I often hear "SEO is impossible to understand" or that SEO is opaque, expensive, a scam, or for developers only. I will grant you this: SEO is not easy, there is no quick fix, and there is always more you can do. But there are many SEO tasks you can address yourself to start improving the signals search engines use to rank your website. So, let's get going with this SEO 101.
Overview: What is search engine optimization (SEO)?
SEO is commonly described as all the improvements on your site, and on signals outside your site, which will help your site rank better in search results.
You face two SEO challenges:
- It is a game where the rules are not clearly defined
- It changes over time as search engines evolve
We like to separate SEO into three pillars, each of which has an influence on the end result. They each require specific work and a specific set of competencies.
How does search engine optimization (SEO) work?
Search engines pick up signals on your website, outside your website, and from the user behavior of your visitors. Among the hundreds of signals they use, you can affect some directly and others indirectly. Work on each of the three pillars will improve the signals that search engines take into account to rank sites.
There is a wide range of SEO tools available in the market. Some of them cover primarily one pillar, whereas certain suites cover the entire spectrum of tools, including rank monitoring, site crawl, SEO keyword research, backlink analysis, and competitor analysis.
What are the different types of search engine optimization (SEO)?
There can be wide differences between the way a large enterprise handles an SEO audit and a small business approach. But with the exception of local SEO, all SEO is based on the three types we find in the pillars illustrated above: architecture, content, and authority.
1. Architecture: Technical SEO
It would be logical to start your SEO project in the architecture pillar because this is where the technical foundation of your site is situated. It is about configuring your hosting correctly, optimizing page speed, removing crawling obstacles, and making sure your pages are carrying the right structural elements. That is, however, the most technical approach you can take, and an area where you may need external help.
Still want to get a first look at this? Try the free Sitechecker, which crawls up to 150 pages of your website and provides you with detailed information of things to improve.
2. Content: Keywords and pages
You can go a long way toward improving your SEO without touching the architecture pillar. An easier starting point is the content pillar, which is where everyone can play. Here, you identify the keywords your site should be ranking for, and optimize or create content that can rank for those keywords.
The first step is to research keywords for your site. You can do brainstorming, ask your customers, look at your competitors, and look at what keywords are already working for you.
A good place to start is to activate Google Search Console for your site. It integrates with Google Analytics and is a gold mine of information for your SEO. It will show what keywords you are already ranking for.
Titles and descriptions
Once you have your prioritized keyword list, you have a big task laid out for you: Pair each keyword with a page on your site, and write keyword-rich titles and descriptions for each of them. This is the first step in optimizing the content on your site, often called on-page SEO.
The second step in on-page optimization is to enrich the content you already have. This is about using keywords more prominently and more often. It is also about using synonyms and variations as well as related topics.
It is impossible for a page to rank for keywords for which there is no content. There were surely keywords in your prioritized lists for which you didn't have any content. This is where you start writing articles and make illustrations to respond to users searching for answers about those keywords.
3. Authority: Expert information, brand, and backlinks
The final SEO pillar is authority. The effects tied to your brand strength are not directly accessible, but onsite authoritative content, such as that created by identified experts, is.
For instance, having Tiger Woods sign an article on a golf-related site ticks the authority box. The most actionable lever for your SEO is building backlinks pointing to your site. Search engines consider them signals showing that your site is a reference worth pointing to.
Search engines aim to provide the best possible responses to a search query. They read signals to identify the popularity of a site, very similar to what we would call brand recognition. You can compare yours to another brand by searching for them in Google Trends. Search marketing tools such as Moz Pro and SEMrush also provide a brand strength evaluation which is based on the SEO strength of your domain name.
Improving your brand recognition is a much broader business goal than an SEO goal, so it is not something you will work on within the confines of an SEO project.
In certain industries, search engines are extra cautious about the sites they rank. This is the case, for example, for health-related information and financial advice. In these industries, additional authority signals are believed to be very important.
These signals are referred to as E-A-T factors (Experience, Authority, and Trust), but they are difficult to measure. They are about providing deeply authoritative content, written by experts and recognized by others.
The more tangible dimension of authority is backlinks. Both domain strength and E-A-T factors are also using these, so it may be the place to concentrate your efforts. Backlinks are links from other sites pointing to yours. An ideal backlink comes from a strong and reputable site, points to your targeted page, and uses the keyword you aim to rank for in the anchor.
The best links are, of course, those that are created organically when people simply link to your site because of its great content and added value. But often, backlinks don't come naturally. So you have to submit your site to business directories, get partners to mention it, and reach out to people who might be interested in your content and solicit a link to it.
What makes search engine optimization (SEO) a unique marketing channel
Search engines are often the top drivers of traffic to sites. That traffic is free after you have paid for all the work you put into creating your site and your content. It generates recurrent traffic, as rankings in search engines can stay static for a long time. SEO marketing can be a powerful channel, but to rank on competitive keywords, you need to optimize across all three pillars.
The best places to learn about SEO and improve your skills
SEO for beginners is a popular topic on YouTube, and there are countless blogs and self-proclaimed gurus who will be happy to give you a lesson. It is considered good advice to avoid any SEO information that is too keen on self-promotion or that guarantees results of any kind. The following list steers clear of those, and provides valuable resources for learning more:
1. Whiteboard Fridays
A video series of SEO sessions originally created by the team at Moz. It goes into detail on one specific SEO subject every Friday and has invented its own format. The YouTube playlist for a one-hour SEO guide by Rand Fishkin in the whiteboard format is a great place to start.
2. Search Engine Land
An authority site originally created by Danny Sullivan covering both the SEO and the PPC side of search marketing and closely related digital marketing areas such as shopping, marketplaces, social media, and programmatic advertising.
3. Google Search Central (formerly Webmaster Central)
Google Search Central hosts another YouTube series, but it also has live "office hours" where you can ask questions in a live webinar. This is one of the only places you can really ask questions to Google. It won't teach you SEO, but you learn to use Search Console and find answers to technical questions you may have run into.
4. Twitter chats
Twitter chats are a little complex to participate in, but you can always just listen in. There is a recurrent #SEOchat on Thursdays and a #SEMrushchat which often addresses SEO questions. Twitter is generally a great place to look for SEO-related information and people are really good at answering your questions or pointing you in the right direction.
5. Webmaster World
An entire discussion forum dedicated to webmaster topics with a prominent place for SEO. You can find a lot of information in the already posted questions, and if you don't find the answer, don't hesitate to post your own questions.
The best SEO is the CEO
Even if you are convinced you need help to succeed with SEO, learning about it and understanding the basics will be valuable. The best SEO is always a CEO because that is the person who best understands what customers want and who is best at building partnerships that can generate backlinks. Every company founder should do some SEO and then hand it over to the experts once it gets too technical or too time-consuming.