screen? How much can you see?” and so on.

Dynamic resource serving

Like responsive design, this method uses logic to determine what to show or not show. If a device has one screen width, it gets one version of a page along with all the HTML, CSS and JavaScript that goes with it. If it has another width, another set of HTML, CSS and JavaScript will be used.

Separate URL’s for desktop and mobile

You may also want to create a separate, mobile-only version of your site. Desktop users would use one URL, and mobile users would use another. Personally, I’m not a fan of this idea and prefer to keep everything on one site.

Getting mobile sites indexed

We need to keep a few things in mind to ensure our mobile sites can be indexed and boost our SEO and search rank.

  1. Mobile sites need to be easy to navigate and use. If a site is difficult to use and annoying to navigate on mobile devices, it may be penalized heavily. Google may also display a warning next to a search result from your site advising search engine users to visit a different site.
  2. Ensure every part of your mobile-facing site works. Avoid videos that won’t play or menus that don’t function as expected. 
  3. Make sure every major feature available via desktop browsers is available on mobile browsers as well.
  4. Optimize your images, scripts and videos well. If used improperly, these can slow down a website, and speed is even more important for mobile users who want quick answers on the go. 
  5. Keep your file sizes low. Not only does this help site speed, but it also helps those who are subject to data restrictions on cellular plans.
  6. Be sure to include mobile friendly versions of your images, structured data, videos, and other meta tags. Your important descriptions and data should be included on all versions of a page – not just the desktop version or mobile version.
  7. Test the site on your own phone and tablet. Does anything not work? Can you get everywhere you need? Put yourself in the shoes of your visitor.
  8. Test your mobile site with Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test tool to get a feel for what Google thinks of your mobile site.
Making your site mobile friendly is very important for Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
Test your mobile site with the Mobile-Friendly Test.

A few things to keep in mind

As you optimize your site for search and work on improving your search rank, keep a few things in mind.

Don’t game the system

In an effort to artificially improve search rank, some have resorted to potentially reputation-destroying tactics called “black hat.” Never use them.

These methods include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Keyword stuffing
  • Buying backlinks
  • Hiding text (i.e. adding text that’s invisible to users but visible to search crawlers to increase keyword density)
  • Robot-generated content

These bad SEO methods do work for a while. 

So why would I tell you not to use them?

Because if… No. When Google catches you, your search rank will be tanked, your site penalized, and your organic search traffic obliterated.

Even if you are able to get yourself to page one of Google with these illicit methods, you’ll soon find yourself banned from SERPs. Don’t believe me? Try it.

SEO is a long game

Search engine optimization takes time. Yes, some SEO changes can cause a quick jump in search rank, but don’t expect much to change overnight.

Especially for a new site, it may take weeks or even months for well-written, helpful content to rank.

I think this is where many people get tripped up. They churn out great content, optimize their sites for search, and find they aren’t ranking for any of their keywords. Naturally and understandably upset, they give up for a while. Then, a few months down the road, the content they worked so hard to produce starts pulling in traffic from Google, Bing, Yahoo, and the rest. They’ve learned the lesson that it takes time for content to rank.

Now, can a new piece of content rank #1 on Google quickly? Absolutely. If a site is well established, has a great backlink profile and is churning out relevant, sharable content, it certainly can hit the top of Google within minutes.

But that’s usually not how it works. At least in the beginning.

As you walk this path of optimizing your content for search, be patient. Understand that it takes time to go from blank page to top of Google. Don’t be disappointed if that great blog post you wrote yesterday isn’t getting any Google traffic yet. The key word there is yet.

SEO is constantly changing

As with most things in the realm of technology, SEO is a constantly changing field. What worked ten years ago now doesn’t. What works today, may not next year.

It is important to stay updated. Every so often, Google updates the infamous search algorithm. This algorithm determines what kind of content to display in search results and in what order.

With each update, Google focuses on one or more things they want to see in a well-ranked site. 

The advice in this article should be timeless as it comes right from Google’s own best practices. However, I want you to be aware that future updates by Google may affect your long term search strategy.

That said, however, don’t panic.

Keep pushing forward doing what we know works, and you’ll do better than those not paying attention.

SEO resources

Below I have listed resources I, my colleagues or my clients have found useful for optimizing content for search. Some of these resources are paid. Some are free. But if it’s in this list, it’s something I can confidently recommend. 

This is not an exhaustive list of SEO tools, but these will get you started. And, of course, you do know this awesome Indianapolis marketing company that could help you with your SEO. Hint hint.

Answer the Publichttps://answerthepublic.com/ 

Ubersuggesthttps://neilpatel.com/ubersuggest/

Google Search Consolehttps://search.google.com/search-console/about

Google’s Mobile Friendly Testhttps://search.google.com/test/mobile-friendly

Google Analyticshttps://analytics.google.com/analytics/web/

SEMRushhttps://www.semrush.com/

Keywordtool.iohttps://keywordtool.io/

Ahrefshttps://ahrefs.com/

Yoast SEO (WP Plugin)https://yoast.com/wordpress/plugins/seo/

All in One SEO (WP Plugin)https://wordpress.org/plugins/all-in-one-seo-pack/

Wordtrackerhttps://www.wordtracker.com/

Search engine optimization isn’t scary

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this long article. We’ve discussed (albeit briefly) why you need SEO, what Google says about it, what kinds of sites rank well, a few best practices, how to optimize your content, what to do with images, and how mobile sites factor in.

Clearly this is a huge topic, and we could go on for another 9,000 words easily. But I hope that by now you have a basic understanding of search engine optimization and how it impacts your website and your business.

One of my goals in sharing this information is to get you to the point that you are comfortable optimizing your site for search. However, I fully understand that many will have no time or interest in developing a winning search engine optimization strategy. If that describes you, reach out. Magnetic Vector stands ready to help you grow your business through organic search and beyond.